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Monday, July 11, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 7: In Which You Use Your Flame-Thrower

Last week's adventure here
Part 1 here

You've explicitly asked me not to violate the great Bechdel test record you had going by including your conversation with Melly about the sandal'd Master of the Caves. It would slow down the story anyway, so I'll acquiesce, this once.

I can summarize it in one sentence, though: you don't like him.

Melly shrugs as you reach the end of the desert and, consequently, the end of your conversation.

"Oh my gosh," you interrupt yourself. "Is this a town made of candy?"

Melly glares at you.

"What? Have I offended some local custom?" Is this like when you thought Melly was a fairy or a space dwarf just because she was short? "Do they think candy is a diminutive term for their valuable architectural achievements? I don't mean it that way!"

Melly glares more.

"Or are their customs an offense to you? Are bright colors and simple shapes some kind of obscenity where you come from?" You're trying to wrap your head around Melly's glare, and it's only intensifying as she tightens her vest around herself and marches down a street that to you seems to be laid with swirled red and white mints instead of cobblestones.

"Wait, is it me? Are you upset that I'm so naive about your world as to think you people would make stuff with sugar?"

Melly almost groans aloud. You can't help but pick a marshmallow off a lady's windowsill, and you find it's sweet and squishy just as you thought.

"Wait, it's totally sugar! Why are you judging me?" you ask.

Melly moans, finally stopping now to catch you mid-reaching-for-another-bite. "Oh heck no, you did not just eat a windowsill," she says.

"It's your fault!" you cry. "You're glaring at me! I get nervous when people glare at me, and when I get nervous I get sugar cravings!"

"You're jus' the kinda person I don't ever wanna be," Melly mutters.

You don't respond to that. You're taken aback by the sudden disgust from someone who's supposed to be your wise guide. It's like a betrayal. It hurts.

She goes on, as if just in case you thought it was an accident: "In any way." And she turns to keep walking.

When suddenly her step lands in a shadow.

The shadow squelches.

"Oh, snap," Melly says.

The shimmering goo's spread all over the street--you see it now, thin, almost transparent, but it's the same black goo that possessed the tree, the maiasaura-killer, now suckling on the sweet graham cracker rooftops and gum-drop bushes with a rhythmic, undulating pulsation and sttttthhhhh sound--

And it's growing up Melly's ankle!

You scream and the flame-thrower comes to life. You're attacking the goo on the street, rounding Melly, trying to cut the portion on her off from the greater body of slime. It shimmers off the roofs, slurps off the bushes, no longer spreading itself thin as it gathers into one mass--one mass bigger than you, bigger than this whole little town, towering over your tiny spurt of flame.

You're pulling the trigger with one hand and holding the weight of the hot barrel with the other hand as the whole contraption shudders in your arms, shaking your whole small form. You feel yourself jiggling, jiggling like the slime rising above you like jello, like the jello you saw in the cave, wait is the cave-master the creator of the slime, is--oh gosh it's hot around you, the thing is bubbling, the goo is melting, it's--but it's still on her leg!

Melly's behind you now, and kicking her ankle against the mint-stones. "Whatchoo lookin' at?" she yells. "Don't look at me, look at that!"

You whirl. The wave of slime crashes down towards you.

I'll see you here next week.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 6: Meet Your Trusty Flame Thrower

Previous chapter here
Beginning here

Your sandals crunch over diamond dust. The green liquid flowing throughout the room's intricate designs glows pink, and then gold, and then emerald again, and everything glitters--everything, off into the distance, as far as you can see. You're hunting for glimpses of that Person who just disappeared, peering into the light and shadows for the hint of a tunic, a coattail, a sparkling eye...

As you trot through the Cave of Gifts you hear and don't hear as the sandal'd Person, the master of the talents, explains the rules to you. You hear, because you suddenly know the direction you need to go, but you don't really hear, with your ears, or see the wearer of the sandals again. You've been given five coins, because you chose five, instead of one, or ten. A twinge of annoyance tells you if you'd had a positive outlook, and the faith to think something good would happen, you would've chosen ten, and now had ten items to help you on your quest instead of just five--but you brush that twinge away with a shake of your nappy hair and move on. You had no way of knowing the offer wasn't ten slaps in the face or something. Isn't greed a bad thing, or whatever?

Now you have mountains of treasure to scale, and something tells you there's a time limit. Black sailing trunks, wooden pirate chests, golden Pharoah-style boxes, pile around you towards the ceiling far, far above your head. Some of the piles look almost hilariously precarious, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Little signs mark the boxes, by group: "artistic abilities," says this sculpted structure made of boxes of all shapes and sizes, dripping with drooping clocks. "Physical strength" says a placard in front of green crates arranged in perfect steel lines. The coins you have in your hand appear to fit the slots in the boxes.

