Hootenanny

“It is silent and deadly.”

“I’m glad you used the conjunction and.”  Rhys peered into the inky darkness of the cavernous arena before them.  “It’s those silent but deadly attacks that give me cause for alarm.”

The examiner, a willowy woman whose white hair was more pronounced than the lines in her face, narrowed her eyes.  “Mr. Cadwalader, your irreverent levity contributes nothing toward this assessment of your capability.”

Every time she addressed him by his surname, he suspected Val was on the cusp of striking him from the Tracker program.  Although he saw nothing wrong with a little jocularity to ease any tension, Rhys figured he’d better remove any and all complaints she might use against him.  He was, after all, not a typical candidate, which was why she scrutinized him so closely.

“My apologies.”

Her brow remained furrowed.  “The Owl may seem a mundane descriptor for this simulation, but two-thirds of the applicants fail to neutralize their quarry on the first trial.  And remember, despite your … proclivity, you must rely on the techniques that were outlined in the introduction.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Absolutely.”  Truth be told, he was hanging on her every word.  He was about to enter a test that would challenge his prowess, but even with his physical advantage, anybody with an IQ higher than a rooster that got hit in the head understood knowledge was the real key to overcoming an opponent.

The fact Val reminded him to stick to the techniques did cause him to wonder if she wasn’t as eager to eject him from the program as she usually appeared.  Maybe his quips amused her more than she wanted to admit….

“Then you may proceed.”

That was all the clues she was going to give him?  As unwilling to divulge his agitation as much as she might be to admitting amusement, Rhys responded with a smirk and a shrug.

Ball pistol in hand, but loaded with digital blanks, he took one step into the ancient chamber.  With peripheral vision, he noticed she already started jotting notes on her modern, technological clipboard.

Or maybe she was manipulating the Owl.

 He took another step into the cool yet dry sub terrane.  Dug out millennia ago with hand tools and lined with stone throughout, this vault had been witness to countless training sessions.  It also adapted readily to advances in technology, so was currently outfitted with holographic projectors hidden within the chiseled columns supporting the arched ceiling.

The Owl was only a simulation, so it was guaranteed to strike as silently as Val claimed, but its lethalness was confined to the readouts fed back to her clipboard.  Still, only a third of the Tracker candidates succeeded at their objective on the first attempt, and Rhys was determined to number among them.  After all, he should be very good at this.

He skulked to the nearest column and peered deeper into the chamber.  Sparse flickers of light, the only illumination, teased his imagination with the image of some snickering sprite hurling a swarm of fireflies into this lair to taunt its hunter.

Except the only sprite here represented an abomination, a technological rendering of the result when corrupted flesh bound itself to a beast—

The blow across his shoulder blades sent Rhys somersaulting to the neighboring column.  Part of his response had been evasive maneuver, but this mere simulation legitimately struck him with enough force to shove him forward.

He righted himself at a crouch, this time shoving his back against the lithoid pillar.

No Owl loomed before him.  And this was no time to kick himself for allowing his guard to drop.  That whack had probably been delivered to remind him of exactly that.  If there was any trait abominations and examiners shared, it was tormenting their subjects….

Heck, yeah, this thing was silent, and Rhys remembered his rudimental lucidity, usually triggered by someone’s approach, was incapable of alerting him to a non-living simulation.  He was as “blind” as any other man to its approach … and maybe that had something to do with Val’s instruction to rely on the techniques—

It whirled from behind the column he crouched against.  From the corner of his right eye, he caught a flash of rainbow colors swirling together.

Rhys ducked and rolled to the next support, and heard a whump against the pillar where he’d just been.

These columns offered little protection.  He sprang to his feet and performed a whirling routine of his own as he fired ball blanks into the darkness.  When he hit the closest wall, he pressed his back against it and surveyed the arena.

Exactly what beastie had the trainers created for this little exercise?  Despite his in-depth knowledge of the Nephilim, he didn’t recognize it.  But there was one trait these creatures all had in common, and that was a weakness specific to their kin.

Like fending off a vampire with a crucifix or felling a werewolf with a silver bullet, this Owl had to be susceptible to something—

It unfurled from behind the pillar nearest him.  In two seconds that felt more like two minutes, the beast reared before him, suspended for an instant in its full glory.  In an intimidating way, it was one of the most beautiful things he’d seen.  What first appeared to be multicolored feathers were in reality spiky scales.  It didn’t just pummel.  It could slice.

And could do so silently….

Most other quarry would have frozen at the spectacle, but Rhys leaped aside as he squeezed off another shot.  The Owl’s wings swooped toward him, but struck the wall at the level of his neck.  Another whump was the only noise it generated.

