What I’m Reading

I saw this post by @PernilleRipp via @OSSEMOOC today:

First, go and read the article. Great advice.

Now, I’ll share what I’m reading right now. See how I was inspired?

  • Gabriel’s Journey (Book 1, Gabriel’s Redemption) by Steve Umstead (Kindle; just listened to #0 in audiobook)
  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (audiobook; second time through)
  • Play by Stuart Brown (borrowed hardcover; haven’t actually started yet)
  • Star Trek: Ongoing (graphic novel/comic series; just finished issue #32)

What are you reading?

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Short Story: “The Encourager” – Revised and Complete

About 3500 words. First complete draft.

Her face was blank mask, devoid of feeling, and she knew it. She practiced each day in front of the small, grimy mirror, removing every trace of emotion and every hint of her thoughts.

Amanda used to cry when they questioned her, hot fury and poisonous despair destroying her control of herself. Now she faced them in perfect silence, and still they knew nothing.

It wasn’t easy to purge the effects of feelings. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel at all, but rather she had trained her body to no longer respond unless she willed it to. Her training was far more painful than the questioning ever was, but she turned herself to stone in order to survive.

Again today she brought up the memories of the CPD bludgeoning her father to death with their batons, then of her mother stalking purposefully from the porch. She saw again how the armoured men wilted before the woman, tearing off their helmets and vomiting as they fell, great welts appearing suddenly across their faces. And inevitably she saw her mother’s body jerk and spasm as the rounds from unseen snipers blasted through her.

The memories hadn’t changed, and her mind’s reaction was still horror and shock and rage, but her face remained cool, her heart rate steady. Amanda was the master of herself, as she had to be if she wanted to stay alive.

She started in surprise as the door to her room banged open behind her. She felt the rush of adrenaline, both familiar and frustrating as it threatened her facade, and she fought down the reaction her body was insisting upon. In seconds she was ready, and she turned around.

Blue-white fluorescents buzzed in the empty corridor, and cameras dotted the walls every ten feet or so. Amanda walked out of her room and down the hallway. She passed dozens of locked rooms identical to her own, each home to a pathetic soul whose parents had been murdered by the Citizen Protection Division. Most were twisted wraiths, barely recognizable as human. Some were loud in their defiance, but she knew their fear was louder still. Some rooms were empty, doors open, the former occupants having been “set free”.

Only she had survived intact, overcome the torture, the drugs, the equipment, the provocations, and the endless, endless questions. She was a rock.

Eventually the too-bright hallway ended at a too-familiar steel door with a six-inch safety glass window to the other side. She didn’t need to look; it was the room she had visited every day for longer than she could understand, and she knew every inch of it in terrifying detail.

As she approached the door it swung open on its shrieking hinges. The scent of bleach and latex assaulted her and her stomach rebelled. She held her breath for just a moment before willing herself to breathe normally.

There was a man seated in a stainless steel chair in the centre of the tiled room. He wore the brown and black uniform of the CPD, and he held an open file folder which had a photo of her fastened to the outside corner with a paperclip. He looked up and smiled.

“Come in, Amanda; I’ve been waiting for you. I’m Solomon, Agent Solomon, with the CPD. Please sit.”

He motioned to the only other piece of furniture in the room, another chair placed opposite him and a few feet away. His face was open and honest-looking, but she knew better. Amanda judged him to be about fifty. She stood impassively just inside the door and Agent Solomon’s smile became slightly forced.

“Please,” he repeated, “join me for a moment.”

She relented and sat in the chair, neither relaxed nor tense. She wore her emotionless mask and she sensed she needed it now more than ever.

He continued to peruse the file for a moment, then looked into her eyes. “You’re a Pusher.”

She did not respond.

He smiled again, humourlessly this time. “You’re a Pusher, and we both know it. You’ve been able to Push for years, and you’re the best I’ve ever seen at keeping it to yourself, but you’re still a Pusher.”

She looked at him without expression.

