New Story: Hunting Trip

I wrote this story out of pain and horror at the Sandy Hook massacre.  It didn’t occur to me then we were on a path to make this story a reality, but now I’m not so sure.  No editor would publish it, understandably. It’s flawed, but it captures the terror I feel about our possible future if people like Bannon are allowed to rise to power.  Do not read this unless you’re  in a good mental space.  This is a horror story.  This story has all the trigger warnings.  ALL OF THEM.  I’m not kidding.  This is the darkest thing I’ve ever written.

 

Hunting Trip

by Jeremiah Tolbert

Dex clamored out of the pickup into the heat-seared air of the disembarkment point. He slung Jane over his shoulder and shuffled his feet in the sand, watching while Dad finished checking his work messages for the thousandth time. Jane vibrated with excitement.

“Calm down,” he whispered and laid his hand across her flank.  She stilled under his touch, and he wished he could calm himself so easily. He’d had two coffees on the drive, and he and Jane had talked the entire drive from the enclave. Dad must have been feeling guilty about their fight earlier; Dex hadn’t needed to argue to keep Jane in his lap for the ride.

The only time Dex saw his father lately was in the news, and when he’d finally come home from his latest trip, Dad had brought up the subject of Dex’s low grade in survival studies. No hello. He’d launched into the lecturing and belittling right away.

“It’s your fault anyway!” Dex had shouted back. “The other boys in my class have actually hunted. How am I going to learn if I don’t do it?  You may be an expert hunter, but are are like the worst dad ever.”

Then he’d done something unexpected. Dad had nodded. “You’re right. I have a week until my next trip. It’s time.”  And off they drove, taking only their companions—not that they needed anything else.

Hard for Dex to believe he hadn’t even wanted Jane at first. It had been at his father’s insistence that he had selected a used companion. Dad would only pay for a companion with experience, but Dex had wanted the latest and deadliest model. Dad won as usual. So Dex refused to speak to Jane for a week.

She wore him down with her stories though. Jane had seen battle action in the Alberta oilfield skirmishes. She knew all kinds of things an inexperienced companion didn’t.  Now Jane was probably the only thing Dex and Dad didn’t fight about lately.

Jane made a ticking sound imitating the old analog clock in Dad’s study. They laughed together and shuffled about. Dex tried not to show his impatience, worried still that Dad would change his mind and drive them back.

After what seems like enough time for stars to birth and die, Dad finally exited the cab, palmed the lock on the travel safe, and lifted Lady Elizabeth into the dry air. Dex’s breath caught.  Where Jane was all function and no form, Lady Elizabeth was a work of art, seemingly carved from glossy black stone; every surface devoured sunlight. She was the most beautiful thing Dex had ever seen.  But she was cold, uncaring.  Not like Jane.  Nothing like Jane.

“Showoff,” Jane whispered, just low enough for only Dex to hear. He giggled.

“You two done screwing around out here?” Dad asked.

“Yes, sir,” Jane said. Dex bit off a retort about how he hadn’t been the one taking forever.  No sense in picking a fight so early.

“Yeah,” Dex said.

“Good.” Dad stifled a yawn. “Assess the situation.  Tell me what you see.”

Dex took in his surroundings carefully like he’d trained. “We’re in the open, at risk from points here and here,” he said, pointing to the ridges to the north and east of their parking spot. “The ground’s mostly dry, but it looks like it rained here a little… maybe yesterday?”

“Early this morning,” Jane murmured.

“No, more recently. Morning,” Dex added quickly.

“Better,” Dad said, smiling a little, white teeth gleaming from his dark beard. “What are these plants?” He pointed to several, and Dex answered confidently.

“Saguaro cactus. Mormon tea. A… very stunted cottonwood tree. Creosote bush.”

“I’m afraid you’re quite incorrect regarding that last one,” Lady Elizabeth said suddenly, her tone reminding Dex as it always did of Mr. Pakur, his 6th grade Social Studies teacher. “That is bur sage.”

Dex’s flushed. “Sorry, Dad.” He bent down, pointed to some faint tracks in the sand, eager to make up for the mistake. “These are coyote tracks. If we follow them, they’ll lead us to water. Which might lead us to quarry.”

“That’s your call,” Dad said.

“Really?” Dex asked, eyes wide. “I can take lead?”

Dad nodded.  “This is your hunt.”

Dex whooped. Months of pleading and fighting finally paid off. Sure, Dad was always working and didn’t get a lot of time out of the enclave for hunts anymore, but Dex had grown up with Dad’s dozens of trophies. He had wanted his own hunt since he knew the word. And now it was finally happening!

Dex held Jane to his shoulder so they could take in their surroundings better. Dex squinted through Jane’s scope to check the ridge for spoor. He felt a little disappointed at not seeing anything special. But then, this location was a popular disembarkment point for many hunters. It might be a day or two before they spotted quarry.

“What do you think, Jane?” he asked.

“You’re right about the tracks, Dex. They head south, which is a good direction. Let’s go.”

Dex and Jane took point. Dad and Lady Elizabeth fell in behind them. Dex felt so much pride that he was finally here, on a hunt, that he thought he might explode and scatter his guts all over the pink desert rocks. The mental picture gave him an instant erection.

“Naughty boy,” Jane said, voice momentarily seductive. She vibrated pleasantly, this time purposefully.

Dex laughed and shifted his privates uncomfortably in his nanoweave khakis.  “Stop,” he whispered. “Dad’s watching.”

