Go to Google and search “It’s been a while since I’ve posted,” in quotation marks, and you’ll get 83,000 hits. Change the “I’ve” to an “I” and you’ll get a further 116,000. I wonder if there’s an average lifespan of a blog. A chart of average initial furious productivity and gradual disinterest until after a while all you see are few “It’s been a while” posts and then nothing for years. The blog just sitting there waiting to be updated, the reader left hanging.
Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted. Aside from a couple cheap update posts I haven’t put any new fiction up since April 5. What have I been doing that time? Little of consequence to warrant such laziness. I have, however, completed my 6th short story, which I present here. So, woot.
I’ve been working on this for a great deal longer than I should have, and much, much longer than one would rightfully assume after reading it. The truth is, I kind of fucking hate it. It started out as a Flash Fiction Friday and suddenly it was 2,000 words and I had no idea what it was about. What was supposed to be a 750 word piece about graduate students in a semi-rebuilt post-apocalyptic society tranquilizing and tagging the survivors who roam the wastelands ballooned into something larger. The problem was, I didn’t feel like it had the plot to warrant its newfound length. I put it down for a few weeks, intending to write other things, but found that I couldn’t do anything else until I got this fucking out of the way. So I eventually went back and hammered it out. It ended up clocking in at around 4,600 words, which unexpectedly made it short story 6/10 on my journey. So, silver linings. God gives you lemons, you find a new god. I still think this not enough butter spread on too much bread, and in a few months I’ll probably return to it and try to fix it. Until then, I’m just happy to have it out of the way.
I’m okay with writing things I don’t like. Things that suck. The great thing about any craft is you learn from making sucky things and what make later sucks just a little less. I think maybe this story has too much show instead of tell. I don’t know. Tell me if you figure it out.
As always, what I’m doing here: I read somewhere that every writer has ten bad short stories them before they write a good one. This is slightly more optimistic than Ray Bradbury, who said, ““Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” Challenge accepted, Ray.
So, I dug out the four short stories I’d already written and threw them up here, warts and all. I also post flash fiction here, but don’t count anything less than 1,500 words toward my 10 story total. This is number 6. It’s my least favorite story, and I’m not usually in the habit of handing out warnings. If you’re still reading, and plan to read a little further, feedback is always more than welcome.
Ko now greeted the warming months with anxiety. Not because of the oppressive heat that meant the band would have to spend mid-day in the shade — the day was longer so they could hunt longer, too. And not because it would be months before they’d see rains again — any halfway competent hunter among them could find water when he really needed.
He was worried about the Visitors.
Two years in a row they’d come. Hiding in something terrible, something that reflected the sun and hurt to look at. When they came, the Visitors would chase his band. His band would run and some would escape. But not all. The Visitors were fast and the things they sat on were indescribable in his vocabulary. They would take some of his band and shoot them with small arrows and when they woke up again they’d remember nothing. Not even being shot. Certainly not being hauled into the Visitors’ home and cursed with their magics.
Ko looked to the East, his lithe and lean figure backlit by a setting sun. The mountains on the horizon blazed orange at their peaks in the summer sunset. They always came from the east.
A crunch of footsteps behind and Ig was there. Ig held an armful of wooden spikes, sharpened on both ends. Ko tested a few for strength. Good girl. He motioned toward the others, digging in the dusklight. Ig ran to join them. The large hole was most of a man deep and fully four men wide. Ig passed the bundle down into hole and jumped in after and set to work driving the stakes into the ground. Ko turned back to the mountains. The east, the east. They always came from the east. And they’d keep coming, just as long as his band kept running. He knew that.
Time to stop running. Start fighting.
The Journalist was new. He’d never left the city. His only knowledge of the arid expanse of rock and scrub that stretched a thousand kilometers up and down the coast and inland away from the city and the sea came from primary school. A vague knowledge plant and animal species, of radiation levels and scant annual precipitation. He rarely even bothered the trip to the outer rings to look it. Now, he stood at a window and looked out at the segmented trailer, flat topped with solar panels and fronted by a large, sleek engine. The mobile research biology lab. Everyone called it the Marble. Beyond that, only sand and ruins.
