I Am a Genius: listen to my words

I Have the Conch


listen to my words

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Poems, short stories, essays, novels, and I even once attempted to write a non-fiction book. I make my career as a writer, and I hope to be able to move to freelance one day, so I expect this to be my largest section.

Because of You

Because of you, every day I feel as if I walk on rose petals.
The dimmest stones are precious metals.
Because of you, I feel the moon shines only for me.
I can see the way to what I want to be.
Because of you, I can feel my heart pounding in my chest.
Wonderful dreams fill my mind’s rest.
Because of you, I’m always full of gratitude.
My belief in dreams is renewed.
Because of you, I have something to think about all day.
And I know that I can never lose my way.
Because of you, I want to do and be more than I am.
I’m strong a lion, but calm as a lamb.
Because of you, I can sleep at night.
When I worry, I know all will be right.
Because of you, I always see a rainbow.
What you can teach is all I need to know.
Because of you, I believe I can fly.
When I’m alone, comfort is always nigh.
Because of you, I feel blessed by my fairy godmother.
I know that I will never need another.
Because of you, I feel like I could hold the stars in my hand..
My mind’s eye can see every grain of sand.
Because of you, All the world seems bright.
And I am free from endless night because of you.

Bloody Waters (i)

Daedalus had never expected much out of life, especially not once he had been obliged to leave his home and adopt a life of piracy. He had expected, however, slightly more than sitting on an island with only the most rudimentary civilization, no decent food, and a definite lack of construction and design supplies. He’d even run out of parchment and couldn’t plan any new projects. He had half an intention of planning his next project to prevent a becalming, though that was one thing even he didn’t have an idea how to accomplish.

The one thing the island did have was alcohol. It wasn’t rum. It wasn’t anything he’d heard of before. The locals called it rutch. And it didn’t taste any better than the name sounded. It did a fine job of getting you drunk remarkably quickly, however. And after two weeks of avoiding it, he’d finally followed the example Kee and the others had set for him and started drinking the vile stuff. It was the only way to get through the day.

The captain had first had them careen the ship, but they had done that, and replaced all the rotten planks, and mended the sails, and repaired the rigging, and anything else she could think of. She’d run out of ideas to keep them busy long ago, and now all they had to do was get drunk.

Maricella was the only one who had stayed away from the alcohol. Even the captain had had a nip most days. But then, Ella never had any alcohol, even when it was the fancy stuff that couldn’t get you drunk.

Daedalus woke and sat up. He’d taken to sleeping on the beach, since the weather was calm and warm. The headache from last night’s drinking was nearly a memory. The first thing he did, just like an uncountable number of days previous, was check for any sign of wind. Nothing. No clouds, no air, no change in humidity, nothing. So he fumbled till he found his square-rimmed spectacles, pushed them on, rose, and after splashing water from the nearby stream onto his face and pushing his dirty-blond hair into something that resembled order slightly more than it had previously, he walked through the shanties and huts that made up the town, at first passing the only stone building – the bar –in the desperate and most likely vain quest for something to occupy his time. It was noon, so the locals were up, scratching a living from the soil.

Truth be told, the residents were happy to have them there. The pirates were spending nearly all their treasure, which had once been considerable, buying the bland food and rutch to keep themselves alive for the duration of their stay. At the end of his circuit through the town, Daedalus turned around and sighed. He thrust his hands into his various pockets, he had many on his trousers and shirt, looking for coin. He had several and started for the bar again. He had seen a few of the crew on the beach, but not all of them. He expected to find all of them but Ella in the pub.

He trudged toward the door, reaching his hand for the latch.

“Not again, Daedalus.” The voice was full of disappointment though no reproach. That would be Ella. For one thing, no one on the crew called him Daedalus. Bruce had given him the name Gearhead, and most of them had taken it up. Refusing to use the nicknames Bruce made up was Ella’s way of telling him he was an idiot. But more telling, no one else who knew his name gave a lick if he drank – most of them thought he was a priss for not drinking more.

He winced at the disappointment. He had no shot at wooing Ella. No man did. But by the same token, every man was at least a little smitten by her. He didn’t even have to turn, because her image was burned in his mind. Long, raven hair, brilliant, shining green eyes, skin the color of white honey, the dimple on her cheek…

He lowered his head, dismissing the infatuated feelings. It was foolish anyway. Carefully composing his face to disguise the passing reaction, he turned to look at her. “Yes, again. I have no other projects I can work on, Brillig is attached to the ship for various reasons the captain has ordered, and I don’t even have the resources to plan. I shall have a drink of the sea-cursed bilge juice and try to obliviate my mind until the blasted wind returns.” He turned from her halfway through, unable to hold his resolve if he kept looking at her.

There was a pause, as if Ella were considering something. “Come with me,” she said, her voice brighter, clearly trying to get off the subject. “I just may have a project that interests you.” She had many virtues, and while she did tend to mother, despite being the youngest person on board, but she held herself off from lecturing, when she could remember to do it.

Daedalus was glad for the change of subject. Ella always knew when you were wrong, and could make you know you were wrong with just a few words, but then she left the subject alone. If she truly thought you needed immediate correction, she would be more likely to pound it out of you. Her womanly frame held a girl who knew how to fight.

“A project? What sort of project?” She had already started walking and he had already starting following without even thinking about it. She walked with a swift pace that was deceptively relaxed looking. Daedalus found himself hurrying to keep up.

“I hope that doesn’t sound deceptive. It’s really more of an investigation. Smee found something.”

“What sort of something?” The town, such as it was, was turning into forest quickly.

“That’s what we need you for,” Ella explained as the path started to rise upward slightly. “It’s old and we’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Old? But I’m not a historian or an expert in antiquities.”

“True,” she said, ducking under a low branch and around a boulder. “But it also seems mechanical.”

“Mechanical!” Daedalus’s pace quickened subconsciously. Now he was interested. Ancient and mechanical was a fascinating combination. He topped a rise, catching up to Ella and passing her. And then he knew he was in the right spot.

Smee sat on a log, and a small book in his lap snapped shut at the sight of the two. He stood, though Smee’s standing was more of a hunch. His eyes twinkled slightly under a ridge-like brow and he waved a long, gangly arm. “Ahoy Gearhead. Ella found you, aye?”

“Yes, yes. Is this the contraption?” Daedalus moved forward quickly. There was a low mound, nearly square, about a foot on a side. It rose maybe a foot and a half from the ground and was covered with vegetation. As he approached, however, he could see that some of the vines had been moved, and there was a stone structure beneath it that had been unquestionably shaped. Closer examination showed that there had once been runes or glyphs carved into it, though the natural weathering had worn them away almost completely. Daedalus was no expert in languages and recognized nothing of what he could see.

The glyphs would never have gotten his full attention anyway. There were three circular buttons forming a triangle at the top of the strange object. They may have once been raised, but time had reduced them to the same level as the rest – the only thing distinguishing them was the outline, which was partially filled with tiny detritus, making them not readily recognizable.

Daedalus quickly tore away the rest of the covering and began enthusiastically prodding the dirt around its base. He couldn’t immediately find the bottom. He muttered as he examined, and finally stood. “I’ve no idea how big it is. Can you move it, Smee?”

Smee moved to the edge of the rock and pushed it, with no apparent movement. He grabbed a nearby tree with his tail to brace himself, planted his feet firmly in the ground, and wrapped his great, hairy arms around it. Then he heaved, his legs, arm, and tail tensing with the effort.

For a moment nothing happened, but just as Daedalus thought Smee would give up, one edge of the device lifted and the whole thing tipped to its side, spraying dirt into the air.

The underside was even more interesting. A set of nine stone rods protruded from the bottom, forming three triangles which in turned formed the corners of a larger triangle. Each smaller triangle seemed to match the circles at the top.

“What does it do?” Ella asked. Daedalus had taken a quick look at the rods and then had starting digging with his hands in the spot where the object had sat in the soil. After a moment he could find nothing, so he sat back on the ground. His fingers habitually adjusted his spectacles, and he was oblivious to the dirt it left on his nose.

“Do? I’ve no idea, honestly. I was hoping there was more to the contraption.” He gazed longingly as the dirt hole briefly. “There’s really only one way to find out.” He adjusted his position so he could see the three buttons again, then he reached forward and pushed one. Nothing happened. The buttons didn’t even move. He pressed again harder.

“Methinks it does nothing,” Smee said. He had sidled next to Ella and stood close by her.

“Nonsense. It clearly does something. Any fool can see that,” Daedalus replied. He fumbled at his pockets for a moment, finally producing a knife. He began cleaning the space around the buttons. “It merely needs some maintenance after sitting here for so long.”

A few moments later he had finished, and he tried again. This time the button slid in easily. And as it did, four of the rods shifted. Two receded into the device while the others grew longer. “Brilliant,” Daedalus breathed. He pulled his finger out and noted that the button returned to position much more slowly, though the rods didn’t return to their position. He pushed another button, and a similar effect was achieved. By this time the original button had returned to the starting position and he pushed it again. A different set of rods, three this time, now shifted lengths. “It will take a while to work out the patterns for this,” he said, still pushing and releasing buttons and watching the rods react. “But there must be a pattern. It’s a mechanical device, and it must be predictable.”

“So what is it?” Ella asked. She leaned against a nearby tree, arms crossed, watching the lanky man experiment.

“I’m still not sure. Of course, the only way to know for certain what it does is to take it apart, but it doesn’t appear to have any seams. I’d love to know how this was assembled. Anyway, I think it’s some sort of key, or puzzle. The rods should conform to something, form a certain pattern. Then something happens. Or if you have it with whatever it belongs to, that object does something.”

“Well what does it belong to then?”

“Your speculation is as sufficient as my own, I’m afraid.” Daedalus frowned, discomforted by the fact. “But I would imagine it can’t be very far. This isn’t the sort of key that one just drops somewhere.” He snorted a laugh at his own humor. “It was either left here deliberately or it was moved by natural forces. But either way, it would seem that whatever it came from is on the island somewhere. Probably quite close.” He was still pushing buttons, muttering observations under his breath as he worked when he wasn’t talking to the others.

Maricella pushed herself up from the tree and stretched. “Well then, we’ll leave you to this. “C’mon Smee, let’s look for this … whatever it is.

