Sunday, September 18, 2011

Unnatural Mechanations - Pt. 1

The warmth of the late afternoon was exactly what Lios had wanted to start his evening. The wind whispered very gently through the leaves and grass, causing the meadow to dance and shift in time to the natural rhythm. The shadows danced to a different song, causing highlights to sink comfortably amongst the blades of grass in preparation for the evening.

There was a certain poetry to it that Lios himself felt should have voice, but lacked the artistry to give the meadow justice. He sighed to himself, a little out of disappointment, but mostly out of comfort. There was a certain tranquility that felt too precious, and Lios himself feared breathing too loudly in case it were to come apart with just a breath of air.

Footsteps crept up behind him, but he saw no need to pay them any heed. They were just another part of nature's perfect machinations. The alliance of smell, soft rhythm, and quiet ambiance were impeccable, and Lios felt his eyes drift closed by a being more complete than his own.

Which made the voice sound like the crashing of a tree by comparison. "Lios!"

The armor clanked as Lios jolted from his stillness, causing the leather to tug and abraid in a most unpleasant fashion. Lios scowled at his blond sister, and adjust his armor in quick, jerky motions. The tranquility of the forest had been disrupted, as usual. "Good evening, Lea. What catastrophe has lead you to my unfortunate presence this evening?"

She smiled down at him, offering a work-hardened hand to help him up. "Are you kidding? When isn't Aunt Liza a catastrophe?"

"Oh Gods," Lios began, "please tell me she isn't visiting."

Her smile turned a shade brittle. "If it makes you feel any better, I could. Wouldn't be the truth, though."

Lios sighed, and took the young blond's hand. She hauled him up, and he immediately missed the tranquil silence of the meadow. But, if his aunt was in town, then he would be needed at the homestead for damage control. He spared a final look to the meadow, with all of its tranquility, and followed his sister into the forest.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

You: The Movie - Pt. 1

Nuke was unhappy, noting how distinctly uncomfortable gravel roads are on the knees. His legs and shoulders were already aching from the several mile course he had set for himself in the city, and the monitorhead provided little by way of comfort when one has to hold perfectly still at gunpoint.

The rebellion had set up check-points, in order to search coming and going vehicles and pedestrians for supplies or troops. As a paramilitary group, it wasn't a terrible plan. As a group which sought to end tyranny and dictatorship, it reeked of irony. Nuke didn't bother voicing any of his complaints, though. There were better things to be done. Except for being held prone, of course. That tended to put a damper on his daily progress.

The voice directly above him held the command of both authority and routine, as if its owner had done this - or something similar - a hundred times, and was prepared to do it a hundred more. "So, mister... Ah... Lassic. Tell me how you came to be a cyborg again?"
"Technology's a funny thing," Nuke muttered, "how it's sometimes used to enslave the city, and other times used by medical doctors to conduct life saving surgeries."
He frowned down at Nuke, cleanly pressed gray uniform hanging comfortably from his shoulders. "But to replace your head?"
"Sure, if your epidermal layer is infected from a car accident. Normally they just lop off the offending body part, but you can't really do that to the spine without side effects."
"Don't be a smartass," he said to Nuke, and put his weapon down. "Just doing my job. You can get up, but that doesn't mean I'm happy with you."
"After having me searched, stripped, and questioned at gunpoint, I'd've figured we were about to move onto the dinner-and-movie portion of our evening. Trust me, I'm not feeling nearly as endeared as you suspect of me."
The man scowled. "I'm still holding a gun, don't push it."
Nuke shrugged, the gesture settling the weight of his suit comfortably around his shoulders. "Yes sir. Where do we go from here?"
"I don't trust you. Cyborgs seem like trouble to me, and you don't even bother hiding your synthetic parts."
Nuke would have scowled back had he had the face to do so, instead he said, "What with my head being housed in a CRT monitor, I'd think synthetic, realistic flesh masks would be out of my price range."
The man didn't even bother with a response. "Alright, you're going to walk ahead of me, I'll follow at gunpoint, and you'll go where I tell you until we reach headquarters."
Nuke didn't let his slump show, and instead answered, "You've got it, boss."

After a long and winding series of corridors, Nuke was paraded into a small office. The electricity in this building was actually working, which was unusual for most of the city. More unusual, still, for the rebellion. Most places are generator-powered where possible, as getting electricity would normally mean going through "official channels," which usually meant reliance on RAK Enterprises. Granted, having worked with RAK for many years, Nuke knew this pretty first-hand. It did leave him with a few questions as to how the resistance would manage to siphon power without being logged to RAK Enterprises.

The office itself looked pretty remarkable in how unremarkable it would've been two years prior. The carpeting was cheap, clean, and well maintained. The desk was also cheap, one of the plastic panel and steel legs types. There was a Rolodex on the top, a few papers and pens stacked neatly in the corner, next to an In-Out Box that was half filled with reports. The woman on the opposite end looked about as professional as one would expect of a business woman. Young certainly, but professional.

She quirked a smile at Nuke, and stood up. Nuke started cataloging various features immediately. The suit was of a good cut, though not perfect, so not quite tailored. Maybe it was a half-size too small. It looked to be a good material in either case, and she wore it comfortably. It hugged closely at the hips and shoulders, displaying more curve than was strictly professional. Overall, incredibly pretty and decidedly professional. She looked better than the last time he had seen her, too. Although it had been a fair few years since he'd seen her, she had aged very well.

However, like many of his older friendships, they were products of both different ages, but also different worlds. It had been at least a decade since Nuke had seen Tess last, and she was as stunning as he remembered. Sadly, he was missing an untoward amount of head, having had his surgically replaced with a monitor. If Nuke could've frowned, he would have. Despite the lack of head, the brain was sending signals to do so. She glanced up at the newcomer in the suit, then at her soldier. "Ross, what is this cyborg doing here?"
Ross, the man in black that had 'arrested' Nuke at the checkpoint, cleared his throat. "Um, apologies ma'am. He insists he isn't a cyborg."
"Oh? One would think the monitor for a head would have been a dead giveaway." She rested her palms on the desk as she stood, carefully to brush something behind the desk as she did so. "Tell me, cyborg, what makes you think we'd believe a lie that obvious?"
The monitor let out little flashes of blue as he spoke. "Because you knew me a few years ago, Tess, and I'd like to think you can trust me enough to let me pass through."
She had a half-second of pause, and frowned at him. "I knew you? I don't remember anyone who had cybernetic implants pre-war."
"Before that," Nuke said, "at least several years ago. Although I'm willing to blame the hair for making me unrecognizable."
"I... Oh. Nuke?"
"Yeah," Nuke said, scratching the back of his neck in an entirely reflexive gesture. "That's me."
"My God, what happened?"
"Car wreck. It was actually the only viable prosthetic on-hand."
Her frown deepened. "You sound different."
"Synthetic voice box, plus some emulation software for the missing tongue and mouth. You'd be surprised how many sounds you make with those two things."
"Among the other things they're good for."
Ross hid a blush, but Nuke didn't have to. "Silver still wrecks as bad as the rest of my face did. I'm pretty lucky to be alive."
Tess shifted her weight to the opposite hip, and rested her hands comfortably on the curves. "Still, I can't quite trust that you're Nuke, or at least, the same Nuke I knew. We can't really check dental records or trust any ID picture, what with your head missing."
"I figured as much. Alright, something specific you want to ask to be sure?"
"I suppose that's for the best, but even that seems sketchy. You could easily be hooked up to wireless database tech, and that would make researching viable answers as quick as it would be easy."
"Joyous of joys," Nuke said bitterly, "fair enough, something that would be off the record, then?"
"Like what?"
"Oh jeez. Um..." Nuke floundered. "Well, crap."
 She smiled wickedly, which made Nuke flounder more. After a moment of pregnant thought, Nuke grabbed a sheet of paper, scribbled a hasty but long note, and handed it to Tess.

Her brow furrowed as she read it, and her expression changed too many times for Nuke to have a clear idea on where it was deciding to settle. After about a minute of the unstable expression, she unlocked a desk drawer and put the letter away. For good measure, she locked the desk drawer, and hid the key somewhere in the interior of her jacket. Nuke nodded, monitor letting off a light blue haze into the otherwise pastel yellow room. "Convincing enough?"
"For now..." Tess said, frown barely making it past the expression mask, and disappearing as quickly as it came. "I'm not sure I can believe you still, but the time for indecision is long past. How are you with the robots?"
"Ugh, they're nasty tech. I'd've preferred something a little more squishy, but I can take out bots fast enough to get away, I guess."
"In a flat fight?"
"I'd put us at short odds. I'm decent with a sidearm. My rifle accuracy is decent, but may as well take years for how fast some of them can close on me."
"Assault weapons?"
"I can gut myself now and spare us all some time and ammo."
"Joy," Tess said honestly. "Well, we've got a hit squad forming for this evening. If you would be so kind as to accompany Ross, then I might be inclined to let you go."
"And if not?"
She smiled, "Even if the real Nuke could ever tell me 'no,' then he'd also know I would shoot him."
"Well enough," Nuke said, voice appropriately sullen. "How could I say no?"

