Friday, April 30, 2010

Red Hero: Chapter 4

Here's chapter four of my continuing online Sci Fi story. This will be the fourth and final character perspective I rotate through in the story (4 characters total). If you're just catching up, please checkout the first three chapters: Red Hero (1), White Queen (2), and Blue Legion (3). Thanks for you continued comments and emails!

Green Jihad

Luna (Terra’s Moon), Inner Solar System

Holy Sept: The Antioch Shrine
Security Clearance: Cleric Levels 4 and up required
Hour: Just after Midday Prayers
Date: 443 Year of Kovar (three weeks after the fall of Mars)

Terra rises over the horizon, shedding her teal-blue light across the powdery moonscape. Large and nearly full in the black sky, you can just make out some of your home world’s characteristic features. Her hot warm seas, her cobalt oceans tinge with green shades of the continents and massive algae flows. A silver gleam emanates from the modern metropolises of Antarctica at the southernmost pole. Malachite clouds of hydrocarbons swirl about the equatorial regions, faint emerald lights on the edge of the planet’s night side give glimmerings of the vast underwater habitations running all the way from Bangkok to New Cairo. Old, ancient cities domed over during the rising floodwaters of the Great Upheaval, over four hundred years ago. Back in the time of the Prophet Kovar.

Green. Life. Terra teams with it. Even from the distance of Luna the home world pulsates like a verdant gem in the empty void. Settlements containing Terra’s over 18 billion souls sparkle like diamond crust across the Grand Chasm of Eurasia and the small inland sea of North America. No bare plains like Mars. No orbital platforms like Venus to block the view. No frosty icecaps along its spherical crest. Terra hangs ripe as an apple in the nocturnal lunar sky.

You pause, still facing Terra on your prayer mat after noontime prayers. Sitting cross-legged you remove a data pad from your satchel and scroll through it with an index finger. Your doodled notes fill beneath your fingertips.

Mercury. Reich controlled space, probable location of Venusian Fleet shipyards.

Venus. Reich home world. Extensive orbital stations, both civilian and military.

Terra. Home. High population density, all followers of the teachings of the Prophet Kovar. Contains many archaic ruins on several continents.

Luna. Terra’s Moon. “Dark Side” houses Al-Khazar training camps. Contains most prominent holy septs and centers of governance for the followers of Kovar.

Mars. Occupied and divided by Terran and Venusian zones. Largely populated with Reds. Breathable atmosphere, but dangerously thin in the upper altitudes.

Asteroid Belt. Largely uninhabited. Some military and mining outposts.

Jovian and Saturn Systems. Information insufficient. Reds, possibly Whites, on Jovian and Saturn moons. Blues and Greens harvest elements here, but do not settle. Uranus and Neptune frontiers rarely visited if even populated at all.

A shade falls across your pad. You look up into the bearded face of a holy cleric, his ivy-hued robes loose and comfortable, his sash studded with five stars. A cleric of the fifth order. He beckons you to rise. Beside the large windows of the Antioch Shrine you look once more out at the glowing Terra hovering above Luna’s grey craters. Rolling up your prayer mat you follow the cleric, your own sackcloth robes tight and formal round your lean frame, a series of four stars along your belted sash.

Walking through the striped Byzantine archways that mark the tiled interiors of the west wing of the complex you listen to your own soft footfalls trailing behind the audible clacking of your elder guide. Through another set of windows you glimpse the spiked minarets of other, smaller holy septs scattered across the lunar surface. The windows of each sept always face Terra. You’d often dreamt of coming to Antioch, the shrine where the council of the seventh order, the most supreme class of clerics prayed, and debated the fates of the 18 billion Terrans living on the home world below. Since first becoming a holy cleric at twenty it has taken you almost another twenty years of steadfastness and service to the teachings of Kovar to ascend to the rank of four stars, the minimum any member of the clergy must attain even to be invited into the holy of holies, the great Shrine of Antioch. Surely there are older, more historical septs back on Terra, but none as rich and blessed as Antioch.

Stepping through the next series of bending corridors behind your elderly guide you spy intricate mosaics portraying glittering scenes of the Book of Kovar with pyrite, brazen, rosy, and jadeite tiles painstakingly erected to perfection generations ago. Deeper within the sept you pass through timber gates made of real wood. Probably erected from the fabled rainforests of Terra’s past. The golden walls now give way to intricate calligraphy, topaz swirls and embellished scripts stating the holy words from scriptures throughout the Book of Kovar. From the corners of your eyes you seek out some of your own personally most inspiring verses, including passages from chapters 4, 13, and 17. Some of the very words that first convinced you that those voices in your head were the Word of the one true God and his prophet Kovar. Words that called you to the ministry in the first place.

Those voices seem tranquil and quiet today amongst the chanting monks. Their voices uplifting, their faces hidden behind paper thin screens backlit by candlelight. A feeling akin to electric energy raises the hairs along the nape of your neck. Your rub the dark wisps of your own thin beard with familiar anticipation. This is just as you had hoped it would be.

Your guide opens a final chamber door, its greenish-bronze hinges squeak from age. He silently beckons you to enter, remaining outside on the threshold himself. The oaken door closes behind you.

Brother Saleem speaks very highly of you.

You humbly nod. The Caliph has his palms folded behind his back, facing away from you. Half a dozen starlets flash from his saffron and jade gown, a curved dagger on his belt. Did you bring them with you? he asks.

Reply in the affirmative. He nods his head, the room draped in shadows. A sliver of silver light penetrates the darkened room, its high ceilings barely visible.

You have done great works he continues. Missions both on-world and off, personally baptizing your first converts before you got your second star. Impressive. And Thessalonica, that was you?

You nod again.

I understand you once enlisted in the squadrons of the Divine Wind when the war started. Risky thing to volunteer to fly two tons of explosives in a Kamikaze Pod. Only the most righteous of our holy warriors volunteer to sacrifice themselves in destruction and flame against the foes of Kovar, thus being assured a place in Eternal Paradise.

God called me to it. The Almighty and Kovar called me to it you add.

The Caliph turns round now, directly eyeing you with his impenetrable stare.

The Brothers tell me you hear voices sometimes, that you have since a teenager.

It has led to my calling, Caliph.

So it has he replies matter-of-factly. Tell me, how did you survive? Divine Wind pilots aren’t supposed to return once they have flown into battle.

It was the will of Kovar, Caliph you reply respectfully. My craft did not detonate. Enemy flak guns disabled my thrusters. I drifted into space with no propulsion.

But you did not give up?

The Almighty put a Red boarding vessel in my way.

Probably trying to take prisoners and acquire your unused explosives, the Caliph surmised.

But the voices in my mind cautioned me, calmed me, and then instructed me you finish.

Brother Saleem reports to me that you boarded with only your ceremonial dagger and a broken vent pipe from your damaged craft. You slew all 7 assailants aboard, most hand-to-hand. You then donned a pressure suit, loaded your pod’s explosive payload onto the infidels’ craft and ignited them with a charge from the vessel’s batteries. And yet still you survived.

I was picked up, unconscious in my suit, by a passing transport of our own people you explain. They found the bodies and wreckage still floating around me. Kovar’s will.

The Caliph looks at you a moment longer, studying you with his grey irises.

Show me. Show them to me now.

You extend your arms, two pulse pistols emerging from beneath your dark sleeves. Their extremely long black barrels glow slightly amber-green in your hands. Fully charged. The Caliph walks round you, inspecting your stance. He lifts the rear flap of your coat, finding a pair of elongated blades crossed behind your belt.

Skilled with the gun and the knife. Have you completed training? he inquires.

My gunjudo was taut to me by the Al-Khazars themselves you promptly reply. The most holy of all mujahedeen that serve the Council of High Clerics against the infidels of Kovar. In the Jihad against the Martian Reds I was assigned…special targets during the war.

Yes, I heard you are an inventive, energetic man. The Al-Khazars actually cheered you at Thessalonica the Caliph adds. Our shock troops aren’t easily impressed.

I eliminated an operative, a Red sniper who had been haunting the battlefield for weeks, slaying our men in cowardly ways you relay. I lay among the fallen for days, pretending to be a dead mujahedeen until the sharpshooter crept my way. I finished him with a knife.

Your record does you justice. Brother Saleem then found you. Assigned you political targets, military commanders, a few union organizers, and even one brothel heiress the Caliph continues thumbing through a scroll report in hand.

Yes, she was an abhorrence to the way of Kovar you icily recall.