Smee nodded and followed her as she walked. He tended to walk on all fours, “knuckle-walking” like an ape. No one knew where he came from but he was very capable and loyal to the captain. To Maricella, like to anyone else, he was grotesque – he had a small sort of snout, small black eyes, and a hairy body. Much like a big chimpanzee, but with a tail he used for grasping and climbing. And his wiry black hair was not so thick. You could see the skin on his arms and back through the fur. But even in that grotesqueness there was a sort of charm. Smee easily endeared himself to you, and he had a way of looking almost cute, even though his face was ugly.

Smee started to pick through piles of vine or brush that he found. “What’re we looking for?” he asked.

Maricella thought for a moment. “Well, whatever it goes to is likely stone, and big, right? So a big, stone, man-made something.” She reached and pulled away a vine herself, ignoring the scratches on her skin and the tiny tears the brambles made to her blouse.

Smee nodded and kept looking. They had covered most of the clearing and had moved quite a way from Daedalus. Maricella scanned the area. She had very little idea of what they were looking for either. But as she said, it must be big, so she looked for places a big thing might be hidden. The saw a likely mound and signaled Smee to come. He obediently came her way.

The brush was thicker over here, and she had to lift her legs higher to avoid being tripped by the vegetation. Smee seemed to be having an even worse time of it. His legs were short for his size and though his arms were longer, that didn’t help with the undergrowth. He was more or less climbing through it. And image that Maricella found amusing, but refused to laugh out loud about.

She watched him come closer when there was a small crashing sound and he disappeared with a small yelp. “Smee!” Maricella yelled, hurrying to where she’d last seen him. She quickly reached the edge of the hole and saw him dangling there, his tail and a foot had seized onto some vines as he had fallen into a huge hole.

“I found something,” he said dryly.

Maricella allowed herself a smile, though she was still worried. Smee was more agile than anyone she knew, but this was entirely unexpected. She looked down in the hole. She was on the edge of a huge hole, which had been covered by vine growth. Smee had broken through some and fallen part way, but managed to hang on to the vegetation. Down below was dark, lit only by the light through the small area Smee had broken through. Maricella could see that there was water down below, though not much else was visible in the gloom. “This is odd,” she said finally.

Smee was making his way down the network of vines he clung to. He reached the bottom and then dangled even further, holding to the vines with only his tail. “I’m still far from the bottom,” he said finally. “We could make a line from the vines, but we’d need torches too.” He raised himself up and climbed back upward. “That is, if you want to search down there. Seems like a good place for something big and hidden to be.”

“I guess we might as well get a real rope then, since we’ll be going back to the ship. Are you alright, Smee?”

“I’m fine. Takes more ‘n a fall to hurt me. Though I usually like to know about the fall first.”

Maricella smiled and took his hand as he reached the top. “Good then, let’s go.”

About an hour later they were back at the hole, with two lanterns and a good length of rope. Smee tied one end to a tree as Maricella tied the other around her waist. “You’re not as strong,” he explained. I’d rather lower you.” Maricella preferred to be able to take care of herself, but she allowed the aid, since it would be faster. She held a lit lantern in one hand and gripped the rope with the other, then lowered herself off the edge as Smee slowly let her have more rope. She descended gradually till her boots touched solid ground. It was wet and slimy, the water turned out to be a pool to one side and a stream flowing out.

“I’m down!” she called out as she began untying the knot at her waist. She saw Smee scramble over the side and quickly climb down hand over hand, the lantern held in his tail. When he reached the bottom he stood on all fours and looked to Maricella for his lead.

Maricella held the lantern high in the air and turned around slowly, getting a feel for where she was. Now that she was down here she could see that the stream ran one direction, there was a faint light in that direction, which she guessed would be the sea. To either side of the stream was a sort of gravel beach that ran up to nearly sheer rock walls. The stream itself flowed from the darkness. She shrugged, and started walking in that direction. After she had gone about a hundred yards she found a waterfall that fed the stream. It fell from a small hole in the rock wall about twenty feet above. The sides of the chasm were closer here, but not claustrophobically so. It was not the stream’s only tributary, though, and she continued to follow it till it ended in a solid rock face, the stream flowing from underneath it.

It seemed that the stream was very shallow there. She wondered if they could swim under it. She knelt at the side and tried to reach under, but there was barely room for more than her forearm. The current was stronger too and it was hard to push her hand in. She removed her arm and stood.

She frowned, disappointed at first, till Smee spoke. “Look, some of that writing.” He was gesturing to some figures. The area was much smoother than the rest of the rock wall, and bore the marks of stonecutting tools. They were indeed the writing. It was easier to make out than the marks on the device Daedalus was examining above. The rock was of the same sort, but not as worn, though it was pitted and scarred. She slowly walked across the smoothed area, holding the lantern close. She didn’t understand any of it, but that was hardly new to her. She knew her numbers but knew very few letters of her own tongue. All of this was mystifying to her, but she found it very interesting all the same. After examining it for a few minutes she came across a special mark set in the wall over the middle of the stream – three sets of three circles, each forming a triangle.

“That matches the thing we found,” she said.

Smee nodded. “Gearhead will want to see this.”

They retraced their steps and returned to the rope. Smee grabbed it and pulled himself upward, hand over hand, almost faster than he’d come down. Maricella made to follow, but she wasn’t sure she could climb it successfully, so instead she tied it around her again and waited for Smee to lift her.

Daedalus was predictably excited and rapidly put together a sling from the nearby vines to carry the device, which he and Smee carried between them. “Hurry! Come!” he kept saying, excited to see the wall Maricella and Smee described to him. It took longer to get the device to the bottom of the crevice, they had to tie it to the rope and lower it to the floor, then Smee climbed down and untied it. But he insisted in lowering Maricella and climbed back up.

Maricella closed her eyes, frustrated. Smee thought he was chivalrous, but she wasn’t a child. But there was no point in arguing it, she’d only get further worked up and nothing would get done. After Daedalus made his clumsy descent, Smee hauled the line back up and handed it to Maricella. She tied it to herself and allowed herself to descend, and finally Smee came back down.

She didn’t wait for them to pick up the sling and marched toward the wall. She sat on the ground and waited for the other two for them to catch up.

Daedalus dropped his end of the sling when he saw it. He rushed the last few feet and splashed into the water to get a closer look. Maricella rarely got tired of watching Daedalus when he was excited about something. He was meticulous, but excited. She sometimes wished she had the passion he displayed. It took the inventor a long time to reach any conclusions; he would push his finger in, nod, and then make marks on the dirt with a rock.

Finally he stepped back with a grin. The water reached above his waist and he was starting to shiver, Maricella could see, but such discomfort would hardly dissuade him. He splashed back to their side of the stream and knelt by the device. “I don’t know what it does,” he said, but I’m certain it’s supposed to go there. The holes are the same size as these stone rods. We just need to make them match. He began a long process of pushing the buttons and adjusting the locations. He may have had a plan in mind, but if he did, Maricella couldn’t tell. The process seemed one of random experimentation. After possibly a half hour, he nodded and stood. “Now we just need to get it over there.”

“How we gonna do that?” Smee asked. Daedalus’s face fell in disappointment, and a moment later Ella realized why. Smee and Daedalus could carry the object together, but The stream would be, at best, difficult for Smee to stand in. His normal gait was somewhat hunched, but even standing upright he was about four feet tall. Daedalus was a tall man, and since the water came over his waist, there was a danger that Smee would have his face constantly flooded by the running water.

Smee crossed his long arms and watched expectantly. He knew them. They would ask him to do it anyway. Daedalus wouldn’t give up a project like this, and jealous as he was of the fact, Maricella wanted to see Daedalus succeed in his projects. She would be convinced and persuade Smee to help. And Smee always did whatever Maricella asked. He couldn’t help himself. After his loyalty to the captain, his devotion to Maricella was the strongest feeling he had. She never returned his feelings, of course. What woman would love a creature such as him? So he strove to keep his feeling secret, to varying amounts of success.

“It’s not that deep, Smee,” Maricella said in that berry wine sweet voice of hers. “You won’t be under the water. And you can swim anyway.”

“I can swim, sure. But not while carrying that ballast,” he pointed out.

Maricella looked to Daedalus and then back. “Please, Smee. You’ll be alright.”

Please was the magic word when it came from Maricella’s mouth. At that point, at least for Smee, it was no longer a discussion, but it was a request. He could never deny her request. He sighed and moved to Daedalus’s side. “Fine, let’s get this done.” I’ll be writing a poem about this, he thought. How the valiant hero completed a dangerous task for the lady fair.

They couldn’t use the sling to get the device into the wall. That left it in the water. They would need to lift it by hand to put it up to the holes. Smee squatted next to it and put his hands underneath, waiting for Daedalus to do the same. Then they waded into the water.

Smee admitted to himself that he had probably over reacted to the potential danger, but it was, at best, an uncomfortable task. He slipped a lot on the smooth rocks at the stream bed, and got a mouthful of the water, each time. It was difficult to see with water dripping from the hair over his eyes. He trusted Daedalus much more than he preferred to in order to know where to go.

At last he found himself next to the wall, hefting the object above his head, nearly on his own, while Daedalus lined it up and pushed it in. It was at this point that he realized Daedalus hadn’t finished his preparations. Smee found himself holding the device up by himself and straining under the weight while Daedalus pushed buttons and waited for the rods to adjust. A minute later and the ordeal was finally done.

Smee felt something in the wall take hold of the rods, removing the weight from his muscles. The sound of stone grinding on stone filled his ears – at least while they weren’t underwater – while he dragged himself to the side and sad tiredly on the bank.

To his chagrin, he found himself fascinated by what was going on. The noises grew louder, though hardly deafening, as if they were approaching. Then, the wall began to move.

“Fascinating!” he heard Daedalus saying. “I couldn’t even tell there were any seams!”

A great split was forming down the center of the stream, and water began forcing its way out. There had been quite a bit more held back by the walls. It was lapping at his feet, a foot up the bank already. The walls continued to separate until they were as wide as the stream originally was. A few moments later and the flow of water evened out. It was a good deal wider than it had been, but not dangerously deep.

Daedalus was already moving forward, muttering inaudibly. Maricella was not far behind him. With a mixture of trepidation and curiosity, he stood in the water and followed them.

The chamber beyond was vast. Their lanterns didn’t reach near the walls, but revealed massive columns supporting the ceiling. There were crystals on the wall, shining with a white light from a source Smee couldn’t divine. Water filled the floor. Near the center it was deeper, but further from the middle it wasn’t any deeper than Smee’s waist. The ceiling was invisible in the gloom.

The group spread out, each moving where their gaze took them. Smee moved to the wall, which were covered with engravings and paintings, some of which were worn, but some seemed preserved remarkably well. They seemed abstract at first, but as he spent time looking them over, they seemed to coalesce into something meaningful. There was a conflict. There were oblong shapes at war with shorter shapes. In some of the areas one side would win, in others, it would be reversed.

