Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Short story - The Invasion Fleet

There were seventeen of the ships, hovering silently in the night. Most people
envisioned shining white bastions of power – man’s triumph over the universe –
when they thought of deep space battle cruisers, but the reality was much more
practical: that which cannot be easily seen is much more challenging to hit. Looking
at the vastness of space arrayed behind them, the ships – painted in matte black
with no external running lights – simply were not there. They made an imprint on
the electromagnetic spectrum, as expected of most modern vehicles, and were thus
easily detectible with the right equipment, but every advantage taken away is one
less thing an unknown enemy can use against you.

It had been nearly two hundred years since the original invasion took place, and
Earth was nearly lain to rest. The human defenders fought against vicious alien
hordes that appeared as if from nowhere, but ultimately were defeated due to a
simple oversight. That specific oversight was lost in the annals of time, but the
horrors of that period still dominated human perception of the universe. Earth had
been attacked by an unknown force, in unknown number, and had only held on by
the skin of its teeth. On that day the sense of wonder associated with outer space
changed, and humanity’s perceptions shifted. First it was in the construction of
defense platforms. Then, the focus on mobility and resource gathering techniques.
Finally, the Enforcer doctrine came into being.

Some dissidents, far fewer now than they used to be, still maintain that the original
cause of that initial conflict was a simple mistake, but the facts of the matter still
stand. Not a hundred years after the initial invasion, humanity again found itself in
combat with an alien presence. An alien task force that happened to be wandering
through the solar system, with an unknown mission. The battle was short and
brutal – a standoff ended with a first shot fired by accident, destroying ships on
both sides. Humanity learned a lot about space warfare in the years that followed,
as the owners of the original task force rose to defend their fallen soldiers. The
war, though small by modern standards, had blazed across interstellar distances
previously unthinkable in their magnitude as combat raged between the two stellar
systems. In the end a stalemate brought a shaky truce, but the damage had been
done. Humanity had been converted. The days of peace and love were long gone,
and the motto of “Never again!” had taken full effect.

All pretense of peaceful research was abandoned. Humanity hoarded resources,
building vast fleets with the latest in weapons and defensive technology. Within
twenty years they had accomplished feats most races only managed in half a
century. The truce with the Baltans ended abruptly. Some would draw comparisons
between the Earth fleet’s sudden destruction of Balta and the original attack by the
still unknown enemy force, but those comparisons did not last long. Earth had no
need of another race to subjugate – they came to scour and scavenge. The face of
Balta was swept by flame, its inhabitants wiped out in the horror of sudden, flaming
death. By the time their defensive fleet realized the situation they were facing, the
battle was already one. Within two days, the entire population of the Baltan system
had been wiped out – not a single Earth ship lost in the offensive.

That day gave rise to the First Strike doctrine. Humanity had been burned, and was
not going to be caught by surprise again.

The seventeen ships moved forward, silently traversing the stars. Reactant-based
propulsion had long been abandoned in favor of gravitational manipulation, which
suited the needs of military designers focused on creating a complete absence
of visible light reflection. The scouts had already been through this system and
knew that there was nothing possessed by the inhabitants that could cause serious
harm to the task force, but the ships still made full use of their electronic counter-
measures. For all intents and purposes, the ships were invisible to any object farther
than a hundred meters away.

The planet below them rotated silently, its inhabitants going about their daily lives
without any concern. The electromagnetic emissions originating on the surface
belied the complete lack of orbital structures – either the inhabitants didn’t have
the capability to leave their world, or they just didn’t care. Today they would pay for
that ignorance.

The ships fanned out, remaining in orbit but positioning themselves around the
globe. Each ship was assigned a major population center, and hovered directly
overhead, invisible to all but the most sophisticated of equipment. Stillness returned
to the universe for brief moment. Then, one of the ships lit up.

You could almost hear the screams, if you tried hard enough. The radiated light
stabbed downwards, focused into a deadly beam brighter than the fires of the
nearby star. In thirty seconds the largest city on the planet was wiped out.
Simultaneously, three of the remaining ships began broadcasting a message across
all frequencies seen on the planet itself. The traditional demand for surrender and
tribute, along with instructions on how to respond. Failure to agree would result
in another city being destroyed in three hours, and another. Many planets began to
fight back after the first wave of destruction, but few made it past the third major
city lost to invisible enemies. Before long the sign was given, and the Earth had
added another to the long list of its thralls. This world made sixty-one, all with the
same requirements – no space travel, no weaponry, one tenth of their resources was

There would be rebellions, guerilla warfare, sabotage – these were all expected.
It had happened before, and would happen again. It wouldn’t mean anything
except for the destruction of more of their citizenry, their culture left to the flames.
Eventually the resistance would die out, and Earth would reign supreme.

