The Most Hated Creature in Known Space

The Most Hated Creature in Known Space
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

On our first day the instructor shot our valedictorian, William Robert “Billy-Bob” Rossmount, in the crotch with a burner bolt. Billy-Bob convulsed, wet himself, and fell onto the faux linoleum floor. The woman beside me murmured, “Holy fuck.” Meanwhile, the best of us shit his pants and quivered on the floor.

“Listen up, all of you!” The instructor holstered the burner under his jacket. “You’ve signed up for the toughest training course in known space. I have a waiver for every one of you which says that all you bastards are mine now! You will refer to me by one name only: Chief Instructor. Or, Sir, if you are out of breath.”

He pulled a kerchief from his back pocket, expanded it to the size of a towel, and draped it across Billy-Bob like a shroud.

“You will be pushed to your physical, emotional and psychological limits. We will trigger the worst in you. We will show you the worst in everyone else. And none of this will be exaggerated.” The Chief paced, back and forth, like a guard dog eying prisoners. “Everything we will send you through is real, tested, and true.”

The Chief pointed to the door. “The exit will always be open. But once you walk out, that’s it. There is no coming back.” He checked the time. “You have fifteen minutes to decide. That should be enough for Billy-Bob to change his shorts.”

***

Three people left right away, including “Billy-Bob” Rossmount. I stayed. I thought I knew what I was in for. We all did. But we were wrong.

We didn’t expect the physical exertion. Not just the training for high, low and null gravity environments but dodge-ball, of all things. The Chief Instructor, when he was feeling generous, would randomly throw cricket balls at us, cursing the whole time. “My first day, I had a five-star general throw an ExoArmor gauntlet at my head!  You’re getting off easy!”

Then there was the abuse. Not physical, but verbal. We would try to work the day’s exercise while he flayed us with words read from a stack of transcripts he kept on his tablet.

“Samantha Tien, are you a complete fucking retard? Do you understand what the fuck I’m saying, you stupid slut!?” The Chief’s face grew darker when he yelled. The veins around his eyes popped up, and his pupils shrank into needle-sharp pin-holes. “If I wanted your so-called expert fucking advice, I’d fucking rip it out of your fucking ass! Give me a plan for bombing the fuck out of these shit-suckers and then I’ll listen to your fucking advice, you miserable cunt!”

Lastly, there was the actual training: PsyOps and PsiOps warfare, social engineering, micro-expression interpretation, psycholinguistic manipulation, marketing – the dirtiest of dirty warfare became our bread and butter.

By the end of the first week, exhaustion claimed two more. The rest of us learned to lose ourselves in the moment – think about the mission, focus on the objective, and cover your team-mates. I stopped seeing rivals around me, and instead saw other survivors. We learned to support each other, cover for each other, and conspire with the best of them. Damitra Williams, who stood beside me and gaped as “Billy-Bob” Rossmount voided his bladder that first day, kept standing by me.

But we were still human inside, and vulnerable. On the second week, I had a breakdown. Damitra knew I needed room, space outside the dorms just to let go. She got me into the gym one night after lights-out. I found a quiet spot by the null-G pool. In the dark, I watched the clear sphere of water hover above the full-G pool like an errant planet. I didn’t swim. I just sat and saw the water bounce and ripple.

“Guess I’m not the only one who finds this relaxing.” I jumped to my feet. The Chief Instructor walked out of the shadows. Light, reflected and refracted through the hovering pool, danced over his dark skin like smoke. “Now, sit yourself down. I’m not here and neither are you.”

“Yes, Sir.” I sat back in one of the poolside chairs, re-shaping it so I could lean back. The Chief just stood and watched the water sphere ripple.

“You know, it’s only going to get worse from here.” He kept his eyes on the pool. “You’ve got two more days of prep, followed by intensive simulations. First person, face to face.  You’ll be as close to the front lines as we can make it. And when it’s all over – you’ll have to deal with the exact same nightmare for the rest of your career.” He turned to me, almost sad. “You sure you want to go on?”

“You don’t think I can make it, Sir?”