The pattern continued, with glyphs and other images he couldn’t make any sense of, until he reached one last massive relief in between two battle scenes. At the bottom there were countless human bodies, eerily realistic in contrast to the abstractness of the paintings. The victims were disfigured, missing limbs, contorted in pain. There was a red ochre stain that seemed to spill across the figures. Knee deep in these bodies was a massive figure, twelve feet tall at least. It possessed five arms, two on each side and one from the center, and in each it held at least one human figure. Three more were in its massive fanged teeth. It was covered in hair, and the arms were much longer than one would expect from the size of the body. Its eyes were blank, no pupils. Smee couldn’t suppress a shiver as he gazed at it.

The central arm was different from the others, aside from the fact that it seemed to have two thumbs. Instead of holding a body, it held a large ball of some sort, as if it were offering it to anyone looking at it.

Though he felt disgust and fear, he couldn’t help but reach up to the ball, and before he was fully of conscious of what he was doing, his hand pressed against it with the faintest pressure. As soon as he touched it, the wall section with the relief faded back a few inches, then started it upward.

Inside was a treasury. When Smee had thought of the term, he’d always imagined piles of coins and fantastic objects. This was hardly so grand, but there were works of precious stones and metal on display around the circumference of the room, interspersed by 6 stone columns. In the center was a gold alter, intricately inlaid and decorated.

The sound of the wall moving had brought the other two. “Fascinating!” Daedalus said again. It was a predictable response, but at least whenever he said it you could tell he meant it.

Smee looked to Maricella. “What do you think?” he asked.

Maricella stood looking at the discovery, her eyes wide. She crossed her arms. “I think the captain will want to see this.”

***
It took some time to get back. Captain Isadora Calavera de Castellano had drunk a cup of rutch but was hardly incapacitated. The rest of the crew could hardly make the same claim. Most of them, even at mid-afternoon, were already stoned mindless. With the judicious application of her boot to various bodies, she was able to rouse her first mate, the cabin boy, and her navigator.

First mate Kee Prinz was a huge man. His mother was human but he took after his father in appearance. His father was one of the Nameless – savage sailors from beyond the Bleeding Sea who seemed more beast than man, with fangs on their lower jaws, grayish skin, and sloping foreheads. Kee’s eyes were like small red stones set into his face, but that was the one gift from his mother’s side, and the one reason he’d lived past birth, as it signified a holy child.

Isadora’s cabin boy was a stunted old man named Tunk. Barely three feet tall and wrinkled, his old body was still strong. He never seemed to get ill and never complained even under the harshest circumstances. But then, he rarely said anything at all.

The navigator, Bruce, was six feet if he was an inch, bald, and muscular. He had a handlebar mustache and the uncanny ability to know exactly where he was at any time of day and in any weather.

The crew was often at odds with each other when personalities didn’t mesh, but Isadora kept the best people closest to her. She would trust any of them with her life, and in fact did nearly every day. It was why she was still alive after all these years.

However, she could also trust most of them to be stinking drunk when they were certain they had no responsibilities. So it was a good portion of the afternoon before she not only had the supplies they needed, but also the people she wanted with her.

Maricella had been right. She was definitely wanted to see this ancient place. She was certain the others believed it was because of the treasure. And normally, yes, this would have been a tremendous draw. However, she had a suspicion, and she needed to see if she was right. If she was, it did not bode well.

They group brought more lines so they were able to descend much faster. Isadora tried to ignore the japes and rowdy noise Bruce always made, but the feeling of trepidation grew until there was little else she could focus on. She splashed through the water, her tall boots filling slowly with water as it splashed into the top.

As concerned as she was, she couldn’t help feeling impressed by the accomplishments this structure represented. Few buildings were made this large. For it to have been constructed long ago as it obviously was represented an incredible undertaking.

“It’s right this way,” Smee said, moving through the room. Isadora smiled as he tried to keep himself dry, despite having all four limbs in the water.

“Stop!” The order was unexpected. Kee used a variety of tones when yelling at the crew, but this one was far from bluster. He never showed fear, but there was something that demanded his, and probably everyone’s, attention.

Before she had a chance to ask what it was, however, Isadora learned for herself.

She heard it before she saw it, and felt it even before that. There was a wall of air pressure, and the water rose in a wave. She saw Tunk and Bruce splash into the water from it. And even as they fell, the primal bellow that caused it filled her ears. She resisted the impulse to cover her ears and instead drew her saber and a long knife. She hoped the others were doing the same, because her shouted order couldn’t be heard.

The origin of it all then emerged from the darkness. It was made of wood, she thought at first. A huge mass of wood and leaves and branches. But she realized it was covered in vines. As it moved into the half-light she could see it was a mass of writhing, flowing vines, some of them green and living and others old, hardened, wood-like. It had three masses of them formed into legs to move forward, keeping the main mass a few feet above the water. And a number of tentacle like appendages writhed out from it, lashing at the walls. From somewhere within it came the awful roar.

Immediately it reached for the closest person, Smee. But Smee was ready. He’d drawn his two flintlock pistols, which he’d somehow kept dry, and fired them both at the tentacle that came for it. Pieces flew in the smoke and the thing bellowed in rage as it drew back.

It charged into the room and seemed to reach for all of them at once. Isadora lost track of some of the others and found herself fighting for her life. She was not nearly so fast as Smee, and though she hacked at the vines that came for her, she was seized around her waist and lifted into the air. She heard a shout as the ground flew away, Smee was calling for her. But for the instant she was alone. She hacked at the vines, but made little headway before she was flung through the air, landing in the water in near total darkness, the air rushing from her lungs.

There was mixed shouting and bellows and a few discharges of powder, but she could make nothing of what was happening. She could see Smee dancing at the edge of darkness, avoiding strikes and slashing back with his knives. Tunk clung to a mass of vines that undulated and thrashed about. Where the others were she couldn’t guess.

Then she remembered the phrase. She tried to stand, but could barely breathe, and she slipped, falling to her hands and knees. Another tentacle of vine smacked her and threw her against the wall. She hoped it wasn’t a rib cracking that she felt. She clawed at the wall to pull herself up and staggered along it. She needed to get to Smee.

She heard a scream, she looked up and saw Ella, standing her ground with a cutlass. But it wasn’t her. The scream was from Bruce, who was held in the air by a vine around his boot. Isadora grunted and moved forward. She would help him in a moment.

Another vine flew at her, whip-like. She threw herself into the water and just as she hit it she could feel the spray of broken rock from the wall. She scrambled back up and hurried to Smee.

“There’s a command phrase,” she shouted. “You have to order the beast.”

“Me Cap’m?” Smee sounded disbelieving. “Why…”

“Shut it and follow orders, Smee! Order it. ‘Chk’ti lemell fu tana.’”

Smee tried the words, but they didn’t come out right. So she shouted them again. “Chk’ti lemell fu tana.”

The third time he got it right, just as Isadora was grabbed again. “Order it, Smee! Don’t just say it!” she cried as she was whisked through the air again.

“Chk’ti lemell fu tana!” Smee finally managed to yell.

In an instant, everything stopped.

Though everything mostly meant the vine and wood golem. It froze in place instantly, tendrils of vine outstretched or curled in mid-strike. Isadora fell as the tension around her leg released suddenly, but she grabbed a vine. It broke, but slowed her fall. She fell not gently but with grace. Immediately after, Bruce fell with a distressed cry to splash in the water head first, his shout cut suddenly by the submersion. Isadora flinched to see it happen, not entirely sure he was not uninjured. But by his continued thrashing she felt sure he would survive well enough.

Tunk slid down an arm, using his arms part way to steady himself, but mostly sliding on his feet. He splashed through the water, which came to his chin in some places, till he was by the captain’s side. Maricella followed close behind him. Smee stood staring, entirely unsure what had happened. Daedalus too, stared, though he moved closer and was poking vines, moving them aside, studying the beast.

Isadora wasted no time. She turned to the door to the treasury and marched toward it, pausing only long enough to ask, “This is it?”

Smee grunted an affirmation, still distracted by what had gone on.

Kee and Bruce entered the room just behind her, interested in the treasures.

“There’s no coin,” Bruce said, no small measure of disappointment registering in his voice. “No piles of loot.”

Kee snorted. “Any of these would bring a price sufficient to bring back what we’ve spent on this sea-cursed isle.”

Isadora had seen enough. “We must leave. Immediately. Take nothing. Now!” The last was said as her officers hesitated. She didn’t wait any longer, but left the room and crossed to the entrance. Tunk struggled to keep up, but followed immediately. Kee and Bruce were a bit behind, and Maricella was forced to take Smee’s hand and bring him along. He was still staring at the beast. Daedalus came last, protesting for what he couldn’t study, but obedient.

They left subdued. The captain answered no questions about what had gone on and at last ordered everyone to silence. They climbed the lines up to the field.

As Kee, the last of the group, emerged from the hole, a huge flock of ravens took flight from the trees. Cawing and screeching, their voices almost tangible in the salty air. Then a strong, cold wind rushed over them.

“Praise!” Bruce shouted. “We can move at last. Even if we are no richer. Sea’s blessings!”

“This wind brings no blessing,” Isadora said. “Rouse the crew. We sail immediately.”

***
As the last of the crew came aboard The Righteous Fury the wind had picked up considerably. At first it had been a gradual thing. The temperature started slowly cooling, and birds, especially ravens, had begun filling the air, seemingly emptying all the trees on the island of their occupants. For an hour the sky was darkened by the black wings. After the birds had disappeared to the west, away from the Bleeding Sea, the sky was growing darker of its own. Clouds seemed to come out of nowhere. And the temperature started to drop. As the last sailor boarded, Smee was almost cold, and he was covered with hair.

It was a strange thing. Sudden changes in the weather were not unknown on seas of Bakahl, but there was usually some warning. No one he had talked to had seen any kind of warning.

Yet even that was not unsettling. Until you added in the discovery, being attacked by a giant plant, and the captains reticence. The captain was not the most talkative of women. Over the last few years Smee had managed to piece together parts of her past. Her disagreement with her queen, ending in being labeled traitor and exiled was the reason the Fury favored preying on the ships of the Crystal Islands. But she rarely avoided direct questions.

“Why are we running like pups from demon spawn?” Kee had asked when they had first returned to ship.

