Bread or Circus?

or “Why SyFy’s ‘THE EXPANSE’ show is better than the books”

‘Bread and circuses’ was the policy employed by jaded Imperial Roman politicians to control and appease the great unwashed pleb masses. Now this isn’t a political post (although I certainly could run down that rabbit trail barking like a pack of rabid hounds) This being a writing blog, I’m going take a moment to ramble on about the storyteller’s dilemma of Substance versus Spectacle.

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STAR WARS: THE PLOT DOESN’T THICKEN  THE FORCE AWAKENS
After Christmas, I spent one of my rare annual visits to the Mall Multi-Plex on SW:TFA. My wife and I, along with several friends plunked down our $8.50 each, sunk into our seats and escaped for 2+ hours while munching on popcorn and smuggled-in Twizzlers. When the final credits rolled, my first reaction was relief: JJ didn’t botch it. He and his team made an epic Big Screen event and a solid homage to my childhood geek icon. Bravo.

Then why was there this nagging disappointment? For all the new characters, the old familiars, the cool vistas, the choreographed dogfights, the Death Planet explosion, I was ultimately underwhelmed. My one-sentence summation hit me on the drive home: “Another layer of frosting on a 39 year-old cake.”

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OK, so it’s not 1977 and I am a bit older than 13. What did I really expect? It’s “Star Wars” not “War and Peace”. Then I ran across this excellent LA TIMES article which brought it into focus: the old issue of Story versus Spectacle. Yes, SW:TFA was pretty, and shiny and frenetic, but plot-wise? A thin layer of Stupendously Predictable.

 
STORY OR SPECTACLE
That’s the storyteller’s dilemma, isn’t it? Story or Spectacle. My question is “Why do we have to choose?” Now maybe audiences have been complaining about this for centuries. “That Euripides is so shallow. All pageant and chorus. No depth at all – not like Aeschylus.” It just feels like the swap, the ‘bait-and-switch’, is far too common these days. Well, sizzle ain’t steak, no matter the era.

As an unrepentant geek, I’m referencing sci fi and fantasy here, but I think this friction applies across the board.

Take a moment and compare Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy with The Lord of the Rings. See? That’s my point. Not that The Hobbit wasn’t a great book with magical characters in the same incredible world. It just wasn’t THREE MOVIES worth of story. Which is why we ended up with Hunky Dwarves, an e-Harmony Dwarf/Elf match, an Albino Orc baddie, non-stop Disney-ride action sequences, and Sand Worms imported from Arrakis. Instead of one book per movie, we got one novella spread over three movies. So, Sir PJ had to spackle something in all those gaps. He had seven + cinema hours to fill.

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Cover of ‘Dwarf Quarterly’

What about Avatar? – where James Cameron grabbed every sci fi trope that couldn’t run fast enough and blended them into a sweet frothy frappe of a plot he could hang $600 million worth of CGI on. Contrast it with District 9. (Which stands as one of my all-time favorite SF films) Positively Everything about D9 is more interesting than Avatar, from the characters to the camera work. It has an actual story arc and character development.

No, Mr. Blomkamp didn’t hit the same heights with Elysium or Chappie, but it’s obvious he’s trying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I had to choose, I’d rather be known for D9 than Avatar, a.k.a. the most forgettable mega-blockbuster in history. (Four out of five Otaku Experts agree it left virtually NO cultural footprint) And don’t even get me started on Pacific Rim or the recent Godzilla letdown.

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THE EXPANSE 

SyFy’s latest attempt to recapture the BGS phenomena comes from two of George RR Martin’s staff writers who are cranking out a series of SF novels each heavy enough to stun a horse. Kudos to them – they’re making a good living.

I heeded the hype and tried, but gave up when neo-Chandler detective met the Space Zombies. The whole affair hit me as McDonalds space opera: quick, assembly-line, SF calories. Filling in a way, made for rapid consumption from obviously reconstituted ingredients, but definitely not taking digestion in mind.

Thing is though, to fill out all those pages Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck needed to think in longer than 42 minute increments, conjure up better than cardboard character types, twine more than two plot threads for their solar system-sized setting, then add a dash of political/social machinations – which is why the show works as good SF television. There is more STORY there than the bog-standard SyFy serial. (Sharknado 4, anyone?) I won’t buy another Expanse book, but I’ll be spending one lunch break per week to catch up on the latest episode.

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A QUESTION OF MEDIUM?
“Don’t be daft, Paddy me boy. TV ain’t books.” Aye, I get that. They work different ways on different levels. Fine. But aren’t both vehicles for STORY? And isn’t STORY what we crave? Sure, we oooh and aaah at sweeping vistas, alien landscapes, and epic battles, but we want rich characters, believable story arcs, genuine character development, credible conflict, setback and climax. We want legitimate struggles rather than contrived ones. Faulkner’s ‘heart in conflict with itself’. Give us heart-breaking defeats and breath-taking triumphs – the bones and body, not the make-up. I think that’s why even in shallow fare like Star Wars, Darth Vader is more compelling than Luke Skywalker, and why Smeagol/Gollum is one of the most memorable characters in all Middle Earth.

 
NAMING THE WIND OR PASSING THE WIND?
I’ve heard that Pat Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles was optioned for film. (and video games and graphic novels, and possible TV spin-offs, and clothes, and…) The spec-fiction genre fan in me is very excited. Good on ya, Mr. Rothfuss. Excellent choice, Hollywood.I hope they do them justice.