The Chief shook his head. “It’s not a question of making it. It’s why you’re trying. Stubbornness? Insanity? Bone to pick with someone?”

“Because it means something,” I said.

“How’s that?”

I looked the Chief dead in the eyes; something I’d never do if we were on the clock. “I know this is not going to be pretty. I’ll be walking straight into Hell wearing jelly gasoline and a smile. But this means I can help one person, save one life, keep one world from turning into living nightmare, it’s worth it.”

“We’re not doing this for the money. Or the education. Or the travel.” I stood up and compacted the chair back into a cube. “We do it because we believe. Goodnight, Chief.”

“Goodnight, Ms. Tien.”

***

The Chief did not lie. It got worse from there on out. The simulations held nothing back.  Staffed by veterans, they started in the middle of the night, with Klaxon calls and cursing and half-dressed students trying to function. We found ourselves bellowed at by a room full of trainers with over a century of combined field experience.

Three people dropped out that night. Over the next two weeks, seven more filtered away. From an original starting class of forty, only fourteen remained. I survived. Damitra survived. We became tighter than sisters through the fight. Everyone in the class did. Before the end, we exchanged personal contact information. No matter where we were deployed, we would stay close.

You don’t forget folks who stood beside you in the Inferno.

Finally, Graduation Day.  We dressed in our best –  clothes cleaned and pressed until the creases could slice throats. We walked onto the stage, received our diplomas, shook Chief’s hand, and sat as we listened to his final words. I still remember them. I carried those words with me with me in the days that followed, and they helped keep me sane:

“Don’t expect a long speech here. I’ve got to get this placed cleaned up for the next set of inductees. But I will say this:  you entered into this course naked as babes. Since then, you have learned to arm and armor yourselves. Now, shields and swords in hand, your truest test awaits you. Out there, all this is meaningless. Out there, you are the most hated creature in all of known space. And you must own this, for it will protect you more than any training we can provide.”

“Welcome, everyone, to the Federated Systems’ Diplomatic Corps. Now, go out there and save humanity from itself. Good luck.”

Sharing The Orphans

This artwork comes from ALIEN ARTIFACTS, the largest publication credit I have to date. It doesn’t mean the short story therein is the only one I’ve written, of course, but it is the one that has gotten any kind of broad release recently. I do have others out there in the world – submissions to other anthologies, and to various publications – but there are a few which have been tucked away for now. I haven’t found a home for them, or they are just not ready for prime time. 

But this little backwater of the internet isn’t prime time. So, I think I’ll post a few of the stories which didn’t make it through the submission grinding process here.

What of Metaphysical Grtaffiti? I’m putting that to the side for a while. I need to rethink the structure and my ultimate goal with the book. I also need to work on a few more world elements. Some aspects are not quite falling into place just yet.  Given I’m not in danger of getting a book deal anytime before the end of the Trump administration, I’ll be OK resting it, and coming back later.

But, for now, I’ll throw out a few of my abandoned short stories and flash fiction pieces. Hopefully, folks will enjoy them. Do let me know what you think.

I’ve Seen The Future, Brother, It Is Murder

I couldn’t help but bring Leonard Cohen into this. He’s one of the many artists whose loss gouged great wounds in our hearts. But Leonard’s poetry will live on in everyone he’s touched, and in every story he’s inspired.

This month’s post is about the future. It’s about two different futures, though. One is personal – my hopes and ambitions for the coming year – and the other is about a dominant theme for 2017 in my opinion.

Let’s talk about the big things first:

An image from when my corporate cyberpunk dystopia also was stylishly designed and beautifully filmed. Alas, we know it’s a dystopia by the fact only the worst will come and we won’t have any of the cool features. If you don’t believe me, check out the new Ghost in the Shell trailer. It had me running back to my copies of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex for the definitive adaptation of the material.

But as I was watching, and thinking about the themes of the series, especially the second one, I started to feel how it would impact our world in 2017.

The first series, dealing with the Laughing Man, introduced the idea of a Stand Alone Complex but the second series brought that idea to a more terrifying place: the idea that the phenomenon could be harnessed, with the right manipulation, to political ends.

