That something…

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We’ve all got that something. It’s the reason we hesitate to introduce ourselves, the first thing we think about when we undress with someone new, that idiosyncrasy, that flaw we’ve been taught to believe is the whole reason we’re so shy and ill at ease around others.

It’s been hammered into us that we’re physical or emotional Quasimodos, hunched, damaged, unworthy of attention from those who glide.  Every mistake, every awkward conversation is damning evidence until, like fools, we convince ourselves it’s so.

But that something is our uniqueness, our special proposition to the world that no one else has.  Most dismiss it as defect, and that’s a shame. Our difference, in particular, is what makes us worth knowing.

Across a bar, in a park, at work, we recognize the same terse, pained expressions we see in the mirror. Someone taught wrongly that differences should be hidden. Someone who doesn’t know that being exceptional, distinct, is their best attribute. It’s hard, living that deluded way. So with a glance and a smile, we say, I see you, and you’re totally cool. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to open them up. Next thing you know, you’re sitting next to a person with an incredible story. If you’re lucky they share it. And you’re infinitely richer as a result.

-F.A.F.

 

A Familiar Beauty

https://www.thrillist.com/drink/nation/how-to-flirt-with-women-dating-tips

You’ve never met before, and it takes you a while to realize it. Uncommon. Remarkable. Familiar. Warmth and a genuine smile. Simple grace that’d be wasted on film or TV—subtlety no camera could capture.

Polite questions at first then she digs a little deeper. Deep enough to tell you she’s interested. Not in your job, your house, or your income. She’s interested in you.

The more you talk, the more certain you are this can’t be your first meeting. You’re too relaxed; words come too easily. Conversation is more like catching up with an old flame. A kindred soul. One of your tribe. But that ring on her finger means she ain’t yours, mate. If you think you’re the man in the white hat, you’re gonna have to let this one go.

Well, she’s here with you, right now, twirling her hair around a finger and throwing sparks in your tinderbox. Been a while since someone took the time to figure out you’re worth finding. And she likes what she’s found. If the joint was robbed at gunpoint right now, you wouldn’t have the faintest notion. She’s that captivating. You really don’t want her to go.

So you make her laugh, and the sound of it is pure joy. Gets you wondering what a more private encounter might sound like. She sets her wineglass on the bar a little farther away than usual, so you know she’s done with it, then leans closer.

Oh, that’s her hand on your leg, right there…and that arched eyebrow is saying better than words what she has in mind.

Time to decide, mate. Weigh your regrets. When you do, you know.

God damn, she’s worth it.

-FAF

Vivid Dreams VI

 

eerie forest

November 1, 2015

A dream after the end of the anthropocene. Civilization has collapsed and mankind lives like rats in the bones of cities.

I find myself in a stone castle, a vanity fortress built by an obscenely rich man. His bones lie unburied and scattered in the yard. Did I kill him? No. Do I care that he was dragged from this home and murdered in front of his family? Not one bit.

The stone halls are sterile and cold, what glass occupied the narrow slits long ago shattered by marauders. In the beginning they came in droves–roving bands of the desperate, the crazed, the ones driven mad by the brutal cost of survival.

Attacks are less frequent now, winter’s cold and starvation doing most of the work for us. But for years, it was bad. I did things. Things that taught me how to win, how to endure, how to protect what is mine. There’s strength in these arms I never had before, a hardness that was honed to cut through anyone who would try to kill and steal. But when I look on the bleached bones in the courtyard, I’m reminded I can’t live long enough to undo what I’ve done. Just a matter of time before the past catches up and I meet the same ignoble end.

Decades after the collapse I serve a larger purpose. Drawn to the safety and shelter I had hacked from the wilderness, people built a community around me. I’m not their leader, as such. I make their hard choices. Spare them the pangs of conscience and the horrors of memory. Though they dread my gaze, they are grateful I will do the things they cannot.

Right now, I’m training assassins. Early on I realized if a group is plotting your demise, there’s usually one person calling the shots. Grease that prick and the group melts. Infighting, confusion can bust up an assault before it comes and there’s no need to waste people or bullets. Few enough of either these days. So I take the young ones, ones I can mold, shape, and grind and I turn them into razors.

This sort of training takes an emotional toll, especially on the ones who can’t hack it. So I save the bloodier parts until the end and start every candidate with a useful skill…a skill that won’t leave them haunted, staring up at the ceiling every night. Today, we work on stealth.

I’m stalking a girl through these cold castle halls. Others, I found easily. They don’t get it yet, don’t see the importance of remaining invisible. Spoiled by doting, loving parents who aren’t old enough to recall how bad it once was, how bad it could be again. I gave them back to their parents without damage or disgrace. This girl, though, I’ve searched through every room, hall, and closet. At only thirteen years of age, she gets it.

I descend a stairway and emerge into a bare room with shallow recesses on each side of the steps. Sunlight streams in through window slits, diffuses off the pale gray flagstones, and splashes the walls and ceiling. I look left and right, seeing nothing but the room I’m in. I wait and listen. No sound but the whistle of late Autumn wind. But I know she’s here.

I point to my right and tell her to come out. No movement. Good.

I finish descending the steps, keeping my eyes on the shallow recess to my right, and I find her squished into the nearest corner. Arms over head, standing on tip toes, breath held. She managed to fit herself into a nook only six inches deep. Already, she has learned a bright room lures a victim into confidence, and she fit herself into a space no one would believe a person could fit. And she didn’t give herself away when I called her out.

