Tag Archives: thriller

442. Life is a Tunnel

Every once in a while, a phrase appears, demanding to be used. Sometimes it fits into whatever is being written at the time. Sometimes it hangs around for years before it fits. Sometimes, it just hangs around.

The phrase at the top came to me when I was considering a sequel to Raven’s Run. There were several stories on audition, and none were chosen. I don’t even remember which sequel this was supposed to go with. I do remember the scene it was to be part of.

Iain Gunn was looking out a second story window at an urban street. South San Francisco, I think. It was just beginning to rain. A girl with long black hair had just gotten out of a car. She was wearing a tight, short dress, and she was, of course, lovely. Gunn was waiting for someone to come along who was connected with the business he was just getting involved in, and this girl certainly was not that person, but she caught his attention.

She hunched her shoulders when the rain first hit her, but then she straightened her back and looked up. She raised her hands to the rain and smiled. No dancing around — she was a serious and sophisticated person — but she accepted the rain and appreciated the moment. She stood for a few more moments, facing Gunn but unaware of his presence. Her hair began to flatten against her head and Gunn could see beads of moisture trickling down her face. Then she turned and walked purposefully away. For her the moment was over, but it would remain with Gunn.

Life is a tunnel, three feet wide and seventy years long. The phrase hits Gunn (as it had hit me). She is just another of the million people he will nearly meet, nearly have some kind of relation with, one whom he could perhaps come to hate, or perhaps fall in love with. But he will never know.

If this were cliche #472 in the detective story handbook, he would meet her again and this would just be a foreshadowing of things to come. Meeting her again would be expected by the reader.

It is not meeting her that will make the incident meaningful. She will now become a symbol for all the things we miss as we live our random lives.

It’s not a new idea, and not the first time I’ve used it. These words in the opening paragraphs of Valley of the Menhir set the stage for what is to come:

Out there in the night that stretches away from us all — there where consciousness ends; where experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives — there is a land of red sky and green sea, Poinaith, and another land where the gray sky leans down to lock hands with the sliver elfin forest.

Experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives. Another phrase that jumped into my head, but in this case, just as I needed it.

We all live lives of found and missed opportunities. Our lives are a path from birth to death, as wide as our shoulders and as long as we last. We see so much, but if we were to turn three feet to either side, there are a thousand other lives we could live instead.

I’m satisfied with my life so far and I’m glad I was wrong about its length. I have more things to do, and more books to write. These last seventy years have been great, but I‘m not done.

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427. A Grave Story

The paragraph below comes from Symphony in a Minor Key. Neil McCrae has read a ghost story at Halloween, timing it to end just as the bell rings in his sixth grade class.

Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence.  There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.

Since the novel is based on my teaching career, it will surprise no one that Neil and I share a few characteristics. Keeping theatricality on a tight leash is one of them. Telling ghost stories on Halloween is another. This is one of those stories, based loosely on a joke I read in Boy’s Life back in the fifties.

Of course it’s a true story. I wouldn’t lie to you.

=======================

I had two brothers as students. I had one in my class one year, and his younger brother the next. They were always hanging out together. Some brothers get along; come don’t. These two were great friends.

They were outdoors types. The liked to fish and hunt. Their dad would take them canoeing, and sometimes the three of them would camp out together.

The year I’m thinking about, the last year I knew them, their dad had been really busy all fall, so they were on their own. They decided to go off together in the canoe, and go camping along the river.

I didn’t mention, did I, that the Tuolumne River runs along about a mile from the school where I taught? Or that the regional cemetery is right along the river? Of course, the students I told this story to, already knew that.

Since it’s a true story, I have to keep the details straight.

This particular fall had been rainy, and both brothers were involved in soccer, so they kept putting off their canoeing and camping trip. September came and went, and then October, and by the time November was just around the corner, they were getting pretty desperate to go. That’s probably why they decided to go on the last Friday night in October.

I probably wouldn’t have gone, myself, because it was Halloween, but these two had a habit of daring each other, and that often got them into trouble. So they went. They put in the river at Fox Grove and intended to sleep somewhere about five miles west, then paddle on down to Legion Park the next morning. Their mom was going to pick them up there. Too bad she never got the chance.