The loading dock was one of three on the northern stretch of the city’s outer wall ring. Inside was a few dozen square kilometers of the only civilization any of them knew. He walked to the other side of the hallway and looked out over the northern greenhouse district. Every square meter planned and sculpted and accounted for, so entirely unlike the world he was about to enter.
The Marble was backed up to a loading dock and he also watched a trio of graduate students checking a long line of crates against the list on a tablet and wheeling them through and into the vehicle. He pinged their bios to read on the videofeed.
Jeen, Brill and Minny. Graduate assistants in the biology department at the University. Jeen the oldest at 18 and evidently team leader. She had a shock of short orange hair and one side of her head was shaved.
Minny was a tall, gangly boy with an Adam’s apple for the ages. Brill was short and well built. The Journalist noted they were, oddly, brothers.
Minny grabbed the end of a blue power cable from a case and held it up. “Is the right MP cable, Jeen?”
Jeen didn’t look up. “Check the other end. If it’s threaded it’s the right cable.”
Minny rooted around for a minute. “I don’t see the other end, Jeen.”
She looked up for the first time. “I’m pretty sure if you just follow the bastard you’ll get to the other end, Minny.” She noticed the Journalist looking at her, flashed him a smirk.
“Two of modern science’s finest minds right here.”
“Found it!” Minny held up the threaded end of the cable.
“Imagine that.” Jeen said sardonically. “Two ends after all.”
The Journalist thought she was pretty, and blushed. A journalist’s training always left them rather awkward in every day interaction. They observed, recorded and interviewed. Small talk was typically a weak point.
Outside, a figure slid down an access ladder from the upper level of the engine. He recognized Professor Brien. Expert in exocity species. He’d made great advances in studying the scattered, primitive inhabitants of the vast, empty plains that surrounded the City.
Once inside he saw the Journalist and his face lit bright.
“So, a new Journalist!” He strode over and clapped the Journalist on either shoulder.
“New a new yes” the Journalist replied. “Six months recording, now.”
Professor Brien was tall and broad, with an enormous blonde beard. He had a look of permanent sunburn. He wore a white one piece work suit of loose fit, open in the front. He clasped the Journalist’s shoulder in a worryingly personal and firm way.
“Well welcome, Journalist. We do great work out there. I’m happy for the recoding.”
The Professor’s gaze turned to the tech on the Journalist’s temple. “Live feed?” He asked.
“Video, audio, bio. Environmental readings.”
The professor whistled. “The City will lose the live feed about 300 clicks out. You’ll have to settle for recording.”
“That and remoteness. No infrastructure out there, not much of anything out there.”
The journalist nodded. Jeen called out from behind them with a question for the Professor and with a nod he took his leave. The journalist turned his gaze to cracked, arid expanse, so entirely different from the world his ancestors had carved out of the coast over three centuries ago. They’d come from out there. Ruined the world and ran in desperation to the coast and now 12 generations later they were finally getting back out there.
“Journalist!” The Professor called out. “We’re almost packed! Time to go!”
“Pause feed.” the Journalist said.
Ko cut Ig from Nala, her mother.
Two days of labor and then she wouldn’t wake up again. So he took the black obsidian knife his father gave him and made the cuts he has seen once before. Ko brought Ig from the wound himself and when Nala’s heart stopped he prepared her and fed her to their pack dogs himself, too. As band leader he had to do all of these things and show no fear about it. He lead them south in the cooling months that year, feeding their pack dogs strips of his her flesh and all the time as hard and unchanging as the stones beneath their feet. But sometimes, during the new moon, he goes off alone and draws the obsidian blade across his chest so the blood flows and he weeps and rages at the stars.
The Journalist made his way amidship. The Marble three autonomous units. The engine contained sleeping bunks, restrooms and an array of scientific equipment for measuring radiation, moisture, temperature and communicating with field teams. The long cylindrical center module was storage. And the tail car was largely empty save for two hydrogen-powered off-road vehicles and medical station. All were topped by solar panels. At full charge the Marble could make 30 kilometers per day.
He crossed between the first and second modules through dust-choked open air. He could taste it.