He leaned back and crossed one leg over the other knee. “You see, I’ve been watching you for a long time. Since shortly after you arrived here, actually. Because both your parents were Pushers, so we figured there was a good chance you were too.” He paused. “We weren’t aware that your mother had the skill when we went to apprehend your father, you know. It wasn’t until she attacked our men that we found out.”

Solomon started to flip through the folder, pausing to turn it sideways from time to time. Amanda assumed he was looking at photos; she couldn’t see to be sure. He made small noises to himself as he turned pages, nodding.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” He looked up and waited for her to respond, but continued after a moment. “One thousand, four hundred sixty days.” No reaction. “That’s four years, Amanda. Or it will be tomorrow.”

She felt her eyes widen. Four years. No wonder she was being questioned by an Agent. No one lasted four years in a CPD orphanage. The law said that after four years they had to let you go. She felt hope bubble up hot inside her, followed quickly by a knowing despair.

Solomon continued. “So that’ll be it. Tomorrow you’ll be a free woman. It’s never happened here before, you know. No one has ever left this facility alive. Ever.”

His casually polite voice had turned gritty and dark on the last word, and Amanda became certain she would not break the streak. She had long ago resigned herself to dying in this prison.

Solomon started to tap his fingernail against the chair, the metallic ring echoing ominously.

“Do you understand me, Amanda?”

Knowing silence would buy her nothing, Amanda swallowed hard and then spoke, her voice unfamiliar to herself.

“I understand. You’re going to kill me,” she replied.

His serpent’s smile reappeared. “No, I don’t want to kill you. I want to hire you.”

Solomon stood and started to pace in front of the girl, waving the file folder in one hand as he spoke.

“I need a Pusher who is so good that I can’t tell she’s a Pusher. I need someone who can lie so well that no one would even suspect that she has the skill, even when she’s using it against them.” He stopped pacing and looked intently at her. “I need you to Push for me, just once, and then you can go free. If you don’t… well, your other choices aren’t favourable.”

Amanda didn’t answer him, but her mind was whirling. This was a new tactic, for sure. Was he trying to get her to demonstrate her skill so that he had the excuse he needed to execute her? She flicked her eyes up to the cameras in the corners of the room near the ceiling. If she Pushed too hard in this place, she was dead.

“They’re switched off, Amanda. No one is watching.”

She gritted her teeth, but remained silent. She knew he had the power to end her life, maybe even without “evidence” that she was a Pusher. She didn’t like her chances.

“I’m not a Pusher,” she said at last. “Let me go.”

Solomon shook his head and settled back into the chair. “Yes you are. We both know it. Let me speak plainly.” He looked intently at her, his dark eyes boring into her blue ones. “If you don’t help me, we’re going to kill you today. If you do help me, you’ll be able to leave here freely tomorrow after you do this job. That’s all.”

Amanda considered. He certainly was speaking plainly, and she knew there couldn’t be an audio feed on those cameras or he would never have said that. The CPD monitored everything in these rooms and they prized their deniability. She doubted he would have spoken even if the video feed was live for fear of having someone read his lips. She was starting to feel hope trickling up again.

“Why do you want me to Push?” she asked finally. Nothing to lose, she thought.

He smiled again. “I think it’s more important to know whom I want you to Push.”

“Fine, who?”

He handed her a photograph from inside his uniform jacket’s pocket. It showed a woman in her late thirties, serious-looking and professionally dressed. She was posing for the camera, and the backdrop was one of those artificial drapes like those in school photos.

“Melissa Clement. She’s an entrepreneur and a politician. Her platform involves reforming and dismantling the CPD, and she’s about to make a speech that will put a lot of pressure on the government to fold up my Division. I want you to change her speech, and I don’t want her to know that you’ve done it.”

Amanda felt suddenly sick. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and a sweat broke out across her body. What Solomon was asking wasn’t possible. Wasn’t supposed to be possible.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she told him. “Everyone knows you can’t Push someone without them knowing it.” Her voice sounded unconvincing and she knew it.

