Archive for March, 2014

I had originally published this excerpt on 11 FEB 2010, just a little over four years ago. While the final version is nearly out (I expect everything to be revised, copyedited, formatted and published by the end of April), I find that while some things have taken drastic changes, others have remained quite the same as the original.

Just a reminder that the following, while maybe not used as-is in the upcoming novel, remains my intellectual property with all the rights and privileges to use reserved.

Breath clawed ragged furrows in his throat. Shredding pains in his sides choked off any deep inhalation. Running, trotting, he kept ahead, just ahead, by the barest of a sliver. Slipping and falling on the reeking carpet of foliage, he recovered and kept moving. Tripping over his own traitorous feet. But he didn’t dare stop, didn’t dare look back. Never glance over your shoulder. His pursuer hounded him —he felt the stare scorching the back of his head.

Slow now, just for a second, can’t breathe… He reined in his pace.

The stifling air amplified a brutal crack. Weapon’s fire. The same crack stung his ears before. This morning, that same crack. An explosion of blood. An end to his friend. A cry escaped him, but the pain within his lungs provided no volume.

No stopping. No slowing down for even a moment.

Must get these away. Take them someplace safe. He clutched at the relic, hanging from his strap around his neck, banging against the metal ephod. Must find a way to save the journals. He clutched those too, precious journals, priceless relic.

Brother Sun, protect me! Keep moving. Just keep moving.