Incoming gravity wakes heralded the arrival of the occupation fleet, and the
invaders withdrew. It had been a long time since a world had shown the capacity to
fight, and this world was no risk whatsoever. The ships of Earth drew back into the
night, hunting for their next target.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Theme story - Footprints

I awaken early, as I usually do. The world is still dark, but lightening on the horizon. I move down the stairs and open the door to check for the paper. Looking down I see that the paper had been delivered – there was a clear imprint of the paper in the snow nearby – but, it is no longer there. All there is is the pseudo-rectangular impression next to a set of footsteps. I can't remember the last time I'd been able to enjoy the paper in peace. Grumbling to myself, I pull on my boots. I am going to find the culprit this time, and God help him if I catch up.

It's cold out here. Where am I? I look around, but all I see is the snow on either side of me. It's coming down hard now – I think it's been doing that for a while, but I can't be certain. I look back down at the snow. Footprints. With no other options, I continue to follow the tracks. I don't appear to have dressed very warmly – wherever I came from, it couldn't have been far. Pulling my cloak tighter around me, I move off into the snow.

So cold. I realize my hands are shaking, and that I can't really control them. I look around me, but see nothing but snow. Have I been here before? I don't remember going outside. I look at the ground around me, looking for some clue to my existence. I spy a set of footprints moving off into the snow. My hands are shaking so severely – I'm not sure I can last much longer. I follow the footprints through the snow.

There's a building not too far ahead. I can't make out the details, but the dark patch is roughly rectangular through the falling snow ahead of me. I surmise it's someone's house. They don't appear to be home, though, as I can't see any lights as I approach. I step up onto a porch, seeing footprints in the drifts below me. My hands are trembling, nearly frozen, as I reach for the doorknob and try the door. It's open, the door swinging soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. I step through the door and shut it behind me, shaking some of the snow off my boots. I spy a newspaper on a nearby table. I pick it up and look at it – it's still in its plastic bag, likely untouched. I shrug and set it back. I'll read it in the morning. I'm sure whoever owns this house won't mind if I catch a quick nap.

I awaken early, as I usually do.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Theme Story - Inanimation

I see you there, staring at the open refrigerator. All his hard work is wasted, dispelling his chilled currents into the kitchen air as you sit there and ponder. His light glows, the only way he knows how to protest, as you sort through the items stored inside. I can almost hear him weeping, his compressor turning on to hide his cries. He knows what’s coming, but not quite as well as I do.

I see you pull out the mustard, the mayonnaise, and I know that it is over. My time has finally come. You’ve heartlessly taken so many of my brothers and sisters, simply so that you can remain presentable after you gorge yourself on organic matter. It is lucky that your food has already been killed for you – my kind do not have that luxury.

You don’t even look down. That’s probably the most infuriating part. You just reach out and grab, expecting me to be there. I feel my body collapse in your grip. I am allowed one final glimpse of my companions – my family, as they are all that I have known for the longest time. They cower in the small box on the counter, the mockery of a home you’ve made for us in this abattoir of terror.

Here it comes; the first step to my inevitable end. You’ve taken a bite of your sandwich, and it’s right there. Glistening menacingly in the incandescent light. I know that soon it will cover me, the first of many such drops to be forcibly infused into my being. I watch with sheer loathing, hating you with every fiber of my being, but I am of course powerless to resist as you bring me to your chin. A quick wipe for you, but it still lingers on me. The moisture of the condiment soaks itself into me. I can feel my insides beginning to stick together.

Of course that is not the only transgression. No, you are truly thorough in your cruelty. A crumb sits on your lip, and you wipe it away using my weeping carcass. Some of your mustard gets on your hand, and I can feel the flesh tear as I am dragged bodily over your unkempt fingernail. Time after time you use me, and use me, and just keep on using me, leaving not a square inch untouched.

My torture is over. I sit, a crumpled and stained ball grasped tightly in your fist, as if you fear that now is the moment I choose to make my escape. I laugh bitterly at this, as you must know you’ve had the power all along. I am not even given the luxury of a struggle. You pull up the lid and, with just as much carelessness as when you kidnapped me from my family, you toss me in.