Many of these were difficult targets, people well protected, hard to get to the Caliph notes. You would have been tortured had you been captured. Were you not afraid?

It is not my business when or where my Terran body shall perish you reply. That is the will of Kovar.

Indeed, the Caliph begins. I have a special task for you, one that comes directly from the seven star council, though you will not be meeting with any of them today.

Only five star clerics and above are allowed to directly meet the council, you know this and expect no less.

But, I can guarantee that if you fulfill this mission to the upmost success and Kovar has not yet shed your mortal coil, you will undoubtedly gain your fifth star.

Pleasing the council and the one true God shall be my goal.

The Caliph nods himself this time, slowly approaching until he stands a hair’s breath away from you.

Well put, now let us begin. Have you ever heard of a maelstrom?

This will take all of your skills the first voice within your mind whispers.

Even the most masterful of gunjudo martial artists might fail at a task like this the second voice ebbs. There are fearless Al-Khazars that would tremble at such an assignment the second voice adds.

Then we will not fail the first voice replies smoothly.

No, you say aloud, walking along the quiet corridors of the Antioch promenade.

But the fatwa has been issued you think to yourself. A holy decree from the high council, their commands trickling down to you as though directly from a conduit from the Creator himself.

And you must carry it out, the second voice haunts. You and you alone.

I am the righteous, the hammer of God, you whisper to yourself over and over again, a mantra you repeat with the fervor of your evening vespers.

He is strong this one you must kill, cunning with the guile of the Evil One the second voice coos.

He is an infidel, besmirching the face of Kovar himself. I will find him.

And you will end him the first voice reenters, confidence in its finality.

The second voice remains silent now. You relax, your mind crystallizing into a vision of clarity. You will go to the outer reaches of the solar system, further than you have even journeyed before. Armed only with two pistols, two daggers, and an unmarked flier you would hunt down the man named in the fatwa. The council’s will, Kovar’s will, will strike fear into the hearts of the enemy when you destroy this man. No one is beyond His reach.

You read the electric scroll one last time.

WARNING: Message will permanently erase in a few minutes.

Operative Report to the Seven Star Council

Contact within Venusian High Command reports a missing maelstrom class war vessel. An unspecified quantity of high yield warheads believed to have been onboard. Ship now believed to be in the hands of Reds, possibly Martian rebels somewhere in the vicinity of the Jovian system.

Lone survivor of Blue vessel jettisoned in escape pod and reported to Venusian High Command. Subject suffered from some unidentified biological attack, currently in critical hospitalization. The officer, however, did visually identify one assailant as a Carbiñero by their Martian militia pressure suit.

Rogue maelstrom vessel considered to be an extremely lethal and unchecked threat now in the outer solar system. Venusian intelligence still denying maelstrom was actually stolen. Operatives claim that it is impossible. The inner workings of this stealth-cruiser’s systems remain unknown, but it has been inferred that only the captain of this vessel can control it due to some “unique” and as of yet unidentified procedure that makes this limitation possible. How the Reds have circumvented this failsafe also remains unlearned.

Since virtually all Carbiñeros were exterminated during the Martian Jihad as high infidels the remaining records were presented to the maelstrom survivor, who visually identified the culprit based on captured enlistment files. Little remains known of the ringleader, believed to be an ex-Martian terrorist known as Geronimo Ares. He may have possible connections to Europan sympathizers. He is considered tactically armed and highly dangerous, and is now listed both on the Venusian Intelligence Top Ten War Criminals List as well as now being under a Terran Heretic Fatwa issued by the High Cleric Council.

During the war Carbiñeros were responsible for the highest casualties amongst both Blue and Green troops, resulting in the personal losses of several sons of the members of the seven star cleric council.

Subject and his vessel must be terminated or compromised immediately before the warheads can be used against Blue or Green civilian or military targets. Already taxed military occupation of Mars prevents a large scale task force of either Venusians or Terrans deploying to outer solar system to hunt for the maelstrom. The Blues, however, will mostly likely deploy their own agent to track Ares down. Odds are high that the terrorist may try to attack either occupying forces on his Martian home world or actually strike Venus or Terra itself. Due to the undetectable nature of maelstrom class vessels his current whereabouts remain unknown.

Praise and Glory to the Almighty and his Prophet Kovar.


The scroll screen runs blank, the circuitry fusing in a tiny wisp of smoke in your hand. A grainy headshot of a stubble-faced soldier with high cheekbones and russet colored hair labeled: Ares, Geronimo, 1st Carbiñeros, dissolves. You set down the ruined pad, smoldering down to ashes on the pavement. You check your firearms again and walk out onto the enclosed hanger, a small unmarked space flier awaiting you on the flight deck.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The White Goddess

I’d like to introduce a “dangerous” book to all of you. I’ve just read Robert Grave’s book The White Goddess, and I normally don’t do reviews of older books on my blog (I save that for Goodreads), but I think that this book warrants an exception. Ever since it was published many decades ago, The White Goddess has held a somewhat infamous reputation, but it is still in print and I can see why. Never in a single book have I come across such a combination of wildly inaccurate statements mixed in with some truly remarkable gems of literature.

Briefly, this book by Robert Graves’ (a novelist and poet in his own right) contains his musings on what poetry (and by extension writing and art in general) actually is and why it’s so important. To call it a defense of poetry would be an understatement, and any poet, novelist, writer, or simply artist who loves books should give this strange book a read.

Now before I give you a glimpse of the book in Graves’ own words, I’d like to preface it with a few “guidelines.” Feel free to disagree with Graves’ throughout his book…in fact I encourage it! But at the same time try to keep an open mind, because he has some truly ingenious ideas that have altered the way I will look at poetry and writing going forward. English majors will probably love this book. Historians and linguists, however, may not. His use of pseudo-history stems from ignorance rather than an outright intention to deceive. Psychologists will also probably have a field day, as Graves’ notions about the “goddess” or muse at times reflects his own successes and failures with the women in his personal life. But enough of my opinion. If you read nothing else, simply peruse the foreword of his book, an excerpt of which I have posted below:

“ ‘What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?’ is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people. The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But ‘nowadays’? Function and the use remain the same; only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family. ‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonored. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; race-horse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary State personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.”

– Robert Graves (from the Foreword of The White Goddess)

So give it a glance, and see where his book takes you. I found his ideas about Irish and Welsh poetry particularly enlightening, and although he often tries to encompass too great a scope, his thoughts on everything from Greek to British to Roman to Egyptian to Libyan to Norse to Babylonian to Hebrew culture, myth, and poetry really provides a poetic feast for the mind. The book itself is in some ways in inkblot, everyone seeing something else there. So peruse its pages and let me know just how the muse speaks to you!

Monday, April 26, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

This weekend, and last, I’ve begun intensively planting my new garden in my backyard. I’ve laid out seed for corn, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, and sunflowers just to name a few. Green thumbs run in the family, and gardening has been a favorite pastime of mine since I was a kid. I’ll admit that gardening has a two-fold purpose for me. Yes, I do love to watch things grow, but I also love to eat fresh food! In fact, I still have so much corn leftover from last year that I’m using it as cornmeal for bread and polenta.

Now you may wonder for a moment if I live on a farm or something…far from it. I actually have just a typical suburbia yard behind the house with nothing more than a hose, some fertilizer, and a few manual gardening tools to get the job done. Part of the reason I love to bring up my garden every year is that most people don’t realize just how much they can easily grow in their own back yard. Every year I enjoy fresh salads all summer long from the garden. In fact last year’s crops of tomatoes numbered well over a thousand (literally). That’s from only a few tomato plants! Needless to say, I give away as much as I can every year to friends and family. My wife is also experimenting with turning them into sauce for pasta. With only a few square feet of topsoil anyone can do the same.

Other things I’m really looking forward to in the garden this year are pumpkins for the fall (jack-o-lanterns help make Halloween my favorite holiday), and a new variety of ruby corn I’m experimenting with this year looks promising. I literally harvested over a hundred ears of corn from my yard last year and that’s just from two little plots of dirt that couldn’t have been more than five feet by five feet. It’s great to barbeque fresh sweet corn in the summer, boil it in the fall, and use it for cornmeal after that. This year I’m also adding more vegetables to the plate, so to speak, with squash and maybe some zucchini later on.   

