Saturday, March 28, 2009

Writing sample: "Stay indoors. Don't get killed. I love you all."

This was written for 2007's Blog Like It's the End of the World. The idea is that the zombies are rising and it's your final blog entry.

(cross-posted from LiveJournal)

I always thought I'd be braver if things got this bad. Or more scared.

I'm kind of frozen-calm.

When the first of the wounded -- a woman from Customer Service, who'd been outside for a smoke when it all started happening -- stumbled in, gushing nail-marks raked all down her flank, the mood was near panicked throughout the building. CS and those of us in QA rushed around ripping cloth for bandages, until we had a mountain of scraps of gaming-logo T-shirts piled next to her. It looked ludicrous; a concerned overkill.

We used them all, of course. Eventually. Now we're running low on paper towels.

I'm so glad I always got along with my family. I hope... I hope they're safe. I hope this is some sort of freak thing limited to South Boston..... but we've gotten nothing on the radio for a while, after the first shouting, praying, cussing we-interrupt-this-programs. And when we still had power, nothing on TV. So I can only delude myself and pretend that everyone I know and love is somehow making it through this.

I used to joke about this being the 'troll-cave'. Now I bless the forethought of drab modern office design. It's practically fortified.
Most of the windows are too narrow for anyone to squeeze through, no matter how twisted their limbs nor how uncaring they are of damage to themselves. Those that were too big have been barricaded with filing cabinets, overturned tables, and cupboards. We have no lights. We still have water, though. Thank goodness for small mercies.

Tim..... Tim is gone. He was in the front room, helping to build barricades, when the first wave of zombies came through the plate glass employees-only entrance.

I'm not going to think about that right now. Can't afford to. Things to do.

The vending machines are still reasonably well-stocked, but we have just under a couple hundred people trapped in here. Supplies won't last. I dread the hour when someone gets desperate enough... or worse, heroic. When some stands on a cubicle desk (and, when that collapses under him, on a conference room table) and announces that we must make a sortie, must go look for food.

After all, we have to eat.



...so do they.

Difference is -- they can wait.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Writing Sample: "Capture"

This is an excerpt from a work in progress: an alternative history novel, set in the Arabian peninsula around the time Islam was being founded.



“Hut-hut! Hut-hut-hut!!”

The rear guard had suddenly started urging their camels on with panicked yells. Hussein couldn’t tell what the problem seemed to be; no other human was in view. There was nothing for miles; the sun’s light and heat hammered down on naught but endless crests of drifting sand, and a few puffs of dust… on the horizon… Wait a minute, he thought. There’s no wind…

He realized the import of those ominous whiffs of sand to the east just as his slave screamed, “Raiders!” He joined the rest of the caravan in flight, whipping at his camel’s sides, knowing that their destination, an oasis caravanserai, was just far away enough that escape would be improbable at best.

They came out of nowhere, bursting over a large dune like a frothing wave, with savage yells and whoops of glee at spotting the overloaded camels, already congratulating each other on acquisition of such easy booty. Hussein ceased striking his mount’s flanks with the knotted ends of the reins, cursing his father’s miserliness in hiring so few guards. The raiders outnumbered them two to one.

He pulled out his saber and, turning his camel, led two of his guards in a desperate charge at one of the raiders. Hussein could see only the tribesman’s eyes, outlined in kohl and fixed in a hard squint against the merciless desert sun, framed by a dun turban and a loop of cloth tucked over mouth and nose against the dust. The raider seemed to be laughing, delighted by the bravery of a worthy opponent; he pulled out his own sword and called to a companion before wheeling to meet the charge.

For the next ten minutes all was confusion; the camels grunted and complained as they were prodded in all directions, and kicked sand flew everywhere to obscure individual battles between the caravan and their attackers. Blood arced from the stump where Anwar, the guide, raised and lost his hand trying to ward off a blow aimed at his face. Grit decorated teeth bared in angry snarls, and got into Hussein’s eyes. He lost one of his guards, spitted by a crude but sharp blade through the stomach.

