From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 30

Where there should have been nothing, there was pain.

There came a sensation like panic, then despair. A sense of flight aborted and the wailing of the mothers of stillborn. He made a noise that brought to mind the wordskittering, as though he possessed too many legs, as though he was a spider. Except the sound didn’t come from outside of him, but inside.

The pain showed itself to him. Not his head. He thought he might be hungover, though he didn’t remember drinking. It was his back. His goddamned spine ached. Felt like he’d slept on a pair of scissors.

He wasn’t supposed to be sleeping at all. He didn’t remember sleeping. The afternoon was too full for anything like a nap. He’d promised Ashburn they would run over the disaster protocols. He had to log his weekly contact with mission comm HQ. After he got off the round, he still had to meet Djen for the shift reports and tomorrow’s duty roster. And maybe coffee later, after the business was done.

His heart shuddered in his chest just thinking about it. He was such an idiot.

Brett opened his eyes. He looked up at the pale brightness of the ceiling that wasn’t his private quarters. He frowned, then remembered. He cursed.

“Doc, I think I just fucked up my image. I fell asleep. I didn’t realize I was so tired. Is that going to be a problem?” He sat up grinning. “Please don’t tell me we’re going to have to do it again.”

But Liston wasn’t there. No one was there. The med bay was empty.


The cart with the imaging unit had been wheeled away, he saw. Maybe the image took after all. Liston must have decided to let him sleep. The wily old bastard probably decided the pressure of command was getting to him and justified the nap as a recuperative measure.

Brett rubbed at the sore spot on his back. He’d have to talk to Liston later, give him a good natured undressing for promoting dereliction of duty.

He noticed that Liston wasn’t the only one to receive an undressing. He was naked. The tile floor sent a chill up through his feet that made his calves ache.

What the hell?

“Dr. Liston?”

He found a clean shipsuit, underwear and socks, all neatly folded on the table beside the bed. There was a pair of boots on the floor. Brett put the clothing on quickly. It occurred to him that he might have been ill. That would explain a number of things. Maybe he’d been delirious.

Brett went to the door, but the sensors didn’t seem to read him. It didn’t open. He keyed the comm pad on the wall, but it didn’t respond when he ordered it to break the seal. He punched the code three times with no results. Annoyed, he toggled the comm port to order Cassandra to release the latch, but when he called to her, she didn’t answer. He gave his order and his passcode anyway.

Nothing happened.

Cassandra wasn’t answering. He didn’t have to know exactly what had happened to understand that something was wrong. If Cassandra wasn’t on line, it must be critically wrong.

He was going to have to force the door. That was fantastic. It could take hours if the seals were all intact.

Brett made his way toward the storage cabinets and searched them for something stout enough to wedge into cracks of the door. He found sheets and pillows, bottles of isopropyl alcohol, boxes of bandages, but nothing that resembled a … Read more

From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 3

Wet sand between his toes, but his face was warmed by the driftwood fire. The waves he couldn’t see lapped up against the beach, probably just inches from where his toes dug their trenches, wriggled in. Lying on his back, his face bared to the nakedness of the stars, he made angel wing patterns with his hands, just as he had done in his youth, growing up in Indiana, in the wet and chilly snow.

His fingers brushed the soft flesh of a sweet Georgia peach, and she giggled. “What did you say was the point of this?”

He laughed in return, a burst of pure, barking pleasure. “We’re making angels.”

“You said to scissor my legs. You’re not. You’re wriggling your toes in the sand.”

“I like the feel of it. I’ll do the skirt later.”

“I am so drunk, Markus.” She burped, and he laughed at that, too. She’d brought dandelion tea to the picnic. He’d brought the last bottle of strawberry wine his sister had given them for Christmas.

Dandelion tea was not what either of them thought it would be. Not even the dog would drink it, and he had an established reputation for consuming anything seasoned with refined sugar.

He would have liked to roll to her, to plant a wet and sloppy kiss against her lips, but she wasn’t the only one sloshed. Part of him realized that if he rolled, he’d squash her, probably suffocate her beneath his weight before he could get himself flipped back over. Not a romantic way to end the evening, especially this evening, the one for which they’d scrimped and saved and battered their savings account into compliance for the last three years. The first night in the house just above that rise behind him. That one, with the bay windows in back, facing the water, it’s paint salt scarred and peeling, the gutters falling off, the deck all but unsalvageable. Yes, the one with the peeling wallpaper in the dining room, the clotting scrubweed gardens on either side of the driveway, and the god-blessed certain dry rot eating up the footers on either side of the front door.

But also the one with the private stake to this stretch of beach on the isolated Georgia coast. No neighbors except at shouting distance, no superhighway rattling the window panes, no thumping stereo upstairs and gunshot spattered drug transactions down in the parking garage.