The cool thing is that gardening is good for you, good for the Earth, and fun to say the least. Once you notice the taste of fresh food you won’t want to go back to store bought produce so easily. Growing your own food as a supplement to what you buy at the store also helps reduce your carbon footprint, because the produce goes directly from your yard to the dinner table with no hundred-plus miles on a diesel freight truck. It’s great exercise too, and unlike the gym you’re actually doing more than just toning your body, you’re actually accomplishing something in the process (i.e. a clean yard, fresh food, flowers for the bees, etc.). I guess the last thing that I’d mention is that gardening reminds me of what’s real. It’s so easy to get caught up in the everyday rat-race of work or school, dealing with checkbooks and computers. But what you do with your own two hands and what you grow in the soil is real. You can’t eat money, you can’t smell a conference call growing on a hot summer’s day, and you can’t survive living inside a building at a desk all day long. We were meant for something more, much more, and gardening, I have found, is just a small, but important part of what it means to be human. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Red Hero: Chapter 3

Based on feedback so far, and my own imaginative wanderings, I've come up with a third chapter for the continuing online Sci Fi story, Red Hero. In this chapter, I've chosen yet another character's perspective to follow (all in the second-person of course), but still continuing to keep with the same story-line. I think I will take four characters from the story and rotate perspectives amongst them for each chapter (i.e. one chapter from a Red's perspective, one from a White's, etc.). For those of you just joining in, checkout the first two chapters of Red Hero (Chapter 1) and White Queen (Chapter 2). Thanks to those of you who have provided your own ideas so far. Please continue to do so! In the meantime enjoy this latest installment, entitled "Blue Legion." Thanks!

Blue Legion

First Officer’s Log

            Legionnaire: 73546859423
            Operation Level: MAELSTROM Top Security
            Time: 0930 North Meridian Venus Meantime
            Location: Deep Space (Between Asteroid Belt and Jovian System)

You switch on the consol with your thumb. Trying to speak, you find your voice too raspy, your throat burning from the inside out with a fiery intensity. Cough. Your swollen eyelids hang heavy over your vision. Cough again. You pull out a keyboard, sniffling as the feverish chill sends droplets of sweat down the nape of your pallid neck. You try to repress the tickle of another lurching cough building within your esophagus. Pressing your fingertips to the keys, you straighten your back, push out the folds in your uniform and begin to type.   
            After entering passwords and basic security information you begin.

First Officer of the maelstrom stealth-cruiser Valkyrie reporting. We have strayed deep into neutral space. The captain and most of the crew remain unconscious or dying. I am the only man on board still semi-functional. Although I have yet to isolate the contagion in the lab, I am fairly certain that we first contracted this virus after taking on supplies in deep Martian orbit, near the moon base of Phobos. Due to the secrecy of our mission we did not procure provisions through regular channels, but the captain, however, did still obtain materials through one of our own agents. Regardless, the foodstuffs must have been contaminated, whether intentionally by Martian rebels or by chance remains unknown, but the effect has proved fatal for much of the crew.
            We’re still bearing a full compliment of warheads. I have attempted to rig them to detonate in the event of capture, but am as of yet unable due to the captain’s lockout codes still being active. So long as he is both alive and unconscious I will not be able to take control of the ship, even to destroy her.

Tap out of your log.
            Your vision begins to blur, the green typeface against the black screen going out of focus. A red light flashes dimly from one of the control panels across the room. You stumble towards it, noticing the word COLLISION WARNING flashing across the consol. A low, sharp alarm booms in the rear of your hearing like a buzzing bullhorn fading down the corridors of the ship behind you. You blink desperately, attempting to focus your mind. Sweat dribbles down the sides of your face.  
            Emergency run-lights bathe the hallways in backlit shadows of emerald and ruby. The darkness of the cabins and corridors makes it even harder for you to see as you wander through shadows towards the absent pilot’s screen on the bridge. A sleek, silvery warship looms beneath the belly of the forward windows. Your mind begins to race.
            Might be Reds, but they usually fly Junkers. This vessel looks smaller than your own. Definitely not Greens, the Terrans would have hailed you before now, though you still didn’t trust Terrans more than Martians regardless of who might be the current ally of the Venusian Reich. But still. Couldn’t be Reds. Those are ionic engines; you can see their blue cores pulsing out from the aft exhaust. Martian Junks used solar sails for propulsion and Reds in the outer system used rocket fuels. Basically, the equivalent of strapping oneself to an ignited bomb. You shake your head. Who could be out there?
            The other vessel seems to adjust its speed, bringing the two crafts into tandem with one another. It now appears as though neither is moving at all. You continue to wonder to yourself. When did you run across this other ship? How long have you been drifting here beside it?
            A small pod jettisons from the side of the pearly-grey warship.
            Someone’s attempting to board. You lean on the consol beside you, nearly collapsing under another fit of spasms and coughing. Feeling for your sidearm holstered beside you chest, you advance aft through the maelstrom. The blurry run-lights swim in your vision. In the halls you pass fellow crewmen lying limply across the shadowy floors, some murmuring unconsciously, others still and palely-white in their steel-blue uniforms. Your own jacket seems to sag upon your shoulders, hastily unbuttoned from the waist to the throat. You jog towards the stern, listing to one side then the other as you lean a hand for balance against the bulkhead in an effort to stabilize your wandering gait. You cough viciously into your palm, this time your fingers tinged with blood. You swallow, the bitter metallic taste lingering on your breath. 
            Six years in the Legionary Service, you’ve survived boot camp, officer’s training, and two tours on Mars all just to wind up dying of some stupid disease on a stealth warship over a million kilometers from home. Now you’ll never make citizen.
            Back home, there are only two kinds of people on Venus, civilians and citizens. Most are civilians. The Legionary Service is compulsory for all at age eighteen, serving for a minimum of three years. Service varied from person to person, depending on what your aptitude score ranked, the will of the Sky Marshalls, and chance. One fellow from the neighborhood back in Luzon City was stationed as an organ player and custodian for his three years. Another girl got shipped out to the fleet and was killed during an accident during basic training. What would happen to each of them, no one ever knew. Your first day you were assigned your legionary number, the mark of your entrance into adulthood. Everyone on Venus was assigned a number chronologically in order of when they entered the Service, all the way back to the beginning. You were 73546859423.
            Ambling down the murky compartments towards your final destination at the rear of the ship you think back to that momentous decision of yours three years ago. At the completion of your required term, mostly spent on various bases scattered across the home world, when most of your compatriots were finishing up and going home to jobs for the state, you opted to stay and go for citizen. To become a citizen requires twenty consecutive years in the Legionary Service. Less than 10% of the population accomplishes this goal and makes it to full citizenship. Citizens are allowed to vote, own property, have children without a permit, and hold coveted jobs listed as For Citizens Only. You signed on for the next seventeen years of your life, to go for career. A year into officer’s school the war with the Martians erupted and you learned why so few soldiers in the service completed their full terms and ultimately became citizens.
You glance down at your blue uniform now, its aquamarine reminds you of the shallow sapphire lakebeds and azure tropical skies of home. Each button on your coat stamped with the emblem of a shooting star, the symbol of the Sky Marshalls. The benevolent military dictators of Venus, the Sky Marshalls, hold society true to its primary principles of scientific progress. Solidarity. Efficiency. Conformity. In short, they think of everything. Mandatory adolescent sterilization to control population, everyone’s eggs or sperm remain in cryogenic stasis vaults until people obtain an Offspring Permit from the Breeding Department. Laboratory germinated lichens and mosses grown on Venus’ endless hydroponic farms in protein, carbohydrate, and vitamin varieties. No one ever went hungry on Venus. Even providing Hindu Brahmins to meet the psychological need for basic spirituality, Brahmin being a specialist position in the Legionary Service, like Dentist, Clerk, or Grenadier. All part of the generations’ long plan, the maturing and perfecting of the Venusian super-race.
            Gods! What did it all matter now? You might be dead within the hour.
            Reaching the furthest bulkhead you halt before a familiar sign overhead. Engineering. Stepping through the hatch, you seal the round door behind you, turning the manual handle. In the dank of the engine room you find a control panel with empty screens. It smells vaguely of synthetics and heated plastics, the backup lights only illuminating glimpses of fiber cables and stagnant robotics repair arms that snaked round corners into the furthest recesses of the maelstrom propulsion systems.
            Turn the switch.
            One by one each view screen activates, separate labels under each set: Bridge, Airlock, Hold, Sickbay, Hall 1, Hall 2, Pods. Almost no one on any planet or moon in the solar system has ever seen the insides of a maelstrom ship. From your vantage of the engineering displays, displays that the now dead engineers once used to send repair bots to the rest of the vessel for maintenance operations, the secrets of the infamous maelstrom show with full color and audio.
            They had only appeared a few years ago, just before the start of the Martian War. Undetectable ships that struck without warning and then disappeared just as fast. In wide open space there’s not much to hide behind, that’s why given good enough technology just about any ship is detectable. Even planetary defenses could be viewed across the solar system with a powerful enough telescope. But the maelstroms are different.
No one knows how many exist, even within the Venusian High Command. Probably less than could be counted on one hand. Not only are these vessels undetectable, they’re difficult to spot once within visual range. The first Martians who saw them and lived referred to their color as “black holes turned inside out.” In addition, the vessels are fast, using a top secret type of fusion propulsion that left no trace in its wake, unlike rocket, ion, or nuclear systems. It remains all very mysterious, even to you now. Only the captains of each maelstrom know all the secrets of these rare vessels. You know it has something to do with the shape, a long almost cigar look, but with absolutely no sharp edges, and a composite material of such a rare and expensive concoction that supposedly they are only constructed in the high security shipyards of Mercury, a military planet of the Venusian Reich where even citizens in the Service need top brass approval to get sent there. And it is well worth the extra security, as only Venus has access to this level of technology and it has already tipped the scales of the war in favor of the Reich.
            The destruction of the Martian Fleet during the first year of the war; that was due to just one maelstrom. Not the Valkyrie, anyway you don’t think it was. A standard task force of Venusian ships deployed as decoys while the numerous, though technologically inferior, Martians mounted an armada of Junks and rocket ships numbering in the high hundreds. A single maelstrom emerged in the heart of their fleet, deployed live warheads, both ions and nukes, and jumped out into deep space before they even detonated. The Reds suffered over 70% casualties. After that the fight for Mars largely became a ground war.
            Since then every ghost or lost spacecraft was blamed on a maelstrom. Even their temporary allies, the Terrans claimed to have lost supply barges to unexplained hit-and-run attacks by phantom stealth-cruisers. Despite the rumors, they continue to abide by their non-aggression pact with Venus.
Your first mission on board the Valkyrie had been the final capitulation of Mars. Your maelstrom specifically launched warheads against enemy city-states and bases throughout the continent of Elysium in the northern hemisphere, obliterating Krakow Town, its hidden airbase, and its 40,000 civilian population almost entirely. All Martian confederacies officially broadcasted their unconditional surrender on all frequencies the following morning. Recent as it is it feels like something that happened long ago.
An azure light beams on the one of the screens. Airlock. You rotate your shoulders, cracking your neck, rubbing your clammy palms against your sagging cheeks to stay conscious. The hiss of nitrogen and oxygen pipes through the surveillance sound system. Someone is boarding the ship.