It silently swung toward him as he backed away at a quick clip.

Silence … of course!  The Owl had to be susceptible to noise.  But it would have to be a considerable clamor, or the screams of its victims would be a disadvantage to it—

It lunged toward him, talons and wings outstretched.

Rhys hurtled to the next column.  With his free hand he wrested a digital pad from his belt.  With pure muscle memory his fingers tapped against the keypad and screen.

The Owl swerved and brushed past him as he ducked around the column.  He was pretty sure that pass scored some more injury points for his opponent.

It twisted around and lunged again as he sprang back – but thrust the pad before him.

The cacophony of bagpipes that erupted from the pad was jolting enough, but the fife and drum accompanying them underscored the formidable acoustics of this chamber.

If the Owl screeched, it was drowned out by Scotland the Brave.  It did halt its advance, but began twisting and contorting in a macabre dance, as though thrown into a vat of acid.  It remained suspended, its method of flight not dependent on the aerodynamics of lift.

Rhys took no chances.  He fired digital blanks into its head, chest, and belly.

One or all of those balls made it finally crumple to the floor.  For a couple more seconds he watched its form, confirmed it wouldn’t rise again, and turned off the music player on his pad.  Silence didn’t entirely reestablish itself, however.  There was a slight ringing in his ears.

With a final glance at the Owl, he strode back where he’d left Val.  She hadn’t moved, except this time she was poking at her right ear with her pinky, and her left eye was squinted.

Rhys grinned as he approached.  “I’d say I passed that trial with flying colors!”

She opened her eye to look at him.  “What?”

Repeating the jest would only sap the life from it, so he stood directly in front of her before speaking about the next topic.  “That Owl isn’t real, is it?”

Val’s gaze remained locked on his, and she spoke slowly and distinctly.  “It is a simulation.”

Sometimes he wondered if she really did have a sense of humor, it was just extremely dry.  “The lot of you made up something I wouldn’t recognize, didn’t you?  You purposefully tailored the trial to be more challenging for me.”

“Considering your heritage, working as a Tracker will be more challenging for you.”

She had a point.  It was the same point that hounded him ever since he declared he wanted to be a Tracker.  But did it really make sense to challenge him with trials that directly confronted his … proclivities?

“I still call it cheating in reverse.”

Her gaze locked with his again.  “Nephilim will always cheat.”

He returned the stare.  Val never wavered, her demeanor cool and steely.  During the prime of her life, before he was born, she had waged battles against creatures like the Owl … and others like him.  She had every reason to doubt his sincerity….

His response was not a challenge, but an assertion.  “There are those who were known to play fair.”

Her expression didn’t change for the first few seconds.  And then one corner of her mouth curved upward.

“Which is why you must learn how to cheat.”

Wow, that was the most encouraging thing she’d ever said to him.  “One thing’s sure, if you keep the training this hard for my benefit, actually working in the field will seem easy.”

Her smile deepened.  “And that, son of Cadwalader, is the wisest observation you’ve made in weeks.”

###

Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was a bit challenging, if I do say so myself:  Owl.  That’s owl, not ow, although that was my first response when I tried to figure out what to do with it….

So be sure to check out the other submissions, and see how creative the other writers got!

Book Trailers on a Budget

If you’re in the camp that believes book trailers are useful for promotion, this post is for you.  If you just enjoy watching trailers, keep going, there’s one coming up….

There are plenty of other tips on the interweb about how to put a trailer together, so I won’t repeat advice about keeping it short or suggest different formats to consider.  Other pages will also recommend sites you can go to for purchasing royalty-free images/video and music.  But when you add all those ingredients up, the total can get a bit pricey, so our focus here is on how to cut costs.

I’ll keep this simple and just prattle about how the trailer for Tossing Dice came together.  Since the e-book is available for free, I decided to keep this on the cheap.

Images and Video:  Yes, you can make your own pictures and video, but for a sci-fi story involving futuristic warfare and cyborgs, I found such elements difficult to capture on camera.  Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed I rely on Pixabay quite a bit for images, and they also have free video.  Unlike with Creative Commons you don’t have to be as scrupulous about attributing licensing, but they do appreciate any credit.

If you do seek out other sources for free material, just verify they’re safe – watch out for the psychos out there who get their jollies sneaking malware onto people by enticing them with free offers.

Music:  There’s something universal about a melody.  Many of you might be familiar with Free Music Archive.  Watch out for the licensing agreements because they vary with each selection, but there’s definite gold to be found.  YouTube also offers free music for video creations.  Give credit to the musician by listing the song title and artist.