As I watch it now, I realize this is rooted in something deeper I’ve been touching on in other entries: narrative control. Our world today, moreso than any previous time in our history, is vulnerable to active and directed efforts at narrative control. Information is spreading so fast, and people accept it so readily, one can use this to easily control a post-truth world.

We’ve been seeing this building for many years. But what once were ‘whisper campaigns’ or coded statements have become very open attempts at narrative control, and misdirection. The atmosphere has become so permissive, that people will shoot up local DC pizzerias based on deliberately created lies.

This upcoming year, I see Narrative Control becoming a key battleground for the spirit of the world we live in, but it will be done in tandem with something I’m calling ‘narrative distribution control.’ It’s not enough to create a narrative and set it lose in the world, then back it up. You’ve got to suppress counter-narratives or, even worse, actual facts.

I heard a description of a small mid-west rust belt town from a former resident. He said everyone listened to specific radio stations, which carried specific songs and messages. Listening to anything else got you odd looks. You only believed certain information sources. Challenging those would get everyone looking at you, saying ‘your education is showing.’ And Gods help you if you deviated from the norm.

It honestly sounded like descriptions of North Korea, except in this case the narrative control, and the choking of information to ‘approved’ sources, comes from the community and not the government. What’s more terrifying? A government imposing a narrative on you, or your own neighbors doing so?

So how do we stop this? How do we prevent us from becoming a less colorful version of The Village?

Do not not be pushed. Start small rebellions. Find these communities and the dissidents within. Let them know they’re not alone, that you know the narrative they’re being fed is not the whole truth. Create alternate narratives and find ways to deliver them to occupied areas.

We need to become the pirate radio station intercepting and countering the control narrative. We have to speak the truth, with proof and citation, and sneak the truth under the wire to those who need it. Learn from those fighting authoritarians elsewhere. Fight them here.

And don’t be afraid to yell “You lie!” when needed. They were willing to do so to support easy falsehoods, you have to do so to support the complicated truth.

Now, on a more personal note…

As with all years, I discover a bit more about myself as a writer, and then immediately get angry at college me for not realizing this. Time is the biggest enemy. But here is what I have learned:

Comfortable structures work best: Now, by comfortable I do not mean ‘comfort zone’ or anything similar. I mean finding a structure that works like a good hammer, or a pen that’s just the right size so it doesn’t dig into your hand the wrong way.

In this case, the comfortable structure is the one I was first trained to use: Screenplay outlines and treatments. During November, I cranked out several short stories at a speed which surprised me. And I realized the key was not only having a good old Syd Field outline for the story and writing up a treatment with scene breakdown beforehand.

I’m still working on how to scale this up, and start layering it for multiple plots, but the focus it conveyed contrasts heavily against the way I wandered around on Metaphysical Graffiti. Even using a plot outlining structure there, it lead to a lot of bloated beginnings and boring middles. I’m going to have to tear down the whole project at this point. But I think it’s for the best. I’m still unsure if I am ready to write this book yet.

Short Stories vs Novels – the battle continues: These days, with the limited time I have, my energy has gone into short stories and the submission grind. I’m still working on novels – still developing long form projects – but they are not my sole focus at this point. Right now, short stories are letting me further development my craft and try to get them out in the world. I won’t pretend I’m the second coming of Ted Chaing or Aunt Beast, but the chances of me getting stories published and developing a name is still greater than my chances of getting a novel subbed at this time.

Speaking of novels…

Generating Stories: Here, I come back to the great question – what stories do I want to tell? What do I want to read? I’m developing bits and pieces of backgrounds, thinking about the stories I want to tell, but finding the right voice for them proves difficult. I know the feeling I want to generate – a feeling I can’t get elsewhere – but grabbing onto it is taking a while.

But I’ll keep working on it. Can’t do much else – the stories aren’t being quiet.