* * *

The sun remained asleep beyond the horizon, but Click arose and gathered up his kit. The bride train escorts and the brides-to-be untangled themselves from one another, yawned and stretched the funk of sleep away. Four single, macho men (not counting Click) guarding seven twittering, nubile women as they traveled the Circuit made for a sad equation, and Click witnessed the product of that outcome for the last three nights. He pitied the men anticipating their tickermail dreams, thinking a virgin angel traveled to greet them and surrender themselves to their future and only husband. Gratitude swelled inside of him, nearing the time to be quit of them all. He looked forward to getting back to his own team, his own territory. He prided himself on his discipline, but a week and half of involvement in the odd dynamic threatened to end his moral standing, if not his goal.
At least one teammate remained with him to remind him of his business on the Circuit. Ibsen displayed more self-control than either the men or the women here. Click expressed his gratitude for the presence of at least one disciplined companion, even if he walked on four legs instead of two and drooled all over him. He reached down and scratched the gray and black furred head, and Ibsen glanced up at him with wintry blue eyes and panted in appreciation.
Not to mention I can get this done with and shave this damnable beard. Click scratched idly at the bristly, hair again, and felt the pustule of an ingrown hair break under his fingernail. When I get back I’m taking a day of liberty and using all twenty-four hours to bathe. Ten minutes with these guys also revealed one of their toughest weapons —personal hygiene. Between the body odor and the breath, the four men of the bride train possessed enough chemical weaponry to keep the wolgs and the highwaymen at a fair distance. The women didn’t fare much better, although they tried to hide it by rubbing themselves with crushed green they could pluck from the autumn-wounded trees and weeds.
The Circuit tried, with the bride trains, to mix up the gene pool, and Click silently applauded them on that effort. His people worried about the lack of genetic diversity in the smaller communities. He already saw the result of a small society mixing out of hand, and dealing with that counted among the gut-squirming and bloodiest situations Click and his men ever encountered. He didn’t even like to think about that mess, even though time placed it well over a decade behind him. These people didn’t seem to invest a lot of thought into the best way of mixing up DNA. If they knew what that was, he mused. Still, they tried.
Working with these escorts also disgusted him with the superficial machismo they strutted out to impress the betrothed. A hooligan at least ten years Click’s junior called himself their ‘captain’ and tried to pass himself off as a veteran warrior and conquerer of women. He ended up painting his own portrait as a sad, desperate man who took advantage of the naive girls and their willingness to indulge. Unfortunately, when Click signed on under this man, he assessed and dismissed his so-called prowess: he bedded more women —intended for other men— than anyone else on the Circuit. Period. Highwaymen, beware!
On one of the rare nights Click didn’t volunteer for the first watch, he sat down with their captain —”Just call me Honcho, my care” — he learned all he needed to know concerning the escorts. They considered themselves tightly knit, and knew not only the other escorts on the Circuit, but also the regular travelers; textwalkers, mapmakers, merchants, C-guard. Within a few questions, and some plain observation, Click realized his man wouldn’t stay among types like these for very long. He would stand out, much like Click himself, as possessing considerably more self-control. Unfortunately, none of the captain’s descriptions, physical or characteristically, resembled his man.
But the escort captain and his men did fill him in on some of the more colorful personalities, like the anxious textwalker who memorized everything they told him instead of writing it down, and they played games with him to see if they could trip him up. According to one escort, they all failed to get him to trip up on even the details. Not even when they watched that man flop onto his rear against a tree and stared at the ground with his head bobbing up and down. The storytelling escort performed a demonstration and Click watched the others as they cackled, pointed. “That’s him, man. That’s him!” Regarding another one, the captain related, “You know this one mapmaker… She… Yeah I said ‘she’… She been walking the Circuit like for five years, my care. Least I knows of. She a quiet thing, keeping to herself. But I change that. Real quick. I change that and she be begging me.” He thrust his hips in vulgar humping gesture, and loosed a few mock groans in a pitch high enough to make the women sound masculine. The others, escorts and brides all, erupted in chuckles and wolg-whistles. Whatever turns them on, I suppose. Click shrugged and dismissed the crude humor.
A dusky-skinned man with a crooked nose, smacked his thigh and laughed harder, louder and longer at his captain who tossed a scowl in his direction. “Beggin’ you to stop.? Rich, cap’n Honch. Rich indeed. Way I recall it, you tell that woman you gonna light an in-fer-no in that ice crack of hers, and she just rock that rifle she got in your ugly face. You looking all ‘I jus’ piss my pants’ and she just straight-face. I jus’ saying.” He raised his hands in a gesture of submission, holding his serious mien for a moment before losing it in a fit of laughter.
“Ya, he ain’t never saw no woman toting a gun before.” The guffaws began anew.
All escorts around the fire rejoined the levity; all of them except for their leader. Lips crushed together, his face graduated from bronze to red with the laughter feeding it. He hopped to his feet, snatched up his shotgun. “I’ll go do up a watch.”
The captain gathered his own weapon. “Bitch need a man to do her over a couple times, from behind,” He illustrated his statement with more vulgar gestures and then hightailed it out of sight. That only affirmed, signed, and nailed to the front door Click’s final assessment of the man’s (severe lack of) character. Click found himself silently giving the unknown woman a long-distance knuckle bump for turning the man down, and urging her to simply shoot him next time they cross paths.
A few more hours of walking, Click reminded himself as the others rose and began to gather their gear. Just a few more, hiking north along the cracked and weed-sprouting road, and they would arrive in Shebor. Then it’s a hearty rendition of “Goodbye, bride train. Goodbye.”
For all of his talk, the captain did seem to make it a point to keep up the information on other groups who traveled the Circuit. Only one of the Shebor-based group caused the Captain to come up short on knowledege. The Guv — the man who ran the Circuit, or at least thought he did — started sending out guard patrols, men as well armed as the escorts, to police the southern roads. The Circuit always faced clashes with the trash wolgs; those highwaymen trying to harass farmers in between towns, ambush traveling merchants or snatch the women from the bride trains (though after seeing what went on during the train, Click wasn’t convinced the trashdogs could treat them any worse).
Now, however, someone felt threatened enough by extra activity along the southern swing, with reports of bodies of entire communities found strung up by their necks. Raped, mutilated, executed, or simply executed in the middle of the road and left for the vultures, the escort captain described it all. Not that they saw any of that during their trip. Either the C-guard patrols proved effective (something Click doubted very much, if these men were the best protection the Circuit could turn out) or whoever caused the problems displayed more selectivity in their victims than the captain gave them credit.
Anticipation of the journey’s end pumped more adrenaline into his veins, and Click’s steps seemed lighter. Had these men displayed any physical discipline (and had the women been in better shape) he might have urged them to quicken the pace to a steady march just to get this over with. He forced himself to calm down, to keep pace, and examine his surroundings. Once back at his home, the intelligence alone might make the trip profitable, if he found his man or not.

