March 28, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Latent Christianity, Writing Speculative Fiction, the Real World and Me

People always ask writers where their ideas come from. SF writers respond with everything from books on writing, like Orson Scott Card’s Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy and Uncle Orson’s Literary Bootcamp workshop to terse, possibly humorous comments like Harlan Ellison’s, “Schenectady.”

C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as a serious poet, commented on how a Christian’s witness should be incorporated into their writing: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects with their Christianity latent.” (God in the Dock, pg 93)

I work at a local Barnes and Noble store and was scanning the rack of dailies we sell last night. This front-page headline caught my eye: “A City United by Tragedy, Divided by its Kindness”, wherein journalist Bob Davis explains a curious response of the human species to unprovoked horror: survivors of all kinds will fight over monetary remuneration for the loss of loved ones. ( According to Davis, this has been happening since the founding of American society and has led to the development of anonymous, mathematical formulae used to calculate how much each person involved with a tragedy will receive.

I was stunned. What could possibly cause this behavior? It has been a human response for hundreds of years, but I had never heard of it. Of course, I “knew” that funds were gathered to assist people in the wake of tragedy. I have contributed to these funds myself. What I had never considered was that there would be PROBLEMS distributing the funds later. I had never considered that there were RULES governing such distribution. I was entirely ignorant that “What might appear to be a simple problem of arithmetic can turn into a complex moral calculus…”

My response? Story.

Not “a story”, though I confess I have a story in mind. But “story”, as in where I retreat when I need to deal with life; to come back refreshed – sometimes with insight gleaned from a specific story, and sometimes merely refreshed and ready to tackle the problem again.

So what is my response here? It will be a complex weaving of science fiction, my faith and a desire to sell the work to a secular market – and the necessity of keeping my Christianity latent (definition: “potentially existing but not presently evident or realized; ‘a latent fingerprint’ (what CSI is all about); ‘latent talent’ (what American Idol is all about)”).

Complex? Yup. Difficult or even impossible? Hmmm…

Shouldn’t we be blatant in our proclamation of the Good News? Yes. C.S. Lewis certainly didn’t hide his faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. Neither does Billy Graham. But I would put out there that neither did these people use their Christianity as a bludgeon. Certainly Billy Graham could not have loudly proclaimed his faith in the face of Bill Clinton’s personal crisis and still maintain his close friendship with the former president. C.S. Lewis absolutely kept company with professed English atheists, among whom he counted as personal friends, Arthur C. Clarke and his first Oxford tutor, William Kirkpatrick. Yet while he may have had harsh public words for atheists, he clearly kept peace with his friends.

So how do I do “latent”?

Good question. Here’s how I’ll try: my main character in the short story I’m plotting will be a Christian. NOT the most obnoxious type, sent over from Central Casting and held up and vilified as representing “all” Christians by the a-religious Left; but a character like…me. They may or may not have a Bible in their briefcase or on their PDA. They absolutely will share their faith when asked – AND WHEN APPROPRIATE. They will NOT stand on soapboxes on street corners, haranguing passersby, but will rather work at homeless shelters and “be there” with tentatively offered prayers and support when tragedy or difficulty strikes. He will question his own beliefs honestly, confident that God can answer bigger questions that he can come up with. The story has a tentative title of “Liberation” wherein an alien world liberated by Humans sues Humanity for damages caused during the liberation of their world from another alien oppressor. Not sure exactly where it’s going, but…I’ll keep you posted!

LAST CONTACT by Guy Stewart

Be Nho Elf let the car float to a stop and settle, then popped the door, swinging her short legs out into the muggy Minnesota heat. The smell of damp, rich soil with a tang of liquid ammonia was badly mixed with the odor of decaying flesh.

A youngster in sheriff brown stepped up to her, saluted and said, “Corporal Stager, ma’am. I’m to take you directly to sheriff Baen…”

Be Nho lifted her chin at the woman in jeans and T-shirt behind “Corporal Stager Ma’am” and stepped around him as she said, “Tykaetrice. How’s life been treating you?”

The detective sniffed and shook her head, “I was on vacation at the lake. Then I got called here,” she paused. “Life stinks.”

Be Nho lifted an eyebrow and said, “So does death – in this case strongly.”

Tykaetrice puffed a grim laugh then jerked her head toward the center of the square of CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS tape. “Looks pretty ugly, too.”

“Death never looks pretty,” Be Nho said as she ducked under the tape.

“Even I’ve seen it looking better than this,” she said, stepping to one side and sweeping low with her right arm as if introducing a dance partner.

Be Nho scowled. “Flipped?”

“Pretty obviously, I’d say.”

Be Nho stepped up to the corpse, flexing her toes and being careful not to touch the road surface with anything but her feet, she squatted. Shoes prevented the CHEAPALIN surface from digesting her, shocking her or trying to engulf her, but her pants weren’t treated and the road organism was a voracious animal.

“They have CHEAPALIN here long?”

“This was the first county 3M seeded. They did a large-scale test here twenty years ago.”

“So the neighborhood knows what the road does, eh?” She pulled a probe from her shoulder bag and began to methodically poke the corpse. On its back, the face was mostly gone showing bone, desiccated muscle, teeth and tufts of hair on top. The front of a T-shirt and the thighs of stained blue denims and the skin and muscles underneath them had been digested as well. The shoes were untouched. The way it rested on the road made it look as if it had sunk half way into the pebbly, matte black surface. “Male. Hundred and forty kilos. Late fifties, early sixties. Excessive adipose deposits. Poor muscle definition, though,” she touched the hand. Only half of it had been digested. “There’s good evidence of previous calluses, so he did manual labor at one time.”

Behind her, Tykaetrice said, “Why not just read the road? You still got the hands – that’s why I asked for you.” Be Nho shot her a look. Tykaetrice raised both hands in surrender and said, “Thought I’d save us some time.” She cleared her throat and continued, “Farmer. Nicholas Maynard. Lived over there.” Be Nho stood up, shading her eyes against the bright afternoon sun. “About two klicks.” A white farmhouse, picturesque and quaint, rose out of emerald green corn fields. A cow-like animal with bladed hoofs, its dung and urine rich in corn nutrients but deadly to weeds and a penchant for using a frog-like tongue to nab insect pests stepped out from between two rows of corn, turned left and started down the next road. Beyond the cowbine, oaks or poplar arched over the farmhouse with its red barn, completing a Currier & Ives image of pastoral tranquility.

Except for the corpse in the middle of the road. “He’s a bit away from home, isn’t he,” Be Nho said. “Did you have junior over there treat the body?”

Tykaetrice signaled “Corporal Stager Ma’am” who came over and sprayed the corpse with an old-fashioned pump sprayer. The solution would send the road organism – a bioengineered DNA patchwork of cellulose, heme, eel, ameba, peat moss, alfalfa, leukocytes, iron and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells, more commonly known by its acronym CHEAPALIN – around the body into hibernation. The entire network of asphalt roads in North America had been converted into sets of living organisms. Electric eel cells created current passing through hair-fine iron filaments in the road. A thick black pad of organic road organism attached to the underside of any car that had had a bioconversion charged a set of ultralight batteries. A magnetic field generated as cars moved over the filaments got read by a microchip implanted in the car’s pad and matched the road’s magnetic field allowing for a maglev effect. A variety of chlorophyll in the road itself and the skin of a car converted sunlight to energy and alfalfa genes allowed roots growing under the road organism to return nitrogen to the soil as well as pull up micronutrients. A semi-transparent, thick cellulose skin protected the whole thing while remaining flexible. A few Notothenioidei genes kept cellular fluids from freezing during Minnesota winters. Noctilucan genes made it glow at night when disturbed. Leukocytes digested roadkill, leaves, branches and old pizza boxes.

And murder victims. Hence the partially digested corpse bothering her day. She said, “You have suspects corralled?”

“The obvious ones,” she said, making a face. “If this is as easy as it seems, we should both be home before sundown and sipping drinks a half-an-hour later.”

Be Nho said, “I have my great-grandson’s birthday party to go to tonight. I’d like to have time to clean up. No one in my family appreciates eau de corpse.”

“Get in. You can leave your car here,” Tykaetrice said, striding with long, lanky legs to her black-and-white. Be Nho climbed in. The car bounced a bit as the lev compensated. Tykaetrice started her rundown immediately as the air conditioner blasted them with arctic-dry air, heat and moisture sucked into an aluminum compression canister, dried then expanded suddenly. “Four suspects.”

Be Nho sucked air.

“I know. Not good. But they all have strong motives – and currently reasonable alibis.”

“This wasn’t your average nice farmer?”

Tykaetrice snorted. “Daughter, Nina, sixteen-years-old is number one suspect: lives at home and pretty much is a full-time servant – and whipping girl.”

“She doesn’t go to school?”