Friday, September 2, 2011

Flash Fiction - Revenge

Chuck Wendig, writer at Terrible Minds, issued the challenge of a 100-word flash fiction on the topic of "Revenge." (Found here.) Seeing as 100 words is the literary equivalent of a quarter of an appetizer to a starving village, I've done the best I could with the meager amount of space. With fiction like this, it's imperative to imply instead of state, and show, not tell. I hope I've done both, but feel I've done neither.

“I've waited 25 years for this.” I told him, struggling to get up the mountainside. My phone buzzed an important text message. I struggled to keep hold of the wall. The text message was simple, You're guaranteed.

“To go mountain-climbing?” My boss asked incredulously, strong fingers gripping the stone, wind threatening to tear us both from the rocks.

“No,” I told him cheerily, “for a better position.”

“On a mountain?”

“No, CFO of sales.”

“My job!?” He screamed.

“Yep,” I replied, and kicked him to his doom. “Promotion denied my ass.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Violent Chatter

For the record, this next piece is meant to change point of view every time there's a word of dialog. Keep that in mind, and hopefully it shouldn't get too disorienting.

You feel a sense of foreboding every time the fan changes its cycle. The metal shudders as it clicks into place, carrying with it a long sound of grind and doom in the extremely claustrophobic tunnel. You count the seconds in your head as you work the control panel. It glides into place, a piece of metal grinding away endless at the back of your mind, your comfort zone, and suddenly you feel a sense of primal dread, knowing full well that at any given moment, your life could come crashed down around your shoulders. This is a thought you're distinctly uncomfortable with, and you try not to think about the several hundred thousand tons of earth around and beside you. The tunnel in which you're working is tight, and well-engineered, and meticulously designed. There are boards, committees, and groups designed to make sure this thing doesn't fail, and you know full well that it shouldn't.

The metal grinds again, jangling your nerves, and you swear that "shouldn't" isn't a word that tends to belong on the end of that particular sentence. "This shouldn't be terminal" just isn't very comforting.

The chatter of your headset nearly makes you jump out of your skin, and your head slams into the aluminum tunneling above you. "God damn it, you're a mechanical engineer, not a little girl in grade school. Get your ass in gear and fix that panel, and you'll be out before you know it. If your candy ass didn't pass confined space training, than I'd've figured you more for a pansy intern than an engineer. Get to work!"

The foreman sighed, and put down the radio. His years in the field had prepared him for every eventuality, but that didn't mean his blood pressure stood around long enough to make it a smooth and comfortable practice. As usual, his engineers were behind, and such an abysmal efficiency would be laughable on any CV, much less something one had to be managing from a position of authority.

He sighed about his job, and went to go make himself a cup of coffee in the mean time. The engineer still had the standard debugging work to do on the console, and that meant running diagnostic tests even after the firmware had been checked, reinstalled if necessary, and upgraded to ensure smooth function.

The coffee machine was, as usual, completely empty. "Great," he began bitterly, "just my goddamned luck..."

I put the manuscript down, and glanced up. "You do realize that you've shifted from second to third person at the end of the second paragraph, right?"
He smiled in response, in his mind, proud to let someone else in on the big joke, "It's a meta-writing practice I follow, significantly increasing the schism between the engineer and his manager. It's it excellent?"
I scowled at him, "No, it's a joke. Don't get me wrong, as ideas like these can be interesting, but it's also really disorienting. Reading is a hobby for most people, and something they like to do effortlessly. Every single time you do something like this, you're forcing your reader to do something they don't like, or at least have to make an effort to adjust to. That's every potential buyer and reader signing up for effort instead of relaxation. No publisher will even entertain that kind of crap, much less consider publishing it. You're wasting my time as much as theirs, with this kind of work."
He scowled, the furrow of his brow narrowing to make his eyes look beady. "You think you're better than me?"

"No," I said honestly, "I think your writing is better than this. Get over yourself, listen to some criticism when someone hands it to you, and make a better manuscript. I know you're capable, but that doesn't mean you can coast by without putting your soul into the piece. You want to commit murder in a book, then commit it in the first degree. Don't go giving us some manslaughter that you aren't committed to. Writing is more biographical than fictional. Your life has to be in it. If it isn't, you aren't writing for your reader, you're masturbating in size 12 Times New Roman. Now rework it and bring it back when you feel like you've made some improvement."

He snarled angrily at the smug bastard in front of him, and stood up. After stomping to the door and slamming it closed - and the one after it - he began to feel a little silly. He sighed, and looked at the now wrinkled manuscript in his hands. The agent was a dick, without question, but Eric couldn't help feeling like there was some logic in it. The schism between lifestyle and character may have been a little over-emphasized by style rather than tone. Words themselves speak only as far as they can, but there's more to characterization than just point of view. He realized he'd need to hammer out his atmosphere, style, and personality.

"Blah, blah, blah, effeciency, yadda, work. Bastard," you say with all the false cheer you can fit into your voice, and jab angrily at the console. The technology behind it is actually quite straightforward, so figuring out what part of the console has gone shouldn't be too hard.

Shouldn't be. You sigh, and keep plodding along at it.

The easiest fix is to start with the firmware. The numbers are pretty conclusive, so you check the version of the related firmware. The numbers seem wrong to you, so you grab the radio and double-check. The version number is relayed back to you, and it checks out. Just for giggles, you reinstall it from your flash drive, and restart. After the boot is finished, you try the open command. The door teases you by making a happy noise, and failing to do anything else.

You plow at the controls a bit longer, debugging through mostly hardware checks and various forms of mechanical witchcraft. This isn't really work for the more mechanically sided engineer, but you volunteered because of your degree in computer science. After having spent a half-hour in this hell-tunnel, you regret the decision more than you can really find words for.

Suddenly, your manager explodes over the radio. "Anything yet?"
"Then get on it. I don't have all day!"

The foreman sighs, and drains his Styrofoam cup with a hard pull. He crushes it, and drops it into the trash can, and turns to go grab another one. "Damn engineers."

I tossed it back on the table. "Did nothing I told you last time sink in? Changing points of view is just unnecessarily complicating the story. Beyond that, your work tends to favor flat plotlines through simple interactions. Much of your work would be better suited world-building rather than starting en medias res, as well as a lot of individual quibbles like the use of second person at all, and weaker side characters. Genuinely, you'll probably need to do some major revisions to these first few chapters if you want this particular project to be anywhere near workable. I'd honestly suggest starting over."

And for the second time, he stomped out of the office, havoc in mind when slamming the door. "S'cuse me sir, please stop slamming the door," you tell him from your secretarial desk, "it's expensive."
"Go screw yourself," he answers, "you think you're better than me."

I sigh, and buzz my secretary. "Send in the next one, please..."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cause and Effect

The first thing Emerald learned to do when the robots came to power was sleep through the explosions. The small, concussive whump of C4 rocked the studs in the walls, shaking loose some flaking drywall from the walls and ceiling. The ceiling fan shook precariously, rocking violently in its house and casting violent shadows around the room.

The robot uprising had been swift and violent. A nasty, city-wide war that ruined the streets and established an almighty rule from the mysterious and powerful NinjOS. As best as anyone knew, Emerald included, NinjOS was a highly advanced artificial intelligence whose workings were alien to all but one man. That man had died months earlier, having been defenestrated from the top level of the Spire by NinjOS himself, and left as a final message to humanity at large. Their only surviving hope had just died, and their control was supreme, and unquestioning.

Granted, that only spurred the human resistance further. The fighting had already been tooth-and-nail, with armies of robots against guerrilla factions. It left the city in a near-constant state of collapse.

Tonight, the rebellion was offering another skirmish. Several robot parts were going to be strewn about in the morning, leaving room for every manner of scavenger to come fish for any usable or sellable part. A few hours later, a group of sweepers will come in, kill off any scavengers unlucky enough to be around, and gather up all the junk in a big truck.

The problem with this cycle is it always does its own brand of damage. It's harder to plan your day whenever you're afraid that the outdoors are going to be filled with scrappers, junkies, and machine enthusiasts willing to shoot first and ask questions later. Even after they're "gone," there's still the threat of running into a patrolling robot. While there's nothing anything explicitly unsafe about encountering a robot, it requires ID, and carries the threat of cross-fire from mercenaries, rebels, and enterprising scavengers.