“Oh, he was your age once.” Jane stopped vibrating. “But I don’t want to embarrass you.”

“Thanks. Maybe later.”

 

They hiked for the entire day without spotting any sign of quarry. Dex’s feet were sore and his nose was sunburned.  When the sun was low on the horizon, Dex consulted with Jane and they decided that they should make camp near a dried stream bed  on the leeward side of a small dune.  Dad nodded in agreement, sat down, and used Lady Elizabeth to access his office messages.

“He’ll be dead to the world for an hour,” Jane whispered.

“Not now,” Dex said. “We need firewood.”

They walked in a spiral out from their campsite collecting anything that might burn. Dex grumbled and kicked at rocks in his path. So much for being the world’s greatest hunter, an apple not far from his father’s tree. He’d dreamed of bagging a seven or eight on his first hunt, but he hadn’t even seen a pitiful one so far. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in the school chat if he came home empty-handed. And what it would do for Dad’s reputation?

“One of my under-secretaries bagged a six out this way last week, Dad said, breaking Dex’s train of thought. “That guy’s a complete idiot. Took him six days of tracking. We’re just getting started.” Dad seemed relaxed now, friendly even.  More like he had been before the job had gotten so big.

“That’s good I guess,” Dex said. He dumped an armful of sun-bleached wood into a makeshift fire pit. Jane ignited the fire with her sparker.

“Thank you, Jane,” Dex said.

“You’re welcome.”

Dad placed Lady Elizabeth out beside the fire to soak in the heat. “Lady, turret mode. Scan for threats and quarry.”  Her legs unfolded and she pivoted to stare with her scope at Dad before beginning pan in a circle, examining the perimeter.

“Clear,” she said primly.

“Good,” Dad said. “I’m going to take a quick jog around the area before it gets too cold. You okay here without me?”

“Dad,” Dex said, rolling his eyes. “Jane will keep me safe. You don’t need to leave Lady either. What if you’re attacked? I mean, how would I get home? You won’t tell the truck to let me drive!”

Dad laughed. “We can talk about the truck when we get back. I won’t be outside Lady’s sensor range, don’t worry,” Dad said. He patted Dex on the shoulder. Dex rolled his eyes again, and Dad trotted off into the dusk light.

Dex waited until the sound of his father’s footsteps faded before unzipping his khakis. Jane purred.

“I’ve been thinking about this all day,” she said. “Your first hunt is something special. I’m going to make you feel really good this time, Dex.”

Dex groaned as he entered her secret place that opened just for him. “You always do.”  He began thrusting. “I hope a real girl feels as good.”

“It will be even better,” she said. “I promise it will, when you find your wife, it will be so much better. Until then, you’ll always have me. Oh, yes. There!”

 

When Dad returned from his jog, he wore a half-grin that made Dex wonder they’d been up to minutes before. His ears burned, but he let it go after a while. It was like Jane said; Dad had been his age once. If he hadn’t wanted Jane to be that kind of companion to Dex, he wouldn’t have let Dex pick out one that had the feature. Some of his friends had stuck up parents like that. Those poor jerks had to make do the old fashioned way with their hands.

“Lady, find us some dinner, will you?” Dad asked as he warmed himself by the fire.

“Yes, Jehm.”  Lady walked away on her tripod legs, quick and silent. The briefest moment passed before two shots rang out in the night. Another moment passed and Lady returned dragging two black-tailed jackrabbits through the sand.

“Shall I clean these and spit them over the fire for you?”

“Cajun seasoning, please.”

“Of course,” Lady said, sounding a little offended that he’d needed to specify the flavoring. Dad ignored her and took a sleeping pad from his jacket pocket, unrolling it on the ground beside Dex.

“I wish I could have killed your dinner,” Jane said to Dex.

Dex pattered her exhaust port. “Your first shot out here has to be at quarry, not just some dumb food.”

“Yes,” Jane said with a drawn-out sigh, “but I’m a much better field cook.”

Lady froze, her skinning knife glinting in the fire. “You are more than welcome to prepare my kills,” she said curtly.

Dad chuckled. “Enough, you two. Why is it I’ve never met two companions that could get along?”

“That’s by design, isn’t it?” Dex said, musing. “What would they need us for if they could?”

Dad shrugged. “A tool is useless without a user. They exist because we need them, and not the other way around.” He stared at the fire. Dex tensed for what was coming.  Dad never passed up an opportunity to drone on and on about work and hunting philosophy.

“Things were different, back in your Granddad’s day.”

“Dad, no good story has ever started with ‘back in your Graddad’s day.’ I’ve seen your speeches. And I’m not failing history. I know how it was,” Dex said. His voice rose in irritation—he didn’t want to argue, not really, but Dad always treated him like he was stupid.

Dad could never accept that Dex knew things without Dad telling him.  Like Dex was just put up in the travel safe when Dad wasn’t around, or something?

Dad shook his head. “You don’t know how good you have it—God and Fathers, did I just say that?  I hated it when your Grandad would say that. Anyway, it’s true. A man hunting back in the days of your granddad had to carry a pack of supplies, tools, weapons. Then, most stuff did only one thing well. Guns were still single-use tools too. They killed things. And a small minority of very loud people thought guns should be banned, that nobody should own them, in direct contradiction to the oldest laws.”

Dex scoffed. “That was like a million years ago.”