Give yourself time: If this November taught me anything, I need time. Concerted, focus time where I can write. During this November’s write-ins with my group, I was able to put down words at a rate I can’t manage when sneaking out time after work, or in the wee hours before my job drains me of everything but anger.

The hardest part? The part of me, brought from a very Slavic upbringing, that says this isn’t real work, and I should be spending this time on the weekends fixing the fireplace. I think the biggest issue I have to overcome is the continued, nagging sense that this is not a worthwhile activity, even though I’d probably go mad if I couldn’t do it….

So, what am I going to do in 2017?

  • -Continue to write short stories, at least one a quarter, and keep pushing them out into the world to see who grabs onto them.
  • -Work on adapting Screenwriting structures to plotting
  • -Find characters and settings that will let me tell the stories I want to tell.
  • -Fight the part of me that won’t give time for writing
  • -Work on connecting with others and building a support network.
  • -Re-plot Metaphysical Graffiti
  • -Brainstorm the type of stories I want to tell and find characters within them
  • -Anger is an energy. Use it.

Talk to you all in the future
-> Andrija, Dec 2017

The End of November

November is, to most folks who write as either a hobby or professionally, NaNoWriMo month. People set themselves up to crank out over fifty-thousand words in one month’s space of time. For those on a certain side of the political spectrum, it’s probably a been a rough month. For others, they’ve probably beaten their numbers, though I’m unsure if policy briefs and manifestos count as ‘novels.’

Me, I set myself up to fail. And I did so in the most spectacular way possible.

My goal wasn’t to write a set number of words. Instead, it was to write at least three short stories by the end of the month. My writer’s group, as part of their NaNoWriMo prep, sectioned off five hours of time at a local library just for writing. During that dedicated time, I was able to crank out about 5k words per session.  Most sessions ended early, so my rate is a little over 1.5k words per hour. Had this been extrapolated across the month, I could have cracked the goal again.

But my goal was reached. Three short stories written, and a fourth almost completed. One has already been submitted to the intended market.  So how do I feel about losing?

8ec

I regret nothing because I learned a lot.

  1. Screenplay outlines are my happy place – I was able to plot out the stories and get everything set because I returned to my home, the good old-fashioned Syd Field screenplay outline.  It helped me know exactly where I had to go, what each scene had to do, and how to ensure I was never lost in the woods of ‘Well, what should I write now?’
  2. Given a clear vision, I can write and research at the same time – some of my stories involved looking up real events, or people. I was digging through and confirming information at the outline stage, but also as i wrote.
  3. Time is my enemy and friend – if I have time and I can focus, I can produce quite a bit.

So what was the hardest part? The usual: “that’s five hours wasted – think of all the chores you could have done” or “Hey, shouldn’t you be working on trying to cross-sell to all of your clients even if they don’t need a product?”

My brain is still wired to never see writing as a ‘useful’ act.  It’s not work. It doesn’t earn money (so far) and won’t get me life insurance, mortgage payments, etc. I have to constantly fight my wiring and says, “I need more than a salary in my life. I want to tell stories. I hope, some day, someone reads those stories.”

At the end of November I know, the biggest enemy I still have (next to time) is this guy named Andy Popovic.

Two Updates for October

(Image by the great Ron Spencer)

It’s the waning days of October and, here in the DC area, it finally feels like October. Morning air bites you on the cheek. Leaves rattle on the asphalt in slow-motion tornadoes. ALIEN ARTIFACTS has seen print. I’m still focusing on writing short stories, especially now that three new anthologies have opened for submission.

If you’re interested, click here.

Which leads me to my first update: This year NaNoWriMo is more about getting short stories finished than anything else. I’m finishing up one, and I’ve got at least three more I hope to write over the course of the month. If nothing else, t his is going to give me a good supply of stories I can rework and shop around at a later date.

Now, is the focus on short stories a good strategic one? Well, there are a few factors here. First and foremost: writing is not my full-time job. My goals here are not economic. This means, I’m more worried about getting my name out there and being seen for producing good stories, working well with editors, and adding to my publication credits.