Editing:  It’s up to you if you want to use free software or buy something more advanced, but if you’re lucky (and as technologically inept as I am) you’ll have at least one offspring you can bribe/threaten into crafting all the elements together.

That’s it in a nutshell.  The following trailer cost nothing to assemble except for the bribing part.  I hope it offers some inspiration….

Update on Tossing Dice

Because those pesky publishing ducks don’t line up very well – and I realized I forgot to mention the title of the novella when I wrapped up the serialization – you might as well get an update on the progress of Tossing Dice (yup, that’s the title).  In one word: Slow.

The good news is that it’s available for free on Smashwords, and if you’re a member you can get it here.  It needs to complete the review process before getting distributed to other e-book retailers, but I’ll make the announcement when the time comes.

It’s also available on Amazon Kindle – except right now they won’t let me offer it for less than $0.99.  It has to be distributed to those other e-book retailers before they’ll let me negotiate the price down to free.  Patience is a virtue I’ve been getting lots of practice in lately….

There will be a paperback edition available (cheap – can’t do that for free), but that creation is still in progress.

And if you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, I’ve spent the last year and a half serializing stories into an arc as part of my Blog Battle participation.  They’ve been consolidated into a novella (Did I mention for free?), and a 4000 word bonus chapter is included in that publication.  As I’ve been telling folks, I saved the heart of the storyline for the bonus chapter.

Okay, that should tide us over for a little while….

Parting the Waters

All was darkness.  And it was empty … so very empty.  Deuce expected that, and the sensation of floating added to his disorientation.  Darkness and emptiness was all that space had to offer, except for the occasional colliding asteroid or lethal radiation … wait a minute.  He was breathing.  That shouldn’t be possible.

In fact, the last he recalled, breathing had required effort….

No, he wasn’t floating.  He was lying on a bed.  And he was becoming aware of funny but familiar smells.  Ah yes, a medical ward.  And then his memory flooded with images of the battle where he was wounded.

They could still be in danger–

His eyes snapped open, and the light, although soft, caused him to squint.  He started raising one hand to shade them – except he couldn’t.

“At ease, soldier.”  A familiar male voice he hadn’t heard in weeks offered more consolation than the words.  “Kyla said you might wake up ready to fight.”

The speaker leaned into his field of vision, and Zeke’s gray-streaked beard didn’t conceal his grin.

“Where…?”  Deuce’s voice came out in a squeak, which seemed to make him more conscious of the sore tightness in his chest.

“You’re safely onboard the Ascension.  And you’ve been here for three days.  Kyla kept you sedated all this time so your lungs would have more time to heal before she took you off the respirator.  Yet again, your genetic engineering helped you survive something that would’ve killed anybody else.”

He appreciated Zeke’s thoroughness, but then his memory dredged up a crackling voice transmitted from the com patch he wore in battle.  A ship had gone down during launch.

“Ita?”  He wished his voice didn’t sound so pathetic.  “Which ship?”

“Oh, you don’t have to go far to find Ita.”  Zeke started removing the restraints from his wrists.  “She’s here on the Ascension.  Good thing, too.  Told us about the bomb that needed to be removed from your chest while Kyla was patching your lungs.  Imagine the fracas that would’ve caused if we’d just stumbled upon it!”

Ita was safe.  There was no more implanted bomb.  But his relief was transitory.

“Rest of the fleet?”

Zeke’s demeanor grew somber.  “We lost two ships.  One was taken down during takeoff, and the other was destroyed by a hunter satellite before our drones could take them out.”

Deuce closed his eyes again.  Thousands of lives lost on the cusp of freedom.  That did leave them with ten interstellar ships and over thirty thousand persons … a mere fragment of humanity.  And most of them found out only three or four days ago they would be spending the rest of their lives in space.

Them … and generations after them.

“I regret I’ve got another bit of bad news.”

His eyes opened, and Zeke continued.

“Oswald passed away.”

That statement was like a bolt from the blue, and Deuce stared at him.  Oswald was quite elderly, but the last he’d heard, his other mentor had been doing well.  “How?”

“Old age, it would seem.  Right as the evacuation was beginning.  Ita managed to arrange being with him, so that’s been a comfort for her.  But I figured it would be good for you to know before she swings by to check up on you.”

“When?”

“She should be getting off duty in a couple of hours.”

“I see you’ve turned him loose already.”  Kyla stepped beside her husband and locked her gaze on Deuce.  “But how do you feel?”

He tapped his chest.  “Achy.”

“That’s all?”  She smirked.  “Having you for a patient makes me look like a blessed genius.  You know, once you’re recovered, we might ask for a closer look at your DNA.”