“Not as long ago as you think,” Dad frowned. “Even still, some very wise men knew the importance of a firearm. They were and are the most important thing a man and citizen could own. The Founding Fathers recognized that and enshrined it in the old Constitution. But when Granddad was a boy your age, there was a lot of trouble about them. ‘Guns,’ people said, ‘are only good for killing people. We should make them very hard to own.’”

Jane shuddered with fear under Dex’s touch. “That’s so dumb,” Dex said, but the idea frightened him too.  It would be the world of tyrants and despots, where those with guns could force those without to obey. Nothing like the voluntary enclaves of Dex’s home.  It was barbaric.

Dad shifted to sit between Dex and the fire. His silhouette shrugged. “They might have succeeded in taking away all the guns, if it hadn’t been every man’s right to own one to protect himself, his family, and his property. Thank God and the Fathers. They just kept on fighting about it, saying guns had no other use but murder. So thing gun makers did was make guns that could do other things—kind of like old Swiss Army knives.”

“Like what?”

Dad shook his head. “Never mind. I’m showing my age again. The new guns could still kill, but now they could do more. The makers added features, and once they did, men just didn’t know how we lived without those things. Pretty soon, we got companions like Jane, then Lady here, and even beyond.” Dad patted Lady’s butt.

Lady Elizabeth sniffed. “There’s nothing beyond me worth considering. Especially not anything that came before.”

“Watch it,” Jane warned. Dex hadn’t realized that she had been listening to Dad’s story. What had she thought about it, he wondered. Would she prefer to have been a simple, dumb gun, instead of his best friend in the whole world?

A plain old gun had less than zero appeal to Dex. What was the point of a thing that only did one thing—that couldn’t talk, cook, make a fire, help with schoolwork, or do anything except shoot targets and quarry?

Dumb old guns definitely couldn’t do what he and Jane had done only a little while before… how boring.

“I can’t believe there were once people with power who didn’t bear arms,” Dex said.  “Why did they think they could force armed men to give up their guns?”

“Who knows, but they couldn’t. And in the Mess that came, guns turned out to be even more important for survival as God and the Fathers knew they would be. Those folks just forgot awhile, but we reminded them.”

Dad paused, then stood and stretched. “Enough of my ‘boring’ lectures I suppose. We should turn in, get an early start in the morning,” Dad said. Dex nodded. “How are your supplies?”

“Jane, any water nearby?” Dex asked.

She remained silent for a moment, running ground-penetrating sonar. “Yes. 8 meters down. Should I drill and refill my reservoirs?”  Dex nodded. She unfolded and moved into position. A soft whirring sound was the only indication of her activity. It was kind of soothing. Dex was pretty sure he’d fall asleep to that as fast as he did in his bed back home.

“Good night, son.”

“Good night, Dad.”

 

Later, as he lay awake and marveling at the many stars, doubt crawled back into the pit of Dex’s stomach.

“Jane?” he whispered. He paused, but his father’s even, slow breathing continued without change. “You listening?”

“Yes, Dex?”

A long pause. “I’m scared.”

“That’s normal, Dex. Even soldiers fighting to protect the Homeland are frightened sometimes.”

“Do you think…” Dex wasn’t sure how to phrase the question that troubled him. “Does Dad believe that I can do this?”

“I bet he has total faith in you, just like I do,” Jane said, her tone soothing.

“Will we still be friends after?” Dex asked.

“Of course, Dex. Not everything will change.”

“Thanks, Jane. I feel better now.”

“You’re welcome, Dex. I’m glad I could help.”

Dex rolled to face away from the fire and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

#

As they hiked, Dex and Jane spent most of the morning telling each other dirty hunting jokes that they’d gotten from the internet. Mom always cried when they told hunting jokes in the house, but Dad didn’t seem to care much.

“Have you heard the one about the hunter who couldn’t pick?” Jane asked

“Yeah,” Dex said. “’So he shot the fat one!’” Dex laughed, hiccupped, and laughed more, until tears ran down his cheeks. Dad even laughed for a moment, but he sobered suddenly and pointed.

“Look there. Look what you almost missed.” Dex spun to follow Dad’s gaze, scowling and irritated. Dad had pointed to a stretch of sand along the dry riverbed. “Notice those?”

Dex wanted to die.  The sandbar was covered in quarry tracks, and he’d almost missed them.  Jokes could wait. He was on a hunt. Why did he keep forgetting how serious this was?  He marched over to the tracks quickly and quietly.

The tracks headed northeast. From their direction,the quarry had likely passed with a ridge between them and Dex’s camp the night before. Not even a companion could see through fifty meters of solid earth.

“Gods and Fathers!  I knew we should have gone for higher ground,” Dex said.

“That might have invited trouble though,” Jane said. “Stop second guessing yourself. We’ve got spoor!”

They reversed direction and followed the tracks. Dex muted Jane. Whenever she had something she wanted to say, she would vibrated against his shoulder, and he could read the message in text on her scope. Mostly, she pointed out spoor he missed. Discarded food canisters. A water bottle.  Dex collected all of it, like a good hunter. Leave the land better than you found it, his Dad had always said in promo vids for work.

“Are you excited?”  Dad whispered as they bellycrawled up a low ridge.

“Shut up, Dad. They’ll hear you,” Dex hissed, and returned his focus ahead.

When they reached the ridge, Dex and Jane together scanned the lowlands below. The quarry were easy to spot.  They were clustered in a group, resting in the shade of a half-dead oak tree, their patchwork luggage and backpacks in a heap beside them. Jane magnified the view. Most were sleeping.  Most importantly, they displayed no enclave banners.  They were free for the taking.  They weren’t even smart enough to post a watch. Or dehydration was making them stupid.