“Nope. 3M made this county a ‘FutureWorld’ showcase. Schools were bulldozed same time’s the asphalt was seeded with road spores. Kids here are online four days a week, forty-eight weeks of the year and offline for a four-week maintenance break and data update every summer. They move at their own speed with a Director who designs query markers that lets exuberant adolescent brain tissue make effective memory pathways. The one on this strip is Ms. Dahlstrom – she has a knack for setting up query markers for her students that lead to tested, superior memory pathways. Kids love her; so do the parents.” She grunted, “I even like the woman. She plays a mean hand of poker, can drink half the men in town under the table and rides a classic cycle. The neighborhood bully took a shine to her a couple months after she came to town. He turned up in the intensive care unit up in the Twin Cities with multiple fractures, crushed larynx, subdural hematoma and a kink in his…um…member that left it,” she paused, “paralyzed.”

Be Nho’s eyes grew wide. After a moment she said, “Try to recruit her into the force?”

“She wasn’t interested, likes working with kids.” She paused again, “Gives martial arts lessons Tuesday nights, though. Very popular.”

They rode in silence until Be Nho said, “The other suspects?”

“Besides Nina – by the way, she reported being abused once.” Be Nho frowned. Tykaetrice nodded. “Just once. To the teacher. Local police investigated, but the rest of the family stonewalled. Second suspect is Seinfeld Larson, Nina’s new boyfriend.”

“She has lots?”

“Nope. This is the first one. She’s quiet. Smart. Planned on leaving for college as soon as her pathways were up to college data loads. Boyfriend’s the same way. Farm boy with a good head on his shoulders, works a second job at a garage in town.”

“The other two?”

“Nicholas’s wife, Ashley Maynard demonstrates all the signs of domestic violence: Nicholas reportedly insults her in public, keeps her from going to church and from seeing the few friends she has. He was in total control of their money, told her what to wear and acted jealous and possessive all the time. While we’ve never picked him up for it, his brother and Nina say he uses and has a wicked temper. He’s threatened to shoot her and has hit, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked her and Nina. I don’t have any evidence but hearsay, but he supposedly forces her to engage in kinky sex acts against her will. I’ve heard him blame his bad mood on her plenty of times.”

“Ashley from around here?”

“Nope. Came from Alaska. She was a nursing student but got pregnant while he was up in the Cities on military leave.”

“Which one?”

“India-Pakistan Police Action.”

“Ew. Nasty that,” she paused. “Lucky he could make a kid.”

Tykaetrice grunted as they turned up the gravel driveway and added, “He was the only one who got lucky that night.” The car settled wheels to the ground and rolled roughly forward, impelled by the electric motor that hummed to life. “Looks like his luck ran out and everybody else’s just took a turn for the better.” She sighed and concluded, “Last suspect is the vic’s brother, Brandon – no formal accusation but frequently complains at one of the town watering holes that his brother cheated him out of a couple grand when they were young.”

“Any of them feel strongly enough to murder the vic?”

Tykaetrice grunted as she rode the brake to a slow stop in the gravel turnaround next to the farmhouse. “I wouldn’t have thought so, but then, that was before a neighbor found Nicholas’s body lying on the shoulder of County Road 15.” She opened the door, letting a wave of hot, damp air roll into the car.

Be Nho got out as well and followed the sheriff, who opened the door and waited as she climbed a neat set of wooden steps to a shaded veranda that wrapped around the front of the house. “They’re all here. Except for Brandon. He’s under surveillance at his apartment in town.”

Be Nho said, “He doesn’t have a farm of his own?”

“Nope. Nicholas was oldest and got this place after the parents died. Used to grow pharm crops then sold out to a corporation that took everything except the house. He was supposed to enjoy a life of luxury, but he blew it on half-baked Get Richer schemes and pyramid plans. Little brother Brandon had to make do with working at the grain elevator in town in the on-season.”

“And in the off-season?”

Tykaetrice shrugged, “How do you think I know about him being cheated by Nicholas?”

They entered the house. The still air in the mudroom was stifling. Tykaetrice called out, “Sheriff Baen here!” She led the way through narrow hallways into the family living room. The windows were all open and four fans spun at high speed, moving the air, but not cooling it. Furnished in Mission Revival, the chairs, table and couch were surprisingly high quality. Two teens sat side-by-side, one boy, and one girl. The girl Nina’s – leg was draped over boyfriend Seinfeld’s – knee. They held both of each other’s hands. Hers were pale with slender fingers, his bluntly square, and etched with dark stains. Clearly, he worked in heavy loamy soil or with oil – both likely being a farmer’s son.

An older woman – most likely late fifties or early sixties – sat stiffly upright in a rocking chair, wearing heavy denim jeans, a gray plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up, staring out the window, not paying attention to anyone. A deputy stood to one side, stuffed for all Be Nho could tell. Tykaetrice made introductions all around.

She sat down and opened her netpad. Tykaetrice’s investigation notes came up and she skimmed the data, bit her lower lip and said, “I’m investigator Be Nho Elf…”

Be Nho got nothing from the teens while they were in a group in the house. They stared at her and answered in monotone voices when Mrs. Maynard forced them to answer with a scowl or a weary, “Now, kids…” The woman herself was no more forthcoming.

Be Nho walked through the house, looking at everything, but the forensics team had been through it all already, taken the photos, sniffed the corners and luminoled everything in sight. There was nothing. “Nothing except a dead man in the road,” she muttered. Once she got back downstairs, she released Tykaetrice from the scene and followed her outside to the tan, yellow and electric blue.

“You sure you’re gonna be all right here?” the sheriff asked.

Be Nho sniffed and said, “The killer’s not here. The crime was one of passion and no one here...”

Tykaetrice said, “Did I mention that one of the deputies interviewed Ms. Dahlstrom?”

“Did you discover anything of significance?”

Tykaetrice nodded and got into the car. The electric motor hummed to life and rolled forward a meter. Irritated, Be Nho strode alongside the car and rapped on the window. The car stopped and the window came down. Tykaetrice smirked and said, “Yes?”

“What did the deputy discover?”

“Nina talked to her teacher.”


She made a face, “Sorry, I grew up in the wrong era. The query path director, Ms. Dahlstrom knows about Nicholas abusing Nina and her mother.”


Tykaetrice shrugged and said, “She’s a teacher – no matter what we call ‘em these days – and she cares enough about kids to turn down the opportunity to work in law enforcement despite her obvious qualifications.” She paused then added, “Maybe she figured she was doing community service after she beat up the bully?”

“Why would anyone do that?” Be Nho said. She caught Tykaetrice’s eye and they smirked together. “I’ll see you later.” The sheriff closed her window and drove off, raising a cloud of dust that hung in the stifling air. The sun had touched the horizon and long shadows lay over the farm. Be Nho took a walk around the barn, keeping to the shadows. Keeping an eye on the house – and on the strange looking cowbines that gashed out from between nearby cornrows every few minutes and looked at her curiously, she waited until Nina and Seinfeld came outside and headed down the drive to the main road. They walked as one until they made it to the end and they both stopped.

Seinfeld stepped out on to the living road and jumped up and down, shouting as if he was celebrating. Where the road fell into shadow, it glowed ghostly green. He tried to drag Nina after him but she resisted, pulling free of him. He laughed, lunged at her and grabbed her hand again to force her onto the road.

This time, she jerked away and ran up the drive a bit, turning to face him a moment later; not before Be Nho had seen that she was weeping. Seinfeld skipped down the drive and reached for her again. This time they were close enough for Be Nho to hear Nina say, “I don’t ever want to touch that thing again! I don’t want to walk on it! I don’t want to look at it! It killed Dad!”

Seinfeld said, “It didn’t kill your dad, it just ate him after he was dead!”

“How do you know that?”

His eyes widened and he stopped advancing, stammered then said, “It was, like obvious, wasn’t it? He was digested on both sides.”

“How do you know he was digested on his back?”

He reached for her again. This time, Nina grabbed his arm and yanked him forward, stuck out her leg and knocked his feet out from under him in a clean judo move that slammed him to the ground.

He surged to his feet, fists at his side and charged her. She stared at him for an instant, then covered her face and hunched over, miserable, clearly weeping. Even though she couldn’t see his face, Be Nho watched the anger drain from Seinfeld. His fists flattened into palms and he opened his arms, stepping forward to embrace Nina. Her arms slipped around him and she wept until her face came up. He kissed her cheek and she turned away at first, but only briefly.