The look the captain returned froze Smee’s blood, and she wasn’t even looking at him. But Kee was made of sterner stuff, and perhaps stuff that was much less bright. “We left behind a small fortune, Cap’m,” he continued. “We deserve an explanation.”

The Captain’s eye had burned like green flame. But she said nothing more on the subject. “Make ready to sail,” she said through clenched teeth. Then she had turned escaped into her private quarters, slamming the door behind her.

Kee snorted and returned to work.

Smee had no more idea of what was going on than he had before. But he was a good deal more scared than he had been.

The crew unfurled the sails with difficulty, the wind yanked on the material and it seemed it might tear, but they finally had the sails set and the ship leaped into action, as if eager to move after so much time convalescing on the beach. Several sailors nearly lost their balance, but Smee stood strong, one hand on the rigging. The wind bit at his face, and he loved every instant of it. He was not made to stay on land. The sea called to him too strongly. It was almost enough to ease his mind.

The relaxed feeling was not to last long. The seas were not calm, and the wind continued to pick up. Before they had even left sight of land the waves were reaching up to kiss the deck. No one could remain still.

“Captain!” Bruce called out as the woman appeared on deck again. “We should return and wait out the storm.”

She turned toward him, and Smee caught a look in her eye he couldn’t explain. It wasn’t the hardness he usually saw. Perhaps it was regret? “This storm won’t end for us. If you trust me, don’t ask again. We must try to outrun it.”

Bruce was left speechless, and as the captain turned, Smee quickly returned to his task, avoiding the woman’s gaze.

For hours they raced with the wind. Whenever he looked behind him Smee could see darker skies and darker seas. They were on the edge of a much worse storm, and so far, they were barely outpacing it. It would seem they weren’t avoiding it. The ship rose up and down as if a piece of flotsam. Waves seem to come at them from the sides as well, washing over the deck and beating at the sailors. It was hard to stay upright as they worked to simply stay alive.

“Heave to!” the shout came suddenly. The Fury turned and slowed almost as instantly when the men adjusted the sails. Smee looked just in time to see a man fall over the rail. He heard no shout, and it seemed as if he were just a pile of rags, tumbling almost shapelessly. Smee put his regret away. He would grieve the man later, but spending effort on it now would cost the lives of the rest of them. A great swell passed under them at that moment. The Fury had turned just in time to avoid it capsizing them. They were pointed nearly to the sky, then, hung for a moment before diving back down. The bowsprit and front of the hull were submerged before it righted again.

Smee allowed another instant of relaxation, relieved they had avoided that one. But even as he returned his attentions to his work he realized they were in more danger. The change in course and speed had given the unnatural storm time to come upon them, and it hit with full fury.

The rain seemed likely to break his skin, and the wind tore at his flesh. It tore at the rigging too, and in this case was successful at pulling it apart. A sail tore loose and snapped furiously. Smee didn’t wait for orders, but instantly was climbing the rigging. Down below he knew the order was being given to take in the sails. They could no longer use them.

The rigging was as familiar to Smee as the smell of his bed. If his spirit was made to sail the seas, his body was, quite literally, made to climb through complicated arrangements like the rigging of a ship. He could move through it like a spider in its web. It was a matter of seconds before he was at the sail itself. It didn’t take him long to see that they would never be able to pull it in. It had tangled and would require too much effort. It would kill them before they could salvage it. He moved to the mast and seized a hatchet kept there and began chopping. His feet clung to the yard arm as he worked. The work seemed endless, but at last he felt tension release as the sail whipped away and was buried in the sea.

The Fallen ii

A voice whispered on the air. At first she wasn’t sure it was a voice, and not just the sound of the wind in the trees. She looked around, her arm still leaning on the tree, but she saw nothing. She closed her eyes again, wondering if she needed to add hallucinations to her list of concerns. Everything was so strange.

It came again, closer this time. It sounded more like words, but she couldn’t understand it.

“Who?” she asked the air around her as she looked around. She pulled her hand from the tree and turned her body, trying to find who it was. “What are you saying?”

The soft breeze on her face was briefly warm, like someone’s breath, and she finally heard the words.

“What comfort can I give?” the wind whispered. She blinked, wondering again if it was in her mind. But as she opened her eyes, a figure seemed to form from the dark patterns of the tree on which she leaned.

It took the shape of a girl, the hair was wild, shoulder length. She couldn’t see colors in the night, but the hair and skin were fair colored. She had long graceful arms and legs, and wore a short sleeved dress that fell just below her knees. She wore no shoes.

“I am Sylfania, and this is my oak tree,” she said. Her voice still sounded like the wind but came louder, easier to hear, but still soothing. “I’m sorry I spoke too softly, I rarely speak to anyone but the animals. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a blood human.” She had a slight smile on her face – not of mockery but welcome. “Who are you? And what aid can I give? I can feel your confusion… your pain.”

The angel was silent for a moment. “I… am Shia Al’Matar,” she spoke suddenly. “An angel of…” she trailed off, remembering that she didn’t know any more. “I’m an angel,” she said quietly. “What do you mean a blood human? Aren’t you …”

Sylfania’s smile returned. “I am not a daughter of man, no,” she said. “I am a dryad. A spirit of the trees. No blood runs under my skin. If you are an angel… do angels have blood?” She pinched her chin between her thumb and index finger, her eyes narrowing as she studied Shia. “I have not learned of angels.”

“I… really don’t know,” was all Shia could answer. “I don’t seem to know anything – how I got here, where I came from, what I must do, what’s happening to me. I don’t know what to do.” She rubbed her arms with her hands, arms crossed in front of her. She wasn’t cold. Not truly. She suspected that if she were not an angel she would have been. But thinking of her situation made her think she should be cold.

Sylfania’s tilted her head. “I cannot give you comfort,” she said. It was a matter-of-fact statement. “I must take you to someone who can. She reached out to take Shia’s hand.

Shia balked. She didn’t know if she should trust this person. But what choice did she have, really. She had no one else. Nowhere else to go. She didn’t know what the dryad had in mind, but she knew it must be better than weeping alone in the woods. Slowly reached her hand out and took Sylfania’s.

The dryad’s smile grew. “I think there’s a road this way,” she still spoke softly, so that Shia had to strain to hear it all. She pulled Shia in a direction at angles to the direction she had been following. She whistled, and in a moment a bird landed on her shoulder. Sylfania’s wind-like speech continued, but Shia couldn’t understand the words. The bird made a series of chirps and whistles and other sounds, as if it were speaking with her. A few moments later the bird flew away again. “Trundle will scout for us,” Sylfania explained.

Shia remained mute. She was more surprised every moment of this journey, but She felt sure she would continue to be surprised by everything. After all, why wouldn’t a tree spirit speak with birds?

Putting more trust than she believed she had in the dryad, she allowed herself to be led into the night.

The Fallen i

She pushed herself up out of the mud, wondering how she’d come to be lying in the mud in a forest during the darkest hours of night.

The ground was damp, the mud only on the very surface. From the smell of it, the rain had been very recent. She looked up but couldn’t see any stars. The clouds hid them well. The wind blew her hair into her face and made whispering sounds through the unseen tree branches. She thought she should be comforted by those sounds, but instead she found it caused a shiver deep inside her.

That was all she could tell about where she was.

She was wearing a long, cobalt blue gown, made of silk and satin. It was very light, and she could feel the breeze on her skin underneath it. On her back she had a dark cloak which cleverly concealed her two sets of wings. She must have been trying to hide that she was an angel, she thought as she started walking through the woods. The moldering leaves crunched and rustled as she stepped through them. She had no idea where she was going, just that she should get somewhere.

Why would… She stopped walking as she tried to remember the name of the god she served. Why would she send her here? And who was he? Why couldn’t she remember?

She slumped against a tree. A great mass of grief and fear rose into her throat and filled her head. What was going on? She didn’t think she had ever felt so helpless. The feeling was almost a tangible thing. She clenched her teeth and crushed her eyelids shut, willing herself not to cry. It would not do. A solitary tear emerged from her left eye, and slid halfway down her cheek, but no other tears.

She pushed away from the tree with one arm, holding herself steady.

S.N.E.A.K.S. iii

Master stared at Vrash for several long moments before speaking. “I made a bet today,” he said as he began pacing before the gladiator. This was no surprise to Vrash. That was how owners made money off gladiator matches. “I’m not sure whether I’m pleased or not.” He paced some more before saying anything else. “Well, I suppose that’s it then. You’re a free man now.”

Vrash blinked. For the first time in his life, he was truly surprised. “Free?”

Master frowned and grunted. “You win too much. The other owners were forcing me out. They set up what they thought would be an impossible match. Their four best, armed, against you, unarmed. If you lost, the were to pay me what they thought was several times your worth. If you won they would force me out of the arena. No one would ever agree to a match with any of my fighters. Unless You no longer competed.”

He resumed pacing. “I confess I considered simply retiring you. You’ve been a great asset. But I can’t use you among my guards and you can’t tutor my children. The expected thing was to kill you. But I’d sooner put down a prize horse. You have provided me with a great deal of wealth. I can give you a small amount of coins, but you’re not allowed at the arena, on pain of death.” He stopped pacing, his back to Vrash. “Good luck in your new life, wherever it may be.”

Vrash was still standing in position to be inspected as he watched his former master walk away for the last time.

CHAPTER 2

Dink tromped into the small, semicircle auditorium through doorway, which he noted was double wide. Exactly for persons of his description. His gigantic metal body took special considerations in architecture. And since Structs — living beings made from metal or wood or what-have-you by magic wielding engineers — had only been recognized as “alive” in the traditional sense for a decade, there wasn’t a lot they could expect out of society. This organization, however, seemed not just willing, but interested in accomodating his special needs.

Dink himself was made of iron and steel. And copper, and a few alloys. His creator hadn’t had a lot of one material, apparently. Dink didn’t mind his unusual composition, however, and often spent time simply contemplating the appearance fo the mash of materials.

His creator also hadn’t been exceptionally creative when designing him. He was, essentially, a giant metal ball with two huge legs and two arms that ended in hands with opposable thumbs and three other digits, and a domed head he could swivel. There was a human approximation of a face thereon, but other than that, he didn’t look much like a person.

Dink tried to be careful as he stepped into the room, but it was nigh impossible to do it without making a loud sound. And as his first step into the room revealed, he had startled someone.