My goodness, you wonder, out of all these choices, how will you make the right choice? Is there a right choice? What if you need something later that you forget to choose now?

"Am I going to make a mistake, here?" you ask the voice in the room.

"Don't worry," he says. "Some of your talents are predetermined. Some of them you can choose to cultivate."

"So, in practical terms…"

"Some of your coins only open one box. Two, in your case. The other coins open any box within a group--so, for example, within the group of musical abilities, you can choose whether to invest your talents in composition, performance art, technical piano skill, or something else, and so on. The boxes, you see, are your gifts."

You're overwhelmed by all this choice. "Wait. Wait," you say. "So I can choose my abilities, but not my gender? How is that fair?"

A double laugh, like a tinkling melody over a solid baseline, echoes through the cavern. "You're really stuck on this, aren't you."

You cross your arms. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You complained to Melly about being a girl, too."

"Yeah, and?" You cross your arms even higher up your chest.

"Tell me, do you know the effects of estrogen and testosterone on the brain?" The voice challenges you. "Specifically, on the developing fetus?"

"I--no."

"Well I do. I invented biochemistry."

"What? You can't 'invent' biochemistry. That's something that evolved naturally, like language, or finch beaks."

He laughs at you again. He's infuriatingly beautiful in his arrogance, and you've never thought that about anyone before. You're strong and independent and you hate cocky bastards.

"Contrary to the rumors, I am not a bastard, my dear." He adopts a Victorian English voice for a moment, and then giggles like a little girl you once knew from Georgia. "I do know what it's like to be one. I know what it's like to be anyone, and anything. And I know everything about chemicals, and especially the bags of chemicals that make up the little people who come into my world, Soul-Linker." You see something like a wind, a sprite, a flurry of snow jump from one precarious gift-tower to another. The tower sways, and you step back from it. He laughs again, this time in a voice you imagine Blackbeard the pirate once owned. "Every chemical in your body works together in a special way to equip you as a protagonist for a story built especially for you. Estrogen and testosterone are no different. They interact with every other system in your body, and just like every other system in your body, from the histamine your immune system produces to the histamine your brain produces, from the way serotonin affects your blood vessels to the way it affects your depression--these chemicals build your soul. The differences in the people produced by different mixes of chemicals matters. You can't ignore that."

You're not fooled with the pretty woo-woo words. You see past it to the identity politics underneath. "So you're saying my gender is determined by biology," you say.

He laughs again. "I'm saying there's no such thing as 'your gender'."

"Wait…"

"There's no reason to worry about it! You have some chemicals that make you a certain way, and that way is great! It won't stop you from doing what you need to do--au contraire, my dear," sniffs Pepe Le Peau's Frenchness. "This combination will equip you to excel. You are a girl because that ratio of estrogen, and that biology, works best with the other chemicals in your body to create the perfect formula for what you need to do. It's basic creative biochemistry."

"You can't just cite an imaginary branch of biochemistry without some kind of specific--"

He interrupts you. "Tell me." A deep, Maasai warrior's threatening lion growl shakes the nearest gift tower, and it topples. "Tell me, do you know how to navigate time?"

You're confused by the question. He repeats.

"Do you know your future? Do you even really remember your past? How are you sure of anything, with your flawed memory and limited powers of observation? Do you understand the alternate time streams screaming around you at speeds you cannot fathom, and do you know how they interact with the hundreds of other choices hundreds of other people are making at this very moment?" His voice rises in a primal, guttural crescendo. "Tell me, Soul-Linker! Can you navigate time?!"

"No, I--no one can," you stutter.

"I can. I know every twist and turn of this story, and I know what kind of protagonist we need to navigate it. I know the biochemical recipe for said protagonist. And it involved a certain amount of estrogen."

"I suppose, then…" You mutter. "I suppose I could be a physical girl, but still identify as a boy."

"What does that even mean?" All the gentleness in the world, and yet all the laughter, all the smirking and all the kindness, plays in that question. 

"I don't…want to be limited by…by societal constructs."

"And so you're bending to them, inventing 'boy' and 'girl' based on something other than measurable reality. No, Soul-Linker, a girl is you. You decide how to be it, and then just be. Anything else is spitting into the wind."

 You huff, and your crossed arms cross even tighter and higher, until you almost cannot breathe. 

He sighs, and for once the laughter is gone. "Soul-Linker, you only know what is best for someone's story if you really love that someone. You're here trying to determine the character traits for your own story, but how do you know you aren't being self-destructive? Do you truly, truly love yourself?"

"Don't psychoanalyze me. Of course I love myself. I've got great self-esteem."

But you know, deep down, that you doubt. Everyone does. And he knows, too.