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I’m afraid though – terribly afraid, given recent events- that Mr. Rothfuss’ marvelous books with get reduced to green screen fantasy flatulence that happens to have a rocking medieval boy-toy musician, hashtag ‘Kvothe’. Which would bum me right the hell out. Like near-suicidal. It would be like watching a cow get turned into bouillon cubes. Or a Eucalyptus tree into bubble gum. (For the love of all that’s holy, Pat. Don’t let ’em do it!)

 
FIVE FLAMING TORCHES ON THE WRITER’S ROLLA-BOLLA OF DEATH

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Juggling – that’s the challenge. At least, that’s what I think good story-telling is: a deliberate whirl of characters, plot, prose, entertainment and substance. Not that I have an MFA in Creative Writing or that I’ve hit the 10,000 hour/Million Word “Expert” mark. Honestly, I’m figuring this out as I go – sort of an ‘Earn as I Learn’ thing. Working on my next novel, I’m painfully reminded any genuine mastery is going to take far more discipline than inspiration.

However, those are the five elements that coalesce in the stories that move me. Books with that mysterious alloy survive the annual cull year after year and they are the ones I buy multiple copies of to give away to friends and family.Those are the kind of stories I want to write.

No, I haven’t mastered this yet. Not even close. But I’m going to keep at it because in terms of my writing, at the end of my life, those are the kind of stories I want to be remembered for. I don’t think for a second it’ll be easy, but I do believe in my marrow it’s on the shortlist of things that are truly worth it.

Have a good day. Thanks for reading.

V.P. Writing Exercise

Here’s my writing exercise from the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. Each of us was assigned to work up a piece for a notional short story anthology, as well as given a surprise toy that had to be included. My anthology was “Poe 3000”, a sci-fi homage to Edgar Allan Poe. My toy prop was… well, I bet you can figure it out.

***

 

The Annabel Lee at Ganymede

Sam Ryoshi asked once more, to make sure. “You got her a nose?”
Kishore Patek nodded, eyes flickering over the thruster display. “A plastic one–”
“A plastic one…”
“With a sharpener inside it.”
Ryoshi studied the copilot before pushing off the wall and floating over his head. “So do you plan on ever having sex with her again?”
“What? Yes! I mean of course. Dude, it’s a novelty item –”
“It’s a nose.”
“- It’s a gift.” Patek continued. “I got it at Mare Imbrium. It’s from the Moon. She’ll love it.”
Ryoshi settled into the pilot’s seat and pulled himself toward the steering yoke. The HUD released a spray of bouncy phantom alpha-numerics. “You got it at a kiosk in the Arrivals Concourse, Terminal C. It has a pencil sharpener up one nostril.”
“Bita is a writer,” Patek exclaimed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Ryoshi leaned forward and tapped up the main display. “Right. ‘Cause nothing says ‘literary’ like a plastic nose pencil sharpener.”
“Shut. Up.”
Ryoshi at the helm, the large flat screen at the front of the cockpit cabin bloomed to life. Software enhanced and colorized the bow camera’s view. Ganymede’s cratered surface filled the lower half, an arc of pocked granite slashed with jagged ice-white lines. The display’s upper portion was inked in deep black with a scattering of hard, bright stars.
Ryoshi zoomed in on the center field until the orbital appeared- a knobby spindle topped with a spoked wheel of linked hab-units. At the tip of the spindle at the wheel’s center he could make out the white blister of the Command Module. It’s hull lights illuminated the bristling comms array. Everything looked intact.
He moved the reticle down to the bottom of long knurled axle. Mining drones rose and fell from the moon’s surface – ‘Hop Frogs’ in company parlance – swarming like silver gnats around the lower collection bay. Everything seemed normal there too.
So why was there no answer? Why was the docking arm still retracted?
Ryoshi adjusted the focus one more time; the docking lights were still blinking on standby: yellow-red, yellow-red, yellow-red.
He frowned and tapped the bow thruster icon to slow their approach. “Hail him again, Kishore.”
The copilot complied. “UMC facility ‘Raven 119-09’, this is the UMC supply ship ‘Annabel Lee’ requesting permission to dock. We’re here for your three month check-up. Over?”
Nothing.
Ryoshi waved for Patek to try again.
“UMC facility ‘Raven 119-09’ this is the supply ship ‘Annabel Lee’. We’ve got that fresh food and water you’ve been waiting on. And beer, Raven 119-09. We brought beer. Sorry for being late but we are on approach now, and requesting permission to dock. Please respond. Over.”
Both men craned forward expectantly. Silence.
Patek leaned back and shrugged. “Maybe he’s in the head.”
“He’s supposed to have his comms on at all times.”
“Can’t a man shit in peace three-hundred ninety million miles from home?”
Ryoshi peeled off a thin smile. “We’re five days late. File says it’s this guy’s first rotation on a mining station. Solitary type or not, ninety-plus days alone in a can floating in the Big Empty, I’d be climbing the walls waiting on my resupply. Even if it was just to get a twelve pack and see our mugs for twenty-four hours.”
“So then he’s down in the drone bay,” Patek suggested. “You know, actually earning his pay and fixing something.”
The Annabel Lee was closing fast and the station was expanding on screen. Ryoshi zoomed the display out and grabbed the steering yoke with both hands. “Usher Mining Company redundancy the shit out of all their deep-space platforms. B-grade A.I., mining robots… the place runs itself. Supervisors are props to comfort investors. Management is convinced the human touch adds confidence. Creates the illusion constant oversight. Plus the photos give quarterly profit reports that ‘rugged explorers on the final frontier’ vibe.”
Patek pumped his fist. “Onward robot exploiters.”
“Exactly. Ah! There we go.” Sam Ryoshi pointed with his chin toward the screen. “He’s back.” The docking lights had turned steady green. The umbilical began to unfold.
Patek grinned. “Last stop, here we come.” He hunched over his work station and began queuing up the Annabel Lee’s automated cargo transfer.
Ryoshi hit a series of buttons on his own console, then released the steering yoke to let the ship’s autopilot guide her in. “Hey – maybe you can get her something from Jupiter. Something romantic. Like, I dunno… a pen shaped like a –”
“Dude – Shut. Up.”