A view of seaweed breakers and child’s eye combers and a sky that rolled on for goddamned ever and ever.

The movers would come tomorrow with the trucks loaded and tottering down the gravel drive. Boxes to unload, dishes to cabinet, linens to store. A busy, hectic, dreaded day came with the sun. But they’d brought their bed this afternoon by wedging the frame and headboard into the trunk of her Subaru and bungee cording the mattress and box springs to the roof. And when you’re young and lithe and strong with romantic, erotic happiness, the bed is all that’s needed to make it home.

He was not going to spoil the promise of that bed for anything. The first night in your dream house comes only once, and that only if you’re lucky.

Instead, they lay there together, their fingers just touching, the smell of the ocean in their nostrils and the cool of the sand against their backs.

And he thought then, and remembered later, months afterward in the days when he was still a young man in years but felt ancient in his soul and hadn’t yet learned to manage that disparity, … Read more

From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 2

The rules of Yetzirah. A deal of five cards to each hand. Cards can be shuffled, exchanged or drawn from any location within the remaining deck after the deal, though no more than one card may be traded at any time. The player seated to the left of the dealer begins the round, and play proceeds around the table in clockwise fashion. Players can hold no more and no less than five cards in their hand. Discards are removed from play until the displayed deck is gone, then reshuffled and fanned again until a player wins the round and advances to a new sephirot.

The game board is placed in the center of the table. The pattern is a direct facsimile of the kabbalistic Tree of Life with its ten glowing sephira and sharp angled paths connecting Keter to Hokmah, Binah to Gevurah, down the tree and so on. Inscribed in each circle are the names of the four minor arcana to which it symbolically corresponds. Keter, the four Aces; Tipheret the four Knights or the four Sixes; Netzach the four Sevens. Scratched along each line-pathway between the spheres are the titles of one of the major arcana. Malkhut to Yesod, Universe; Gevurah to Chesed,Strength; Hokmah to Keter, Fool. The task of each player is to acquire all five cards in a given spread corresponding to a sephirot and its radiating path from one circle to another.

Play proceeds until a player acquires the necessary cards to move from one sephirot to any of the other sephirot to which it is connected by a direct path. Thus, a given round’s winning hand might proceed from Malkhut to Hod, by virtue of obtaining the major arcana Judgement and the minor Eights of Staves, Coins, Wands and Cups. The limited choices available from any point within the game board render the gameplay itself a combination of sheer luck, a modicum of strategic thinking and a careful assessment of those against whom one played. Two players attempting to follow the same path would eliminate one another from contention, assuming each one held a card the other required. Players could only advance to a sephirot connected by a path from their current station.

The Tree can be climbed most directly from Malkhut to Yesod to Tipheret to Keter. In three consecutively dealt hands, this maneuver is called the Perfect Middle Pillar. The more statistically predictable pattern of procession is a serpentine route up and around, horizontal and arcing, even occasionally backward from sephirot to sephirot.

The goal of the game is to be the first to inhabit Keter.

The winner receives the opportunity to draw a final hand, ten cards placed in the traditional Celtic Cross pattern, lately used by Icky and his imaginary sexualized future. In accordance with a carefully cross-indexed sheaf of interpretations culled from more than a dozen texts on the history and understanding of the Tarot archetypes, the winner is allowed to scry the next day’s events.

The winner may then choose from a fanned deck one card, and replace any other single card in the spread with the card he has chosen. The revised cards are interpreted again, correlating the newly incorporated element. The winner alone decides the cumulative meaning for the coming day, particulates the results to his satisfaction, and theoretically, dictates the future as it will be written. It is the action of individual will on a set of external constants, a wild and unpredictable element introduced to a predictable and given subset.

This may be considered either a positive or negative Read more

From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 1

The fine red sand of Archae Stoddard sparkled in the setting of the crimson sun, Brahma Nova. As the ground temperatures cooled, the storms rolled in like a smothering purple curtain. Tumbling supercells thundered high in the stratosphere dropping rope tornadoes from their bruised and swollen underbellies. The swirling vortices slashed up and down the visible horizon, pulverizing rock and shifting dunes, rewriting the face of the planet’s monochromatic topography, inscribing geographic glyphs read only by satellites and gods.

It was winter; there were storms. No one bothered to notice the expected things. The incidental meteorological status panels on the wall of the observation deck were all green, five by five, and the assortment of technicians and engineers responsible for such things pretended to ignore them. Outside, the wind rose in a tormented shriek, gnawing at the sharp corners of the pressurized Quonset storage sheds, daring to be ignored as well. And it was. Nothing but wind, an incidental byproduct of the real work.