Everything went along fine for the first hour. They got a late start, but that didn’t matter since they could camp anywhere. It’s pretty wild down along the river. They got past the rapids under the bridge. They were pretty tame rapids. Things went well for the first few miles, but then fog began to form. That was fun at first.

Did I mention it was Halloween?

The fog hung in the old trees along the river bank, but they could still slip along below it. At first. Then it got dark, all the sooner because the fog was cutting off the moonlight.

Did I mention there was a full moon? That was part of the reason they went that night, because they thought they would be able to see by it’s light. They hadn’t figured on the fog. Pretty soon they couldn’t see anything. They got on down the river for a while by instinct. If you’ve been on the water enough, you get a feel for currents, and anyway, you can’t get lost on a river. It only goes one direction.

Still, it started to get dangerous, not to mention creepy, so they pulled up on a mud bank to think things over. They also had been drinking two liter Pepsi’s, if you know what I mean. They had to take care of that little chore, and they did, but while they were looking for a bush apiece, they got separated. They could hear each other clearly, but the river banks threw back such echoes that they couldn’t find each other. And then they couldn’t find the canoe. Finally, Joe – that was the younger brother – found a path up and shouted to Tom – that was the older brother – that they should climb out of the river bottom and meet on the flat land up topside. Tom shouted back to go ahead, so Joe went up.

That might not have been the best idea they ever had. They had made it further down the river than either one realized, and when Joe got to the top, he found himself in the cemetery.

Now Joe wasn’t particularly spooky. Camp fire stories of ghosts just bored him. But this was a real cemetery, and the fog in the trees looked like Spanish moss hanging down – you know, like in the stories of the bayous. He didn’t like it. He hollered for Tom, but got no answer. Then the fog thickened and the moon, which had been mostly obscured, disappeared completely. He found that he couldn’t see anything, so he put his hands out to feel, and found himself moving along, guiding himself by the tops of tombstones. He didn’t like that much either, but what are you going to do?

Tom, meanwhile, thought he had found a trail up, but it only led him into a bramble of raspberry bushes. It took him ten minutes to work his way through them and by the time he made it up to the top, his clothes were in tatters and he had blood all over his hands from fighting the thorns. He staggered out on top, panting with the effort, and found himself in the cemetery, too.

I know all this because I was one of the ones who went looking for them then next day, after someone had found their abandoned canoe. It was easy enough to track them, first by river mud footprints, then prints in the soft soil. We knew which was which because Tom’s shoes were much bigger, and besides, there were all those drops of blood.

What neither boy knew was that there was a funeral scheduled for that Saturday. The groundskeepers had dug the grave, and it was standing open. Tom found it first.

Of course, it was pitch dark, so he found it by falling in. The groundskeepers had done a good job. It was seven feet deep, with straight-up sides, three feet wide and seven feet long and completely impossible for Tom to get out of. And did he try! He leaped. He scrambled. You could see the next day where he had dug his fingers into the sides of the grave, with no success. I’m sure he shouted, but no one could hear him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cussed a little.

Eventually, he exhausted himself and sank to the ground, curled up in a ball, and decided to wait for morning. He was half asleep when Joe found the grave the same way Tom had.

Joe fell in, and the sound of a body falling into the grave with him sent Tom to his feet. He slammed himself back against the side of the grave, wanting to scream, but no sound came out. It never occurred to him that it might be Joe, but every other monster from every movie he had ever watched went running through his head. He squeezed back into a corner of the grave in abject fear, while Joe picked himself up, turned, and began leaping and scrabbling at the wall of the grave.

About that time, just enough moonlight came down into the grave that Tom could recognize his brother. Joe slid back to the bottom of the grave for the third or fourth time as Tom reached out his bloody hand, with tattered sleeves hanging down, and touched his brother’s shoulder. His voice was hoarse from fright as he said, “You’ll never make it out of this grave.”

But Joe did. He screamed and gave such a leap that he outdid himself, caught his fingertips on the lip of the grave, scrambled like a madman, and was gone.

Tom was still there when we found him the next morning. I won’t say he was all right. I don’t think he was ever all right again. But he was there.

Joe was never found. They dragged the river. Friends, neighbors, and strangers turned out in the search, but it was useless.

Tom and his family moved away soon after, but I get Christmas cards from his mother every year. She tells me what Tom has been doing, but she never mentions Joe.

Me either. Except every year about this time I feel the need to tell his story. Just a cautionary tale, you understand. Nothing to do with me, whatsoever.