 

***

 

Patek squeezed past Ryoshi in the docking tube. “Nah, this isn’t creepy at all.” He peered toward the spindle’s central shaft, then turned back, eyebrows lifted in mock alarm. “What the hell is he doing?”
No one was waiting in the docking chamber when they disembarked. The entire level was dark. And silent. Red emergency lights smouldered every six feet along the narrow passageway, and the hiss-thunk of the airlock sealing behind them had actually echoed.
“What’s this guy’s name again?” Patek asked.
A twitch of the fingers and Ryoshi’s data pad flared with a company mug shot, personal data, and clearance levels. “Perry, Edgar A. Temp contract. No immediate family. Middle-of-the-road psych and performance evals. Degrees in robotics and low-g engineering. No surprise there.”

“Well, big surprise here,” Patek exclaimed. “Edgar A. Perry, sci-nerd and all-around loner turned out the lights.”
Patek exhaled and jutted his chin at his breath plume. “Turned off the warmers too. I say that psych eval missed something. I mean, what brand of stupid turns off the heat eight hundred million miles from the Sun?”
“Good question.” Ryoshi crinkled his forehead. “Same kind that buys his girlfriend cheap novelties in spaceports, maybe?”
Patek grinned. “Mock away Sam, but chicks dig sensitive guys.”
“Oooh, so that that’s your secret.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely.”
Ryoshi pointed toward a ventilation grill on the ceiling. “Well Casanova, the air is still on, so Perry must be here somewhere.”
“Right–”
An enormous metal groan cut him off. The station shivered, then a mechanical thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump started up, like someone was tapping a hammer on the hull. The beat echoed throughout the station.
Patek’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second. He started breathing through his nose. “Water transfer,” he said after a moment. “I set Annabel to auto-trans once she’d hooked into with the station. That’s what that is.”
Ryoshi spit out a laugh. “I think I peed a little.”
“Me too,” Patek said. “So we leave now, right?”
“What?”
“In the movies, two ‘creepy space station’ cues means our heroes are pretty well hosed unless they bail right then.”
“Except we’re not in a movie.” Ryoshi nudged the copilot with his shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s go find this poor bastard. The sooner we find him, the sooner we can leave.”
Patek let himself be nudged along. “A stray micro-meteor holed one of the rechargers, forced Perry to scale down to critical systems. That’s why it’s dark, right? He’s in one of the hab units, eating cold ramen, wrapped in a foil blanket.”
“Exactly,” Ryoshi said.
Patek kept talking. “I mean, I’m living the astronaut’s dream: playing hide and seek in a deep space meat locker with a recluse engineer.”
“Oh, the places you’ll go,” Ryoshi said. “At least this way, you can tell Bita you’re a real hero.”
Patek squared his shoulders. “Heh. Like I’m not already.”
A dozen more steps and they reached center shaft. A wide, heavy-duty ladder was bolted against the interior wall, the cord in the space station’s spine. The aluminum ribs of its safety cage blushed in the dim blood-light before disappearing into dark holes above and below.
“Heaven or hell?” Ryoshi asked.
Patek swung out and grabbed a rung. “Cargo Bay of the Robotic Damned for me. You can scour the heights for our wayward sheep.”
“Fine. Keep your comms on though.”
Patek threw up a quick salute as he started down.“Aye aye, captain.”
Ryoshi almost returned it, then stopped. Ceremony doesn’t carry in a vacuum, he reminded himself. Only competence.
He waited until Patek’s head vanished, then started to climb toward the Command module.

