Market, Medium, and Motives.

I’m weary of discussions on Christian writing and writers. Wary too. I approach them like the Enterprise meeting an Klingon Peace Delegation: shields at full power. Seeing as I fall outside the norm of evangelical opinion on this matter, I’m braced for the inevitable salvos against my work, motives, and faith, along with the general blunt force trauma of religious weird-think. It’s all rather tedious and discouraging.

However, the movie Fury rekindled my interest in the debate. Rather it reinforced my opinion. Paid to see it on the big screen. In my view, the excellent script, pace, special effects and solid performances make it a worthy addition to the old-school war movies of my youth. I’ll own it on DVD – no question. (Three words: real Tiger tank)

That said, I think the film is also a prime example of credibly integrating faith (Christianity) into a plot. In my opinion, Shia Lebeouf’s character “Bible” comes off not merely the brave soldier and comrade, but a genuinely devout and human one as well. Bible’s faith is organic without being ham-fisted and contrived. By the time we reach the final scene in the turret, the 1 John 2 exchange is as relevant and natural as it is moving.

Let’s be frank though: Fury is not a “Christian” movie. On screen kilo-deaths, hints of off-screen sex, blood, mud and dialogue that red-lines the profanity-meter like soldiers do… we’re off the Christian Broadcasting programming list. It is however a good war movie that also has a devout Christian character and explicit Christian content. All the ingredients combine to make a fine genre film, but not a sermon. Which is my point here.

Loop back to the Christian writing/writers debate – I suspect much of the friction stems from poor judgment of Market, Medium, and Motives. Gratuitous violence, sex, profanity is just that – gratuitous – and inappropriate for the Christian market. I think it also makes a poor substitute for good wordsmithing. Explicit content – Christian or otherwise – may be necessary in the writer’s chosen genre or plot. A writer’s job is to show not tell and create a credible, consistent, engaging world in which the story unfolds. Those are the demands of the medium. To hobble any literary element in the name of religion is not only dishonest but dishonoring the vocation in the sight of God. “Work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work,” Dorothy Sayers noted. A pious hack is still a hack.

The judgment against a writer’s motives is the most tangled issue. As a stained glass artisan, is my work any less inspired, any less valid if I don’t incorporate the shape of a cross into every piece? Is my faith, my salvation, or even my testimony somehow diminished if I don’t? Same for my writing. If I don’t write what amounts to a dramatized sermon, complete with salvation doctrine, (choose your denominational flavor) alter call moments and a repentance prayer, is my work less “Christian”? If my non-Christian antagonists act and speak in non-Christian ways, am I guilty by association? In the minds of some, apparently yes.

In a religion-saturated, Christ-haunted culture, do artists and writers really need to be propping up the same old insular evangelical status quo? Seems a shameful play to cheap seats if you ask me. I rather believe we are tasked with being genuine artisans striving for mastery in our respective fields of labor, implicitly and explicitly expressing the reality of Jesus’ transcendence and redemption in our work, thus engaging our calling and audience in a spirit of honesty and excellence.

Dear God I hope so.

Re-Post: Dear Writer…

In case you missed it, Chuck Wendig’s Dear Writer… is a great article. Read it. It’s crass, clever, and brutally honest. If you write, it’s totally worth your time. Caution – has bad words so beware.

I’m sure someone else has noted it, but ‘Wendig’ is just an ‘O’ (as in OMG!) away from the mythological, Native American, ravenous, demonic, flesh eating, demi-beast, (and uber-cool comic book villan) Wendigo. Just sayin’

Have a Happy Trick or Treat.

Gotta track down these artists



Atmosphere, character and dynamic…

I’d love to hire these guys to illustrate excerpts from my books. I only wish my word-smithing were on par with their artistic skills.

I recognize the beauty, power and value of well-crafted words, but think fitting visuals compliment the experience and potentially engage the audience on broader, deeper levels. I know we mustn’t judge a book by its cover, but I’ve heard the industry quip the cover is the most important page.

On that note – Michal Oracz just agreed to draw up the cover for the next Clar1ty Wars installment, Under Strange Stars.

Stained Glass for The Barrow Lover

Finished this today, a stained glass panel I plan to give away as part of the initial promotion for my upcoming novella, The Barrow Lover.

