Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: April 2014

Nine: For Your Eyes Only

9. For Your Eyes Only, Sheena Easton. “For Your Eyes Only” tries to recapture the Carly Simon magic of “Nobody Does It Better,” with moderate success; it’s close to “All Time High” purely on pop song merit, but grabs the sound of the 80s much better, and that’s when I grew up, so points to it. Interestingly, the song was almost written and performed by Debbie Harry, who had penned her own version (later released as a Blondie song with the same title, which sounds more like a typical Bond theme if you imagine the orchestra behind it). Behind-the-scenes production issues led to the hiring of a new composer for the score who was also contracted to write the theme song, and Harry took her song and her voice and quit, leaving it for Sheena Easton.

Fiction: For Your Eyes Only

Kelly was ten the first time she saw the Munchkins, three years after she learned the truth about Santa Claus (though she did not celebrate Christmas, most of her friends did, and her parents chose to celebrate it secularly) and three years before she stopped dressing up for Halloween (her last costume would be as Lady Gaga, complete with eggshell). Later she would learn that they called themselves Trolls, but she had just seen “The Wizard of Oz,” and besides, she knew that trolls were nasty things that lived under bridges and ate goats, and the Munchkins were slender, delicate creatures with rosy-pink skin and lively, intelligent golden eyes. They looked more or less human; it wasn’t until her eleventh birthday that she touched one and found that the rosy-pink skin was actually fine fur, as soft as a kitten’s. The first Munchkin she saw wore a filmy cloth around its body, and at first she thought that someone had left a tissue wrapped around a red highlighter. Then the highlighter moved, and Kelly squealed, and she spent the rest of the evening lying very still in her bed staring at her desk to see if any of her other pens or pencils would move.

A week later, she saw another Munchkin climbing the side of her wastebasket. It disappeared over the lip, and Kelly hurried over to peer down. The creature was holding up a broken barrette she had thrown out the previous day, but when it saw her looking down, it dropped the flowered plastic and leapt from the can so quickly that Kelly stumbled back and sat down on the floor.

The Internet on the computer in the living room did not provide much help. She told her parents she was doing a report on tiny creatures for her science class, but when she searched on “small pink people” she got links to little people working in Hollywood, or Bratz dolls, or a cartoon show she’d never seen; or to short essays about faeries and their kin. Eventually she found a link to books about “The Borrowers,” and read some from Amazon’s free sample. Wikipedia, which her class had just learned how to use, told her how the rest of the book would go.

It didn’t seem quite the same, but regardless, she went back to her room that night with a small saucer of milk, which she set on her desk. “This is for you,” she said, and crawled into her bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and waited.

Nothing happened while she remained awake, but in the morning the saucer was empty. After that, Kelly brought a saucer up every night, and it was a week later that the Munchkins came out while she was awake, creeping up the chair and drawers, bringing little flagons to the saucer where they sat and drank, with an eye on her.

Kelly said, “Who are you?” and they jumped, but did not flee. They arrayed themselves at the edge of the desk.

“We are the Trolls,” the leftmost one said with a bow. “And we thank you for your gift of milk.” His tone was polite, but they all kept the same wary manner.

“You’re very welcome,” Kelly said. “I’ll keep bringing it, then.”

They bowed again, and that was all they said that night.

But as she gave them more milk and no threats, they warmed to her and spoke more often. She learned that they had come on a long journey, packed into boxes with an estate that had come from somewhere far away two hundred years before. They only stayed in a particular house for a short time, but they liked her house and had been here for a year now. And, most importantly, she learned that nobody else could see them when her mother burst into her room to scold her for not putting away her dishes, completely ignoring the three Munchkins sitting on Kelly’s desk.

When Kelly was thirteen, she wondered why only she could see the Munchkins. TV and movies suggested that she was insane, that they didn’t really exist. But she tested them by asking them to report on what her mother and father talked about at night, and that was how she learned that her mother had had an affair with Mrs. Besley, her fifth-grade English teacher, and that her father was battling alcoholism. Those were things she could not possibly have known on her own (she confirmed them by finding Mrs. Besley in school and saying hello from her mother, watching as she did the Munchkin-bright pink blooms in the woman’s cheeks), so she concluded that she was not hallucinating the Munchkins.

