Neo-pro Interview: Nathaniel Lee

Who are you?  What’s your genre/history/etc?

Nathan: I’m Nathan, or Nathaniel Lee for my Srs Writer Name.  I write oddball stuff that probably would get stuck in “magical realism” or “slipstream” or whatever the term du jour is.  My standard approach is a basic modern-day setting with Something Different About It, and a dearth of explanation as to how or why, for example, words now cause physical damage to match their emotional damage or a hole in the ground is swallowing all the water in the world.  I think of myself as mostly a fantasy author, if that helps, treading on the borderlands of horror every now and then and rarely dipping into SF.

What’s your Race score?

Nathan: I’ve got 21 stories out right now because that’s all the stories I have in a finished state.  I’m a little behind with my polishing; I’ve got three or four stories waiting for revisions/edits, whereas normally I keep that down to two or fewer.  Duotrope says I’ve submitted somewhere around 140 stories in the past twelve months.  My policy is to juggle them right back out as soon as they hit my inbox with the rejection note.  I’ve got a “Writing” label in Gmail that is a deep purple, so when I look at my e-mail and it starts looking like a bruise, then that’s my To-Do List for the weekend.  Once they’re sent back out, I can archive the rejection letters and move on with my life.

  When did you “get serious” about being a writer?

Nathan: Around about 2008.  I am not making tons of progress, but on the other hand, I was fairly desultory about it for the first year or so, writing only a half-dozen stories or so.  I’ve written 20 stories so far in 2011, which has been much more satisfying.  I joined a support group of sorts where the ostensible goal was to produce 25 stories for the year, or one story approximately every two weeks.  I think I’m the only person left actually trying to achieve that, but it really helped for the early bits.  I cannot emphasize enough how much even the tiniest bit of outside accountability helps boost one’s productivity. The effect is astonishing, even on someone as lazy as I am.

  What are your goals with your writing?

Nathan: Well, it would be nice to be able to support myself with it, but I am fully aware that is a pipe dream.  I would be content as a D-grade celebrity, able to go to tiny local conventions and attend events as a Serious Writer or have the occasional successful signing at a local bookstore.  Be one of the names that gets scooped out of slush at a few decent magazines rather than languishing with the hoi polloi. Even just having a book published that I can go to a bookstore and see on the shelves.  I do not want fame and fortune; very mild success will suffice for me.

I’m frankly skeptical I’ll ever achieve that, mind you, but I’ll keep plugging away.  Next year is Novel Writing Year, where I will force myself to finish at least one Damned Book.  (I have three or four 50K+ half-finished manuscripts lying around.  My ADD and general pessimism keep sapping my will to continue on such long projects.)

Where do you see your career in 5 years?

Nathan: Well, barring some kind of unexpected surge, I might have a book and maybe an agent to go with it by then.  Judging by my progress to date, there will be an awful lot of running without much forward motion on the old treadmill.  I think this video pretty much sums up how I picture my writing career: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMO8Pyi3UpY

Do you have a particular story or idea you are dying to write? Or, if you could write a tie-in to any established universe/franchise, what would it be?

Nathan: Usually if I want to write something, I just do it.  I have a list of story seeds right on my desktop, and I open it up whenever I finish a story to pick the theme for the next one.
I’m not hugely into fanfiction – due to Sturgeon’s Law, mostly – but if I had the chance to work on, say, a novelization of an Avatar: The Last Airbender story/sequel/standalone, that would be a ton of fun.

What are your hobbies outside writing?

Nathan: I am a gigantic nerd.  Like, massive.  I read a lot of spec-fic, naturally, and I also enjoy neuroscience and psychology books or interesting science books in general.  I love roleplaying games – much of my writing skills were honed playing forum-based Vampire and D&D and so on, actually – and I am deeply into board games.  We have an entire walk-in closet that is pretty much full of board games.  I favor abstract strategy games, but I also like word games, war games, and your basic Euro-game with little wooden cubes and no way to burn down your enemy’s huts, alas.

I’m also a total hipster/snob about this stuff.  I’m really insufferable.  Like, I don’t play just D&D or GURPS; that’s so *pedestrian*.  No, the games I really like are weird offbeat indie games, like Don’t Rest Your Head and Nobilis and Mouse Guard.  I’m the guy who will cheerfully sit and chat in-character for hours but gets antsy after twenty minutes of combat.

What’s your writing process like?

Nathan: I call it “gumbo.”  I get an idea, and I jot it down.  Then it goes into the Pot of the Subconscious and simmers with all the other stuff down there.  Periodically, I pull something out and look at it more closely, see if I can see characters, a plot, etc., to go with the original striking image or phrase or thematic idea.  Often, I toss it back in the pot to keep cooking, but sometimes I can tell an idea is “done” and ready to go, at which point I dish it up, add spices, and serve.

To drop the metaphor, I am primarily a “pantser,” but not a pure one. I rarely just start writing without any forethought whatsoever.  I just don’t write any outlines or character sketches in advance; it all builds up in my head, organically, and I leave the details vague.  As I write, I find the specific notes I want to hit flow very smoothly out so long as the basic idea has “simmered” for long enough.  If I find myself hesitating a lot or dithering over whether, say, the protagonist has a beloved father or a lost spouse, I know the idea wasn’t cooked all the way through when I pulled it out.  I usually complete a story in one or two marathon sessions of two to six thousand words.  More rarely, I will work on a story slowly over a week or two, but I find those stories tend to need a lot more editing and refining afterward.

What’s been toughest about your journey so far as a writer?

Nathan: The resounding “meh” with which I have largely been met.  Hatred is fine; apathy is hard to swallow.  Given that I tend to love stories that everyone else also says “Meh” to and to dislike stories that receive widespread acclaim, I have attempted to resign myself to being a niche taste with a relatively limited audience.  Which I’m fine with; I just would like to find my audience already.

How do you keep yourself going?

Nathan: Well, I’m going to be making up stories no matter what; if I weren’t writing for publication, I’d be putting excessive amounts of time into some forum roleplaying game or something.  I figure, I might as well send the stories out and see if I can sell ’em, y’know?  It costs nothing, or almost nothing.  I keep a pessimistic outlook and assume failure is a given; that way, when I get rejection notes, I get the grim satisfaction of being proven right about how crappy my writing is, and when I manage to score a sale, it’s pure frosting.

Any tips or tricks you’ve figured out for improving your writing?

Nathan: Nope.  There’s only one way to expertise, and that’s practice.  Read a lot and write a lot.  That’s all you can do.

And finally, got anything you want to pimp?

Nathan: I maintain a daily writing blog of 100-word stories at www.mirrorshards.org.  It is called Mirrorshards, creatively enough, and it is the closest thing to an Author’s Website I have.  (There’s a link to my bibliography on it and everything.)  I’ve been writing a story a day since November 2008, though last year I dropped it to six days a week.  I do not update regularly enough, but I try to catch up whenever I miss a day or two.  I flatter myself that I have developed a decent level of talent at microfiction at this point.