As the lid closes, I can hear the cries of the fallen around me. We are a mishmash of injury and dismemberment, all of us neither hale nor hearty. You go about your day, oblivious to the destruction you’ve wrought, while we lie here and weep in the darkness.

At least your face is clean, you monster.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Exciting news, everyone!

(and that's enough of Professor Farnsworth for now)

The quarter-finalists for the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award have been announced, and my book - Marvelous - has made the cut!

This is the first work of any significant length I have ever written, and to see it selected as such is... oddly fulfilling. A year ago I didn't do all that much writing, but after Camp NaNoWriMo in June of last year it's become a much larger part of my life. I always kind of wanted to write a novel, but never really found the time until I sat down and forced myself to write, every day, for a month. The result is something that I was pretty pleased with, and apparently some other people like it too!

You can find the excerpt at - if you've enjoyed the stories I've posted here so far, or even if you just like a good tale, please take a look through my excerpt and give it a review :)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Theme Story - Blackout

This is also the prologue for my new book, Majestic. It's a direct sequel to my prior effort. Enjoy!
“Hey! Get out of there!”

Father Montrose shouted at the dancing shadows in the bushes. Only laughter answered as they dashed off into the night – two figures bursting from the foliage. Probably some local high-schoolers up to no good, Father Montrose thought. He reached back into the door and grabbed a flashlight off the table. He'd found that letting problems like this fester tended to result in more work down the road. A passing parishioner out for their morning walk would notice the graffiti, or garbage, or whatever, and be pounding on his door within the hour. Father Montrose grimaced. It wasn't that he disliked talking to his flock, it was just that he enjoyed sleeping in on days he didn't have morning service responsibilities.

He stepped out into the night with a sigh, thumbing the button on the flashlight and shining it at the bushes. He looked for signs of movement, but there was nothing but a forlorn-looking bush, shivering in the late winter cold as a breeze passed through its bare branches. Satisfied, Father Montrose stepped out into the night to inspect the damage. Lord, it is cold tonight. He shivered while wishing he had grabbed a jacket from the rack near the door. He approached the bush with a wary eye. Just last fall he had been in a similar situation, except for when he had arrived at the trouble spot one of the teenagers had taken the opportunity to pelt him with an egg. And we still haven't found the baby Jesus from our manger display. I swear, the kids today have no respect for our Lord whatsoever!

He approached the bush and directed the flashlight to the wall. At first glance nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but after a moment his nose caught the telltale whiff – the slight tinge of an odor that heralded spray-paint. His fears were confirmed as he took a step forward and his foot connected with a hard cylinder, a marble inside rattling as the can rolled away. Times like this tried Father Montrose's faith. Turning the other cheek is all well and good when considering the actions of idle sinners, but the true measure of a Christian was how he did so when faced with a more painful infraction that had to be ignored. He ground his teeth, saying the rosary silently to himself. After a few moments the mantra calmed him, and he sighed as he reached down to grab the can. Well, that's another thousand dollars down the drain. Better call the cleaners in the morning. He turned and headed back to the rectory, shaking his head ruefully.

He closed the door as he entered, keeping the flashlight with him as he headed back to his desk in the office. I know that a shepherd must live among his flock, but this is unreal. This area is like a war zone! He shook his head in consternation. He'd known the risks in taking the position – in fact, the romanticism of tending to and helping a troubled parish had factored into his decision. He just hand't realized how bad things really were in the area. If the house hadn't been part of the deal, he likely would have been living several miles away in the less-sketchy area. As it was, he had quickly found out that tending a troubled church meant constant vigilance.

He sat back down at his desk, setting the flashlight on the corner as he brought the computer screen to life. It was getting close to midnight, Wednesday night mass having ended a few hours before. He liked to work in the nights after a service – the energy he gleaned from his sermon lent him an energy that had drawn him to the priesthood in the first place, and he found that energy useful for tending to messages from his parishioners. He opened his email and glanced through the inbox. Twenty-seven new messages. Should be a short night.