But he doesn't call you out on it. He says: "Even if you do love yourself, you will never love yourself as much as someone outside you can, because you can't see all of yourself without a mirror. You will never be able to objectively look at the real YOU, and want the best for YOU at any cost." A whisper like a fairy's wings hums and tickles your heart. "Because the greatness you call Yourself is too deep, and big, and grand to be truly known by someone with a finite brain."

"Wait, is that a dig? What are you saying?"

But there's a sensation like the wind is sucked out of the room, or like the light's dimmed, even though actually nothing's changed at all, and suddenly you realize he's not there anymore, and you're alone.

Alone to choose your gifts, and hence your path, without any answer to your question of why. Why doesn't his "biochemistry planning" argument apply to choosing your abilities? "If I'm so incompetent, why trust me with anything at all?"

Because the greatness you call Yourself is too deep, and big, and grand to be truly known…

Clearly he doesn't think you're incompetent. Maybe choice isn't all or nothing.

"I want all the choice, or none of it," you grumble anyway. He's made a bad first impression, this master of these caves, and you hope not to see him again. Best get what you need for your mission and go.

Alright, so for your mission you need knowledge about the environment. Best go to a smarts pile first. Yes, you do have a token that matches the symbols on this pile about academic intelligence. You search until you find a box for "ecology," and slip the coin inside. It pops open, and green smoke flickers out and into your lungs, and while you don't feel any smarter you hope that did something other than make you cough. With four more boxes to go you open a treasure chest with a flame thrower--good against scary dark goo, you hope--and a treasure chest marked for long-distance hiking, which bursts like a bubble to spill red liquid and autumn leaves all over your sandals. Two boxes to go.

You soon realize these are the abilities you don't get to choose--you can't find any slot for them to fit into! One of them glows as you pass the humor pile, and while you try it in all the different boxes--stand-up comedy, musical humor, hilarious writing--you can't make it fit any of the abilities. When you finally get to a lonely box covered in brown muck marked "the ability to burp any word", you almost scream in rage. "Are you kidding me? We're wasting a whole talent on this?!"

You expect to hear the cave-master giggling, but there's only silence.

With a grumble you crawl over a huge pile of gold coins--some of which you shove into your pockets, just in case, because even though they don't fit into any of the chests money's always good to have. The metal's cool and slippery under your fingers, and you slide down the dune with a clinking, rushing whoosh, rolling to a stop at the foot of one giant, lonely chest. It's as tall as a maiasaura and as wide as an elephant is long, and as you reach up up up on your tippy toes for the slot you almost can't get your last coin in---

It falls in with a lovely hum, and the box gently fades away to reveal the word compassion floating inside it like a pink cloud. It dissipates on your breath, and you're left standing in its wake with a warm feeling in your tummy.

Is that a thing? Do some people have a natural disposition towards compassion that others have to work for? Is that "natural talent" because of their upbringing, or are people born that way?

"My, you ask a lot of questions," Melly says as you blink.

"What the..."

You're out in the blazing desert again. The tough little person squints at you from under her umbrella; a small hole in the ground, just the size of your shoe now, slurps shut behind you.

You're left standing in the sun with two pockets full of sand.



Begin your journey with your flamethrower next week. Suggestions on what to name it?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 5: Your First Talents Quest

You came from here
Beginning here


Image courtesy of emaze.com

You're not sure where the hole in the earth came from, but suddenly the air's cool, then cold, then damp and freezing as you plummet. You look up--Melly's face disappears, the hole closes, and darkness closes over you.

You land in warm, bouncy jello before you have a chance to scream. Good thing, too--it splashes all over your face as you sink a good meter or two into it, and who wants mystery jello in their mouth? You flail, and find it's not sticky, and with some climbing and some splashing you wade or waddle your way to the top and flounder out onto a cool dirt floor.

It's cool because of its low temperature, but also, you notice, because of elaborate arabesques tracing it in thin ditches. A squelch sounds behind you, and you see the jello melt in its crater, and trickle into the arabesques, lighting up the floor with neon-green designs. 

The designs glow as the jello flows towards a center, a bubbling pool in the distance. A smell like lime wafts into the air from the pool's steam. You step forward, following the designs--

When you look back, the swirls behind you have dried, empty of their shimmering liquid. Thick darkness hugs your back. Oof, that's ominous. You scurry forward to stay in the light, following the designs as their pouring glow leads you toward the pool.

"Am I alone?" you ask the cave.

No one answers. You take that as a yes. You take a moment to remind yourself why you're standing here in sticky lime-scented steam: you'll discover your talents, use them to unravel the mystery of the black goo disease, and in the process discover who your mystery lover is. You're a little iffy on that last part, but hey, you clicked this link because deep down, you know you need to be loved.

You don't want to admit that to yourself, because that sounds wimpy. 