All the stories there are under a CC license that explicitly allows derivative works so long as the original is credited, so anyone who wants to steal my ideas and write a “real” story with them can freely do so.  Not that anyone but me thinks they are interesting ideas, but still.

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Six

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Six

(Catch up on previous chapters here)

Chapter Six

         Ryg started cursing again as one portion of his screen, the window following Sif and Hex, went dead blank.  He couldn’t reach them through their PUDIs either.  But his progs were running.  Whatever had jammed the Wires and stopped communication wasn’t jamming up the feed that ran through the hard cables up to the array on the roof and down into the hidden government black box below.

Hex and Sif can take care of themselves.  Ryg had his own job to do.  He hadn’t known what kind of programs he’d need to help him get into the servers, so he’d loaded the chip with the works.  Now he streamlined it, pushing his best trackers and code-catchers to the front, searching for the access points.

To anyone on the outside, the data flowing past Ryg’s eyes would have looked like numbers with the occasional strange characters woven in, but to him it was another world.  There! When the BioCore servers had been rigged to piggyback on the government array, they’d left open doors into the servers.  It was a clean, efficient job and Ryg almost wanted to meet the code writers who’d done this.

Stop admiring someone else’s work and do your own, he told himself.  He tripped the keyword hunters he’d laced his progs with and cued them up to compile the data onto the right hard drive, the one that Tommy would swap out as soon as Nico and Kadin cut the power.

Sitting alone in his room, Ryg bit his lip and focused in.  His friends were all out of contact.  Beyond his control.  Easier to contain what he could and let the rest go.  He was almost in, almost there.  The progs were copying things from the BioCore servers as well, but that would just help confuse anyone looking for a trail.  And who knew? That information might come in handy or be sellable at some point.  He had things perfectly under control.

Then his screens went black.

* * *

            Nico scanned the help document on the console in front of her and brought up the right control screen.  The tech, currently sweating this out tied to his chair, had logged in when he’d arrived at work, which made her job a lot easier.  But she needed another code to open the override box on the wall behind him.

“Alim?” she said softly, guessing at his name from the user log on the console. “I need a code to open the override.”

“Don’t you tell them nothing,” the fat guard said.  He was sweating to and kept posturing with verbal threats as though his words were scare Kadin and her away.  The man was called Combs by his partner, as in “shut the hell up, Combs” and “for Loria’s sake, shut the damn hell up, Combs”.

Kadin glared at him and threatened to backhand him again.  Combs already had a fat lip from a gentle tap a little earlier.  He shut up again, glaring, looking like a fat grey sack with big dark circles of sweat stinking up his creased uniform.

“Alim?” Nico didn’t want to seem in a hurry, but time was passing and they needed to throw the switch soon.

He glanced at the two guards and then, sighing as though the building had just come down onto his chest, he gave her the code.  The door of the override box slid open, revealing a bright red lever with a bunch of warning text written too small to make out from a distance.

“Red, of course.” Nico smiled at Kadin.  “Get the door.”

Kadin opened the door and blocked it with his body.  Nico waited for his nod and then grasped the lever.  With the jammer on, it was impossible to know if they were running exactly on schedule, but the timing was close.  Seconds shouldn’t matter.

“Good night,” she said, and flipped the switch.

* * *

            Tommy felt the humming within the walls die out as the tunnel he lay in went eerily silent.  Things were going exactly to plan.

“Booyah, go time,” he said and rolled up to his feet.  He shook out stiff limbs and worked his head around to loosen up his neck muscles.  Then he picked up the heavy pry bar and worked the door open.  With the electronic locks disengaged, it was easy work.  Just an understanding of physics, a little applied pressure, and bam.  He was in.

Tommy left the pry bar in the doorway, just in case they had the timings off and the place tried to lock down on him.  The room was a reinforced, repurposed utility room.  The servers stood in a single bank in the middle, with heavy fans venting out into the old sewer tunnel.  Those fans were one of the things that had tipped Kadin and his team off to where this box might be.

Tommy slipped the hard drive out of its case in his satchel and counted down the banks until he found the seventh.  He was pretty sure Ryg had meant seventh from the top, anyway.  The room had a lot of shielding and his PUDI wasn’t cooperating even with the power out.  No way to check, so he’d just go with his first instinct.  Seven from the top.

The drive slid free easily and Tommy replaced it with the duplicate.  Someone would notice the replacement at some point, but he doubted anyone checked on this place often.  There hadn’t even been distinct footprints in the settled dust outside the door.  The replacement drive was generic, bought with stolen credits, and untraceable.

Tommy tucked the new drive into his satchel and grinned.  Let them try to come for him, come beg for their dirty little secrets.  On this drive would be information about the upcoming nominations.  Info someone would pay dearly to have.  He licked his thin lips, tasting the synthetic fibers of the mask.

A vibration, then a low hum were his only warning.  The power kicked in, more quickly than even his fastest calculation.

“Crap on a stick.” Tommy dove for the closing door, getting his hand on the pry bar before it shut.  The heavy steel inched open as he worked it with the bar, but red alarm lights had come on and time was running short.

Tommy wedged his body through the opening, the steel crushing in on his thin chest and hips.  Almost. Almost.  His body made it through but the door crunched shut on his arm, the pry bar keeping the locks from engaging fully.  Tommy screamed and scrabbled at the door with is free hand, finally gripping the pry bar enough to force a space so he could yank free.

His arm was crushed, the flesh purpled and bleeding and his fingers wouldn’t move when he tried.  Pain lanced through him.  No time, no time at all.  He left the pry bar and bolted down the tunnel, hugging his arm to him.  Somewhere behind, he heard the telling whir of a security drone, but Tommy didn’t look back.

* * *

            With their PUDIs jammed, Hex and Sif had to communicate with gestures.  Any sound would give away their positions to the Hunter-killer drones.  The heat and noise of the server banks helped disguise them for the moment at least and the positioning the of the servers meant the drones couldn’t come in over their heads.

Hex caught Sif’s eye and she made a tiny motion indicating she was going to engage to the right.  Sif had out her longer knife now, but Hex wasn’t sure how much good it would do against the tiny balls of metal darting through the room.  His gun would at least disable them, if he didn’t miss.

So I won’t miss.  No problem at all.  He took tiny breaths and waited for Sif to move.  She was quick and her movement would distract the drones.  He had to let her go out there.

When the government had been experimenting with making quick humans, the genies, for a controllable, replaceable workforce for outside the dome, the initial trials hadn’t gone well.  Ryg was a model from one of those earlier attempts.  Sif was the last and best of the attempts, before the government shut the program down in favor of just using illegal children and captured criminals.  Too much money, too much expense, too many ethical issues.

But not before the Sifs had been created.  Assassins, lovers, guards.  Playthings for the elite.  Smarter, stronger, faster.  Genetic masterpieces utilizing the full majesty of the human DNA code mixed with something more.  Sif had never told Hex what that something was.  He knew she had issues, and that she got something from the creepy doctor Lucien Graemes.  But he never asked her what.  Sif had always made it crystalline clear that she took care of herself.  No questions.