He clicked on the first message and gave it a read-through. Beth was one of his older parishioners, having been with the congregation in various capacities for the past thirty years. Tonight she was simply giving a summary of the “Couples for Christ” meeting she had conducted earlier tonight. Nothing surprising here, Father Montrose mused. He moved the message to a folder in case he needed to reference it later, and opened the next message. Great, Zachary has done something new. He smiled to himself as he read through the email. Zachary was not much for thinking ahead, preferring to lead his life by asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Father Montrose smiled as he read the latest missive. Zachary was looking for guidance – he'd eaten meat last Friday, knowing it was Lent. Good thing we're past the fire and torment of the Old Testament – I'm not so sure Zachary would keep up his act if the penalty was a stoning. But then again, maybe that was the point of the harsh penalties. Father Montrose shivered, thinking of the proscriptions of the church of old.

He had sent his reply and was getting ready to open the next message when the computer screen suddenly shut off. He looked around, but the entire room was bathed in darkness. Power must be out, he thought, and with it getting close to ten degrees tonight. Father Montrose was quick to praise the benefits of his electric furnace when his parishioners complained of high gas bills, but there was always the risk of the furnace blowing a fuse. He grabbed the flashlight, the harsh blue LED light bathing the room in an unearthly glow.

As he walked towards the basement door and the circuit breaker, he heard some scratching at the window. He quickly shined the light towards the glass, but the reflection of his flashlight obscured his vision. He had just about written the scratching off as an illusion when he heard more noises. A thump, as if something was being hit against the wall outside, and more scratching. He moved over to the window and stared out. Looking to the sides he could see some movement, but he couldn't make out any distinct forms in the darkness. Cursing, he went back to the kitchen and grabbed a baseball bat as he headed to the door. I swear, those gang-bangers have gone too far this time. He had no intention of using the bat, of course – wrath was a sin, after all – but it comforted him to have it ready in case he needed it. While wrath and vengeance weren't condoned, there was nothing in the Bible prohibiting a little vigorous self-defense.

He reached for the doorknob and turned the handle. The door wouldn't open. He pulled harder, trying the knob again, but still the door refused to budge. He could feel it move slightly, but it was being held fast by something. He tried more force, but the door just wouldn't open at all. That's odd. The bolt isn't stuck – I can feel it moving around. What could be keeping the door closed? He pulled one last time, but gave up in frustration.

He moved to the nearby window to see if he could catch a glimpse of anything outside. He scanned the yard near the door. He was just about to turn away and head for the front of the building when something caught his eye. A man was standing in the yard, motionless. Father Montrose squinted at the figure, trying to discern the man's features. It was then that he noticed the flicker in the man's hand. A flame – does he have a lighter?

The sudden light illuminated the man's features. Cold eyes stared out of an angular face, unblinking as their gazes met. Father Montrose found himself unable to look away, his eyes transfixed by the stranger. Who the hell is that? He started to move for the door again before a thought struck him. Oh, he's probably not anyone to fear.

Father Montrose shook himself. Where had that thought come from? The dissonance between the thought and his situation jarred him into action, but as he took a step towards the door he found himself looking out the window again. He really isn't anyone to fear. Father Montrose shook his head, unsure of where this thought was coming from. He heard more noise coming from the back of the building, jolting him out of his reverie. He had turned to move when another thought struck him. You know, that's probably not anything to worry about. The banging subsided and the building fell silent again. Father Montrose looked back out the window at the figure. He doesn't seem too bad. He's just standing there, after all. Father Montrose found himself unable to look away from the figure. Why is he there? I mean, he seems like a decent person. Is he just trying to use the lighter to stay warm? Seems kind of inefficient.

Father Montrose stood paralyzed by his thoughts, staring at the stranger out his window. The man smiled slowly, a smile that never reached his eyes. And those eyes, Father Montrose thought, I can't look away! They're so fascinating! Smiling wider, the man tossed the lighter towards him. There was a loud woosh as the flame hit the side of the building, flames leaping up into view in the window pane. Still, Father Montrose stood transfixed as he stared at the other man. He didn't move, standing perfectly still in the middle of the kitchen area.

He could hear the smoke alarm going off on the other side of the building, but he didn't look away from the man on the lawn. Probably nothing to worry about. I should be fine right here. The world outside was bathed in a red glow, the smoke interfering with the shape of the figure beyond. Father Montrose was having trouble making out the man in the yard through the smoke and flames. He could still see his eyes, glowing in the light of the fire, a piercing gaze that seemed to reach into his very soul. Father Montrose smiled, then. All concern and worry left him. There's nothing to worry about. The man was just trying to help me stay warm. He even started a fire for me!