Between Zeke filling him in on more details and Kyla updating his medical condition, he lost all track of time.  When Ita walked into the ward, he was sitting up on the edge of the bed, and the smile that sprang to his lips was too spontaneous to suppress.

He did manage to keep from cracking a grin when she smiled back as she approached.  “Well, I see our peace and quiet has come to an end.”

“You have an odd definition of peace and quiet.”  His voice was slightly stronger, although Kyla had warned him not to push anything that involved breathing … which meant everything.

“I see Zeke has informed you of what’s transpired since evacuation.”

He nodded as his smile evaporated.  “He also told me about your grandfather.  I’m sorry.”

She shrugged, although a glimmer flashed in her green eyes.  “Thank you.  I at least got to be with him when he passed, and his last words will stay with me forever.  He was at peace.  He even smiled as he said, ‘Don’t be afraid.  We are surrounded by light.’”

Those words seemed to soak themselves into his psyche as well, determined to become as permanent for him as for her.  “I suppose I’d expect him to say something like that.”

“He asked about you.”

“How so?”

“He wondered if I’d blasted you yet.”  She tilted her head slightly.  “I told him that was no longer on my to-do list.  So, Kyla says you can walk around as long as you keep it to a saunter.  Want to see a little more of the ship?”

“Might as well start learning my way around.”

“Most people are still learning their way.”  She grasped his arm to help keep him steady as he stood.  “You can imagine the culture shock going on right now.  And not everybody’s thrilled about taking up permanent residence on a spaceship.”

Although he didn’t need her assistance, Deuce was glad she continued to offer it.  “That’s perfectly understandable, considering you’re looking at one of them.”

“You’re still nervous about space?  After all you’ve been through?”

“Colliding asteroids.  Lethal radiation.”

Ita smiled and squeezed on his arm as they strolled to the ward’s exit.  “I suspect you’ll get over it.”

As long as she was around, he was sure he would….

They discussed the challenges ahead for the ragtag remnant as they passed through the conduit-lined hallways.  Other pedestrians were sparse but representative of the occupants, ranging from singles to whole families.  She led him to a narrow, dim room that was little more than a corridor itself, but its oval windows caused his heart to flutter.

“Storage and observatory,” she announced.  “One of the few places you can see the stars for real, instead of on a view screen.  This seems like a good first step to getting you acclimated.”

He stood at one window and she at the one beside it, and the clarity of the constellations scattered around them did strike him with a sense of awe.  He glanced toward Ita and noted the slight part in her lips as she gazed into the depths of the universe.

His attention drew back to the stars that pierced through what seemed eternal night.  Each was a point of light, and each shined on, defying the empty darkness that couldn’t overcome them.  He wondered if Ita was also thinking of Oswald’s last words.

No matter what lay in store, no matter how much darkness overshadowed them, there was no need to fear.  They would always be surrounded by light.

THE END

###

Woo-hoo!  Final installment!  This month the prompt word for #BlogBattle was Fragment, and the stories are rolling in.  Check out the other entries because you sure don’t want to miss out!

If you just discovered this novella, you can find the whole serialization HERE, although there is one caveat:  An e-book will be available for free once I get it formatted, and it will include a bonus chapter.  This chapter is longer than the others (around 4000 words) and contains what I call the heart of the story.  The print version on Amazon will be as cheap as I can get it.  When will it be ready?  Hopefully, soon:  I promise to keep you updated.

How Less Can You Care?

Long ago as a slip of a girl, I embarked on my first backpacking trip.  This was a family affair, of course, and during our drive to the wilderness we began cracking jokes about bears.  This carried on for some time, prompting me to gush “I have bear on the brain!”

One of my kin seized the opportunity to retort “You bearly have a brain!”

That might be when my affection for puns began….

Despite its Germanic roots, English has freely borrowed from other languages over the course of its development.  This makes it a bit of a bear to speak, sometimes even for those of us who were born into it.  And as idiom rich as we are, there is plenty of opportunity to mishear things and render them later incorrectly.

Let me be the first to confess I’ve committed my share of grammatical sins over the course of my life, so some mistaken usages are less offensive.  For instance, why in English is it correct to say “on purpose” but it is only by accident that folks say “on accident”?

Contractions have also been culprits in contributing to misunderstanding.  “Could have” and “should have” are often spoken as “could’ve” and “should’ve”, which can then get processed as “could of” and “should of”, which are wrong.

Homophones can also cause trouble.  While it still sounds the same when something piques your interest, writing that it peaked your interest is a no-no. 

