Friday, November 21, 2014
They ran up the hill’s path pushing a cart laden with gas cylinders, disarmed rockets, and a crate of weasels. Sweat stung Beaumont’s eyes, and his gums throbbed as Ives cursed them for laggards. Beaumont’s pocket watch, secured to the cart by its fob chain, swung before him. The sweeping second hand told him that no matter how his legs burned, or his lungs ached, he would need to keep running for thirty more seconds. They needed to make it another hundred feet, and then he could rest.
Chevket pushed beside him, seemingly at his ease apart from casting nervous glances down the path behind them. Beaumont hoped his first officer’s luck would continue to hold. The man escaped the explosion that both knocked out Beaumont and Ives and claimed the lives of his crewmen, ironically, by hiding in the cave filled with hydrogen cylinders. In the ensuing chaos, he secured a fully-loaded hand cart from an unwary deliveryman, and circled back when he realized Ives and Beaumont were being held in the main building.
The cart hit a rock in the path and bounced, the cylinders jostling with heart-stopping clangs, but thankfully no sparks. The weasels chittered and snapped in their cage, which also mercifully remained latched. Beaumont was hunched forward as he pushed, and his face mere inches from the cage. It would be a particularly horrid experience to be swarmed over by their rancid bodies and sharp teeth should they escape. The weapons’ inclusion went against Chevket’s wishes, who had a heated, whispered argument with Ives when the agent insisted on including them. Chevket urged for immediate escape, citing the remaining crew of the October Sky relying on them all for getting the ship back to port, while Ives argued that bringing home this evidence of a new weapon of paramount importance. Beaumont reluctantly agreed with the agent only because the cold calculus of strategy placed this new weapon’s importance over the safety of an airship’s crew.
And so they ran, heedless of the shouts and rifle reports behind them, hoping that Ives assertion that they get to the top of the valley with their cart in eight minutes and not a second less was correct. The rifle fire fell off, and an ornithopter’s engine whined as its pilot prepared it for launch, doubtlessly with a rifle squad on board. Within minutes, they would be caught in the open.
“Fifteen seconds,” Beaumont hissed.
Ives cursed their collective legitimacy and speculated on their mothers’ improbable indiscretions with the animal world.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Beaumont woke up on hard-packed earth next to Ives, in the only cage not filled with weasels. To his left and right, the mangy creatures scratched and chewed at the wire mesh separating their enclosures from his own, their rancid musk adding to his blooming headache. Ives huddled in the cell’s middle, wiping at the dried blood at his ears and nose. From somewhere beyond their cage, the thrumming and buzzing of machinery filled the air.
“How long?” Beaumont asked.
“About an hour,” Ives said a bit louder than necessary.
“Any ideas as to where are we?”
Ives pointed to the cage’s door, where someone had obviously and hastily nailed boards to reinforce their enclosure to withstand escape attempts from larger occupants. Beaumont moved to peer through a gap to find that they were in a dark corner inside the wooden building housing the electrolysis plant. The true scale of the operation made Beaumont blanch.
Friday, November 7, 2014
False dawn’s light blotted at the darkness. The October Sky listed to its port side, weighed down by its flaccid envelope. Crewmen scurried over the craft’s superstructure like ants on a dying whale, shouting out reports of battle damage to their section chiefs below. Beaumont paced the ground from bow to stern, allowing the crews to see him as they went about their jobs. Agent Ives trailed behind him, saying nothing.
They had been fortunate to land in a pocket canyon; the enemy would have to be directly overhead to spot the October Sky. However, their hidden berth would only buy them a few hours extra should the Caliph’s airships discover the battle-wrecked ornithopters and begin an organized search. With steep walls lined with loose rock, the canyon would become an unescapable killing ground once under attack. Captain Beaumont checked the riflemen at the canyon’s rim, braced against the scree and ready to call out should anything approach.
“Captain,” Chevket said.
“How bad is she?” he said.
His first officer ran a hand through his hair and glanced back at the ship. “A dozen injured, but thankfully no lives lost. We have twenty cells holed beyond repair, twice that need patching to become airworthy again. The belly turrets are inoperable, and we have numerous twisted struts and popped rivets.”
Beaumont had feared as much. “And our helium?”
Chevket blew out and shook his head. “Mister Wallace is still making his estimate.”