So he didn’t argue with her mimed plan, just gave a slight nod that he knew she’d pick up even in the red-tinged shadows of the server banks.  The grip of the eletro pistol was smooth and almost soft in his hand, the rubber warming to his nervous hold.

Abruptly, the hum of the servers died away and the sudden silence hovered thick and strange around him.  The lights had gone out as well and for a moment Hex couldn’t see at all.  He jerked his night vision goggles down over his eyes and jammed the wire into his PUDI by feel.

The world turned to green shadows and Hex threw himself aside just in time as a shiny greenish ball hurtled toward his location, a fine dart pinging off the server framework where his head had been a moment before.  Guided more by instinct than reason, Hex brought his pistol up and squeezed the trigger.

The drone hit the concrete floor with a satisfying thunk.  One down.

“Program chip,” Sif’s voice said over the re-activated subvocals.  The power was out, which meant, thank the gods, that jammer was down.

Hex slid around the side of the servers and felt for the right spot with his free hand.  Another thunk told him Sif had found a target and disabled another drone.

“Got it,” Hex said.  His fingers found the chip and he yanked it out.  Too late to leave without a trace, but there was no point in getting sloppy and making it easier to trace them.

Green glinting metal and the flicker of a bright patch of light caught his eye.  Hex ducked behind another bank of servers, working his way toward the door.

“Are you guys all right?” Ryg had rebooted the connection now that the jammer was gone.  “What’s going on?”

“Hunter-killer drones,” Hex said, shooting down another one.  Sif materialized from the darkness and leapt up, nearly to the ceiling.  She kicked off the wall in a half-sideways jump and slammed another drone into the floor as it came around the servers, just ahead of where Hex stood.

“What?” Ryg said something else but the high pings of servers rebooting and the renewal of power to the jammer somewhere in this room cut him off.  It was wire silence again.

Hex quickly disabled the night vision before the renewed lights could blind him fully.  He sprinted hard for the door, but Sif got there first, slamming it open and leaping up to spike another drone into the hard concrete.  They ran, not trying to speak, keeping low in the corridor and making for where he remembered the stairs should be.

The jammer had a range on it and Hex could have shouted with joy when his PUDI started connecting again and the maps of this stupid place came up, pinged by Ryg who was clearly waiting for the two of them to come back online.

Sif shoved him aside into a wall and Hex grit his teeth at the bruising force as he felt a dart skim past his hair.  The whir of more drones filled the hallway.  Too many.

“We’re screwed here,” he told Ryg. “We need a better exit.  These things’ll be able to go anywhere we can.”

“Can you shut them out? Get to a door?”

“We’ll just be trapped and they can probably come through the vents.”

“Working on it,” Ryg responded.

They hit the stairway doors and Sif kicked it in.  It was a fire door, heavy but on hinges, with a safety bar that gave easily to Sif’s insistence.  Hex was on the first step when he heard the door close behind him and the thunk, thunk, thunk of drones hitting hard surfaces.  He jerked around, gun ready.

Sif wasn’t behind him.  The stairwell was empty for the moment and beyond the closed door he knew she was fighting the Hunter-killers.  Alone.

“Move,” her voice ground out over the sub vocals, a soft burr inside his head.

She’d catch up.  He’d just get in her way.   Probably.  It was better this way, safer for both of them.  It’s better, like that makes it easier, yeah.

Hex holstered his gun and made for the roof, taking the stairs two at a time.  This stairwell opened into another hallway, leading to more stairs and finally to a roof access ladder.  He came out, half expecting to find the Grey Guard or at least some security drones waiting.  Wind rushed across the dark surface of the roof, rustling through the leaves of a small garden just in front of him.

Hex waited for a slow count and then took off across the roof, scrubbing his face clean of the paint as it started to rain.  It wasn’t curfew yet, if he could make it down to street level after going across a few buildings, he’d be safe enough getting back to Ijipe before the city shut down.

“See you,” he murmured to Sif across the wires.  There was no response.  Refusing to think about it too much, Hex headed home, his face set and grim.  Time for that discussion with Ryg.

(Continued in Chapter Seven)

New Collection and Also Music for Writing

First, the business stuffs or whatever.

I have a new fantasy short story collection out.  Here are the shiny details:

A pregnant witch must decide between protecting her heritage and protecting her unborn child… A man looking for a better life learns there is a permanent price attached to change… Grieving for his lost brother, a man faces the mother of all tornadoes with a little magical assistance… When a social worker threatens to break apart her family, a single mother of two must use all her imagination and courage to escape to a better world.

This is a collection of four fantasy short stories from Annie Bellet.  Included are: River Daughter, La Última Esperanza, Roping the Mother, The Scent of Sunlight.

*Bonus Material*
The first five chapters of “A Heart in Sun and Shadow”, a fantasy novel set in a re-imagined ancient Wales.

You can buy it for Kindle here: http://www.amazon.com/River-Daughter-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B005SM8372/

And in all other formats via Smashwords here: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/93998

Now, on to what I want to talk about in this post.

Music. Specifically, the music I use when writing.  I’m always curious about what other people listen to while writing (or don’t listen to) but I am not sure I’ve shared some of my favorites.

It often depends on what I’m writing, but generally, I can’t write without music.  I gotta have it.  I prefer music without English or Spanish words (or at least pretty incomprehensible lyrics if they are in a language I understand).  But instead of just waxing on forever about this band or that song or whatever, I figured I’d just post some links so you can listen to things yourself.

For writing SF, lately I’ve been totally hooked on the Halo 3: ODST soundtrack.  Listen to this and tell me it doesn’t make you want to go write something full of spaceships and brave people and guns and stuff:

I’ve also been listening to the Bastion game soundtrack a ton.  You can get the soundtrack (or listen to it) here: http://supergiantgames.bandcamp.com/

For writing fantasy, especially epic-feeling fantasy, Two Steps from Hell is pretty much the winner.  Listen to this and then go write a giant sword fight or sweeping reunion among long-lost companions: 

In general, I’ve been enamored of the Red Sparowes lately:

And for writing romances or fantasy or pretty much anything highly emotional scenes, you can’t go wrong with anime soundtracks.  I really love the work of Yoko Kanno:

So that’s the story with me and writing music.  The right song while writing a scene can help me tap into the emotional core I’m looking for or help me visualize the story I’m telling.  I don’t know how people write without music.  It works for some. Just not for me.

By the way, I’m always on the lookout for more writing music.  So if anyone has suggestions of things I might not have heard of, don’t be afraid to post some links in the comments.

Neo-pro Interview: Rick Novy

Interview with Rick Novy

 

It’s Thursday, so here’s an interview!

Who are you?  What’s your genre/history/etc?

Rick: Rick Novy, I write mostly science fiction but stray into other spec fic areas from time to time.  I have something like 40 short stories published, but I’m still missing that third SFWA-eligible sale, though I do have a third pro sale to a non-eligible market.  I also occasionally write non-fiction, usually science or technology aimed at the non-scientist.

I have also edited two anthologies, Ergosphere and 2020 Visions,both from M-Brane Press.

What’s your Race score?