An earsplitting ululation rose from one of the raiders, which seemed to renew the vigor of the rest. Hussein rode toward the battle-cry and faced a slight figure swathed in a striped tunic and high boots, riding an unmatched grey stallion. When they crossed blades, Hussein found himself fighting the wind. His opponent dodged every blow, the grey seeming to read its master’s mind and sidestepping every swipe with delicacy. Hussein was swearing and cursing as he swung his saber, his shoulder aching from tension, his spine rigid with fear. How could it have come to this? He, the son of Adeeb al-Yasir, respected throughout Basra, rich and educated, should not have been destined to spill his blood in the middle of this wild and uncaring desert over a few carpets and jewels.

The grey’s rider called again, and Hussein had just enough time to realize that the vibrating yell was female before she smacked him upside the temple with the flat of her sword. He felt a brief sting before he lost consciousness, sliding off his camel onto the sand, a trickle of blood tracing a path through his beard.

Hussein woke groggily from a biting pain in his wrists and back, and stared up at the ceiling of an unfamiliar tent. His hands were tied behind him, knuckles digging into the small of his spine. He tried to turn over or stand, and found that both hands and ankles were bound and tethered to short stakes driven into the ground nearby, severely restricting his movement. Three other figures were similarly trussed up in the dark; he recognized the outlines of the guards Askari and Hariz, and of his slave Ayaz.

“Water,” he said, dismayed at the cracked sound that emerged. No-one answered.

“Guard?” he called. “Guard! I demand to be set free at once! I can negotiate… for the love of fire and shadow, water!”

He called out several more times, and each time only uncaring silence met his pleas. The heat was stifling; sunshine spiked through cracks in the tent, and sand piled up in its corners. The mounting pain in his wrists was intensified with every movement; nevertheless, he wriggled and writhed, attempting without success to free himself. He pulled at the ropes, but the stakes were driven deep and would not budge. Someone had wet all the ropes after tying them, so that the knots would swell until they would be all but impossible to untie.

“Master?” a thin, weak voice asked next to him.

“Can you reach my bindings?” he asked Ayaz. The boy only groaned and shook his head. He mentally cursed his slave’s weakness, choosing to disregard the similarity in their situations.

Abruptly, the tent flap was thrown open, and blazing sunlight blinded them. Hussein squinted and cursed. One of his captors, a large, stocky man in characteristic Berber garb, looked in.

“Some of them are awake,” he said over his shoulder to a figure Hussein couldn’t make out.

“I’ll tell Imran,” the shadow replied, and disappeared.

“Please,” Hussein said, shamed by his own wheedling tone, “please, water – I need water soon. So does my slave,” he added as an afterthought.

“We don’t waste water on those we intend to kill,” the guard answered indifferently, and left.

Hussein felt a jolt of panic at these words. But I haven’t even been to Baghdad! I am to be killed without even the chance to argue my case?

Trained by poets and tutors in rhetoric from childhood, he prided himself on his ability to persuade people. Somehow, however, he didn’t really think the flowery phrases, allegories, and intellectual back-and-forth on theological and philosophical points in which he specialized would particularly impress these tribesmen. They were little better than wild animals, after all. No culture, no real history, no proper religion, no decent clothing. They were sandy and dirty all the time, as were all their livestock and possessions.

How he longed for the fountain in his father’s courtyard! He could almost feel the deliciously cool water, tasting slightly of the dank darkness of the underground cistern, run over his face and into his mouth. How long had it been since he had drunk anything? It had been several hours before the attack – the caravan had been conserving water until the oasis it had never reached, so as not to run out.

Hussein was left in the tent for some time after that brief check from the guard; he didn’t know if it was one hour or six. The shadows on the tent wall were muted and diffuse, and he couldn’t tell how far they had moved by the time two silent guards entered the tent.

He was dragged out; he didn’t get a chance to discover whether or not his legs, cramped from immobility, would have worked. His throat felt as though he had been gargling with gravel. The sun was lower. It was early evening.

Half-blind, feeling half-dead, terrified, hands still bound behind him, he was thrown unceremoniously through the entrance of a large tent. He landed on his side and one shoulder, but managed to raise himself to his knees with only a minimal struggle. He kept his face as impassive as he knew how as he raised his eyes to face his captor for the first time.