He cocked his head to one side. “You can,” he said, and the certainty in his voice chilled Amanda.

Amanda looked around the room again, and behind her to the empty hallway. She turned back and put her head in her hands.

Solomon spoke again. “Amanda, I know you can do this. I’ll tell you what: you can test it out on me.”

She looked up in surprise, then furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”

“You Push me to do something I don’t want to, and we’ll see if I know what happened.”

Amanda shook her head. “That won’t work. How will you know what you wanted to do after I’ve changed your mind?”

Solomon reached into the folder and took out a sheet of paper. He retrieved a pen from inside his jacket, wrote a few words on the back of the page, and showed it to her.

“I, Solomon, do not wish to clap my hands,” she read. “So you want me to make you clap?”

Solomon nodded. “I’ll try my best not to clap, and after you make me do it you can show me this page. If you can’t make me clap, you die. If I know you Pushed me without looking at the paper, you die.”

Amanda pursed her lips, then nodded. “Okay,” she said, and folded the paper in half. She sat back in the uncomfortable chair and crossed her arms, glaring at the man.

Agent Solomon stared at her impassively.

She concentrated on him, gently suggesting to his mind that he should clap for her. It had to be as natural as possible so that he couldn’t detect her manipulation. She needed to fit the changes into his own mindset about her, about the situation, and about his needs and desires.

He slowly shook his head and his mouth curled into a mocking smile. “Too bad, Amanda. I had such high hopes for you, but it looks like your skill can’t save you. It was a good effort,” he continued, clapping, “but you might as well start thinking about what you’d like for your last meal.”

She grinned at him suddenly, and he stopped applauding. She unfolded the page and handed it back to him. He read it silently, and she watched the muscles in his jaw ripple.

***

Amanda sat in the passenger seat of the car and looked through the binoculars at Melissa Clement. She paced the sidewalk outside of a Starbucks and spoke rapidly into a cell phone, gesticulating for emphasis.

Amanda turned to the man in the driver’s seat. “What kind of coffee does she drink?”

Solomon shook his head. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Does it matter?”

She returned to the binoculars. “I want to make her order something she wouldn’t normally order,” she explained. “But it would be better if I knew what she might like.”

He didn’t respond to that, and Amanda continued to think about how to approach Clement while observing the animated phone conversation.

“Okay, let’s go,” she told Solomon, and stepped out of the car. She strode towards the coffee shop and him ran to catch up to her.

He grabbed her arm and stopped her about thirty feet from the building. He leaned in and spoke in a low, urgent voice. “You need to stay very, very close to me,” he said. “That strap around your ankle will inject you if you get too far away. No surprises. Tell me what you’re doing.”

Amanda felt chilled as she realized how close she had come to killing herself. She steeled herself against the shakes she felt coming on and explained her plan.

“I’m going to go and order a coffee. When she comes in and gets in line, I’m going to make her order something and then change her mind and order something else. Then I’m going to get her to sit at a certain table. That’s all. I just need to practice with her.”

Solomon nodded and released her arm. Amanda glowered at him, then continued to the Starbucks, albeit at a much slower pace.

Clement was still clutching her phone and waving dramatically when they entered the building. She didn’t appear to notice them.

Amanda ordered a Tall Skinny Vanilla Latte for herself, and told Solomon to order something as well. At first he refused, but relented when she frowned meaningfully at him. Amanda paid with the money that Solomon had given her, and they sat at a table near the counter.

They had nearly finished their drinks by the time Clement entered and approached the counter. Amanda looked down at the table and then closed her eyes.

“Um, can I have a Grande Italian Roast, no room please?” the politician asked the barista. “Wait, no…. Can I have a Tall Skinny Vanilla Latte instead please?”

Amanda smiled and looked up at her captor. “Far corner table behind me,” she whispered to him. “Right beside the window.”

He looked over her shoulder and watched as Clement sat at the table Amanda had indicated. He nodded slightly to the girl.