I wouldn’t lie to you.

After the Storm

Postscript to Into the Storm
Not to be read by romantic types

You would have to be numb from the waist down not to feel the sexual tension in Lydia and Michael’s common flight.

How did you react to it; what did you think of their respective personalities? Is Lydia the perfect victim-heroine from romance literature, who will be the making of Michael – eventually? Is Michael the wounded warrior whose soul Lydia will save?

If you read Into the Storm that way,
you might want to avert your eyes
from the rest of this postscript.

For me, Lydia is a wimp and Michael is a jackass with a mommy-take-care-of-me complex. I couldn’t imagine spending further time with them if they were not going to change. In the original concept for a novel, Lydia was going to change a lot, as Michael’s true character was revealed.

First a bit of backstory. Their communion is not telepathy; it is technologically enabled transmission of thought and feelings, an offshoot of the memory taping technology of A Fond Farewell to Dying (short version, To Go Not Gently). Each person has to choose to be implanted. Michael has browbeaten Lydia into doing so, working on her guilt that she can walk while he can’t. She is kind and naive; he is ruthless. Living in each other’s heads, she has fallen completely under his domination.

He wants to go to live in the Martian colony where the lower gravity will allow him greater freedom. Lydia does not want to go, but shortly after Into the Storm she gives in. Her futile resistance to the move and her resentment begin to grow her a backbone. On Mars she works to support them both, and begins to find independence as Michael turns his attention elsewhere. She is fascinated by her work and he is bored with it, which gives her respite from his continual prying.

As she grows apart from Michael, she wants to have the transponder removed, but the surgical techniques that were readily available on Earth are not available on Mars. She literally can’t get Michael out of her head.

Time passes. Lydia’s importance grows and Michael’s childish need for thrills does not abate. He is exploring Phobos in a powered spacesuit, the celestial equivalent of the powered wings,  when he crashes. Lydia, in her new executive position, is coordinating the response to a Mars-wide crisis. She has access to ships which could rescue him, but she cannot spare them.

She has to save Mars with Michael’s dying voice crying in her head. Then she has to face the honest fact that his loss is less tragedy than relief.

Not quite a romantic ending.

#              #              #

I still think it was a good story, but it would have been no fun to write, and no fun for any reader who didn’t have her own hated Michael to make it meaningful. If you have a Michael of your own (or a Michelle, it works both ways), you have no doubt already fleshed out this outline in your own head, and are voicing an evil laugh under your breath.

For the rest of us, all that is left is Michael and Lydia’s flight, which is physically exciting, sexually arousing, and more than a little creepy.

Into the Storm 3

DSCN3989100 klicks, 200 klicks; speeds not to be measured on instruments; not for an artist; a master. Not for a man who had only fallen – once. He sensed their speed in the groaning of her titanium pinions and the growing strain on her arms.

She closed her eyes against the pain to come.

He arched their back and spread wings against their fall, arcing them upward and sideways through the turbulence of the interface and into a rising cell. The servos took the strain, but they communicated a portion of it to her. Pain, the instructor, the feedback; the pain would become unbearable before the fabric of her wings failed. Just before.

They shared the pain, but pain had become his world and this was his rising above it. His exultation. And it was her gift to him that she lent her body to this, for to her the pain was only pain, and she cried out against it.

Then they were climbing faster than ever, from the momentum gained in their plummet. She drew her pain in and made it a private thing that Michael could not feel. Later another, softer Michael would feel remorse for her pain. With hands and mouth, for his lower body was paralyzed, and with full knowledge that his own burning could never be satisfied, he would ravish her, putting all of his frustrations into her ecstasy. That he gave her freely, as she gave him this.

That was the Michael of endless nights and bitter days; but now, for one long moment of exultation, he was the Michael that had been, before misjudgment and arrogance had hurled his body to the ground.

Now, he soared.

Through the roof he called it. Augmented by the momentum gained in falling, propelled by the even beating of mechanical wings and buoyed by the rising cell of air, he took her through the rains and the lightnings and the pit-cold region where hail is born, upward through the thinning edges of the storm to where the air is still and the sun still shines. Through the roof.

With the last erg of upward force expended, Michael rolled over to float above the storm. From here the thunderheads were pearly white; billowing fields and valleys of cloud as peaceful as the sleep of childhood. They looked as if a man could walk across them to the end of the world. The sky was the dark blue of high altitude and the gray ring around the sun was itself encircled by a rainbow.