Dex wasn’t sure what to do now. He turned to Dad, who raised an eyebrow. “How should…?”

“Now you want my help?”

“Please?”

Dad smiled. “Snipe the older ones. I’ll lay down suppressing fire while you close the distance and take the rest.”

“Your trophy’s on the lower right is your age,” Jane said. “She’s a seven, easy.”

Dex shuddered, whether from fear or anticipation and excitement, he wasn’t sure. Dad crawled away to change his angle of fire and to further confuse the quarry when the shooting began.

He held Jane steady and blinked through the eyepiece to mark his target sequence. First the two elderly males, then the wide-shouldered female and the mated pair in their twenties. Leaving.. a seven? He stared at her.

“She’s filthy,” Dex said. “I can’t even tell if she’s pretty.”

“She’s pretty,” Jane said. “Trust me. I can see better than you.”

Dex hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

“You just have to trust that it will work out. It turned out okay for your parents.”

“I guess. Mother Layna hasn’t run away since I was little,” Dex admitted. He took a deep breath. “Okay. Switch to trigger fire. I want to feel this one the old way,” he said.

Jane softly beeped, indicating she had switched to free mode. Red circles still marked his targets, but she wouldn’t assist his aim. It was all up to Dex now.

Dex inhaled.  Held steady, lined up the crosshairs.

He pulled the trigger.

Jane’s muzzle coughed. A circle of red appeared for a moment where the quarry’s head had been.

Dex exhaled, like any well-trained shooter, took another breath, held it. Fired again.

The quarry began to scramble then. Dad fired off several wide shots, confusing the quarry. Dex finished off his planned kills with confident shots. Easier than some of his target practice drills, really.

He stood and charged down the hill, whooping. Jane joined in, their voices twinning and echoing back to them from the rocks of the hillside.

Dex was surprised by how quickly he made it to the kill site. The seven was cowering beneath the tree, whites of her eyes in contrast with her red-hued skin. Dex had never felt so aroused, not ever in his fifteen years. All the hard work was worth it.

“Undress,” he commanded, then repeated it in French, just in case. She hesitated—Jane fired a warning shot without Dex even giving her the order. That’s how well she knew him.

The girl stripped naked. “Jane, turret mode,” he said, nearly dropping her to the ground as he moved in to take his prize. Finally, a real girl. His.

“Before God and Fathers, I name you my bride and…”

What…? He saw it then, just as he was about to remove his flak jacket. The faint lines of a tag-and-release barcode tattoo inexpertly removed on the wrist of one of the dead quarry—the broad shouldered female. Blood streaming down her arm had drawn his eye right too it like an accusing arrow.

He stumbled back in shock.

“No.” Did his father think him stupid, or were the men he hired to stage this hunt that incompetent?  He wasn’t sure which was worse.

“Dex…” Jane began.

“Shut up. Tell my father to get down here. Now!”

“He’s not—“

“Do it, Jane.”  She was silent. Dex stared at the naked girl, his desire for her completely drained. He couldn’t focus. How could Dad do this?

“Excellent shooting, boy, now what are you waiting for?”  Dad said between wheezing to catch his breath.

“A canned hunt, Dad?  Is this why you went for your ‘jog’ last night? Had to call in the kept quarry?”

Dex was trembling with rage. “What will my friends think? I can’t believe this!”  Dex wanted to hit his father, but knew better than to assault an armed man, father or not. His father wouldn’t hesitate to defend himself, not even against his own son.

Dad dropped the façade and sighed. He looked defeated before he even spoke. “Your friends don’t have to know. I didn’t want you to go back disappointed.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Dad. This isn’t about me. It’s about your job. Your fucking status!  How would it look if the son of the North Atlantic Firearms Association president didn’t have a successful bride hunt?”

“A lot of first hunts fail—” Dad began.

“Mine might not have. But now we’ll never really know. You’ve ruined everything!”  He turned to Jane. His best friend. His only friend in the whole stupid world.

“Kill the last quarry, Jane.”

The shot rang out. The girl crumpled to the dust. A seven at best. Another insult.  Dad didn’t even have enough faith in him to fake an eight or a nine?

Dex steeled himself to say the words he’d said many times but never really meant. Now he meant it more than anything he’d ever said.

“You are. The worst dad. Ever.”

Dex picked up Jane and began the long walk back to the truck.

#     #     #

2016 Will not End When 2016 Ends

I fear that this year has been not an aberration but is a preview of things to come. This year has been characterized by rising xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiments across the globe, catalyzed in large part by Syrian refugees.

To use a rare Biblical parody, it feels like the developed world is saying loudly “there is no room in the inn” and slamming doors.  Simultaneously,  we are ignoring a growing global climate crisis that will lead to a hundred times the refugees we are seeing from Syria. Resources will be stretched far more thin by this, and I believe it’s unavoidable – the time to act was 20 years ago.

Recently in a story, I imagined this trend of climate refugees to be met with relative compassion and little disagreement, but I am afraid that 2016 has taught me that was overly optimistic. When people are afraid, they cling even harder to what they have, it seems. They demand an exile of the Others.  Climate refugees won’t be met with friendliness.  Communities will not open themselves willingly to those who flee coastal flooding.   They will close ranks and refuse them…that is what it seems to me now.