This is the one.

She knows herself, feels her environment and where she belongs in it. The predator spirit is in her. In time, she will bring death as swift and inevitable as a force of nature. For now I congratulate her on eluding me, tell her what she did well, and that it was only her thudding heart that told me where to look. That, too, can be controlled.

*****

I patrol the woods most nights. That’s when they come, usually, and it’s been years since I’ve been able to sleep without startling at every bump or snapping twig. Never been able to trust anyone else to keep an all night watch, either, so the black watch has become a habit.

The forest is peaceful at night. Cool Fall air. Nocturnal creatures hoot and call to one another. Lonely souls. It’s a pleasant break from the petty complaints back at the compound. Or it would be, at least, if I could figure out where all the larger game was going. I find deer sign, tracks that end suddenly. No fur, no blood, no sign of a kill. But the emptiness of these woods means something is driving them off, or killing them off. I mean to find out.

The following day, I set off before sunset with a long blade and the clothes on my back. I’ll forage what I need, even if it means pigeon and squirrel. And with bullets so rare, firearms only get in the way now. The people are anxious I’m leaving, but they’ll have to stand on their own someday. Might as well start today.

The fallen leaves are still pliant, bright with color. Makes it easier to move quietly. From the cloudless sky, it’s going to be a clear, cool night. New moon. Will be as dark as it gets.

I trek out past my typical range. There are animal signs, infrequent. Not a matter of local over hunting. This is something systemic.

There’s a bridge over a dry riverbed ahead. The road connecting it on each end has long since been covered by downed leaves and overgrown foliage, but the span is clear. Only a few spots of rust cut the green paint.

When I walk beneath, I feel an instant menace above. Looking up, I see only hints of the structure, but something is there. I feel it’s stare and that’s all. No breath, no pulse, no feeling of life. If not for the last few rays of sun filtering through the branches, it might have had me.

I point up at it, telling it without words I know it’s there, and back out the way I came.

Twilight fades.

No wind in trees. Stillness like I’m inside some kind of enormous terrarium. Where are the night birds? The frogs and crickets?

Meters away, a rustle in the leaves. A wet grunt of something dropping to the ground and the squeak of a small thing dying. In the dim starlight I can see a patch of black squatting on the leaves. Crunching of tiny bones in its mouth.

I pull my blade and test my grip when all my hairs stand on end. Behind me. 

I leap to one side as something dives out of the trees and crashes where I stood. I hack at it, but the blade bounces off overlapping scales.

Another races from around an old oak trunk. Black from head to foot, running on toes, hands extended like raptor claws. I sidestep and jam the blade upward. It slides under a scaly plate, slips between ribs, and cleaves the heart.

I rip the blade free and whirl to face two more, just dodging pointed claws and a lunging bite. With a backhand swing, I lodge my blade under a collar plate and yank it back, cutting to the vertebrae. Cold spray on face and arms. It falls.

The last is gone. Fled. I pivot, peering into the boughs, still on the balls of my feet, blade raised with cold dark blood running over my hand. Silence.

At my feet sprawls something reptilian, something humanoid, something neither. Something its own mother would reject. A wide, elongated jaw is thickly planted with translucent needle teeth. Its thin tongue lolls, too long to fit inside the mouth. Even in death, its leer is hideous.

Surprised to find it has a tail. Too short for balance, too thin to be prehensile. It looks like something vestigial. A throwback of de-evoloution. With my boot, I turn its bald, earless head then stand on its cheek. Blade in hand, I chop the rest of the way through the neck so I can tote the head back. The others, they won’t want to know about these things, but they’ll have to.

*****

I’m not the only one who ranges the wilds, of course. I couldn’t possibly provide for everyone on my own. Besides, assassins make good scouts. Even the ones who couldn’t go all the way through the training know how to move without being seen. They make good eyes in our woods. And that’s becoming more and more important as time goes on.

We’ve picked the bones of our neighborhood clean, which means we have to range farther each year for the rare supplies. Even though we have some crops to keep us going, we depend on game to keep us healthy. If it doesn’t return, we may have to leave this fortress.

Until then, we push out into surrounding towns, cautiously entering buildings and homes, turning over rusty tin cans with labels long since degraded away. Almost every can I pierce oozes rotten slime. Sometimes I get lucky and find a can of peaches or green beans. Too few to cart back, so I gulp them down for safest keeping.

Everything in plastic has been chewed through by rodents and roaches. Entire pallets of grains. Store aisles of cereals and pasta. Heart breaking.

Found a box of shotgun shells. Only one of them hadn’t been nibbled, but all the brass was shiny, at least. Decided to cart the whole pack.

Most of the homes in this town are flooded in a couple feet of scummy green water. Algae and vines climb vinyl siding up to sagging shingle roofs, as though some bog monster is pulling them all down in slow motion. There could be treasures in the upper floors, but the structure below is guaranteed rot. Just opening the front door is enough to collapse them sometimes. Found that out the hard way and caught a few rusty nails for my trouble. Left scars, though i’d be hard-pressed to remember which. Got plenty these days.

A structurally sound house can be even more dangerous. Never know what or who has taken residence. Manners come in handy. Say, I’m sorry, and just back away. Other times, I find them huddled in a corner, eyes wide, shivering. I talk to them to see what’s left of their mind. If there’s enough, I invite them to come back with me to the compound. But when I find someone surrounded by ribs and long leg bones, it’s better to just get it over with. No one comes back from cannibalism.