Hovering like some great eagle, above the tumult of the storm, with their height disguised by the carpet of clouds, her fear left her and her joy began.

For long minutes they glided, and she felt Michael slipping away. His ecstasy had ended. To dive again into the storm would be foolhardy; whatever Michael’s vitality, it was Lydia’s body they rode and she had reached her limit.

She felt his hesitation and knew his temptation. Just one more thrust into the clouds; just one more plunge into ecstasy and death.

She knew this and said nothing; and in her calm he found the courage to turn away from the storm and glide downward, carrying with him his tired and precious burden.

Come back Monday for a postscript to this story.

Into the Storm 2

In word and deed, he demanded nothing of her, but when his soul cried out, she was bound.

She sensed his apprehension at their lack of altitude, and his hesitation, for this was her body that he piloted. Restraining her fears, she whispered, “Go ahead,” and felt the warm rush of his unspoken gratitude.

He banked away from the city, out over the open grain fields, fought the first gusts and rolled to enter the storm.

#              #              #

They passed through a veil of rain into the heart of the thunder. The sudden wind tore her hair to shreds and the crackling static turned it into a puffball of startled tendrils. She felt the current, like her fear, and the lightning cut the clouds above and below them. Michael arched their back in exultation as he caught the first rising wind, but it died quickly and they were plunged downward.

She felt his fear as a sudden beast leaping from the bush; not like her own familiar companion.

“Michael!” Her voice and presence drew him back from the memory of that mad plunge when his skill and power had not been sufficient to match the storm. That was then; this was now. And as quickly as she spoke, he mastered his fear and thrust it away like a secret shame. He threw their arms wide to catch the air and beat their wings unmercifully to escape the downdraft. She felt the pain in her arms and shoulders, and cried out.

Their descent eased as he shunted them sideways toward an interface. She thought that she could sense the ground just below them, but he kept their eyes skyward. Then they passed through shuddering turbulence into a cell of rising air. Gently at first, then with gut-wrenching acceleration, the winds tossed them upward and she felt Michael’s animal cry of delight escape her lips.

How far upward? The altimeter spun at the edge of their vision, but Michael refused to look at it. There was no altitude for Michael short of the ultimate. Through the roof.

But not this time. They passed upward through the layers where lightning bolts play tag and on out of the rain, through the sleety layers where hail is born and into the eternal gray night of the upper storm. There Michael turned them in a lazy arc, resting and reading the instruments as he prepared for the slingshot.

These were the moments she treasured. Here, fear could take its silken claws from her throat for a moment. Floating high, serene and spent; knowing that what had passed would never come again, yet knowing that in the moments and years to come, it would repeat in endless variation. Sated.

In her languor she sent tendrils of half formed thoughts in caresses of shared selfhood through Michael’s mind. Now they were intrusions, but he would remember and treasure them in the days to come. This she knew in their great sharing.

It seemed a small thing to give him, when she longed to ease his burning. But that was denied by his shattered body.

He chose adjacent cells with care and dove into the well of a downdraft. They fell with wings spread just enough to catch the falling air and throw them toward the earth. Past the hail, past the lightning, and into the rain. Outspeeding the raindrops so that they smashed against her face like upward falling rain. more tomorrow

Into the Storm 1

Into the Storm stands alone and without apologies, but it was intended as the opening of a novel. If you want to know where all this might have gone, you will find additional material in a postscript next Monday.

Into the Storm

Lydia spread her pinions as the pylon shivered beneath her. Dizzy with height, she swallowed back familiar bile and squeezed her eyes shut for one last moment of selfness.

“You are the eyes of my soul.”

She ignored Michael’s voice in her head and drew on all her strength to quell the shivering of her muscles. Thunderheads piled up in the west, clouds tumbling over one another in their haste to eat up the prairie. She retreated from confrontation to a safe, quiet corner of her mind, denying self and opening her mind to Michael while he waited with leashed impatience. The pylon swaying beneath her became as a great ocean swelling, and with her quietude established she whispered, “Now, Michael,” and he filled her.