Be Nho turned away. The teens were now too busy making out to notice her slip through a cornrow and head for the road following the weed-free, loose soil between the rows. She hoped she wouldn’t run into one of the cowbines. She made it past the kids without disturbing them. She was pretty sure neither of them had killed Nicholas – certainly not the girl. Seinfeld on the other hand – he knew something. She’d have to get him alone later. Nina had obviously been afraid to walk out on to the living road. Both of them wore impervious shoes – the same ones everyone else wore these days; lavender with some personalized pattern on it. Federal law mandated the apparel any time someone was outside of a building because the roads were dangerous to the uninitiated. “Which doesn’t include anyone in this town,” she said as she stepped out of the field and onto the road. She stopped and squatted down, staring at it. She would have sworn the thing pulsed, but knew that was ridiculous – the roads had no real circulatory system, absorbing what trace nutrients they needed from the ground through their roots. Water passed through the semipermeable membrane. Chlorophyll of various colors provided energy. Iron crystallized out of solution into micro fibers through which electric current generated by modified electric eel cells passed creating the magnetic field used to drive cars. White blood cell DNA allowed for the road to engulf and absorb any organic substance laying on the surface.

Despite growing up with it, Nina was afraid of it and Seinfeld exhibited typical adolescent male bravado when facing poorly understood situations. Like girlfriends crying and fathers-of-the-girlfriend dying.

Be Nho could talk to the road. She reached out to place one hand on the surface and closed her eyes. The cell walls of the road organism touched the tegument of her hand and accepted the neural connection without trouble, recognizing her hand as part of itself. She closed her eyes and tasted the environment, sensed pressure, felt faint electrical pulses that snapped beneath the tough surface.

After a moment, she withdrew her hand. There was nothing unusual in the sensations from the area this close to the Maynard farm. She pursed her lips and stood up looking down the road toward the spot Nicholas Maynard’s body had been discovered a kilometer away, and started walking. The surface was resilient which made CHEAPALIN roads extremely popular among the marathon set, the tennis set, the road construction crew set and the just-learning-to-ride-a-bike set. It made her own walk seem shorter.

When she stopped where she’d parked on the side of the road, she squatted next to the car. Sunlight was fading as she studied the surface. Tykaetrice had had the body removed and there wasn’t really anything to indicate that it had been there a few hours ago. If there had been blood, entrails or anything else organic, it had been absorbed already. That was one of the biggest plusses of the living road – weed seeds were digested long before they had a chance to sprout. Roadkill was a thing of the past – which the murderer in this case had tried to use to his or her advantage – though they sadly miscalculated the difference in the time it would take the road to digest a squashed squirrel and the time it would take to digest an uncompressed human corpse.

Be Nho looked around. It was quiet except for the sunset chorus of meadowlark, redwing blackbirds, robins, house, field and swamp sparrows. Lowing cattle, the buzz of an airplane passing overhead, a distant, loud bang of something metal impacting something else metal, whistle of a red-tailed hawk hunting overhead, soughing of a breeze through thigh-high roadside ditch weeds.

In the distance, she heard an old-fashioned automobile engine roar.

She stood up, frowning. She hadn’t heard the sounds of an internal combustion engine for a long time. Stepping into the middle of the road, she looked both ways, but saw nothing and retreated to the side, hoping her car was far enough over. The sound grew as the roar held steady. Crescendoing, it dropped abruptly off, the throbbing rush slowing then stopping abruptly to be replaced by a more typical hum of a maglev vehicle.

The hum grew louder followed by the faint squeal of brakes until a rusted, dark green pickup truck came to a stop next to her car. The window was down already and a man with wisps of gray hair, lined face, a large red nose, and a gap in the gap-toothed smile, slid across the seat, hung one elbow out the window and asked, “Everything OK, Lady?”

Be Noh smiled, nodded and said, “I just pulled over to enjoy spring.” She stepped on to the road, closer to the pick up. “I’m from the Cities, heading south to Rochester and I decided to take back roads.” She shook her head sadly, “It’s so noisy up there, I just wanted to get a taste of country living, so I pulled over and I’ve been watching the sunset and listening to the sounds.”

He nodded slowly, smiling faintly. “Know what you mean, though I ain’t been to the Cities in years. Born and bred a country boy.” He nodded, adding, “Have a nice night. Should be perfectly safe out here in the country – ‘ceptin’ for maybe a coyote or two and fast drivers. But stay close to your car and neither one won’t bother you. ‘night.”

“‘night, Mister,” she said, waving.

The truck hummed away, heading toward the farm. Be Nho raised an eyebrow as it drove past the driveway. She was amused that Brandon Maynard was pretending he was just some farmer out for an evening drive and had nothing to do with the Maynard place – or the murder of his brother. Be Nho had recognized him immediately from the netpad profile. She shook her head. The truck didn’t have the black pad under layer of a bioconversion car. It would have to rely on a more expensive electronic conversion, instead. She said to the cooling evening air, “Brandon Maynard, what are you doing out wandering around in your ICE pickup truck?”

She typed an alert, sent it to Tykaetrice, slid her netpad back into her bag and squatted again. She leaned forward and put both hands down on the road. She didn’t usually opt for the sensory overload using both hands would bring, but she had narrowed the suspect list to two, possibly three. The road merged into her hand tegument completely. She closed her eyes and allowed the entire suite of sensations to slide over her as a circle of bioluminescence spread around her hands until it was over a meter across and flickered like a miniature lightning storm.

The next morning, Be Nho was sitting in a small diner of a motel at the edge of town, finishing a bowl of oatmeal, brown sugar and real maple syrup when her netpad sang. She washed her hands with a dash of water from her glass and touched the screen. Tykaetrice’s image jumped up in three dimensions and said, “I take it you got some information from your palm reading?”

“Don’t call it that. It makes it sound occult,” Be Nho said. “It’s simple science.”

Tykaetrice waved the comment away as she always did. “So what does my danh từ friend have to say?”

Be Nho rolled her eyes. “I’m no fortune teller, but the information I got from the road tells me a couple things: first and most important was that he was killed in the middle and rolled to the side. The memory trail of organics was clear and when I felt for the digestion trail, it was also pretty clear from the flavor that he’d been drinking.”

Tykaetrice nodded. “Corroborates the wife’s story. She said he was drinking pretty heavy that night and left after it got dark. Say’s that’s pretty normal, too. Hitches a ride with one of his drinking buddies and heads to some bar somewhere.”

“Any of those ‘buddies’ coming forward to let us know they saw him?”

“No one’s claimed last contact, if that’s what you’re asking. We don’t know exact time of death yet…” she paused, waiting for Be Nho to fill her in.

Be Nho shrugged this time, “I can tell what the road ate and where the stuff landed, but it doesn’t give me an exact printout of times. I know it was cool by the rate of acid action. I know it was dark by the energy signature. Sorry. It’s as much a creature witness as Nina, Seinfeld, Ms. Dahlstrom, Ashley and Brandon and my guess is that most of them couldn’t tell me when they last had contact with Nicholas, either.”

“You think Dahlstrom’s a suspect?”

“Definitely. If anyone is capable of killing a drunken old farmer – who maybe decided to do some off-site plowing, if you know what I mean,” Tykaetrice rolled her holographic eyes skyward and they both laughed, “ – it’s the query path director. Especially if she was privy to the knowledge that he’d been abusing his daughter. Maybe the old man’s pass at her gave her an excuse to take out the garbage.”

Tykaetrice shook her head and sighed in exasperation, “Just what I need – a vigilante on the loose.” She sighed and looked to one side, obviously making a note on her desktop, “I’ll look into it. You get anything else from the palm reading?”

Be Nho bit her lower lip then said, “Some odd organic traces showed up.”

The sheriff was suddenly alert. “How odd?”

“Not sure. It’s clearly an ethanol trace, but nothing like the alcohol Nicholas Maynard had been drinking. His booze had a clearly identifiable makeup. This was different and unusual. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it in a very long time.”

“Where exactly was it?”

“First of all, you should know the road only digested a small amount. Probably just a touch on the edge of the membrane. It seems likely that most of the ethanol hit the real ground alongside the road and that only a small amount splashed on to the road’s surface to be digested.”

“Why is it unusual?”

“Except for a few trace elements, it’s identical to what Nicholas was drinking.”

“And that’s unusual…why?”

Be Nho paused, scowling hard. “A splash pattern would be what you’d expect if someone was putting fuel into an internal combustion engine…”

“So? There maybe hundreds of them out here and about twenty-five percent of the roads are still gravel so you can’t use maglev vehicles on them, they’d have to travel on wheels by battery. In the long run, it’s pretty expensive so most farmers have a biofuel vehicle or two.”

“I know – I looked into it last night.”

“So what’s the problem?”

She paused for some time before she said, “After the corn scandals of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, virtually all biofuels today are what are called cellulosic ethanols – they’re made from grass clippings, leaves, cornstalks and other waste plant parts.”

“Yeah, so?”

“What splashed on the road wasn’t cellulosic ethanol. It was plain, old-fashioned ethanol. Like they used in the twenty-oughts.” She paused for a long time before she said, “And it was mixed with small amounts of petroleum distillates.” She tapped the screen to send the data.