“You’re quibbling, aren’t you?” Ives said. “You know, but you don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Just spit it out, man.”
Saturday, November 1, 2014
Beaumont climbed the bridge ladder with Ensign Charles and nodded at Helmsman Docks, who stood from the captain’s chair and held it for Beaumont.
Docks looked nervous, and glanced at Agent Ives, who was studying the navigation table. “Craft secure, all sections nominal. We are tacking across a four knot wind along a heading of three-zero-four at five hundred feet.”
“What?” Beaumont roared. “What’s our speed?”
“Nineteen knots.” Docks steeled himself and shifted his gaze to Agent Ives.
“I see,” Beaumont said. “Very well, Mister Docks, you are relieved. Go find some supper.”
The normal murmuring of the bridge crew was missing, and all seemed abnormally focused on their stations. Beaumont composed himself and swiveled his chair around.
“Mister Ives, I imagine you dictated this course and altitude?”
Ives looked up, unconcerned. “I did, Captain. Did you have a nice dinner?”
“We’re heading into the heart of the Caliphate.”
“We came across a supply column heading back along the deaders’ path. They’re winding through a narrow pass that will take them most of the night. We’re going to be waiting for them when they emerge.”
Beaumont turned to the man at the damage control panel, Airman Tooley. “Battlestations. I want the gunnery crews ready to fire in two minutes. Helm, take us to altitude one-triple-zero and put her abeam the wind.”
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Author's Note: this story takes place in the same world as my fantasy/steampunk world featured in a previous story: Badlands Journal
Captain Reginald Beaumont stared out over the sea of dunes searching for signs of life: a dot suggesting a head, natural oases, a line of tracks in the sand, fresh kills, man-sized shadows. In short, anything that could harbor a threat to his airship. One loony with a rifle would be all it would take. One lucky shot to deflate the wrong air sac, or jam an elevator, or the rudder, to consign his airship and crew to a slow death upon the sands. Damn the desert heat! Beaumont reached up to his collar buttons but stopped short. No, better to wait until he was out of the crew's view. Let them see sweat, not weakness.
A faint cough sounded behind him, more as an announcement of presence than actual need to expunge the lungs.
"Yes, Chevket?" Beaumont said.
"Sir," the younger, taller, and much thinner man said, "the engine room reports that our powerplant will need changing within the hour."
"Have we lost the capability of hot-swapping deaders?"
Chevket turned his head and gave an apologetic bow. "The engineer feels it would aid the deaders' recovery if we did not subject them to the undue stress of swapping while under load."
"Duly noted. Inform Mister Wallace to proceed with the hot-swap."
"Sir." Chevket moved to the brass tube and began relaying the order to the engine room.
Engineers, thought Beaumont, must have fears of becoming deaders themselves the way they coddled their charges. More interested in their unnaturally-animated husks and the precious engines they powered than for the integrity of the of the October Sky's gleaming silver envelope floating the airframe and all the truly living souls aboard. Such was the luxury of a ship’s engineer, but not its captain.
Friday, October 17, 2014
Over the last couple of weeks, I've tried and tried to write a fitting memorial to my old friend Colleen. I failed. Everything sounded like an obituary. Fact is, I still can't believe she's gone. When I left Colorado two Fridays ago to see family and friends in the Midwest, my plan and hope was to visit with Colleen, provided she was up to it. I'd be in the area for three days and kept my plans loose, hoping that on at least one of those days I'd be given the go-ahead by the Powers That Be to stop in. Instead, I had lunch with another one of our friends and got a chance to hug her tightly.
Every time I think about Colleen, it's like I'm talking to her in my head and because there were things I wanted to tell her, my good-bye won't be a good-bye. It'll be a letter, a letter I should have written long ago.
In the 35 years we've known each other, I don't think I ever told you how much I admire you. Yeah, that sounds way too sentimental and let's change the subject and all that, but it's true. And here's the thing, that's exactly what you are: true. True to yourself. True to the ideals you've held all your life. True to the friends you've gathered along the way.
I think I was a bit intimidated by you when we met, but you know how my memory is. You were so damn sure of yourself, so amazingly smart and perfectly at home in the world. I could tell just by watching you walk. Your loose-limbed amble belied your sharp eye, taking in the stories that surrounded you. And, for you, everything and everyone had a story, even if you had to make it up. Of course those were the best stories, but it took me a while to figure that out.