Does it? Has Melly rubbed off on you?

Anyway, you're now standing in front of the bubbling green pool. You walk around it--

And the floor tilts with your weight. "Whoa!" You stumble backwards as a whole plate of ground shifts. You fall--you tumble as liquid splashes out of the green pool towards you, into another series of designs under your feet, all arrows, pointing to three dirt mounds in the distance. 

You stop rolling at the three dirt mounds. The light flows around them, as if someone literally drew a circle in the floor for you to say, "Here." 

Oh, look, it even says "here" on the ground. Kind of a tacky touch.

So...you're supposed to do something with these dirt mounds.

You step on one. Nothing happens. You sit on another. Well, these aren't buttons.

Gosh, are you supposed to dig into them? What could be in there? Bones? Rotten stuff? Mmm, you'd rather not. You stand, looking around, but now everything's dark except the ring around the mounds. This is where you're supposed to be, alright.

The longer you stare at these lumps of earth, the more certain you become that you'll have to dig them up with your bare hands. You check in your pockets--nope, you've got folded dinosaurs in there. Nothing else. No shovel or anything. Oh man! You don't want to do this! Who would bring you here? What a gross and silly story! This is boring and dumb anyway!

Well, the longer you stand here, the more boring it's going to get.

Ugh, alright, you think. You begin to paw through the center mound--and suddenly your chest hurts.

You stop pawing. Your chest stops hurting.

Oookay...

Now you definitely don't want to do this. That's uncomfortable! It's like you're digging into yourself! Who wants to--

Oh, you get it. It's a metaphor. You have to sit, alone, and really dig into yourself sometimes, to find out what your talents are.

"Hey, that's total cheeseballs," you say into the darkness. "Cheesy!"

No one answers you, because you're alone. With a grumbling murmuring like a wimpy little baby, you--

"Hey!"

Okay, fine, I'll stop calling you a baby if you stop calling me cheesy.

"Thank-you."

Before you can reprimand yourself for talking to the narrator, which is a crazy-person thing to do, you dive back into the task ahead and dig through the center mound. The tenseness in your chest aches, but the dirt's cool, and soft, moist, and soothing in your fingers, and for a moment you remember why grubby two-year-old you liked to make a mess. Fingertips in your cheerios and milk, the cold and the mush and the hard textures all swishing together over your tiny palms...smearing pudding on your high chair, the smoothness, the frictionless rub...why don't you touch more things anymore? You rub your forefingers together, and dirt granulates between them, falling softly. Gritty, not sticky but mushy. Dirt is pretty great. And you know, ever since you were little, people said you were good at...remember? Remember what you were good at?

Aha! The dirt comes away to reveal five gold coins. They're old, and heavy, with faces on them that make you think of museums, archeologists, and Zeus. You brush away the dirt on the other two mounds, and find one coin, and ten coins. 

As the last bit of dirt is displaced the room jerks--the liquid light splashes out of the circle around you into a trough on the wall, and when everything stops shaking you see three switches. The first switch, in front of the mound with one coin, has one slot in it. The second, in front of you and the center mound, has five slots, and the third switch, to your right, in front of the ten-coin mound, has ten slots in it.

It's like a little kid's math book or something when the words "how much" light up on the trough.

It's clear the talents from each mound go into the slots from each switch. Well, which one will you flip? Will you get a chance to flip a second one after a first one? Should you go with one, or ten? Are these ten horrors you're picking, or ten rewards?

You play it safe, right in between, and pick the five-token game. Clink--clunk--drrrrr--cleenk--dunk--each coin falls into its slot with a different noise, and then you pull the switch.

All three switches recede into the wall with a great rumbling noise, and then a stone door pops open before you. You step into the next room with the flow of green light; the door screeches and then thuds shut behind you. Your five coins tinkle and clink through the door to spin on the floor.

As you bend to pick them up, you find yourself kneeling before a pair of sandals.

Sandals with a guy in them. You look up, and he disappears.

He was beautiful.

(Wait, what?)

You stand as the room lights up. It's enormous--so cavernous you can't see where it ends, and filled with golden boxes! Two huge craters of shining jello dissolve next to you as you rise; shining liquid rushes along the room, filling jade curlicues and flowers and stars stretching off into infinity, and in the reflection of the shimmering, racing rivulets of light the golden boxes sparkle as if the room's on fire.

"Welcome," says a booming male voice. "To the Cave of Gifts."

Choose your gifts next week! In the spirit of group participation, please @ me on twitter about your favorite abilities! Jumping high? Drawing beautiful art? A smooth tongue? Powerful axe-wielding? Gifted sword-swinging? Amazing dance moves? What are you good at, and what do you wish you were good at? What might come in handy questing? Feel free to post in the comments, too! Your answers will slightly affect the action in the next section.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 4

Previous part here

Beginning here

Melly's world could fit in your pocket.