***

Sam Ryoshi was three rungs shy of the hab-ring when Patek’s voice sounded in his ear. “I thought UMC was digging for low-g mineral formations.”
“They are.”
“So why is there ice down here?”
“You mean space chill?”
“No,” Patek said. “The bay is filled with ice. The Hop Frogs are bringing up blocks of it. Not rocks.”
“You sure?” Ryoshi asked.
“I’m looking right at it.”
Sam Ryoshi reached up and grasped the hatch handle. He pushed it open, then climbed into the hab-level. “Ganymede’s got a huge subsurface ocean, but last I knew, the Froggies were scraping the Gula and Archelous craters.”
He sat on the rim of the hole, legs dangling, back against the upright hatch. “They shouldn’t be bringing up ice.”
“I’ll tell them,” Patek said. “Any sign of Perry?”
“I just got here. I went up, remember?”
“Slacker.”
“I would make a ‘climbing the corporate ladder joke’ but that would be tacky.”
“And that’s one thing you’re not,” Patek said. “Hey, that’s strange.”
Ryoshi stood, one hand on the rim of the hatch. “What’s strange?”
“The ice is melting weird.”
Ryoshi stepped back and let the hatch fall shut. “Weird how?”
“… — sticky. — ‘ll over the –ace. I can’t–…” The rest was static.
Ryoshi grunted in disgust. Of course they didn’t take inter-station comms into consideration – it’s a one-man operation.
“Kishore, forget the ice. If you find Perry, bring him up. If not, come up in ten minutes. He’s got to be here, somewhere.”
A hiss of static, then Ryoshi’s earbud went silent.
The lights were off in the hab-ring as well. It was colder too; his breath puffed out little red-tinged clouds. Space was seeping in. Heat was the priority, otherwise they would be astronaut-sicles in a few hours. More emergency lights glowed on the curved ceiling of the connection tube, vanishing around the bend in each direction. No clue which way to go first.
Right, he decided. Counter-clockwise. Not like it’s far.
The thump of the Annabel Lee’s pumps was softened up in the hab-ring. It became a measured beat he heard as well as felt, a pulse in the decking under his boots. Ryoshi walked in time with it, probing the gloom with his flashlight beam, careful and thorough as doctor checking a wound.

“Perry? Where are you, Perry? It’s Sam Ryoshi from the Annabel Lee. Can you hear me?”
The only answer was the ping and creak of cooling metal, and the deep throb of the pumps below.
There were signs of the man everywhere: stray tools, a t-shirt, a stack of food trays. Every door on the hab-ring was wide open. The storage units, supply, mess, rec-room, medical, even the hatch to Perry’s sleeping quarters was toggled flat back against the bulkhead. Ryoshi understood. He’d had done that himself his first tour – and the next two. Anything to create the illusion of room, more space.
If you didn’t have claustrophobia when you signed up for a supervisor stint, Ryoshi though, fifty-fifty you had when you left. A mining orbital was huge, but the liveable environment was less than two-thousand square feet. Sounds like a lot until you’ve paced, crawled and climbed every last inch of it. Then it was like being stuffed in a tuna can.
The agoraphobia was worse. After his first bit, it took him eight days to work up the nerve to go to a park. Thank Christ his wife had pushed him to enter UMC’s pilot program. Maybe he’d pass that on to Perry. It didn’t look like his first experience was going all that good.
Ryoshi was three-quarters of the way around, approaching the door to the Command Module.
It was shut.
He smacked the knob with the palm of his hand. Nothing. Again. The door held fast. Puzzled, Ryoshi backed up, slipping as he did. He played his flashlight across the steel grate.
The deck was slimy. Dotted with smeary footprints. “What the hell?”
Ryoshi raised his foot, watched thick gunk stretch and snap. The slime was thick like hydraulic fluid, only clear, with the oily rainbow shimmer of snail mucus.
He peered in the door’s viewport. The lights were off in there as well, but data scrolled furiously across the system monitors, jumping from one station to another.

Ryoshi glimpsed what looked like A.I Core programming, but it the viewport was small and the chunks of colored data volleyed too fast to be certain.
The data flow silhouetted the command station. Someone was in the chair with their back to the door.
Ryoshi pounded on the steel hatch. “Perry, open up.”
No response.
“Perry. C’mon. Quit fucking around and open the door.” Ryoshi’s words made a string of angry clouds in the chilled, metallic air.
Nothing. Not even a twitch.
Ryoshi fumed. This shit was definitely going in his report. He pounded on the door again. Still nothing.
“Fine,” he muttered, and tore the cover off the knob casing. “Be that way.”
Ryoshi had locked himself out of a supply closet four months into his second tour over Io. UMC modules all used the same lock – the blessing of low-bid standardized construction.
Static hissed in Ryoshi’s ear bud. He yanked at the lock’s wiring. “Never mind, Kishore. I got him. Genius locked himself in the Command module. Playing some kind of game. Come on up.”
There was a squawk, then a garbled crackle of white noise.
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep the beer for ourselves.” Ryoshi said.
The temperature was dropping and he shook himself to ward off the chill that fingered his bones. Quickly, he fished in the junction box, twisted the red and yellow leads together, then touched them to the connector behind the knob. The door popped open.
“So there,” he murmured.
He ducked inside and went straight for the chair. Frantic data-lightning played across the computer screens, the thump-thump of the pumps rang the chamber like a deep, distant bell. Perry sat perfectly still.
“What the hell? You playing some kind of–”
His fingers gripped, slipped on the back of the chair as he swung it around. His mind registered the slime on the cushion, on the floor. He saw it quivering on the system terminals. Some part of his brain was half a second ahead, knew without words what he’d find.
The chair spun. Perry was dead.
The engineer’s body was locked in mid-twist under a coating of iridescent gel. An insect in glassine sap. Agony contorted his face. Confusion. His mouth gaped in one last moan, or scream, a runnel of clear viscous slime oozing out over his lips, across his stubbled cheeks, slipping down his neck.
Patek screamed. Ryoshi’s earbud squealed. “-ot me! –elp! For —- sake, get —”
“Kishore!”
Ryoshi spun, lurched back toward the hall. Behind him, a flurry of data leaped between the monitor screens. Over the door, a red light blinked three times before it thunked shut. Ryoshi heard the gasp of pressure seals.
He slid to a halt, began pounding the steel panel in time with the beat of the pumps.
“Kishore! Kishore! Answer me. What’s happening? Kishore!”
Only static.
Another spasm of on-screen data made Ryoshi turn back around. The door’s steel ribs were hard and cold against his back. Before him, Edgar Perry’s rictus howled silently as long chains of commands, blocks of logic structures stormed through the displays, flitting like vicious faeries from station to station, morphing and growing as they lashed through A.I. command system.
Ryoshi stared in horror. Panting frantic plumes in the flickering, throbbing, red-lit room, he saw the clear, alien fluid gather and slip ever so carefully towards him.
***
Outside Raven Station 119-09, the Hop Frogs went back and forth from the Ganymede’s frozen oceans, swarming, merging, scattering like quicksilver mites winking on the infinite deep velvet of space.
After many days, the running lights along the smooth white hull of the Annabel Lee lit up. Slowly, silently, it detached from the mining orbital, pirouetted, and headed back the way it came.