Tykaetrice blinked in surprise, pursed her lips and said, “We’re on it.” She turned and the image flickered then came back. She said, “I almost forgot to tell you, coroner finished the autopsy.” She paused significantly.

Be Nho recognized the bait and trap and obligingly asked, “Something you think is significant showed up.”


Be Nho nodded. The Guessing Game. They played it when they either had no idea or had time to spare. “Feet,” she guessed.


Drat, she said silently. Out loud, “Hands then.” She pursed her lips again, took a breath and said, “Unusual damage.”

A quick nod. “Localized, one hand.”

Be Nho ran through possibilities, “The hand wasn’t obviously crushed – we’d have noticed that right away. So it has to be relatively minor damage.” She stopped talking, gently biting the inside of her cheek, then gripping her lips with her right thumb and forefinger. Finally, she said, “Fingertips. At what cardinal point was the head when you recovered the body?”

Tykaetrice paused, glanced to one side then turned all the way. When she came back she said, “I don’t mean anything suggestive or humorous by this, but the head was oriented north by northwest.” Be Nho split her screen and called up the scene images, scrolled through them, found what she wanted and zoomed in.

She stood up, saying, “I’m on this end of it. Call me later.”

“Wait! What do you think you’ve got?” Tykaetrice exclaimed.

“How about I’ll call you? I’ve got a lead to follow.” Be Nho hung up, paid her check and left the diner. She said, “The tips of the ring, middle and index fingers were flattened. As if they were run over by a tire.” A low-pitched roar sounded at the far end of town then stopped abruptly. Brandon Maynard’s dark green pickup truck floated down the street then turned out of town. Be Nho pulled out her netpad again and fingered it. It blipped a query. She put it away and swinging her bag around to her back, strode out to the car. The morning air was still cool and damp and she drew it in, tasting the Great Plains, then got in and rolled down the windows, starting up.

She pulled silently into the road and accelerated after Brandon’s pick up. The town had one set of traffic lights and she watched his truck hurry through yellow. She drifted to a stop and watched as a motorcycle crossed in front of her. Frowning she pulled out her netpad and typed in the license number. It popped up as belonging to Cami Dahlstrom, the query path director. She glanced left as the cycle sped across town. Ahead of her, Brandon was moving farther out of town.

She took a breath and accelerated forward. She had ideas that involved Brandon. She’d come back to Dahlstrom later. She also had a few questions for Seinfeld. She was well out of town, scanning for the dark green pickup truck – her GPS said it was about two klicks ahead of her – when a motorcycle roared past her then cut back in front of her. It slowed, forcing her car to slow as well. She could go around or use one of the extra features her police issue car had neatly tucked away in various nooks and crannies, but decided to forgo giving up her elements of surprise and come to a stop as Ms. Dahlstrom did. Be Nho briefly debated waiting or getting out, thought about the query path director’s martial arts skills and stayed in the car.

A moment later, she got off her cycle and came back to Be Nho. She stepped back until she could see in the window and crossed her arms over her chest. Be Nho rolled down the window and said, “You’ve got a reason for cutting me off, Query Path Director?”

Something flitted over Dahlstrom’s face then she said, “He was a douche bag.”

“Who?” Be Nho feigned interest.

“Nicholas Maynard.”

“He’s a murder victim. It’s irrelevant to me what he did when he was alive. I want to know how he died and who helped him.” She paused, looked Dahlstrom up and down, squinting. She didn’t add anything.

Dahlstrom held up under the gaze for a couple minutes then started to fidget, first a finger, then her foot. Finally, the arms loosened a bit and she said, “I’m a suspect?”

“What would compel you to think that you weren’t?”

“I didn’t do it.” Be Nho lifted her chin but didn’t comment. Dahlstrom looked away. Without looking at the investigator, she continued, “Not that he didn’t deserve it. Probably deserved a little torture, too.” She shot a look at Be Nho, “I may have loathed the man, but I didn’t kill him.”

Be Nho acknowledged that with a nod and said, “Then who did?”

“That’s what you’re here to find out, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “I’d appreciate any help you could give me.”

They locked gazes for a moment then Dahlstrom said, “Your friend wants me to be a cop.”

“She appreciates strong spirited women.”

Dahlstrom made a face, corners of the mouth turned down, eyebrows up. “Really?”

“Yes,” she replied then paused. “Do have any other information about Seinfeld, Brandon Maynard or Nicholas?”

Dahlstrom took a deep breath then slowly released it. “Maybe.” She snapped her head sideways. “Follow me. We’ll go out to my place and talk.”

For an instant, Be Nho felt like she’d started falling. It wasn’t exactly the best situation to get into, but she could take of herself. She had in the past. She said, “Lead on, then. I’ll follow.”

Dahlstrom held her gaze then turned back to her cycle and mounted, revving it then taking off down the road, still heading out of town. Be Nho followed, slipping her netpad out of her purse to the passenger’s seat and sending Tykaetrice a quick message. As Dahlstrom turned down a gravel road, the sheriff messaged back, but Be Nho had to concentrate on driving as the maglev effect stopped, the wheels dropped to the ground and the electric motor kicked in. She had to concentrate on following the windy road as it snaked through copses of poplar and sumac then dove into a wood of ancient, towering oak.

By the time they reached a run-down, stucco and red-tiled roof, 20th Century California mission three-story, she was ready to stop. Dahlstrom was off her cycle and walking toward Be Nho when the ground erupted in front of her and the blast of a shotgun echoed off the hard oak trunks.

Dahlstrom spun to run back to the house, but just as she reached the garage, a second shot thundered and she went down. Be Nho, after she’d sprinted for the cover of the nearby woods, ran crouching along the edge, her neurodischarge gun – people jokingly called it her ‘neuralizer’ – linked now to her bioconversion hand. She waited for another shot, then ran for Dahlstrom, knelt beside her and felt for a pulse. It was strong and she was only bleeding from small lacerations, probably concrete splinters from the wall. There was a cracked star pattern across the wall above head level.

Leaving the query path director – the teacher – on the ground, Be Nho ran for the car. The ground behind her jumped as she dove and rolled behind the tires. She opened the driver’s side door and reached in for the netpad. The car windows shattered and she jerked back, smashing the ‘pad against the steering wheel, cracking the screen. A second shotgun blast peppered the car as she sat on her heels behind the tire and sent a call to Tykaetrice. The screen flickered fitfully and when the “connected” screen came up for an instant, Be Nho gave her last known coordinates, reported Dahlstrom’s injuries and condition and told Tykaetrice to hurry. There was a heavy silence in the wood. She prairie dogged, scanning for the shooter but saw nothing.

There was a good chance he or she was approaching. Rather than wait, she slid the netpad under the car and crouching again, dashed for the wood, slipping behind a tree. With the neuralizer aimed this time, she feinted right then jumped to the left out from behind the tree.

No one.

She sprayed the area with a nerve disruption field. Four birds, an owl and seven squirrels dropped from the trees. There was a scream from beyond the drive and a huge raccoon staggered out from the underbrush and collapsed on the gravel. “Crap,” Be Nho muttered. She ran to the car, jumped in, started it and floored the accelerator, slewing around, spraying gravel, avoiding Dahlstrom and charging for the main road. It wasn’t until she’d nearly reached it that another pair of shotgun blasts hit the car on the passenger side. “Trying to go around and come at me from behind…” she said. She spared a skyward glance but didn’t see the Sheriff’s SWAT flyer cavalry.

She raced onto the main road, slamming on the brakes as a dark green pickup heading out of town swerved wildly to avoid her then gunned its engine and raced on. She knew that truck! She hit the accelerator, following Brandon Maynard as he roared out of town. Her main suspect was trying to escape.

Her foot dropped from the accelerator and she coasted to a stop as she said, “If that’s Brandon, then who just tried to kill me?” Whoever they were, they were still back at Dahlstrom’s house.

There was no way to call Tykaetrice.

If the shooter had been intent on killing the teacher, their aim would have been better. In fact, the shooting had been remarkably inexperienced. Be Nho floored her accelerator again and held it to the floor. A special unit activated and boosted her speed past one hundred ten kph. Her hands merged with the steering wheel and taking control of whatever was left of the car computer, kept her on the road as she caught up with Brandon’s truck, passed it then slowly edged it off the road. The driver instinctively let off the gas as the truck edged toward the ditch until they were both stopped.

Be Nho glanced over and saw nothing though the doors were both closed. At that moment, the sheriff’s chopper roared up from a dip in the road before them and another roared up behind them. They wheeled to hover and a voice boomed from external speakers demanding that the driver not move or he’d be shot.

Be Nho stood, feet apart, her neuralizer aimed at the pickup as she shouted, “Come out with your hands on top of your head!”