“Okay, let’s go,” she said.

***

Amanda had never been to such a formal, expensive dinner. She sat with Solomon, who had introduced himself as Ryan Carter, and picked at the unidentifiable dish on her plate. Solomon was supposed to be her uncle, and she was along to “learn the life” as he had put it to several inquisitive diners. For her part she mostly stayed quiet, answering questions in ways that did not invite further conversation.

The ankle strap had been removed just before entering the building. Solomon had explained that there were snipers on nearby buildings to pick her off if she ran, and there were other guests at the dinner who would subdue her if she tried to leave. Because she wouldn’t know who they were, he explained, she wouldn’t be able to influence them until it was too late.

Gazing around the crowded banquet hall she counted over two hundred guests. The sounds of murmurs, forced laughs, and clinking silverware washed over her, and closed her eyes for a moment, imagining the other people employed by the CPD who might be stationed throughout the room. When she opened them she saw an elderly man ascending the steps to the stage to one side of the hall. Close behind him followed Melissa Clement.

Solomon leaned closer to her. “It’s time,” he said in a whisper.

She shot him a look. “I know!” she hissed, and he sat up again, unperturbed.

The man on stage had called for attention, and spent a moment introducing the honoured guest. Clement looked calm and patient behind him, smiling a meaningless smile while she waited for his rambling to finish. Finally he stepped aside and Clement stepped up to the microphone amid polite but enthusiastic applause.

“Good evening, dear friends,” she began, looking down briefly at her notes on the lectern. “I’m so glad you could join me tonight to celebrate our shared vision for the future of our people and our country.”

While Clement spoke to her people, Amanda stared intently at her, concentrating hard. This was her moment, her chance to change the future.

“As you know, there is no issue that divides the parties more distinctly than that of the Pushers, those among us who can influence the thoughts of others. I have always delivered the same message where these citizens are concerned: they are people, they have rights, and they are unfairly treated by the Citizen Protection Division.”

Amanda’s breathing slowed as she focused on Clement’s next words.

“But I have been wrong. I haven’t understood them well enough, and so I haven’t understood their plight.”

Clement paused, and the silence in the room was broken only by the shifting of guests in their seats.

“They are not Pushers, dangerous threats to our safety. They are Encouragers, people who have the power to enact change by helping us to see past our self-induced blindness.

“They are not rats to study. They are not a danger as the CPD claims. They are the future, not just of this country, but of the human race. We should be welcoming them as superior beings, not fearing them as predators or prodding them as laboratory curiosities.”

The audience rumbled now as a tension grew in the room. Amanda could sense the unease around her as Clement strayed from the party line into uncomfortable territory.

“Amanda!” Solomon whispered at her urgently. “What are you doing? I’ll kill you!”

She ignored him and continued to Push, determined to finish the work.

Clement raised her voice now, partly for effect and partly to be heard over the muttering. “Perhaps this is a new age, one of discovery and enlightenment. Perhaps a new dawn for humanity is now upon us, the evolution of our species which will take us to heights we had never before dreamed of. Let us embrace these gifted citizens as heralds of the future, and let us give them the honour an acclamation they deserve.”

There was some sparse clapping at this statement, but it was quickly lost in the confused, angry muttering in the hall. Solomon kicked Amanda hard under the table, and she yelped in surprise and pain.

Clement looked up suddenly and then down at her notes as though disoriented. A middle-aged woman at the table next to Amanda raised a finger and pointed at the girl.

“You!” she shouted, rising from her chair. “You’re doing this! You’re one of those Pushers!”

Amanda looked at the other guests, trying in vain to find support. Solomon’s face was clouded in anger, and she knew she was running dangerously low on options. She didn’t know which guests were on the CPD payroll, and it seemed the high-class mob before her could snap at any time.

She stood and looked out over the crowded hall. A few other guests were standing as well, and the woman from the next table was still shouting at her. Amanda closed her eyes and reached out with her mind.