2016 has been a lesson for me in what’s most likely to come. I don’t want to witness it. But I know I will, and worse yet, so will my son.

Prove me wrong, world. Show that we can overcome differences and take care of one another. Show me that 2016 is a blip, a bump.

Show me. I’m waiting.

“The Cavern of the Screaming Eye” live on Lightspeed Magazine Today

My latest story, the first of the Dungeonspace sequence, is live today over at Lightspeed Magazine.  Give it a read or a listen, would you, and let me know what you think?

“Is that the collapsible, carbon fiber ten-foot pole from TrunchCo—” I slammed my locker door and spun the combo lock, but it was too late; the fanboy already seen my gear. I didn’t know what his interest was, but I didn’t want to encourage him. I said nothing.

He continued: “I’ve got the one from a couple of years ago that folds up. It sucks. I wish I had the new one.”

I stared at him over the rims of my glasses in my best glare. He didn’t flinch.

Luke Cage Made Me Uncomfortable And That Taught Me Something About Systemic Racism in Media

Netflix’s latest Marvel series, Luke Cage, left me feeling somewhat uneasy in the first episodes. I wasn’t really sure why. I’d enjoyed all of the Netflix/Marvel series to degrees, but none of them had left me feeling quite so discomforted in the early part of the story. It was somewhere in perhaps the second or third episode when I finally began to put my finger on what was making me feel so strange watching the show. That led to even greater discomfort.

Why was I having trouble? I didn’t always get the cultural references being made. Some of the slang was unfamiliar as well, and I couldn’t identify with a lot of the life experiences of the characters. And then that last matter: there were very few white people on the show. Almost none in those early episodes. That couldn’t actually matter, could it?

My first reaction with myself was to get defensive. Why should that bother me? I’m not a complete stranger to that experience. I lived in Kenya for half a year in college, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the only white person around in my travel there. There were times when it was fine, and times when it was uncomfortable, but this felt different. I aim to not be or act consciously racist, although I know I struggle with innate bias like many do.  And so on the thoughts went.  Basically, the boiled down to “I’m a good person, I’m not racist, the problem isn’t with me, it must be with the show.”  Yawn.

If I stopped at that level of introspection, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Thankfully, my thinking went a little bit deeper. As I explored the feeling, it suddenly struck me: oh. Wait a second. What if this is what people of color feel when they watch 90% of American televsion, rarely ever seeing themselves represented, and when they do, it’s a stereotype, a caricature of a real person? Oh my God, it must be something like this. It must be like this with nearly every single show, movie, book. Day in, day out. This is what it feels like to not see yourself represented in the media.

Holy shit. 

I was supportive of the cause of more diversity and representation in our entertainment, but I didn’t understand it very well until now. I hadn’t walked a few episodes in the shoes of a person of color, so to speak. I hesitate to even make that analogy, because my short, weekend experience can’t begin to compare to a lifetime of that. I gained a little perspective, that’s all. But it helps me understand and empathize better, to connect with the words I’ve been hearing and reading for so long, but never fully understanding.

My discomfort passed quickly. I found I enjoyed the show even more for the fact that I was witnessing many things and viewpoints new to me. Ultimately, I think the character of Luke Cage is my favorite of the Netflix heroes. More than any of the others, he personifies an ideal, a struggle. To be good and do good for others. Honestly… he makes Daredevil look like a self-obsessed jerk.

All that said – nothing else I could say about the show really matters in light of that little glimpse I received, I think. You could very easily say that this isn’t a show for me. And you’re probably right that in some sense that this show was made perhaps to let people of color feel like  get to feel with nearly every damn show on the television. My experience is secondary to the primary experience. But I thought it worth mentioning. And I hope more white geeks like myself have a similar experience. It was eye-opening for me. And I really want to read about how the show made people of color feel. I can’t wait to listen to their thoughts and experiences with the show, so I can understand all of this even better.

In the future, I hope we get a lot more shows like Luke Cage. I hope they make me uncomfortable in exactly the same way. I eagerly look forward to watching them. As for my own writing, I know that I will take the lesson seriously. It’s going to change the way I think about some things. How exactly remains to be seen, but I am determined not to squander the perspective I gained.

Stepping on Acorns

I go on a lot of walks. It’s the only form of exercise that doesn’t leave me feeling like death, which probably means it is barely exercise at all, and my expanding waistline supports this notion.  I suppose it would expand a lot more quickly without the walks, so they do serve a purpose.   I walk, I listen to podcasts, I think.  And at a certain time of year, I step on acorns.

This is absolutely not a metaphor for any other hobby or professional pursuit.  I really do this.

You might be asking, why would I want to step on acorns?  The right acorn, stepped on in the right way, is practically an orgasmic experience of textured vibration and sound.  The perfect acorn crunch is like the best bubble wrap pop times one hundred.  Really, why does anybody do anything?  It’s pleasurable, and there’s satisfaction in a stepping done well.

I’ve collected below a few tips and tricks to the practice that I think would be beneficial to the beginner.

First, you have to go on walks in places where there are acorns.  A treadmill is no good.   Indoor tracks or malls, no good.  You miss 100% of the acorns you don’t see.   Find the acorns, and walk.   A nice neighborhood full of mature trees like the one I live in is a good option.  If you live in a place without trees, such as the desert, I’m afraid this activity might not be for you.  There’s almost certainly some other kind of local analogue you can take up.  Let me know what you find.