The gray head of an old man lifted up, hands on top of his head. Be Nho motioned for him to get out and he did. A moment later, deputies – including “Corporal Stager, Ma’am” – swarmed in to Miranda Rights, cuff and cart away Brandon Maynard.

Shortly, Tykaetrice’s squad hovered to the scene. In the back seat, his head forward, the crown resting on the seat, was Seinfeld. As she got out, she said, “Brandon put him up to it. Said to scare you all away by acting like he was trying to kill you.”

Be Nho replied, “Seinfeld probably told you that Brandon said he’d tell the police that the boy killed Nicholas.”

Tykaetrice nodded, “Brandon told him that everyone would believe his tale because Seinfeld was just a kid and the last one to have contact with Nicholas.”

“Kid was probably scared to death; willing to do anything.” Tykaetrice nodded. Be Nho added, “How’s Dahlstrom?”

“Fine. Paramedics treated the lacerations and sent her into the house with a sedative and orders to sleep. Ashley just shrugged and went back into the house when we told her. Nina’s weeping and thinking that Seinfeld’s on a hot track to readjustment – she’s more in lust with him than ever.” Be Nho shot her a look and they both laughed. “Sorry you missed your grandson’s bar mitzvah or whatever it was.”

“Birthday. Sorry you had to waste two vacation days for this.”

Tykaetrice shrugged and said, “I’ll just take two more. No problem. I was just at the lake.”

Be Nho pulled her gloves on, looked at her beat up car and lifted a chin toward the helicopters. “Think I can bum a ride from one of the pilots?”

“You don’t even have to bum a ride. You can go as my guest.” Be Nho nodded and headed for the nearest chopper. Tykaetrice called out, “Good to see you again, but I hope I don’t see you for a long, long time. Preferably after I retire.”

Be Nho waved and called back as the chopper revved up, “Same here! Whoever retires first buy the other one a bottle of

March 26, 2010

Sorry, sorry, sorry...

I am working desperately on grading papers for third quarter. I WILL have a post by tonight!

March 23, 2010


just wanted you to know that tonight, VICTORY OF FISTS was in the Third Round winners of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award -- from 1000 novels, 750 were eliminated. 250 were passed on the Semi-Finalists...


The 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, along with Penguin Group (USA) and CreateSpace, is pleased to announce the third annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the international competition seeking the next popular novel. For the first time, the competition will award two grand prizes: one for General Fiction and one for Young Adult Fiction. The 2010 competition is open to unpublished and previously self-published novels waiting to be discovered. Each winner will receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance.

Announcing the Quarterfinalists

Congratulations to all of the 500 Quarterfinalists! Download a PDF list of the General Fiction Quarterfinalists and the Young Adult Fiction Quarterfinalists that have moved on to the next stage of the awards competition. Excerpts of the quarterfinal entries, along with reviews of those excerpts, will be available soon.

March 21, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt’s Final Advice (from “12 Blunders”, anyway) – Forget the Payoff

(above, Jack McDevitt)

I’ve always hated stories that don’t end but peter out into frivolousness or hopelessness. I define the vast majority of Literary Novels this way. In 2007, I wrote the following, “Literary fiction is about powerless people living their lives in excruciating detail. The main character is the author in thin disguise making educated, satirical, wise, obscure, snide or erudite commentary in a way that no real person is that life could possibly be able to duplicate.” (I wrote this after a jag of reading Hemingway and Danticat).

Genre fiction, on the other hand, tends to have definite endings – sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always clear and typically, that ending is the only possible end result of the actions the author exposed. Romance, mystery, SF, fantasy, westerns, horror and everything in between tweaks the nose of the literati by constantly being commercially successful. Except for literary novels that get turned into movies (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, FORREST GUMP, FIGHT CLUB spring to mind), literary novels are read by a (supposedly elite) few who expound on them and write doctoral dissertations and eschew “genre fiction”. If this were not true, English teachers/professors might regularly assign John Norman’s ASSASSINS OF GOR, or LaVyrle Spencer’s MORNING GLORY, or QUEEN OF BLOOD by Bryan Smith.

I tried to write a “literary” science fiction short story. It was so awful I turned it over to Bruce Bethke and his FRIDAY CHALLENGE ( to dissect because, for me at least it was a dead story.

Why is it dead? No one understood the ending because I didn't spell it out. It was supposed to be subtly literary. I put it out for critique in an online writer’s group I’m part of. Several people commented that it was an SF story but they never saw the main character get to the space ship and fly off the planet. I wanted to say: “She didn’t. She plunged into the swamp and broke her neck, leaving behind a husband who’d lost a leg, his massive debt to the on-planet mining concern, and a little boy in the care of aliens. The End.” NO ONE GOT THE TRAGEDY. Because it was a “space story” and there were aliens, it MUST have been genre fiction and therefore needed an ending that was happy – or at least obvious.

I am NOT saying SF can’t be “literary”. Gene Wolfe and Connie Willis have proven otherwise. It’s just that I can’t produce anything remotely identifiable as literary. While McDevitt says, “I was laboring under the notion, beloved by Americans, that if you have a problem, there should be a solution. The reality of course is that some problems don’t lend themselves to solutions.” I would point out that while McDevitt may believe this in his heart of hearts – and he gives at least two examples to illustrate his point – his NOVELS don’t reflect that belief. All of the ones I’ve read have solutions. Not all the solutions are “happy endings”, but every one of the novels I’ve read so far have had solutions.

Proving…absolutely nothing! Except that the old saw, “Do what I say, not what I do” is alive and well on planet Earth. I will henceforth do what Jack McDevitt does: provide clear solutions to his stories – and write the best books I can.

Thank you Mr. McDevitt for sharing your wisdom with me!

(The Twelve Blunders have been used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage: Thank you, Mr. McDevitt!

image taken from:

March 18, 2010

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 6: DaneelAH -- Malacandra

A Roman holiday was entertainment received at the expense of the suffering of others or a spectacle designed to do the same for the masses. In this future, Mars is a bad place to be if you’re an adherent of any organized religion – and if you’re an artificial human…If you want to read what went on before, go to the June 8, 2009 entry...

“You think she’ll do it?” MishAH asked. The whole thing had been DaneelAH’s plan, but he wasn’t entirely sure he would be able to pull it off. It had been obvious when they all lived in Bradbury and had access to the EarthBranch Library. But Malacandra was just a bunch of farmers and the closest thing they had to a library was Martian General University.

HanAH shook his head, “She’ll sell us off for sure.” He paused for effect, “For parts.”

MishAH gasped. AzAH elbowed HanAH. DaneelAH scowled and said, “No need to be gory and cruel.” He paused then continued, “If we are to remain together and serve God, we need a job.” AzAH opened his mouth, “A job that requires us to be together.”

They reached the desk and the human assistant lifted an eyebrow, saying, “You may see the Mayor now.” He went back to working on his virtual screen, smiling a cruel smile and humming, “Dum, dum, dah dum, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dum…”

DaneelAH, AzAH, MishAH and HanAH – the appended letters meant that all four were Artificial Humans and belonged to the Mayor and could not reproduce on their own nor claim any rights of any sort. They’d been captured during a riot in a nearby city and never returned. Under Martian law, they were tenuously defined as confiscated war materials property and could be dispensed with by purchasing the same permits a person might buy to get rid of old fluorescent bulbs. But that legal mess was tied up in the courts and would be for the next century or so…

Mayor Turin was sitting at her desk, glowering at the door when they walked in. Without preamble, she said, “You’ve been on the docket for thirty-six months and never bothered anyone about getting an earlier appointment. You never once tried to approach me at the Palace nor have you lobbied for special treatment. All four of your work records are spotless and to tell you the truth, you’re the only ones worth keeping since the Bradbury Disturbances a year and a half ago. The only reason I’ve agreed to see you is that I’m curious about your persistence.” She steepled her fingers and looked at them.

DaneelAH looked at the others. AzAH nudged him forward. He stepped up and said, “Your Eminence…”

“Don’t bother with the fancy stuff. I know who I am and I know who you are. What I don’t know is what you’ve waited so patiently for so long to tell me.”

DaneelAH nodded slowly, considered dancing around the issue, then cut to the chase instead. “Mister Mayor, we know what’s in the Martian Face Cavern.”
Mayor Turin stared at them all. The corner of her mouth twitched up into a smirk, but with effort, she pressed her lips together until the urge to laugh at them had passed. The amusement wasn’t entirely gone from her voice when she said, “If you belonged to anyone else, I’d have you hauled out and sold for parts. But since you’re mine, continue. What makes you so sure you know what’s in the Cavern?”

DaneelAH hooked a thumb at AzAH. “Some of our assurance…”

“You’re speaking as a group? What could a security guard, an agriculture coop secretary, an organic translating machine and a…a…” the Mayor stammered.

“I’ve settled on a designation of forensic xenoarchaeologist.”