One misusage that can get my eyelid to start twitching, however, is when I hear the statement “I could care less.”  Maybe it’s a sign of apathy, but the speakers have obviously not examined the meaning those words are supposed to convey.  If they’re capable of caring less, then the object of that statement is not as low as you can go.

Well, it’s probably a good time to nip this monologue in the butt (bud).  But if you think there aren’t more pitfalls to watch out for, you got another thing (think) coming.  For all intensive (intents and) purposes, beware of incorrect usage that might raise accusations one bearly has a brain….

MIA and Other Acronyms

Yes, I know I’ve been Missing in Action lately, but instead of explaining the reasons why, this seems like a good time to discuss acronyms.

They can be a ticklish element to use in writing.  There are some acronyms that are pretty universally known, like ASAP or OK.  We even have words some people might not realize are acronyms, like scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).  And when texting started getting a foothold in how folks communicated, other word groupings became “abbreviated” to make that process faster.

(Note:  I’m old enough to remember when LOL meant Lots of Love.  When it morphed into Laughing Out Loud, I went through a period of confusion.  This can present one of the pitfalls of acronyms.)

But the difference between writing and texting is kind of like the difference between a chicken and a chickadee.  One of them takes a lot more work and investment than the other.

It’s best to save the well-known usages for dialogue if that’s how the characters are going to speak.  If they’re military personnel, who have a tendency to speak in Acronyese, you’re going to have to find ways to explain what those darn letters stand for.

In general you can get away with using an acronym once without an introduction, but you’d better plan on explaining it by the very next paragraph.  It’s more common to introduce the whole word series, like Intellectual Militant Prototype, and soon thereafter render it as IMP so that readers don’t lose track of what that’s supposed to mean.

And that leads me to another little pitfall I’ve noticed:  Even if you purposefully have an acronym spell out another word, there is no 100% guarantee everybody will read it that way.  In my End of an Age series, I wanted the future version of a cell phone to be called something else, and since it would be necessary for Personal Identification and Transaction, it was referred to as a PIT phone.

The word pit was also meant to be metaphorical, but occasionally I would hear somebody call it a P-I-T phone.  The same goes for IMP (imp is also meant to be metaphorical) mentioned above.  Maybe it takes more letters, like in scuba, for some folks to want to say it as a word, but it’s not a detail worth ruffling one’s feathers about….

That should be sufficient for now.  Despite the SNAFU I encountered over the last few weeks that made me go AWOL, I figured the next post should get out PDQ before the FBI put out an APB….  LOL!

Pillar of Fire

By the time the squad reached the launch pad, more cyborg troops started breaking through accesses that were barricaded earlier.

Deuce’s annoyance, sparked with the realization his unit might have made a cleaner escape if they hadn’t come back to rescue him, flared with renewed resolve.  Since they took it upon themselves to get him to the shuttle hidden within a larger, incomplete ship, he might as well do everything in his power to insure they made takeoff.

“Load everybody up!” he barked to Quint.  “I’ll hold them at bay!”

“Don’t take too long!”  The colonel tossed his own blaster to him and drew a sidearm instead.

Utilizing both blasters, Deuce sprinted in spurts toward the main bulk of the unfinished interstellar ship.  To his consternation, he no longer drew the brunt of enemy fire.  IMP2 must have decided stopping their escape took precedent over the satisfaction of killing him….

The com patch near his ear continued to chatter with updates on the dozen completed ships.  Most had launched, but he’d lost track of which ones they were.  He glanced back toward the shuttle and regretted at least two more soldiers had fallen.  But the hatch door closed, securing the rest of them behind solid steel that repelled blaster fire.

“The ship is down!” crackled from the com patch just before a searing punch thrust into his chest.

The jolt knocked him against the frame of the doorway where he’d been taking cover.  Then he dropped to one knee.  No more reports issued from the com patch.

He also couldn’t breathe.

Deuce surged to his feet and staggered into the armory room, one element of this decoy ship that was complete.  His body armor had managed to keep the buster round to penetrating only partially into his chest.  But he was mostly grateful it didn’t set off the bomb implanted only a decimeter above the wound.

IMP2 had brought out the big artillery, and that was probably who shot him before refocusing on the shuttle….

He lurched toward the turret controls and fumbled with the com patch near his ear.  It remained silent, and upon lowering his hand realized it wasn’t only his chest that was bleeding.

What ship had gone down?  His throat tightened at the possibility Ita could have been on board that doomed vessel.  No, he couldn’t allow dread to overtake him….