It's true: you're carrying twenty dinosaurs, a tree, and a hair dryer in your pocket, all folded up tiny using Melly's pocket-liner and a pair of those weird fingerless gloves motorcyclists wear. You're walking, sore and sweaty, through a dry, rocky, cracked plain under a vicious sun, but at least you don't feel the weight.

"This used to be a riverbed," you say, to make conversation.

"You some kinda geologist?" Melly's walking, too, to save jetpack energy, and she doesn't seem happy that her stride's a bit slower than yours because of her height. She's marching like she's got something to prove. Sweat glimmers under the short hair on the shorn side of her head, like dew on a lawn. The long half of her hair's tangled in a ponytail reminiscent of an actual horse's tail at this point.

"I don't know if I'm a geologist," you say. "I don't know the background of this body I'm apparently forced to be in. I don't know who I used to be or who I am."

"Well, we gotta figure out your talents," Melly says. She wipes her forehead in her forearm, and looks at the sweat for a second before looking accusingly up at the sun. "We'll make a detour through Quest Valley to test you."

"Aren't we getting a little off track? We need to stop the disease destroying your world."

"No, you're here to find out if you're loved or not, and by what or who. Stoppin' the disease is a means ta that." Melly tosses a stone in the air, and it unfolds into an umbrella, floating over her, blocking out the sun.

"Wouldn't that be selfish of me?"

"Depends. Say your good takes you through a journey that helps tha world. That selfish?"

"So the ends from someone else's point of view, which are the means of my point of the view, determines whether my end's selfish or not?"

"Yer getting me lost in word salad. Get over here and shaddup." Melly sits under the stone umbrella and begins to cook a maiasaura steak over a fire you didn't see her start.

You hang back. "I don't want to sit next to the fire," you say.

"But I got shade."

"Shade over fire."

"Mebbe sometimes you gotta pay for shade."

"That's nice and all, but can't you just put the fire outside of the shade?"

Melly tilts her head. Without taking her glance off of you, she scoots back and pulls the umbrella back with her, leaving the fire exposed to the sun like you suggested.

You sit beside her in the shade, and take the dripping strip of meat she offers you. It's hot, soft, stringy in your hands. You've become used to eating like this, without utensils, even though you'd never do that at home. You're much more civilized than that.

You turn to her and smile. She took your advice for once, moving the fire. "So you're not always right," you tease.

"Never said I was. I'm just s'posed to find the meanings in stuff for you." Melly stuffs her face, and talks while she chews. You take tiny bites that sit in your mouth for what seems like ages--the meat's stringy and tough, with a powerful flavor like chicken graduated to red meat and overcompensated.

"What did you do before escorting travelers on adventures?" You ask Melly. "Just chase dinosaurs all day?"

"Travelers? You mean traveler. I never met a soul-linker before."

"How do you know what to do with me, then?"

"He told me."

"Who?"

She tilts her head, as if listening to a voice in the windless heat, or as if adding up chess moves. "Someone who loves you."

"Oh great, this again. I'm still waiting for this to end on some kind of sermon," you smirk.

"Hon, everything in life's a sermon. Anyone who tells you somethin' else is just hiding the fact they're selling something because they know what they're sellin' ain't all that great."

"Sometimes the things you say don't make sense."

"Sometimes the things you say don't make sense," she mocks your tone.

"Excuse me?" You laugh.

"Mee Mur me?" She mocks you again.

"Are you, like, five?"

"Look, I'm hungry and tired, I can't be shoving wisdom down your throat 24-7. Imma open a door to Quest Valley for ya, and you'll Quest for your abilities, and then we'll head to the disease epicenter. That's what you want, right? Epicenters and stuff, to see where the goop's comin' from?"

"Is it that easy? We can just go there?"

"It's simple, not easy. We all know how the disease started. Problem's stoppin' its spread. But we gotta show you the beginning. Maybe see if you got any new ideas about taking it out." She shrugs. "Sound good?"

"We do a lot of planning and not a lot of doing," you observe.

"That's life sometimes. You'll be doing for the next five links. Questin' and such."

"Okay."

"Okay."

She opens a hole in the ground, and shoves you in.

Next link next week. Sorry it's short this week. It'll be more worth it next time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Til Death Do Us Part--An Experimental Tryptich (Lit Flash Fic, G)

Inspired by a woman I met in medical school, and by the deaths on the wards. 
For more free fiction, click here.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 3: Dinosaur Hunting


You trot barefoot after Melly, who floats along on her jetpack through the shadows of the trees in the lengthening afternoon. After just a few yards she taps on another tree.

"Does everyone here live in trees?" you ask.