The house I’m inside has altogether different occupants. They look normal, aside from the slouching, plodding gait, and the cuts on their necks that leak yellow down to the waist. The first one comes at me from the kitchen pantry, drooling, moaning like a zombie. Cloudy eyes, ashen skin, dark teeth. I grab a chef’s knife from the block and zip it across its throat. The person falls, gurgling, but there’s no blood, just more yellow ooze.

Others shuffle in from the garage, more from the living room and dining room. Exits blocked. I slash through neck after neck until the floor becomes a shifting mass of bodies underfoot. Hard to stand.

Vault over the counter top to the breakfast nook and onto clean linoleum. Only then does it occur to me that this house was, until recently, maintained. These people, whatever happened to them, couldn’t have been any more than a week earlier. If only I’d been sooner…

Another lurches at me. I grip it by a pate of oily hair, haul back, slit the throat, and drop it. Glance over the shoulder…open ground beyond the window behind me. An escape route…

Another shuffles near, and I nearly slice but for the words written on the shirt:

Help me, I’m not one of them!

I look up at the face, and I see his eyes are clear, wide with fear. I elbow him aside and carve through the last two shuffling at me.

The man is tall, slim, early forties. Tells me he’d been living with this group a while. Then some things came at night. While the rest were outside around a cooking fire, he had gone inside for his coat. There were screams, and he went to the second floor window. Outside, scaly black creatures tackled his friends, bit them at the neck and drained them until they went rigid. Too scared to move, he hid upstairs.

The next morning, he looked out the window. His friends were not there. Movement downstairs made him wonder if he had dreamt it all so he started toward the stairs when he opted for caution, just in case. From the top of the staircase, he peeked down. Saw his friends shuffling around, bleeding bile yellow from the bites at their throats.

Hunger made him desperate. He dropped a piece of paper to the first floor with a written message, something with big bold letters they couldn’t miss. His friends shuffled right over it without a second glance. Only movement excited their attention, like mice, squirrels, birds. But they ignored each other. So the man decided he would try to blend in with them so he could get to the food in the kitchen downstairs.

He figured worst case they’d only last a week without food or water, since they never seemed to take any. But they showed no signs of weakening. Worse, yet, those black scaly things were out there somewhere. At least in here, he could hide and still get to the food supply. Someday, he would have to break out, he knew, but until then, he wrote a message on his shirt in case anyone happened upon him. Said he was a nurse once upon a time and he’d be glad to help any way he could.

I’ve always got a place for useful people. So I hand him my pack and tell him to fill it with anything he wants to take, because he’s coming back to the compound with me. All smiles, no hesitation.

*****

One of the scouts said she heard a burglar alarm going off in a neighborhood far to the North-East. She marked a map for me.

A burglar alarm means two things for certain: there’s power, even if it’s only batteries, and there’s something worth protecting. The down side is lots of things can hear. Who knows what the alarm’s attracted? This one’s going to be dangerous, so I’m going alone.

The trip out is uneventful. Finding the town is easy enough, and I pick a high point to scope out the objective. The house was right where it was marked. The alarm even rang three times in confirmation. That bothers me. Is that a call for help? Or a trap? I assume the latter and wait for nightfall.

Threading my way through town. Careful. Crouch, listen, and creep. The home is in good repair. Dry. Solid construction from a well-to-do family. Solar panels on the roof. We’ll need a crew to cart them off, but definitely coming back for those.

Getting all the indicators this place is lived in. Not just recently, I mean right now. With all this tech on the outside, chances are good there’s more inside. And the only reason it’s still here is because they’ve probably got the weapons to keep it. Have to check it out, but not going to come off as some common scav. Gotta find out about the alarm, first.

The immediate surroundings are too quiet, especially considering the alarm just blasted a few hours ago. No movement that I can see. Damned strange.

I approach the house, expecting booby traps, pits, and trip wires. Probing with a screwdriver in the dirt ahead as I crawl, looking for claymores, mines. Takes me all damn night. Found nothing.

Waiting in some overgrown shrubs across the street. The house looks fucking new. Undefended. No guards. Shades pulled over every window. Hell, even the brass knocker on the front door is shiny. This ain’t right.

Time for manners.

After checking under the porch for explosives or pressure plates, I go up to the front door and rap my knuckles against it.

“May I come in?” I ask.

An electronic deadbolt clicks and multiple bolts slide aside.

“Thank you,” I say, knowing there’s an unseen microphone somewhere.

I test the door handle with the back of my hand. Not electrified. I grip the knob only at the edge, fearful a poison dart might shoot out of the keyhole. The knob turns. The heavy door swings on oiled hinges.

Inside are urethaned hardwood floors, no tracks or dust. Oriental rugs, not the cheap kind, either. Mahogany handrails leading up polished wood stairs. But no lights on.

I close the door and listen while my eyes adjust. Nearly silent, save the background whoosh of central air. And I notice a freshness, like laundry. Immediate transport back to times before…before an X-class solar flare smashed the feeble data and power networks we’d built and sent aurora as far south as the Carolinas. Without the strands of digital money society collapsed, and the only things that had worth were what you could hold in your hands. If you couldn’t hold onto it, too bad. I watched the mobs for a while, then, once I’d already lost too much, I started taking back.