Perched on the large desk at the front of the room was a girl. She had thick hair, pink, that covered her head and tumbled off her shoulders. She also had a long, pink, cat tail that twitched nervously in the air. And sticking out of the mass of unbridled hair were two cat ears — also pink. Dink lastly noted that in place of feet and hands she had pink cat paws. There was no hair on the rest of her. Or at least Dink assumed so. She was wearing a loose shirt and shorts. Her legs and arms were bare skin. Her large round eyes were a deep green.

She hissed.

Dink paused. He supposed if he were capable of it, he would have blinked. Instead his impassive looking oval eyes remained still. He spoke carefully. “You are a Furleen?” he asked. “I have not met one of your kind before. I am Dink.”

The catgirl came forward, but crouched defensively as she approached with a slow and careful gait up the incline. She walked all around Dink and finally stopped at his side. She jumped up on a chair next to him and crouched on her hands and feet as she looked at him. “You’re a dink? What does that mean?” she asked suspiciously. Dink noted that she had more canine teeth than other humans.

“I’m not a dink,” he corrected. “I am a Struct. My name is Dink.”

The catgirl nodded slowly. “I see. Are you here to tell me to leave?”

“Why would I tell you to leave?”

“People don’t like… my kind.” She said, squinting. The suspicion in her voice was still heavy.

That sentiment was something Dink could appreciate. He turned and lifted a chair slightly, stacking it on another. There was no way it would support him. He sat down on the floor and looked at her. He wanted to appear less threatening. “I’m only here because the elf-woman at the front directed me here. I am to wait for a representative. I would guess that’s not you.” He hoped that would come across as a joke.

The Furleen’s muscles relaxed, and a small grin appeared briefly. “Nope.” She sat down on the floor and looked at him. “My name is Linella.”

S.N.E.A.K.S. ii

The man with the triangle tattoo was inching closer, hoping to get into striking range without having to rush. Vrash flexed his fists and waited for him. He would have to be fast, and it was a gamble — Triangle’s sword gave him a longer, and more deadly, reach than Vrash had. He watched Triangle’s center, his chest, waiting for the muscle flex that would show he was making his move.

The twitch appeared, and instantly Vrash threw himself forward to the ground, as the sword cut through the air where he’d just been. The gamble proved to be not without cost though, as the punching-dagger split open the flesh on his arm. But it also paid off, he rolled into Triangle’s legs and Triangle fell forward into the sand. Vrash was on his feet before his opponent even hit the ground. He jumped and landed, knees first, onto Triangle’s back. He heard a crunch, but his opponent kept struggling to push himself up. Vrash pushed Triangle’s face into the sand a pummeled him brutally on the neck and head till the struggling stopped.

Satisfied, he gave the head one more shove as he pushed himself to his feet. He rubbed sweat and strands of black hair from his face and looked about. The fight had been a private one. There were only a dozen or so men, clustered together. There was only one man clapping, and him half-heartedly. That didn’t matter to Vrash. He had won. That was all he cared about.

A gate in the wall slowly rose and two handlers removed. Vrash stepped forward toward the gate as the men, eunuchs, approached him. One began bandaging the wound on his arm as the other put a wine skin in Vrash’s hand. Vrash took several gulps. He’d been worried briefly that he might not win. And that meant it was the end of his life — even if he surrendered, Master would have him killed for a loss. Life was good to him today. He would meet his end another time. Though it would probably be in the same arena.

Still, something felt unusual. Master wasn’t clapping. He knew he was Master’s pride, but Master didn’t seem pleased with the conclusion of the fight. He shrugged it off. He was a slave, and a slave could not know such things. He submitted to the oil rubdown the eunuchs provided and returned to his cell to await Master’s servants to collect him.

He didn’t need to wait long. Master approached a few moments later, his quick footsteps echoing in the empty hall. He wore a frown and his brow was furrowed. Master had once-dark hair that was graying, but not very much of it. The top of his head was bald and the back was clean shaven in the current style. He ward only a robe draped on one shoulder and his fat could be seen jiggling in the bare area. He wore simple leather sandals this day.

Vrash stood and waited for him. He continued to wait as Master stood and glared at him. Vrash was a tall man, and Master was short, and it was obvious that Vrash could kill him easily, yet there was still something in Master’s eyes that made Vrash feel small.

S.N.E.A.K.S. i

Vrash punched the other man in the chest. He didn’t know his opponent’s name. He never did. They were both unarmored, but Vrash was the only one unarmed as well. They both were well muscled, and they both wore nothing but a piece of cloth wrapped about their waists. So were the other three men in the arena. Two of those men were also dead. Or at least dying, their helpless bodies lying in the sand. The third was closing in tight behind him. He would need to take care of his current antagonist first.

He lifted a leg and kicked the other man, pushing him back. He would be expecting a respite in the attack — since it was used to give one some breathing room, but Vrash wouldn’t give it to him. There wouldn’t be time for that with the other fighter in the arena. The tactic was only to give him a sense of ease. Vrash leapt after him as the man stumbled, focusing entirely on regaining his balance. He spun as he re-closed the distance and his elbow brought a furious blow to the fighter’s face. Vrash couldn’t suppress a grin as he felt a satisfying crack and a tiny spatter of blood on his arm.

He continued his spin and grabbed the man’s hair and pulled back his head. He finished the fight with a viscious punch to the fighter’s neck. He let go as the dying body collapsed, struggling soundlessly for breath that would never come.

Vrash faced the direction of his last opponent, whose run slowed as he saw Vrash was no longer distracted. Vrash could tell he was cocky, and knew he had reason to be. Vrash was breathing heavy, he’d fought and killed three men already, and the sweat was running down into his eyes. The other man held a sword and a punching dagger. Vrash hadn’t even had time to lower himself and pick up someone’s weapon. He’d been given strict orders not to touch them anyway.

His owner — Vrash didn’t know his name and was only allowed to refer to him as Master — had never put him in a fight he couldn’t win. Vrash tursted him completely. He was well taken care of and treated to honors no other gladiatorial slave ever got. He didn’t care about freedom. He’d never known it, and didn’t see what appeal it would have. He was good at fighting, and he didn’t know how to do anything else. Life was good.

But it was hard too. He’d fought four men at once before, but he’d been armed. He’d fought three men unarmed. He’d fought beasts. But these men were good, and Vrash just wondered if maybe Master had given him a fight that was too hard as the two men circled each other.

The other man had a tattoo on his upper arm, three red circles in a triangle. He lunged at Vrash with his sword, but he didn’t have enough power in his legs — it was clearly a feint. Vrash didn’t even react. He didn’t know if Triangle intended to draw him out or test his defenses, but Vrash wasn’t going to give him anything. Triangle had a confused look in his eyes, and he paused. He clearly hadn’t expected no reaction at all.

It was all the chance Vrash needed. He grabbed Triangle’s wrist and pulled him forward. He couldn’t hold his opponent in place, else he’d take the punching-dagger in his side. But pulling the man and letting go was good enough. It forced Triangle completely off balance and he stumbled forward. Vrash stepped behind him and pounded him in the kidney. Triangle only grunted. Vrash grinned. This one, at least, was a man. He reached out, hoping to grab the man’s arms, both of them, but there was too much momentum, too much distance. Triangle whirled and they returned to circling.

There would be no false moves, no fakes any more. Each move would be with the intention to kill.

Untitled ii

It wasn’t the volume so much as the vibrations caused by the unholy scream that caused Mick to cringe. And it was less the scream at all than the thought of what it was screaming. And even less what it was than the responsibility he had for it being … well, in existence, let alone here in this … hell, he wasn’t even sure what it was. A convent? A girl’s school?

Whatever it was, it had a locker room, and he’d had to fight through the crowd of a couple dozen women in their teens and twenties dressed in the most horrid clothing he’d ever witnessed to get this far. A matted bit of black hair stuck to his face,covering his eye and held there by his sweat. He pushed it roughly aside, regretting, as he always did at moments like these, that he bothered to get a haircut every now and then.

He winced as he reached in his jacket pocket for more ammo — the scream simply didn’t stop. The leather straps he had wrapped around his hands caught and he cussed, forcing his hand in. He dropped three of the four rounds he’d pulled out when the the pipes burst in a portion of the wall and he was showered with powdered ceramic tile and grout and both cold and hot water. He cussed again, and yet again when the rounds he dropped rolled across the floor and into a drain.

Hastily he pushed the last round he had into the cylinder of his revolver and slammed it closed, then he peered over the piece of rubble he leaned against. The thing was still there, floating in the middle of the shower area, the three … what were those, tails? still undulating in the air green, with suckers on one side, like an octopus tentacles, pointing downward. It had six arms as well, in a circle about the upper body — bony, near skeletal, jointed in three points, with fingers nearly half the arm length, ending in claws, of course. They all had claws. There were no legs. though Mick supposed it didn’t need them if it could float there.

And the piece de resistance … the head. Or was it heads? There were two beaks, easily a foot long each. Both were open, and both were screaming. It apparently didn’t need to stop for breath. It was dripping wet from the spray in the walls. Mick guessed that the plumbing wasn’t holy water than. Or, admittedly less likely, this one wasn’t vulnerable to that sort of thing.

The scream was its weapon. Which was, at best, irritating. He had to admit it was a very effective. He wasn’t sure his ears weren’t going to start bleeding at any moment, and he had to fight the temptation to cover his ears with his hands.

Instead, he stood and faced the beast full on. Aiming his gun with both hands, willing his muscles to stop shaking. He only had one shot.

Then the most unnerving thing of all happened. The scream stopped.

Mick lost his footing in the sudden change in the air pressure and he stumbled forward, though he managed to stay upright. The thing was looking at him. He wasn’t sure what part of that head (heads?) were its eyes, but he could feel it staring at him. Then both beaks pointed toward him and the scream resumed, louder. The force of the sound threw him back several feet. He rolled until he hit a wall. He couldn’t stop it now, his hands flew to his ears, and he pressed them against it. Though the right hand, with the gun, was less effective at blocking any sound.

His eyes were wide with pain, and he couldn’t shut them. He groaned. It may have been audible — he wasn’t sure, because he couldn’t hear anything. Even the scream. But he could feel it, every where in his body, every inch of his skin.

In desperation he stretched out his arm and pointed the gun. He couldn’t hold it steady. He used every last bit of his strength to squeeze the trigger.

The shot couldn’t be heard any more than anything else could. It seemed like everything froze for a moment. He thought the screaming stopped. Then it exploded in a visual cacophony of guts and lights spreading everywhere.

“I guess I hit it,” Mick muttered. He was deaf, he hoped only temporarily, and didn’t hear it. He hadn’t heard the explosion either. Or the guts hitting the walls. He tried not to think of it.