Breathe.  Only his genetically-engineered athletic superiority permitted him to suck in wisps of air, and that was still only with concentration.  He had to keep breathing.  Every breath, however meager, bought him a few more seconds.  And every second he gained allowed him to help the shuttle succeed in launching.

The four cannons could be programmed to fire in a predetermined pattern, and Deuce activated three of them.  He took the controls on the fourth, however, and first targeted the battalion that directed more potent buster rounds at the shuttle.

Steam was hissing from its launch boosters, but it wouldn’t be able to take off and fire upon enemy troops at the same time.  Then again, it wouldn’t need to – anybody in the vicinity of the launch pad would be reduced to a pile of ash from the flaming rocket engines.  That included him.

Breathe.

He bombarded several charges into IMP2’s battalion while the other cannons fired into the supporting flanks.  The booms and explosions muffled other sound, and it was only when he spied boulders and dirt and support beams falling around them he realized the ceiling was caving in just like it was supposed to.

The descent of the debris was controlled, opening up the ground above them so the shuttle could blast off.  He also appreciated how it added to the chaos the enemy had to contend with.

Concern surfaced in his mind about the ship that had gone down.  Was Ita on board?

The view screen of the control panel showed steam and smoke and dust, but he couldn’t detect any more activity.  No movement.  No shooting.  Had IMP2’s forces been crippled that much, or were they only regrouping?  The roar of engines firing up confirmed the shuttle should lift off soon, so nobody had much time left here.

Then this was it.  His vision grew blurry and fatigue seemed to seep down to his bones.  If he allowed unconsciousness to overtake him, he would stop breathing.  And maybe being unconscious or already dead might be merciful when the shuttle took off and engulfed the launch pad in flame.

The revolution that had endured for decades was finally going to end … at least as far as he was concerned.

But what about the other ships?  There was no guarantee they would be safe upon breaching the stratosphere.  If his prayer that Ita was on board another vessel proved true, she and all the others could still be in danger.

Dying now would be too … convenient   He could almost hear Ita’s voice, tinged with droll sarcasm, telling him “Don’t think you’re getting out of this that easily.”

Breathe.

He stumbled off the platform and staggered in the direction of the shuttle.  It was just as well he experienced difficulty breathing – the air was thick with particulates.  And this attempt could turn out to be an exercise in futility.  His enemies might drop him with another shot.  His comrades might not be able to see his approach, and he’d be incinerated while trying to reach the vessel.

He almost tripped over the ramp that led to the hatch, and nearly crawled up it.  He reached out and felt the smooth metal pitted slightly from buster hits.  Was any of the structure compromised?  Would he trade suffocating here to suffocating in a vacuum otherwise sprinkled with colliding asteroids and lethal radiation?

The metal retracted from his fingertips and at least two pairs of hands grabbed his arms and yanked him forward.

Breathe.

The voices around him were muffled by more than the roar of engines.  With two soldiers supporting him, and a wall nearby, Deuce managed to stagger to his feet.  Despite his dimming vision he locked his attention on the view screen beside the hatch.

The lurch of takeoff added to his wooziness, but through the haze both outside and in his head, he caught sight of movement where IMP2’s battalion had been.  From the familiarity of the motion, he figured it was IMP2 himself.

And then flame filled the vicinity.

“Get a stint for him!” Quint’s voice sounded oddly distant.

His vision darkened more as a remorse he hadn’t anticipated swelled through him.  In a way, he was glad IMP2 perished this way.  Most likely his former comrade would have been executed by the Elite for failing to quash the evacuation.  And although they found death by cremation efficient, they were also known to take hours turning up the heat when especially displeased with the condemned.

When the physical pain subsided as he faded from this world, Deuce couldn’t decide whether or not to welcome that release….

###

When the word this month for #BlogBattle came out, I nearly laughed out loud:  It was Revolution.  Considering this is the next to last installment for this novella, I’m glad such an appropriate word for the story arc came out before it got finished….  You can find the earlier installments on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.

And with such a great word, don’t miss out on the contributions from other writers this month!

Truman Has Left the Building

A couple of months ago, our younger cat sort of vanished for longer than usual.  He’d developed the habit of occasionally not showing up when we were out and about for a day or two, so for that first couple of days we weren’t worried.

By day three we started to wonder, and when he showed up toward the end of the day, we were initially happy to see him.

Well, we were still happy to see Truman, but quickly got concerned.  He was lethargic.  He was skinny.  He stayed hunched up in an “I don’t feel well” posture.

This looked like a bigger problem than we could fix with the items in our vet bag, so Truman got a free ride to the veterinarian.  He hadn’t seen her since we got him neutered.