It means that day might be sacrificed, so one can't go get groceries, leave the home, or be careless about locking the doors. For mothers like Emerald can't bring her son to the park, or get any miscellaneous shopping done. For her husband, Adam, it meant having to abandon hopes of going to work at the factory for extra rations or supplies that can't be gotten any other way. For the rebellion, it meant just one more skirmish to be happening in the streets, crumbling buildings and destroying infrastructure.

Every fight threatened the family's running water, or the foundation on which their home is built. Every errant bullet a genuine threat to their lives. When there's a fight in the street, what most people don't see is the side effects. Dishes broken, windows shattered, electricity shut down, and in the worst possible case, total destruction. It would mean packing up everything in a dark, crumbling building. Trying to herd a toddler and make sure nothing pivotal like weapons or supplies are being left behind.

Or worse, if they have to be left behind in order to get out in time.

Emerald shook quietly in her bed, which was being a more frequent ritual, and tried to drown out the shouts and gunfire outside. The explosive had broken at least one window out in the house, and she knew that Adam would likely come to retrieve her and usher them into the basement. After either seconds or minutes, she remembered that Adam was already at the factory, and likely would be until the early evening.

Which was positively frightening to her. Outside of the fact that factory work was unsanitary at best and highly dangerous at worst, it also carried the threat of immediate death. Any riots that occurred at or around the Spire often started in the factory, as it's the easiest area to breach.

Emerald sighed, and leaned her head against the wall behind her bed. The wall studs shook with another, more distant explosion. The resistance was all well and good, in theory, but it meant that Emerald had to live with the fear that one day, the brown-out might be a permanent black-out, or that her home would get filled with bullets and shrapnel.

Or her daughter.

She pushed away that thought, although she couldn't escape the accompanying chill, and got up. She padded out of her room on bare feet, steps making gentle noises on the tile. The broken glass had come from her house, specifically the kitchen window. Most of the panes had been boarded up or replaced with plastic equivalents. The few remaining panes were forever at risk of breaking, but let enough light into the kitchen to usually be worth it. Usually. She sighed, and returned to her room to get her slippers.

After she had slipped on some moderately safer slippers, she swept up the glass and checked on her child. It was getting late, and she was already very tired. She went to the back room, fishing out various hammers and nails, then went to the basement to see if they had any plywood left.

The work took at least an hour, all told, but she had gotten the window patched. Her eyes drooped, and she couldn't wait for Adam to get home. She trudged down the hall, pausing longer enough to watch her angel sleep quietly. The faint light let faint curves of blue all around the room, accenting every corner. She smiled, glad that her child was safe, and went to her bedroom to succumb to exhaustion.

The bed was cold, both against her arms and her cheek. She closed her eyes, and let the dull, quiet thumps of explosions lull her to sleep. She had long-since learned to sleep through the explosions, but the quiet anxieties and ceaseless fears that they accompanied never left.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sleep At Night

Jack was viciously cold in the therapy room. The air conditioner seemed like one of the old, wheezing models that made a living wall of noise over the whisper of air in the vents. The therapist seemed unruffled, though Jack suspected that was thanks to the heavy lab coat. The look was complemented by thick, bottlecap frames and goggled lenses. It gave the therapist an alien look, and Jack couldn't shake the feeling he was being judged. The therapist either didn't care or didn't notice, and was content to scratch hasty and unannounced notes on his clipboard. "So what brings you in today, Mr... Ah, Smith?"
Jack smiled. He tried for disarming. "John, please."
"How can I help you?"
"I'm sitting on a lot of guilt," Jack said honestly. "I haven't been feeling my best lately."
"Guilt?" The therapist asked mildly, making another note. "Why would you be feeling guilty?"
"Thirty seven murders," Jack said honestly. "It's been a really long month for me, and I'm having difficulty sleeping at night."

If the therapist was alarmed, he didn't show it to Jack. "Well, John, you do understand I must call the police with this information, right?"
"Yes. I understand that, but can't it wait until the end of the session?"
"I suppose," the therapist said mildly, rising. "But I cannot let you leave the office until we are through."

The therapist locked the interior door to his office, with a key. The doors were heavy, and wooden. Jack looked distantly at the doors for a moment, then turned back to the doctor. The doctor had put the key in a desk drawer, locking it with another key from his own keyring, and sat back down. "So," the therapist said finally, "let's talk about your guilt."
"Fair enough," Jack said, and began his story from the beginning.

All offices are cut from the same cloth. Sacrifice creativity for productivity, comforts for economy, and space for value. That meant well-built hamster cages, shoving workers into their cubicles to look at carpeted dividers and computer screens. The end result was unsurprising, and lead to a lot of cold, lonely, and depressed people. Living life in the cages was living in the most technical sense, but not really alive. I had felt that way once, but I was determined to get out from underfoot, for better or worse.

You work hard, you get promotions. That's the core of business. But no matter how well you do on the workhorse, the fact of the matter is you're playing a losing game of statistics. There are thirty people on the floor, and only 3 are even as high as middle-management. That means that you are 1 in 27 likely to get a promotion if one of them leaves. That's a pretty low percentage, especially when the people who do the promoting see little more than passing numbers and figures. Performance speaks for itself, in some places, but rarely in offices.

My unraveling began whenever I was desperate for that damned promotion. I was beginning to think of that promotion as the basis for life. I woke up, ate a healthy, brain-building breakfast, went to work, and did all of my work plus some. Showed up early, stayed late, and worked hardest between. I did that for two months, getting employee of the month both times, and realized that as long as my boss was still around, I wasn't getting promoted. Worst still, this was the boss that would give me extra work on top of the work I was already over-doing. It was grunge work, useless filing and record-keeping for his own clients and workload, mostly.

I did it without complaint, like a good little hamster.

After another month, another commendation from the senior management that came with a plastic trophy painted gold, I couldn't help but resent my boss for making me do his work and he gets a pay-raise while I got some plastic. A few months of little sleep don't make a man's mind stable, and mine was wobbling more than a hooker at a dockworker's convention. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was getting angry just seeing my boss, hearing his voice, anything. His name was Richard, but I called him Dick. Dick wasn't a bad boss, but I wasn't a sane guy.

One day, Dick was going to be promoted to a brand new position. His staff had managed highest productivity for the quarter-year, and senior management rewards productivity like that in the best way senior management knows how. They split our section into other sections, and fed us workers from others. That way everyone gets a boost. Dick got a promotion, too. Shiny new office upstairs.

They sent down people from HR to do evals, figure out who was going to be the next big-wig of floor three. Turns out it was a waste of energy, as the asshole hired his nephew fresh out of business school to get the position. The nephew was an asshole, and an idiot, and wasted all of our teams and resources in synergy meetings and rebranding. I hated Dick, but Dick was likable compared to this guy.

Dick was unfortunate enough to be on the phone in the stairwell the next day. When he hung up his call, I called him out on his BS. Stairwells are quiet, empty places. Good places for phone calls, by Dick's logic. Good places for murder, too. I threw him down the stairs. He screamed maybe twice, look of betrayal and fear snapping away with the sound of his spine coming apart. Poor guy. I feel the worst about Dick, as he wasn't a bad guy.

Mostly, anyway. We're all bad.

After the commotion had died down, and Dick's horrible accident had been reported to the police, I followed that nephew-boss-bastard Tom back to his apartment. If Dick had done me so wrong, Tom had done me worse. I was going to fix Tom, just like I had fixed Dick. They were going to learn that lives are worth more than $12.25 an hour. Dick had been an object lesson. I expect Tom was going to learn a harder lesson.

Tom's apartment was a small, quiet little room that resembled nothing more than a dorm. It had a bathroom wedged against a far wall, and the rest of it was all brickwork and cheap tile. Or fake tile. I could never tell the difference.

When it got to be about midnight, I kicked down the door to his apartment. It was flimsy. Particleboard shit that cheap landlords use whenever they want their tenants' homes to get broken into and robbed. I was already wearing gloves, a ski-mask, my black fatigues and boots. The door gave with a half-assed cracking noise, and I charged into the living room. I burst into the living room, and blanched in seeing that Tom had a girlfriend. She was young-looking, maybe legal, maybe not, and was skinny, unnaturally blond, and naked. She screamed when she saw me, probably from being caught screwing, and probably because I looked like the sort of person who would murder her.