He forced himself to his feet, his left hand against the wall to steady himself, the gun hanging limply at his side. As soon as he could he took a step forward, then another. Till he reached where the thing had stood… floated. He shook his head and immediately regretted it, the pain shooting over his skin. He winced.

He reached down into the rubble and the water until he found it: the thin chain of silver threads with the pendant on it, an unassuming smooth round stone, the size of a silver dollar, in a flat platinum setting with… symbols or runes etched around it. He ached as he stood again and limped away.

Untitled i

In the vids, the stars all raced by, like comets. Or like meteors burning brilliantly in the atmosphere. In the hundreds of years since humans had first achieved space travel, still not enough people had seen space while they were actually out in it to know it didn’t look anything like that. Even with faster-than-light travel with dark matter drives, there was only a slight blurring. Stars were so far apart that you didn’t see much change as you went.

Charlie put up his feet and stared at the unchanging space. It was his watch, this was his job. Music from 21st century earth played. It was much more racous and energetic back then — 26th century music favored slow tones, alternating subtlely, very little repetition. In the 21st century, they hadn’t been into subtlety. Or slow. He believed the band playing was called Linkin’ Park, but it could be anyof a hundred bands. He didn’t know the difference between them that well. He had a couple favorites, but mostly it just stayed on as noise. He liked it, but he couldn’t sleep with it playing. Not at this volume.

Charlie born at the end of the 23rd century. He was passenger on a ship to HD 10307 — the first star system with a planet that wouldn’t even need terraforming to colonize. They’d even renamed it Gaia — the Greek word for earth, to show how much faith they had. Charlie had fought and pulled in favors and spent money — a lot of money — to get on that ship.

He’d spent two and a half centuries in cryosleep, and woken to find the ship to find that two centuries earlier FTL had been created and that there had been not just colonies but full blown cities and a thriving populas lived on Gaia. There was a great party and a parade and galas and events and interviews. No one in the 26th century had ever met someone from the 23rd before, and the passengers on the Starry Hope were oddities and celebrities. Through all of it though, Charlie had been in a depression. He’d wanted to be the first. Or at least among the first. And where had he been while human life was first established on a distant planet? Sleeping somewhere in the middle of space.

It was, at best, frustrating. Which is probably why he’d turned to piracy. That and the fact that even with his celebrity status he had no money whatsoever. They’d paid for rooms, food, travel. All until no one wanted to hear from him. He’d been ready to make his way as a modest mechanic/technician/electrician on the first colonies of Gaia. He’d been completely unprepared to make a life in the bustling metropoli that spanned the western spiral arm of hte Milky Way Galaxy when he’d been revived. He snorted at the memories. He was still angry about it all.

His break had come when he’d first taken a tour of a modern space ship. He’d been a futurist and a space buff for his whole life. So, of course, he’d played all the video games before he had boarded the Starry Hope. Turned out that the man who’d designed the most popular simulation game for space ships had been much more educated than your typical video game designer. He’d gone on to work for multiple space programs and even now the primary designs for small space craft were remarkably similar to the controls on the game Charlie had played.

What Are You Writing For?

First of all perhaps I should disabuse you of the pseudo-scholarly nonsense that everyone’s opinion is of equal worth; it’s just not true. It’s as if people believe you don’t have to know anything about something to be able to say talk about it meaningfully. No, while it is true that everyone has a legal right to say anything they want to, in the name of good taste, some people should just please, please stop. I used to be somewhat of a libertarian, but since I’ve started writing this column I’ve started to believe that perhaps we need to legislate good sense.

What brought this on? The other day I wanted to find some good e-zines on the Internet. So I went to Google and executed a web search. Then, I executed a second web search that included a command to exclude the word “sex.” (If you don’t know why I had to do this, you need to do more web searches). I never found any good ones. If you know of some good e-zines, fell free to email me the address, because most of them suck.

What else brought this on? I read the Daily Universe a few times a week. Reading that even once is enough to send anyone on a rant (as you can tell if you read my last column). People who read, write for, and write to the Daily Universe are necessarily petty and lame. I provide no evidence for this, you have to read it to believe it.

So, in the interest of good taste and making it so I don’t have to hate everyone in Utah and on the Internet, I’ve come up with a list of guide lines for aspiring writers and web page makers. Note that this probably applies to all artists and multimedia gurus.

The first thing you should take into consideration is what your motivation is. Think about this. If you’re writing to make a living at it, get better before you tell everyone you’re worth publishing. If you’re doing it primarily for yourself, then please don’t inflict yourself on anyone else unless you realize what you’ve done is pure genius. If you’re doing it for the attention, then either be funny or have something insightful to say. If you’re writing because it’s glamorous, go to hell.

In short, don’t try to publicize your writing unless your writing is any good.

Here are some other tips:

A desperate need for attention is not sufficient time to waste a newspaper editor’s time. If you want to be published, don’t write a letter to the editor about how socks with sandals is tacky, or any other non-issue. (A corollary hint is that if the only option you have for publication is the school newspaper’s letters to the editor column, then you should just give up.)

If you are a sixteen-year-old posting on MySpace about how you like that guy in your math class, and Fluffy the cat was especially cute today, and mom is so mean because she grounded you even though you were only two hours late for curfew, and you were kissing that guy who’s too old for you but you didn’t use tongue, and your English teacher is mean, and the Gap has the cutest clothes, and that artist guy in your history is so creepy when he comes dressed in black, etc. JUST STOP NOW and never touch your computer again after you’ve deleted your web page and everything associated with it.

If the only thing you have for material for your web page is how old you are, where you go to school or work, and several unfunny pictures of your cat, don’t. (These last two reasons have led me to believe that it should be illegal for any girl under the age of 18 who has not had a CS class to publish a web page).

“Backstreet Boys Fan Fiction” is not a valid genre. Most fan fiction is not a valid genre.
Getting an idea from a good book does not mean that YOU will write a good book.

If you’re publishing on the web, make sure you provide links so a visitor reading can easily access the list of contents. Even better would be a link to the next story. (I’m referring here to online comic sites who think that a link to a .jpg or a .gif is sufficient ease of navigation. If your comics are in a certain order, please, please, please give me a “next” button.) Always remember that web surfers are lazy; otherwise they’d be outside playing. They don’t want to take the trouble to hit the “back” button in their browser every 30 seconds.
Format! (And make sure your colors contrast so people can actually read it. “Pretty” does not mean “legible.”)

In poetry, “free verse” does not mean “whatever obnoxious whim took me.” It means the meter and rhyme are determined by contextual artistic concerns, not a predefined format.

Please remember that this is only a partial list. Just keep in mind that when you write, you should be focusing on quality, even if you don’t want to be professional. I really would like to see a lot more amateur writing on the web and in the print world. But if you’re going to be published, you’ve got to think about someone other than yourself.

Ramen Noodles

I’ve often wondered if

Through my life I have

in any small way changed

someone.

The answer oddly came

One afternoon while

cooking packaged noodles

for lunch.

Adding spice to the broth

changes not noodles,

only the water that

they’re in.

But when I raised the fork

to my waiting lips

the noodles repeated

the name

Of the flavoring I

had seen fit for me

to contribute. I have

never

Changed someone’s life. But when

they leave my broth. I

know that they will carry

my taste.

Renga of the Matriarch

In the beginning

was Matriarchal Beauty —

Eve: progenitor.

The Mother of great children,

Quantity and quality.

Just as Sarah: a

Mother of generations,

raising a nation.

She raised her brood and taught them

righteousness, then sent them forth

Spread on the face of

A holy, promised nation,

Israel and America.

Beloved Grandmother Alley —

Holy Rachel, Rebekah.

Traveler, like Ruth;

Returned to Holy Lands to

raise a family.

Teaching principles of good

To children in love and faith.

Then scattered, like a

Sariah, descendents gone

to foreign places.

Gather today, give honor

to Diasporic Mother.

Partakers all of

a love that recalls that of

Matriarchs of old.

Holy Writ an exemplar,

showing us our matriarch.

Humble Mary, the

prophetess Deborah, and

exemplar Abish.

The caring of Dorcas with

the support of Miriam

together we find

fulfilled in our grandmother

Fam’ly Matriarch.

Orkbusters, Inc

A mousy young woman sat at a desk, picking her nails with a dagger and chewing on a piece of sassafras root. Her short, sharp nose twitched as she ran her fingers through her short brown hair. Plain, distinctly unpretty brown eyes glanced up every now and then to see if anything new had happened in the room. It hadn’t, so she went back to her personal grooming.

A moment later a slight figure dressed in a worn colorless tunic and breeches threw open the outer door and strutted across the floor, passing the antique weapons rack and completely ignoring the tapestries of battles hanging from the walls. He carried some sort of fruit filled pastry in one hand while the other brushed stray wisps of dark hair from his face back further on his head. He hurried past the woman at the desk, breathing, “Morning, Sheena,” in a cheerful way as he did so. Most people with her attitude toward mornings would have grunted in response, but from Sheena it was more of a squeak that translated to, “Morning, Herb.”

Herb opened the door behind and slightly to Sheena’s left and disappeared into the office beyond, leaving the office silent but for the sound of Sheena’s nail file once more.

Less than five minutes of continued boredom later, the outer door once again opened and another slight figure entered. Sheena was accustomed to fewer than two interruptions before her midmorning tea break and this second intrusion annoyed her, although she had still to look at anyone yet that morning, let alone say anything that required any degree of thought.

The figure who had just entered was different from the first in two ways. First, although he too had dark hair and colorless clothing, his robes were obviously well cared for. Secondly, this figure took a moment to take in his surroundings. He gazed at the weapon rack and noted various exotic weapons of mysterious origin. He examined the tapestries, noting the meticulous workmanship and the historic battle they commemorated. Finally, he observed the secretary at the desk who was apparently trying to pull something out of her left ear. “Precisely what I was looking for,” he muttered under his breath with only a small degree of sincerity.

As he approached the desk, Sheena decided which rude tactic she would use. She decided on the ever reliable casual speech patterns and lack of eye contact that had served her so frequently in the past. She carried out her plan by continuing to focus her gaze on the desk, moving her finger intently around inside her ear, and speaking in the annoying accent she had learned at the farm she had grown up on. Her father and mother had always used it, and it had always bothered her, so she felt confident it would bother this stranger enough to drive him out of the office. “Yeah, what do ya want?” She demanded with a twang in her voice, turning to look vaguely in the direction of the stranger as she finished.