Foil-wrap construction, the panel measures 20.25" x 20.25"
Foil-wrap construction, the panel measures 20.25″ x 20.25″ and features hand-beveled glass and various antique and textured art glass

Slated for an October release, (cross them fingers) I’ll be sending off Galley Copies to potential reviewers, contacting independent review sites, running targeted FB ads and all that jazz. But in appreciation to those gracious enough to buy and read my book, I decided to create this piece as the grand prize in a drawing. I’ve planned two other, smaller Celtic panels for second and third place prizes.

TheBarrowLover 2 preview-1

Wait, you’re giving this away? Like, for Free? What’s the catch, you ask?

All you need to do to enter is write an Amazon review for The Barrow Lover. Once The Barrow Lover gets 50 reviews, I’ll draw three names at random. The first two will each receive a smaller panel, the final pick receives this. Winners will be announced here at the blog, and where ever else I can get it posted.

CelticA 009

One entry per review per person. (No sock puppets, please) Due to shipping expenses and customs, this contest is only open to people in the ConUS and Canada.

Feel free to ask questions here. Drop me a line if you’d like to receive an advance copy.

A thousand thanks.

Patrick T.

Plug for ‘Story’

Of the hundreds of ‘How to Write’ books, I suspect there are very few you actually need. “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s Writing Fiction workbook, and How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy helped me tremendously. Add in Steven Pressfield’s ‘War of Art’, and Stephen King’s Memoir on Craft.

But STORY by Robert McKee is dope-slapping me in the best possible way. I haven’t highlighted and underlined a book in years. This however is so perceptive and articulate, not only am I marking it up like a middle-schooler, I’m reading portions aloud to my wife. Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Looking back over the last four years, if I’d only read this first…

By way of example, here are excerpts for all the ideological writers. (that includes Christians) who weigh their stories to the point of painful contrivance.

When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. In your zeal to persuade, you will stifle the voice of the other side. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay (story) will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society.

Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your controlling idea, but its victory over the enormously powerful forces you array against it.
Story, Robert McKee. p 121,122

A novel is not a painting is not a symphony is not a film is not a sermon. Each discipline has its own requirements, opportunities, and boundaries. Be true to the one you’re called to. Pick this book up if you write fiction. Read it if you want to learn to write well.

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”

― Flannery O’Connor

Dainty Monsters (a Clar1ty Wars story)

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.

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…

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 had a kid – and she let him eat batsicles – she’d 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.

***

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.

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.”

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.

Stuck at 39

running-black
Running Black reviews, that is.

Here’s the ask: if you’ve read and enjoyed RB, would you do me solid and fire off a short, honest review on Amazon? Cresting 40 is an itch I’d like scratched – and sock puppets aren’t my thing.

Thanks much. Back to writing.

The Grim Fall 3: Luck

Three: Luck

The Black Sands was a beggarly name for an Orc settlement. Before the Grim Fall, a war-horde thundering out of the Unaka Mountains would shake the earth and chill the blood of every king within five-hundred leagues. Now the scraps of the Unaka greenskins eked out an existence in an old iron mine bored in the flank of Mount Geichak. No more Blood Tusk, Gate Smashers, or Gruumsh’s Fist; the place was named after the mounds of tailing swathed on the mountain’s slopes.

When the end started, orcs and goblins all over the region sought refuge in the mine’s twisty dark. As the heavens convulsed and continued to vomit ruin across the land, hundreds of refugees like Addas – greenskin or otherwise – streamed up to the headlands begging food, shelter, the slightest respite from the devastation. Thousands crammed into the mine, the swelling numbers spurring frantic excavation. Spent shafts were re-opened, cramped caves chiseled out, propped with scree and dry-rot timber. Desperate survivors clawed out miles of new tunnel, all twisted, looping, jumbled as a mass of chicken guts. The old mine grew into an underground city; a precarious warren of dark, foul-aired safety that offered a mountain of rock between them and the ruinous skies.

The ancient cliff-side forge was fortified, walls heaped ever thicker and higher with fresh rubble until the ledge around the mine entrance bristled with squat towers, crude bastions and craggy ramparts. Orks known more for tearing down than building, the defenses were thick, ugly things of black stone and slopped mortar. But they stood. In fact, walls of the Black Sands were one of the few barriers between the fragments of the old world and the ravenous brutality of this shattered new one.

Wind knifing into his back, Addas trudged down to the main gate and pounded on the iron-clad beams. It lurched open just wide enough for him to squeeze through, the tower guards spitting their welcome as he passed below their windows. Those orcs huddled around the braziers sneered, but made no move to stop him; the sledge was loaded. Addas figured contempt was the softest cruelty. First dibs on his kills guaranteed they left it at that – most of the time. Or perhaps it was just too cold to give up their spot near the coals.