She was right, though. I stepped into the room, and started piling into her. I'm a big guy, and I learned a lot of nasty things in ROTC from marine enthusiasts and servicemen-in-training. She was little, and clearly didn't do much working out. When she ran, I caught her arm, and broke it in at least two places. She howled in pain, so I threw her to the ground. She hit the cheap flooring, and choked on a gasp. I slammed my knee into her back, which made her scream more. Stupid whore. I grabbed her head, slamming it into the floor. Blood stained the floor, bright and red. But she still screamed. I'd've let her go had she shut her whore mouth. "Shut up, bitch!" I yelled, and slammed her again. She still screamed. I kept slamming her nose into the floor until she stopped screaming.

Tom wasn't a big guy, or a particularly anything guy, but he apparently collected knives. I saw him lift a big steel monster, and scream at me, blade-tip down. I threw myself out of the way, and he slashed the knife by his girlfriend, missing her and me. I picked myself up, and turned to him. He shook, visibly, and clearly didn't know how to fight with a knife. I relaxed my stance, just like I was taught, and waited. He came out wailing, arm flailing with the knife. I rolled with one slash, juking left and dipping right. The knife caught me twice, but I got an arm around Tom's. That was it, his shoulder made a nasty pop as it was wrenched out of socket.

Poor kid.

He dropped the knife, and I broke his wrist too, for good measure. He collapsed to the ground when I let him go, and I recovered his knife. It looked like someone with a hard-on for Bowie and some Lord of the Rings elf had made a love child with spines. The thing was big, though, at least as long as a machete. I poked my finger to test the blade, sharp as hell, and drove it through Tom's back. He screamed for a minute, and I stomped the handle with a boot. The blade sank into Tom, and I heard the blade wrench into the floor. I stomped it twice more, and kicked Tom in the teeth. He either collapsed or died, I couldn't tell. Blood was everywhere, soaking my pants and shirt, mask and gloves. I looked at Tom's whore, bleeding out on the cheap tile. She was already dead, her face an ugly mess of skin and scab. I kicked her ribs in rage. Goddamned whore should've shut up, but damn it if women aren't just that goddamned stupid.

I took Tom's wallet, hers too, and checked the bedroom for jewels. There were some, so I pocketed those, and one of Tom's pocket knives and lit out of there. I didn't know how long that whole thing had taken, but I didn't want to get busted with that much carnage. I threw away the brass and wallets. Botched robbery was good enough a cover for me, and Tom had learned a damned valuable lesson, as far as I was concerned.

The therapist interrupted Jack, "I'm guessing you weren't arrested for these?"
"Nope, but I still wasn't quite right in the head. I managed to sleep for a few nights, probably more exhaustion than rest. I got worse whenever I stopped being able to sleep a few days later. I was more screwed up from the killings than the lack of sleep."
"You mentioned, what, forty murders? How did the others happen?"
"After hours," Jack began, "about a week later, when I got angry at senior management..."

It's amazing what a lack of sleep, and the guilt of three murders does to the mind. I started seeing ghosts where I walked, hearing screams of terror in my sleep, or when I'm alone in the office. It kept getting louder and louder. Most people would've sought help, but I wasn't sane enough to do that. I was convinced that the bosses at my office were to blame. Those bastards were what drove me to this. So if I killed them, I'd be free of the terrors. I just knew that it was their fault. They'd pay for this... They'd all pay for this.

So I looked up things I never thought I'd look up. I already knew how to make napalm and mustard gas from my time with the ROTC recruits, so I went to work making a fertilizer bomb. Then when I was reasonably sure I had enough ordinance to blow up my office, I made more mustard gas to make sure any son of a bitch that survived the blast wasn't going to make it through round two.

Then I rented a truck and leveled my office. Parked in the underground lot, got out of my truck, and went really far away. I got as far as the city limit when I felt the bomb go off. The truck I'd rented rocked, swerving off the road in surprise. I straighted out, and kept driving.

By the time I'd gotten out of town, and into a motel, the haunting voices were worse. I kept driving, sleeping, and driving, not sure where I was going and what I was doing. A newspaper I had picked up said I had killed 33 people in that bombing. Senior management was among them, and my job was done. Didn't help me any, though, the voices and ghosts had gotten worse...

The therapist wasn't incredibly rattled, but enough to show through the calm sterility of the poker face he put on. Jack wasn't the type to think too hard about things, so he just looked in the middle distance, as if haunted by the silence. The therapist frowned, consulted his notes, and made one final comment before he resolved to call the police. "You mentioned Richard, Tom, and his girlfriend. Plus thirty-three deaths in the bombing. That's thirty-six. You're still short one."

Jack stood up, reaching into his back pocket. Tom's little knife was a switch-blade, and made a quiet clicking noise as the blade locked into place. Jack walked toward the doctor, smile unsettling. "I was just about to get to that."

By the time he was finished, blood was everywhere. On the ceiling, on the walls, on the desk. Family pictures had toppled over, leaving long cracks in glass and covering nice, warm family photos with hot, dripping blood. The whole place was a mess. Jack picked up a the doctor's phone, and threw it into the big window at the front of the office. It shattered, exposing huge bands of light across the cold, bloody room.

The air conditioner clicked off with an audible sigh, and the room felt stiflingly warm with the open window and the AC's absence. A small voice haunted the back of Jack's mind, and rasped nightmares in Jack's mind. Jack ran from the office, to his rental car, and drove away, still unable to sleep at night.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tail Over Teakettle

For me, it's a cause of considerable upset that I'm not necessarily in the driver's seat of my own mind. Where I'm at the mercy of moods which are as meticulously merciless as they can be mellow and even mirthful. Melancholy and merry being opposite faces to the same coin, yet it's mind boggling how a few hours time can drag me kicking and screaming from the latter to the former, and all of this can happen regardless of how I try to steel myself or adjust my outlook on life.

Which may not be entirely fair, given the past week in all of its elaborate schemings. There's only so much patience to be had from cascading series of unfortunate turns and stresses, but perhaps the best and worst to come of such things is in that they end at some point. However, as long as this week's been, I must question when that end will arrive, and with how much fanfare of rest until it comes again.

Perhaps I'm being overly dramatic, in the same way one occasionally looks longingly at a long stroll off of a short pier wearing the latest in concrete shoe fashion. Regardless of that, though, certain weeks require something a little more than just the usual grime of daily life. Then again, perhaps the grime of daily life is the only thing that measures whether or not one is worth their company.

If that's the case, how I keep friends is anyone's guess...

The truth of the matter is that this week hasn't been doing me well. Missing class for a sick-feeling day made me miss a pretty significant amount of work, which in turn has decided to get me very nervous. The very nerves which make me feel more sick, which either compounds into nervous ticks or missing more work, which..

Compounds the problem further to include long evenings filled with too much work and too little pay, for a volunteering "job" that only I seem to remember why I'm doing it, and come up with a less convincing argument each time I try. Marrying that with the prospect of chasing friends away during the process, and losing friends for other reasons. It's a nasty week that's filled with equal parts disappointment, despair, and duty.

But hey, I've been running a lot to clear my brain out, often daily, so perhaps I have muscle damage to look forward to. Almost as if irresponsible decisions lead to consequences. Who knew, right?

Perhaps I'm just indulging in something altogether darker, an unbalanced glimpse into the mind of someone whose dark thoughts fuel little else but their cousins. I find myself more choked up than conversational if I want to talk to anyone about it, and the only persons who seem to read into are either too moody themselves to be able to help, or too busy. I certainly can't blame their schedule, but I do mourn their lack of attention. Or perhaps I'm just pushing them away hard enough so that it seems they aren't helping. If misery loves company, why do I tend to shut things away?

In any case, I can't help but regard myself as some kind of child. Staring longingly into the Dickens-esque window, seeing all sorts of warm, glowing normalcy to contrast my erratic and darkening mood and feeling like a child out in the snow. It's probably as inaccurate as it is overblown, but can I help feeling this way? It seems my subconscious isn't giving me a choice in the matter. Perhaps Oliver Twist would be a better comparison. Instead of soup, I look longingly at a warm pot of choices. "Can I have some more?"

Maybe this tired feeling of abandonment is nothing but a function of my own mind, but I can't help wondering if it could just leave me to my own damned devices and function like a normal human being? Instead, I wonder for fleeting instants what it would be like to stop worrying so much about the future, my relationships, friendships, and companions. Maybe, just maybe, find some abstract sense of closure in suddenly finding myself at a close, instead of just the issues.

It's unfair to my friends, my family, and everyone whom I know would miss me, but I can't help feeling like they wouldn't. Even so far as to say that they wouldn't care.

Such dramatic gestures do have the comforting appeal of truly learning who cares, and to what degree, but even just thinking these thoughts sickens me to my very moral core. However sickening, am I not a horrible person for even thinking them?