What she first noticed was that this was not the usual fat, ugly merchant or petty duke that she and Herb usually dealt with. He was slim and handsome and was stroking a well groomed and attractive goatee, although, there was a fairly large and very blue lizard sitting on his shoulder. The second thing she noticed was that she actually didn’t want to be rude to him. She quickly took a mental survey of everything in her appearance she needed to straighten up. Then she just as quickly pulled her finger away from her ear, yanked the sassafras root from her teeth with her other hand, and finished up by rapidly ensuring her hair was not too badly damaged. She still looked like a mouse, but at least it wasn’t a rude mouse anymore. After a half moment that to her seemed interminable, she realized she also needed to correct her tone of voice and wording. She used the court accent she had learned while tormenting ladies-in-waiting from the castle and rephrased, “What may I assist you with, Sir?” her voice only breaking once in the whole sentence.

The stranger grinned a grin he hoped any intelligent observer would recognize as longsuffering and condescending, but the secretary would perceive as charming. It worked. He watched her suppress a sigh as he spoke, “I need a company to recover something of mine. I heard that Herbert Spearpoint can assemble an excellently skilled and qualified group. Have I come to the correct place?” The lizard blinked, as if it too was seeking the answer to this question.

Sheena looked at him until she realized that the stranger had stopped speaking, having asked a direct question. “Oh, uh . . . I mean, yes. Yes Sir,” she managed to get out. “I’ll go find out if he can see you.”
She stood up in a hurry, eager to please, and knocked over her chair. Flushing, she moved to pick it up when she realized it was righting itself. As she looked towards the stranger, he winked, acknowledging that it was his doing. Her mind stuttered for a moment and finally came up with the thought, “He winked at me!” She managed a cautious smile, and as the stranger gave a full grin, she turned to the door Herb had moved through and thought, “Even his teeth are handsome!”

As she turned to the door, the dark stranger thought, “Fool,” and kept his peace. The lizard seemed to grin a little.

As Sheena opened the door, she cautiously peered around it to see what was going on. Usually Herb woke up very late in the morning, came to work, and slept in his office chair for a couple hours more. This morning, he had come in earlier than usual, had been less grumpy, and was not sleeping in his office. He was leaning back in the chair on its rear legs, one hand flung out to balance himself as he tried to balance on one leg while the other hand tried to feed his mouth the pastry. The whole act was impressive in an eight-year-old sort of way, and Sheena was relieved to find that not only was Herb not sleeping, he seemed to be happy. This was confirmed when he spoke.

“I’m happy today, Sheena,” he said. “I’m having a great morning, like destiny is coming my way. Make sure no clients get in to talk to me until at least mid afternoon.” He popped the pastry in his mouth and took a very large bite. He then proceeded to make quiet animal-like noises. Whether they were expressions of pleasure derived from the consumption of the pastry or small grunts caused by the exertion from balancing on the chair, Sheena wasn’t sure.

She tried to speak to him, but wasn’t sure how to communicate how important it was that Herb met with the most attractive and charming man she had ever seen in her pitiful life if only because she desperately needed to please him and keep him in the office. She pondered this on a minute while Herb chewed, mouth open, and swallowed. “By the way,” her boss queried, “What do you need?” He popped the remainder of his breakfast into his mouth and continued balancing. More grunts followed.

“Well, it’s just that . . . well . . . um… There just maybe . . .” she tried to figure out what to say. Her little brain wasn’t very used to tactful or persuasive speech, and finally it burst through the blockade hindering it’s expression. “You have a wizard here you have to meet with,” she blurted in her usual mean-spirited tone, usually reserved for clients.

“Uh’m bufee,” Herb managed to say around a mouthful of fruit and flaky crust.

“You don’t look terribly busy,” A third voice broke in. Sheena recognized it as belonging to the tall, dark stranger. Herb had no idea who it was, and he didn’t have much time to think about it immediately, since the surprise had caused him to lose his balance and choke on his pastry. Fruit flew everywhere and so did limbs as Herb fell to the floor, bruising his backside and his ego, but only temporarily. Herb’s ego had remarkable healing capabilities.

“What the . . .?” was the first halfway intelligible thing that came out of Herb’s mouth. Pulling himself up by the edge of his desk, he glared about the room, trying to find the vandal who had attacked him this way. His eyes rested briefly on his secretary, who was attempting to creep unnoticed out the door. He was about to scream at her when he noticed the stranger who had already claimed the only other chair not soiled by half-chewed pastry, and was calmly stroking his pet lizard. “Who are you?” Herb demanded immediately, feeling a pressing need to regain control of his day. It had been going so well, and this person could not be allowed to change his course towards destiny.

“I compliment you on your professionalism,” the dark man responded in a tone Herb wasn’t entirely sure was sarcastic. “My name is Argin, a sorcerer by profession. I need a group to recover something for me. I understand you organize such expeditions.” The lizard nodded to emphasize the remark.

“Sometimes,” Herb responded cautiously. “For a fee . . .” He quickly added, even more cautiously. Then having felt that he hadn’t been clear or cautious enough, he amended, “A very large fee.” The better to get this man out of here. This wizard probably wanted them to find root of swamp squash or drake dung or some equally detestable ingredient to his sorcerer’s potions.

The wizard grinned an unamused grin (as did the lizard, or so it appeared) and said, “I understand that. I’m sure we can come to a mutually agreeable amount.” The lizard stretched its back, revealing there were wings.

Herb finally started to consider the proposal. This stranger was either rich or had a vastly different method or reckoning wealth than Herb did. And it didn’t appear that the mission was to seek out the bark of a tree shaped like a deity or anything ridiculous like that. The presence of the winged lizard bothered him somehow as well. It wasn’t a dragon, being far too small even for a hatchling. But it wasn’t a forest drake either, the claws and teeth were too short and the tail too long. What could it be? It was time to get serious and find out details. “What do you need us to do, Wizard?” he asked. He had chosen the term ‘wizard’ to address the man on purpose. Depending on how it was used and who used it, it could be an insult or an honor. How this stranger responded would determine what sort of man he was. It was a dangerous tactic, but Herb had paid to have defenses against magical attacks placed in his office, and was reasonably sure of being able to survive if the sorcerer got hot under the collar. If the man took it as a compliment, then Herb knew he would be easily conned and manipulated.

The stranger was neither offended nor flattered by the remark, however. He simply got to business, ignoring the appellation “I need you to recover Zy-Krawn’s Jewel,” he said plainly.

Herb nearly fell out of his chair, this time with laughter. Zy-Krawn was a legend from thousands of years ago, a tall-tale about an evil tyrant-mage who had reigned in blood an terror for a couple hundred years. It was mainly used to scare kids into being good, but in recent years it wasn’t even told for that anymore. Herb reminded himself this was probably a serious client, and if he was crazy, it was best to humor him until he left or the constables came anyway. “And where am I supposed to find that?” He asked.

“I know you think this is an insane idea from a crazy man who thinks he is a wizard,” the stranger said. The sorcerer’s lizard began to pick its teeth with it’s claws, looking occasionally at Herb. “But I have researched this for longer than you have been alive. Never mind my appearance, I am a mage, and appearances can be deceiving. I know the legend of Zy-Krawn is true, or at least mostly so. And his Jewel does exist, and will give the one who possesses it fantastic powers. I have determined that it is located in cave at the top of Potter’s Mountain, just outside of town.”

“Yeah, well, Potter’s Mountain is haunted. That’s gonna cost you some money.”

“You don’t seriously expect me to accept you believe in fairy stories of vengeful miners?”

“Doesn’t really matter what you accept, Wizard, I run this job, and I make the rules. My crew might take exception to this detail, and I’m not too happy about the possibility of running into some dead man who thinks I’m jumping his claim. Can you pay enough for me to put up with that, or are you going to leave my office now?” The lizard stopped and glared at Herb, ruffling some scales to look bigger. For a minute, Herb was afraid he’d pushed his luck a little too hard and the sorcerer was going to attack him.

After a tense minute the lizard relaxed and started nibbling on the strangers’ chin. The wizard chuckled;. “I think you’ll find that I can pay you plenty.” He produced a bag seemingly out of no where and tossed it onto Herb’s desk. The sound of coins clinking told Herb exactly what it was.

Herb disregarded what was considered polite in his business and opened the bag. Platinum crowns. A lot of platinum crowns. Herb was impressed and excited, and tried to hide it. He could smell the riches. “This is a good start. What else can you do?”

The lizard glanced at Herb perturbedly; the sorcerer glanced at Herb with an annoyed eye and nearly sighed. “I have four more bags like that one you can have once you’ve brought me the jewel.”

“Where did you get this money?” Herb pressed. He didn’t want to gain possession of missing money the constables were looking for.

The reptile’s eyes flashed red, and the sorcerer sighed in impatience. “I’m a man of means. Do you want the job?”

Herb considered a moment. “One more thing. If there’s no danger, why are you willing to part with so much money just to have me run up a mountain?”

“I never said there was no danger. Although I’m sure that will be minimal. But time is of great importance here. I have . . . friends . . . who are . . . eager . . . to see the jewel.”

“I can have a team assembled and ready to go in the morning. Where should be bring the jewel when we’ve recovered it?”

The lizard relaxed considerably and started to nuzzle up against the sorcerer’s neck. “I shall want to interview them, of course.”

“If I can trust your money, certainly you can trust whoever I choose, hmm?” Herb had a firm rule about letting his clients pick and choose members of his groups. They always ended up selecting faithless priests, clumsy thieves, and stupid warriors.

The sorcerer laughed. “Very well, Herbert Spearpoint. Bring the jewel to my residence near the Tower of the Magi on the Street of Carvers, between the market and the docks. It is a large house of gray stone. I will pay you your money there.” He stood to leave, but turned as he reached the door. “I should warn you, I will know if you try to give me a fake jewel. I will be very disappointed if this is not done quickly and correctly. I am not well known because the few who have had reason to learn of my power have never been able to tell anyone about it.” That said, the reptile on his shoulder glared coldly at Herb for a moment, and the Mage was gone.

Herb shrugged it off and started making mental notes about this job. Maybe this was his chance to meet fate. The platinum would be plenty to buy him a small, legitimate business where he wouldn’t have to risk his neck so often. He’d be free and able to grow old, fat, and happy, but now he needed to prepare. “Sheena!” he bellowed.

The secretary came in slowly, a mystified look on her plain face. “What?” she asked softly.

Herb snapped his fingers in frustration. “Stop fantasizing, woman, we’ve got work to do.” Have the Shriner, Cristobol, Tim, and Blinder meet me at the Red Bow Inn tonight. Tell them it’s big money.”