When he reached the center of the yard, Addas drew the sledge around in front of him, slyly tugging the canvas back to reveal carcass’ meaty flanks. It was a ritual, like a whore hitching up her skirt, he realized. Then he plastered a dumb look on his face and carefully wrapped himself away.

The mine’s entrance gaped low and round like a mouth moaning in the dark cliff face. Warm, rancid air rushed out bearing traces of cooking oil and roasted meat, the musk of livestock, wood smoke, and hundreds of unwashed orks and their goblin-kin. The scent of loss, desperation, starvation, cruelty… the scent of home.

The unicorn horn was suddenly heavy between his shoulder blades. He’d snugged it alongside the javelin, out of sight. A search would turn it up straight off, but with any luck, Ogol and Igmut would only have eyes for steak.

‘Ow many times I have to say it boy? Chalk’s voice rasped in his memory. No luck left ‘cept what you make.

To name is to call; no sooner had Addas thought of them, two orc brutes lumbered out of the shadows. Addas would have prayed if there had been anyone listening. Instead, he averted his eyes and hunched slightly as they drew near.

Ogol twirled a thick studded club in his gloved hands while Igmut swaggered ahead with his thumbs in his belt. A warg’s claws had left Ogol with a milky eye and the lopsided stitched face of a rag doll, while Igmut’s jaw and right tusk caught a Dwarf war hammer in a skirmish before the treaties were signed. Twice as stupid as they were ugly, Snat had labeled them ‘Dim and Dimmer’, the little goblin claiming they didn’t have enough brains between them to organize a hump in a brothel.

Before the Fall, Ogol and Igmut were foot soldiers in the Unaka mob. Hearing opportunity knocking in the apocalypse’s thunder, they started calling themselves ‘captains’, riveting shiny bits to their armor and demanding salutes. Now watch commanders, they spent their days bellowing orders and lurking at the mouth of the mine where the air was cleaner but still warm from the depths. Where they could pinch a bit of everything that came in or out.

Ogol’s beefy hand thumped Addas in the chest. Igmut circled behind.

‘Wha’chu got there, runt?” Ogol demanded.

Addas kept his eyes down. “Horse.”

“‘orse, he says.” Ogol smacked his lips. “Rare find, runt. Horse is good eatin’.”

“Where’d you find ‘orse ’round ‘ere, piglet?” Igmut grunted over his shoulder.

“South of the ridge,” Addas lied. “Near the old road from Dumovaar.”

Ogol flung back the tarp and smiled all teeth. He swallowed hungrily and took a step forward, but then his one good eye narrowed. He stopped, looked Addas up and down. “What happed to its ‘ead?”

Addas shrugged, tried to sound tough. “Fecker kicked me. So I bashed him with a rock. Made him stop.”

Igmut had come around to stand beside Ogol. “That’ll do it,” he chuckled nastily. He slapped his partner’s shoulder. “C’mon. Cooks need to see this.”

But Ogol was on the scent. He took another step, thick muscles sliding under his green skin. “So how’d ya get that gash?” He pointed to Addas’ chest. “Hoofs don’t do that.”

Addas flushed. He hoped it looked like shame. “I slipped,” he stammered. “I tracked it through the Razors. I was creeping over the karst like I seen you do when ice took my feet right out from under me. Damn near cut my own head off. Chased him two miles after that.”

Ogol shoved Addas, sent him backward onto the frozen dirt. “Clumsy git.” Laughter erupted from the gate.

Igmut hawked up a gob and spat at Addas’ feet. “That’s cause you’re only half orc, runt,” he belched out. “Pink little piglet like you will never be good as us.”

Ogol loomed over Addas and hauled him to his feet. He pulled him up until his warty, tusked face was inches away. “Fecking weak is what you are,” the orc growled. “Useless. Can’t hardly kill a mangy ‘orse.”

Addas hung his head. Play the part, he thought. Let them see what they want.

“Piglet and the ‘orse,” Igmut guffawed. “Now there’s a battle, eh?”

Ogol pushed Addas aside, bent and hefted the corpse over his shoulder. “We’ll get this to the cooks for you, runt.”

Igmut on the other hand, rummaged around in his trousers and started pissing on the sledge. When the last drops spattered out, he gave Addas lopsided leer. “Cleaned some of the blood off for you, piglet. See to the rest of it straight away.”

“Will do.” Addas saluted, then watched the two of them disappear into the cave.