Be it Dickens or Twist, I just wish I didn't feel so very, very out to sea. Yet, as I sit here and look at the towers of text above and below me, I imagine all of the prospective employers and potential futures for my admittedly young life looking at me much more alike a liability than a potential hire. In even considering presenting these words, sickening as they are, could drive away my friends in flocks and droves. In so much as thinking the thoughts these represent would announce my candidacy for a textbook case of abnormal psychology of some flavor or another... Hell, perhaps some form of insanity alone for using a writing blog as a LiveJournal page.

I have to feel that I'm lambasting my future with each line of text, yet feel like it's unfair to present myself in any other way. Stephen Fry himself contends with similar notions in his recent autobiography, though he has years of experience and professionalism from which to draw, whereas all I have as a future looking more bleak by the very characters I type.

It probably says something about my character - or perhaps just my mood - in that I don't feel it's particularly important at the moment.

August Wilson once said "Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness ... Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength."

If that is the case, then why am I so very weak?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Zombie Story

"I used to think I loved money, but now I realize it's just a dependency." The pistol barked loud as the flesh parted for the flying lead. I hated the sound, too fleshy and alive to be entirely comfortable. I was never particularly squeamish, but it was disgusting none the less. Then again, the idea of a .50 caliber handgun round splitting a head was disgusting enough as is, no need to give the squick factor company. I sighed, and adjusted my light.

The woman with me flinched as the gun barked. Not ready for the sound, I guess. "Gross." She shook her head, and took a deep breath. The smell must've been terrible, but she was coming back to her senses. "Why do we do this mercenary thing again?"

I hummed, musing. "There ain't no rest for the wicked, and money don't grow on trees."

"That song wasn't any good before the outbreak. Save your backwater country music for the rest of the hicks."

I reflexively adjusted the hat on my head. Cowboy standard, and fit comfortably on my head. I liked it, even though I never big on country living. "Don't look at me, I was born further north than you."

"Must be nice. At least growing up in Texas, I learned how to shoot a gun."

The chatter was pleasant, flippant, and was my insulating bubble from the worst of the world. I was always quick to a joke, but it just got bigger and bigger as the world went further into hell. Not so much fire and brimstone. Fires had gone out long ago, and I'm not sure brimstone would smell any worse than what I smelled anyway. The streets were thick with sludge, a squeamish cocktail of blood, acidic bile, waste, rotten skin, and decomposing corpse parts. The smell of burnt hair wasn't too common, only every ten or so paces. The corpses weren't exactly distracting, I'd seen hundreds like them, as I would see hundreds more,  Zombie outbreaks suck. Especially when they get you before you get to middle age. I was looking forward to my midlife crisis. I never thought that I'd be screwed by never learning how to field-strip a gun until I was 24. Maybe I should have gone into the military or something. Instead of dwelling on all of this, I shoved my hand forward. "I don't think we were ever formally introduced. I'm Chad. And you are...?"

She looked at my hand, which I'd just realized was dripping with thick, dripping blood. "Disgusted, at the moment."

I wiped my hand off, and after a second thought, pulled a towel from my pack and scratched my hand through it. Most of the blood came off, though I'd have to douse it in alcohol before I could know for certain. Blood was nasty about never coming out of things. "Sorry about that. Chad."

"Sarah," she said, simply. Her fingers were incredibly calloused, as if they were used to holding wood and metal grips for hours at a time. I wondered how my hands felt briefly, and let go after the prerequisite hand-pumping. "Not bad with that pistol, competition shooter?"

"Not even. I was an architect back in the day, probably did the blueprint for a big outlet mall or two. I could never recognize my work, though. Too similar to every other one in this town."

She shrugged, and suddenly slammed into me. I thought about some ungracious things before landing in the sludge, groaning with both the surprise and the muck that climbed up my leg. Not to mention the concrete. Hurt like hell. Her shotgun roared, bathing the area in a flash of light, and I heard the pump eject a shell, and another roar. Something heavy and wet drenched my leg. I kicked reflexively, and sent the face of a little girl a few inches off of my thigh. Disgusting. I felt fingers grab my vest, and with their help, I pushed myself to my feet. "That was cheerful."

She pumped the shotgun, ejecting another shell. "You'll live."

"True. Likely wouldn't have otherwise."

She half-smiled, "Can I charge your for it?"

"Just a dependency." I said bitterly.

She shrugged, "Girl's gotta eat."

I resumed singing quietly, "I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed..."

She snorted. "Stop it. I hate that song."

I shook my head, and started walking back to town. 'Town' wasn't exactly the most accurate word, as I was already in a city. The power had long since failed, and water wasn't long to follow. Society crumbled quickly enough. Sewers below still flowed, sort of, but had congealed into human waste for which it wasn't intended. Lots of body parts and bloods. Town was an exterior outpost. Concrete walls and carefully guarded gates. There were always more guards on duty than entirely necessary, and it's all that kept the town from being overrun every second of every day. Folks like myself were mercenaries, who went into the city for folks to hunt for guns, ammo, food, mementos, heirlooms, or maybe to see if their cat was still alive. It started as a joke, postmen who took up the guns they've been culturally infamous for already, and to make sure letters got delivered. Five or six towns cropped up in the outskirts, and they took up passing letters between them.

I filled the other niche people needed, someone to go into the city to pick things up from the city. Sometimes I wondered if risking my life was worth the bullets or the money or whatever. One day, a little girl had managed to amass four hundred rounds in a cowboy hat, and offered me both for her teddy back. When I got back to town, careful not to give away the limp in my left leg, I saw her face light up as she hugged her teddy. It was a bit of a mess, but clearly the teddy it had meant to be. I still wore the hat, mostly to remind myself that I don't love the money as much as I love the work. Money's just the thing that keeps me alive to keep doing it.

The city was dark at night, and was no stranger to fog around this time of year. The air was humid enough to feel livable, but not really as thick as I was used to. It still felt chilling in the fog and calm breeze. I reached for my belt, and tapped each of the magazines on my belt. I counted all fifteen, for a total of 120 rounds, plus six still in the gun. The GI Model 2 was fitted for .50 caliber rounds, and fitted loosely with a flashlight. Between my gun-light, and the one on my hat and shirt, I had roughly five hours of continuous light. Useful when trawling warehouses and homes for earrings, rings, and dusty account ledgers or lock-boxes. Worse still if I had to find keys for lock-boxes first.

Most recently, I was hired to find a widow's wedding anniversary ring. When they got married, he was apparently poor. A day before the outbreak, he'd managed to buy her a dream ring, which she fawned over. They left it in a jewelry box and left for Disneyland. They made it twenty miles out of town before they ran into the traffic jam. She managed to get the car back to town, barely, and lost her husband in the process. Nasty business, but she was as safe as she could be in the new town. She had even set up well. I was glad to get her ring, but it had been a while since I had eaten. She offered enough money for ten or so quick meals, and even offered to share dinner if I got back in time. My stomach rumbled quietly, and I wondered what Sarah was out here for. "Hey Sarah."


"What'cha out here for?"

"Job. Coin collector's favorite coins."

"Any of 'em valuable?"

"Most are solid silver. He let me keep everything I could carry except the one he wanted."

"Must be nice. You buying drinks?"

"No. It's hard enough to move the silver. I'll probably fashion them to some other use, it's hard to sell precious metals in the zombie apocalypse."

When we got back to the gate, I stopped walking. The gates were closed, which wasn't too unusual for pre-dawn. What surprised me was the sheer mass of zombies pressed against the gate. A pile of corpses was growing at the base of the gate, and they didn't seem to stop. They were surging into the gates, threatening to break the hinges inward. I had never seen so many in one place before, much less all of them working toward the same task. The concrete walls would be safe, but the gate would crumble eventually. My home was there, I'd rather not lose it to a bunch of the shambling dead.

The guards were on the wall, clearly struggling against all of the zombies at the gates. They kept shooting all day long, but the numbers never seemed to dwindle. The echoing crack of gunfire was practically mute compared to the endless number of moans I heard from the mass of the walking dead. "Crap." I said honestly.

"Y'know," Sarah said into the stunned silence. "I think I need a drink."

"Last call," I said, checking to make sure I did indeed have six rounds left in the gun. Five in the magazine, one in the chamber. Yep. "You ready?"

"What? You want to punch through that?"

"It's either that or they get overrun."

"And I only have a shotgun. Unless you want to use that cute little Beretta to take out that huge swarm, then we're pretty much out of luck."

"GI, actually. An American company." I shook my head, "The guards are clearly lower on ammo than we are. If you want the outpost to fall, feel free to walk away. Not me, I have a client I need to see."

"Do you really love money that much?"