Next, you have to keep your eyes open and scan the ground ahead.  You have to know where the acorn trees generally are, and generally the season of the year in which acorns litter the pavement.  You can walk randomly, sometimes accidentally stepping on acorns, but for the best results, step with purpose.  Over time, you’ll find that you’ll develop a sense for acorns as you walk and it won’t take so much effort.

The actual stepping can have a variety of outcomes:

Sometimes, you miss the acorn entirely.  There’s not much sense in altering the rhythm of your steps to get that acorn that’s fallen out of your path.  Sometimes, the acorn falls on the grass, and you can’t crush an acorn into the soil.   Sometimes, you step for the acorn, misjudge the distance, and you come down hard on empty air.  Them’s the breaks, no pun intended.  You have to let go of the acorns you miss.  There will always be more acorns.

Sometimes, you step down on an acorn and it’s all rotted out, mushy, and it makes no satisfying crunch. It just kind of… deflates.  It’s a disappointing when a step goes awry in this way, but it’s basically out of your hands.  The acorn went bad through no fault of your own.  You came to it too late, alas.

Sometimes, you step down on an acorn and it doesn’t crunch at all. It’s a hardy sort, and mostly just hurts your foot, even through the soles of your footwear.  That acorn wasn’t ready yet.  Hit it up on your next walk.  Some acorns, you can’t crack for days.  You might come to enjoy the challenge.  You might just kick the acorn into the storm drain out of frustration.  Who knows, maybe that acorn was destined to be a tree, and there was nothing you could do to stop that.  Wish it luck and move on.

The worst feeling is when you step on an acorn and you realize it wasn’t an acorn at all– it was a snail.  Acorn crushing is harmless; each tree drops thousands of them, and most people don’t want a forest in their front lawns.  When you step on a snail, you get the same satisfying crunch, but it comes at a terrible cost of guilt and grief, not to mention an agonizing and instant death for the snail.  Sometimes, this happens because you’re not paying enough attention.  Sometimes, you step on a snail accidentally, because of poor lighting or bad eyesight.  I don’t have any really good advice to avoid this, except to try not walk where you have seen snails in the past.  Best to avoid those regions entirely and apologize sincerely to the snails.  You can’t take back the pain you’ve caused, but you can try not to do it again.

When your steps are just right, when the acorn’s fallen in the right patch of concrete, and when you walk with purpose, setting your sights on the right nut–you get the perfect crunch.  It happens maybe one out of every ten, twenty acorns.  The sound, the feeling of it under your foot, it’ll be a mix a pleasure and the satisfaction of a job done entirely right. Nothing beats that, and you can do it a dozen times a day.

To recap: stepping on acorns successfully requires a mixture of planning, intent, practice, and luck.  But I know that if you dedicate yourself to the process like I have, you too will be doing it at a professional level in no time at all.

This is definitely about a real thing.  But it might also be a metaphor about other things.

“Taste the Singularity…” Live at Lightspeed Today!

th_02e3658482b7a537b889b02165923b2f_lightspeed_75_aug_2016My latest story, “Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus” is live today at Lightspeed Magazine.  This is a light-hearted story about not giving up on your dreams, on indulging what really matters to you, no matter what you think is the proper thing.  It takes place in a near-future Kansas City, has fun Willie Wonka references, and lots of strange food concepts that I think you’ll enjoy.

The story is online to read, and there’s a podcast version if you prefer to read with your ears.  I hope you’ll give it a chance and let me know if you liked it.

Geeks Dudes, You Need to Learn to Withold Your Opinions Sometimes

I have a 12 year old nephew who I’ve somehow, accidentally on purpose gotten addicted to Magic: The Gathering.  I tell my sister that I did her a favor. I crack out the old chestnut, “It’s a good thing, sis!  If he’s into Magic, he’ll never have money for drugs!”  For me, the only downside is, at any and every family gathering, he wants me to play, and I was never actually very good at Magic.  This is all background information for a little incident at our FLGS (friendly local game store, for short).

The nephew mows our lawn, and sometimes afterward, he asks me to take him to an FLGS to get cards.  Today, the mower was dead (battery issues) so on the way to taking him home, we dropped into the store.  He has never really bought singles before this, and was unclear how it worked.  Magic singles in this particular store are put in large card binders that you must flip through.  The particularly juicy cards are stored in the glass counter case.

As he was flipping through the binders, a couple of guys in their mid-20s came in and began to look around.  One of them decided to look at Magic singles also.  This guy decided to strike up a conversation with my nephew.

“What kind of deck are you building?”

“A blue/red aggro thing.”

“Like, with spells, or creatures?”

“With creatures you get out fast and pump up to make more powerful.”

“Blue/red? There aren’t a lot of good cards for that.  That won’t work.”

And with that,  gamer dude moved on to looking at board games, not realizing that he’d just shit all over the deck ideas of a twelve year old.  The nephew was a little disheartened, but he tried not to show it.  Eventually he gave up, bought a couple of cards, and we left.

On the drive back to his home, I told the nephew how Magic: The Gathering was in the early days when I started playing.  Not very many people had the internet back int he early 90s.  There were no deck lists, and there were really only a small handful of sets to draw from.  The weird codified rules of Magic hadn’t come to be yet, and you didn’t see the same decks consisting of the same powerful cards over and over again.  We often played with 200-300 card decks–sometimes every card we owned.  We were free to experiment and try different things.

I said: “I want you to know that when people try to give you advice like that, you don’t have to listen to them.  They may be older than you, but they’ve forgotten how to just have fun when they play this game.  All they care about is winning at Friday Night Magic. Remember that the most important thing about Magic is to have fun.”