When the term “post-apocalypse” arises, most people’s minds conjure the degraded, barren landscapes, ravaged by wars, zombies, plagues, etc. We tend to think in terms of a future yet-to-come, or the present or future of an alternate reality. Few stop to wonder about present-day apocalypse settings in our own world, but they exist.

Most everyone even moderately interested in the PA genre has heard of the Chernobyl and it’s effect on the nearby Pripyat, a once-thriving town rendered completely inhospitable by the disaster that saturated the area with radiation.

Few people think of the towns in America. For one, there was Centralia, smack in the (rough) center of my home state of Pennsylvania, which is coal-mining central (see the theme there?). When ordered to “keep the home fires burning” someone took that quite literal. Coal beneath the town caught fire due to some trash burning that got out of control (still under debate as to whether firefighters lit it up in what was supposed to be a controlled burn, or hot ash being –oops– accidentally dumped into a place that had direct access to the underground veins) and the place has been burning. Since 1962. Yes. 52 years with little sign of letting up. A few resilient residents remain after many legal battles, but officials closed the state highway that ran through it due to heat damage, and the town has ceased to exist according to the Almighty US Postal Service since 2002. Like I said, resilient people. The homes are pretty much gone, either deconstructed or reclaimed by the surrounding flora (take that, civilization!) and the remainder of the occupied homes will remain so until the death of their residents.

When it comes to Mother Nature protesting an unwitting exfoliation, no town is a better example of her wrath than Pilcher, Oklahoma. That town got smacked down with not one not two, but a triple play of toxic and dangerous situations that forced the town to strike out and go home (somewhere else). The town’s initial boom (and downfall, ironically enough) came from mining operations (see the theme here?) to remove zinc and lead from the earth, in the meantime leaving these massive poisonous mountains of “chat” which the plains winds would whip up and over the town and scatter the particles of lead all over the place. There was even a picnic area and ball field situated in the shadow of one of these toxic constructs. (“How about a little lead and mayo on your sandwich, Jimmy?”) You would have thought that back when they declared lead-based paint to be too dangerous to use in homes because of the possibility of ingestion (1978, by the way) that someone would have pointed out “Hey, we live right at the foot of Lead Peak… Say… Think it’s dangerous too?” They didn’t schedule the town for “closure” until 2006. Meaning after the sinkholes started to open up and swallow the world around them. And those same metals they scooped out as treasure poisoned the water supplies. Three strikes, people, and you’re out.

Outside of the US, two other places that come to mind are Hashima in Japan, and Wittenoom in Australia. Both were the sites of major mining operations (I REALLY hope you’re seeing the theme here).

Hashima is an island just off of Nagasaki, built up to accommodate the miners who worked beneath the islands. A whole community in its own right, it relied on its coal production but when petroleum took over and the country shut down coal-mining facilities, the miners moved out and the place has been uninhabited since 1974. It’s also known as Ghost Island.

Wittenoom produced asbestos by mining (need I say anything more?) and would have continued to do so except for the growing health concerns surrounding the use of the mineral. The town enjoyed its name officially for only 56 years and change (even less if you consider that the word “Gorge” had been affixed for 31 of those) and has since been struck from maps, road signs and official registers, if not from the hearts and minds of the three remaining residents.

I’m certain there are many, many more of towns hit with their own apocalypses, laying not simply in ruins but with daily reminders of what life used to be like, left in their places like a crumbling pastiche to the era from which it came.