"Nope," I said, lining up my little handgun with the closest zombie's head. "It's just a dependency." The gun barked in my hand, and the head exploded into little bits of gore. I continued hissing a small exhale, firing five more shots in the space of a breath. After the first shot, I didn't bother with headshots, took too much time to line up. I took a step back as they turned to the source of the noise, and fired my last round.

Three of them had fallen, and I ejected the magazine into my waiting hand. I slammed it into a pouch on my belt, grabbed a fresh magazine from the clips on my opposite right side, and continued firing. The zombies started surging toward me, drawn more to the handgun's barks than our chatter. They didn't seem to feel pain, but they always grew more aggressive around noise. They didn't really walk fast, or even seem all that threatening, but there were just so many of them it was hard not to get overrun. Kinda like going to Wal-Mart on Black Friday, before the outbreak.

Sarah yelled obscenities about my mother, and the shotgun in her hands roared in timed bursts. Entire halves of zombies exploded in blood and gore, metal rasped across metal, and the gun roared again. I tried to block all of this out, most of the noise dulled by the ear plugs in my earlobes. I kept shooting, counting eight rounds before dropping my magazine into the pouch, and reloading a fresh one. I was keeping count in my head. Four magazines used, thirteen left, the gun barked in my hand twice, and six rounds in the gun. They were already gaining on us, and Sarah was already retreating carefully. Her feet stayed low and purposeful, more shuffling than stepping. It steadied her aim and prevented her from tripping over something easily.

I kept shooting, focusing my fire on the closest zombie. The guards hailed us, but over the sheer volume of gunshots, I couldn't hear him. I was having trouble even seeing over my muzzle flashes, so hand signals would be worthless. I dropped another magazine, slammed another one home, and kept firing. Their sunken eyes still bothered me, glassy and devoid of everything eyes should contain. Focus, cognition, and life. I panicked a little, and twitched on the trigger one too many times. The zombie was less than two arm lengths away from me, and the shots took it on the neck and head. The neck would've killed it by itself, spilling parts of the carotid artery onto the zombie behind him, but the second shot to the head splattered blood and bone fragments all over me. Some flecked over my cheek, and I snarled.

I took a deep breath, shuffling backward. Sarah was still firing, and I wondered how many rounds her shotgun held before she'd have to reload. Breach loaders weren't exactly the fastest weapon for on-the-fly reloading, but I suspected she had a lot of practice speed reloading it, even on the run. I kept my count going in the head, and lanced out with my foot. The zombie couldn't have been taller than 5' 4", was female once upon a time, and couldn't have weighed more than 115 soaking wet. She stumbled back, and I used the distraction to fire the last three shots in my magazine. The fallen zombies were easy targets, and two of the shots hit their marks. The third would've intercepted a fallen zombie in the head or throat, but it caught the arm of a passing zombie instead. "Crap!" I hazarded, jumping backward. I hadn't see the zombie whose arm I shot, and he was practically on top of me by the time I'd reacted.

I slammed into the side of his head with my gun, winced as I slammed into hard temple with my thumb around the grip, but managed to skip back out of reach. One zombie hit didn't hurt all of that much, but it usually slows you down enough to start a big party. Those never ended well. The hop showed me I had only gotten six or seven zombies' attention, and I counted my blessings. Blood blurred sideways as the zombie that would have eaten me exploded. Sarah stood next to me, shotgun to her shoulder. "Marry me," I said hastily, locking another magazine into place and working the slide on my gun.

"You couldn't afford me," she said, and blew another hole into the mess of zombies in front of me. I counted a half second's pause for the timing, and fired four quick shots in rapid succession. Two zombies left, double-tap each, and breathed a sigh of relief. Four bullets in gun, eleven magazines used, six remaining.

"I'm sure I could."

"You have a condo in Hawaii?"

I examined my thumb, trying not to worry too much about the redness and, even so soon, slight swelling. "Nope."

She sniffed, haughty. "Couldn't afford me."

I spared enough focus for a chuckle, but sobered as I looked at the gate. The zombies had thinned from our bullet party, but there were still way too many of 'em there. I was running out of bullets, and willing to bet Sarah wasn't doing well either. I asked her. "How're you doing, Sarah?"

She grunted.

"I mean on ammo."

"Maybe ten shots. I'm not really counting."

 "Not enough to do that again, I guess."

"Good thinking, Sherlock." She sounded tired, and looked longingly at the twenty foot concrete wall stretching alongside us. "Any chance we can get in another way?"

"If we could, it would have gotten overrun. The whole point of this town is to be a safe haven."

"Go over, y'think?"

"One of us, maybe. I'm not tall enough to clear that unless someone's hoisting me."

She frowned, and turned back to the zombies. "What do you think they should play at my funeral?"

"Ain't No Rest for the Wicked, of course."

She barked out a phantom of a laugh, too dry of the emotion behind laughter to really count, and raised the stock to her shoulder. "Are you always such a wiseass?"

"No, sometimes I'm asleep."

She lost her game face for a minute, and gave in to a brief laugh. No more than a chuckle really, and looked at the last group. "Think we can take 'em?"

"Hell," I said, turning my gaze to the top of the wall. "I could do it by myself. Think you could survive a twenty foot fall?"

She paused, and turned to face me. "Uh... Why?"

I pointed to the wall, and made a foot-brace with my interlocked fingers. "If you jump, you can probably scramble over."

"Not with this pack, I can't."

"Throw it over first."

She looked at it. "It has all my stuff in it. I don't trust people not to loot it."

"They can loot it on your corpse afterward, if you want to stay out here. I'd trust them for the five-odd seconds it takes to throw you over the wall."

She hesitated, then shoved the shotgun in my arms. She smiled, "Two shots in the chamber. You probably couldn't handle reloading this thing anyway, so it's all you get." She heaved, throwing her pack up the wall. It tapped the lip, and fell back down with a loud thump. The zombies at the gate turned at the noise, and shambled over to investigate. She looked at them, then back at me, then back to her pack. "Fuck!"

I smiled. "Well said."

She threw the pack again, this time getting it over the wall, and turned to me in panic. I set the shotgun down, and braced my hands. She put a muddy, bloody, entirely gross shoe in my hands. I groaned with effort, and threw her up the wall. She gripped the lip, flailed her legs, and threw herself over the top. I turned, found an entirely huge zombie right in front of me, and threw myself to the floor. He seemed to have all the intelligence of a wind-up toy, and tripped over me. I grabbed my pistol, and put four rounds into him. Magazine empty. I got up, slammed my boot into his head, and jerked my ankle in pure vindiction. Bastard. From over the wall, "Thanks, I guess. I want my gun back, though."

So much for gratitude. Women.

I picked up the shotgun, where I'd dropped it earlier, and turned back to the gate. The gunshots had alerted the remaining fifteen zombies, and they started shambling toward me. The first two were big ones, a man and a woman in their thirties or forties, and comically fat. They practically oozed grease. "I knew McDonald's was poison, but seriously? Fast food zombies. That's just wrong."

Sarah hailed me from on top of the wall. I had forgotten there were walkways up there. At least I knew she hadn't fallen to her death. "I dunno," she said, "I had always thought that couples who eat together were cute."

"I'm the smartass here, stop stealing my thunder." I pointed the shotgun at them, and it exploded into bullets. The man of the couple detonated into gore, and the woman lost one of her arms. I slammed the butt of the shotgun into her temple, and earned a shock that rang up my arm for the effort. Between the arm and the concussive hit, she was probably down for the count. I jogged as best I could with my pack, trying to plow into the most remote corner of the mass. The little zombies barely weighed more than children, and I could practically wade through them on a bad day. Today, I had enough weight in my pack to be a bulldozer. I turned to the mass, and triggered the shotgun. It roared heartily, throwing five or six zombies to the ground, their legs turned to pulp beneath them.

I dropped my pistol's empty magazine into the pouch, and chambered another one. The shotgun was empty, so I shoved it's sling over my shoulder. Reloaded with my sidearm, I took to taking heads off of the zombies. It was the safest way to handle the problem of reanimation, so I rarely failed to do so.

There weren't too many left, but it only took one to kill me. I emptied this magazine and another one sweeping them up, and reached for the last one on my belt. "Son of a bitch," I told the last zombie in front of me. "I miscounted." There were no more magazine on my belt. I was out. "I'm dry," I shouted, mostly for no one's benefit, and dropped my G1 into the pouch. The last zombie turned toward me, glassy eyes interested in the fact that my mouth made noises. It looked vaguely like it wanted to kiss me, focused on the noises my mouth was making.

I retched, and the noise drew more curious stares. Gross. I punched the zombie in the nose, hard. It was risky as hell, considering their teeth were right next to their noses, and earned a notch on my fingers for the trouble. Good thing I had gloves on, otherwise it would have broken skin. I indulged in a bit of childishness. "This used to be a nice neighborhood!" I punched him again for good measure. Then a few more times.