Jeen, Brill and Minny were opening the large, squat crates he’d seen loaded back the city. Jeen seemed to direct most multi-person tasks. Jyin, the fourth student on the professor’s team, spent most of her time in the workshop working on various equipment. Brill and Minny, as far as he could tell, were considered to be particularly adept at picking up things and putting them down somewhere else.
“Hey, Journalist,” Jeen said. “Wanna see something cool?”
He switched to his live video feed and sent a backup to the mainframe. Not quite a hundred miles out from the City the latent radiation was already interfering with his connection. The feed was static-y and distorted. Jeen bent over and pressed her thumb onto a scanner and the crate popped open with a hiss.
It was full of deer. At least, they appeared to be deer. They were packed neatly on their sides, 50 to a case. Brill and Minny started to take vitals.
“They’ve been altered for survival in the desert,” she said. “We’ve found bones indicating an incredible amount of pre-burn biodiversity. We’re working toward rebuilding that.”
“Altered in what ways? Pretend I don’t know anything about biology.”
“Do you know anything about biology?”
“Good thing, because I’m a shit actress.They don’t need much water, and they dissipate heat very well.”
The Journalist scanned their bodies. Enormous ears, long, thin legs. An impressive achievement in breeding and bioengineering.The ship suddenly air-braked and the Journalist had to steady against a pylon and shot a quizzical look at Jeen.
“We have to drop them well outside of the Nomads’ territory. Any food we’ve tried to give them goes uneaten. Any game they see us release is killed and left to rot.”
On the ground, the Journalist watched Brill and Minny wake the skinny things one by one with a jet injector. Some sort of stimulant, presumably. After a few minutes getting their bearings they they loped off into the scrub and brush.
They’d set down on the remains of a road. Patches of black asphalt in stretched in a line across the savanna. Not a single road any more but an impression of one. A spotted pattern. Bristlecone pines and creosote, intermingled with the ashpalt patches, stretched away as far as he could see. As always, he directed his headgear through a series of subtle eye twitches to take temperature, humidity and radiation readings.
The video feed was getting worse. The Journalist decided to stop streaming live.
It was the day the sun rose along the notch. They did not make the notch. The notch had been there when they arrived and so too the tall smooth stone with the hole in the top. Ko stood at the end of the notch, nude and cold in the pre-dawn desert morning. He waited for the sun to rise and find the hole and find him as well. This was the day that the sun and night held equal say over them. Tomorrow the sun would have its way, and the heat. They always made it this far north by this day.
Ko saw his eyelids turn pink and red, felt the warmth on his face. Spoke to his father in silence and heard the crunch of feet as the circle around him shifted back and forth.
The Journalist turned his gaze in a slow sweep across the great brown waste passing beneath them. Sometimes they passed the ruins of cities. Foundations, mostly. Squat squares in the dust. Sometimes twisted stumps of girders like the worst teeth. There were millions here, once.
Nice shot for a voiceover, later.
“Tell me about your box, Professor.”
Professor Brien motioned to Jyin, who retrieved a heavy looking case from the cargo strapped against the side of the hull. Her straight black hair hung like a cloak around the case as she unfastened it. Inside was a silver rectangle, plain except for a speaker. The Marble’s cab was pleasantly spacious. A bank of controls at the front occupied Jeen. The professor sat in the other driver’s seat and the rest of them perched on a low bench that wrapped half around the rear of the cab. There were windows on all sides, giving the cab a cupola feel.
“This is box 3,” Jyin said. “The first three they destroyed. This is very slim, easier to conceal.” She swiped her hand along the edge and the box shimmered and was suddenly the same shade of brown as the Earth outside.
“This speaks with them?”
“That’s the plan, eventually,” the Professor said. “We’ve gathered quite a bit of their language from the previous boxes.”
The journalist stood and approached the box. He instructed his mounted camera to pull backup photos from the video. “And you understand th — shit!” The cab lurched violently to the side, sending him tumbling into the professor’s lap.
“Whup!” Brien yelled, catching him.
“Sorry, dude,” Jeen said. “Hit a bump.”
“I noticed that,” the Journalist said, pushing himself back up with a grunt.
Jeen pointed up and behind her without looking. “Best to use those handy dandy railings that we’ve installed, oh, everywhere you can possibly walk.”