 

copyright Patrick Todoroff, Oct. 2015

VP19 Exercise “Poe 3000”
Oct. 2015

Illustrated Excerpts – “Dainty Monsters”

UNDER_STRANGE_STARS_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inchesA chapter from Under Strange Stars, the second collection of Clar1ty Wars stories. Illustrations by Tim Teague 

1 – DAINTY MONSTERS

Jien stabbed at his maki roll. “It’s for your own good, babe.”

Seeb frowned for the tenth time that minute. A bad situation was turning several shades shittier and showed no sign of stopping. Her head understood going to ground meant changes, hassles, aggravation… Orbital creeps were shooting up city streets to kill her. A cheap two-room flat in A-Town, drab blend-in clothes, and a severe cut and bleach for her dark hair were a small price to pay for a hide-away package. But no Charm? No contact with Vasyl?

“Total blackout? No log-in at all?”

“Zero Grid,” Jien nodded. “Uncle Zhou said he wants you safe.”

Seeb snorted, started dissecting a wedge of nigiri on her plate. As far as she remembered, the Sun Yee On Dragon Head hadn’t said anything at all. Ten feet and four bodyguards away from the old man, she’d watched Jien blurt out rapid fire Mandarin, point at her, and bow. A lot. Finally, Uncle Zhou had glanced over and nodded. And it was done; she was under Triad protection.

Seeb batted her eyes and leaned over the table, letting her shirt hang open. “Not even the public terminals in the Mahjong parlor?”

Jien laughed. “Nice try. No. Dainty monsters on your trail, you’re Luddite ’til the storm passes. You don’t have to worry about a thing while you’re here, but no one, and I mean no one, can know where you are.”

“Frak.” She flicked rice off a sliver of salmon with one chopstick. “Guess my ‘damsel in distress’ needs calibration.”

Jien spread his silver, six-digit hands and grinned. “Or a boob job… but hey, it got you this far.”

Seeb huffed, gave the Hong Ying Rice Shop another once-over. In the middle of Drop City’s sprawling Asian district, the tiny basement restaurant was one of a hundred tucked in the concrete and holo-ad maze that was Shenzhen Street. Like hiding a wave in the ocean, the place was invisible. As was her fourth-floor walk up right across the street.

“Big Time here I come.” She waved at the chef behind the glass counter. “At least the sushi’s good.”

“Soba’s better.” Jien pushed his plate away and pretended to remember something. “Oh yeah… And you can’t go past Russo or Second.”

Seeb spocked one eyebrow. “You’re not serious.”

“As a heart attack, babe.”

She snapped her chopstick in half. “A three block leash… What am I, some Tween grounded for blowing my boyfriend?”

“Simmer down. It’s called security, Seeb. Remember running in the alley? Me with the almost hole in my chest? The Four Horsemen have major fa shu – major. And they’re voodooing after you. You need to stay off – their – frakking – radar.” Jien grinned and made a show of peering down her shirt. “Say, you weren’t serious about the bl—”

Wángbā dàn, Jien.” Seeb shoved away from the table and stomped off.

“C’mon, I was kidding.”

“Asshat.”

Eyes front, Seeb raised one hand, flipped Jien off, then straight-armed the door with the other.

His tone changed. “Three blocks, Seeb. No joke. The sky is falling, and this shit will get worse before it — ”

She threw up another finger before the door jingled shut.

DM1   Outside, the narrow street was a riot of color, smell and sound. A dozen of the latest sultry faces pouted down at her, giant-sized on SmartGlass frontages, each panting deep, dark brand-name fantasies. Duly captivated, the flood of laowai shoppers flowed around her, in from the Green Zones for the day, chattering, laughing, laden as pack mules with designer-label bags. Directly overhead, a hologram green dragon blazoned with the Xiaomi logo flashed dagger-teeth smiles and discount wireless codes before huffing Disney flame across the rooftops. Delighted children screamed at every gout. And everywhere the saccharine thump of auto-tuned K-Pop and chili oil heat of street food.

   Security my ass, Seeb fumed. More like gangland house arrest.

***

The apartment was small but clean. Two rooms with a scattering of sturdy faux-bamboo plasti-molded furniture. The front featured an ancient X-Box 20 console synced to a Toshiba flatscreen, and a kitchenette with a three quarter fridge, microwave unit. Cigarette burn hatch marks covered the grey corian counter, the cuneiform of twitchy confinement. No translation required. One window framed a stunning view of bricks, the other a scabby metal fire escape that went down into an alley and up to the roof- two options on the fast exit menu. Both windows had brand new roll down steel shutters.