“Huh?” Sheena wondered. “Oh, yeah, sure, Boss.” She slowly walked out the door, still dreaming of the tall stranger who had entered her life.

On the Birth of My Fourth

Watching your wife give birth is a wild ride, at the very least. Having been through it four times, I feel qualified to speak a little bit about it. I have a friend who claims that watching his wife give birth is harder on him than actually giving birth is on his wife. I find that probably a touch insensitive, though I can understand what would lead him to the idea. You can’t help when your wife gives birth. Not really.

Guys move the furniture around. They get asked to do it, and they flex a little, knowing they were asked to do something specifically because of the body they have. It’s a bit egotistical, but it’s also quite subconscious. And every guy does it. No matter how much we pride ourselves on our minds and whatever else, we still are proud to be the ones who do the lifting and other grunt work.

But we can’t with the whole giving the baby thing. God made it that way, and not even the manliest man can change that. He has to sit and watch his wife do all the work; watch her strain, sweat, and push and flex. On the one hand, it’s hard as a human being, just to watch someone go through the pain and the effort. In addition, it’s the sort of thing YOU’RE supposed to be doing. It makes you feel helpless on a lot of different levels. You can’t make her feel better, you can’t help her get the job done, and she’s doing the physical work that’s supposed to be your department.

So, in a very real way, watching your wife give birth is sort of a psychological torture. You are completely useless.

Of course, the last sentence is not completely true. In fact, the whole purpose for being there in the room, with her is the emotional support. Which, of course, is traditionally her job. I get to hold her hand for several hours (about eight and a half, this time around) and tell her to “breathe.”

I understand, on an intellectual level, that telling her to relax and let her uterus do the work, and to breathe normally, is actually very helpful to my wife emotionally and even as a reminder of what she’s supposed to be doing. However, it’s not a tangible thing. When men think of service, we think “build stuff,” or “repair stuff,” or, even better, “tear stuff down.” We can go to a yard, rake up all the leaves, then stand back, and say “You can see what I did here. There were leaves, and now there aren’t.” With “breathing…” well, how do I know it’s even been done right? How can I see that I did any good? It’s all well and good when my wife says “thanks” and tells me how it helped, but I still don’t see it. I have to take her word for it (not that I think she’d lie… in fact, my wife would scream at me if I did it wrong).

And don’t forget physically exhausting. My greatest fear at this point is that people will think I’m diminishing what my wife does. Sure, she’s done more. She is more tired. I know that. But the next time you wake up at 1 am to tell someone for the next eight hours that she’s doing fine and to keep going that you won’t be tired. No, I didn’t have some muscles constantly flexing, sometimes painfully, and I didn’t push that 9 pound creature out of my crotch, but I’m still tired and in need of a nap.

So, clearly, there’s a lot of ground to argue for the man’s suffering. I don’t know that the two types of trials can be compared directly, actually, since people have varying capacities for dealing with problems of different sorts. However, the biggest problem with my friend’s argument is that as a man watching your child come into the world, you aren’t thinking a whit about any of that.

At one in the morning on April 29, 2006, my wife elbows me in the ribs. “Eric? The contractions are ten minutes apart. I need your help.”

Granted, this is the most trying part of the labor for me. I’m still in bed. It’s still absolutely dark, and there’s very little either of us can coherently say during the 9 minute stretches between the end of a contraction and the start of another. My eyelids are in complete and utter rebellion, trying to force a cranial shut down for at least another five hours.

However, combating this impulse are two very important concerns. First, if I don’t stay up, I am officially a jerk. There is no argument that could defend myself successfully. Even if I’d been awake for the 24 hours previous, I am a jerk if I don’t stay up. That would be my own judgment on myself, not some judgment (perceived or true) made by the rest of the world.

Second, I’m excited at this point. We’ve been waiting forty weeks for this to happen (actually, forty-one weeks). While I wasn’t thinking about it all the time, as soon as that due date passes, you can bet that I’m jumping at the slightest hint that labor is imminent. Even though no sane person not between the ages of 14 and 22 is awake at this hour, it’s like Santa Claus is going to appear any moment.

My job at this point is not just to hold her hand, occasionally massaging her lower back or legs, but also to watch the clock. When she says “here comes another one,” I need to be able to say how long it’s been since the last one started. This means I can’t go through motions. I have to be conscious enough to do basic arithmetic using a number I saw ten minute previous. Good thing I’m excited. If I’m really on the job, I’m counting seconds too, so I can say how long the contraction lasts.

This stage goes on for an hour. After each contraction ends, I stare at the digital clock and mentally will it to progress. If we can establish that the contractions are coming at regular intervals, (or even better, ever shrinking times), then we can go to the hospital. Once we’re there, the baby will come. We’ve got motivation to get this done. Of course, since, once again, there’s nothing I can do to stimulate the contractions, this leaves me trying to alter the course of time until I hear “Here comes another one!”

After an hour to ninety minutes of this, I finally feel brave enough to suggest my wife needs to call the doctor. One of the problems with being the father of the coming baby is that you know you’re out of your league. No matter how well you’ve studied all the manuals your wife made you read, you are in the position, roughly, of the freshmen intern hired primarily to make coffee. You have no good ideas. If you suggest something, the best result you can hope for is laughter. More likely, you are going to end up with a red, hand-shaped welt on your face.

Fortunately, for me, my wife agrees. I get the bag and the camera, and get myself a bowl of cereal (hey, maybe she can’t eat, but I’m gonna be hungry quite soon — my belly is quite Pavlovian, wake it up and it starts to drool). Then, when my wife is off the phone and getting on something she can go into public wearing, I call grandma. Grandma knows a whole lot more about what’s going on and when and why in life, but this is the one time in my life I can tell her to do something. In moments she is on her way.

The car ride in is awkward. Not in the “what do I say?” sort of way. But if it’s difficult to go watch regular labor, knowing that my wife is having a contraction while I’m doing 60 (gradually increasing to 70 and beyond) on the highway is maddening.

The following several hours are a marathon of impatience and frustration. The contractions are regular, but they aren’t getting closer together. There’s a machine that somehow measures contractions — how strong they are and when they’re happening, so I don’t have to wait for my wife to tell me. I can just watch the seismic readings on the chart being printed out. I get excited as I see a big one coming. But I have to hold it in, or face the wrath of a woman too busy to distinguish joy over the labor progressing and joy over someone in pain.

Then they start slowing down. What? Slow down? They’re not supposed to get father apart? We’ve been doing this for hours! The man in me wants to grab the phone, call the doctor, and tell him to get his over-educated self down here and do something about this. But that man also knows that he is not on his home turf, and he does not call the shots. You keep your head down and fire when ordered. So I wait.

Eventually the doctor gets his over-educated self down here and does something about it.

Things finally start to move, and eventually, we get to the final stages of labor. Generally, I can handle this. Watching the head emerge is a strange experience. There are at least three different things going through your head. One is “Holy…! That’s a person’s head in there!” Another is more like “Yikes! You’re gonna get it out of there?!” The last is much more “She’s almost here! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

This time, however, maybe it was because it had been many hours since I’d eaten and been standing for a while, I nearly pass out. For some reason, I was really worried that everyone present would think I had a weak stomach. It’s the one area where I have any sort of authority. No one is listening to me anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.

Finally the baby comes out. Getting perfect Apgar scores.

Describing emotion is not something that language is really equipped to do, so this is where we enter the most difficult part of describing what goes on.

The baby comes out and the doctor puts her on mom. My wife gets to hold our new daughter. Tears stream down her face, from exhaustion, pain, relief, or joy, I can’t tell, but I’m pretty sure it’s all of the above. She (my wife, not the baby) is emitting sobs and laughter at the same time.

And the only think I find myself capable of doing is stroking my wife’s hair, and staring at this wonder, every so often uttering, “That’s our new daughter.” I’m a bit lost. I find that while I’m re-entering the part where I’m supposed to be in charge again, I have no idea what to do. I keep feeling moisture gathering at the corners of my eyes, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to let them come out again, so I simply say “our new baby,” again. I’m vaguely aware that I sound, and probably look (what with the tears there but not coming) pretty stupid. But I pretend no one else is there. I need to hug someone, and I do my best to put my arms around my wife who has collapsed into the bed. I’m not entirely successful, but she puts her head against me. I say, “I love you. You did it.” The two thoughts aren’t really connected. I don’t love her because she did it, but they’re both coming through my head.

There’s a great urge to hold the baby, nonstop. I get annoyed at the nurse who took the baby and is still still cleaning/checking, and doing whatever else she’ll need during these first few moments. But I let her be.

I finally get my chance. She’s nine and a half pounds, which is quite large for a newborn (though not excessively so), but she’s small and fragile. How on earth does she have fingers smaller than the last segment of my pinky finger? This hair is so soft. Her cry isn’t in the least way bothersome. It almost sounds like conversation. There’s nothing so soft as a baby’s face on your own, either.

There’s a bond that’s almost visible. You can certainly feel it. I’m connected to this child. One part of me, the man that’s frustrated he hasn’t been in charge wants to yell out, “I made this!” But I think, no I didn’t, it all happened inside her. But how else do you explain this touching of spirits? She is truly my daughter. I’m swarmed by emotions: I’m possessive, protective, caring, tender, loving, and joyful. Like an elevation of something spiritual inside me. Yes, she is indeed mine, and now I have to spend twenty years teaching her to no longer be so much mine as she now is. Yet, that bond will always be there. No matter where she does, what she does, or who she’s with. She will always be mine.

It’s incomprehensible that I could be so intimately involved in such an incredible event, yet I am. “I love you,” I whisper again as I sit next to my wife and lean in close. I say it not to my wife, nor to my new daughter, but to them both. At this point, they are all that’s in the universe.

Three Wishes

A man found himself walking through a dark wood. He was entirely unsure where he was or how he had gotten there.

As he looked about, he was interrupted by a deep voice. “And now, master, if you would be kind enough to make your third wish, so that I may be free.

The man jumped and turned to see a large man, seemingly half-formed of mist. He wore a turban and bore himself proudly.

“Third wish,” the man said haltingly. “I don’t understand?”

“That is because of your second wish,” the djinn explained. “I cannot explain more.”

The man stood thoughtfully for a moment, then looked at the djinn with confidence. “For my third wish,” he said, “I desire to be completely aware of why I am here and my role in the universe.”

The djinn began waving his arms and pronounced, “It is done!” He looked at the man with his head cocked. “I find it odd, though. That was your first wish as well.”