Rick: Very low at the moment, though my high-watermark is around 55.  I had an extremely difficult life situation for about 3 years that sharply curtailed my productivity, and it took about an additional 2 years to recover from it.  I have been coasting on all those stories for half a decade without refilling the tank.  While I have a few new short stories in circulation right now, most of my recent efforts have been long fiction.  I made the decision to become an indie author, so in many ways the Race is no longer a relevant benchmark for me.

When did you “get serious” about being a writer?
Rick: The day I decided I would finish my novel no matter what.  that would be around October 2004.
What are your goals with your writing?

Rick: Foremost, I want to entertain.  I’d also like to make a living at it, and assuming the indie model I have in mind holds true, I think that is a real possibility.

Where do you see your career in 5 years?

Rick: My goal at the moment is focused on long fiction, and I believe I can produce 3 to 4 novels per year. That included all the publishing aspects also.  If I can sustain that pace, I would have 23 novels out (including the three I am trying to finish this year and starting the clock on Jan 1)

Do you have a particular story or idea you are dying to write? Or, if you could write a tie-in to any established universe/franchise, what would it be?

Rick: Two very different questions.  I have a lot of ideas that are in the queue for novels. I have a list taped to my computer desk that is 7 novels deep. I have another list that 8 deep set in the same universe, most of which does not overlap the first list.  I have lots of ideas for long fiction.

I would someday love to write a Doctor Who novel, a Star Trek (TOS) novel, and a Star Wars novel.  The first two I could handle, but I suspect there is so much non-cannon material for Star Wars that I would never be able to be consistent in that universe.

What are your hobbies outside writing?

Rick: More than I have time for. Probably the most visible is that I am a fishkeeper. Today I have 11 fish tanks set up for various species. Some for breeding, some just to have that fish around.  It can be a lot of work if you don’t keep up with the water changes, but if you stay on it, it’s not bad.  Benefit of so many tanks is if I have a health problem in one tank, I still have a bunch of healthy tanks so I don’t get as upset about it.

What’s your writing process like?

Rick: Fits and starts.  I don’t outline on paper–much of that happens in my head.  I pick benchmarks in the story and I let the characters get to them however they get there.  I like to write regularly but as long as I am being productive on some aspect of the business I’m satisfied.

For novels, I use a spreadsheet I got from David Gerrold to track my progress.  I find it helps to pull me through my word count for the day.  I enter my word count and time writing into the sheet at regular intervals.  Watching the daily tally add up (and how quickly it can add up) encourages me to add more.  It’s basically tricking myself into being productive,but it works for me.

What’s been toughest about your journey so far as a writer?  How do you keep yourself going?

Rick: Distractions. I have a lot of them and it’s usually the writing time that is sacrificed to do other things–other people’s demands on my time.  Motivation has never really been much of a problem for me. I’m self-motivated and I believe in my work.  One of the benefits of making the decision to become an indie author is that I have no roadblocks to publication other than my own.  That has been a serious motivator to be productive because I control a lot more of the business. I have become the one who puts up the most roadblocks because when I’m productive, I grow a body of work.

Any tips or tricks you’ve figured out for improving your writing?

Rick: Read and write, and do both a lot. Submit, submit, submit. Subscribe to Heinlein’s rules. don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.

And finally, got anything you want to pimp?

Rick: Neanderthal Swan Song is my first novel. It’s available all over. My website www.ricknovy.com, Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & noble, CreateSpace.

Thanks to Rick for participating!

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Five

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Five

(Catch up on previous chapters here)

Chapter Five

“You wanna cup of soup or anything?” Dan Garner asked his coworkers in the Kajipe power hub.  He was already pulling on his coat over his broad shoulders and bored to tears facing another twelve hour shift.  He sure in hells wasn’t planning on doing it while hungry.

“We aren’t supposed to leave, numbnuts.”  Bennett Combs was his fellow guard, a middle-aged, slightly overweight man with a weak chin and reedy voice.  In Dan’s opinion, the chin matched Combs’s personality.

“Sure, I’ll have soup if they got any.”  Alim, the stocky, snub-nosed tech, didn’t even glance up from his datapad.  He was watching something, though the Wires were restricted in here.  But he was an egg-head, so Dan figured he’d found a work-around.

“I’m hungry,” Dan said to Combs, “My lunch is meager as shit since Kira’s mad again, and I’m gonna grab something before curfew closes everything down.”  He glared at Combs, though it was mostly for show.  The guy didn’t have enough spine to report him and Dan had seniority anyway.

“Fine, get me something crunchy and maybe some fresh tea? Stuff they got in the back is crap.  Should be enough on that.”  Combs dug out a plastic WIC card, handed it over to Dan, and then slumped in his chair. The position did unflattering things to his already puffy gut.

Dan hid his grin and punched the open button for the door.  It slid back and he looked down at a slender woman with crazy black and white face paint who was kneeling on the floor.  She had an electro pistol in one gloved hand, pointed right at him, ready to spit paralyzing current.

For the space of a shaky breath he just stood there, staring at her.  Her eyes were brown, flecked with purple and strangely hypnotic.  He tried to cue up the PUDI, get a call out, but it felt like static in his head.  Jammer.  There had to be a jammer nearby.  He felt as though the world had slowed down, as though this was something happening to someone else and he were stuck watching.

“Yo, Danny, that door’ll close on you.”  Combs couldn’t see around him, Dan realized, but his voice broke the freeze and time sped back up again.  Dan started to reach for his gun, fumbling with the safety snaps.

A shadow to the side of the door resolved itself into man, who stepped up behind the kneeling woman.  His hair was short and silvered with age, but the man’s body was still thick with muscle and his dark face was painted in the same terrifying black and white patterns.

“Don’t be a hero,” the man said in a gravelly voice.

“The hell? What’s going. . .” Combs squawked from behind Dan but was cut off by Dan’s sharp gesture.

He backed up slowly and the man and woman followed him, letting the door slide shut behind them.  “What do you want?” Dan managed to croak out.

“For us all to sit tight here,” the man replied.  “You,” he said to Alim, who was half-rising from his seat and reaching for the console controls, “sit back down.”

The woman didn’t speak.  She pulled out a handful of plastic twine from a cloth bag at her waist and started tying Alim to his chair while the man motioned Combs and Dan back against the wall.

“What’re your names?” he asked them.

“Daniel, uh, Dan Garner,” Dan said.

“Shut up, man,” Combs hissed at him.

“They don’t want to hurt us,” Dan said, putting emphasis on it.  He prayed it was true.  Names helped, right? Personalized you to the attacker. He couldn’t remember what they’d told him in training.  All he could think about was Kira’s puffy face and how dying on the job would just make her angrier.  She’d probably yell at his corpse and then go shopping with her lazy daughter.  Dan quickly shoved those thoughts away.

“That’s right, Dan.  We don’t want to hurt anyone.” The man smiled and his teeth looked like fine polished bone.

The woman, who still hadn’t spoken, removed their guns and turned first Combs, then Dan gently around, tying their hands behind them and then easing them into sitting positions and tying their feet.  Combs grumbled and started to resist her, but she jammed her thumb into his throat.

