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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Excerpt from a work-in-progress: Kiss the Chameleon

I can't tell you how many times I've been in the middle of a work-in-progress and suddenly had an idea for a different story.

This is somewhere between encouraging and annoying.  Encouraging because it means my brain is still engaged in coming up with new ideas, and annoying because I usually get excited enough that I want to quit working on my current work-in-progress and jump right into the new one. 

This happened to me last week.  At two AM.  I woke up with not only an idea and a first scene, but a title.  Where it came from is anyone's guess; from that weird Sea of the Collective Unconscious we all allegedly tap into, I suppose.  It's kind of a warped science fiction/love story, with the working title Kiss the Chameleon.  I wrote the first scene because I didn't want to lose it, and now I seriously need to table it and finish my current project. 

But I think it's gonna be a really fun story.  Here's the bit I wrote a couple of days ago.  Enjoy!

***************************************

When Brandon Cross snapped awake at just before two in the morning, his first words were, “What the fuck?”

It was, he thought, a reasonable response to opening his eyes and finding three shadowed figures standing next to his bed, aiming what felt like an industrial-grade searchlight into his eyes.

“You will come with us,” one of the figures said in a harsh growl.

“Again?”  Brandon sat up, wincing and rubbing his eyes.  “What does he want now?”

“You will come with us.”

“I heard you the first time.  Why all the dramatics?  It’s not like you’re going to give me a choice.”  Brandon looked over at his girlfriend, Sophie Caswell, who was still curled up on her side snoring softly.  “You shielded her?”

“She is not the one we have come for.”

“Well, thanks for that, at least.”

“You will come with us.”

“Yeah, yeah.  All right, fine.”  He gave a heavy sigh and pulled back the covers, but before he could put his feet on the floor, all four of them—Brandon and his three assailants—vanished from his bedroom and reappeared in a brightly-lit square room with no adornments whatsoever.

Brandon looked down, and realized that he also had no adornments whatsoever.  “What the fuck?” he said again.  “You could have at least let me get dressed first.”

No response.  Two of them flanked him, grabbed his upper arms with taloned, seven-fingered hands, and propelled him along the corridor at a speed just fast enough to be uncomfortable.


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:X-Files_Season_10_Promotional_Alien_Spaceship_(25593499386).jpg]


A ten-minute walk through labyrinthine corridors that all looked the same ended with his being shoved toward a door that opened as he lurched toward it.  He fell forward onto all fours, then got up, dusting himself off and trying to recapture any dignity he had left.

“Kailer Jax,” said an unfortunately-familiar voice.  Redolent with disapproval, as usual.

Brandon looked up into the yellowish, insectile, perpetually exasperated face of Vale Swevana, nominally his boss, although Brandon always did his best to discourage that impression.  “You could have just said, ‘Hey, can you come see me?  I can work you in at four in the afternoon,’ instead of sending your goons to drag me out of bed in the middle of the night.”

“The time on Earth is hardly my concern.  Nor should it be yours.”  Swevana clasped his large, bony hands in front of him on the desk.  “You clearly need a reminder of what your mission is.  And, more to the point, what it is not.”

“You’re always talking about not causing a stir.  What do you think my girlfriend is going to do when she wakes up and I’m gone?”

“Which brings us to our first problem.  You were expressly forbidden from forming emotional attachments.”

“I’m trying to find out more about the people on Earth, that’s all.”

“You’ve gone native.”

“I have not.”  Brandon gave Swevana a glare.  “You told me to learn about human behavior.  That’s what I’m doing.”

“I hardly thought I needed to explain that mating with one of the Earth women is not allowed.  What is the point, in any case?  You know as well as I do that Sujadi DNA is incompatible with that of humans, even if you currently look human.  No conception of an offspring is possible. So why engage in such behavior?”

Brandon shrugged.  “Because it’s fun. Just because I still have Sujadi DNA doesn’t mean I don’t have a human nervous system.  And yeah, to a human nervous system, mating is really fun.”

Swevana scowled.  “Humans have an odd way of expressing fun, then.  From the noises you both were making, it sounded much more like you were in pain.”

“You watched us?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve also picked up the human moralizing about privacy.”  Swevana snorted with derision.  “As I thought, Jax.  It’s high time we replace you with someone more responsible.”

“Come on.  Mating behavior is important to learn about.”

“You do seem rather fascinated by it.”  The Sujadi leader gave a flicking motion with one taloned hand, gesturing at Brandon’s midsection.  “How do you manage with that… that appendage, just dangling there?”

“It’s not a problem.”

“It looks inconvenient.  Doesn’t it get in the way of things?”

“Not really.  You get used to it.”

A harsh sigh.  “It is always the danger,” Swevana said, as if speaking to himself.  “Maintaining a dispassionate interest is hard to balance against becoming swept up by the culture one is studying.”  He leaned back in his chair, interlacing long fingers across his narrow belly.  “Can you give me one reason why I should not remove you from this assignment?’

“Come on, Swevana.  Give me a break.  After I’ve gotten this far, you can’t take me off this mission now.  Who are you going to put in my place?  Lynan?  Hakira?  You don’t have anyone with the experience and expertise I have.  I’ve already infiltrated their society, created a place for myself.  I’ve got a job, I’ve got an apartment.  You send in someone new, you’d be starting from ground zero.”