Umbra’s inception began about 26 years ago, when I began writing a story to go along with the plot if the then-popular computer game, Wasteland. I’d had an elaborate backstory for my characters, much more than you got when booting up one of the old floppy discs. (Remember those flat black things where you had to punch little rectangles out of the side to be able to write on them?) Virtually none of that story survived to this point, but that decades-plus of evolution wouldn’t have been possible without that seed planted so long ago. I find it rather fitting that I’ve finally brought the story to full fruition when the sequel to my all-time childhood favorite game is arriving (about time!!!). I’ve taken the basic ideas through several years of NaNoWriMo, a couple of bad relationships, plenty of geographical changes, job changes, but one thing remains the same – the heart of the post-nuclear wasteland story, and how people would operate in such a world. What would be different? What would remain the same?

For the purists out there, I’ll break it down and address you by categories.

Science Fiction: While science elements and principles do exist within the boundaries of my story, I don’t consider this a pure science fiction novel. I will note however, that something I use in the story is not so far off as we may think. Remember when automatically opening doors only existed on the set of a Star Trek?

Forensics: For those who might address the rather sloppy methods of investigation, I will point out two things. 1) Consider I’ve done everything deliberately, knowing how investigations on crime scenes are handled. (I’ve got a minor degree in criminalistics, and yes, I got high grades in all of the classes.) Because 2) this is in the post-apoc world and they don ‘t have access to simple things like cameras that we take for granted and there’s really no proper investigative arm of the Circuit to help. A litmus test of a science fiction/fantasy novel is “can the elements of this work me moved to an opposite/modern story and leave the story relatively intact?” If the answer is yes, than it’s not a true science fiction or fantasy story. I hold the same for the post-Apocs. If I put this in a contemporary world will I have to change the story? Nope. The people running around doing what they do wouldn’t get away with any of it. I made my world mine.

Linguists: This one bothers me too, believe it or not, but I didn’t see any way around it which I could accomplish and still convey an entertaining story. I’m speaking of course of the way that language changes over time, and although my novel doesn’t specify the time of the Visitation, a considerable length is inferred. Several decades can alter a language somewhat incomprehensible. Russell Hoban in his novel Riddley Walker did a masterful job of creating a new language that was still easily understood, as did Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange. I possess nowhere near the skills they employed in their tales. And, let’s face it: I had time enough to create a Tolkienesque language in its entirety in those years since imagining such a world, but chose to forego it. But I did not. Why? In order to preserve the ability for the reader to follow along and solve the mystery alongside my detective, and to more simply understand that despite decades and/or centuries, people’s motives really haven’t changed.

Firearms enthusiasts: I’m one if these too, and any mistakes I made were mine. I’m in the process of having the work reviewed for factual errors regarding weapons platforms, but I’m holding myself ultimately responsible.

Overall, I’d rather be entertaining my reader instead of spending so much time researching every little detail that I never get it published. I try not to stretch the suspension of disbelief too far but please remember that it’s there.

I’m sure I could address many more factions but I’ll let the readers who choose to do so argue about the story elements on their various forums after they’ve read the book.

Here’s to hoping you enjoy the story anyway!

(Originally posted 5 AUGUST 2009)

Really. There are songs about the end of the world. I’ll tell you about a couple, and you can explore the rest on your own.

Most folks are going to think of hardcore, death metal, or otherwise barely coherent lyrics that may or may not be about apocalyptic forebodings, and the bands themselves acquired the look from The Road Warrior. OrBallad of Armageddon – Music of the End of the World
Really. There are songs about the end of the world. I’ll tell you about a couple.

Most folks are going to think of hardcore, death metal, or otherwise barely coherent lyrics that may or may not be about apocalyptic forebodings, and the bands themselves acquired the look from The Road Warrior. There were bands like Nuclear Assault, whose name said it all. Not all of the great tunes about the end of the world as we know it (not R.E.M.’s end of the world, thanks) come from that corner of the thunderdome.