The journalist nodded. “Duly noted, Jeen. Now. The box. Can you understand their speech yet?”
“Well no, of course not. We can’t risk bringing one back to the City, and the one we brought on board our ship turned so insanely violent we had to release him or he was going to injure himself.”
“So what does it do?”
At this the professor produced a remote control . “We know certain words associated with certain events. Food, mating, fighting. We assume food is also associated with contentment, with satiety.”
The professor pressed a button and a trilogy of words emerged from the speaker. The Journalist couldn’t understand any of them but had a feeling was listening to a kind of pidgin. One of the words had a harsh glottal stop and a guttural sound. Another was tonal and ethereal.
“These mean food?” The Journalist asked.
“As near as we can tell, these have to do with food, yes. We hope to play this and a few others for them and see gauge their reaction tomorrow.”
Jyin spoke up. “You’ll want a good view for the video, trust me.”
“What of the previous try?”
The professor sighed. “It went poorly. We waited until they were gathered around and turned it on. At the first word they smashed it to pieces with stones.”
“And what’s changing now?” The Journalist asked.
“Well, the idea is that they’re learning.”
Ko and Ig lay flat on their stomachs. Ko inhaled deeply. The earth this far north smelled nice to him. It always had. If he had the word in his mind he would have called savory. He noticed Ig was doing the same and smiled. Ig. Ig. He was six hands this year. Middle aged and the unquestioned leader of his band.
She had borne him one hand of children. Only Ig survived. Ig, as strong as him.
They heard the sharp crack of the zik, a hollowed out log struck with a stick and they were both up and running, Ig half a second faster than her father.
They cut down the washout at a dead sprint. His band were all great runners. They could run down prey for an entire day, just waiting for it to drop dead from exhaustion. He willed himself to move fast. Ig kept pace, her long lean legs moving light and beautiful.
Another crack from the zik and they pulled up. Ig a few steps ahead still. Good girl.
Ko looked back and saw a dozen dark brown figures holding their spears high. Ig threw both fists in the air and the band’s cheer songs reached him clear even through the wind.
That night the band prayed long. They made three holes each a hundred paces apart and placed an ancestor’s tooth apiece in them. Ang’s teeth, they decided. The last one of the band the Visitors to fall under the Visitor’s sleeping spell.
Ko told Ang’s story. How they all cried and said goodbye to Ang from a distance. How they thanked him for being a great hunter. And, finally, how Ig took her first kill by sending a spear into Ang’s chest so he the sleeping spell wouldn’t infect them.
One tooth apiece in each hole and now they stood in Ang’s mouth. They’d be safe here, waiting for the Visitors.
The Journalist was born to be. Everything must be recorded, they told him, and recorded themselves telling him that. At three he kept a food diary, as practice. Breakfast. 200 millilitre protein shake. Lunch. Seaweed and pine nuts. Dinner. Curried grasshoppers. The Journalist was the 10th. His mothers and father were the Journalist, too. He recorded their deaths. Recorded everything because someone else had lost it. His ancestors had done something broke the world and the city was the only place putting it back. His family had recorded this for ten generations so no one would ever forget just how hard it was.
Now, for the first time, he was recording people not from the city. The past six days since entering the nomads’ presumed migration corridor they’d been up at dawn, scanning the landscape. Finally, last night, they’d seen fires in the distance.
Now, he adjusted his gear, focusing the camera on the line of brown figures sprinting at an impressive pace down the washout 200 meters distant. They were long, lean things. Built for extended running. An electric shiver shot up his spine. His heart raced.
“They’re beautiful, Jyin.”
“Yeah, pretty damn awesome, huh?”
His video feed stabilized and pulled a photo.
“Coloration identical to the landscape. Likely soil applied to the skin as camouflage.”
He thought about that a moment.
“No previous mention of camouflage among the bands. Indicates tactical thinking abilities.”
He lost them behind a ridge. The Journalist switched the comm in-ship and brought up Jyin. He was on the ground but she would have a better view 20 feet up in the driver’s seat.
“Jyin. Can you see them?”
A moment’s silence. “Negative. Nothing. Just dirt and Jeen’s dust.”
“What about your radio tags?”
“Still negative there, too. This must be a different band than the one we tagged last year.”