She confirmed he had some kind of infection and dosed him with antibiotics.  When we brought him home, he was obviously very happy to return even though he was still thin and weak.  He was probably grateful to come back with all his body parts this time.

It seemed obvious he needed to stay under cover for a few days.  So we fixed up a spot for him in our mudroom.

This happened just as the weather took a turn from chilly to outright cold.  Our wood-burning furnace is located in the mudroom.  He quickly discovered the warmest part in the room was right in front of it, so we threw an old towel on the floor right there.  Add a food dish and water bowl and litter box, and, voila!  Kitty cat accommodations….

 

One of the nice things about the mudroom is it’s easily closed off from the rest of the house, so we were able to go about our business without disturbing him.  As an outdoor cat, however, Truman preferred to do his business outside.  He considered the litter box to be an emergency-use only item.

His trips outside grew longer as he felt better, and after a couple of weeks he was back to his full weight.  We’d keep each other updated whenever he returned to the mudroom, and when he went back outside, we’d make the announcement “Truman has left the building.”

In case you were wondering, yes, that experience has spoiled him….

Some evenings, when we settle down to watch a flick on the television, he’ll hop up on an Adirondack chair out on the porch and perform his version of tapping on the window:

“Hello!  You know, it’s still cold out here.  Cough.  I just need to warm the pads of my feet.  Wheeze.”

So we go to the mudroom and open the door, and even though the towel is gone now, he claims his spot in front of the furnace.  After he gets warmed up, and possibly bored, then Truman’s ready to leave the building again.

Hmm, I think that cat has trained us….

 

Censoring Peace

Over the past several months I’ve felt like we’re living in one of my stories.  As a writer, let me be the first to say that although I find it a fun place to visit, you don’t want to live there….

Recent events are chock full of the potentiality to frighten people, anger them, and divide them.  The division, a tactic opponents use to help them conquer, perpetuates the fear and anger.  The pot is being stirred, and in all this chaos, folks can continue to be worked up, or they can find a way to experience peace.

I choose peace.

Peace doesn’t mean rolling over and sticking your head in the sand, however.  The most recent event that looms very threateningly is the ready application of censorship.  As a writer, I have a strong opinion on that subject:  Censorship is wrong.  There’s a reason Voltaire’s attitude was encompassed as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Censorship is like a cancer because it spreads.  First one group will be silenced, and then another group, and then another….

What is considered to be on the right side or the wrong side changes as the tide turns within the culture.  Those who think it’s good to silence voices that oppose them need to be aware of the proverb to be careful about what you wish for.  That which they championed might one day be used against them.

And what begins as censorship leads to worse forms of oppression.  I don’t think I can express it any more eloquently than the poet Gwyn Thomas did:

Books burning in the fire.

The horror of the burning is

As ever, as ever, a sign.

In the night, round about, there are bright eyes

Full of the passion of destruction …

Tomorrow,

People in the fire.

Yeah, this is a heavier post than my usual stuff, but if we want peace, we must not be silenced….

Pharaoh’s Chariots

His resolve steeled as Deuce surveyed the smoky battlefield.  Withdrawing from this arena alive was a natural desire, but his concern for the lives of the score of soldiers with him finalized his decision.

Over twenty men had originally volunteered to assist him with luring the cyborg forces to this fallacious location, even though each one of them knew it was possible none would return.  And the ones that had already fallen knew no more about the bomb surgically lodged inside his chest than their surviving combatants.

The people he had become part of were on the verge of escaping their tormentors.  There had been enough death already.  He was determined to see that these brave servicemen would rejoin the families they were fighting to keep free.

“They’re flanking to cut off our access to the chute!”  The voice that buzzed from the com patch attached near his right ear disclosed strain but not panic.

Although battle hardened, Deuce was a bit struck at how calm his own voice sounded.  “Retreat now, before they get there.”

“What about–”

“That’s an order!  I’ll hold them back.”

There was a couple seconds hesitation before he heard “Yes, sir!”

He set the charges in his blaster for a cluster spread.  That meant he would run out of ammunition soon after reaching the entrance of the passage that sloped down to the launch pad, but when he detonated the bomb within his chest, that wouldn’t matter anymore….

Once the soldiers cleared the chute leading to a purposefully unfinished interstellar ship, they could board the real escape vessel hidden within.  Right now, in a dozen locations scattered around the Earth, completed space-bound behemoths were launching from their hitherto underground platforms.

The com patch also chattered with reports from those other sites.  Some of them were under attack as well, but at least he’d succeeded in drawing the majority of the Elite’s forces here.

He was, after all, the best bait he could offer.

“Go!  Don’t wait for me!”