A poly-foam futon and a shower/toilet stall filled the tiny back bedroom. A coffin of a closet held several sets of new but drab clothes, and extra linen. Celery green walls did little to fend off the minimum-security prison vibe.

There was one bright spot. The previous occupant had left gifts of a more pragmatic kind; a weighted carbon fiber tonfa and a karambit, the hooked knife favored by Indonesian street punks. In the right hands, one stroke could gut an opponent chest to balls. Seeb hefted it, the balance was odd, stroked her thumb gently along the crescent, razored edge. The image of Ferret’s head, lolling, his jacket, shoes drenched and sticky…

DM2

She bit down on the memory and dropped the karambit in her purse. The baton was too big to conceal, unless she counted shoving it up Jien’s ass, and she figured she was as likely to slice herself on the strange curved blade, but it was better than nothing. Although, if it came down to yanking it, the situation was pretty well frakked.

Seeb spotted her shadow that evening.

Jien had left a message in the restaurant, pleading urgent business and the promise to check in every day. Apparently, a xiǎodì – ‘little brother’- was to keep her company whenever she left the apartment. Subtlety an alien concept for most Triad rank and file, he threw the sneaky Asian/ninja myth off the roof faster than a police informant. He became a mute, tattooed, trench coat, mirror-shade Kua Fu forever six steps behind her. Seeb decided he made her previous bodyguard, Stepan, damn near a Mensa candidate.

The kid’s only claim to individuality was a red fauxhawk dyed the color of kimchee. She dubbed him Cabbage Head, and ignored him.

The only other person she saw with regularity was the little buck-toothed woman who sold fried bat and frosty bottles of Tsing-Tao beer from an ancient stainless steel pushcart.

The woman had several regular spots on the street, and she wheeled the heavy cart around its course single-handed, the batter-dipped, deep fried mammals swaying upside down around the rim of the sloped roof like sleeping tempura versions. Her sign had a grinning child with a bat-stick in each fist, inviting everyone to ‘Enjoy the crunch, crunch!’

Seeb figured if she ever had a kid – and she let him eat batsicles – she’d probably let him wash it down with a cold one.

Seeb made another discovery that night: she didn’t have to pay for a thing.

Jien had given her a list of stores for food, clothes, sundries, laundry, and such. If her fugitive status was secret, the shopkeepers sure as hell knew all about it. Her attempts to pay with from the stack of New Yuan Jien had left, were waved off with too-large smiles and lots of bows. Waitresses, owners, clerks were deferent to the point of obsequiousness. Maybe they were paying off debts, or billing the Triad later. Perhaps they took her for the Luckycat’s latest làmèi. Seeb couldn’t tell. Back at a corner table in the Hong Ying Rice Shop, she decided it wasn’t her problem, and ordered more crab and sake.

The fawning didn’t extend to electronics or Grid time. After tea and dessert, she sauntered into E-Ming’s Mini-Mart and tossed a prepaid Huawei charm, a garish thing with pink sparkles, on the counter with a pile of single-serve toiletries. The clerk plucked it out with a single apologetic shake of the head. She waved a wad of neon bills. Still no.

Seeb blushed up a bit of guilt, and gave him a shy ‘hey, had to try, didn’t I?’ shrug, then marched next door to a high end boutique and picked out an annual salary’s worth of knock-off Vestique outfits, including a reversible nano-pore leather jacket.

The bobbing salesgirl bundled everything in black tissue paper, then into a shiny white smart-bag with gold hanzi scrolling across the sides: ‘the beauty of freedom- the freedom of beauty.’ Fortune-cookie Confucius strikes again.

Cabbage Head held the door then fell in step behind her, Seeb humming along with the K-Pop all the way back to the apartment. A real Chinese proverb came to mind as she climbed the stairs. ‘A mountain cannot turn, but a road can.’

Seeb held that thought. In the apartment, she tipped the bag, black paper cocoons slithering onto the futon. She opened the reversible jacket first. Curry yellow under iridescent black-green.

“You bet it can,” she said to herself.

dm3

***

She followed Jien the next day.

They met for tea and fresh rolls, a Hong Ying lunch special, Jien alternately nattering on about cream he’d skimmed off a tech transfer to the moon colonies, and taking urgent messages on his Charm. His blue privacy haze fuzzed so many times, Seeb joked there was a cop car in the tiny restaurant.

Jien looked up and flashed his ‘I’m full of shit’ grin. “It’s nothing, babe. Forged Customs’ tags acting up… You know how it is – no matter how smooth you hack, some two-fifty fraks it up.”

Seeb made appropriate noises, half a fresh roll in her mouth. Made the effort to look interested and jealous, which she figured he expected. He had deflected all her questions about her stolen Charm and whoever was data-mining her Cloud. “It’s being taken care of,’ was all she got.

She accepted his bullshit with a smile, and played along. Jien was definitely strung tight – talking too fast, smiling too much – two tells she remembered from when they ran together. The bigger the job, the edgier he got. Way he was acting, he was neck deep in something tectonic. Fake RFID chips on desalination components had nothing to do with it.

Yesterday, he’d said the sky was falling. Seeb was damn sure the Triads weren’t waiting to get crushed.