"T'ain't that we live in trees. We store stuff in 'em." She taps again, and twists a little knot in the bark. A slot opens, far, far up in the top of the tree--"go long," says Melly.

You're not sure what she means until clothing shoots out the top of the tree, rocketing off into the distance.

"Are you kidding me?" You mutter under your breath and take off.

When you find the clothes--a ragged, thick brown pants set and vest made of thick linen, and a lighter, white, baggy linen shirt--they've fallen into a stream. The light plays on the surface of the water as it bubbles and beats across the rocks in a merry way, but your clothes hang heavy, sopping and cold in your hands.

"Ah, sooorry about that," Melly says, emphasizing the "o" in her weird accent--is it Canadian?--as she pulls up beside you and draws a hair dryer from you don't know where. She blows off your clothes, you slip into them, grumbling a bit, and then without a word she leaves, and you follow.

The foliage begins to change as you walk. The leaves seem wider here, with more many-pronged star-shapes, and darker, long fronds, and ferns, and the whole underbrush becomes thicker and softer, and the trees shorter, and soon you break out over hilly plains…

Hilly plains covered with maiasaura! You recognize them by their wide, duck-shaped bills, and their hunched form and hooves. They stand on their back hooves to look around like meerkats, and then drop to trot on all fours, playing with each other and watching over each other, a huge family. Tiny craters dot the hillsides, each just a few feet wide and filled with eggs. Babies play among the hooves of their mothers.

You and Melly crouch in the shadows of the underbrush, just on the edge of the plains, speaking in low tones.

"I hate my job," Melly sighs.

"Wait, these are the dinosaurs you hunt? They're so peaceful!"

"Yeah. Without any predators we got plant-eatin' critters destroying all the forests. Local overpopulation." She unhooks a little box from her belt, and as with the mirror, begins unfolding it until it becomes a large metal claw. "The Forest Guardian before me f*ck'd up, and killed all the carnivores. Or he did what he had to ta protect the local villages without armin' them, I dunno how you wanna put it. But now I gotta clean up." She unhooks another little box, and unfolds a cattle prod. "It's a little like life, yaknow. Without struggle, without teeth, life gets overgrown."

"Overgrown with what?"

"Fat lazy stuff that eats your inner garden."

You're not quite sure what that means, but there isn't much time to think about it. She hands you the cattle prod and the claw. "Crush two eggs from each nest. No more, 'n no less," she says. "Based on my population studies."

"And what will you--"

Your stomach sinks as she re-folds her trident-sword into what looks suspiciously like a sniper rifle. "Imma take out adults."

You're going to vomit. No, this…this doesn't seem like something you want to do. "Isn't there some other way? Instead of killing them?"

Melly crosses her arms. "So you just got here, and you got a dinosaur population degree or somethin'."

"Well no but--couldn't you--relocate them or something?"

"To some place they're gonna mess with the ecosystem, 'cuz they don't belong there? Look, we already got some kinda magic disease spreading across the world, we don't need ta make it worse shipping animals all over the place. I love this herd. I love this world. I'm not too scared to show my love with a knife when it's needed." With that Melly bursts out of the woods, leaping into the air and firing up her jetpack again. She takes off into the blue sky over the herd, far enough away from the dinosaurs that they can neither see nor smell her. You watch her take aim…

There's a quiet zip, and with a mournful groan one of the graceful maiasaura tilts, and thumps to the ground, flesh bouncing like a sack of potatoes once before rest. There's no gunshot. The beasts near the victim dart away, surprised, but there's no stampede, either. 

Another zip. You cover your mouth with your hand as another giant pounds the dust with that same sad lowing. 

Melly flies over the herd like this, and you're counting in your head, unwilling to help her with her unnatural selection but unable to do anything else. Three…four…five…six…you don't want to be here counting, and you don't know where else to be! You're too old to cry over Bambi's parents--but are you, really?

Then, suddenly, one of the creatures breaks away from the pack. It looks to the falling beasts, and to you, you, huddling in the underbrush, doing nothing to help it at all, you, leering over its children like a pervert--

And it charges up the hill towards you.

It comes faster than you can think. You have no contingency plan for charging herbivore dinosaur. It's much larger, growing closer, and now you see muscled shoulders, and the sharp, heavy hooves, and and the sheer mass behind the lowered head, and the steam, almost, coming off the creature in its low, roaring, squealing, shimmering black-eyed rage, it all stuns you with terror no less beautiful than--

You need to run. Hello? Run, or something! 

There's a tree. A many-branched tree--low branches. Like the chestnut tree! You dodge to the side, and grab--and miss! You fall on your butt, and the dinosaur whirls to charge again--you grab again, your palm scrapes in the bark, your feet kick against the trunk, then step on a lower branch, then up, and up, and now you're climbing.