#              #              #

Spreading their wings to the coming storm, he pumped quickly twice, rising from the pylon and settling again. Accustoming himself to her body. She rode on the left shoulder of his mind, bright eyed and frightened, but ready. Her gift to him; a pledge of her love. It filled him as he filled her and the gestalt threw tremblings through their shared body.

The storm was striding across the prairie, a juggernaut of cloud with lightning for eyes and skirts of rain.

He spread their wings again and brought them forcibly downward. They cleared the pylon railing and fell, spreading their wings wide to catch the updraft. Upward then, with a beating of wings augmented by the rising tide of air. His mental picture – Daedalus rising with wings rooted in his flesh. Hers – a frail human suspended from synthetic wings, powered by servos and the rising wind.

Two hundred meters they rose as Michael churned the air with wings meant for soaring. Then he rolled gently left and volplaned toward the city below. Even in the heat of summer he would find an updraft there. The sky was impossibly blue, the sun hot on their wings in these last moments before the storm broke. They caught the updraft and circled the city — a jumble of glass, concrete and solar collectors. She retreated from seeing, concentrating instead on the steady beat of her arms as Michael swung them through the fastest rising currents. Michael was an artist at this; he had only fallen once.

He was neglecting his body. She sent her consciousness down the shivering wire of thought that bound them together, found him breathing slowly, his heart rhythm slow but steady, and returned. Cutting figure-eights against the sky above the city, Michael gained altitude, but she had almost waited too long. She sensed his impatience and shielded her memory so that he would not catch a picture of her clinging in terror to the ladder between the fourth and fifth levels while a gust shivered the pylon. Had the monitor seen her then, he would have ordered her off the tower. What would Michael think if her weakness denied him his one chance at ecstasy? more tomorrow

356. Raven and Ian

Raven and Ian are saying goodbye today over in Serial. I’ll miss them. I read A Writing Life and Serial every day, just like some of you. In my case, it is a final check for typos, but I still feel for my characters.

If you write, and you don’t enjoy reading your own work, what is the point?

Will we see them again? Will Raven find what she is looking for? Will they come together again at the end?

Beats me.

I do know that if they find final happiness, it will be an epilog, not a novel. Settled, happy people make for good lives, but not good stories.

As for Ian, he has that Cameron Davis thing hanging over his head. I have some ideas about that.

In his immediate future, there is a meeting with an old friend of his mentor Joe Dias’, who has need of a troubleshooter. It seems that in 1990, most of the world opposes German reunification, including Bush One. A healed Germany might pose a threat, and a broken Germany provides a lot of opportunities for a lot of different groups of people.

Then there is that legendary (or is it) cache of Luger pistols, built in the last days of the Third Reich and hidden away to arm a future Nazi resurgence. Or to arm any one of several other groups who are after them. And there is that girl, whose brother was imprisoned in East Berlin when Ian was stationed there, years earlier. She shows up again. And there is Sergeant Davenport, Ian’s mentor when he was in Berlin, now in federal prison.

Ian has a lot of backstory to present. Will he get the chance?

Beats me.

I’m willing, but Ian in Berlin (it doesn’t have a title yet) is only one of a dozen stories waiting to be written. Which one I will start next depends on a lot of factors. I’ll let you know.

*          *          *

When I began placing Raven’s Run in Serial, I had intended to publish it independently as an eBook. I had hoped and planned to make an announcement of its publication date in this post. Such publication will probably still happen, but marketing Cyan has taken up so much of my time that it has been moved to the indeterminate future.

Most of the things I have presented in Serial have been moved afterward to Backfile and remain there to be read by anyone who checks in. Even To Go Not Gently is there, and Jandrax will be there later, although both were published years ago.  To Go Not Gently is from an issue of Galaxy that is not almost impossible to find, and Jandrax has so much commentary in the posted version that it has become a virtual how-to, and needs to live a separate life from copies still available in used book stores.

Those presentations which I intend to publish independently, such as Raven’s Run, will to be removed from Serial and not placed in Backfile, but this may not happen immediately.

Jandrax is still there because it takes a lot of time to make the transition. Marking out the virtual chapters is a real pain, as is transferring bits that originally appeared in A Writing Life, but eventually it will be placed en bloc so that it is easier to read. For now it remains as 92 individual posts in Serial and a few more in A Writing Life.

Also for now, Raven’s Run will remain as individual posts in Serial for a while. That way you won’t be stranded if you came in late and are still catching up.

Confusing? Welcome to my life.