“A what?” The Mayor asked. AzAH, HanAH and MishAH echoed her, words and tone.

“There was a crime under those vaulted ceilings and I think I know what it was. AzAH works in the Translation Project. She’s brought puzzling bytes to our conversations. MishAH’s observations of current grain growth patterns, transportation and storage show peculiar and unlikely patterns – maybe. Even HanAH’s observations of criminal activity and security concerns not only in Malacandra but all over Mars.”

Mayor Turin scowled at him, leaning back in her chair. Her chin settled into the cup of her right hand as his left hand cupped the elbow. She studied him for some time before she finally nodded. “I’ll grant you the title. I don’t want to know anything until you have solid evidence to support your theories.” She shifted, leaning forward. “I expect you know that I will not stand for any negative publicity falling on this office or on me personally?”

DaneelAH nodded slowly.

“Then it’s settled. The rest of you document information you send to DaneelAH under the seal of the Mayoral Office.” She turned to another computer screen, obviously dismissing them.

The three artificial humans left the office, passed through the antechamber and didn’t say a word until they were out of the Mayor’s Palace. Then they started talking at once, cutting each other – and any answer he tried to make – off. Finally he whistled, thumb and middle finger curled and inserted into the corners of his mouth. They all stopped talking.

DaneelAH said, “We’re going to be together. That was my goal. We’ve achieved it. Now let’s go home and see what we can put together to solve the mystery of why the Mars Face Cavern is empty – and what was in it before it was empty.”

March 14, 2010

SLICE OF PIE: A Religion in a New Science Fiction World…

Blaise Pascal – the man for whom the International pressure unit is named; whose mathematical genius left its mark on the very secular worlds of science and math – also left a profound legacy of faith in Jesus Christ. Among the many things he said in his two works of Christian apologetics, he noted: “Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.” (

I wonder what Pascal would have had to say about Anthropogenic Global Climate Change/Warming? Would he wonder if it was a religion masquerading as science, in which (no surprise) humans had taken the place of God as agents of planetary change? Or would he have something to say about the difficulty of making accurate observations on a system that both spans the planet and spans millennia?

AGC/W posits that human action alone has changed the Earth’s climate from what it was supposed to be to what it’s not supposed to be. Oddly, I’ve never read an exposition of what things would be like here and now if humanity had remained at a pre-Industrial level of technology or not invented Freon, power plants, automobiles or Republicans. This is the basic tenet of the AGC/W religion, so let’s explore it.

The Scientific Revolution preceded the Industrial Revolution and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the first caused the second. Traced back to its roots, we find an individual whose writings single-handedly (apparently) blocked an earlier Revolution of humanity: Aristotle. AGC/W then must seek the reverse – a single individual who might spark the Climate Revolution and save humanity from climatological collapse and Republicans in Washington.

So perhaps I can pull a story out of this: a scientific establishment has blockaded and barricaded its climate change prediction. The scientific evidence is completely gathered and the end result is clear: doom for the world. The establishment has set into motion laws, programs and a fierce information machine designed to silence any other interpretation of its data. It has its experts whose credentials are unassailable and who speak with a clear voice around the world. Everything is in place and they have a plan to save the world – if they can just pay for it. (If this reminds anyone of a story, I know what you mean: in the April through May 1981 issues of ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION/SCIENCE FACT, Dean McLaughlin’s serialization of DAWN appeared. It is a lovingly rendered story of a man who warns of an impending “Nightfall” on a world of multiple suns with an evil religious hierarchy bent on silencing the hero to protect the status quo.) We’ll use a similar character – a scientist whose voice in the establishment is one of many. Then she posits a different interpretation of events – different that is, from that of the establishment. She believes that the changes ascribed to humanity are only part of a long cycle, in her case, one set up by the God she believes in and worships.

Cries of “blasphemy!” from the monolith. It seeks her out, kills her (the author will work out the details leading up to her tragic but inevitable end). Inexplicably, in doing so and despite its efforts to hoist humanity back up into its place of ultimate importance (which it took from the rubble of the Church it destroyed), the rest of the world takes note of what the other scientist said and picking up her words, examines them and finds them more in line with reality than those of the scientific monolith. Barricades tumble, the blockade is broken and sadder but wiser, humanity continues on, taking the root wisdom from the monolith and using it to modify cyclic nature…

There’s a story here, as there has always been. It’s just it’s not the story the scientific establishment has wanted written. The same establishment that wants to forget that American scientists didn’t want to accept the German Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift either. They fought it tooth and nail until, forty years later it entered the realm of scientific fact.

Another aspect of religion – and Christianity is NOT exempt from this accusation – is that some of its loudest proponents refuse to admit they might be wrong. I experienced this when a vocal proponent of AGC/W with whom I disagreed rabidly attacked my intelligence and beliefs, accusing me of being and doing things he couldn’t possibly know about. He didn’t notice that his conclusions about me were based on the exchange of a few letters and his reading of a few of my blog posts. It was clear to me that the conclusions he’d drawn about me were the same type of conclusions he’d drawn about AGC/W.

It’s this refusal to hear dissent, as well as a willingness to ignore different interpretations of data as well as the inability to place current events into a cycle humanity is incapable of seeing that makes AGC/W more religion than science.

And I am one who is considering writing a story that might reflect this situation. Maybe I’ll even name my main character Blaise. I might paraphrase what he said above like this: “Faith is above what the senses tell us, not contrary to them.” For me this means that Global Climate Change is not solely caused – or stopped – by humans; it’s part of a cycle which we can and should help to bring back into the course God set it on…livable for the majority of life on Earth.

March 11, 2010


This series is a little biography about my dad and little imagination about a trip he took the summer of 1946 – he was almost fifteen. He and friend hitchhiked to Duluth. He says is was “something to do”. I prefer to think there was a more cosmic, mysterious reason. Hence, this story. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH posts click on the link on your right. Number one is on the bottom as you scroll down…

“You can’t have me!” Freddie Merrill screamed, scrambling up the steps, stumbling and almost planting his face on the sidewalk at the top of the stairs. A rattling pickup rolled past, belching blue smoke and leaving the smell of rotted vegetables in its wake.

Always the fastest, Freddie turned, sprinting down the sidewalk that ran along the street. Tommy Hastings ran after him, calling, “Freddie! Freddie! Wait!” He put on a burst of speed as Freddie slowed at a street corner. A single car roared through the intersection, so the boys turned right to cross the bridge. A waterfall rumbled under their feet, shaking the bridge. They kept going for six blocks until finally Freddie slowed down.

He collapsed against a highway sign, holding it as his legs trembled.

“What,” Tommy gasped, “are,” he took a deeper breath, trying to slow his breathing. “…you doing?”

“Running,” Freddie managed.

Tommy made a rude noise.

“…away from the witch…” Freddie finished. He sagged against the sign pole.

“Ain’t no such thing as witches,” Tommy said.

“Is too.”


A beam of sunlight from the rising sun cut through the fog like a hot knife through butter. Blinded, the boys covered their eyes so neither one saw the girl in the blue gingham dress ride down the street until she braked in front of them. Blinking stupidly, the boys started as she put down her kickstand leaned the bike on it then turned to face them. Her voice was harsh, shrill and nasal as she said, “Freddie Merrill, what are you doing in Anoka without Auntie Shirley? Mom didn’t say you were comin’, otherwise I’d have met you at the train, so since Mom couldn’ta known that means you’re here without permission which means…”

Freddie screamed and darted across the street. Tommy shot the girl an alarmed look the lit out after Freddie who was – no kidding at all – waving his arms straight up in the air and screaming like a banshee while he ran straight down the middle of Trunk Highway 56.

Tommy caught up with him without any trouble ‘cause even though Freddie could run faster, he didn’t have any kind of staying power. Tommy wasn’t as fast, but he could keep running for a long time before his legs gave out. He figured Freddie’s legs would give out any second.

But they didn’t. Freddie just got slower and slower and slower until he finally stopped. The last house on the north side of Anoka had disappeared and they kept on walking on Trunk Highway 56.

“I wanna go home,” Freddie said suddenly.

“Your dad will kill you,” said Tommy.

“He’s gonna kill me anyway. That girl?”

“The witch?”

“Not the one who played the guitar!”

“The one in the dress with the voice like a cat getting run over by a car?”

“Yeah. That’s my cousin, Mary Elizabeth.”

The cousin rode up alongside them and said, “Where are YOU going?”

Freddie didn’t look at her and said, “We’re running away to Alaska and then we’re going to the Soviet Union to become Communists.”

Mary Elizabeth gasped, wheeled her bicycle around and pedaled frantically back into town.

Tommy laughed. “Like she’ll believe that.”