What? I'm not petty.

I screamed, in a completely manly and dignified way, as I felt claws sink into my leg. McDonald's woman had gotten a grip on my pants, and tried to tug me down. I freaked out, automatically grabbing the shotgun and pulling the trigger. I had already fired off my two shots, so I'd just be dry firing, and it didn't make a difference considering I was doo-

The gun roared, and the zombie's head exploded into a huge blood splatter all over my face. Adrenaline was still surging in my body, and I felt blood dripping off of my eyelashes. Disgusting. I was probably covered in it, even in my hair and on my face. I turned to Sarah, "Two shots? Two? You damned liar."

"Don't look at me," she said, "I had told you I lost count."

"Open the damned gate," I said, slamming fist on the metal. "You owe me a god damned drink."

"Is that's really what's important?"

"No," I said honestly, and looked longingly at the bar. They let me in the city, and I toweled my face off. She was going to buy me my drink, and the widow was going to get her ring. All in all, not a bad day.

And hey, beer. "Although I admit dependency."

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Eh, it happens."

Sometimes I get this idea that I'm "better" than things. I never use my Twitter because I'd just end up filling it with mundane thoughts, and I'm "better than that." The same could be said for my facebook account, posting on the Escapist Magazine forums, starting on a piece of nonsense fiction, or anything. Regardless of what I could be doing, I instead favor doing nothing. Why, though, because I'm "better than" progress. I do nothing because I'm better than you active types.

That sounds pretentious, even to me. Isn't that sad?

However, looking at the endlessly excellent Hyperbole and a Half and recently discovering something called Tales of Mere Existence have reminded me again that it's not hard to have interesting things to say, so long as you say things as if they were interesting. Even a simple interaction such as a day in class or a short ride on the bus could be interesting given the right company, context, or even philosophical convention. Here I was, better than keeping up this blog, when I had billions of snippets of daily life I could be thinking about. Or, better still, writing about.

I had written this down once for NaNoWriMo,

Mathematically speaking, in order to write fifty thousand words in twenty days, it means writing two-thousand five hundred words in a single day. Movies and television are shot in twenty-four to thirty frames per second. This is because that's what theorists have speculated is “most similar” to the way human eyes perceive movement and action. In order to make this simple, that means that humans capture roughly thirty still images in any given second.

Popular theory suggests that a single picture has the worth of a thousand words. This means that at any given second, the perceived images can amount to three thousand words, meaning that any given minute will produce one million, eight hundred words worth of still images. Any hour produces one hundred and eight million. A day will produce two billion, five hundred and ninety two million. So in a month's time, the number of images processed by the constantly-awake human mind is an astounding seventy-seven trillion, seven hundred and sixty billion words worth of imagery.
 So, aside from thinking I'm "better than" roughly seventy-seven trillion plus possible words, I should remember that I'm as human as the next guy, and not hold so much against myself for making mistakes. And also realize that it's as much as mistake to not do anything as it is to do something stupid. Advice like "It's better for some to think you a fool than open your mouth and prove them right" is sage enough for some situations, but terribly crippling others.

So, forget the failures of the past, at least in part. I made mistakes, but... Eh, it happens. Instead, let's focus on the future. Below will be a usual post if I don't have something deep or super thought-provoking about which to speak. Maybe just something from my day, or an inane thought given a few hundred words to wobble about.

Something I constantly learn about higher education is how much more intelligent I would feel if I didn't seek so much time into trying to elevate my education. Granted, it's not a perfect system, as too much or little of anything is as harmful as anything else, but I find that the longer I tool myself into a school-attending machine, the less I'm actually learning and the more I'm actually gaining the system. I have to wonder how much of my last ten or so classes were spent learning, and how much of them were more focused on GPAs and less on the actual material itself. Hell, half of my English class was more concerned over the due date of the essays due than the content of the essays themselves.

Which is unnerving in its own way. Side-saddle with so much responsibility of learning and gaining and coming to terms with more, less, this, that, the other. We're expected to do all of our maturing, learning, and growing in the four short years of college, and we're expected to come out of the system to join the adult system. It's as much disheartening as it is unnerving.

As I sit here writing this, I wonder if I'm doing enough to help fix the system. Probably not, just another one of the "useless" college generation doing more to complain about problems with seeing the need to fix them. However, given my lack of age, maturity, and room for growth, I wonder how much I'll be heard before I finish college. And if I'm so mature after it's over, will I still have the vested concern to fix it? If I even have time to do so between trying to learn?

But, most importantly, will writing my congressman get me bonus points?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Meter Shtick - The Art of Structure and Meter

Normally, I'm pretty free form with my writing. Almost all of my structure is uniquely specific to whichever sentence or paragraph I happen to be writing. However, lately, I've been stuck in a personal argument as to whether or not works have better features when structure driven, like Shakespeare's infamous iambic pentameter, or the heroics' dactylic hexameter. Given that the heroics were better suited for Hebrew and Greek, I doubt that's a meter I'll take to immediately, but the concept of meter hasn't been eluding my thought of late.

The draw behind meter makes it easier to which it can be related, as well as more memorable. However, I find that trying to write to a specific meter will often injure the language as much as it would improve it for rhetorical or nmemonic devices. That certainly does speak to a lack of particular quality of my writing, but doesn't necessarily speak to the pure benefit of meter.

It's really hard to validate with myself whether or not my mode of thinking is better, or better left behind in favor of improvement. Then again, given that Shakespeare himself is considered not only The Bard in terms of general talent, but also a nigh-perfect example of English poetry and playwriting, one may think it has some merit. Perhaps I know a hawk from a handsaw! Alas, poor talent, I knew it well...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Writing: Details, Characterization, and Word Counts

The trickiest part of writing, for me, is figuring out exactly how much is too much. Stories are often made or broken in the details, and the details also command how the reader reads the piece, how the piece translates in terms of atmosphere, and also commands the pace at which the reader can go. Higher word counts affect the pacing and structure of syntax depending on the density of words to paragraphs, and also factor into how penetrable the prose is to varying reading skill levels. Word choice and placement also factor into how pressing the prose becomes, by modifying how the reader is meant to read each sentence, and how those sentences interact within the paragraph. Connotation states not only how the character is feeling, but also what sorts of sights a character or atmosphere will transmit, and that affects the feeling of the reader.

In short, it's a terribly complicated and overly complex series of variables that will on a very small level effect how a piece is taken at any given step. Granted, this is taking word theory to an entirely too precise level to even be manageable, but it doesn't hurt to have a relative idea of this in mind when approaching how a part of a story is going to be laid out. The end result becomes its own monster, once the very finite processes are to be addressed individually.

Although, a point of some debate I often have with other writers, and avid readers, is in the details. Specifically, how much is too much? Seeing as detail density has a subtle effect on the pace and atmosphere, but it also has a direct control on how much the reader can see and interact with.

In my experience, details exist either as a form of setting formation, or as a form of characterization. My experience stems almost exclusively from the first person, so it tends to favor the detail level of the character in question. A narrator like Psych's Shawn Spencer will often key into as many details as possible, covering both a wide range of rough items while being very specific about certain key details. The opposite would be a narrator like The Doctor, from Doctor Who, who would likely key into the most pointless items in the room, and find a use for them in the most haphazard and unlikely way possible. This serves not only for scene setting, but also a very finite point of characterization.

Though that's only a small part of how narration and detail play a role within prose. Another outlook is on adjective and adverbs - descriptor words. These could season a single word or pepper an entire sentence, each piece having both specific and broad changes throughout the narrative, on individual and universal levels.

Although the question still remains. Over-detail a piece, and it could cause a number of problems. Purple prose is always a likely outcome, either reaching professional infamy or simply an interesting concept selling poorly due to format. For example, Eragon for the former, and Dune for the latter. Under-detail a piece, and it will often become either an airplane book, or too unfulfilling for the reader. Although acceptable levels will vary drastically from reader to reader.

In my opinion, the level of detail should be unique to the narrator, and beyond that, establish as loose a setting as possible. Any particular time a setting is filled in too heavily, it will often domineer the bulk of the text, commanding more attention than necessary, and leaving a relative short list for the actual goings-on, which is usually what I find preferable to read. That means establishing a scene through atmospheric particulars (colors, lighting, sounds, nearby moods), and rough overviews (diner, public park, cafe), and leaving the rest to the reader's imagination. Any more I find begins to become a little smothering, and any less is only used whenever the tone is intentionally left ambiguous and unstated.