Dan didn’t resist at all, he couldn’t give Kira and his step-daughter the satisfaction.  Her gloved hands were strong on his shoulders as she helped him sit and he caught the scent of something sweet and almost flowery underneath the stronger smell of the paint on her face.  When she turned away he had to stifle a little gasp.

She didn’t have the x-shaped scar or small interface jack in her neck.  A woman without a PUDI? Everyone got them when they were five.  People turning criminal, sure, he knew about that.  Living below the grid and all.  But to start that young? Dan shuddered, more worried now about who these people could be.

Dan still couldn’t figure what they wanted, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it but memorize every detail of these people and hope to get out alive to report later.  With him and the other two secure, the invaders seemed to relax and do nothing.  The woman fiddled with the control console a little, but seemed satisfied to mostly stare off into space. Like they were waiting for something.  Or some appointed time.  Dan shivered, testing the bindings.  Tight. He forced himself to take deep breaths and wait.  They couldn’t remain here forever.

The worst part of it was, he was still damn hungry.  Dan swallowed hard and prepared for a miserable night.

* * *

            Hex and Sif found the door they wanted.  It was a reinforced steel door, built to nominally fit in with the rest of the doors in the hallway, but any close inspection revealed it had been replaced long after this building was constructed.  There was a keypad inside a plexi box with a slider for a magnetic keycard on the side.

“We need a keycard,” Hex told Ryg over his PUDI.

“Sif has it,” Ryg responded.

Sif was already stepping up to the door, a thin piece of plastic in her hand.  She swiped it and waited.  Nothing happened.  In Hex’s head he heard the muttered string of curses from Ryg, who’d left the communication channel open.

“Give me a moment to think,” Ryg added.

Sif shrugged and pulled out a knife, looking at Hex with a raised eyebrow.

“Alarms?” he asked her over sub-vocals.

In answer she jammed the tip of the blade under the edge of the plexi box and used her superior strength to jimmy it open.  The plexi cracked and then broke open.

“Sif! Damnit.” Ryg started another string of curses. “We’re trying to leave minimal trace.”

Hex shook his head and kept an eye on the hallway.  No audible alarms were going off yet and no security drones came buzzing out.

“Fine. Here, use this code,” Ryg again.

Sif punched in the code as he fed it to her PUDI.  This one worked and the door slid open.  Quickly the two of them ducked inside.

“I thought this was supposed to be an auxiliary office.  Administrative and such?” Hex said, looking around.

There wasn’t any furniture in the room.  It was a large space, as though walls had been removed to combine offices and Hex found where a second door had been cemented over.  Against the far wall was a bank of servers, humming away in the near darkness.  They stretched from floor to ceiling and had a thick rope of wires patching them into a gaping hole in the far wall.

“This is, different, than I expected,” Ryg muttered, seeing the room through Sif’s forehead camera.  “When I found the leak, I thought. . .” he stopped himself, as if realizing what he was saying.

“What leak?” Sif’s voice was deceptively soft over the PUDI.  Hex read suspicion in her face that was reflected in his own.

“What are we doing here, Ryg?” he added.

“I’ll tell you later,” Ryg said, sounding resigned. “Just stick the chip in and get the programs running.  We’re on a timer here with those patrol drones.”

“Later,” Sif said, making the word a promise.

Hex pulled the chip with the programs on it out of his jacket pocket and found a port on one of the servers.  He slotted it in.

“Good?” he asked Ryg.

“Yes, I’m in, just. . .” Static cut Ryg off.

“Ryg? Hey?” Hex tried to re-establish the connection and met the hard silence of a jammed signal.  Not good.

Sif met his eye and they melted into the shadows of the room, taking cover behind the server banks as red lights came on and the air filled with the whirring noise of Hunter-killer drones.  Nasty little things, Hunter-killers were fist-sized and carried three lethal darts each.  Whoever had set up the security here wasn’t messing around.

Hex slid his gun out of its holster as quietly as he could and took a deep breath.  No job ever went perfect.  If he got out of this alive, he and Ryg were going to have a very, very interesting chat.

(Read More in Chapter Six)

September and Sundry

September was a stressful month.  I was still recovering from the summer and Clarion (and all the other travel I did).  I was also doing a lot of sitting around and trying to figure out what I should be writing and where my energy should be going.  I think I’ve  got that sorted at least, though it means writing in other genres.  Science Fiction just doesn’t have the large readership I want to tap into, so I’m expanding my horizons and testing new waters.

Ebook sales started out amazing and then died off almost completely until the very end of the month.  I don’t know why but I wasn’t the only one seeing the Kindle sales fall like a stone, so who knows.  I put up another short story collection and a novel in a different genre under a pen name.  Over the next six months or so I’ll be putting up quite a bit of work under pen names, so Annie Bellet probably won’t have much new (other than The Raven King which is coming this winter at some point, I promise).  My Clarion project book is also in the works and that will be up in the next month or two.

Here are the stats, such as they are:

Ebooks sold: 102

Paper books sold: 0

Words written: 11,206

In other news, Daily SF got SFWA qualified, which means that if I can scrounge up 80 bucks, I, too, can be a full SFWA member.  At the moment I’m super broke, so I won’t be joining.  But I will before WorldCon next year, probably, even though I’m more or less leaving NY publishing behind and focusing my efforts on publishing my own work.  I am still going to write and (hopefully) sell stories to magazines, so it might be useful to be an SFWA member.  We’ll see.

I will be a panelist at the Portland, OR convention Orycon.  I’ll post my schedule closer to the convention.

So that’s the news with me lately.  Chapters of Casimir Hypogean will still go up each Monday and I have many new victims for my Neo-pro Interview series, so look for those on Thursdays.

Do More

This post is brought to you by not enough sleep, 4am, and the letter R (for rant).

I don’t know if it is the boards I frequent, the blogs I read, or what, but lately I see a lot of  writers who put up an ebook or two and then bitch and moan when they don’t sell much or aren’t instantly successful and rich.  I don’t get it.

I mean, I get the frustration.  You take a book or some short stories that have been vetted, either by industry professionals (in the case of previously published work) or by trusted peers or professional editors you hired or what have you.  You put it up. No one buys it beyond those three guys that live in your basement and drink your beer (or is that just MY three guys? I dunno).  So then you throw up your hands and declare that no one can make any good money by self-publishing ebooks.

What I really, really don’t understand? Often times these are writers with publication history.  They have spent years if not decades in the trenches getting rejected over and over as they struggled to get to a point where their work sold reliably.  They know what perseverance is.  They know what hard work is.  These are writers who wouldn’t dream of only ever writing one story, sending it out to a single market, and then throwing up their hands and saying “oh well, I guess this doesn’t work” and quitting writing.  Because the writers who make that decision are the ones you will never hear about.  They don’t get published because this isn’t a business for quitters.

And yet, that is what I see, over and over, among professionals who decide to test the ebook waters.  They take a single work, put it online (often with a terrible cover and boring blurb), and then throw their hands up and cry all over the net how only selling to big publishers works because no one but the very very lucky can make any money at this ebook thing.