A lone figure emerges through the open hatchway, a gun in hand. The intruder dons a russet pressure suit peppered with tan patches and a polarized faceplate. Suddenly pausing, the stranger raises both hands to their helmet and unclasps the headpiece. A tall, stubble-faced redhead squints around the deserted airlock.
            It stinks in here he remarks.
            Two more figures appear in the entranceway, both in polished cream pressure suits. One carries a pulse rifle in hand. Both appear to bear swords.
            That was an unwise move one of the figures chides the man in the bronze suit.
            I trust my nose over your gadgets any day.
            My instruments say that there’s an unknown compound cycling through the air filters the other begins, this voice belonging to a woman. Something’s not right.
            One of the most feared Venusian warships noses up on your keel and then has no welcoming party waiting to meet you onboard, the man in the russet spacesuit smirked, sounds pretty darn good to me.
            Put your helm back on the woman suggests, I think we should run more tests.
            We have a saying on Mars, the man replied, if you can still breathe you’re not dead yet.
            Bloody primitives the other man scoffs, wagging his helmet.
            So they are Reds you think to yourself. At least the first one is. But you’ve never heard of Martians like the second two. New suits, modern equipment, and swords…swords? Wait, think, think. Perspiration continues to bead along your neck as you squint at the security feed. Whites. These are the Whites of the moon of Europa. But they’ve been neutral in this conflict. Have they been working with the Martian rebels, maybe supplying them with arms? But little as you know of them, they never were heard of being fond of the Reds. Quite the opposite in fact.
            Mistress, one with the pulse rifle begins, with all do respect we shouldn’t have brought him.
            He has more experience with Venuisan technology the woman replies. It’s my decision.
            Yes, mistress, he replies eyeing the Red. Maybe he’ll dislodge a booby trap for us.
            The lead Red gives the other man a crooked grin.
            Let’s explore the thing he smiles, advancing with his revolver and bare head onto the next surveillance screen. Hall 1. He peers down each direction of the long tunnel-like corridor.

By now you’ve seen their figures on multiple screens. Bridge. Sickbay. Hold. Each time finding the prostrate bodies of men and women clad in the smoky blue jumpsuits of the Legionary Service. Now they appear on a new monitor, the one that leads directly to where you sit in Engineering. Hall 2.
            Soon your throat erupts with bile and foam. You can barely stifle your choking coughs. A trickle of crimson fluid runs down your chin. Both lungs seem to deflate within your chest. You haven’t felt this wretched since your second tour on Mars. Less than a year ago, you were acting centurion in your battalion. Clad in black mech suits that double as pressure suits and body armor they also increase physical fighting strength and have built in com systems. After two weeks of chasing the infamous Martian guerrillas known as Carbiñeros through the Southern Highlands a small band ambushed half the company with powered rifles and rocket launchers. Both legs and one arm were blown off in an instant. A few months and some physical therapy later the medics finished growing flesh over your new steel limbs. By then your old command had been entirely wiped out at the Battle of Muddy Waters, but so had most of the Carbiñeros. Fleet had bombarded their positions and napalmed friendlies and hostiles alike.
            That’s when you were tapped regarding a new secret assignment, one that required experience under pressure. You had that now. One under Fleet command. You’d seen enough grunt fighting, and you knew you’d need Fleet experience if you ever hoped to be promoted in either the Mech Infantry or Space Fleet. It was also an assignment you couldn’t share with friends or family, ever. You had no family, and after your second tour no friends left either. You became First Officer on the Valkyrie, security and tactical expert, and your official record classified even to some within High Command.
            You do a double-take, sitting bolt upright in your chair now. You’d dozed off. Hostiles in the hallway leading to Engineering and you could barely stay awake. The burning in your lungs moves down into your stomach. You bend over in you seat. Maybe there’s still time to detonate the warheads and blow the ship. Wait no, you already tried that. Can’t do it without the captain’s codes. The Reds will probably torture me for them anyway, but it’ll do them no good. Regular ships need good pilots, but a maelstrom is different. It still needs a pilot, but the ship wont respond without commands from the captain, and the captain only. As far as you know this is part of the security of a maelstrom class vessel, one man and one man only, the captain, can actually activate the ship. Even if the Reds take her you think to yourself they wont be able to do anything with her. Who knows, maybe there’s even a built in destruct sequence if they try to manually unload the warheads without inputting the proper authorization.
            Up on screen the intruders have stopped alongside a collapsed corpse. They’re standing only a few paces away from the closed hatch behind which you sit. You flick off the video screen and put on a linked earpiece. You can still hear their voices as you crawl out the back, fighting desperately not to wretch loud enough for them to hear beyond the bulkhead.
            He smells like cheese the Red’s baritone echoes.
            It’s common with festering wounds the female’s helmed voice replies.
            But these bodies haven’t been wounded the Red says audibly manhandling a cadaver. Wait he says continuing to sniff.
            I wouldn’t continue touching that the other male voice says within his helmet.
            It’s the Blight.
            The what? the woman asks.
            You continue crawling through service tubes as you listen.
            Boomers Blight, it’s a disease, endemic to Mars.
            So you’ve seen this before? the female inquires.
            See it? I’ve had it. Most of my platoon had it the first month of the war.
            You’ve survived this? the other man says suspiciously. You lived?
            Well, I wouldn’t call it living the Red replies. Gets pretty nasty for a spell. Never heard of it off-world before though.
            Is it lethal then? the female demands.
            You pause a moment to listen more closely.
            Depends. Most in my unit pulled through, but then again we’ve lived and breathed Martian atmo our whole lives the Red explains. Not sure what the odds would be for an off-worlder.
            Is there a cure?
            It’s like the Chicken Pox or Scarlet Fever, you catch it once then never again.
            We best have you scrubbed down and quarantined when we get back to the Takara the other man says stiffly. You could still be a carrier.
            Not afraid of vermin like me are you, Maori? the Red replies.
            That’s Master Maori to you the other man rebuffs.
            Gentlemen, let’s stay focused the woman says commandingly.
            You continue crawling again, the passageway growing dark. Eventually you find what you have been looking for. It’s a soft cushioned seat, complete with harnesses, controls, supports, and even a suit. You adjust everything, laboriously slower than you would like, but everything gets done. Taking off you earpiece the last thing you hear on it is the squeal of the hatch leading to Engineering. You sit back in your seat, depress the lever and brace yourself for the rush.
            With a sudden jerk you are free, accelerating with increasing velocity to where and for how long you don’t know. Maybe now you don’t even care. But they wont torture anything out of you now. Plenty of air and feeding tubes already in place. The rest was up to luck and maybe chance now. Even if they got the security screens working in Engineering by now all they would see is a single image on one monitor of a smooth conical object ejecting into the vacuum of space. You smile to yourself and for the first time you don’t feel quite as nauseous especially when thinking of them reading the inscription beneath the video screen as you launch away. Pods.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Red Hero: Chapter 2