Kelly believed for a short time that God had sent the Munchkins to her as a gift. But the little creatures seemed supremely uninterested in whether or not she read her Torah, went to synagogue, or discussed any kind of religion with them. They did not come to her bat mitzvah and did not care about it when she tried to tell them.

They had a similar coming-of-age ceremony, but in it, their children left the family to strike out on their own and might never be heard from again. Kelly concluded that this splintering of the family was not something that her God would have condoned, and so reluctantly concluded that the Munchkins were not creatures of God.

Two months before her fifteenth birthday, the family of Munchkins gathered to tell her that they would be moving on. She cried, and some of them did as well, but they were feeling confined and trapped, having been in this house for nearly six years. They left her with a small ornament to hang on her wall which would tell other Munchkins that this was a friendly place, and they asked her to lower her head to the desk so they could kiss her nose.

Kelly’s going off to college this year, ready to study economics and play softball. She is about two years away from dressing up for Halloween again (as Columbia from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with her sorority sisters), and two years removed from her first date (with Brad, a neurotic boy who washed his hands three times in an hour during dinner; she has had more and better dates since). Her father no longer drinks, and if her mother is still seeing Mrs. Besley, Kelly has no way of knowing.

But she packs the ornament lovingly in her small jewelry box, and when she arrives in her dorm room, it will be the first thing she hangs on the wall.

Ten: You Only Live Twice

10. You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra. This is a great late-sixties song, and points for including a bit of far Eastern sound to go with the Japanese theme of the movie. The original version was apparently much more heavy with Oriental sound and was performed by Julie Rogers, but the producers said, “This isn’t working,” and they searched for a replacement. Frank Sinatra was tapped to sing it, but he recommended Nancy, who had just had a #1 hit with “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The result, after a lot of different takes (Nancy was a nervous 26-year-old), was one of the most popular themes, covered by a number of different artists (including Coldplay). But it’s number ten on my list.

Fiction: You Only Live Twice

Vilnus had worked in the blacksmith’s all his life. He’d made shoes for the horses of a dozen knights and had mended one blade, for Sir Kilhain (may he rest in peace). The heat of the forge which had so intimidated him as a seven-year-old boy now comforted him; sometimes he slept in front of it.

Sure, there was the occasional disruption in his life, like the time the water sprites had driven all the townsfolk out of New Marsham and they’d had to hire the Seven Blessed Monks to drive the demons out. Getting the town back had been worth the gold, even the extra they’d paid for the loss of three of the Blessed Monks. And there’d been the time the witch had lain a curse on the town so that every mother’s milk turned sour. They’d had to pay three wandering mages to fight the witch before one finally destroyed her.

Still, Vilnus knew towns that lived in the constant fear of dragons, towns that had found themselves on the fronts of terrible wars between unknowable combatants who fought with vapor and shadow, towns that had been renamed Hero’s Rest and Last Quest for all the heroes who’d fallen attempting to defend the towns from their plight. All in all, New Marsham was a quiet town, with disruptions only every few years. Many of its oldest inhabitants died of old age, as Vilnus himself hoped to.

Not before he and his beloved Rilla gave birth to their child (the wise woman assured them it would be a daughter) and one or two more. When Vilnus took over the smithy from old Weyland, he would want his son to apprentice with him. He looked forward to the quiet, anonymous years ahead with contentment.

*

“Sir!”

A hand shook his shoulder. “Sir Vilnus, sir!”

Vilnus opened his eyes to the round red cheeks and earnest gaze of the apprentice smith. “Sir, your horse’s shoes are ready, sir.”

The tall youth shook the dream from his lean features and stood. “Thank you…what was your name again?”

“Oh,” the apprentice said. “My name is not important, sir. It’s Weyland.”

“Of course. And your wife is Flora, and your first child is due soon.”

Weyland beamed. “So good of you to remember, sir. It is an honor to have the slayer of Frostblood and the savior of Lichthall here in our humble town.”

“Well,” Vilnus said, “someone must deal with this barrow-wight that’s been stealing your children, eh?”

“Aye.” Weyland looked away. “And you’ve a Holy Cross on your sword. I know you’ll fare better than the others.”

Perhaps he might; but if he did, then he would fall next year, or the year after. All heroes knew they had to make their name before their death, and Vilnus had been lucky so far. He would have no child to carry on his legacy, no woman to hold him at night, but his name would be known throughout the land, and his death would be mourned by many.