Behind him, the tower guards sniggered. An ice chunk bounced off his shoulder. More laughter. Without a word, Addas stooped for the ropes, straightened the load on his back, and followed after.

An Ocean of Storms

Story from the next Clar1ty Wars installment.

PROLOGUE: AN OCEAN OF STORMS

“– the Check-In at Gate E –“

The man in the deep padded leather couch studied the domes’ apex. Sixteen arched struts joined in a polished steel navel twenty meters overhead. He marveled: it was a flawless join – perfect welding. Not robotic, the man knew: human hands had drawn an electrogas welder over those seams. Some forgotten laborer in a cheap pressure-suit decades ago; skilled and conscientious despite appalling wages and the relentless hazards of deep space construction. An anonymous artist. A serf under a foreign sun.

And now, perhaps for the first time, surrounded by all the black and chrome minimalist opulence, someone finally recognized the only authentic achievement in the room.

The ceiling.

The man stopped staring, surveyed the empty lounge. The Executive Lounge. He bristled at the title. More like executive waste. Here he was, one person in a bubble of light and warmth and oxygen that could easily house fifty. Oblivious, entitled, decadent, the Profligate wrung wealth from the sweat and air of thousands of people slaving in the outer stations – people like the nameless worker – then flaunted it in places like this. Profane is it was.

God damn them all.

The tall windows encircling the room swelled with deep, star-dusted black. The lights at the spaceport’s landing pads were bright enough to edge the rough gray of the crater lip in the windows on his right. Without a reference, he couldn’t gauge the distance, but the glass panels were so clear, he swore he could have stepped out one of the frames and bounded across the dark basalt.

He snorted. The electro-stat needed to keep this view dust-free for a month probably cost more than he made in a year. More squandering. He ground his teeth. His old suit, a few hours oxygen, a good ship, and he could be far away from this blight, this mockery, back where God spoke in the endless silence among the frozen dunes. Back where he belonged.

But no. Leaving wasn’t an option. The Prophet had declared a great and effective door was open – only for a season. They must move swiftly, at any price.

“– Jumaat please report to –“

And what a price. He tugged his shirt collar for the hundredth time. The tie was still tight, but not knowing how to retie it, he feared loosening it further. The jacket, with its smooth, iridescent silk, bunched under his arms and cinched around his waist. This mission must have cost the brothers dearly; the outfit, a new identity, a Movado Charm, this Shuttle ticket. Yet he had been assured even such extravagant sowing would reap a thousand-fold reward. How then could he refuse?

God willed it. He was coming home.

Drop City was below the horizon. He craned his neck nonetheless, hoping against reason the blue and white orb would peek into view.

He calmed himself. This was a layover – a minor delay. Lakshmi Lunar Station was one stop from the end of his journey; he’d be planetside soon enough.
If he wanted, he could watch the azure oceans and pearl-swirled clouds until they broke atmosphere. After all, Executive Class view screens tapped video feed from all around the shuttle, even the cockpit.

Fifteen years ago, he had been certain he was gone forever. Sentenced to permanent indenture to the biotech giant Genzyme, he been assigned to their deep-space arcology near the gas giant Zang Guo. That day, booster’s shuddering, he had elbowed his way to a bulkhead seat and stared for hours out a tiny porthole, first at the receding pale blue orb, then when the tears dried, at the stars.

There was so much light. He had been stunned to think of space as bright; a billion suns scintillated in the void. The farther out, the clearer they were. Sorrow begets revelation begets rebirth. This too was from the hand of the Almighty.

That was long ago and he was here now. Today.

A wall screen beside him pinged on. Twice his height, it blossomed in high-def color. Are they blind as well, that it needed to be so huge? At least the Auto-Serve had stopped pestering him about alcoholic beverages.

Two News Net personalities began blathering about a mega-storm south of Drop City’s equatorial land-chain. Massive oceans and twin moons conjured furious weather patterns on a gigantic scale, and Drop City’s southern hemisphere was particularly volatile. Oceanum Procellarum, they called it. An Ocean of Storms.

“– please report to the Check-in at –“

The broadcast’s satellite imagery flashed a cotton swirl arcing across a bed of jade-blue. The inane, frowning faces of the newscasters gazed thoughtfully at projected path icons and wind speed data as if they were divining arcane symbols of life and death. Raging thousands of kilometers wide, the storm churned northward toward the capitol.

He smiled at that. He realized years ago irony was God’s most common figure of speech. A storm was coming indeed.