Here's the second installment of my weekly Sci Fi story. This second chapter, entitled "White Queen," continues the tale from a new character's perspective. For those of you just catching up, check out last week's post (Red Hero: Chapter 1) before continuing on to this one. As before, this story will continue to take shape based on your feedback and interactions. Send suggestions to me via email or simply leave a comment. Thanks and enjoy!

White Queen

Courier Scout Cruiser, Victoria Class

Vessel Commissioned: HMS Takara
Course: En route to Outer Solar System
Commander: Shogun Miranda
Crew: 18 officers, and several dozen refugees

You are in command now. Leaning back in the captain’s chair you feel the embroidery of the royal seal on the backrest. Both polished, pearly boots sit flatly on the floor, your starched moonstone uniform creased and ironed from cuff to collar. The sash running between the curves of your bust reaches down to the sheathed ivory-encased katana at your side. Silver stars dot the black display of the view screen ahead.

Request the ensign’s report.

He is young, younger than you, probably in the first year of his service. Undoubtedly a talented pilot, his voice nonetheless shakily responds to your authoritative tone. A blue icon registering a Venusian battle-cruiser highlights on the view screen. You ask the ensign whether or not the Venusians have detected our presence.

I, I do not think so he responds.

You either know or you do not ensign, you demand calmly. By now you can observe the ring of sweat along the officer’s precise hairline. He presses his consol for further data.

They’re moving off, towards a debris field of Martian Junks. We remain undetected, he finishes with as confident a voice as he can muster.

You cordially compliment your helmsman and order your navigator to maintain course towards the Jovian moons of the outer system. Maximum capacity to the engines. You depart from the bridge.

In the tube lift a thick necked, tan-skinned soldier meets you. His broad shoulders bear the bulges of full body armor beneath his argent shell jacket, an immaculate ebony toned samurai blade sheathed beside his black belt. Four tiny metals for courage and bravery hang from his left pectoral.

Master Maori, you acknowledge.

My Lady, the clean-shaven, experienced master-at-arms bows.

Alone with the soldier in the lift, you cannot help but smile. You’ve known Master Maori for nearly all twenty-something years of your life. He was a young soldier in the service when he was first assigned to your House, serving as your personal guardian as had his father and grandfather done before him for your mother and grandmother in their times. One of the elite Bushido Guards, each hand knighted by the Holy Mother herself to defend the royal families of Europa, the white frozen moon of the mother world of them all, Jupiter Prime. Bushido Guards are the only people permitted, other than the aristocracy themselves, to carry a katana at their sides. You glance over, unable to hide your grin as you look at your longtime protector and friend. Maori’s aging, but well-toned cheek muscles remain taut and impassive, his eyes staring dutifully at the blank bulkhead.

Not still sore about the ceremony, are you Maori?

It is not my place to say, he responds without a glance.

The low hum of the lift whispers in your ears as you move between decks.

There’ll be time for pomp and circumstance when we return home, you add.

However, Maori begins after another silence.

You sigh. However is a word Maori only ever uses when lecturing his pupils.

It is not every day that you are elevated to the post for which you have been raised all your life, to be inducted as one of the twelve Shoguns of Europa by the Holy Mother, Maori continues. Instead of being with the High Queen on your new day, you have chosen to expose yourself to danger in open space on the brink of a war that does not concern our people.

The Takara is my own ship now, not my late mother’s. I’ll take her where I please, you add a bit more hotly than you had intended.

Maori nodded. However…

I do not wish to hear it now, Maori.

As you wish, My Lady, he replies as courteously as ever.

I agree that this conflict amongst the Reds, the Greens, and the Blues does not concern us, you say almost apologetically. But I fear we may not remain neutral in their disputes forever. Europa is not as far from the comings and goings of the inner solar system as it was in my grandmother’s day. When I next see the Holy Mother I shall report to her firsthand what we have learned of the defeat of the Martian Reds. And I shall present her with the few survivors I have gleaned from the wreckage.

Survivors? Maori’s voice betraying a hint of emotion for the first time.

Refugees, mostly civilians. Their vessels are being hunted down like dogs by the Venusian Fleet as they try to escape to the outer worlds. I will bring these specimens before the High Mother so that she can best decide for herself what to make of this war in the inner solar system.

We have maintained a somewhat polite isolation from the heathen of the inner worlds for centuries, Maori said to no one in particular.

You almost smile again, remembering Maori’s view of all other peoples born off-world as barbarians.

There is bad blood between our peoples from the ancient days.

I don’t need a history lesson of the Great Upheaval, you reply with a raised hand.

The lift doors open.

Stepping out into the hold the burr of the ship’s fusion engines resounds slightly heavier down here than it did up on the bridge. Several standard guards, armed with pulse rifles, stand beside the exits. A pair of medics from your sickbay attend various figures of the several dozen or so Martians lounging in exhausted heaps across the empty steel hold floors. Some bear scorch marks from gunshots that have marred their clothes. Others appear decked in worn garments and torn rags. A few whimpering children cluster among the men and women, most of whom are asleep by now.

You pause over a wounded Martian between two of your medics, your shadow lengthening across the unconscious man’s uniform.

This is one of the few militants we’ve secured, Shogun, one of the medics reports. He was the last one we picked up before jumping the engines. He was already passed out in a stolen Venusian single-seater, his air just about run out. Lucky we found him.

A Martian uniform in a Venusian craft? Maori begins. I’ll post a guard on him until he awakens. This man may be a spy, possibly a plant.

You shake your head, waving his protestations aside. Commenting on Maori’s constant paranoia you move on, instructing the medics to inform you when this Red pilot comes to. They finish reporting that they only found three other Red soldiers in the past few days, none with a complete set of limbs.

You retreat to your personal quarters. Soft muslin carpets run along the hardwood floors. Setting down your blade on the settee beside your pair of brocaded ottomans you pass a long hanging mirror beside the polar bear skin strung across the wall. Scarcely recognizing the lily flesh of your neckline, your high cheekbones, and bundled up black locks that had only been a girl’s ponytail and rosy cheeks a handful of years ago. Unbuttoning your white tunic you give a verbal command that activates the hot shower in your tiled bathroom. As the first droplets turn to steam in the next room you continue gazing into the looking glass. Rebounded back at you you see the face of your mother.

Not as you remembered her, but as she was in pictures and videos made before you were born. A beautiful woman. A woman you hardly knew. Like most noblewomen she hired out hands to raise you, teach you, train you. You learned to eat, to walk, to add, to read, to do martial arts, to compose music, to fly starships, to pray in the holy temples as instructed by other people. You could write your characters exquisitely with a horsehair brush, serve tea with courtly propriety, sever a foe’s neck with or without a blade, jump space cruisers successfully through asteroid belts and planetary rings, and even consistently score in the top percentiles on all of your calculus examinations. But you did not know your mother’s favorite color.

Or what flowers she liked. Of all the languages she spoke, which was her favorite. How well she had known her own mother. Did she love the man that was your father?

But now she had died.

You shake yourself free of the too sudden image staring back at you in the mirror. The deep brown eyes. Stepping into the shower you let the warm water rush down over you, prickling your flesh with goose bumps, dampening your hair as you let down your raven hued plaits. You stand in the thickening steam breathing in the hot breath of the porcelain showerhead.