Slowly, silence descended in the room again. The middle-aged woman sat down and looked back to the stage. Clement continued to stand at the microphone, but she too was quiet.

Amanda gingerly pushed back her chair and stepped cautiously towards the nearest exit, about twenty feet away. She Pushed all of the guests at once to look towards Clement while she approached the doorway and slipped through it. She was gasping for breath from the exertion of such a widespread Push, even a simple one, and it was a moment before she could properly look around.

She was in a service hallway which ran behind the kitchens. There was no one in sight although there was a great deal of clatter and chatter from, she assumed, the cooks and servers. She slunk along the narrow passageway until she saw the symbol for a staircase painted on a door. She pushed the metal bar and found the staircase led both up and down. Mind racing and heart pounding, she descended further into the building.

She was lost for a while. The basement was poorly lit and consisted of dozens of identical passageways of concrete and drywall. The building was much larger than she had originally thought. Just as she was feeling a sense of hopelessness asserting itself she spied another glowing red exit sign up ahead. She decided to take her chances.

Amanda opened the door enough to let in a sliver of light and to let her see what was beyond the door. To her surprise it was a street, which she assumed was in the back of the banquet hall. It was deserted, but Solomon had told her that snipers were poised and ready to end her short life. Taking another deep breath she reached out with her mind.

***

A taxi pulled up to the bus station and stopped. Thanking the driver but not paying him, Amanda stepped out of the cab into the chill night air. She breathed deeply, smelling freedom and imagining possibilities, and then went inside to get a ticket.

Book Review: “Gabriel: Zero Point, A Gabriel Universe Novella” by Steve Umstead, read by Ray Chase

I just finished listening to Gabriel: Zero Point on Audible. Here’s a quick review. No spoilers.

First, I got the Kindle book in April because the trilogy it leads to was recommended by Amazon, and the novella was free (it is right now; you can get it here). Rather than buy (and more importantly commit many hours to) the series, I decided to take this novella for a test drive. As I’ve said before, I’m strongly in favour of the idea of introducing a series with a novella, whether that’s book one or book zero (like this one).

Did I mention the audiobook was also free? Yup, 91 pages of ebook or 2 hours 43 minutes of audiobook, both free. Get it here at Audible.

The book is a near future science fiction story explaining the origins of Evan Gabriel, a Special Forces officer in the North American Federation navy. The world-building is fairly light in the book, but there’s enough there to see that the world is fleshed out in the author’s mind. It’s a prequel novella, so I hope the world will be explained more fully in book one. The main character is given a pretty good back story without making it too simple (that is, the reader isn’t sure of all of the factors influencing Evan’s decisions and thoughts; I like this). In some stories there is a single event in a character’s history which drives everything they do, and it makes them kinda one-dimensional. Steve Umstead, by contrast, gets it right.

The narration is good, even great, in my opinion. I’ve listened to a lot of audiobooks, and this is one of the ones which tempts me to go see what else the narrator has read. The characters were distinguishable, and the girl (yup, there’s really just one that speaks) sounds girlish.

I went ahead and bought the Kindle “boxed set” of three books for a little over $5 CAD. Each book in the trilogy is just shy of $3 CAD, so this is a good discount. Also, since there is no Whispersync at the moment so I couldn’t get the audiobooks cheaply – I’ll just read the text. I’m beginning another audiobook anyway, so that’s fine. I tend to keep one going in each format anyway. Amazon tells me that it’s 656 pages in the trilogy, which feels like a great value to me at an almost laughable $0.50/hour for good entertainment.

So I recommend it, pretty highly. Hopefully I’ll be able to say the same about the trilogy in a few weeks. I’ll let you know.

Science Fiction is really hard to write

I’ve tried to write down some story ideas in the last year or so, and I think Science Fiction is the most difficult genre to write in.