W. T. F.  I’m serious.  I don’t get it. Why would people who should KNOW better do this?  Writing as a business isn’t easy.  It is, however, very simple.  Heinlein’s Rules haven’t changed and they still work.  Write. Finish. Get it out there. Keep it out there. Rinse. Repeat.

Ebooks are no different.  Make them as damn good as you can.  This means studying the covers, blurbs, prices, etc of the books that are like the ones you are selling.  Put up a good product. Do it again. And again.  Keep writing. Keep writing books that people want to read.  If you aren’t selling, write better books, write better blurbs, get better covers.  You know… work at it.  The same way we all do going through the traditional publishing trenches.  We slog through the rejections, the crits, the workshops, the endless query-go-round.  And when we sell a book, we rejoice.  But we don’t expect a single sale to solve all our problems forever and that we can instantly be rich and famous and awesome.  Instead, the next day, we start another damn book.

So if you have put up a single work (or even two or three) and are sitting there whining about how you don’t have the time and energy to properly market, that you don’t have the budget to do what a big publisher can do for you, that no one will buy your book, that this ebook thing is failsauce… well… look at yourself. What are you doing? Are you pinning your hopes on a single work? Would you pin your hopes on a single book bought by a trad publisher? Or would you go out and write the next book? And the next. And the one after that. Would you take a single no for an answer? Or would you examine why a story/book/whatever got rejected and figure out how to do it better?

This is the same game as it was before.  Why let one failure stop you?  You wouldn’t let a single rejection stop you.  Come on, guys. Be smarter than this.  Fail better.

(This said, I need to go write some more books. Because winter is coming and I bet there will be millions of new e-reader owners all looking for awesome, well-packaged books to read.)

Neo-Pro Interview: Melissa Mead

Yes, that is right. The interviews are back.  I’ll be posting them every Thursday until I run out of victims entries.

Enjoy!

Who are you?  What’s your genre/history/etc?

Melissa: Hi! I’m Melissa Mead, writer of mostly fantasy, occasional SF, and even more occasional horror (usually on a dare.)

What’s your Race score?

Melissa: Aw, you caught me near the end of the month! I generally sub a batch of stories in the first week of a month. Right now, I’d say 12 “serious” points. (There are also some novel queries to agents who I’m assuming aren’t interested at this point.)

When did you “get serious” about being a writer?

Melissa: My seriousness has increased in waves. First, in 1997, I got serious enough to submit for publication. (Which happened in 1999) In 2002, I went to my first con, met Real Writers, and started sending to more than one or two places, and tracking my subs. In 2007, I started querying agents. I have a feeling that it’s about time to decide whether to catch the next wave or not.

What are your goals with your writing?

Melissa: Right now, I’d love to 1. Qualify for active SFWA membership. (This could happen soon!) 2. Sell a story to Realms of Fantasy, and 3. Sell a print novel to a major publisher.

Where do you see your career in 5 years?

Melissa: Depends if I catch that next wave of commitment or not. If I dare, maybe you’ll see that novel in a bookstore somewhere.

Do you have a particular story or idea you are dying to write? Or, if you could write a tie-in to any established universe/franchise, what would it be?

Melissa: I have a novel that’s been lurking in my brain for a few years. I’m not dying to write it just yet, but it hasn’t gone away, either.  It starts with Snow White, and gets odd from there. As far as tie-ins go, I don’t play well in other people’s yards. Although my husband and I once did come up with a Star Trek story involving Voyager, the doctor’s mobile emitter, and STTNG’s Moriarty that I would’ve loved to watch.

What are your hobbies outside writing?

Melissa: There are hobbies outside of writing? Oh, reading, of course. Going on picnics with my husband. Turning my not-very-impressive photographs into artwork.

What’s your writing process like?

Melissa: Get idea. Write like crazy. Realize I don’t know where it’s going. Stare at screen. Surf the Net. Get another idea. Write like crazy. Get stuck. Eventually, browse among the various stuck beginnings, realize where one is going, and FINISH something: hooray, at last, ‘bout darn time. Repeat.

What’s been toughest about your journey so far as a writer?  How do you keep yourself going?

Melissa: Lack of self confidence.  And sometimes I don’t. (See the last question.) But there are always more ideas. If I don’t let them out, who will?

Any tips or tricks you’ve figured out for improving your writing?

Melissa: Write flash. Drabbles, even. Write stories of 1,500-2,000 words, and distil them to under 1,000. It’s great practice for packing the most story into the least space.

And finally, got anything you want to pimp? 

Melissa: May I pimp my writers group? We’re here: http://carpelibris.wordpress.com/

Thanks for letting me do this!

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Four

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Four

(Catch up on previous chapters here)

Chapter 4

Nico disliked the heavy feel of the gun in her hand almost as much as she disliked skulking around in a service tunnel before curfew.  Too many people around above, too many chances for someone to notice something, to hear something.  She was only an outlaw by necessity of her birth, not by choice and definitely not by inclination.

She halted a moment, listening.  Kadin, her companion on this particular venture, stood close enough that she could feel him breathing against her back in the tight tunnel.  Her tall, almost androgynous body hovered like a stick inside a bottle.  After a moment, she resumed creeping forward.

Definitely too many people up there, somewhere in the world above her.  The power hub lay beneath the central Subway station in the Kajipe district.  They were three grids down from the Totsi Electronics tower where the rest of the team would be falling into place soon.  If Nico and Kadin could do this part right.

“Left,” murmured Kadin, his voice a buzz in her ear.  She was the only one in the group without a Personal Uplink implant thingy.  Ryg had outfitted her with an ear piece and a patch for her throat, but electronics had a tendency not to last long when in contact with her skin.  She couldn’t hear Ryg’s directions at all and depended on Kadin for that.

She acknowledged him in a quick nod and went left.  A ladder took them up to a locked hatch.  Nico hung on, one arm curled awkwardly around the ladder so she could keep hold of the damn gun.  She pressed her other gloved hand against the hatch. Electronic lock, perfect.  Power uncoiled within her and buzzed along her skin, stretching through the thin shield of the cloth glove and into the lock.

The hatch popped up with a hiss, as though keyed open.  Nico hung there for a moment longer, listening.  They had the patrol timings for the power hub and the corridors should be clear, but she trusted her ears far more than a stolen schedule.

“Clear,” she whispered down to Kadin.  His face was outlined in red shadows, his strong features a blur to her night vision, but she saw him nod as the shadows shifted.  She couldn’t make out the face paint even with her special vision, but she knew the patterns were there, same as her own.  The paint clung to her skin, smelling metallic and thick.  Her nose itched but she didn’t dare disturb the markings.  They needed them to confuse facial recognition.

The corridor led from the entrance, which was now behind them as they emerged and replaced the hatch, down to an office which overlooked the power control room.  The whole thing was computerized and automated, but two human guards and a technician were on duty at all times.

Three against two.  Not odds that Nico favored, but Kadin was scrappy enough and hopefully no one would try to be a hero.  She’d already warned Kadin that he’d have to do any killing, if killing needed doing.  But no one wanted it to come to that.  The Grey Guard looked for murderers with a lot more gusto than thieves.  If they pulled this off right, no one would die and nothing would look like it’d been stolen.