With both arms folded you peer down at the white sheets of a sickbed in the infirmary. In full dress uniform, your kraken insignias of shogun rank on either collar, you squeeze the handle of your sheathed sword waiting for the patient beside you to wake up. His muddied left boot finally stirs.

So uncouth, these Martians you think to yourself. Reds tend to be nearly as tall as your people, unlike the short stubby inhabitants of Terra and Venus. This one might actually be a hair taller than yourself. The thought makes you frown. Even his hair is somewhat russet, undoubtedly plagued by the red spice of the Martian plains that seemed to beset the flesh and attire of all who dwelt there. His coat seems almost tiger striped with chalky clay and tear marks, his fingernails blackened or browned. At his side an empty holster. Maori had insisted it be taken away. He stands there now beside you, scoffing at the primitive Martian revolver in hand. It’s truly a wonder the Reds lasted as long as they did, he remarks to himself.

Huh? The Martian murmurs from the bed.

You squint a moment at his delirious face, the sedatives beginning to wear off. A golden-crimson swath of stubble covers his cheeks, giving the patient a rakish look like a pirate or Viking of old you think to yourself strangely. The man continues to murmur to himself a while. Impatiently, Maori bangs on the cot with a firm hand. The soldier on the table blinks open his eyes and props himself up on one elbow.

Remaining silent, you wait while Maori begins the interrogation. The Red wont give him his name. Claims he got lost sightseeing. He thinks this is a joke, Maori fumes to one of the other aides. The stern faced Bushido Guard lowers his visage until his own eyes rest a mere hair’s breath away from the Martian’s. Maori fingers the hilt of his leather wrapped katana.

Once I remove this blade it cannot be sheathed again until it has drawn blood, he coolly growls before the Red.

Then I suggest you start shaving.

Maori squints one eye testily. You are surprised to see him actually beginning to lift the pommel of his sword, a hint of faultless steel shining beneath his robes. Your hand stays him from drawing further.

This man is our patient, Maori, you cordially remind him, not taking your eyes off the bedraggled Martian in the sickbed. Your loyal guardsman humbly begs your pardon, reluctantly releasing his grip on the handle of his weapon.

Could I have my gun back? the Red asks.

Give it to him, you reply.

Without flinching, Maori’s quick eyes search your face. You remain firm.

He slowly removes the revolver from behind his back, gradually placing it on the table so as not to have to risk physically touching the patient. The Red’s agate eyes remain fixed on Maori as he retrieves his handgun. Peering down at the chambers, he spins them around with a familiar flourish.

It’s empty, the Martian remarks somewhat taken aback.

You simply smile, Maori’s dutiful face remaining inert beside you.

What happened to you?

For the first time the air of cockiness seems to evaporate from the Martian’s shoulders.

You don’t know? Isn’t it broadcast on every radio wave by now?

But you were there you reply.

He shakes his head. This is Europan technology, he remarks looking around at the blinking medical stations, the blue feeding tubes, the green plasma ducts, and white polished surfaces. What does a white queen from the frosty moons of Jove care for the sufferings of the Martian confederacies?

You will keep a civil tongue before the Shogun, Maori cut in. His tense body stood eerily still. The Red stopped, seeming to sense the hidden ferocity within the swordsman’s outwardly complacent poise. You wait a moment before speaking yourself.

We rescued you and a few other survivors along the asteroid belt. We’re bound for Europa.

I cannot pay for my passage he smirked.

I’d like to give you and some of your companions an audience with the Holy Mother you explain. To give her your own account of what has happened. After that you are free to do as you wish.

And just what would I wish to do on Europa?

There are other Red settlements in the outer system of which I’m sure you’re not totally unaware. We could offer you and your fellow refugees transport to Ganymede.

Just because they’re Reds don’t make them Martians.

Your patience begins to wear thin and your voice shows it.

I’m not unfamiliar with your people’s…independent lifestyles. If you find any of the Reds in the Jovian system inhospitable I’m sure you could book passage to the moons of Saturn. Titan is crawling with them now I hear. You are a prolific if primitive lot.

His brows began to narrow, his lips parting with some quibbling remark.

We’re done here you conclude before the Martian can speak. You do not spare the man another look. Nonetheless, you still feel his eyes upon your back.

You march through the sickbay, examining some of the other unconscious patients. The three other Red militia, two men and one woman, all still bear multiple scars from their escapes. The surgeons have already grafted mechanical arms and legs to replace the missing limbs of these soldiers. The drugs will keep them under until the skin growth process is complete, giving their newly metallic appendages the same appearance as their former calves, shoulders, and forearms. Better than what they would have received from their own people you think to yourself. Probably be wearing peg legs by now if the Takara hadn’t picked them up.

How wretched these Reds seemed at times. Scattered, restless, spread throughout the inner and out solar system. If Mars hadn’t fallen to the Terrans and Venusians it would have collapsed under its own internal strife and chaos. Their shanty settlements, and substandard bubble domes pockmarked the airless moons of Jupiter and Saturn just the same. All they seemed to know how to do was have babies and squabble with each other over hardscrabble rocks with barely enough gravity to hold them down. Other than Titan, Europa had the only partially breathable atmosphere in the entire outer solar system you think to yourself. For the first time since the Takara left port you feel the pangs of homesickness.

You recall the icy blue seas of Europa. The glittering look of her crystal, well ordered palaces from orbit. The calm serenity of climbing the countless steps to the snowy Buddhist temple atop Mount Connemara. Your open courtyard at the manor house, the pale blue columns in the moonlight of multiple crescents in the sky, the aqua-green grasslands rolling quietly beside your pony stables. The long twilights that surpass the rival sun that shines like a silver coin when it rises in the distance. No cities on Europa, except for the halls of the Holy Mother at Londinium, the maze of her palatine complex stretching for kilometers across the cedar covered hills and northern tundra.

None so numerous as the tens of billions of inhabitants throughout the inner solar system. Barely a hundred million souls spread across the icy cavernous crevasses, rolling taiga woodlands, and snowy mountain chains. You can almost feel the warm sting of midmorning frost fogging your breath as you inspect the igloo dog kennels on your ancestral estate.

An alarm chimes curtly overhead.

You turn round, still in sickbay, as Maori runs to an intercom and begins conferring with the bridge crew several decks above.

Report, you demand, the receiver still clutched in Maori’s hand.

Venusian vessel bearing down on our position.

A battle-cruiser? Why did we not detect it earlier?

It’s not a battle-cruiser Maori replies. It’s not showing up on any of our scopes.

That’s impossible you begin. The only thing that wouldn’t show up on our detector systems is…

Suddenly you trail off; a sinking feeling rising in your stomach as Maori meets your gaze with a cold, clear-eyed expression you haven’t seen on his face since the day your mother died. Your palms begin to sweat.

Inexplicably, your eye wanders over to where the conscious Red solider is still sitting across his cot in sickbay and you blurt out that it can’t be.

It is, Maori grimly confirmed, his hand instinctively on his sword. A Maelstrom.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Update on My Civil War Novel

I know I’ve blogged on a somewhat eclectic array of topics over the past few weeks, everything from short-story contests, to speaking with literary agents, to creating an online Sci Fi saga. Sitting still has never really been one of my virtues. But I wanted to give you all a brief update on the current status of my primary literary endeavor, namely the progress with getting my historical war novel closer to publication, The Long Defeat.

I have several agents that have expressed an interest in possibly representing my work, and when I mentioned that I have a professional editor working with me on polishing the manuscript they asked to see the entire final copy once I’ve completed the editorial process. Needless to say, I’d love to have the whole book sparkling and ready for them to view tomorrow, but constantly editing and rewriting a novel takes a lot of time. Currently, my editor, Lea Beresford, has projected to have the last edits to me by sometime in early May. In the meantime, I continue to go through her track-changes and other edits, sifting through every word and sentence to make sure it comes across exactly as it should. There’s a lot to consider when crafting sentences for today’s publishing world. You may think to yourself…but Mark, what’s there to rewrite? Don’t you like it the way it is? Sure I do. But there’s a lot more to consider, and this is where my education in the publishing world continues to grow each day. There are other questions a writer must ask oneself when editing a novel for publication, i.e. Is the subject matter sellable? Does the story’s tension pervade the entire work? Will your audience understand what you are trying to convey? The answer to all of these questions must be Yes, Yes, and more Yes at every step of the way. Each page, paragraph, and sentence must be able to stand up to the rigors and demands by which we judge the entire work. Like they say, the biggest part of writing is…you guessed it…rewriting.