I encouraged him to keep making his own decks, and to keep experimenting.  “If everyone played Magic like those guys, nobody would ever invent a new deck again.  There are a lot of different card combinations out there to be discovered.”

I’m sure that guy thought he was being helpful, but it’s people like him, and play styles like that, that drove me out of games like Magic: The Gathering.  If the collective idea of fun is limited only to winning, and not diving deep into the game’s many possibilities, then a game loses a lot of its luster for me.  The same thing as happened with the X-Wing miniatures game for me.   It’s ruled now by specific lists and specific play styles codified by “top level” players somewhere else.  Where’s the inventiveness and creativity?

You’re welcome to your play styles and your obsession with winning over all else, but hey, maybe don’t put that on a kid?  A kid who might crack the code and make the next championship deck if he keeps his mind open.  You never know.  He certainly won’t do that if he listens to people who tell him to keep “coloring within the lines.” (Is that a Magic pun? Oh well.)

In general, geek dudes, myself included, tend to be full of all kinds of opinions about how games and our hobbies are meant to be enjoyed.  It’s one of the many things we debate amongst ourselves as part of the hobbies.  However, these attitudes and behaviors do not play well with newcomers.  We do a lot of harm to our hobbies when we act like we own the goddamned things, when we project our opinions unsolicited onto others.  My nephew did not ask for advice on his deck ideas.  That girl browsing the graphic novels did not ask for your advice on which book she would like the most.  And so on, and so on–the internet is full of anecdotes like this one of much greater seriousness.

I’ve seen so much policing like this take place in hobby stores.  I’m certain I’ve even been responsible for incidents.  I’m sure my intention was to be helpful, but you know what they say about intentions.  You can bet after seeing the impact things had today on a kid’s enthusiasm, I will be much, much less likely to do so in the future.

Putting Writing First and How Much Time to Spend Doing It

Our lives are a series of competing priorities, and for a while now, I’ve wondered what it would be like to put my writing first, at least chronologically in the day.  I can’t prioritize its importance in my making a living, but the one thing I could do is try carving out some time at the start of every work day for writing before I jump into my freelance business tasks, chores, and the like (barring emergency exceptions).

I’ve been at this with relative success for a couple of weeks now.  I am averaging about 1500 words per day in a two hour block.  It’s pretty easy to see the advantage of building this kind of habit.  Figure 250 writing days a year, at an average of 1500 words a day and you end up with 375,000 potential words per year.  That’s three novels, a novella or two, and a few short stories.  It’s likely to be less than that if you spend this time editing some days, but I tend to try to do my editing in the evenings, after my kid’s down.   Even at half that rate, it’s a pretty good way to carve out a side-career on top of your main one.  That’s where I am these days.  I’m not determined to be a full time writer at the moment.  The odds of me supporting my family with that money are pretty slim.  But I can supplement, and that feels much more achievable.   If I were to become a full time writer through chance, I wouldn’t complain.  But it’s unreasonable to expect!

I have found myself writing ahead of what I have banked away, I will say.  The relentless emphasis on pure words on the page means I sometimes  forget to stop and think and plan.  Having an hour somewhere in the day where I disconnect from everything and just think through ideas in total privacy is almost as valuable.  My notion of what constitutes “writing time” is shifting with age.  I think for a good chunk of your career, you can count on an idea surplus you’ve built up, but after a certain point, you might empty that bank.  It takes time for good ideas to accrete.

The wide variety of ways to accomplish being a professional writer can be disconcerting.  How much of your day should you work at writing?  If I was a full time writer, would I write 8 hours a day?  Almost certainly not.  There’s definitely a law of diminishing returns for me, where the longer I write in a session, the worse the quality of writing can get.  And there are many other business tasks that need to be performed.

For me, ten hours a week feels good right now.  I’m working on one novel and about to start co-writing another.  I still have some short stories to work on when I’m stymied on the bigger projects.  And so far, novels have so much more space to breathe that they can absorb a 1500 word session a lot more easily than a story.  I’ve been exploring decompressed vs. compressed storytelling for quite a while now, learning the limits of short stories and where you can cheat with a little compression.  Novels feel very freeing so far because you can decompress everything, really take your time.  Eight hundred words of setting description in a short story is usually self-indulgent and gets cut in later drafts.   In a novel, that’s par for the course…?  Although eight hundred might be pushing the limits of patience in some readers.

Ultimately, half of being a writer is experimenting with process and figuring out workflows that don’t get in the way.  There are a million ways to not write.  There are only slightly fewer ways to write.  I’m enjoying finding means that work for me and my life.  It’s something all writers have to figure out for themselves.  What works for you?

Thoughts on Augmented Reality Gaming and Pokemon Go

maxresdefaultI’m completely hooked so far on Pokemon Go, the latest augmented reality game from Niantic.  For those that don’t know (the internet is saturated with people talking about it this week), Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that you play in the real world. Using GPS, the game spawns various pocket monsters that you can capture and add to your collection. Supposedly, different types of monsters spawn in different areas.  For instance, water-type pokemon are found near rivers and lakes (although my limited play time has not supported that idea).

Instead of sitting at home to play, you must walk or bicycle (the game detects if you are driving by speed and will lock you out for safety reasons). When you go to capture a monster you have encountered, your camera shows the real world around you and the game projects a 3D monster into the scene. You throw pokeballs at the monster with your finger to capture them.  It’s a very basic mechanism, completed quickly, but very immersive, and makes the little monsters come alive in a way they never have before in the dozens of previous Pokemon games.