Here, in this place, the weight of lives strangled, crushed, and bludgeoned lands full on my shoulders. Such civilized normalcy throws the barbarism of my life into sharp relief. I swore I’d never look back on those times. One of many things I promised myself I’d never do.

The hallway ahead of me leads to a furnished kitchen. Tempted to raise the shades and let some light in, but this isn’t my home. Not my rules. So I feel around instead. Beyond the kitchen, the darkness is total. Not gonna let myself blunder into something. No choice but to pull out my flashlight.

Family photos along this hallway. Dignified, well-dressed couple, the man many years older than the woman. Jewelry of gold and platinum. A diamond on her hand of at least three karats. In the light it must’ve shined like Venus.

Another staircase ahead. Not as grand as the one at the entrance. Simple and functional with oriental rugs tacked to each step. I risk it, hoping the home will be as free of traps inside as it was outside. No creaks. Solid.

I shine the light behind me, always watching for someone sneaking up. No one there. So I continue down the second floor hallway. Bedrooms in this wing. Master bedroom, guest room. Kid’s rooms, one blue, one green. A linen closet stuffed full of clean white towels. Nothing to see here.

Back downstairs. Past a study, past a living room with large flat panel TV and electrostatic speakers. Deep couches that shame my cot back home. Another office with real walnut desk. A craft room/studio.

Behind a simple interior door, stairs leading down. Painted steps, no attempt at decorating the stairwell. Heading down to a basement…

The stairs bend near the bottom and I stoop under drop ceiling of a basement apartment. Hand-me-down couch, CRT TV, old punk rock posters and banged-up sports equipment. The bedroom is rammed with toys, so full there were no walls visible, just cabinet after cabinet overflowing with stuffed animals, model airplanes, robots, spaceships, and action figures. Really wanted to flick the lights on and look around. Not ready to disturb the setting, though. Not yet. But there is something important in this room, I know it.

About to leave the toy filled room when I notice a wider gap between the bed and the wall beside it than is necessary. I check the mattress for knives, or devices, then carefully place a knee on it. It creaks with old metal springs. Leaning over, I shine my light into the gap. Swaddled there is a baby, asleep.

This is why I’m here…

I pull the bed away from the wall so I can pick up the child. He’s warm. Borderline malnourished, but all right.

I rig my jacket into a kind of sling, leaving my hands free, and it occurs to me if his parents came home right now it would be impossible to explain. I am packing up someone else’s child. To me, it’s rescue. To them, it would be kidnapping.

With the boy snugged into the coat, I leave the room and immediately notice an orange glow at the far end of the basement. It wasn’t there before. It flickers gently, and I catch a whiff of smoke. The scent isn’t heavy, telling me this isn’t the smoldering start of a new fire. This one has been going for a while. It also tells me that glow must be coming from a door that just opened.

I creep toward it and find a false outer door meant to hide a heavy vault door, both of which are ajar. This is a safe room.

Through the crack, I spy a scene in foul contrast to the rest of the home. Grungy men dangle from the left cinderblock wall, crucified by meat hooks through their forearms. Their heads loll against their bare chests. Greasy brown bones are scattered at their feet. Long leg bones and ribs…

“These men came to take,” rasps a female voice just out of sight to the right. “They came to kill and steal. You’re not like them, are you?”

I look down at the child in my coat, think about it, and answer, “No, not anymore.”

A glimpse of movement in the room, something scaly and black.

“I saw your caution on the way in,” the voice says, “the way you sneak like a snake in tall grass. Someone doesn’t live to your old age without slitting throats. But you still remember the times before. You knocked and asked permission. No one does that anymore.”

There is a long hiss of dried flesh being stripped from bone.

“They came at night,” the raspy voice continues, “all fangs and claws. Got my husband. Two of my sons. I thought I had gotten away with my third.”

Snapping of jaws, clomping bites, and a deep gulp.

“Some they bleed. Others they eat. Depends on the hunger, as I’m finding out. I tried to hold out a long time. But, you see, if they sting you, you become one of them.”

A metal chair screeches against the concrete floor and a meatless arm bone is hurtled at the men on the wall. Their heads lift in terror, and they all blubber in pointless pleas.

“I HATE these men for making it so easy to succumb to these instincts,” the voice explains. “Now, I fear there will be a time when even my own son is not safe from me.”

“I can take him to my people,” I say. “I can nourish him, raise him, teach him to be strong. And I can remind him every day how much his mother loved him.”

Another gulp and a sniff.

“I’ve found the right man, then.” She exhales a held breath. “I want to see him. But I don’t trust myself.”

“He’s beautiful,” I say, “exactly how you remember him.”

She gasps, then, on the verge of tears, screams with rage, “GET HIM OUT OF HERE, NOW!”

“Yes, ma’am. I hope something of you remains, so you can admire the man he will become.”

With her precious parcel, I returned to my people, and told of what I had seen. All except the end, and how the captured men were made to scream.

 

-F.A.F.

 

 

 

 

 

New and Improved

Indolent

Some may think we’re not listening, or that we’re immune to recommendations, but it’s not so. If anything, we’re a friendly, accommodating lot and we like to make people happy. That’s when we remind our readers they must be thinking of our indolent author. Nothing gets through that hard head of his. And lately, nothing seems to be coming out of it, either.

C.O.P.: TWO YEARS, FARNHAM! IT’S BEEN TWO YEARS SINCE Exhausted Dead!