For those of you just tuning in, allow me to briefly explain the synopsis of my book. At the height of the American Civil War, the destinies of two men are set on a collision course when they and their comrades meet under a flag of truce, only to later find themselves facing one another again on opposing sides of the battlefield. The Long Defeat chronicles the personal stories of a Northern soldier, William S. Book, and a Southern Confederate, Nathaniel Saxon. William S. Book of Boston embodies the Northern man of industry and progressiveness; Nathaniel Saxon of New Orleans represents the Southern soldier of culture and tradition. The novel revolves around these two diametrically opposed protagonists and several of their fellow comrades-in-arms who convey their thoughts and fears in letters written to mothers, wives, and other women back home. Each chapter is written in a third-person objective style and concludes with a letter written by one of the primary characters in the novel. Written from epistolary perspectives, these men describe hard marches, severe hunger, brutal battles, even more brutal hospitals, prisoner exchanges, and even death. In addition to this novel being a historical fiction, I have also gone to great lengths to ensure the authenticity and historical accuracy of the campaigns and armies portrayed in The Long Defeat. For those of you who haven’t had a chance yet to read an excerpt of my book, just give me a ping and I’ll email you a copy. In the meantime, I’ll keep you updated as my novel marches ever closer to publication. Thanks!

Monday, April 12, 2010

French Quarter Festival!

I just got back from a few days in New Orleans after enjoying the sights and sounds of the French Quarter festival. You may have wondered where I have been for the past week, and truth be told I took a break from blogging to soak up the jazz and Creole cuisine down in the Big Easy. My wife and I had a great time wandering the streets and hanging out around Jackson Square.

Here’s my quick plug for the city, if you haven’t been. Try the French Quarter festival in the spring, it’s free and features local musicians only. Unlike the crowded Jazz festival that takes place two weeks later or the craziness of Mardi Gras in February, the French Quarter festival gives you more of a local flavor. You can peruse the shops on Royal Street or sip café au lait with a beignet at the Café du Monde near the riverfront. It’s a great walking town and has classic streetcars that run up and down St. Charles Avenue if you wish to wander further afield. The plantation style homes in the Garden District look reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, and are second only to the iron balustrades and Creole architecture of the French Quarter across town. Great museums abound, including the growing World War II exhibits, which rival anything in Washington D.C. You can also take a riverboat ride on the Mississippi or eat out at any of the endlessly impressive Cajun and Creole restaurants. I admit, I did just about all of these over the last few days, and each was well worth it.

Of course, there are things to watch out for when in New Orleans. Drunks abound and crime is high in certain areas. But you just have to use good judgment and common sense when wandering about. Stay in the more touristy areas for the most part, around the French Quarter, Warehouse, and Garden Districts, as the cops keep these areas fairly regularly patrolled. Also, just as New Orleans usually has something for everyone, it also usually has something that you definitely won’t like. I for one, wasn’t crazy about Bourbon Street itself, it’s pretty raunchy and frankly the debauchery on that particular street I’d rather leave out of print. But I found every other avenue within the French Quarter to be totally awesome, especially Royal Street, Chartes Street, Pirate Alley, Jackson Square, and the French Market.

The best thing about New Orleans is you never know what you’re going to find. One day we came across this little street band that played some awesome jazz. We bought their CD on the spot. We also met some friendly locals who pointed us towards their favorite eating spots. And famous people abound as well; many homes in the Garden District belong to movie stars, writers, actors, etc. Oddly enough, we actually spotted the comedian Jeff Foxworthy on the street and in the museums, twice! Like I said, you never know what you’ll find from one day to the next. So go checkout the Big Easy for yourself, and as they say in New Orleans…“Laissez les bon temps roulez”…let the good times roll!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Red Hero: Chapter 1

Okay, so here's my first installment of my Sci Fi story, Red Hero. I'm going to leave just this first chapter up for about a week before continuing my normal blog schdule so that readers can throughly enjoy this "pilot episode." Breifly, the story is set in a time when humans have colonized the surrounding planets in our own solar system for centuries, developing unique cultures on every world (often with a somewhat flawed or unfamiliar outlook from our contemporary perspective). I've writtten the story in second-person in order to put you as the reader into the driver's seat, so-to-speak. Each week I will continue to add to this novel-length Sci Fi drama, adjusting and developing the plot and characters based on your feedback and desires. So please feel free to add your own creative input to this evolving and interactive endeavor! Enoy!

Red Hero
Chapter 1

Hadrian Single-Seater

Altitude: Space
Reserves: 3 Megajoules
Speed: 8 Hyper-knots
Location: Asteroid Belt

Your display shorts out. Bank hard right; pull your joystick down hard. Keep the G-petal depressed. A shiny white and grey globule hangs in view through the sheen of your upper-right cockpit. Its barren, rocky, cratered surface looms larger in your field of vision as you point the nose of your ship towards the igneous hunk of tranquil rock. The still meteor soon spans the horizons as you engage landing thrusters, tugging hard on the depressed lever beneath your seat. With a puff of silver dust you touchdown on the sunny side of the asteroid, the terminator shadow of the moon-like rock hovers nearby as you gaze towards the dark side of the planetoid.

Dull green emergency lights hum behind your head, casting a faint, antiseptic glow across your mute instruments on the dash. Thousands of icy pinpricks of starlight dot the void as you peer at the airless sky over the black crags and crescent-backed calderas to the east.

Tap your wrist bios.

O2: 14 hours. Suit Temp: 303 Kelvin. Time: 12:43:08:19 Eastern Hellas, Martian Standard.

Your breath lightly fogs the interiors of your sealed helmet, the cold nitrogen permeating your lungs down to your toes and fingertips. Staring around at the desolate landscape, you sit quiet a moment in the soundless alluvial plain. You bang your helm back on the ripped leather headrest behind you, grinding your molars together through your seething breath. You unbuckle your useless safety cross-straps.


Closing your heavy eyelids a moment as you suck in your less than fourteen hours of life-support, you let your mind wander. Behind your closed eyes you can see your homeland. The verdant greenhouses of Memphis pulse with warmth along the windswept russet escarpment of Mars. Both snowy moons hang in tiny crescents above the jagged peaks of the Southern Highlands. A sapphire river, its aquiline banks magnified against the crimson hardscrabble, snakes through the emerald deltas within the lowlands of the settlement proper. Silver spires from the downtown assembly halls glisten under the dull copper sunshine, cobalt, ivy, and rouge homesteads radiating outward along the canyon floor beside the red sand basins that stretch in every direction.

Something beeps loudly in your ears.

Blinking your eyes open you stare at your wrist bios. 8 hours of oxygen remain. You sigh, catching your own exhalation in your chest as though it might prolong the short-span left in your suit’s small tanks. By now the listing asteroid has turned. You remain in your tiny cockpit on the dark side of the planetoid. The crystal twilight glows fiercer. The drumbeat of your pumping heart is the only sound.

Reaching under the controls you feel around at the base of the composite panel. Your glove stops on something bulky. Pausing, you withdraw it from the case. Turning a small crank on the side, the plastic box begins to emit a low, yellowish tint. You breathe heavier than you wish after several dozen rotations of cranking. A small charge bar of energy reads on the tiny device. You flick a switch on it and release it. The little item drifts before you in the vague microgravity. A sickly buzz of static echoes out from it a moment, and then dead silence. It is some time before any sounds whisper out from the speaker.

Resistance collapsing…across entire…more than half of the…26 Martian city-states have surrendered. Occupation of their confederacies is being divided amongst the coalition of Venus and Terran armed forces…storming of the last stronghold…and bastions of Martian resistance earlier this morning. Death toll still uncertain…nukes, laser platforms, and bio…resulted in large civilian casualties under the unexpected ferocity of the Venus Fleet in orbit and…large numbers of Terran shock troops…landed across the globe. Mars…is in ruins.

The radio dies and the correspondent’s baritone voice with it. You half-consciously thumb the felt badges sewn into your jump jacket, the frayed stitches of the tricolored flag of the Hellas Confederacy and the militia designation, Houston’s Carbiñeros along your arm. A spent pistol feels cold and heavy in its holster strapped to your thigh.

You begin your log, pressing the record button on your suit’s other wrist.

Stating your name, no rank, because the Martian army does not…did not, have ranks in its militias, you warble out your first few words. Then nothing. You sit there with the digital recorder going, and no more words for your thoughts. Finally, you start to ramble with some precision, gathering your thoughts together like a pebble that starts an avalanche. You talk about your birth. Growing up. Homeschooled. Your remember your friends down on the south side of town, playing sports under bleary red sunsets, and listening to the latest rhythms of local musicians during farmer’s market nights in the square.