Still, you befriended me and I count myself lucky to be included in the posse of characters that pepper your life. I wish I'd recorded some of our marathon phone sessions from the early days. What the hell did we talk about for hours at a time day after day? Our kids? No, too mundane, unless they'd done something off-the-wall. But I do have every one of our party invitations for the Winter Solstice One-Size-Fits-All Sing for Your Supper parties you so loved to host. Every once in a while I take them out and read them, always ending up with tears of laughter streaming down my face. I can hear your voice; I can see you sitting at the typewriter(!) pounding them out as we tossed off ideas. It was easier, though, if I did the typing because you liked to pace and wander about the room.
Wandering has always been your specialty, one of the things I most admire about you. (I know, I know, stop with the praise already!) In my own travels I was never as mindful as you about how important the journey is as compared to the goal. The journey, after all, is fodder for new stories and introduces you to countless interesting folks that you can either turn into the heroes of your stories, or kill them off. Killing them off is so much fun!
We lost touch for a while, but when we reconnected, I was sad to know that you had a place on the city council and that I was no longer there to dutifully document its foibles for the newspaper of record. How much fun that would have been! I can see the worst of them rolling their eyes and gritting their teeth every time you called them out for a stupid idea. And there, right there, is one of the best parts of Colleen Sutherland: your ability to point out flaws in someone's reasoning with calmly stated logic. Often, they don't get it and while you never suffer fools gladly, you often choose not to waste your time. The patented Colleen shrug and a mumbled "idiot" have to suffice.
Misfits, though, misfits always have a friend in you. Anyone who has been deemed too odd, too complicated, too scary to be taken seriously can count on your advocacy, if not your friendship. And if some sacred cow needs to be slayed, you're always there to pick up the knife. Remember how we took a bottle of wine out to the cemetery to watch the Perseid meteor shower? I was all for just lying on the top of the car, but nope, it was a grave or nothing for you. I forget now whose graves you chose, but we spent a few giddy hours lying side by side in the dark, sipping wine and watching the skies.
Then there was my 30th birthday party. It was back in your old house and you even made a cake; cucumber-shaped with sickly green frosting. Only a few of us knew why. One of my relatives showed up and completely ruined the party, at least for me. You rather liked that relative at first, found her stories fascinating. But you saw how distressed I was and wasted no time asking the woman to leave, politely, but pointedly. Later, you took me aside and asked me why in the world I would allow such a person in my life. That was long before the phrase "toxic relationships" was part of the lexicon, but you knew all about those.
You also knew I wouldn't listen. Not then anyway, but some months later I excised that particular poison from my life and have had 30 years of peace. You're the only person I never had to explain it to. Thank you for that. Thank you for making me crazy with your logic and your honesty. Thank you for teaching me how to shrug and walk away. Thank you for pushing me to write, to do what I love and how to push through fears. And thank you most of all for your love draped like a loose arm around my shoulders, never too tight and always ready to set me free ... and to let me back in.
This week's story Lightening the Load
Friday, October 10, 2014
This week, we lost our friend Colleen.
In the almost eight years I knew her, Colleen was the bohemian writer and provocateur that I aspired to be. Her life was like a series of short story hooks: getting married on a lunch break, waiting out a riot in a bar, living in a house cut in half, or living through the Summer of Love. She was woman whose only regrets were never having been arrested, and not writing her stories earlier.
She was my greatest cheerleader, and often said that our writer’s group meetings were important because while family and friends could be sympathetic, they could never truly understand the maladies of the daily writer. We celebrated getting our stories published by magazines no one knew existed, thumbed our noses at rejection letters from even more obscure publications, held book sales in supermarkets, and challenged each other’s boundaries. I consider getting Colleen to kill a dog in a story to be one of my supreme accomplishments as a writer. She taught me that a writer’s voice develops naturally from writing, and writing, and writing some more.
She told me she used to be afraid of death, so she started hospice volunteering and got over it. I like to believe that at the end, she stared at the reaper and was not scared, only curious. Maybe she flipped him off. The cancer took away her words first, so I will never know. She didn’t want a funeral; she said that when you’re dead, that’s it. I urge you to keep that in mind when you read her story this week and know that while she was writing it, she was laughing the whole time.
This week's story: The Funeral