The figure confronting him was enormous – the yards of cloth in his garb might have been adequate to make a small tent. His tunic-style mantle was striped in green and white, and looked nearly clean, save for some grease stains near the cuffs. He wore a belt of silver chains, intricately woven together and ornamented with gemstones; a single massive gold necklace rested on his barrel chest, and Hussein thought that its weight would have bowed the back of most men. His skin was dark and slightly cracked from the sun; his hair was mostly hidden beneath his ‘imama turban, which was a dusty cream color, restrained by a cord of twisted green silk; his beard was luxuriously long, and carefully oiled; his eyes were black, shadowed by a large and overhanging brow which gave him a stupid, brutish appearance at first glance. Hussein knew enough, however, to look beyond that simian brow and catch the intense and calculating intelligence in the headman’s gaze.

Headman or chief he undoubtedly was: his status was made obvious by the automatic respect in the attitudes of the raiders arrayed about him. They moved about, ate, drank, talked in low voices, left and re-entered as they pleased – but always with a sliver of awareness dedicated to monitoring him for any sign of instructions or disapproval, and none of them ever turned their backs or the soles of their feet in his direction.

When he addressed his captives, his tones were measured and even; his voice was deep; his language, neither crude nor refined.

“I am known as Abu Ghaffar to the likes of you. You and what were your possessions and chattel now belong to us, the Mahashir. Who led you?”

Hussein could not help but look around at Ayaz and his guards, all of whom looked as taken aback as he did. It should have been clear as the sun in the sky. He was the only one of the four dressed in more than a slave’s rough-spun robe, or a hired blade’s boiled leather and ringmail. His clothing was newer, richer; he wore jewelry; he sported soft leather boots that had obviously been custom-made. Then he realized that this was merely an insult; a tactic intended to make him feel less than he knew himself to be. Many might have bristled at this seeming doubt as to who was superior, and done or said something stupid; Hussein ignored it.

“I,” was all he said. His voice was raspy and barely audible, but he made no attempt to repeat himself more loudly. If they wanted him to talk, they would have to give him water.

Abu Ghaffar apparently came to the same conclusion, and a jerk of his chin brought forward a slave bearing a goat-hide waterskin. Hussein was forced to drink in the most undignified position of his life – on his knees before a hostile audience, bound, head thrown back, gulping when he could so as not to waste the water that the slave poured in a steady trickle into his mouth. He spilled none.

* * * * * * * * * *

She watched the soft, aristocratic noble from behind her screen.

The screen had been a matter of some contention between her father and her. If it were up to him, she would never have had a part in any of his ceremonial or official tribal duties. Were it up to her, she would be openly seated at his right hand, listening to and advising his decisions as his heir. The arrangement they had finally reached after many stormy arguments, whereby she could hear and observe behind a carved wooden screen pierced in geometric patterns, but not participate, was a true compromise, in that it satisfied neither of them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Writing Sample: "Lunch with Inspiration"

This piece is based off an old college creative writing assignment, with the theme of finding inspiration.



Lunch with Inspiration



I looked for it in coffee shops, in run-down dives and school cafeterias, in French bistros and once in an expensive Turkish place on Newbury Street. I tried to entice it to meet me in libraries, museums, jazz clubs, raves. I tried begging, arguing, sneak attacks, seduction, and threats. Nothing. Not a whisper. A blank page day after day. Flat characters, impossible situations, unreal emotions.

Then, late one night, the phone woke me.

“Hello?” I mumbled.

A voice made bizarre alarm-clock beeps at me. Sounding quite young, female, her voice on the edge of giggling, whoever it was was far too cheerful for this far past midnight.

“Who is this?”

“You know me! You’ve never met me! You’re meeting me for lunch today-tomorrow!”

“What? Who is this?”

“No way to talk to someone you’ve been pestering for the last month and a half.”

I sighed. I had an early class the next day. “Look, it’s late and I’m in no mood for a damn prank call.”

“Fine,” the chipper voice answered. “See you tomorrow at half-past a rainbow!”