“Will Mr. Tenuk Jumaat please report –“

That name…

He froze. Panic tingled down his spine. Why were they calling him? Had he missed something?

His cell leader had drilled vigilance into him: every step closer brought another level of surveillance. Threatened, defensive, the Orbital Corporations and their TTA lackeys layered it around their dens: soldiers, monitors, retinal scans, voice and facial recog-ware, chemical and biological sniffers… Paranoia revealed their corrosion, their weakness. He can never relax.

He glanced around without moving his head, checked the reflections in the glass. No CE uniforms burst in, no security turrets sprouted up, no micro-drones…

“Will Mr. Tenuk Jumaat please report to the Check-In at Gate E.”

He stood, swept his hair back, smoothed his jacket. Slender, with dark, delicate Malay features, he looked every inch the refined technocrat. The skin next to his eyes was still tender from where they lased the crow’s feet smooth. Spacer Squint would have been a dead give-away – something Mr. Tenuk Jumaat would never have.

No, everything was fine. He pulled disdain on to his face like a helmet visor and strode out the door.

Twin female TTA attendants, eerily beautiful in their bio-sculpted symmetry, perked up as he approached the desk.

The one on the left smiled as bright as an arc-light. “I’m so sorry to disturb you, Mr. Jumaat. We are personally informing all our Executive Class Passengers the storm system has delayed all in-bound flights to Bradbury Space Port. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The one on the right checked her station screen. “TTA Control is re-routing shuttles as we speak, It shouldn’t be more than a twenty minutes before we have you on your way.”

Relief washed through him but he nodded thoughtfully, just like the newscasters on the wallscreen. “No worries. It’s the season for storms, right?”

“Exactly,” she said.

The Grim Fall, chapter 2

*No sooner do I decide my next writing project, my work schedule fills up with serious commissions. Ah well, “The best laid plans…” Too much work is a nice problem to have, particularly for an artist.

Here’s chapter two of the Post Apocalyptic fantasy, currently titled “The Grim Fall.”

Two: Tracks

The snow stopped on the way back to Black Sands. Hunched against the cold, dragging the sledge, Addas was too busy not breaking a leg to notice the exact when. The ridge trail though the pass was treacherous at the best of times, but the storm had draped a coat of ice slick as lies over every rock and hole. Each step was a wager. Wasn’t until a huge shadow skimmed the ground, something long-tailed and jagged, that he looked up.

It was vanished in a blink, swooping behind snow-piled crags, its screech shattering the brittle air behind it. Addas threw down the ropes and abandoned the sled, floundering through drifts to the nearest ledge. He tucked himself as far back as he could, shivering against ice-ribbed granite, craning his neck, javelin ready. The bloody carcass lay in the open thirty paces away like bait, or an offering. Depending…

All manner of things roamed these mountains now. It was six kinds of stupid to stand and see what turned up. Hide and peek was the smart game, fear the key to staying alive.

Near the end, when Chalk was wheezing, hacking up bits of lung, he would yell at Addas to pack a big dose of it whenever he went outside. The world had turned a darker shade of murderous, the old orc snorted; fear would keep him breathing better than anything else.

Addas was the only scavenger past the gate today. Two leagues distant, he’d get no help in a real fight.

But he was used to that. So Addas studied the grimy vault of the sky while his teeth chattered out a hundred count.

The storm had hammered the clouds into a blanket of dirty wool stretched over the peaks as far as he could see. In the west, a pale sun oozed behind them like a wound under gauze, its sick light bruising their edges purple and yellow. The dark stone scarps of the Unakas rose like walls all around him, a north wind moaning off their peaks. Other than the creak of snowfields on the mountainsides, the uplands felt as still as a crypt.

Not that quiet was ever a sign of safety – usually the opposite – but with no second shriek, no new slice of shadow, Addas finally thrashed his way back to the sledge, warily took up the ropes and shouldered on.

***

Two hours later, he stood bone-tired and shaking in the ruins of Gruumsh’s Henge, overlooking the settlement. Down slope – five hundred paces to be exact- squatted the thick walls and mawing cave, the entrance to the Black Sands. Addas could see the second watch crowded around glowing braziers, weapons stacked, their thick armored shapes bunched like cattle. He watched them as he flexed warmth back into his hands, almost feeling the delicious burn of the coals, smelling the singed hair, the baked iron and body stink. At this hour, cooking smells would be wafting up out of the mine tunnels. Smells of home.

