fiction

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.

My indie publishing plan

As expected, Kindle Singles came back with a rejection. I’m cool with that. In fact I’m looking forward to self-publishing. The next step is to dive back into the self-publishing process. I am actually not going to start with the manuscript for “The Bazaar.” It’s 30,000 words long, after all, and represents a significant effort on my part. Not something I want to use for a trial effort.

Rather, I plan to publish a sci-fi short I wrote a couple years ago. The rights have since reverted back to me (they only asked for First Electronic Rights with an 18-month option for First Anthology Rights, which lapsed long ago). A couple key advantages to this approach:

1. It’s a manageable length (just 4,000 words) while I learn the ropes.

2. It’s already been copy-edited.

In a previous post I identified the major self-publishing challenges I will have to overcome in creating this product. I now have a solid plan for attacking each, and at minimal cost no less:

  • Cover art – Proper cover art is expensive. Most artists are charging $200-300 minimum. That’s a lot of change to fork out on a 4,000-word test case. Fortunately in the course of my research I stumbled on selfpubbookcovers.com. This site offers pre-made cover art from a slew of artists starting at $69/cover. Definitely the way to go for this particular project. In the future I have no problem engaging an artist at a higher fee for a larger project (such as “The Bazaar”).
  • Copy editing – The copy has already been proofed! #majorwin
  • Formatting – I thought this was going to be a substantial pain in my ass. Then I read Guido Henkel’s free formatting guide (thanks to David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital for the tip!). It turns out that with a free program called calibre  and my limited HTML knowledge I should be able to pull this off without much trouble. The only major investment here will be time. If I were planning a print version for POD I would definitely hire a professional book designer, but this will be an ebook-only project.

So really now it just comes down to execution. I am hip-deep in formatting and deciding on cover art. I intend to purchase the cover by the end of this weekend (will share once it’s ready to go). Formatting proceeds apace. Tentatively I hope to launch on or around March 15.

You are what you write, not what you dream

I read a great post the other day on writing, inspiration and the importance of discipline to the creative process (in terms of actually finishing anything). Christina Escamilla is the writer. I encourage you to read her full post. In the meantime here is an excerpt of what most resonated with me:

Writers are a weird bunch. It is one of the only professions where finishing the job is often guided by that one spark. The notion that, until you get that lightbulb moment, you just can’t go on. Can you imagine that with anything else?

“Okay, ma’am. I’m finally ready to change your oil. I had this amazing dream last night about running my fingers against the oil pan and I just…I knew that I finally had what it took to be a mechanic.”

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s non-operable. Well, actually, it is operable, I just don’t think I have it in me. At least not right now, you know? I think I’ve hit a surgeon’s block or something.”

And a little later:

Getting in that mindset will kill you. Or, rather it will kill any dreams you have of finishing your piece. Inspiration is great, but it’s a motivator not a conductor. A lot of the times, it can even be a downright hindrance. It can cause you to wait…and wait…and wait. The result of this waiting game is that you will become stagnant and the world will continue to tick on by.

Funnily enough, if you want to be a writer you have to actually write things. Writing is not a process through which you transfer beautiful, fully-formed ideas from your imagination onto the page. In my experience most ideas have to be torn kicking and screaming from the comfort of the subconscious with the creative equivalent of forceps, and they often come with plenty of nasty by-products. Becoming a writer takes many tens of thousands of words of effort – and that’s just to get to the point where you are no longer writing sentences a precocious middle schooler could produce.

As Christina concludes:

We write because we were meant to, but we should also write because the very act itself is going to make us better writers. The more we write, the more we get less terrible at it. So, when you do hit that dreaded period known as writer’s block – ignore it, and move on. You’ve got words to spit out and miles to keep going.

A fresh “perspective” for my writing

I am trying a new strategy with my latest fiction project. I am writing the whole thing in first person in the first draft. Then I’ll go back and change the POV as needed (I think the final product will work better in third person).

Why bother with all that trouble? Writing in first person POV has some major advantages:

  • It helps me “get into” characters’ heads
  • It makes it easier for me to write sensory detail
  • For whatever reason I feel like I write with a stronger voice in first person (in college a theater major asked me to write her a monologue for an audition so there might really be something to this one)

Generally speaking, I find the most difficult thing about any new writing project to be finding a way “in.” Adopting a first person POV in the early stages should make that easier.

Stoked to start reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem cover

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

It is with much excitement and no small amount of trepidation that I begin reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which Christopher Brookmyre described thusly in his review for The Guardian:

…the beating heart of this novel is philosophy, and if I may borrow an analogy from Professor Stephen Law, at times Anathem is not so much a work-out in the philosophy gym as philosophy extreme sports. The history of the avout is punctuated by the breakthrough ideas of saunts, all of them replicating concepts familiar to us here on Earth through Plato, Euclid, Leibniz, Newton and so on. Edmund Husserl’s copper ashtray becomes Atamant’s Bowl; Occam’s razor becomes Saunt Gardan’s Steelyard. This is more than mere facsimile: the most powerful and controversial idea among the avout concerns the “Hylaean Theoric World”, and the question of whether the same ideas will occur independently to thinkers on different planets because there are certain transcendental truths – prime numbers, the value of pi, the laws of geometry – that exist on some higher plane. Taking his cue from the likes of Hugh Everett and Max Tegmark, Stephenson postulates that, while certain conditions are necessary for the cosmos to have taken shape (various laws of physics, such as the speed of light, having to be set at very precise values), there is still room for tiny variations in those values to create parallel cosmoses in which the make-up of matter is minutely distinct. It is the many worlds theory evoked with a greater elegance than I have read in any previous work of “speculative fiction”.

I needed a break from Stephenson after I walked away from REAMDE. I loved Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. I really wanted to like REAMDE, too. Don’t get me wrong. There were certainly flashes of brilliance in that novel (particularly when Stephenson delved into story behind the novel’s World of Warcraft-like MMORPG, and his use of ransomware as a major plot point). Aside from that, however, REAMDE came up way short on the heavy ideas that make Stephenson’s best fiction so enjoyable.

This does not look like it’s going to be a problem with Anathem.