He scanned the area again. The dust was a problem. Jeen and the Professor were making toward the washout in one cart, Brill and Minny behind. One driver, one gunner. He could see Minny on the turret, face obscured by goggles and a breathing mask. The barrel of his tranquilizer gun. And their tires throwing up plumes of dust behind them that made it impossible to record anything.
“I’m coming up.”
Ko watched the two approach, considered the fearful noise, the dust they threw up. One could never hunt in such things. Any game would scatter long before one drew near. Any game except his band. Ko looked to his right and caught Ig’s gaze. Ig held up the black obsidian knife. Ig’s now. And as he was looking on his daughter with perfect admiration and pride the first of the two awful things ramped over the lip of the washout and landed right between them.
There was no one there. Professor Brien ran the wipers and cleared the screen. The washout was empty save for scrub and dead timber.
“Jeen! Do you see anything?”
“Nothing from here, Professor” She moved her goggles up to her forehead and raised her binoculars.
“Damnit, they must have doubled back. I swear they’re getting smarter!” He sounded excited.
Jeen clicked over to the open comm. “Brill, Minny, circle wide. They doubled back. Jyin, you reading?”
“You see anything on your scopes?”
“Nothing. Journalist is up here too. He’s got nothing.”
Her suit was stifling. Sweat trickled down her face, into her eyes, stinging. She raised her visor and wiped it away.
“Professor, is it just me, or are they getting smarter?”
Brien grinned and gripped his steering wheel, bounced up and down in his seat.
“I sure as hell hope so.”
And from her vantage point atop the ATV Jeen saw two things, simultaneously. The ground in front of the vehicle shifted, in one smooth motion, and then there was a man standing in a low crouch. She’d never seen anyone move so fast. She didn’t even have time to call out to the Professor before Ko had thrown a spear directly at her chest.
Searing pain and loss of breath, and her vision went black a moment. Jeen noticed she was curled up in the bottom of her cupola, gasping. A pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her up, and she saw they were connected to the Professor. He pressed his hand along her chestplate.
“All-damn-days that guy was fast!” Brien said. She vaguely heart Jyin’s voice on the com but couldn’t make it out.
“No, we’re fine, Jyin,” he said, and now spoke to Jeen. “But if that had been a foot higher you’d be dead. Keep your damn visor down, kiddo.”
Jeen coughed. “Sorry, stupid, sorry.” Of course the spear had been no match for her body armor. Her face wouldn’t have fared so well.
“Where’d he go?”
The Professor threw a thumb over his shoulder. “They. A smaller one hit my windshield with another spear, then took off north.”
Jeen lowered her visor. “Let’s go then.”
Ko did not expect that. He couldn’t even really process it. Less than 20 strides away. He had felled men at three times that distance. And yet, his spear had bounced right off of the outsider’s chest. The thought spurred him, and he ran faster. Ig was keeping pace just to his right. They ran free and naturally, long thin legs pounding toe-first into the cracked soil. No matter. It was up to the others now.
Behind him, he heard the roar of the Visitors, closing.
Standing at the open left engine hatch, the Journalist lost the the two ATVs in the clouds of dust as the pair chased down their attackers. He could hear Jeen barking orders on the com.
“Brill, back on us! You’re too far out!”
“Negative, chief. We…drove into a hole.” Minny’s voice.
Silence, for a moment.
“You drove in a hole!?”
From the rising dust the journalist could follow Jeen’s ATV. Her voice followed the rhythm of the bumps they hit. “Were you … chasing … something shiny … when you drove into the hole, Minny?”
“No, we didn’t even see the damn thing. All covered in brush. Like it was camouflaged.”
The Journalist stiffined. “Minny. Journalist here.”
Jeen responded. “Getting a good … show … up there, J-man?”
“Can’t see a thing, Jeen. Listen. I need Minny to mark that hole so I can scan it later.”
“Roger. Need to wench ourselves out first.”
The professor’s voice cut in. “Dead ahead, Jeen!”
“Make it fast, Minny!”
The journalist climbed down the front module access ladder and hesitated a moment before dropping down onto the first patch of natural Earth in his entire life. It felt adventurous. He dropped to a knee grabbed a handful of sandy soil, let it run through his fingers.