Another scowl and shake of the head.  “Do you still have your converter?  Or have you lost that as well, and intend to remain looking like—” he made a disgusted noise—“like that.

Brandon returned Swevana’s scowl.  “Of course I haven’t lost it.”  He touched a metal disc on the bracelet he wore on his left wrist with the index finger of his right hand.  Instantly his body reverted to the familiar shape of a Sudaji male—tall, angular, yellow-white, the body covered with interlocking plates, long, thin arms ending in hands with seven taloned fingers each.

No external genitalia.  Unfortunate.  He hadn’t just gotten used to having the “appendage,” as Swevana called it, he was honestly enjoying it.

“There.  Happy?”

Even his voice now sounded Sujadi. He’d been in human form pretty much continuously for four months, and his actual voice sounded creaking, airless, alien. He was beginning to like the warmth and resonance of his human voice.  Besides, the Sujadi version of his voice sounded way too much like Swevana’s, which he was tired of hearing and getting tireder by the moment.

“I find it baffling that you prefer appearing like the natives.  Bipedal apes who have lost most of their hair.  Your natural form is much more appealing.”

“I doubt any of the Earth people would agree.  But I guess I can’t help what I really look like.”

“Glad to see Kailer Jax still remembers that he is Sujadi.  And, despite the converter, Sujadi he will remain, even while he is impersonating a human.”  There was a long pause, during which the only sound was the dry click of one of Swevana’s claws tapping against the plate on the back of his other hand. “Very well.  One more chance.  Only one.  If you step out of line again, you will be removed permanently.  And, if I have anything to do with it, demoted and returned in disgrace.”

“Look, Swevana, I appreciate it.  But I can’t just go in there and change my behavior.  That will raise more curiosity than continuing to do what I’m doing.”

“You try my patience.”

“But I’m not wrong.”

“Do not think that a transcript of this entire conversation isn’t going into your file, along with video evidence of your mating with the Earth woman.”

“You videoed us?”

Swevana ignored the question.  “We will be watching your every move.  Act with an overabundance of caution if you know what is good for you.  Do what you can to disengage from the Earth woman.  Surely there are ways that would appear appropriate to her cultural norms.”

“They don’t ever approve of separation once mating has occurred,” Brandon lied.  “So I can’t promise anything.”

“We will be watching you,” Swevana repeated.  “Next time, your removal will be permanent, and with no possibility of appeal.”  He gestured at Brandon while looking over his shoulder.  “Take him back.”

Brandon/Kailer Jax turned, and saw that the three Sujadi who had brought him here were still standing behind him, immobile and silent, but at the command they stepped forward.

“Hang on a moment.  I can’t go back looking like this.”  He touched the metal disc on his bracelet, and once again there was a flash of light, leaving Brandon back to appearing like a perfectly ordinary, if naked, human male.

The three guards once again grabbed him by the upper arms.  One disadvantage of being human was that the skin and muscle they had was a lot more sensitive to rough handling than the armor plating of his natural form.

“Ow.  Relax, I’m not going to try to run away or anything. Where could I run away to?”

No response.  They propelled him out of the room, and the door swished shut behind them.  

He turned his head toward the guard on his left.  “Don’t you get how to chitchat?  The Earth people are almost never without something to say.  It’s rather endearing once you get the hang of it.”

The guard didn’t even acknowledge having heard him.  The only sounds were the hard clacking of their feet hitting the floor, and the softer thuds of his own bare feet doing the same thing.

“Well, I can’t keep up both ends of the conversation.  Have it your way.”

The ten-minute near-run retracing their path proceeded in silence, and brought them back to the place he’d first appeared. Without a word, the four of them transported off the Sujadi spaceship—currently orbiting the Earth just outside the Moon’s orbit, and shielded from view by it—and reappeared in his darkened bedroom.

They gave him a shove, and he landed on his butt on the edge of the bed.

“Hey!  Simmer down, now.”

Without a word, the three guards vanished.

“They really should learn how to chitchat,” he mumbled under his breath.  “No need to be such assholes.”

With a sigh of annoyance, he slipped back underneath the covers and curled up next to Sophie’s warm body.  She rolled over, making a little satisfied moan of comfort, and slipped one arm around his waist.

“You’re cold,” she said in a sleep-slurred voice.

“I know.  I was getting a snack.”

“You should have put on your robe.”  She nuzzled his neck.  “You want me to warm you up?”

Well, his appendage certainly did, given its instantaneous reaction.  “Of course.  Any time.”

She pulled herself on top of him.

Okay, he had to admit it was this kind of thing that was going to make it difficult to remain, in Swevana’s words, “dispassionate.”  But he’d figure out what to do about that later.  He certainly wasn’t going to tell Sophie to stop.  And if his boss was watching, may as well give him an enthusiastic demonstration of human behavior.

What was the old Earth saying?