The more detailed scenes are specifically designed to provide key details for future reference and later plot points. This could include a character noticing a heavy object is missing from a haunted house, which will later be dropped on/around said character, or simply taking notice that there is a flashlight in the cabinet for when the power goes out later. It shows forethought on the part of the character, and reduces the feeling of deus ex machina when the item comes into play later.

Just a some food for thought.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Persistent World - A Question of a Universe without a Protagonist

Part of my problem with BioShock is that the world seems so haphazardly placed. It's a beautiful, well designed stage through which we see the events of BioShock unfold in beautiful form. The problem within this enclosed bubble of Rapture is that nothing ever happens. The game's events are so specifically tied to the player's actions that the world doesn't breathe, turn, or exist were it not for the player's hand. Which is odd, given that the player's actions cannot in any way affect the outcome of the story.

The problem is the world seems to have no soul outside of the specific events in the game. Little Sisters arbitrarily patrol to steal ADAM, as do Big Daddies, and Splicers are always out looking for... non-splicers to kill for... uh... ADAM? I guess? Blood lust? It's that everyone is in such endless want for this narcotic that they serve no other functions for themselves. One splicer is up-turning an office, two splicers are dancing, one or two may hack a sentry or too, but never are they feeding themselves, going to the john, or anything. Their world, in its entirety, is waiting to ambush the player for access to some lovely, lovely ADAM. They serve no other purpose, have no other point, and outside of that, have absolutely no life. They serve only as Elite Mooks, to serve as serviceable but weak antagonists to the protagonist. After they're killed, there's no harm because they had no lives, and the protagonist moves on with his day. What's worse is that the bosses also fall into this trope, being palette-swaps of regular enemies, and to the Research Camera, appearing as regular Splicers themselves.

Granted, the Little Sisters seem to have some kind of soul. They scream in fear, recoil in horror, and hide behind their Big Daddy overlords. The problem is given the recycled animations and mirror perfect recreations of actions every time one is harvested/saved/separated, the life is swiftly lost to the feeling that it's all been done before, and will be done again. The entire feeling is lost, and pre-scripted events are the only thing they have to look forward to.
However, BioShock is just a recent example to the problem I'm trying to address, which is a world that doesn't even feel real external to the events of a game. This was my driving point in a different piece I did, but the point still stands. Although not from an NPC point of view, but also from a universal level. Why don't games have a persistent world that feels persistent when playing.

Buildings don't seem to serve a function except to the protagonist. Granted, this shouldn't be a surprise, as their creation was unique to the circumstances they were created for. The problem is that it ends up feeling like a set. The life ends up being bled out of the framework, and can at times leave the player feeling like it's all just a little too convenient.
However, unlike the daily lives of the game's AI, this can be rectified with good stage design, art direction, and overall setting design and atmosphere. Games like BioShock are bad examples of design, handling the in-game setting to be brilliant set pieces, but terrible worlds. To contrast, have a look at Bioware's Mass Effect series, or Dragon Age. The towns and settings in this game feel like the world breathes, are persistent. This can be in the small details of the townspeople, or even the town layout managing to convince the player that they're unimportant to the grand scheme because the game can go without them. It's details like these that really set the world apart from the player, without excluding the player entirely.

Granted, this isn't the only mark of a good game. Fallout 2, a wonderful game by many accounts, really hinges all of its narratives on the workings of the Chosen One, and manages to be enjoyable despite that. However, when it's used to good effect, the results can be just as good, if not better.

Games need to have a little more ambition with their settings. Though not the only feature necessary in a game, its often in the details where the big picture comes to fruition.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

BioShock (PC) Review

(Original post found and formatted for the Escapist Magazine forums. Found here.)

Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet is one of the more interesting ways to start a piece in that there is no drawn out exposition, spoken narration, or any scenery description. It starts out with a fight. Two men less than two sentences from animalistic violence, and visceral combat. After the fists have flown and a man murdered is the audience let in on the context of the brawl. It's a powerful way to start a piece, letting the emotions serve as the introduction, leaving details to experience rather than narration.

BioShock has a similar plan, starting with a plane crash. Oil-slick waters hissing with flame, and a lighthouse entrance advertising relative safety from the burning waters around. From there, the protagonist, whose eyes the player inhabit, goes on an emotional rollercoaster through the artistic wonder that is Rapture. Every inch of society dripping with the expense and extravagance of excellence, a better society nestled among the octopuses' gardens, in a towering city hundreds of leagues under the sea, and coming apart at the seams. The artistry, architecture, and cityscapes are beautifully rendered and catastrophically destroyed. It's a bit like looking at the modern Colosseum, a testament to the beauty of man and the harshness of nature.

Every experience in Rapture has no context other than what the player brings to it. There's just a voice in the radio, a utopia turned insane, and an endless population of insanity dragging its claws into the player's heels. In that way, it's similar to Portal, a narrative so cleverly understated that the story capitalized on the details, and gave the player nothing else. In terms of using minimalism to convey a narrative, BioShock meets its mark, and manages to tell the tale of Rapture without speaking a word of it, and letting its inhabitants provide context to broken and lost city.

The problem with that is that there needs to be a certain amount of empathy for the scenario, or the atmosphere, to have life. BioShock has next to none. The splicers, some of whom had voices in various in-game audio diaries, their personalities and voices providing the player with a lens through which Rapture is made into the city it is, and was. However, for every splicer who has a voice, a brain, a soul, any amount of humanity, it is lost before the end of their stay in the player's perception. Every single splicer that once had a voice devolves into a traditional, standard enemy. It's nigh-impossible to empathize with a thug who does little more than run, swing, and shoot. However, it forced the player to understand through the narration of the major parts of the city, then devolves them rapidly into mindless enemies. The whole build-up seems wasted when it coalesces one of many cold, lifeless gunfights.

Worse still, there are a very limited number of character models in game. In fact, only two of the characters don't have their models reused. The worst part still is that the final boss of the game, the main antagonist, isn't one of them. It just feels lazy.

There are only two major characters in the whole game the player should have the smallest amount of care for, and the game forcibly removes one of them. Within the roughly 15-hour narrative, the player has so little to hold onto that going from goal to goal loses its luster. Like the city itself, the game just can't keep the player drawn in. Everything ceases to have the adrenaline-fueled drive, and instead felt like a cog in the machine. Perhaps it was in favor of the overall narrative, but that doesn't protect the game from its medium. As a game, BioShock drops the ball in a big way in terms of giving the player an actual playing experience.

Something that the actual gameplay doesn't help enforce. The gunplay and powers feel run of the mill. If anything, they keep the same life of their spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2. A game whose release was a nearly unforgivable eight years prior. Considering how little the system seems to have changed, it almost feels rushed. In comparison to how much time and effort seemed to ooze from the walls in the environment, writing, and voice-work. To feature gunplay and powers that allude to a time long since passed that it feels far too thrown together to even be worth the cost of entry, in compared to actually going back and playing System Shock 2. There are even some old-feeling FPSRPG conventions that seem to take away from the overall effect. The increased defense and life of late-game enemies isn't offset by late-game powers and upgrades. It ends up making the beginning feel a touch too easy, and the end a leap and bound too hard. It ends up making the cogs poke out of the sides of the machine, further hurting the play experience.

The only point of empathy and interest the experience maintains throughout is the Little Sisters, little girls whose fate is entirely on the player's choosing. These young girls seem so inhuman and unnatural at the worst of times. However they may appear at first, they become very, very human when separated from their protectors. It becomes very disquieting to see them alone, without anyone to protect them, in a world surrounded with psychos and sociopaths.

However, the game drops the ball in turning them very quickly into a mechanic. The first and second little sister to appear on her own own is a lost and frightened little girl. It's easy to care for her as an individual, but that quickly loses its touch by the fifth, and is completely gone by the tenth. By then, the girls are simply a growth mechanic. Fight a Big Daddy, harvest or save a little girl, and get benefits. The death of Big Daddies hit the Little Sisters in a very big way, but to the player, it's a goal. There's no mourning the loss of life, or the lifelong companion dead. Just a goal.

It's hard not to look at the stellar atmosphere in BioShock and not expect greater things from the rest of the game. However, the game simply does not deliver. Instead, we get a great idea and a beautiful setting that would be better left to novelization or cinematography. It's quite possible that BioShock, as a movie, could've been the next Citizen Kane in terms of commentary on the human condition. However, as a game, BioShock consistently fails to deliver. That's only made worse when games like Portal to the same type of story that much better, andFallout 3 do the game elements more justice. However, the absolute worst part of what BioShock is what it could have been.

Bottom Line: BioShock feels like the game System Shock 2 tried to be, but came out eight years too late, and didn't innovate enough to pull its weight. Neither a good nor bad game, but terrible compared to what it should have been.