Behind the round portholes of triple sealed plastisheen and half-meter thick military grade radiation shielding, the men who made the storms sat around a portable card table beneath a swaying naked bulb and dealt the deck of Tarot cards around. The bulb swayed not because of shoddy maintenance, atmospheric seepage or blown seals, but because Sievers, tall and blond with his wide smile and milk-fat cheeks, had knocked it with his head on his way to the toilet. No one had bothered to stop it.

It was a peculiar game these men played, the five of them scrummed around a decrepit relic of backyard barbecues and screened porch afternoon teas. It was not poker, not since the last of the legitimate Bicycle cards had been worn to illegibility by countless strokings and dealings and sweaty-palmed handling. Now their money stayed in their pockets, or rather, in their automated deposit accounts back home, each man’s bits and bytes and proper digits sitting idle, except for the once a month addition and subtraction of paycheck and mortgage. For more than one of those men, those digits had grown quite large over the years.

There might have been no cards at all if not for convenient timing. If Icky Freeden hadn’t suffered the misfortune of a faulty valve on his last full tank of breathable air. He’d choked like a fish for a full ten minutes beyond the reach of help. The crew on the worksite had been low enough themselves that they couldn’t spare a piggy back. Those watching from the command deck by live feed hadn’t been able to reach him in time with a spare. That had been a critical instance of poor mission planning, the type of incident that could get a military man in charge of logistics busted out of his sergeant’s stripes.

Except it was Icky’s gig. Icky would have been the equivalent of that sergeant if this was a military operation. Which it wasn’t. Instead he had merely been on the duty roster as the lead technical engineer for the lambda phase on 21 October. He had pulled his turn, more or less fairly just like everyone else, and no one was surprised when his own inattention to the necessary details struck him down. Who alone of the external teams, after all, didn’t think to do regular and steady maintenance on his environmental suit? Who among them, it was asked, didn’t have the foresight to expect any number of catastrophic eventualities and supplement his environmental suit with at least one emergency bulb in his kit–enough goddamned air to make it back to … Read more

Interlude: Really, Reading Off a Screen Sucks

I have to say that I’m not particularly surprised to learn that Eli at Novelr and no less than Cory Doctorow tend to agree with me that presenting novels online is going to be an uphill battle against most people’s reading preferences.  (Eli’s latest guest post indicates that there are certainly exceptions, but until I see hard data otherwise, I’m going to continue to believe that these are exceptions.  Cuddly, huggable, make-my-writer’s-heart-flutter exceptions, yes, but exceptions nonetheless.)

In the Locus article linked above, Doctorow argues fairly effectively that this is both a problem of medium and attention span — or more accurately, it’s a reflection of the way we’ve become socialized to use our Internet tools.  Reading long form fiction is a focused activity.  It’s something we do in solid chunks of time and with active attention.  The internet is about short bursts of time and multi-tasking.  The internet has also taught us to do more scanning than reading and to dig out the kernals of information we’re seeking rather than digesting large tracts of text or applying those nifty critical reading skills we paid so much to learn in college.

(In case you were curious, I printed out both Eli’s blog post and Doctorow’s article to scribble notes in the margins as I prepared to write this piece.  I did the same thing yesterday with Kembrew McLeod’s essay.  So yeah, they’re preaching to the choir.)

There are adherents to the digital form (else, Fictionwise would have gone under a long time ago), but as I read around the net, observe my own habits and talk to other readers, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that digital fiction, at least at this point in its evolution, is a long tail phenomenon.  In other words, we’re likely to see lots of people reading terabytes of online narrative, but the distribution is going to be so spread out that we’re not likely to see the sort of cohesion that would routinely produce “bestseller” numbers any time soon.  (Though, as Tess Gerritsen has famously pointed out, producing bestseller numbers from week to week may not be as impressive a feat as you have assumed.  We’re not talking about Platinum album sales here.)

And given that our primary metric for determining a “bestseller” in online fiction would be an amalgamation of downloads and page hits, would we really know what those numbers mean in terms of cultural impact?  I mean, we tend to understand a print novel’s cultural impact in terms of sales, book club discussions, articles written, screenplays written, etc.  None of those mechanisms really exist for purely digital fiction.  If I can claim, for instance, that my blog gets 2,000 hits a week (which it doesn’t) what does that even mean?

Maybe it means that 2,000 people really dig my novels.   Maybe it means that 100 people read all twenty chapters.  Maybe it means that 100 people just clicked on all twenty chapters.  Maybe it means that four people reloaded my front page 500 times.  Maybe it means that 1,999 people read the first chapter, said Urk! and moved on to something more appealing (with the 2,000th person being my mom, and she would read all twenty chapters straight through because she loves me.  I’m firmly convinced that more metrics should take my mom’s opinion into account.).

To some extent, these are all tangential questions, and they’re not limited solely to digital books.  Hell, I’ve got something like seven million paperbacks littering my bookshelves and I haven’t read a tenth of them.  But I did buy them — through the agency of my wife … Read more