Farnham: <Hic!> Balls…mine…Zzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Since we can’t seem to beat anything out of him anymore, it’s high time we outsourced our Author Motivation Campaign. Help us find new and interesting ways to motivate our couch-lounging layabout. Send us your dastardly ideas/drawings/diagrams/implements by e-mail, postal worker, sled dog, or drone. For your troubles, you might get something good sent to the return address…

Editor at CadreOnePublishing dot com

or

Cadre One Publishing
7 Boxwood Cir
Milford, NH 03055
ATTN: Author Motivation Campaign

And while we’re at it, we went back through the meager work he has produced. With reader feedback in mind, we’ve issued a revised edition of Black Hawks From a Blue Sun.

The new and improved version features a deeper intro, better flow, and smoother action. We’re also giving the e-book away FREE starting this Wednesday, Jan 21st, through Sunday, Jan 25th. Click below for your downloadable copy:

Black Hawks From A Blue Sun Book cover

Looking forward to your thoughts. Well, yes, on the books, but also on exciting new uses for superglue…

Until then,

-C.O.P.

 

Black Watch

2x4q1Fk

You can see it in my eyes, mostly. And in the red rims around my eyes. In the coffee blackened orbits and the sun-starved lids. Pulled another Black Watch. Fuck.

Been a long week so far, and not a wink to be had. Head nods, and when I jerk myself awake my trigger finger flexes. Whoa. Safety was on, but gotta stay on top of that. Squeezing a round off inside an armored vehicle? That sucks.

Jolting and bouncing of spring suspension on what can laughingly be called ‘road’. More craters than the moon. Driver’s trying to keep the speed up, so he swerves around ’em. Tosses us against benches and bulkheads if we’re not paying attention. And at the end of a ride like this, feels like we’ve gone fifty rounds in a pro wrestling match with no limit on foreign objects. Black and blue all over.

Alloy rods and composite grips in my gloved hands. A hundred pounds of kit on my hips and shoulders. But, shit…that’s all normal. What isn’t normal is how bad these motherfuckers want us dead.

Not just dead. I mean, gouge-your-eyes, quarter-your-body, and mail-your-face-back-to-mom kind of dead. Never seen hatred like this before. Isn’t hard to see why, either. Imagine some Rooski sumbitches carted off the Constitution of the United States after stomping DC flat. And I’m not talking about some fucking replica, I’m talking about the Constitution of the United Fucking States…if it was written and autographed by Jesus Christ, himself.

Yeah.

That’s what we’ve done. Well, the Arab equivalent, anyway. And it’s not like we were quiet about it. In this day and age, word travels fast. Now, every car at every intersection has some asshole in it who’s just dying to punch our cards. Would you believe me if I told you a person gets used to it?

No? Good. Because you don’t.

We keep reminding ourselves it isn’t our call, it isn’t our decision. Morale isn’t the problem, we’re all-in on this one. For King and Country, for the mortgage and college tuition, for the all-night booze fests where we roll up our sleeves and brag about the shit we survived and how big our balls are…

But at this particular moment? Seems like a really bad idea.

Haven’t heard a shot in over twelve hours. Stillness like this, well, it’s usually the calm before it all goes Hollywood. We’re twitching at ghosts now.

Sleep dep turns you to tar and caffeine only gets you so far. Then the real chemistry comes out of the CO’s pocket. My mates are amped on supercool fumes like rocket planes skimming the boundary between sky and space. Yeah, they’re that high. I’d be right up with them, but that shit turns me cold. Reflexes are tuned up and I’m alert on the stuff…I just don’t like what I become. Went a little psycho last time. So I’ve got my own stash of norepinephrine. Probably give me a heart attack one of these days, but it’s better than that synth-crap. Nothing beats Mother Nature.

Have I got plans after this? Ha. No. No one makes plans in a combat zone. That’s some seriously flawed thinking. We make contingencies. If this, then that. IFTTT, for short, since we’re mad about acronyms.

IF an IED doesn’t launch me to Low Earth Orbit, and IF I’m not shot in the face by a truly skilled marksman, and IF the Martyr’s Brigade doesn’t total the barracks while I’m sleeping, and IF I’m not nabbed by the locals to host my very own slow-roast BBQ, THEN maybe I’ll buy that GTI I always thought I needed.

Aw, shit. Got distracted, there. Got thinking. That’s a problem. Relax, man, and watch your angles. Check your mags for the hundredth time. It isn’t OCD, it’s thoroughness.

Another hour, no action. Gonna be bad when it lights up…

No. Knock it off. Clear your head, settle in, and watch your sector. Rifle loaded? Check. Round chambered? Check. Scope dialed in and functional? Check, check.

Antsy. Waiting…

Whiff of smoke. From my rearward facing post, I look over my shoulder to the front. Orange glow on the dark horizon. Distant crump of bombardment trailing long after the flash. City’s getting blasted. Can’t help but notice the road we’re on leads right to it.

Ah, shit. Flames. Flames everywhere and smoke that reeks of garlic. Incendiaries. Good ole Willie Peter. Goddamn, they’ll never come back from this.

I’m looking at a skyscraper right now that probably cost a billion dollars to build, plumb, wire, and furnish. The whole thing is burning. Every floor. I’d get upset if I could possibly fathom how much money that is. A thousand million. Doesn’t even register. It’s monopoly money for the stupid rich. Fuck those guys.