When I served in the Navy years ago, I had the privilege of meeting all kinds of people from across the entire country I otherwise might not have met. Before the internet and all the social media allowed us to connect with people several thousand miles away at any given moment, this was a huge deal, as they brought with them a lot of influences I might have otherwise missed.

One of these gents with whom I served introduced me to Kate Bush, and I’ve been grateful ever since. Only recently did I find out how her early career intertwined with Pink Floyd, and the album The Wall served as a soundtrack staple for games that didn’t have one, like Wasteland. While I loved her music, I hadn’t really discovered the depth of her subject matter until I found her album, The Whole Story, a collection of songs from previous albums. “Breathing” is the single that addresses the effects of fallout after the bomb.

We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and last
after the blast.
Chips of plutonium
are twinkling in every lung.

While not technically correct, the song is brilliant and so radical from the rest of the “he loves me, he loves me not” pop crap everyone else out there sang at the time. Her song “Experiment IV” is also worth a note too, not as post-nuclear but as a song about an unusual weapon of mass destruction. (A very young Hugh Laurie happens to be in the video as well.)

Several years ago, a co-worker got me interested in Steve Wilson and his band, Porcupine Tree. The first album he allowed me to borrow, Stupid Dream, featured a song called “A Smart Kid.”

Winter lasted five long years
No sun will come again I fear
Chemical harvest was sown

The reference is to the purported nuclear winter* which would happen in the even of such a conflict, but there is also the reference of chemical warfare. The “kid” later tells aliens who came to visit that he doesn’t know what happened to the people but that there was a war and he “must have won.”

In another vein, my favorite RPG growing up was Wasteland (and they’re finally making a 2!) but it didn’t have a soundtrack so I ended up supplying my own. The Wall from Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains’ Facelift and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine served and served well.

So, apocalyptic visions exist everywhere one may care to look for them, even in popular music.

*This was researched in depth by the TTAPS team, including Carl Sagan, but criticized and refuted by later studies post the conflicts in Kuwait. there are always bands like Nuclear Assault, whose name says it all. Not all of the great tunes about the end of the world as we know it (not R.E.M.’s end of the world, thanks) come from that corner of the thunderdome.

When I served in the Navy years ago, I had the privilege of meeting all kinds of people from across the entire country I otherwise might not have met. Before the internet and all the social media, when we can connect with people across the country at any given moment, this was a huge deal, as they brought with them a lot of influences I might have otherwise missed.

One of these gents introduced me to Kate Bush, and I’ve been grateful ever since. Only recently did I find out how her early career intertwined with Pink Floyd, and the album The Wall served as a soundtrack staple for games that didn’t have one, like Wasteland. While I loved her music, I hadn’t really discovered the depth of her subject matter until I found her album, The Whole Story, a collection of songs from previous albums. “Breathing” is the single that addresses the effects of fallout after the bomb.

We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and last
after the blast.
Chips of plutonium
are twinkling in every lung.

While not technically correct, the song is brilliant and so radical from the rest of the “he loves me, he loves me not” pop crap everyone else out there sang at the time. Her song Experiment IV is also worth a note too, not as post-nuclear but as a song about a weapon of mass destruction. A very young Hugh Laurie happens to be in the video as well.

Several years ago, a co-worker got me interested in Steve Wilson and his band, Porcupine Tree. The first album he allowed me to borrow, Stupid Dream, featured a song called “A Smart Kid.”

Winter lasted five long years
No sun will come again I fear
Chemical harvest was sown

The reference is to the purported nuclear winter* which would happen in the even of such a conflict, but there is also the reference of chemical warfare. The “kid” later tells aliens who came to visit that he doesn’t know what happened to the people but that there was a war and he “must have won.”

*This was researched in depth by the TTAPS team, including Carl Sagan, but criticized and refuted by later studies post the conflicts in Kuwait.