I hung up, turned over and went back to sleep.

It was around two in the afternoon and I left class feeling cranky. I’d overslept and had had to rush to one class after another, missing both breakfast and lunch. A light but persistent drizzle matched my mood as I headed towards the dining hall, already dreading the drowned pasta and limp lettuce which were undoubtedly awaiting me.

The rain tapered off before I’d walked twenty yards. Watery rays started breaking through the clouds being dispersed by a rising breeze. Mirroring the other students in the quad, I paused and raised my head to the sun, appreciating the light despite the fact that the fitful rays gave off no discernible heat. I noticed a girl pointing something out to her friend, and when I followed her finger with my eyes I saw a rainbow appearing intermittently over the library. Pale and tenuous at best, wavering like a guest uncertain of his welcome, the colors were nevertheless a highly welcome relief from what had so far been a gray, depressing month. I smiled.

Too soon, it began to fade. There was the merest hint left of prismatic purple and red reflecting off a wispy cloud when I felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked down and beheld one of the most peculiar people I’d ever seen.

The figure, barely pushing five feet in height, was dressed in an odd brownish greenish tunic and leggings which somehow simultaneously gave the impression of being both fine silk and rough wool. I was utterly unable to decide to which gender it belonged. It had an elfin face, with large eyes and a pointed chin, which could well have been either male or female. At that moment, that face was grinning up at me, and when its wide lips opened to speak I recognized the irritating voice from the phone the night before.

“Well,” it said, “you coming?”

The situation was just too surreal, too influenced by my lack of sleep. “Yeah, right,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

And then, abruptly, I was no longer where I had been. There was no sense of movement, of shifting, of strange magics or drugs; I was standing in the university quad, and then I was sitting at a table in a restaurant. No interval. I blinked and started violently, and half stood up to demand to be told what was happening, when I noticed my luncheon companion. It was not the asexual imp from the quad; this was most definitely a woman, in a dark red dress which would have been appropriate any time of day or night, with a heart-shaped face and long honey-brown hair. She made a soothing motion with her hands and I sat obediently, mesmerized and frightened. She had a young, beautiful, innocent face, from which deep, dark, knowing eyes belonging to an aging concubine stared out incongruously.

“Calm down,” she said in a melodious voice. “It’s still me.”

Still? I’d never seen this woman before. And yet… when taken with the odd contrast of her face and her eyes, her voice held a slightly mischievous undertone which reminded me of the elfin creature back at school.

“Who are you?” I asked. “I’ve never been more confused in my life.”

“How rude of me. Inspiration,” she inclined her head, “at your service. You lucky girl.”

“Inspiration? What’s that supposed to mean?”

A small frown appeared between her eyebrows, and if such a lovely woman could be said to pout, that’s what she was doing.

“Like the muse, you twit!” Yep, definitely a pout. “You’ve been looking for me all over! What, the magical translocation didn’t sort of tip you off that something out of the ordinary was happening?” I nodded, wide-eyed. She took a deep breath and controlled herself. “I brought you here because, despite the recent writer’s block, you have potential. So I’m going to give you a bit of a boost. Ah, our orders.”

Our orders? I hadn’t ordered anything. I hadn’t even seen a menu yet. But here came an impeccably dressed waiter bearing two plates, and a sommelier following with a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“I took the liberty,” Inspiration said. The food set down before us was creatively arranged, colorful, smelled fantastic, and I had no idea what it was. “Just pâté,” she said, “a little foie gras and some goat cheese.” I shrugged and dug in, and the food lived up to its aromatic promise. I mumbled appreciatively around a mouthful.

“So, tell me the story of your life,” she said.

I raised my eyebrow in confusion. I started to say that I hadn’t thought this to be a social call, when I found myself talking. I spoke of my great-grandparents in India, my grandparents in Pakistan and the ones in Idaho, of my parents’ childhoods and of their meeting at a cocktail party in Islamabad. And yet… everything I said, though I knew in my bones that it was all accurate, was in greater detail than I thought even I knew. I found myself pieceing together snatches of overheard conversations, photos in the family album, old letters I’d once found in a dresser drawer – all to make this narrative, well… perfect. It was like hearing a stranger speak. I was making the story historically accurate, bringing in politics of the time and social movements – but I was also weaving in details that made the whole thing funny and personal and tragic. I couldn’t help just listening to myself in amazement.