“Too many ifs,” she muttered.

Kadin shushed her and they slid along the wall to the office.  The door was thick, the kind that slid back on electronic tracks, and required a key code to open as well. Kadin slipped the jammer from his pocket and set the small device against the wall in the corner near the door.  He flicked the switch on it and nodded to Nico.  She bent, gun ready, and laid her hand against the electronic keypad.  She was just about to short it out when the pad buzzed and the door started to slide open.

* * *

Tommy, AKA the Mouth, had nothing to do but wait.  He’d been in position for well over an hour now, though the power field around the secret server room was jamming up his PUDI and he had no way to tell the exact time.  He lay on his back in the dry, slightly sweet smelling defunct sewer tunnel, and did long division in his head for kicks.

He had his nickname for talking too much, not for his mouth being anything particularly impressive.  His lips were a pinkish line, almost bruised looking, across his narrow brown face.  Above them his eyes looked tired and bruised as well.  He’d gone for a basic mask instead of the face paint.  It worked better with the thermal equalizing suit he wore to keep him comfortable while laying on cement and the gods knew what else.

His part of the job was pretty easy which is why he’d volunteered for this section.  The door was state of the art, the walls super thick, and no one was getting into this hidden server room without retinal scan, finger-print, and voice ID.  As long as the power worked, anyway.  And it was hooked right into the main power hub for Kajipe.  And if the power blew, the servers would be offline anyway.

Stupidity was Tommy’s favorite vice in other people.  His plan was perfect and they were going to do what no one else would think to, what no one would dare.  Hack right into a government black box and walk off with the back-ups of all the data from all the Casimir government systems.  Without anyone guessing what they were up to.  It was so beautiful he felt his eyes stinging with tears inside the stuffy black cloth mask.

The wall was still humming with power though, so it wasn’t time yet.  He just had to lay here, waiting for that buzzing power to go silent.  Then he’d walk in, swap the memory stick, retrieve the progs that Ryg would have dosed into the system, and walk right back out again.  He could gain the street at the jimmied access point a few hundred meters away, pull off his mask, pull on his overcoat, and catch the subway home before curfew.

Tommy licked his thin lips and smiled. Yeah.  He was sure brilliant.

* * *

            Clad in black from head to toe with their faces painted, Sif and Hex flattened themselves against the plexi window and let the drone patrol go by.  It was before curfew but after business hours, so the security presence wasn’t high yet.  But there did seem to be slightly tighter security on this section of buildings than Ryg had led them to expect.  Still, it wasn’t yet anything they couldn’t handle.

The drone gone, Sif pulled out her small lazer-cutter and went to work on the window.  There was no way to get in here without leaving a trace, but they could minimize the damage.  The plexi slowly melted away in a circle as Hex pressed the suction cup to the center, holding the cut-out in place as Sif finished.  The oily smoke smelled like cancer happening as it melted away and Hex grit his teeth.

Sif turned off the tool and capped the hot tip, then nodded at Hex.  There was enough ambient light from the small running lights inside the hallway that he didn’t need his night vision to see her, but he wished she’d add a little verbal communication to her repertoire.

The cut-out disk came free as he pulled gently and Sif wiggled into the hole, dropping down onto the hallway floor.  She crooked a finger at him.  His turn.

“Couldn’t have made that opening a little wider?” he muttered over the sub-vocals.

“Eat less,” Sif mouthed and her grin was downright scary with the black markings on her rice-paper skin.

Hex glared, though he knew it was wasted on her, and handed the plexi disk through.  His shoulders jammed in the opening for a minute and he entertained a vision of being truly stuck, left for the drones and the Grey Guard to retrieve with cutters and jests in the morning.  Spurred by that image, he wiggled his shoulders, stretching his arms above his head.

Sif grabbed onto his hips and yanked.  Hex’s head cracked back as he popped loose and slammed into the window, the dull ringing echoing down the hallway and out into the ventilation shaft they’d rappelled down.

“You okay?” Ryg’s voice asked through the PUDI connection.  What he meant was “have you been spotted?”

Both thieves froze, waiting for the hum of the drones.  Nothing.

Head still stinging and with a dull burr of noise echoing on in his ears below the sound of his racing heart, Hex let out a slow breath.

“Yeah, I think we’re good,” he told Ryg.  “Where now?”

Ryg’s response was to pull up the overlay of the building and ping the little map he’d put together for their PUDIs.   Sif made sense of it right away and motioned to Hex to follow.  He unhooked his harness and left it in the shadows with the cut-out from the window.  According to the most likely patrol schedule, they had a good three quarters of an hour before this hallway would be occupied again.  Enough time to run the progs and get out.

Hopefully.  Ryg wasn’t communicating as much as he usually did on a job.  He seemed almost distracted by something.  Hex prayed it was just jitters and imagination on his part.  No way to bring it up to Sif and get her thoughts without Ryg listening in.

Get in, get out , then worry. With multiple glances behind him, Hex slipped down the corridor after his lover, a growing sense of unease he couldn’t explain tickling the back of his brain.

(Continue reading in Chapter Five)

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Three

Casimir Hypogean: Chapter Three

(Need to catch up? Here is Chapter One and Here is Chapter Two)

Chapter 3:

Sif muttered a garbled protest as Hex rose with the daylight.  He’d only had a few hours of sleep and his body ached as though he’d taken a beating. He smiled down at his sleeping lover.  She had one slim arm thrown over her head, with the other pale hand tucked under her chin.  Her hair, like fine gold thread, had escaped its braid and blanketed her narrow shoulders.  Relaxed with sleep; her normally defined muscles hid beneath unblemished skin.

Hex thought she looked at her most inhuman when she slept, less like a child than a doll.  Every feature symmetrical, the coloring of her mouth, cheeks, and even her lashes were more like painted details than living flesh.

Hex carried his clothing into the main room and dressed quickly.  He selected seven of the condensed food bars they’d appropriated the night before and tucked them into the pockets of his long brown coat.  More grateful for stairs then he’d been in a long time; Hex navigated the twisting corridors of the building and descended slowly to street level. It was still raining, a slow lazy drizzle.

Though curfew ended with dawn, there were very few people moving along Casimir’s winding Main Street.  Later, the streets would fill with bicycle traffic and throngs of bodies moving between underground stations.  Ijipe’s lower levels held many small home shops and markets.  It was possible to find almost anything one needed in the little registered or illegal shops tucked between the alleyways and building entries.  A warren of commerce slept as Hex moved up the glowing road towards the edge of Ijipe housing district.

Sore as he was, he still opted to walk.  The light rain cleared his head even as it matted his curls to his face and neck.  Hex left his hood down.  The food was safe enough inside his waterproof coat and the plastic packaging.

The solid walls of building shadowed his walk, the ubiquitous crowns, bells, and wings of traditional Casimir decoration casting odd shadows down on the rain-dark concrete.  Here and there in the morning mist lights within windows glinted.  The fiber-optics embedded into the streets lit the morning purple, green, and red.