Oh, yes.  May as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Excerpt of a work-in-progress: In the Midst of Lions

My current work-in-progress, In the Midst of Lions, is about an ordinary man trapped in extraordinary circumstances.  Caught in the middle of Seattle as the government collapses around him, he has to navigate his way to safety through a landscape he never imagined.  It might be safer away from the city -- that's his hope, anyway -- but he won't leave until he finds his beloved partner, who was separated from him at the beginning of the collapse.

This bit, at the end of chapter 1, has the main character (Soren Conover) talking to his older friend and coworker (Anderson Quaice) at the University of Washington.  I'm currently about halfway through writing the first draft, and I am hoping will be the first book in a trilogy.  Enjoy!

*****************************

One long hand gave a contemptuous wave. “To hell with the citations. We’re not going to submit the paper anyhow.”

Soren goggled at him. “What do you mean, we’re not going to submit? We’ve been working on this for six months.”

“Pfft. By the time we could get it together, there’s gonna be no one to submit it to.”

“What are you talking about?”

Quaice raised a bushy gray eyebrow. “Sit down, Conover.”

Soren sat.

“What rock have you been hiding under today?”

He swiveled his computer around so Soren could see the screen, and with a click of the mouse turned on the volume. There was a news report already in progress. A frightened-looking man wearing a headset mic was talking.

“… seems to have been coordinated. A group called the Lackland Liberation Authority has already taken responsibility. We’re not sure how many buildings have been burned and lives lost, and likely won’t know for some time, but there is chaos in Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Reports of multiple assassination attempts against elected officials, some of them successful, are coming in from not only the United States but from several other nations. Confirmed dead in the U.S. are Governor Marcy Tate of Arizona, Governor Bob Delhomme of Louisiana, Governor Jason Goldschmidt of Maryland, Governor Andrew Wiedemann of Washington, Governor Mary Kurnow of Wisconsin…”

Soren stared at the screen. It felt like every drop of saliva in his mouth had dried up, and he wasn’t sure he could speak. When he did, his voice sounded thin, weak, almost alien in his own ears. “They killed him? They killed Andy Wiedemann? I thought… I thought he was negotiating with representatives of the Lacklanders, trying to redress some of their grievances, especially in eastern Washington…”

“Don’t you get it, Conover? The Lacklanders never wanted redress. That’s been obvious for a while. They just wanted enough time and opportunity to take it all down. They’ll burn the world to cinders even if it takes them with it.”

“How can we stop it?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew it was a ridiculous question.

The expected sardonic sneer from Quaice didn’t come. When he answered, his voice was thoughtful and a little sad. “No one can stop it. The opportunity to stop it closed twenty years ago.” Quaice glanced up at Soren, and gave a sharp shake of his head even though Soren had done nothing to contradict the older man. “No, I’m serious. The whole stage was set when the politicians started enacting legislation funneling money away from ordinary middle-class folks and into the hands of corporations. You can only tilt that so far before the whole thing collapses. They thought they could keep doing it forever, even after the Lackland movement formed and demanded change. They’d get richer and richer, and the money would keep them safe. They neglected two things—they were vastly outnumbered right from the beginning, and once you put a person in a position where he has nothing left to lose, you’ve created an enemy you can’t stop unless you kill him.”

Soren stood up suddenly, making the legs of the chair squawk on the tile floor. “I’ve got to get home.”

“How are you planning to do that?”

“The Metro…”

Quaice scowled and waved a hand in the air. “The Metro isn’t running. Got a notice from the University almost an hour ago. Don’t know why you didn’t see it.”

“I was in class. I turned my phone off.” He swallowed. “I guess I’ll walk.”


[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Daniel Schwen, Seattle 4, CC BY-SA 4.0]


The old professor snorted. “To Ballard? The whole city hasn’t slipped into chaos yet, but it will before long. You do not want to be out on the street when that happens.” His voice softened. “Look, Conover, I live in Madison Park, just east of the Arboretum. Half hour walk, if that. You can come home with me and then figure out what to do from there. I’ve already told Cassandra Nicolaides and Gavin Liu to do the same. They’re in their offices gathering their things up. It might be a while before we’re back here.”

“But Finn…” He felt suddenly light-headed, disembodied, and he gasped out his boyfriend’s name again, unable to force out another word. He fumbled to pull his phone out of his pocket, and with a trembling hand turned it on. There were four text messages. The first was the one from the University administration that Dr. Quaice had referenced, letting employees know that the Metro wasn’t running until further notice. No explanation was given, just an adjuration to “find an alternate means of transport for any travel that is absolutely necessary.”

The second, third, and fourth were from Finn Donnelly. The first was timestamped a little over an hour ago. He must have written only minutes after Soren had turned his phone off. “I don’t know what the hell is happening, but there’s some kind of riot and it seems to be getting closer to the house. They’ve barricaded the street so I can’t use the car. Not sure if I should try fleeing on foot. Might have no choice.”

Only six minutes later, a shorter message. “Looks like running. Me & Janie Inoue. Not sure where we’ll go. They broke Janie’s windows but she got out through the back and climbed the fence.”

Three minutes after that was a final text. “Soren, I love you. So much. Never forget that. I love you, I love you. Forever.”

Beneath that were the words, “User currently offline.”