And I know, I know. It’s billionaires that brought us here. Some mega-rich dude got sore at some other mega-rich dude because he knocked him from number four to number five on the richest dickheads of the universe list. So roll out the troops, right?

Made my peace with that a while ago. Math is hard, and that’s why I’m in the Kevlar. Pretty lucky to be in Kevlar, come to think of it. Those poor bastards deployed to Iraq in ’05…

Rolling through the outskirts, and I’m looking back at the burning wreck of some Arabian paradise. Maybe that bombardment was just for us. Urban Pacification, they call it. Also, war crime. Depends what side you’re on.

Can’t believe we got through without taking heat. Most folks see it as a good thing to not be shot at, but we know better. Just means all the guys with guns are in one place, looking to make a good showing. Anticipation is proving to be a better stim for me than that primo meth-analogue getting passed around like skittles.

Whiz and whistle of incoming rounds. Here we go.

Hammer stroke at the front of the truck. Sounds like someone just whaled it with a sledge. High caliber, going for the engine block. Want to stop us dead. Should I be glad they aren’t aiming for me?

Fuck, white smoke. They got it. Jolts and clangs of dying metal. This ride’s over.

Out, yeh cunts, and get cover!” yells LT. Then a round canoes his head, right through his lid. Talented shooters tonight.

Out the tailgate and onto the ground. Damp earth, wet grass, and mold. Truck sounds like a glockenspiel being played with a jackhammer. Fucking Hollywood, man.

On elbows and knees to the ditch by the road. Dead skunk, bloated and crawling with maggots. Great.

Zip and twang overhead. They don’t see me. Not yet. The German guy next to me is talking some serious shit right now. Big chip on his shoulder, roaring about the ab-rech-nung that’s coming. Jesus, why’s he taking it so personally? Be professional, for fuck’s sake.

Well, I can’t stay here. Gotta earn my payday. Back in a bit…

*****

Four shooters. That’s all. Four shooters blasted our convoy to pieces. The front three MRAPs are burnt wrecks, hit from both sides with high explosive. Plasticized RDX is my guess. Must’ve known where the goods were ’cause they saved the bombs for my ride and swiss-cheesed it instead.

Hard to believe just four shooters did all this. We even scanned the bullet holes and mapped the trajectories to be sure. Four nests, good angles. But no spotters. We snuck up and whacked ’em quick.

Zeroing our LT at four hundred yards? That’s motivation. Motivation and talent. I mention a moment of silence for them, and my new CO threatens a court martial. Ok, fine, I get it.

But here’s the part I’m not saying out loud: I respect that kind of commitment. This is a worthy enemy. Yeah, they’d probably like nothing more than to spit roast me with a crate of fireworks jammed up my ass, but they believe in what they’re doing. And they believe hard.

More than I can say for myself.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not thinking of switching sides. The guys that fight this hard are always zealots. If they win, it’s lock up the women and firing squad time. Not for me, thanks. I like my women sexually aggressive with state-mandated freedom to be so, thank you very much. This Sharia Law garbage is a bunch of shit. A crock of shit. An idiotic, backwards, Neanderthal, Birther, Climate Change Denier grade of shit.

But respect to that clustering. Less than a minute of arc from over 400 yards. Gonna need that kind of accuracy when the aliens show up and decide we’re tasty.

Just sayin’.

The two M-ATVs at the rear still have some juice in the batts and can get to limping. So time to transfer the cargo. Oh, yeah, you’ve probably been wondering the whole time what we’re carrying. Ok, I’ll tell you.

First, you should know that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is credited with revealing the Holy Qur’an, but he never wrote it down. The two Caliphs  after him, Umar and Abu-Bakr, either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Wasn’t until Uthman that a concerted effort was made to record the Qur’an. That’s a significant amount of time.

Further, the Haditha (Muhammad’s footnotes and appendices to the Qur’an) were recorded from the memory of those who claimed to have heard Muhammad speak. To be blunt, everything Muslims claim to be direct from the mouth of their prophet is hearsay. Wars have been fought over the interpretation of that speech. Until now, that is.

What we transport is documentation of the Qur’an made in Muhammad’s own words while the Prophet lived, commissioned by his first wife, Khadija. A team of Brit archaeologists unearthed it in Medina. No one knew it existed, supposedly not even Muhammad.

That’s right. The schism between Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and the various factions could be healed by reading this document aloud… A rallying point for all Muslims, directly from the source.

And I know you’re putting the pieces together. My billionaire masters don’t want a bunch of Middle Eastern Billionaires to figure their shit out, unify into one singular cartel, and hike all the prices. Can you imagine true Pan-Islamism? The possibility that a new Caliphate could emerge and restructure the entire world order…

You’re with me now.

Knowing this, I look down at the weapon in my hands and I have to laugh. I see my place in all this, in denying Muslims across the globe the chance for better understanding of their faith, denying them an end to the hatreds and divisions that keep them small and weak…so that my handlers remain in control of world commerce…

This is history. Possibly the start of World War III and I’m smack dab in the middle of it. But when it all shakes out, and the world looks back, I wonder: will we be the Nazis this time?

-FAF

Vivid Dreams

I know what you're afraid of...
I know something you’re really afraid of, Alex…

I’ve threatened to do this for a while now…talked about making my journal public (for the Hoot that it is). But before I do, you should know the main reason I keep a journal is to record dreams.