Then you start talking about the first off-worlders you met. Blonde haired, brown skinned Venusians, always in steel-blue uniforms of the Legionary Service. Task forces of their numerous fleets would stopover in low orbit, trading for supplies with Martian Junks and sometimes spend their 48 hours passes in one of the larger Martian city-states, before shipping out to the outer rim to patrol their contested borders with Jovian or Saturn Reds. On their return journeys there were always fewer of them, usually heading to a new front, perhaps against the numerous holy warriors of Terra. Venusians were always polite, somewhat pompous in mannerisms though, and definitely shorter than your kind, but not as squat and little as the Terrans from the third planet out from the sun.

Terrans only visited Mars if they were missionaries. They came to condemn and to preach. Faithfull followers of the late Prophet Kovar, the fourth incarnation of God’s divine religion, that began all those millennia ago with the Jews, then continued with the Christians, then the Muslims, and finally fell into the form and following of the Prophet Kovar. Kovarian fanatics often preached loudly on the street corners in every Martian city-state, as Martians have almost no laws and value freedom of expression in every form. But you were also free to express yourself back.

You recall your teenage years with other local hoodlums, girls and boys who threw stones through windows or left flaming baskets of camel dung on the doorsteps of visiting Kovar proselytizers. After a few weeks of sleepless nights, they usually got the message and left our neighborhood. Then you were, usually, religion-free for another few months before another Kovar pilgrim would show up in the central square.

For some reason or another, you explain to your wrist recorder how Martians are more like the Reds of the outer solar system, being distant kin. You like little law, no government, and lots of space. The Terrans always seem to show up in their shimmering green robes, the robes of holy pilgrims, and try scaring religion into a people of atheists, Jews, Neo-Pagans, and Voodoo. But your people are a scattered people both in geography and intellectually. The Terrans, or Greens, as you sometimes call them (when not assigning them other less flattering titles), despise your kind as all religious zealots do when they encounter an indifferent people. Mainly because you neither disperse like the Jews of old, nor become extinct like the ancient Christians did, nor convert wholesale to Kovar as Islam did during the Great Upheaval all those centuries ago.

You smile mirthfully recalling such thoughts. But your smile gradually fades.

You wonder why it has all come to this. Sitting, alone on a rock in space, waiting for your air to run out. Why the Venusians ever came to Mars with their big guns and robotic fleets, why they didn’t stay on their own home world, why they needed another, why their equatorial jungles, undersea metropolises, and hydroponic alkaline lakes were not enough for them. Why the Terrans couldn’t let Mars be, why they sent endless waves of Jihadists to the red sand outback and dry grass steppe, never flinching despite their terrible losses. Was Terra too overcrowded with the over 19 billion crammed onto one world, did they need breathing space, could they not stand the heresy of their Martian neighbors who neither adhered to their religion nor cared for their somber chants?

Pause the recorder. Looking out the composite glass towards the empty cosmos you stare, slowing the respirations in your chest. The Kelvin meter on your wrist continues dropping. You shiver with the cold.

You can barely recall the day you enlisted with the Carbiñeros. Back then they were called Tsu Tang’s Carbiñeros. Tang had been a local sheriff who helped form a small militia as part of the Aegean Confederation, a loose alliance of allied city-states along the brown Hellas Sea that included the mediocre river valley of Memphis. Tang died two months later when a stray shot cracked her helm visor on patrol in the upper altitudes. She asphyxiated. Her former deputy, Kalashnikov Houston was elected chief of the militia two to one. You knew Kal well and raised your palm to nominate him in the first place.

The war was all his fault anyway.

He’d been in the north when civil unrest, instigated by crime lords and triads, was put down by a contingent of marshals. Venus and Terra used the riots that ensued from the fighting as an excuse to tie themselves up in a Martian civil war. They setup the biggest mafia of them all, the House of Orange, as a puppet government in the city-state of New Brazil in the north, claiming that they fought for independence from the other belligerent Martian confederacies. That’s when the Terrans and Venusians signed a non-aggression pact and began invading Mars proper.

For two years we resisted. Not like the Venusians with super firepower, we had none. Nor did we wage large-scale campaigns like the Terrans tried. They’d take one city-state, and we’d pull out. Within a week we’d slip back in and conduct operations as normal. We planted bombs, we released viruses into their defense grids, we used fire trucks and sprayed water over their fort walls that cracked and crumbled when the Martian winter frosted them overnight. We hid in the sandstorms and the people in the highlands fed us.

Your wrist-pad beeps again. Less than 7 hours of oxygen remain.

Check your damaged display. Fuel cells gone, propulsion useless. You barely had enough juice to get away from Martian orbit when you nabbed this old Venusian transport on the surface. Of your half-dozen compatriots that had also ascended into orbit in these single-seater deathtraps you alone evaded the gunfire from the enemy fleet. By chance or luck you sped unscathed beyond the last of the blockade and headed for open space. You peer round now at the desolate crags of the silvery asteroid. Some luck.

Both eyelids sag down over your vision, the sterile cold seeping into your joints. You shake your head a little, glancing glossy-eyed at your wrist bios. Still a proper mixture of nitrogen, CO2, and O2. Your eyes lose focus on the dropping temperature gage and ticking minutes on the digital clock. A wide yawn spreads across your cheeks.

The last things you glimpse are cobwebs of argent constellations overhead.

When you shake in your chair, sitting bolt upright in the seat you can hardly feel your extremities. Biting, wretched numbness fills your veins. You almost can’t budge your neck to turn and look at your wrist. An urgent beeping sound emanates from the pad. Your wrist bios are completely iced over. You wiggle your arm, loosening some of the frost caked along the top of the tiny display.

O2: 3 minutes.

You frown up at the distant starlight stretched across your cockpit glass. Thoughtless, careless balls of gas, flaming with warmth and heat strong enough to incinerate, twinkle, and reignite with enough energy to refuse atoms in the frigid emptiness. Your shivering wanes, your breath fogging the plate glass of your own helmet. Fingertips of numbness begin to grip your slowing heart within your chest. Your head rolls onto your collar, spots of darkness creeping into the periphery of your vision.

With your last bit of strength you gaze up at the indifferent cosmos once more, spying a cool blue star blinking large in the airless void. Its vibrant blue buzz radiates faint tints of yellow, and red, and white along its circumference, reminding you of the landing lights of gliders you used to watch along the airstrip near your home. Gradually, the smallest of grins creeps across your freezing face. And you think to yourself, who knows…

A lot can happen in three minutes.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday…Soon to be Easter

A very holy day today as Lent comes to a close and with it the end of my 40 days of writing short-stories. It’s been interesting coming up with various themes and tales each week based on feedback from my peers. Some of you have suggested ideas, others plot-lines, and some have actually provided me with opening sentences. All in all, a fun collective endeavor! Now with Easter soon upon us I’ve given a good amount of thought to a new installment of writing samples I’d like to provide each week going forward.

Short-stories can be fun, but my forte is longer fiction. So I’m toying with the idea of actually posting a longer, full length novel to my blog. Starting Monday I plan to post the first chapter of another story I’m work on, as a sort of “pilot episode” if you will. Just as newspapers used to print novels chapter by chapter as authors wrote them (back in the days of Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas) I will post a new chapter or segment every week to my novel-length story. But here’s the twist…I want you to tell me how you want it to go.

Now I typically write Historical Fiction, such as the novel I’m currently promoting towards agents, The Long Defeat. However, I do write other genres as well, from contemporary Literary Fiction to Fantasy to Sci-Fi. One of my current pet-projects revolves around a Sci-Fi novel I’ve started for fun. I already have a writing style down, characters, and a plot-line, so I think I’d like to start with this one going forward. But, even though I may be the author, the direction of the story will depend upon you…my faithful readers. I have a list of four characters, and each week I will write a chapter from their perspective, but what happens to them or what attitudes/emotions you wish to see surface in them will depend upon feedback I receive from you. In other words, I’m putting you in the passenger seat beside me as I sit behind the wheel of this ever evolving story.

Stay tuned as I post my first “pilot episode” this coming Monday! I plan to write these segments in a second-person perspective, meaning you as the reader will actually be in the shoes of the character. Name, personality, etc…these will all develop over time as you, I, and the other followers on this blog contribute to the creative melting pot of the story as it develops each week. Until then, have a great weekend and a very, very Happy Easter!