“And so he saw her from across the room, in a mirror set on the mantelpiece, and being a good Pakistani boy, tried to find someone to introduce them,” I was saying as we finished up our appetizers.

“By the time they left Indonesia, the little girl was a favorite of both the locals and her parents’ Western friends.” An excellent duck dish arrived.

“My grandfather was an alcoholic, and when I met him I was three years old. In the way of children, I could tell something was wrong – even if I didn’t know what,” I said as we worked our way through a dish of palate-cleansing sherbet.

“My parents announced that we would be moving – again – on the day of my thirteenth birthday,” I said through a mouthful of salad.

By the time a cheese plate – astonishing in its variety – had arrived, I was winding down: “In a search for God, I began instead to believe in…”

It was my life, in more complete detail than I’d ever imagined it. I found myself almost hearing it for the first time, as though listening to a stranger’s experiences – and my life sounded a lot more interesting when told this way. Things I’d never attached any significance to seemed much more crucial, and things which had devoured my whole world at the time were discovered to be manageable, even funny in retrospect. Finally, as a tiny portion of decadently rich truffle cake appeared, I was breathing as hard as though I’d spent an hour on the treadmill.

“Wait a sec,” I said a few moments after silence had fallen over the table for the first time since we’d sat down to eat, “aren’t you supposed to be, well… inspiring me? Why are you so interested in my life?”

“Your life is interesting,” she said simply. “As you have just found out. And if you’re not inspired by that, there’s no more I can do. Any other questions?”

“Uh, a few…”

“Yes?”

“Who was the little fairy-person in the quad? Was that really you? And why do you look like this now, if it was?”

“It was me,” she smiled. “I appear however I need to. For example…” And she disappeared. No fading away, no puff of smoke, just not there between one heartbeat and the next. I started, and looked around for her.

“I’m right here,” a voice said next to my right ear. Not female. Most certainly, emphatically not female. This was the voice every female puts to her fantasies – deep, male, sounding like melted chocolate over steel. I was suddenly glad I was sitting down, since every internal organ had gotten unaccountably weak and squishy. I turned my head hesitantly to behold what was, without any doubt, the most ferociously attractive man I’d ever had the distinct pleasure to see. Tall, dark and handsome wasn’t even in the same ballpark. He moved around to stand next to me.

“This is how I can look sometimes – mostly to women, I admit. Red is for people who need a strong woman to respect –” and he was (to my guilty regret) the woman in the red dress again, “or if they won’t respect anything but age –” and now she was older than the hills, looking wiser than anything under the sun, dressed in a nondescript sturdy blouse and skirt which could have belonged to any century. “If wealth and power appeal to them, I can be the Count,” her firm voice said, and she was abruptly a taller gentleman, grey wings of hair at his temples, carrying an ineffable and crushing sense of authority, an expectation of instant obedience. I was starting to get dizzy.

“From the voice of the Everyman,” and he was a farm labourer, with humor, knowledge and a firm grasp of the way the world works shining from his eyes, “to a magical being, for those who cannot accept the validity of their fellow humans’ advice and opinions” he was that androgynous imp again, who grinned widely at me before its childish voice added “to an abstract,” and it dissolved into a shifting miasma of colors, of half-heard voices and constantly changing images, a cloud of pure energy that spoke directly into my head with the ringing power of the joy of creation, “I am whoever I need to be. I seem whatever I wish to seem.”

And the woman in the red dress looked calmly at me from across the table and sipped a cup of tea. I picked up the cup I had not noticed by my water-glass and sipped as well, trying to sort out in my mind all this fantastic information, praying I’d remember everything well enough to put it down on paper the minute I could. A waiter approached the table and bowed to Inspiration diffidently.

“The matter of payment, madam…?”

“Ah, of course,” she answered. Looking at me, she said, “shall we go Dutch on this, then?” It wasn’t really a question. I nodded, trying to keep the wince off my face: even half of the price of a meal like this would cut painfully into my student’s budget.