For as long as I can recall my dreams have been vivid. All the senses are present, if slightly dimmed. Upon waking, the sensation is of having just lived through something either hilarious or traumatizing. Sometimes, they’re warnings from my subconscious. Other times, they’re old insecurities trying to resurface. And sometimes they’re just out there.

This one falls into that latter category…

Jan 31st, 2014

The dream last night: apocalypse. Failed civilization, scarce resources. But it wasn’t the aftermath of some single cataclysmic event, this was a global plague. Something manufactured.

People I knew, people I didn’t, all heavily armed, and scheming. The buildings, unmaintained for months, strewn with discarded clothes and trash. Metal cans burning cardboard and sticks of smashed furniture. Sodden carpet gone gray with pulverized drywall.

I’m escorting a young woman. She’s not my lover, not my wife or daughter. But I am bound to her. She must survive. That’s my only concern.

Government soldiers stalk the ruins. Hunting. Exterminating. But the wars have thinned their ranks. They come less frequently, and when they do, they’re green. Easy to sneak up on. This one, I’m so close, I plant the end of my rifle between the raised kevlar collar and the low helmet. A pull of the trigger, a dull flash, and a hushed round sneezes out. A pile of silenced armor collapses in the street.

Glimpse of red hair and pale skin. This one was a woman.

Damn.

Staying off the streets, working through broken building interiors. Better than the permanent gridlock outside with all the rusty, tetanus-loaded edges to catch ourselves on. But there is a different danger in here. One of practiced patience, crouch and creep, far deadlier than the soldiers. These are experienced hunters.

I swap rifle for SMG and rack the action. It spits out a bullet and I curse myself for forgetting it was already loaded. When I stoop to collect the precious brass, I feel it, sharp and cold in my neck. A sting and slap of barbed needle. It’s under my skin. Too late.

I yank the dart out anyway, and whip around, wanting my last moments to be spent killing the sons of bitches who just killed me. But they’re smart. They stay hidden until the plague takes hold.

First, my limbs go numb from the extremities in. I can still move, but without feeling, I’m clumsy. Can’t tell if I’m holding my weapon…

Am I?

I look down, and there it is: A HK MP5 knock off. Something heavier and less delicate. But I can’t feel it at all, can’t feel the weight of it or the resistance of it in my hands.

My vision clouds at the periphery and works in, as if looking through a billowy cocoon. I release my grip, and the weapon drops to the gritty floor. I tell her to go. Her eyes tell me she does not want to, but she is no fool. I taught her better than that. She pulls her sweatshirt hoods close and creeps away into the blackened building depths.

“Come on, then!” I shout. “Let’s see you! Show me your faces so I can haunt you forever!”

They come out. Three of them. Hair razed to the scalp, oddly pudgy, but fit, like they were fattened up for a long winter. Well-adapted for the cold, mean days ahead. Their clothing is durable, ordinary. Raided from a sporting goods store, maybe. Perfect camouflage in a post-civilization America.

I can barely stand. While I do, two of them pluck my weapons, search my pockets. The third keeps watch, hanging on to a long deer rifle with scope.

“You did good,” says the man keeping watch, “but we’ve got it from here.” He looks right at me and grins. “You’re just another Hungry fuckin’ Ghost now.”

My mouth won’t move anymore, won’t say the things I want to spit at him. He’s gloating in front of me, knowing that in moments, my mind will be gone and the only need I’ll have left is to feed.

You’ll be my first, I think with complete sincerity.

Strangely at ease with my fate, I embrace the dying of my nerves, the corruption of internal processes. My mind does not give in, however. I force consciousness to remain. I’ll be awake when I find this motherfucker. I will remember his face so that when my rotten teeth rip his skin I will know that vengeance is mine.

If he had any idea this was possible, he’d have put a bullet through my skull. But he indulges himself in what he believes is my fate, not as careful or methodical as I know he must be otherwise. This is a special moment, possibly one he has waited for. He’s savoring it.

The man pushes three fingers into my chest and I fall, a semi-rigid stack of bones and dying meat, eyes glaring at the cracked ceiling. My limbs contract toward my body, and I see them twitching. Hands curled into claws, back arching, jaw clenching, teeth bared. I feel nothing.

The man readjusts his grip on the rifle and spits, then urges the others on. They stalk away into the building as I writhe.

Blackness pulls at me, wants to submerge me in oblivion, in forgetfulness, in the dissipation of life. My heart stops. My chest no longer rises or falls. My limbs fall slack. There is no sensation whatsoever, not even the fuzzy numbness. It is as if I am constructed of wood and dirt, no longer flesh. I only resemble what I was in appearance.

Yet I remain.

I raise a hand and turn it over in front of my face. It obeys my wishes, clutching or releasing as instructed. Just now I am aware of a path not taken, that a portal to cross over has just closed.

No, This is where I must be, I think. This is what I must do.

Too much time has passed, I’m sure, because I no longer have any sense of it. No idea how long I lay writhing on the floor. All I have left is urgency to rise and find them.

And I do.

Distance means nothing. There is no fatigue. Out in the open, just before dawn, the stars cast ample light to see all. I see a descending hill, covered in grass, every blade shining with dew in the starlight. Half-way down, I spot them. A line of three, spaced diagonally.