Will I stop work on the novel(s)? No. Working on the novels(s) have taught me a lot and I’m still learning from the experience. But the short stories are giving me something immediate to focus on while, in the background, I can think about novels in a larger, more structural framework. In either case, I keep writing.

This is the second update. It’s more a follow-up on my last entry on writing horror.

I’ve started reading short stories in alternation with my massive stack of novels. My copy of People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror! came in. Silvia Garcia-Moreno’s opening essay talked about her experience watching horror films from America, or reading stories where everyone was well-off, white and trouble-free until they discovered their idyllic house is on a Native American graveyard!

She rooted for the ghosts in those cases.

I immediately thought about going to see The Ruins with some friends. We expected a trashy horror film. We didn’t expect to have the theater almost to ourselves. And what I didn’t expect was to be rooting for the carnivorous plants right from the first five minutes.

“Oh, I hope these privileged little shits die horribly.”

Most American horror falls on the conservative side of John Carpenter’s spectrum: there is evil out there come to sap our precious American bodily fluids! We must do all we can to defend our white picket fences against these terrors, be they atomic-powered ants, Satanists, or ethnic folks.

For the most part, I couldn’t take those films seriously. If the dumb teenagers got cut up, was their own fault. There’s literally a crazy old guy telling you about the murders! What do you need, a Greek oracle?

I felt more for the people in Alien and The Thing. They were just trying to survive, same as the creatures they faced. Of the suburban horror films I enjoyed, they were usually handled by Wes Craven. The Nightmare films, at their core, are all about kids paying for the secrets and lies spread by their parents. Suburbia isn’t a thing to defend – it’s a prison hiding everyone’s sins.

What happens when you sympathize with the monsters too much?

Or, think of it this way: What happens if I do start with a human I sympathize with? Someone who’s struggling to make it through the day, is happy he doesn’t get pulled aside for a more detailed search while going to a game, has depression and a mess of issues? And then I sic some terrible traumatic horror on them, destroy their world, rip them to pieces…

My first thought was, “Why isn’t this happening to his douchebag of a boss? Isn’t life tilted enough in the dudebro’s favor that even the monsters don’t go after them?”

Yeah, there’s my world of horror:

One day, the great monsters dwelling in the outer dark will see you, weighed down by stress, anxiety and the grind of surviving this world. Instead of torturing you they will just sigh, pat you on the head, hand you some antidepressants, and go to haunt the $1.4 million dollar home your boss bought for himself and his mistress while working into an early grave.

But that’s not horror then, is it? That’s just a lovely, lovely fantasy.

Oh, The Horror. The Horror….

Oh, The Horror. The Horror.

I love horror fiction, and films. The weirder, the better. But, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to successfully write it. I’ll explain why after this gloomy self-portrait of Sir William Fettes Douglas:

If there was a philosophy to my early childhood, it’s this: “The world is dark and full of terrors.” (Apologies to George R.R. Martin.) I remember growing up in terror of the world, both outside the house (Stranger danger! Don’t run out into the street! Don’t go into that old shed! Don’t play on that tire, you’ll get tetanus!) and inside the house. My family wore feelings like flags. If someone was angry, the entire house knew it. You couldn’t deaden the yelling. It was like living in an emotional bombing zone at the best of times.

Later in life, I realized how lucky I was that this was the extent of my traumas, but that’s another topic.

Fear ruled my life. Some would say it still does but then, my fears were more tangible. They dug into everything I did: I wouldn’t see a movie, because I heard there was a scary part in it. I wouldn’t listen to a record because I heard it drove people to suicide. The constant protective fear I experienced left my emotional skin very thin. I had to thicken it up myself.

I did it with repeated listening of the story record for The Black Hole, with its gurgling audio of Anthony Perkins’ death at the spinning blades of Maximilian, the single most terrifying robot I’ve ever seen.  The pictures of his scowling red eyeslit combined with one of the nastiest deaths in a supposed ‘space adventure’ burned into my brain.