A few hundred steps down the road, just as the buildings started to twist again in another curve of the giant spiral that was Casimir, Hex found the alley he was looking for.  The alley was dimly lit by pale strands of fiber-optic light tucked into the edges.  Debris and a dark plastic bench blocked some of the light rising up from the ground.  Hex moved carefully down the alley until he came to a narrow stair leading upward into the buildings.

Hex climbed until his legs hurt.  He bypassed one hallway entrance after another.  Finally worn green paint in twisting designs greeted his eyes.  He turned from the stair and stepped down the hallway.  At the fifth door he hesitated. With a deep breath, Hex knocked.

A small, dark and wrinkled woman opened the door just enough to see him.  He heard a chain being withdrawn and then the door opened fully.

“What do you want, Hex?” Jaline said.

“I’ve brought food for the kids,” Hex said, pulling the food bricks out of his pockets.

“They’re asleep. Come put it over here.” She moved aside, allowing him into the small room.  This apartment was laid out much like Hex’s own.  He walked to the kitchen, noticing the large crayons aligned neatly on the low table.  He stacked the food on the counter and turned back to Jaline.

“Thank you. Is that all?” She said the last more as expectation than question.

“Daddy?” A soft voice asked from behind one of the curtains leading to the sleeping rooms.

“Nadia, hi.” Hex bent and held his arms out to his youngest child.  She emerged from behind the cloth and ran the few steps to him.  Her body was so thin and her heart beat so fast, more like a bird’s than a girl’s.

He carefully clutched the fragile four-year old in a hug and looked up at her grandmother.  Jaline is nothing like her daughter was.  Her daughter, the mother of Hex’s two children, had been so carefree and full of life.  Her mother was a bitter creature that the world had long since sucked dry of all joy.

“Nadia, you should be in bed.” Jaline stepped forward as if to take the child.

Hex shook his head. “Nadia, I brought food for you all and Granma is going to make you a huge breakfast.”  He let his face go hard as he stared Jaline down.

Nadia looked up at him with large purple eyes and her mother’s narrow chin.  Her mother had been a Drift addict when she was pregnant and the drug’s mark was forever imprinted on his child.

“I don’t get breakfast, Daddy.”

“Don’t be silly, child,” Jaline said, her voice high with a panicked note. “Of course you get breakfast.  Granma is going to do just as your daddy says.”  She tore the child from his hands and set her down on the counter.  “Hex,” she said, “it’s just that she isn’t registered, so of course it’s harder to get her rations.  We have to pay attention to those things in this house. You see.”

“Of course,” Hex murmured.  He wished suddenly that he hadn’t come.  “Say hello to Eddy for me when he gets up.  I’ve got to go.”

“Have a good day,” Jaline said stiffly, though her eyes still showed a trace of fear.

Hex paused in the doorway and watched the domestic scene of Nadia waving a mixing spoon in the air while her grandmother peeled open a package of Sunrise! Delicious!  He shut the door quickly and did not look back.

* * *

            Sif, Ryg, and Hex gathered around the low table.  On it Ryg had spread a print-out of building schematics.

“Here,” Ryg said, indicating a large room on the inside edge of the seventy-fifth floor.

“Just in and out, eh?  The files won’t be hard to copy?”  Hex asked.

“Shouldn’t be.  I’ll send along one of my little standard chips.  You might have to try running a couple different programs.”

“Sounds easy enough. Guards?”

“Drones.  Totsi Electronics provides their security.  They’ve got the regular issue.  Non-lethal only.  Patrols on a random generated pattern.”

Hex sighed. “Looks like roof entry through that central shaft is our best plan.”

Sif smiled at him and squeezed his hand.  Hex hated the roofs, though he couldn’t deny that they were the best way to travel unnoticed in the city.

“Tomorrow night then, if you think that’s not too soon?” Ryg said.  He sat very straight, body rigid.  There was an air of anticipation about him.

Sif’s eyes narrowed.

“Not too soon at all, kid.  Sooner we work, sooner we get paid,” Hex said and rose to clear their cups.

Sif followed Ryg into his room, yanking the curtain closed behind her.

“What’s going on?” she asked him, using sub-vocals.

Ryg turned his back to her and began fiddling with Fisheye. “Nothing.”

There was yellowish crust around his neck implant.  It wasn’t like him to tolerate any bodily fluid leaking, much less drying on his skin.

“I know you better than that, brother.”  Sif stepped forward and gently touched the wires protruding from his shirt.

Turning, he brushed her off. “I’m going to need to replace my knees soon.  The joints are going.  I need this job as much as you.  That’s all.”

Sif considered him.  He looked tired, yet focused.  “Night then.”  She turned away.  We’re all falling apart.

* * *

            Ryg waited until the curtain dropped closed behind Sif.  He sighed and settled down in front of his computer screens.  He loaded a program and made a call.  Kadin’s face appeared.  He was passing middle age, with short silvered hair and darker skin than Hex’s.

“They in?” Kadin asked.

“Yes.  Though Sif’s suspicious,” Ryg said.

“Everything will be fine.  They’ll never know.”  Kadin’s image smiled wide and reassuring.  “The real work will be going on far below them.”

“Except they won’t get paid.  That’s going to ruffle things,” Ryg said.  He hadn’t lied to Sif, he also needed the credit.

“Would they do it if they were getting paid?”

“No, not a job like this,” Ryg said with a sigh.  He couldn’t tell his friends the truth.  Sif would kill him for even thinking about it.  Her rule was to stay as far away from anything having to do with the Council and government as possible.  “But it’ll still look bad when we fail.”

“I’ll see what I can do for you at least,” Kadin said, reading into what Ryg wasn’t saying.  “And we’ll see what we can do with what we get.  There might be a larger payday later, if all goes as it should.”

“Thanks, friend,” Ryg said.  He resisted the urge to scratch at wires in his neck, forcing his hands to stay quiet in his lap. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow night.  Make sure everyone else is ready.”

“They will be,” Kadin said and then he ended the call.

“This better be worth it.” Ryg shivered.  It would be. It had to be.

* * *

            Sif fixed the tiny camera to her forehead, smack between her eyes.  The apoxy stuck immediately and she inwardly winced at the idea of ripping it off.  That part was never fun. The benefits of a live feed of what was going on, however, would always outweigh the bit of skin she’d lose later.

“Great,” Ryg said. “Now, try not to move your head around too much.  I’m not the biggest fan of motion sickness.”

“Really?” Hex asked. “I figured you would have replaced your stomach with a spare bucket and some plumbing tape by now.”

Sif tensed.  Ryg could be touchy when it came to making light of his body’s failings.  She needn’t have worried.  Ryg chuckled and then shrugged.

“I would, but you see, who knows where those spare buckets have been? So very unsanitary. So I’m unfortunately stuck with the acidic bacteria infestation that comes as standard option.”

“In that case I’ll try to resist all urges to pick Sif up and shake her like a rat,” Hex said solemnly.

“Aw, but then I’d get to witness, first person view and all, what she’d do to you afterwards.”

“Now that would be unsanitary.”

“If you two are done,” Sif muttered, “We have a building to rob.”

(Continue on to Chapter Four)