With a whump you almost fall out of the tree as it shakes under the impact of the maisaura's head smashing into it. You hold on. 

But then, the creature smashes again.

And its head splits open on the tree trunk like a rotten egg.

You shriek, more in surprise and disgust than out of fear, as brains and a black goo splatter over the base of the trunk, and the maisaura falls limp. It lies there, bleeding out, without even a twitch as your breathing returns to normal. All is calm. All is disgusting.

Your gasp is out of fear, though, when the black goo begins to ooze up the tree towards you. 

"Holy--"

You're peering squinty-eyed down at it, curious, until it reaches the lowest limb--the branch cracks, and shakes, and with a creak like the Tin-Man relieved by oil the branch begins to move. It reaches for you like a scraping claw!

"Ohhhh no." You climb higher. 

The ooze follows! The branches come to life in your wake, until the whole tree below you begins to shudder, to writhe, with a creaking that sounds almost like a scream, as if the dead beast haunts it. You climb--but now you're standing on branches that bend under your weight, and clinging to a top that sways and sways and tilts further and further and--

Your breath comes in scattered pants, pants that want to become nothing but endless screams, as the wind picks up and you're clinging to soft green thin branches and oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh what even is that oh gosh oh--?

You fall.

You scream.

Your body collides with a mass mid-air--it's like getting punched in the torso with a boulder--and as you're lifted over the treetops you find Melly straining to somehow keep you in her small arms. You cling to her shoulders, and the jet-pack putters under your combined weight.

"Come on," she grunts, and then swears.

The jet-pack roars to life, and you float over the plains to the opposite hill. The tree reaches for the sky with one last screech and then collapses over the forest with a thundering crash and a splattering wave of slick slime.

"What is that?!" you cry.

"That's the disease," Melly says. "That's what's ruining our world."

 ***

You're sitting on a hill overlooking the wasted plain. Melly's already sniped her adult quota, and her egg quota, too, apparently, and you've watched her zoom down to collect blood samples or to use her weird folding technology to wrap a dinosaur body up in her pocket, and she's taking notes and speaking into a recorder on her wrist over the blackened tree and maiasaura corpse, and in some ways it's fascinating work, but you're not helping. She's already killed most of the eggs she planned on killing, and their mothers and father roar at her, chasing under her, away from you, as she flies over their home.

The last nest lies at your feet. You hold the last dinosaur egg in your palms. You imagine smuggling it out, raising your own little baby dinosaur--why not? If it's a pet, it can't escape and mess up the ecosystem or whatever Melly said. You don't know how long this adventure will last, and every little girl's dreamt about riding a dinosaur! Why not?

It's human arrogance. You could spread the 'magical disease,' or something. You know about the zebra mussels, and the Japanese kudzu plant, and all the other invasive species that wiped out native populations because of humans who relocated wildlife without doing any research first. 

What did Melly say? Without struggle, without teeth, life gets overgrown. Maybe it means that other things, every day mundane nothings, and apathetic meaningless comforts, maybe cloud out your purpose, until you can't find it anymore, can't find what you're fighting for because there's nothing fighting back, until you're not doing anything that's even worth fighting you about. Then what? Muscle cells that aren't stimulated with work, with prodding from your nervous system, atrophy and die. On their own. Maybe that's happening to you. Maybe it's why you feel like…dying, sometimes. 

So you'll find something to struggle for. Conflict to drive your story. A goal to make it all worth it. For starters, you'll find out more about this magical disease Melly's on about, and you'll fight to end it. Until the planet can become a place where balance can be restored, and no one has to execute dinosaurs just for living. 

The soul-link begins to fade again, because you're only here to inspire your search for your fight in your real life, but before it fades, you lift the smooth, leathery weight in your palms, crouch over a sharp rock…and crush the egg.

You'll be back for the link next week.



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tips On Small Presses and Punchy Writing From Mystery Author Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz (Alt Title: Inside The Mind of A Man Who Writes About Murder!)



Hey friends, I've got a treat for you today! Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz, a friend of mine and a multi-published mystery author, joins us to share some insight into his writing process and his experience with small presses. One of Dr. HIll's particular strengths is punchy, fast-paced writing, and I know a lot of you out there have questions about that, so I asked him for some tips to share with you all!

Ahem, is this mike working?


Dr. Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of four mystery-thrillers, most recently A Predator's Game from Rook's Page Publishing and Never Kill A Friend from Ransom Note Press. Also the recipient of a number of poetry awards, Dr. Hill joins us today from sunny Puerto Rico, where he currently works as a medical science researcher and Professor of Pharmacology, blending the analytic with the poetic side of his mind.


Dr. Hill, what brought you into writing, in general--and, more specifically, what kindled your interest in mysteries?