Jyin’s voice on com. “Journalist. I’m in the ATV hold. Where are you?”
“Dork. Come around back and I’ll pick you up.”
The Journalist turned and faced the ATVs, still obscured by the dust clouds in their wake. They’d ambushed the tag teams. This was unprecedented.
He switched to infrared, hoping to catch something through the haze.
“Shit.” He said aloud.
“What?” Jyin’s voice came over. “We’re good to go back here.”
“No we’re not.”
“We’re not going anywhere, Jyin,” the Journalist said.
“Because we’re surrounded.”
In his viewscreen the Journalist could make out a dozen bodies lying prone in the scrub. Bright red and white against the Earth beneath. As if on queue, they rose, and started to advance.
“The fuck you mean, surrounded?” Jyin yelled, and in the hold made her way to the port. Her next words caught in her throat. The Journalist was facing a line of a dozen armed nomads. They all had spears and were covered in pigment the exact color of the soil. The MARBL had driven right up to them and never even noticed.
Jyin barked over the com. “Professor! Get back here! The journalist is outside and there are runners here!”
The Journalist was calm. He switched back a regular video setting and scanned the advancing line of men. No use running, he guessed. Even if he could make it, he’d be betraying the job. The Journalist recorded and that was it.
A strongly built woman with hair in long thick tendrils made a strange, quick movement and then the Journalist was on his back.
He didn’t remember lying down, so that was strange.
The Journalist lifted his head and saw the smooth shaft of the spear in his stomach, saw the strips of hide and beads hanging from the grip mid-shaft. He moved his head back and forth along the line of them, recording everything. The Journalist noticed that his head was too heavy to lift now, so he laid it back and closed his eyes. He noticed that the stomach made his stomach feel bad, but it didn’t seem to hurt as much something so big seemed like it should.
He didn’t feel the need to open them again, even as the high pitched engines of the ATV grew to fill the air. Instead he thought about how hard it was to put this all back. How everyone should know that. And he kept thinking that until the sharp pops of the tranq guns faded into the thick thrum of his own heartbeat, which then faded into nothing at all.
A few hours later Professor Brien watched Brill and Minny load the vacuum-sealed body of the journalist into one of the deer-crates. Jyin was watching the footage on a pad.
“We’ve got good speech here, professor. They talked for a full minute before you scattered them.”
“He knew better than to go out there without a suit. Shit.”
“He got excited,” Jyin said. “He was young.”
Jeen was in near the rear of the hold, two of the band unconscious at her feet. She readied a small gun and put it to the back of their necks. It injected a small radio chip that would hopefully ping the monitoring stations they’d set up on the way back.
Professor Brien walked over and grabbed one by the ankles. Jeen helped haul the woman down the rear ramp and place her on the ground. This was the one that had killed the Journalist. Jeen had hit her on the run with a tranq dart. He guessed she must be someone of importance to the band, if she’d taken the kill.
“Hopefully we’ll get some good migratory data from the tags this time, Jeen.”
“I can’t believe they laid a trap for us. The faculty wouldn’t believe it if the Journalist hadn’t been here.”
Jeen looked out over the savannah, the sky a sumptuous, thick red.
“They really are getting smarter, Professor.”
The Visitors the next morning. The heavy drumbeat thrum of their beast faded first as the band stood alert, watching. They craned their heads and listened until even Ko, tallest and best-sighted, lost it in the distance.That night the band made fires and debated over the lives of the newly stricken, Ban and Aa’ly. After some debate Ko decided to leave them at a nearby Oasis for one moon. If he came back and found them in good health then they could rejoin the band. In case the magic took them, he left an obsidian blade in their care.
This was an era in which the world was full of magic and monsters. Such was simply fact. Spirits lived with the band, though they were rarely seen. Some were benevolent. Others mischievous. Some were simply evil. They told stories in flickering firelight in the cold desert nights. Refined their myths and gave the world meaning.
Years later Ig would tell her band the story of facing down hunting party of strange silver beings during the Summer When the Deer Came Back. She told it with her father’s knife in one hand and his heart in a pouch in the other. It was an important story, as any story about conquering the world must be.