“Home. ” He spit out the word.

Truth was there was nowhere else to go. The thought of going down the slope, through the gate and descending into mouth of the cave chilled him. Addas almost felt safer here, in the big outside, in the freezing rubble. Almost.

At least out here he could catch his breath with no one jeering, booting, shoving him into the next filthy job. Privacy like this, moments alone were rare as eggs, and Addas snatched them whenever he could. He soaked them in, squirreled them away like the memory of sunshine against the dark.

Addas had discovered this refuge by accident years before, in the wretched, blighted weeks of the Grim Fall. The world tearing itself apart, he’d been thrust from despair and confusion straight into Chalk’s cruelty and the orc clan’s contempt. Refugees were boot-scum and a plague; more mouths to feed, strangers who took up space. Anyone not blood-bound to the clan was kicked, lashed, abused. He and the other fugitives fought dogs for scraps and a place to lie down. Only those who worked could stay. Being youngest and a half-breed at that, when Chalk wasn’t beating lessons into him, Addas emptied the shit pits, two buckets at a time.

He studied the calluses on his palms and kicked a lump of brown ice. It skittered and smashed against a stump of carved granite. Two rows of them, broken pillars, lined either side of the hilltop. Gruumsh’s Henge had been the heart of greenskin power for centuries, the orc deity’s stone colossus bellowing perpetual defiance from its sacred plateau across the circle of the world. Hordes of pilgrims would gather every year for his bloody, brutal festivals, pledging blood, strength and eternal fealty.

Part citadel, part arena, part temple… it was one of the first casualties in the war, smashed like an egg by some Elvish godling’s wrath.

The temple’s massive stones had been heaped into walls around the settlement’s entrance, but the feet were rooted too deep, too solid to break apart.
Out of sight, out of the biting wind, ankle deep in filthy slush, Addas squatted in the lee of the Boots, two gigantic mounds of marble – all that remained of Gruumsh One-Eye’s great statue. The Black Sands clan dumped their filth there now. And Addas had brought most of it up the slope two buckets at a time.

The wind bit into his skin and the shadows were lengthening on the mountains. Addas sighed, turned to pick up the ropes. Then he spotted the tracks.

They came straight up the valley, made a wide path churned by riders. Lots of riders. Whoever it was had scuffed through the icy crust down to the mud; a shit-stain on a swathe of frozen linen, arrowing right toward the main gate.

Caravan wasn’t due for another month, Addas mused. Raiders then?

He crept out of the stones’ shadow to peer down at the walls again. Cocked his head for screams and ringing steel, but the only thing drifting on the air was oily smoke off the fires. Everything was business as usual.

Not raiders. Then who?

Forewarned is forearmed, he remembered Chalk saying. Addas coiled the sledge’s ropes, set them down, then slid down the reverse slope out of sight of the walls and crouched beside the trail.

He traced a deep print with his finger. Not paws, so it wasn’t wargs. Not that there were many of the giant hyenadons left alive, but a few had survived with the orcs and goblins who fled underground. They were reserved for clan chiefs and favored warriors.

The tracks weren’t split-toe great boars either, so it wasn’t Orcs from the Craters either. Weather this time of year ruled them out anyway. No, the hard crescent imprint meant shod hooves, which meant ponies. And ponies meant Dwarves, and Dwarves meant trouble. Graspy, bearded little feckers.

Dwarves any day set the Orc Chief on edge. Large bunch of stunties pounding at the gate unannounced would make him nastier than usual. And seeing as slop runs downhill, the Chief would vent his spleen on the clan, and the clan would take it out on him.

“Shit and shit again,” Addas spat.

He almost turned around right then. Almost.

Chalk had told him about his ‘bolt hole’ the week before he died; a tiny hollow on the western cliffs. There was enough kindling and unicorn to hold him a while, providing he was sparse about it.

Addas looked up at the sky and wondered how much daylight was left. Enough to reach the cave before night? Time ran strange these days, sometimes greasy fast, other times the sun seemed nailed in place. Freezing was better than a beating any day.

But if the Chief sent anyone to round him up and they found him, not only would the beating be worse, but he’d lose a good hiding spot. And maybe get kicked out for good.

Between the sword and the cliff, ain’t you? Chalk sniggered in his head.

“Even dead, you don’t leave me be,” Addas muttered.

The wind dragged a wheezing cackle off into the crags. Resigned, Addas clambered up and shouldered the ropes.

Maybe Snat would have something up his sleeve, he thought as he started downhill.