She had flipped through the Toshiba’s NewsNets that morning. Aside a string of Clar1ty ODs on the waterfront – twenty-seven cases of Rapid Cerebral Hemorrhaging in the last two days – every channel featured a different specimen of former official, each one grimly speculating on the rising tension between the Orbitals and the Trade and Transit Authority. A number of prominent Senators were missing or presumed dead, and while conspiracies were waved off with contempt, there were nagging reports of accidents, explosions, and grainy video of gunmen. Fast, deadly, obviously trained gunmen.

The default demons were conjured yet again. Mention of Khalaf Jones and his Anachronists red-lined the threat level and brought phalanxes of Central Enforcement Armed Response units to Bradbury Space Port, Government Square, the mag-lev stations, ports and major intersections. Live-feed flashed across the screen; everything she’d seen in the KC vehicle coming in the other day, on steroids. One sequence even featured Kalkan Condotta private security guarding the massive Shumai hydro-plant, and the thought of Vasyl made something lurch in her chest.

That made up her mind.

She waved the screen off and immediately divided the entire stack of New Yuan between her purse and her pockets. Next, she double-checked on the wicked blade curled in her purse. Folded a plain black scarf beside it.

Then Vestique jacket, yellow side out.

“Color me gone,” she told her saffron reflection in the window.

Lunch ended, and after more lies and a kiss on the cheek from Jien, Seeb channeled her anger and dusted off some old skills. Been a decade since she had street-hustled, but some things really are like riding a bike…

First, she ganked a very nice, very expensive Bulgari charm from a woman’s bag in the booth behind her, then slipped a glass from the busboy’s tray. Both disappeared in the Vestique’s inside pocket. Seeb gave it thirty minutes before the woman noticed it missing. The DNA from the glass would be enough to activate it.

Following Jien was child’s play. Putting a reason to it was harder. Something to do with betrayal, proving to herself he was playing her. Maybe dig out the how and why.

Jien ‘Luckycat Wong’ Heng was too valuable to risk, which is why he stayed in A-town most of the time. What goes around comes around – unless you’re at the center. And Jien was definitely nestled in the core of the Triad universe, tight as a tick. He had bodyguards, but Seeb was confident they were watching him, not her. So she window-shopped down the crowded avenue after him, coy and careful until he ducked into an underground parking garage on the corner of Russo and Shenzhen. The very edge of A-town.

Even rusty, loosing Cabbage Head was simple: in with a department store mob, up an elevator, reverse the jacket to black, add scarf, then down and back on the street. She spied the kimchee rooster comb as she strolled out, darting around the first floor men’s wear. He’d lose a finger over it, or whatever it was Chinese gangsters did when one of their own fouled up. She gripped her purse strap tighter. Again, not her problem, she told herself as she crossed Shenzhen toward the garage.

Seeb stuck to the shadows, padded down the ramps. He likes to burrow, she reminded herself. Like his lair under the Go Hall. She kept going until she found him.

Lousy place for a tryst, a damp corner on the lowest level. Behind a concrete column, she was surprised to see Jien merited not one or two, but four bodyguards, none of them like Cabbage Head.

They stood with four other men whose high and tight haircuts and off-the-rack suits screamed ‘Central Enforcement’ louder than any siren. All of them clustered around the yawning rear doors of an unmarked white van. Inside, stacked boxes, the kind military or SWAT used for guns and gear. The dour cops appeared to be giving them to Jien.

Seeb frowned, studied the scene. A payoff? Some kind of trade? With Central Enforcement? What the —

A fifth man emerged from the van. Hackles rose on Seeb’s neck.

He didn’t so much step out as flow. Thin and pale, he moved like a water snake, insinuating himself into each location with the same lithe and poisonous motion. He was like the Grafters who killed Ferret. Only worse.

Seeb backed away, edging along the darkened wall like it was a ledge over a deep canyon. She didn’t know what she was seeing, but it was more than enough.

Another level up, she broke into a run, and didn’t stop until she hit the street.

dm4

On the sidewalk, she smoothed her scarf, jacket, forced herself to walk. Don’t draw attention, her heart pounded out. Nothing sketchy.

She hurried as fast as she dared until she found a narrow cut between two apartments. Tidy, color-coded trash bins lined the passage like giant plastic children’s blocks. The signs were English.

She was out of A-town.

Ripping the Charm out of the package, she pressed the glass on the sensor. There was a long sixty seconds when she wanted to scream before the LED lit green. She was on-line.

She waved up Vasyl’s private number.

“Who is this?” He answered on the third ring, his voice smooth and hard.

Tears welled up. “It’s me, krasavchik. Seeb.”

“Seeb? Where the frak are you? Whose number is this?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What happened? Stepan said some Chinese guys—”

“I’ve had nightmares. Come get me, Vasyl.”

“Where?”

She looked around. “Near A-town. A block or two up from Russo, where Shenzhen turns into Aldrin. By some apartments. Look for me in a black jacket.”

There was a pause as he passed the information on to someone. “I’ve got people nearby. Hang on, lubimka. They’re coming.”

Tears threatened to spill over again. “See you soon, then,” she choked out.

“‘Til then.”

She waved the call off and crumpled against a wall. Ferret’s murder, someone framing her, sifting her Cloud, then trying to kill her. And now Luckycat lying, dealing with the CE. And that man… Thing. What the hell was he–

“Ms. Gilani? Seeb Gilani?”

Seeb looked up. Two men blocked the mouth of the alley. Not Asian – Caucasian, with what looked like comms gear bio-mods laced around their heads, slipped into their ears. Definitely not off-the-rack suits. “We need you to come with us.”