My movement is silent, as if I’m not touching the ground. Gravity offers no hindrance. I lope, I leap. I grip by the shoulders and bite down into the base of his neck. Skin parts, living tissue cleaves, mouth fills with magnificent taste…

He drops to the ground and I fall with him, still drawing on the wound. As I draw, I know I am also putting in–the same pestilence shot into my neck, I am chewing into his. But he will not endure as I have. His will is not strong enough. His fate is sealed, and I move to finish the others.

Bullets whiz through me like the firm tap of a finger. There is no injury. Their skin tears as though my fingernails were razors. Warm mist against my face. They fall, gurgling.

I stand, drenched, looking across the landscape of grassy hills and occasional trees. The girl is nowhere in sight, and I’m grateful. Grateful that she kept my lessons, that she moved with speed to keep ahead of these killers, that she will live on…and most of all that she will never see what I have become. No matter that love moved me to remain beyond death, I am an inhuman monster, and I have reveled in my vengeance.

An ache, deep within. I know I have to let her go.

It’s a hard thing to do. Even though I know it is right, that it is correct and natural, it is difficult to let go. But I must. My task is done. Maybe I’ll hear about her again, as a leader, as someone’s wife, as a builder…

And it hits me all at once: I am utterly alone and always will be. My future is to remain in this hunk of meat, roaming, never again being capable of connection or meaningful contact.

I chose this for selfless reasons, I know. I would do it again. And again. And again, and again. So I choose to move among the living, on the edges, catching glimpses of normal lives. If I see evil acts, I can intervene…there is still meaningful work to do.

But how do I camouflage myself? What could I clothe myself in that would allow me to be near people without them ever wanting to get close? So they will keep their distance…

The frock, the starched collar and rosary…

An old stone church seems to call from among the ruins surrounding it. The lock on the oiled oak door is rusty. It breaks easily. The door groans on ancient hinges, and I wonder how long ago anyone entered.

Inside are rows of dusty pews. Yellowed hymnals curl with moldy leaves. The altar is sacked, the stained glass windows long ago shattered. But birds do not roost here. No plants spill over the open sills. It is unbelievably quiet.

I move up to the altar, find a passage to one side, and follow it back to a simple room with peeling white paint. An armoire, a desk, and a bunk are the only furniture. A crucifix still hangs above the headboard.

The armoire is dusty, like the pews, but well-preserved. Inside, a priest’s robe hangs. Polished black leather shoes beneath. A skull cap on a shelf at the top.

I peel the bloody rags I wear and use the cleaner parts to wipe down my not yet rotten skin. When I dress in the priest’s robe, it fits as if tailored. I don the skull cap and it hides my graying hair. The shoes slip perfectly over my feet.

I creep out the way I came, taking care to seal the door quietly behind me. As I walk away, I see an older priest, a bit thick in the middle. He is watching me. We stare at one another, and I know he recognizes what I am.

“It suits you,” he says without judgment or malice, and he waits.

I purse my cracked lips, dip my head in thanks, and steal off into the night.

-FAF

Author’s Update

Sooooooo, here’s something familiar: Yes, I’m behind on my deadline. No the book won’t be finished by June, and the forecasted December release may be optimistic. Probably not a surprise.
Excuses? None.

The foundation of an author’s life is his work. That follows surely as night the day. Usually, that work is the writing, combined with a more reliable means of income–some other job which keeps the roof up and the lights on. When I moved back to Massachusetts, it was for that day to day job which allowed the writing to continue. Sadly, the company folded, necessitating a complete career change. It takes a while to adapt to something completely different, and the writing has suffered as a result.

Work on the new book has continued, albeit slowly, and I’m very proud to say there are some exciting and unexpected surprises.

Wait, the author is surprised? Um, why? Or more to the point, how?

These characters are beyond my control, telling me exactly what they say, what they do. They tell me when and where it happens. They show me the intimate details of their grueling lives, and like a faithful secretary, I endeavor to capture it accurately. That may sound a tad schizophrenic (if you ask my publishers, they’ll probably confirm it), however that’s how it goes. The trick is finding the time when I’m not too bushed or distracted to listen clearly.

I’m thrilled to see e-book sales of Black Hawks doing well, especially in the U.K and Germany. The e-book version of Angry Ghosts (Wraiths of Earth) is languishing in obscurity, unforunately, which I suspect is the result of a bad match with Eirelander Publishing. No offense to Eirelander, of course, it’s simply that Eirelander is known primarily for racy romance novels. Wraiths is anything but a romance. So Cadre One Publishing will be seeking an end to the licensing contract, after which they’ll release an e-book version to match Black Hawks.

Once Exhausted Dead is released, it will be available both as paperback and e-book. There are loose plans for a hardback consolidation of all three novels into one with appendices (as it is a continuous story), though that is certainly a ways down the road.
The final version is estimated to be between 120,000 and 180,000 words. For comparison, Ghosts is 65,000 words and Black Hawks is 80,000. It took a year each to bring those books to print. If I can finish this one in eighteen months, I’ll consider it a win.

For those of you wanting a taste, new chapters are posted on Authonomy. At the time of this post, there are seventeen chapters, roughly 47,000 words. Not final drafts, mind you, but you can see that progress is being made, however slow.

Once more, I humbly thank you for your patience, for your support, and for your mail. Much love to XOMC for the above photo. I love that stuff. (If only I could get him to do the art for Exhausted Dead…)

Before I go, yes, the post on April 1st was a prank.
And to those of you buying these books, it means everything to me. Eternally grateful.

-Allen Farnham