In addition to the monsters to hunt and discover, there are two types of permanent locations on the overlay map. There are poke stops, which you can visit every 5 minutes to receive in-game items like potions to heal your monsters and poke balls used to capture the monsters. There are also gyms, which is where the main competitive element comes into play.

When you get to level 5 with your character, you are asked to join one of three teams. These teams then compete to control the various gyms around town. You use a team of your monsters to attack monsters installed in a gym. If you win, you take it over for your team, and each day you control a gym, you get rewards to make your monsters better.

There are more intricacies involving monster evolutions and power ups and such, but I won’t bother digging into those here. The main thing you do is walk around, capturing monsters, getting stuff from poke stops, and attacking gyms to take them over for your team.

The launch has not been without problems.  The company making the game, Niantic, has struggled put up enough server infrastructure to keep up with demand.  They previously made another augmented reality game called Ingress  The game chews through your phone battery like nothing else I’ve ever used.  There are crashes and hang-ups galore in the game.  But none of that is anything more than a mild inconvenience.

This blurring of reality and gaming provides all new incentives for activity and socialization.   Reddit’s subreddit for the game is full of stories with people getting in trouble at their jobs for playing, nearly having accidents, making new friends, and even making dates.  Because it’s a massively multiplayer game in the real world, as you wander around traveling to the locations, you will encounter other players in the real world.    And then there are the odd-ball stories like the girl who found a dead body in Wyoming while playing the game.

Augmented reality gaming is not just a technological phenomenon; it’s also a sociological one.  It will be fascinating to watch how it impacts the lives of the players over time, especially as the game becomes more stable.

I live very close to a small college campus, and there about 8 poke spots (corresponding with important historical markers, public art, and buildings) and three gyms within my usual walk circuit. I’ve taken to making a loop to hit things up and catch monsters along the way. Maybe adds 10 minutes to my walk time, and seriously boosts my step count on the fitbit. Being distracted helps me tolerate the heat, too. I’m sweating horribly, but I don’t notice.   I was already walking regularly, but this has added at least 3000 to 4000 steps a day to my counter since release.  I am busy looking around for new places around town to walk so I can expand my collection.  I’ve not talked with any other players, but I see them everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time until I end up in a conversation with them, exchanging tips and talking about our best monsters.

As a science fiction writer, I’m (of course) speculating about how these experiences will change with improved technology.  Even with the clunky interface and overlay of a camera phone, the game really triggers a sense that there’s a hidden world of creatures all around us.  I’m imagining how much more immersive this experience will be when we do not need a phone to provide the visuals, and instead wear special glasses.  Google Glass, only way better.  Microsoft’s HoloLens would probably be an example of the next step in interface.

Virtual reality, to me, presents a large number of difficult-to-solve problems involving basic biology and physics.  Augmented reality circumvents a lot of the spatial problems by using real world space.  No need for virtual walls or struggling to overcome nausea with higher framerates.   Augmented reality will present its own unique problems, too, of course.  Especially this:  what are non-players going to think of those who are playing in public spaces like Pokemon Go encourages?  There will likely be some backlash, and soon, at least temporarily.

Ultimately, if you’re interested at all, you can download Pokemon Go from an app store.  It requires a pretty new phone–with Apple, at least an iPhone 5.  It remains to be seen what kind of longevity the game will have, although Niantic appears committed to developing deeper game mechanics and general improvements.   Even with the problems now,  I’m finding it to be incredibly entertaining.  Give it a try if it interests you at all.  This could be the next stage of something pretty big.  And if it helps you stay fit? Even better.

 

I’m not a College Kid Anymore: Thoughts on Being a Dad in a College Town

Thanks to an understanding wife, I went for a solitary walk in downtown Lawrence. It’s the first evening I’ve had out downtown by myself in a while, and after talking this morning with some friends from out of town, I’m in a contemplative mood about my town and how I relate to it now.

I understood my relationship with my geography and activities better before I had a kid. Prior to Matty, I spent 20 years taking advantages of the amenities of a college kid’s life. The restaurants, bars, activities aimed at them were all things that overlapped at least somewhat with my life. Once Matty arrived, my notions of how to take advantage of where I live went out the window.

Having a child is isolating. You do what you can to get out and about with them, but kids go to bed early. The idea of being outside of our home past 7:30 PM is an ordeal, and often one that requires careful orchestration of babysitters, etc. It’s no coincidence that 95% of my socialization is now via board gaming. This is an easy pick-up hobby that can be participated in within earshot of a baby monitor. This works to give me some real world socialization, but when you work from home, sometimes you just get tired of staring at the walls of your own home.

I love being a Dad, and I adore my child. He provides me a lot of entertainment. Lawrence is a great town and I love it too, but I’m struggling to see what Lawrence offers for parents like me. I’ve had a tendency lately to blame the town, but it’s no fault of it; I think any town would like this to me now. There is a disconnect between what I am, a father of a young child, and what I used to be, a young no-child guy. It’s not Lawrence that is the problem. The problem is me, and the continuing life shift that has arrived on the coattails of parenthood. As far as problems go, it’s not a very big one, but it’s one that occupies my time right now.

I’d love to hear from others who became parents later in life, and how they adjusted to the lifestyle changes that go with it. How did you cope? What adjustments did you have to make?