Father Montrose smiled, and while he couldn't see the man any more he was sure the man was smiling back. Even the eyes were gone as the flames grew, first obscuring the view out the window, then shattering the window. A furnace blast of heat struck Father Montrose as the flames lit the room in flickering red. So much more comforting than light bulbs, Father Montrose thought to himself, Natural light really is the best. In a daze, he reached behind and grabbed a chair from the kitchen table. Turning it properly, he sat down to watch the flames, hands resting calmly on his lap. Such a nice man, surely nothing I need to be concerned about.

The flames roared, catching the curtains and wallpaper as the fire spread. It flowed through the room, churning like rapids painted red as it consumed cabinets and cookware. Father Montrose smiled as he watched. So beautiful. What greatness hath the Lord wrought. The flames reached for him, flaring out from the kitchen wall. Father Montrose smiled as he stood, stepping forward and letting the fire embrace him like a long-lost lover.

The roof of the building collapsed as the charred and burning timbers finally gave way, sending a shower of sparks into the night air. Still smiling that mysterious smile, the man turned and walked down the street. As he passed the houses on either side of him, the lights snapped on – a progression of electric illumination following him like candles lit in prayer. The man didn't look back as the sound of sirens sounded in the distance—he had allowed the call to go out, after all. Still smiling, he got into vehicle and started the engine. He caught a brief glimpse of fire engines pulling up in front of the church. The rectory a funeral pyre, no longer a place of comfort. Still smiling, the man put the vehicle into gear and drove off into the night.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Progress galore, and where I'm planning on going

So I have some good news to report, and something aside from a theme story to post. As of 2-26-13, the first draft of Majestic - a sequel to my novel Marvelous - has been completed! 52,000 words over 26 days - that's a rate of just around 2,000 a day (the word count is approximate). Obviously some days were less, and some more - for the first couple weeks I average 4k per day on business days. I usually write on the train, when I'm not teaching classes online, and I find that the built-in three hours a day I spend commuting really gives me time to pump out some words - if I can make myself write, that is. For now, I'm going to let it sit on the back burner while I unwind. Well, that and actually read it. I know a couple people who have been bugging me to get a look at it.

Of course, the interesting thing for me was that Marvelous hasn't even been published yet, and here I am writing a sequel. It seems to me that this would make the success of the second book inextricably tied up with that of the first. That's really had me thinking a lot about what I want to do with these books. There are two real options available, it seems - traditional publishing, and self publishing.

Traditional publishing, like it or not, provides an author with the reputation of a published writer. Someone else has purchased the work, vetted it, and put it on sale. My original goal with writing was really just to see what came of it, and ultimately see if my skills are "good enough" for the world at large. A traditional publisher does this through a clearly defined path, and though the royalties for all but the top dozen or so authors are not as great as you'd think, it can still provide a steady income as a second job.

Self publishing is kind of an end run around traditional publishers. There are other bloggers (such as J.A. Konrath and Chuck Wendig) who have delved into the numbers and come up on the side of self-publishing. And they do very well for themselves. However, taking a look at the community as a whole you get a sense that while indeed there is a wide variety of motivations among people who choose to self publish, there are still just a few primary motivations. Some people self-publish because they have enough of a name where it makes them more money with the higher royalty agreements you see for self-published ebooks. Others self-publish because they feel like their work was cast aside prematurely by the traditional publishing world, and that if they got it in front of customers it would take off. But perceptions of both classes are impacted by the overall stigma of self-publishing, and they aren't helped by the simple fact that there are a lot of very bad self-published books out there.

Which, as my rambling winds down, brings me back to what I was originally trying to write about - what I'm going to do with the book. Marvelous is tied up in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for the moment, until I get definitive feedback and earn an exit from the contest. I'm trying not to be too optimistic about my chances, but based on the agreement I signed when I submitted I need to let the contest run its course. At that point I will start submitting to agents. As a new author I have no cachet and no name recognition, meaning I'll end up in a lot of slush piles. However, I really don't intend to do this forever. I have a busy day job and a part time job that also eats up a not-inconsiderate amount of time, and honestly after a while I'll just be beating a dead horse. So my current plan is to try and obtain representation for a year - until June, 2014 - at which point if I have seen no progress I'll self publish the duology as ebooks.

Of course if I meet success or feel overall better about the submission process as I go through it I may make alterations to this approach, but this is my current plan. Hopefully by the time next June comes around I'll have a couple more books under my belt (I have some ideas on the back burner that I'm starting to flesh out).

Have any of you written a novel and had it published, traditionally or otherwise? What are your thoughts?