You have to know science. That is challenging, because you have to have a broad base of knowledge; it’s not enough to be comfortable with the mechanics of space travel. For example, if you’re writing a story that’s set 200 years in Earth’s future when nanotechnology is commonplace, you’d have to think about how that affects medicine, space travel, biology, cybernetics, chemistry, and more. If you can design self-replicating nanobots, why are you bothering to create a “mining colony”? Just design some nanobots to dig the ore themselves. Oh, wait – you can just make the valuable ore “unstable” so that only people can do the mining, right? Because it makes sense that humans 200 years distant would be more precise and reliable than machines 200 years distant. Right. What’s that? You have a point-to-point teleportation device (transporter) which has planetary range? Game changer. Put that in the hands of a villain and think about what would happen, really.

And not only do you have to know a lot of science, you have to know politics and history. How would human civilization develop over the next 200 years? Who should be in power? What happens to Earth’s governments when humans come into contact with extraterrestrials? What would happen if there was an energy crisis? I don’t know how to answer any of those questions, and I’m the one trying to make up the story.

And, of course, there’s all the other stuff that goes into good writing: strong characters with meaningful motivations and reasonable weaknesses, interesting situations and difficult problems, long- and short-term plot arcs.

So SciFi is pretty hard. Writing present-day, near-to-the-author fiction that doesn’t require carefully considering the laws of the universe seems an order of magnitude easier. Maybe I should try to translate some of my story ideas into that setting and see what happens. Maybe I won’t feel quite so ignorant.

e-Book/Audiobook deal; a brief review of Scalzi’s “The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1”

Since I’m trying to find short books that will build worlds for me without having to commit to ten thousand pages, I bought and listened to John Scalzi‘s “The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1” narrated by William Dufris on Audible.com. This is a book set in the same distant future as his “Old Man’s War” novels, but it’s being released as a weekly serial for $0.99 an episode. The e-Book is also available for $0.99  ($1.16 for me, because I live in Canada, the publisher sets a higher price, and I am paying taxes on the purchase), and I bought it as well.

Why did I buy both?

Well, for starters, $1.16 is pretty inexpensive for a well-written novella of about 90 pages. Or almost any length, really. I also wanted to try out the Kindle/Audible WhisperSync system (haven’t tried it yet, sorry – I’ll get back to you on that one). Lastly, I wanted to read the names of the planets, species, and characters, so I’ll go through the book again. For example, there is a character in the book with the last name “Bair”, but I was imagining it spelled “Behr”. If I’m going to transition later into Scalzi’s longer books, I might need to know how things are spelled. Plus, I find characters more memorable if I can “see” their name in my head.

I like this model of delivery: a weekly release of short books all set in the same world. Books on the Nightstand says it’s the year of the short story; I certainly think it is for me.

Brief review; no spoilers

Overall, it was a good, fast read. The characters are complex enough for a novella, and there are several small plot arcs in the context of a larger plot. There isn’t a lot of time for characters to grow in two hours of narration, so there wasn’t much there.

The narration was good but not excellent. The characters’ voices were usually distinguishable from each other, but there were a few times that I wasn’t sure which male character was which. Also, the voice of the narrator (um…. not sure how to say this… the book’s narrator, not the performance’s narrator…) sometimes sounded too much like the characters’ voices.

He said, she said

But I always knew who was talking because of the number of “saids” in the story. In an exchange in the first few pages, the dialogue looks (structurally) like this:

"Sentence," character 1 asked.
"Sentence," character 2 said.
"Sentence," character 1 said.
"Sentence," character 2 said.
"Sentence," character 1 joked.
"Sentence," character 2 said.

When you flesh out the sentences, it’s not really so bad, but it’s still noticeable. When the narrator has to say all of those saids aloud, it’s a bit jarring and it takes me out of the story a little. I hope I’m not overstating this; it’s a minor problem.

The only other criticism I have is that a few times the characters say things that I don’t know would be said by far-future humans (like references to high school and paper bags). Little things, to be sure.

Still worth it

Overall, great book. 4.5 stars. You should read it if you like space opera. I’ve already bought “The Human Division 2: Walk The Plank” (Audible and Amazon).