“For my part,” Inspiration said in an authoritative tone, “I will spend five hours with the chef in three day’s time.” Before I could do more than blink at this strange response, the waiter was bowing and smiling, saying madam was too generous, no further payment was required… Inspiration smiled at him. “This establishment has always been more than welcoming to me and my kind, and the service was as always excellent. As for the young lady, here…” She considered me through narrowed eyes. “Six sleepless nights, five pounds lost and gained, and twelve rejection letters.” The waiter’s eyebrows climbed into his hairline on an otherwise expressionless face.

“Madam, that much is not necessary…”

“That,” she said, ignoring him and looking at me evenly, “is for pestering me for so long without even thinking of looking to your own life for me. Remember that in the future,” she admonished. “The best stories come from what you know. From the heart.”

I almost fell down the slope. The abrupt transition from sitting at a table to standing on an incline had severely overbalanced me. I looked around, wondering. The clock on the library read barely five minutes since I had looked at it last, just before Inspiration-the-imp had tugged on my sleeve. Damn… it had all been just some sort of daydream… So vivid, though…

I headed absentmindedly for the dining hall to grab some food, when I half-stumbled again, this time from the realization that I was full. Full almost to bursting – with roast duck, with pâté, with crisp vegetables and wine and cheese and truffle cake… and with inspiration. I started running flat-out towards my car, needing to get onto the computer immediately, and already regretting the sleepless nights, the lost weight and the discouragement I knew awaited me, certain as the sunset.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Writing Sample: "We never expected to live this long."

These are musings inspired by Elizabeth Bear's rather brilliant People Like Us.



When I was a very small child, I was convinced that nuclear war would destroy the world before I could grow up.

I thought this because many adults around me had grown up with the same fear, indoctrinated and terrified as children. The difference was in our educations: my parents were taught that survival was a possibility (both through after the Bomb B-movies, and that whole "hide under your desk with these magic radiation-blocking textbooks held over your head and all will be well" thing, which my generation all found hilarious).

I knew what a nuclear winter would do to the planet by age 8, and knew that humanity's survival or even the rebuilding of civilization was wildly improbable. The threat was just something to be accepted, as far from the control of anyone I knew as a normal winter was. I was not afraid, because I didn't understand death; I remember hoping that I would be one of the ones to die in the initial blast, and not linger on as a mutated and icky whatever.

After the nukes, it was AIDS. Grown-ups read their mysterious newspapers, which as all of us knew contained nothing good besides the funnies, and collectively and globally panicked. Every day SIDA (hey, I grew up in France) was on the news. I knew what sex was and what it was for (see previous parenthesis); now I thought that it would probably be what killed me, long before anyone could consider me "old." A little girl in my elementary school died of AIDS from a blood transfusion before anyone knew that was dangerous.

Then it was the environment, as we learned in greater detail as the years went on what a hopeless situation we had been left with - more by our grandparents and great-grands and great-greats than our parents...

Again, however, these were not reasons to live in fear, besides the fact that we were too young to feel anything but immortal. They became reasons, especially as we grew into preteens and teenagers and twenty-somethings, to make the most of every day.

A few things struck me in Bear's essay.
One was the observation that boomers are terrified of aging; though my parents are pretty good examples of aging gracefully, I see this terror in their slightly younger contemporaries, those who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies. I somehow hadn't really noticed that, probably because my parents' attitude was a bit different.
One was the realization that I *know* privacy is a myth, and that it doesn't bug me that much.
One was that most people my age assume that JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, etc were assassinated and that there was a cover-up. And that that is just the cost of doing business, government-wise; their screw-up was in getting caught.

One was the line "we never expected to live this long."

I didn't realize it, but I didn't. And now that I'm making all these decisions about future career/education/lifestyle/children/marital status, I'm terrified because I feel like I've never really thought about it before. Unlike The Who, I didn't "hope I die before I get old" - I just assumed that, statistically, I probably would.

Now I have a lifetime ahead of me and, it often seems, not the foggiest clue what to do with it.