The one on the left pulled a neural stunner, ice-blue tip glowing like a pinprick of lightning. The right one kept his hand under his jacket. Seeb guessed it wasn’t gripping a stunner.

She dug into her purse, wrapped her fingers around the karambit’s handle. The cool metal curled flat against her underarm. She let the purse fall.

“Frak you.”

The one on the left shook his head. Smiled a sad little smile. “Ms. Gilani, there’s no need for that.”

The one on the right chuckled. “Ma’am, that’s inadvisable–”

There was a coughing sound, slapping like stone skipping on water. The man on the right took a step forward, stains blooming on his shirt. He looked puzzled, crumpled to the asphalt. In the sudden gap appeared a stainless steel pushcart with a little bucktooth woman holding a rather large handgun.

The other man dropped the neural stunner, clawed at his jacket. The gun spit again.

The woman spoke over the two prone bodies. “You. Come with me, now.”

Seeb held up her hands, the knife more question mark than threat.

The woman shook her head, made the pistol vanish. “Come – now. No time.”

dm5

Seeb started forward automatically. The woman impatient, stepped around the pushcart, as if to grab her, urge her on. She was at the first of the crayola-bright recycle bins when there was a loud smack on the brick wall across from Seeb, a slam at the end of the alley behind her.

Seeb flinched, eyes darting back and forth as the little woman was thrown toward her like a rag doll. Something like a smashed melon was at her feet. A grimace of buck teeth and one eye. A single thunderclap roiled down the street a millisecond later.

Sniper.

Ice splashed through Seeb, some arctic level of terror, and she ran.

Charm in one hand, knife in the other, down the street, with a white hot spot between her shoulder blades taut and itching. Ready to burst. She ran until her breath came in ragged gasps and her heart pounded in her ears but she didn’t stop until she saw a large black jeep tearing down the street toward her, Kalkan Condotta shield on the door. Stepan at the wheel.

dm6

Deus Ex Mankind Divided

I don’t know who’s writing the Deus Ex storylines, but I’d love to hang out in Montreal Eidos for a couple days, just to catch whatever nano-virus they’ve got. In my opinion, these folks nail it. For me, Deus Ex is the latest iteration of the cyberpunk genre. No contest.
Apparently there’s a bit of controversy over the theme/term ‘mechanical apartheid‘ in the upcoming game. I don’t mean to diminish that dark and difficult chapter of history, but is everyone in the fictional internal narrative/character/game dynamic required to be culturally sensitive/politically correct? Seems a sure formula for bland/homogenized characters and a sterilized story line. Not to mention flat out unrealistic.  Reminds me of certain portions of the evangelical market insisting fictional villains/scenes be de facto half-Christian. (“Bad words! Bad, bad words!”)

That’s another discussion though. Without further adieu, I present this play-through video, swiped from YouTube. Enjoy.

 

Under Strange Stars – out the door.

UNDER_STRANGE_STARS_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inchesThe next installment of The Clar1ty Wars is now available at Amazon for Kindle and other flavors of e reader.

UNDER STRANGE STARS picks up where One Bad Apple left off: Seeb in hiding, detectives Lynch and Sarin chasing a trail of bodies that is only growing longer, a series of vicious terrorist attacks suddenly leaves Drop City reeling.

Both the Corporations and the Du-li independence movement maneuver in the shadows, forging deadly alliances in the fight not merely for supremacy, but the future of the entire Kepler22 system.

Pick up your copy now.

Thanks,

Patrick T.

A shift in Shift Tense

SHIFT_TENSE_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inches_with_bleeds Important Notice to all Eshu International readers.

I have decided to compile the three previously published Shift Tense novellas – Red Flags, Soldier Dreams, and Angels – into a single volume. The serialization strategy did not work as intended and I believe a single novel will serve everyone better in the long run. I apologize for any hassle, misunderstanding, or bad feelings. It was never my intention to inconvenience or mislead anyone.

By way of compensation to anyone who has purchased one or two of the novellas, I am offering all three for free for the next five days, from Feb 12th through the 16th at Amazon. After February 17th however, Shift Tense will only be available in the single volume.

Thank you for your understanding and support.

Best,

Patrick T.

 

 

Here are the links:

RED_FLAGS_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inches

RED FLAGS

 

 

 

 

 

soldier_dreams_typo

SOLDIER DREAMS

 

 

 

 

 

Cover for final installment of Shift Tense.
Cover for final installment of Shift Tense.

 

ANGELS

No free rides on the Amazon?

Red_Flags_17_titleB  RBSampleCover

Trying to offer the first portions of the Eshu International novels Running Black and Shift Tense for Free at Amazon. (The Shift Tense serialization doesn’t work as intended, so Red Flags, Soldier Dreams and Angels would be unpublished, then rolled into one complete volume.)

However, I can’t work around KDP’s minimum .99 pricing.  It seems Amazon no longer lets you offer books at no cost. (why should they, I guess)

So should I…

1. Price them at .99, then use the Amazon Free Book Promotion as often as possible?

2. Leave everything as is.

3. Bin the Free Excerpt idea. Just release Shift Tense as a complete novel and move on.

Any thoughts or experiences on this? Thanks.

***

By the way, Under Strange Stars is still on schedule for late March.

CLAR1TY WARS 2
CLAR1TY WARS 2