“You don’t know my cousin and aunt,” Freddie said grimly. “She’s really stupid. She believes it and she’ll tell her mom and her mom will believe it and her mom will call my mom and my mom will believe it and tell my dad.” They plodded along for a silent mile as the sun burned off the fog and began to beat down on their heads. “My dad is gonna have my head when I get back home.” They walked until Freddie said, “He’s gonna have my head…”

March 7, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Slavery and Me

“We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.”

Abraham Lincoln to the Secretary of the Navy

Lessa of Pern. Flinx of Moth. Dana Franklin of Earth. Martin of Redwall.

All these fictional characters were slaves in truth or fact. They all broke free of the bonds of slavery to become powerful characters able to not only effect change in their own lives, but in the lives of others – whether individuals or entire worlds.

While their slavery was horrible and those who enslaved them reprehensible, their time as slaves created both the drive and wisdom to move beyond the limited scope their lives once had. (I am not condoning slavery, I’m observing)

Millions died under the terrible yoke of slavery. Creating a slavery economy in order to produce the individuals of exceptional strength and resilience would be a crude form of eugenics. We run screaming from any mention of eugenics, BUT: “…developments in genetics, genomic, and reproductive technology at the end of the 20th Century have raised many new questions and concerns about what exactly constitutes eugenics and what its ethical and moral status is in the modern era…” (

The International Executive Director, Patrick Atkinson (and an old, old friend of mine!) of the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited and Missing Persons (ITEMP) (, which is a new and terrifyingly necessary organization has this to say, “We believe that every person has the right to live their life free from slavery, coercion and fear. Quite simply, this is why we do what we do.” They just received a two-year, $240,000 grant from the US Department of State.

Slavery comes either from the darkest reaches of the human psyche or from the deepest pits of Hell (take your pick). It is, however, STILL a part of a world economy that we support – whether we want to admit it or not. Slavery is alive and well and it’s something we need to talk about.

So why does the Apostle Paul say in First Corinthians 7:22 that, “…he who is called while free is Christ’s slave…”?

In light of all I’ve said and all our society says it believes about slavery, how can Paul say that we are Christ’s slaves? It makes websites like look like they are spreading the truth! It makes us so uncomfortable that English translations frequently and without apology substitute ‘bond servant’ or ‘servant’ for the Greek word, doulos which meant, literally, “slave”. Some of us who are not descended from slaves, have ancestors who were indentured servants – people who sold their services willingly to escape poverty or were kidnap victims or prisoners (the distinction seems vague to me…). It would be horrifying for Paul to write this – except that Jesus called Himself the slave of all in Mark 10 : 42Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’"

Jesus knew both the horror of slavery – he was born into a family of slaves. He knew the reality of slavery – he saw slaves everywhere because He grew up in a land occupied by the Roman Empire. But He knew that He was the slave of all humanity and then called us to be His slaves as well. He knew – as SF writers have known and demonstrated in their writing…and that we ALL know because we’ve made these people famous writers by voting awards on them and buying their books – that slavery can create powerful personalities. Slavery can create (and I do not condone slavery as a method of character building) strong individuals.

Jesus calls us to be His slaves, as He was a slave to all humanity, in order to create powerful witnesses of His Word to the world – a world that still HAS slaves, yet refuses to talk about it.

March 1, 2010



Dabney Joaquim knew his new wife, Anna, was pretending full satisfaction so she wouldn’t hurt his feelings. Biting his lower lip, he hoped she wouldn’t notice as he pretended to read his eBook. Since his activation, he’d known her two goals in life. Along with her memories and dreams, they’d been loaded into him so he could make sure she was completely fulfilled. One goal had been to design a perfect Life Companion by the time she was eighteen.

Feigning happiness, she glanced at his reflection in the train’s window. He knew he was handsome with tightly curled black hair, blue eyes and a small, upturned nose. Other humans ordered muscle-bound, well-endowed hunks to sweep them off their feet and give them years of fantastic sex. But she’d repeated to him twice that she didn’t want to send him away for alterations after they’d been married a few years. He was a classic model – and she’d been satisfied over a hundred times since their marriage.

Anna sighed. She took Dabney’s arm and pulled him closer. He was the half of her life she was satisfied with. Her dissatisfied half raced past the train’s window and back into the night. Her second goal had been to see the Wild Lands up close – in ways even her Advanced Sensortainment System was incapable of recreating. Contrary to most adults her age, she deeply believed that reality would be better than anything an ASS could fabricate.

Beyond the window, deeper than her reflection were the Wild Lands she wanted. She shuddered, the thought a sudden surge of aphrodisiac. Shaking off her melancholy, she said abruptly, “The Companion Ceremony.”

Startled he said, “What?” Even though he knew her memories, and typically followed her train of thought, he couldn’t read her mind. She was quite capable of surprising him. It was, after all, three in the morning as the train raced along the Central Dakotah Route, far south of Wildtown Bismarck. At just under the speed of sound, they would reach their destination long before sunrise. He cleared his throat and turned to her, composing his face so that he looked like he’d been dozing and murmured, “What about it, mis pequeños ciervos risueños?”

She squeezed his arm and whispered, “It was heavenly! I feel heavenly. What are you feeling at this very moment?”

He couldn’t reply that he felt nothing. Though that was the truth, he’d been programmed and trained to mirror human emotional response. He leaned over to her forehead and kissed it, breathing, “Madly in love with you.” He moved his hand in a calculated grope of her breast.

She raised her eyebrows and breathed in his ear, “Let’s go to the restroom. There’s something I want to show you.” She took his hand, pulling him to his feet. He’d learned that tone of voice and so his artificial anatomy began preparations for the expected performance.

One of them was experiencing climax when everything around them turned to chaos: the lights went out, the bathroom spun end-over-end, the shriek of tearing metal deafened her, and Dabney’s arms surrounded Anna until something hit him in the head so violently that his circuits had to reset.

When he woke, Anna was laying on top of him weeping hysterically and wheezing. He put his arms around her reflexively and sat up. She managed to say, “I thought you were dead!”

“I’m not,” Dabney said, standing and pulling her with him. Passing his hand over the right hand side of his head, it came away slick with body fluid. A near-catastrophic impact had separated a flap of artificial skin from his metal braincase. He’d tend to it later. Assessment program in operation, he muttere, “But what are we doing…” In high def-infrared, he saw the bathroom compartment two meters to his left. Twelve hundred meters beyond was the flaming wreckage of the train. Human heat signatures swarmed around it. “Wilds!” he said. Scooping Anna into his arms, he spun and ran, clamping her with hydraulic efficiency so that his arms absorbed the impact as he sprinted to fifty kilometers per hour. Anna screamed for him to stop. He said in a level voice, “The train was destroyed by Wild terrorists, Dearest. We’re between Bozelings and Chicageapolis and we have to get to the suburbs to be safe, but I’ll protect you.”

She stopped screaming long enough to say, “We’re in the Wild Lands? Actually in them?”

He nodded, “We are, but I’ll protect you, my…” She fainted dead away. Shaking his head, he wondered what she would have done if he’d been destroyed and she’d had to face the Wild Lands without him.

He pushed his speed beyond safety limits. Then he dug his heels into the ground, skidding wildly to a stop. Standing still in a field of shoulder-high wheat as the heat of the previous summer day radiated from the ground around him, he turned his head, searching. He sought a radio, satellite, microwave or laser link to the Central Computer. He found nothing. Pushing himself beyond recommended tolerances should have generated an instant warning from CenComp. Yet it had not. For a puzzled moment, he knew that there was a word for his condition. He had no idea what it was until he found it with an extremely low lexical frequency number. He tested the word, “Alone.”

A human would feel terror right now. He would have mirrored the same response given the right circumstances. But those circumstances hadn’t arrived yet, though they might be rapidly approaching.

Cut off from instantaneous updates, monitoring, legal interpretation, debate and news, he had only what he’d uploaded before leaving Seacoma on the West Coast, plus a standard database. Typically it contained a working knowledge of theoretical and applied psychology; medical skills; survival skills; the culinary ability of three master chefs; a male and a female love maker; and a smattering of carpentry, masonry, electronic and small engine repair skills. He also had a good voice, could paint circles around Monet and play six instruments. But he was nothing without constant contact with CenComp. How could he find out where he was and what he was to do in all situations?

He would have to find a Wild human he could trust – or one he could use for his purposes then dispose of it properly. Most likely, the latter as his standard database contained nothing linking reasoning ability to Wild humans. Anna moaned and wheezed again. He would have to stay in peak operating condition if he was going to walk two hundred kilometers. He paused. He could also go back to the wreck. Eventually armed Companions would reach that place to recover the bodies of the humans and the cores of the Companions.

But that might take too much time. CenCom would reroute traffic around the accident then deal with the aftermath at leisure. It would have to send armed Companions in to protect themselves from Wild humans while they recovered what they could from the wreck and then repay the Wild humans for their terroristic act. Which might take days; possibly weeks. He couldn’t stay in the Wild Lands for that long, and despite her goal, he doubted Anna would be capable of such a stay even if she were completely healthy.