I went through a wilderness of knives with Young Sherlock Holmes and the sacrifice of the young girl, smothered alive by hot wax in a pseudo-Egyptian ceremony. (At that age, I could actually feel the claustrophobia and suffocation she must have experienced). And in my dreams, I fought off the horrifying painting of one of my ancestors which stood in the house, glaring at us with his wire-brush beard and dark Serbian eyes. It made the portrait above look positively cheerful.

Over time, though, the fears of the dark and  what lurked inside faded. I grew to love the fictional horrors out there. I’d dive into films, and books. Junior high was my first deep dive into terrors, as I found Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural edited by Henry Mazzeo with illustrations by Edward Gorey in the Thomwas W. Pyle Jr. High library. The fictional terrors comforted me. Outside the library were real horrors, ones encountered at a young age and kept encountering all my life.

When going to school terrifies you because of the people waiting there, and going home is just as terrifying because of the people waiting there, what’s in a book becomes comforting. Now that I’m entirely too grown, fictional terrors on TV, the big screen, and in literature are a cozy blanket and warm cup of tea for me. I taste terrors the way some taste wine: enjoying the complexities, but never losing myself to the alcohol.

Why? Because every day, at work, I face a monitor which runs CNN constantly. I listen to political feeds, hear twitter conversations, read about the worst parts of humanity. I’ve lived through seeing both sides of my family go from obscure countries no one cared about to shorthands for mass murderers and despots. In my world, when someone racks up a body count which rivals any hockey-masked golem, the first response is: “How can we capitalize on this? Quick, send out a press release blaming the welfare state.”

I’m convinced that, in this world, the horrors of literature would be drowned in the banal horrors of humanity. A dark cosmic void pointing to our insignificance is actually far more inspiring and magnificent than a distant board of executives who consider me just another liability which can be ditched if we don’t make our annual profit margins. At least alien biomechanoids consider me a valuable resource on one level…

John Carpenter said once there are fundamentally two types of horror: external or internal. Internal horror is about confronting the darkness within ourselves – our actions have led to a horrific consequence. External horror features a malevolent force attacking us and all we hold dear. But both start one deep assumption: there is some value in the status quo. It may suck, but at least you’re not being assaulted by undead creatures or your dad isn’t possessed by some entity out to kill you. Right?

I don’t think so. Horror gives us an enemy. You can focus on the terrifying thing caught in a home movie. You can try to defeat it. How do you defeat the fact your neighborhood was red-lined into persistent poverty?

True horror is a private security firm’s attack dog with its teeth red from the blood of anti-pipeline protesters. True horror is an athlete caught raping an unconscious woman, let go after three months because he’s a white kid from the right school, with a sympathetic judge. True horror is a neighborhood dying from toxins in the soil and water because they’re too poor to register on anyone’s political radar.

This is why I can’t write horror myself. Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write anything as terrifying as humanity at its worst.

Alien Artifacts, and a new Kickstarter!

alien artifacts cover I wanted to provide folks with an update. As I mentioned before, my short story, “The Captain’s Throne” has been selected for publication in the Alien Artifacts anthology edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier,

Well, my author copies have arrived, as well as the eBook copies I got through Kickstarter. The general public will be getting access soon. So f you are interested in pre-ordering, visit the Zombies Need Brains order page:

https://squareup.com/market/zombies-need-brains-llc

You can also get art prints of the amazing cover. But that’s not all. If you’re looking to help ZNB and get copies of this anthology and Were-, its sibling anthology, how about supporting their new Kickstarter?

This project will fund three science fiction and fantasy anthologies, titled ALL HAIL OUR ROBOT CONQUERORS!, SUBMERGED, and THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS, containing approximately 14 all-original (no reprint) short stories each from established SF&F authors in the field. The books will be edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier (ALL HAIL OUR ROBOT CONQUERORS!), S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier (SUBMERGED), and Laura Anne Gilman & Kat Richardson (THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS).

If the Campaigns get enough funding, they will open the anthologies up to solicitations. This is a great chance for newer authors to stand alongside great, established talent and get a chance to shine. I encourage you, support the campaign. Only 26 days to go.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/543968884/robots-water-and-death-anthologies/widget/video.html