Deuce leaped from behind the jagged boulder that was inherent to the rocky outcrop shielding the underground launch pad.  Maintaining cover behind other stony features, he fired into the closest enemy troops as he trailed his soldiers pulling back to the chute.

Return fire was aimed more toward his retreating unit than him.  He knew why.

Less than a minute after the last man disappeared into the downward tunnel, he darted into the entrance, but then held his ground.  After only a couple more blasts from his weapon, the cyborg forces scattered as though fearing the meager obstacle he presented.  They ceased fire and ducked into cover of their own on the other side of the rocks.

He wanted to hold this position for as long as possible before activating the bomb and blank off this chute.  But even though he was fairly exposed here, the enemy still didn’t fire.  They had to be under orders to leave him for the individual who wanted him most….

When IMP2 stepped into the clearing, Deuce figured his former ally wanted to make this confrontation really personal.  Good, it gave his soldiers more time to escape.

“You’ve been wasting ammo.”  As IMP2 approached, he held a blaster in his remaining human hand even though his mechanized arm was also a shooting weapon.

Deuce gripped his nearly empty blaster in the ready position.  “Considering your casualties, I wouldn’t call it a waste.”

“What is your strategy, IMP17?  Your speculation is consistent, but this maneuver is deviant even for you.”

Hearing his old designation churned a slight touch of nausea.  “Are you sure you want to find out?”

A leering smile formed on his opponent’s face as he stepped closer.  “I will deign to compliment your evasiveness, but observation of your tactics conveys desperation.  Whatever ships don’t get grounded before takeoff will be terminated by the hunter satellites when they reach orbit.”

They had a plan in action for those satellites, too.  But even though IMP2 was about to die with him, this was no time to tip his hand.  But he might enjoy giving them something to worry about, even if was a bald-faced lie.

“Didn’t you know satellites can be remotely reprogrammed to change their targets?”

The commander hesitated and studied his face, perhaps searching for some unconscious betrayal he might let slip.  With half of IMP2’s face outfitted with technological improvements, Deuce didn’t bother trying the same.  It didn’t matter.

“You are too calm for somebody who knows his life is forfeit.”  That statement sent a chill through him, and Deuce began sliding his left hand up the front of his uniform.

IMP2’s gaze locked on that hand.  Deuce knew he was anticipating he would draw a weapon, but had no idea what was actually about to happen.  Self-sacrifice didn’t register in his psyche.  When IMP2 continued, Deuce was relieved to hear his assessment confirmed.

“But you will not remain so complacent.  My enhancements far outweigh our biological engineering, and you owe me satisfaction for the trouble you have caused.  By the time I’m through with you, you will wish you’d been executed by the Elite.”

Deuce’s index finger reached the thoracic depression at the base of his throat.  The seconds began crawling, as though every cell in his body understood life in this world was about to end and wanted to savor what little time was left.

A reflection on Ita, with her fiery hair and emerald eyes, surfaced from his subconscious.  More so it was her feisty personality and stoic bearing he would miss.  They had only recently started to understand each other, and he regretted they wouldn’t finish working out their differences.  Still, it was comforting to know he’d taken part in her ultimate escape….

He pressed hard into the shallow cavity until his fingertip sensed a small, hard protuberance that hadn’t been there before the bomb’s implantation.  One more push set the device to standby, and he had only to murmur the single, five-syllable word that would detonate it.

“Uni–”

Fired charges from behind hurtled past him.

IMP2 spun and twisted and leaped to avoid the barrage like any Intellectual Militant Prototype worth his genetic engineering should.  A couple of sparks emitted from his arm, but with a few shots of his own succeeded in taking cover with the cyborg troops.

Deuce swung to one side as charges continued streaking past him.  Had anybody other than the colonel who strode forward and grasped his arm performed such an action, he would have demanded they withdraw.

Quint was supposed to be back at the ship as the commander of the crew that would launch it.  But considering he was one of the first people to accept Deuce when he joined their forces, he was inclined to concede to this change in plans.

“Let’s go, general!” Quint barked.  “No man gets left behind.”

Arguing would only cause a delay that would endanger all of them.  Deuce retreated into the depths of the passage with his troops as they fired back at the enemy resuming attack.

###

If you noticed this month’s story submission for #BlogBattle seemed a little longer, good for you…!  The rules of the battle have changed a little this year, including we can now go up to 2000 words.  This month the prompt word is Blank.  And as always, be sure to check out the stories others have posted.

I confess I learned a definition of that word I hadn’t been familiar with before, but it was one that worked well for the next installment of this arc.  And if you’re new to this serialization, you can catch up on my BlogBattle Short Stories page.