Dabney looked around and climbed a rise, scanned until he found a higher place, then scanned from there until he found a bluff high enough for him to map out the area and locate a Wild human settlement. He had no idea how common they were. There was nothing in his database regarding the current population of Wild humans on the Great Plains.

Lights twinkled on the horizon. Probability was high that it was a Wild human settlement. He started running, though not beyond his known tolerances. He doubted Wild humans would be wandering the Great Plains in the middle of the night, so if he swung wide of the settlement it was unlikely he would meet one accidentally. He would be limited in his ability to protect Anna because he was carrying her. He had no desire to bruise her if he was forced to dispose of a Wild human in hand-to-hand combat.

He looked down, sharpening his hearing and noted that Anna’s wheezing was worse. A deeper scan showed that her bronchii were constricted and irritated. It was nearly two hundred kilometers to the western-most suburb of Chicageapolis. He slowed and stopped again.

While he could do everything from stitch minor cuts, set bones, keep her heart beating if it stopped and temporarily filter toxins and poisons from her blood, it was clear she was having an allergic reaction. If it continued, Anna might go into anaphylactic shock. He was not equipped with the knowledge to treat that kind of reaction.

She could die before they reached proper medical facilities. Dabney had no real emotions, but he’d formed an attachment to Anna. He couldn’t visualize himself with another human. She was pleasant, smart and while her goal was certainly one of the most bizarre he’d ever heard of, it intrigued him endlessly. If she would wake up, she would have realized that goal even if he had to carry her all the way back. As it was, if she went into anaphylactic shock, she'd never know.

He set off again, and instead of swinging wide to avoid it, he headed into the settlement.

It was unnamed, contrary to everything in his database regarding human colonization. Typically, they named everything in sight. But the houses themselves were sufficiently labeled. Staying out of bright light and carrying Anna as carefully as possible, he slipped from shadow to shadow. He found the dwelling hung with a sign reading VETERINARIAN.

Specialized care of animals was a skill some humans still enjoyed. In a city where Life Companions could perform most human medical care and under the remote guidance of CenCom, could perform most complex human cares as well, the Life Companions had long ago decided that there was no need for humans to do anything for other humans. There were still special cases. CenCom was able to focus solely on caring for humans and if it ran into strange human cases, it sent them to the veterinarians, tapping their knowledge of animal life.

Dabney crouched to watch the dwelling, eyeing the back door. Were the Wilds within monitoring for robot intrusion? What would this veterinarian do if he or she discovered Dabney was a Companion? Would they try to stop him? Would they take Anna away from him? Wild humans hated civilized humans, though they were not very smart. Would this veterinarian try and kill Anna?

Dabney growled. If they tried, he’d dispose of them and find a different vet to care for Anna. Her breathing had grown labored. She arched her back and opened her mouth wide to take a breath and her eyes flicked open. She barely managed to breathe, “Are we in the Wild Lands?”

He said softly, “Yes, Love. We’re in the Wild Lands. Behind a veterinary station because you’re very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” she wheezed, sagging in his arms. When she tried to take a breath, she made lip-popping sounds but could draw in nothing. Dabney stood and strode forward, turning to hit the door with one shoulder.

It splintered under his assault and he stepped into an operating theater. It was small, scaled for animals, though there was a wide space beside the main table that looked like it could be prepared for larger animals. He heard the heavy tread of a boot and a sharp snap of metal on metal which he had no way of recognizing. Without Anna, he would have attacked first and asked questions later. Instead, he turned to face the vet, held Anna out and said, “I think my wife is dying.”

Overhead lights came on suddenly. The vet was a graying, wrinkled woman. She gasped and set her firearm to one side, stepping forward, and saying, “What happened to you two?”

Dabney said, “We were on a train bombed by terrorists. Or there was an accident. I don’t know. We’ve been walking,” he made a quick calculation, “for three days. Anna had trouble breathing from the beginning, but now she can’t take a breath at all. I think it’s an allergic reaction to something out here. We’ve never been to the Great Plains before. Can you help her?” He didn’t have to feign the concern in his voice.

The vet looked at him first then snagged a chest-listening instrument from a hook. She plugged a pair of tubes into her ears and pressed the flat end of another tube to Anna’s chest, moving it around and motioning for him to set her upright so she could listen to Anna's back. She looked into Dabney’s face and said, “Lay her down on the table. I need to stop the swelling in her lungs or she’ll die.”

He nodded and lay her down. The vet went to a metal cabinet, rummaged briefly then brought out a sonoinjector. Dabney recognized the tool, but his database held nothing about WHAT the vet might inject. The vet held up three vials and said, “This is diphenhydramine. I have small doses made for animals but she’s in bad shape, so I need to give her three. Do you consent?” He nodded slowly. She quickly popped one vial on the injector and pressed it to Anna’s neck. It hissed slowly. As he watched, he could see his Life Companion relax as the drug hit her system. The vet gave her two more injections then motioned to Dabney. “Pick her up and we’ll put her in the living room on the couch. She’ll be comfortable there while she recovers. This dosage will knock her out and let her sleep until tomorrow afternoon. But that’s probably a good thing. You’re both pretty sunburned.”

He nodded and followed her into what she had called a “living room”. It was large and contained a seemingly haphazard collection of furniture as well as an immense fireplace in which red coals glowed, smoldering in a pile. The vet tossed two more logs on the fire and gestured to a couch. Dabney carefully set Anna down. Her labored breathing had slowed and her mouth hung open, taking full breaths.

The vet stood up and said, “Now you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” said Dabney.

She snorted, smiled and shook her head, “Just like a man! You have a cut on your head that bled all over everything and makes you look like you were attacked by a pack of wolves!” She took him gently but firmly by the upper arm and propelled him into the operating theater again. “At least let me give you something for the headache.” She shook him gently, “And don’t you dare tell me you don’t have a headache!”

He took a deep breath, held it and nodded, “That would probably be good.”

“Speaking of allergic, you have any allergies to aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen hydrochloride or ibuprofen?”

He shook his head. “None that I know of. I don’t take drugs often.”

She snorted. “Typical man.” She returned to the cabinet, shook a plastic bottle of pills and turned back to him with three cupped in her hand. “Go ahead and take these. They knock out my headache at four in the morning when I have to go out and deliver a calf.” She dumped them into his hand then turned to get a glass of water, which she handed to him also.

He’d seen the expected response in period dramas he and Anna had seen together, so he popped the pills and drank the water. She lifted her chin and said, “Now come on into the living room, put your feet up and tell me what brought you here tonight. We’ll sit by your Anna all night and keep an ear on her breathing just to make sure.” She went into the living room, so Dabney followed her.

Sitting in one large, upholstered chair near the fire, which had sprung back to life again, she gestured to the other. “Take a load off.”

He sat slowly, as if he were a weary human who’d been struggling across the Great Plains for the past few days. He sighed when he sat down and was abruptly surprised how good it felt. Clearly, he hadn’t been designed for what he’d been through. Perhaps it would be good to shut down some of his systems for a few hours.

Leaning forward, the vet offered her hand and said, “My name’s Patrice, by the way. Patrice Coleman, DVM.”

Dabney reached out to take her hand and introduced himself, surprised by her steady reach – and by the unexpected tremor in his own hand. He sat back and would have scowled if he could have, but it seemed that the microfibers controlling his facial expressions were no longer under his direction.

That was when he noticed that Anna’s breathing had stopped. He tried to stand but found his knees paralyzed.

Patrice sat rocking for a few moments before saying, “What’s it feel like to be roboslave?”

He found he could still talk – just not move his jaw. “I’m not a slave and you’re a murderer.”

Patrice didn’t answer immediately then said, “Which one? You or her?”

“Anna! She’s human!”

“She’s your pet. Your pet human.”

“No she’s not! We’re Life Companions!”

“Why did you bring her to a vet, then? I treat animals. Doctors treat humans.”

He paused, “We don’t have doctors in the City.” His speech center was being affected by whatever she’d given him. His words were slurred and indistinct.

“That’s because your human is your pet.” She nodded to Anna’s body. “All I did was put down a sick animal. I do it all that all the time.”

“She’s my wife…” he could just get the words out before his speech control faded.

Patrice said, “Pet.”

The world wheeled around him as he tumbled from the chair. When he hit the ground, his arms and legs spasmed uncontrollably. His vision stopped, but strangely, his power of speech revived for a moment and he croaked, “What am I?”

Patrice stood and looked down on him in the flickering light of the fire. She didn’t reply until he stopped breathing; stopped moving; stopped registering on the monitor she’d taken from the cabinet when she’d gotten his pills. She whispered, “I don’t know. But whatever you are, neither of you are human.”