Even now I can hear my father's basso profundo
 voice as he reads aloud adventure stories as he once did for me and my brothers. Leiningen Versus the Ants, The Problem of Cell 13, Doc Savage! The singular comfort of written words woven into a net in which to catch both dream and a dreamer: that was my first love of story. The mysteries which I enjoyed were those that created a sense of order, both structural and moral.

I enjoy plot. That draws me to mystery.

You've had a number of eclectic life experiences to draw upon as a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about your murder research?


I spent about a dozen years researching the case commonly called the West Memphis Three. Why? The sheer injustice. The fact that it had become a crowd-sourced investigation and that it was possible to gather more and more clues over an extended period of time. 


As I understand it, your research assisted in getting the case overturned.


I assembled a large website, jivepuppi.com, dedicated to my research and that of others. I have appeared as an expert in the documentary West of Memphis. Because of this experience, I better understand the justice system, police and criminal behavior, and the meaning of evidence and its limits. 


That's really amazing experience to have under your belt as a mystery writer. You also directed a theatre for a while, correct?


I wrote for the theater before my ventures into short stories and novels. It has an artifice, but it also has disciplines that translate into other writing forms. You must set the stage. You must invest the audience (i.e. reader) in what is going on. If I lose my audience, it is my fault. Directing was a hair-pulling experience.

You've also got a lot of experience working with small presses, and a lot of my readers are looking into small press publication themselves. Do you have any tips for them?


After writing several novels for which I could not find a publisher, (about half of them didn't deserve to be published), I turned my sights on small publishers. Almost immediately I received three responses back from three different presses for three different projects. They all were eventually published. What did I learn? 


Small publishers have different levels of professionalism. It is relatively easy to get a novel published (it actually is) but to get a professional small publisher is more difficult. 


A novel needs editing and professional packaging. That's the minimum to ask for from a small publisher. The next matter is publicity. To be in a small press, you are responsible for a fraction of your publicity, from between 50% to 100%. Be prepared for that.


What about writing-related tips? What are your writing strengths, per se?


Writing tips? You'll read a bunch of them on-line. Here's a couple. Choose the strongest, most vivid verb that is supported by what you are saying. When in doubt, be clear.


For more forceful writing, arrange a sentence so that the most meaningful words appear at the end as a punch. Look at this bit of Shakespeare taking into consideration the final word and its adjective or just the final word. 


Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.



Tomorrow, day, recorded time. Then fools, brief candle, poor player, stage, tale, fury - ending with - nothing.

Or if you insist on following the punctuation: dusty death, brief candle, no more, nothing.


It works out to be a bunch of quick punches. I often use this technique to make flaccid sentence firm. Shakespeare also employs another powerful technique here: using a variety of words to convey the same theme. (And other than the triplet of tomorrows, the words are always varied.)


The first theme, time. Tomorrow, day, recorded time, yesterdays, brief, hour.


The second theme, futility and insignificance. Petty pace, fools, shadow, no more, idiot, nothing.


The third theme, story. syllable, player, stage, tale.


My writing strengths? An ability to envision the story I am telling. An ability to hold in mind the big picture while compounding the details. I have a facility for poetry.


That's really helpful, I think. What about weakness--what's a word you overuse, or something else you're trying to beef up about your writing?


My storytelling is somewhat breathless. I generally don't give the reader enough character development and motivation.


I overuse "get" and "give." I have to pore over my stories to look for instances where these words can be changed. I put together my own thesaurus with about fifty words which I can overuse and alternative choices. 


That's actually also a really good tip--a personal correction thesaurus! Writing that one down! Now, for something more fun, to close this out: if you had to describe your writing in one sound, what would that sound be?


If I made this sound, your ears would fall off.


Who's your favorite writer right now?


Right now? At this very instant? Me, since I am busy writing this and I am not reading something else.


Ha! And finally, what are you working on? What kind of cool things do you have coming down the pipe or already out? 


I'm almost done with the sequel to Never Kill A Friend [a police thriller about an African American policewoman taking on DC corruption and human trafficking]. Then on to a short story or two that have been waiting to come out. Then I'll weigh my options on my next novel.


A Predator's Game by Martin Hill Ortiz
Looking forward to it all. Thanks very much for doing this interview with us--I know my readers will want to check out your work,  so I've included a link to your novel about Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes in this nifty picture here for the history mystery buffs. I also encourage readers to check out your blog, where you analyze New York Times bestseller data for authors and break down historical fact and fiction about Tesla, et al, for history fans. 

Thanks for stopping by, everyone! Feel free to share more questions for Dr. Hill below, or tell me this: what are your favorite mystery stories?

Looking for more? Read more author interviews here, or request your own interview with me via twitter, @petr3pan. Looking forward to hearing from you!