Vilnus said good-bye to Weyland and mounted his horse, then rode in the direction of the monster, because that is what heroes did.

Life Update and Bond Songs

As I wrote on Facebook, I have been accepted to Kij Johnson’s CSSF Novel Writing Workshop this June, which is very exciting. I enjoyed working with Kij at Clarion and am looking forward to meeting the rest of the workshop crew (and on working with the one I already know, Watts Martin).

The workshop starts June 1, so I am going to try to get through the top ten Bond songs by then. The writeups on the songs are done, but the flash fics I generally write off the top of my head when I do the posts, so they take a little more time. Still, two a week for the rest of April and May sounds doable. For the top ten, I’ve also found a Bond website that has a few tidbits about each song, so I’ll include those (with links) in the writeups.

Here are the bottom 12, as a refresher:

22. Die Another Day, Madonna.
21. The Living Daylights, a-ha
20. Moonraker, Shirley Bassey.
19. Thunderball, Tom Jones.
18. Goldeneye, Tina Turner.
17. Diamonds Are Forever, Shirley Bassey.
16. License to Kill, Gladys Knight
15. Tomorrow Never Dies, Sheryl Crow.
14. Another Way To Die, Jack White (from “Quantum of Solace”)
13. The World Is Not Enough, Garbage.
12. From Russia With Love, Matt Munro.
11. All Time High, Rita Coolidge (from “Octopussy”).

#11: All Time High

11. All Time High, Rita Coolidge (from Octopussy). Points to Rita Coolidge for saying, “No way am I putting that movie title in my song.” Points for making a great, catchy 80s ballad in a period when soaring ballads were the direction the Bond films were going in. Points subtracted for a song about which one of my friends said, “I didn’t realize this was a Bond song until I got the collection of Bond themes.” This was the last of a short series of Bond themes about how awesome Bond is in bed, and the weakest (the other two will be coming up in the top ten–are you excited? do you know what they are?).

Fiction: All Time High

In space, altitude has no meaning. Rocky had made his name as a pilot going higher and higher, taking aircraft so high their engines stopped working and they stalled out. When the Air Force discharged him, he was hired by the UN Council For The Development of Space to fly their low-level spacecraft. Rocky had taken those up into the thinnest layers of Earth’s atmosphere, and had balanced at both the Lagrange points between the Earth and the Moon, feeling the precarious equilibrium, looking in one direction and then the other, as high as he could get above two surfaces at once (because once he moved away from either, he felt, he was no longer “above” that surface, but above the one he would be falling toward).

Later he became the first man to pilot spacecraft into the Lagrange points between the Earth and the Sun, but here, he thought, he was not as high as he could get above the Sun. As spacecraft engines improved and life support systems allowed people to remain alive in them, Rocky kept agitating to fly above the elliptical plane of the solar system, to find the edge of the Sun’s gravity well and hang there, suspended above its roiling, incandescent surface, before falling back down.

That was altitude, in space: the edge of a gravity well. Rocky wanted to be that high, so far above that nothing could reach him or affect him unless he chose to tilt his spacecraft back, to catch the lip of the gravity well and ride it back down like God’s own roller coaster. There was no scientific reason to do this, so he had to steal a ship.

He might be going on seventy, but that just meant he could bluff his way into the docks on the space station. Launching a craft from space took far less fanfare than the multi-stage rockets needed to propel one away from Earth, and Rocky’s years of practice had left him fluent in spacecraft controls. It would take him six months, he calculated, to get to the edge of the Sun’s gravity well, but he could sleep for much of that time and the spacecraft would keep him alive.

He turned off the radio after the first ten minutes of flight. They could yammer at him to come back, but they wouldn’t come after him. How could you force someone to come back from space? He’d overridden the computer, so they couldn’t remotely control it, and in a few hours he’d be out of range anyway.

He missed his seventieth birthday. The computer woke him to a deep black void speckled with stars, the engines firing faintly now. Rocky turned and saw the sun, millions of miles below, barely large enough to distinguish without the ship’s assisted viewing screen. The lip of the gravity well approached…but there was another one on the readout. He frowned and queried the computer: what else could be tugging on the ship, from what vast distance?

The galaxy, of course. The Milky Way kept the solar system in check just as the Sun kept the Earth in check, and the Earth the Moon, and the Space Station, and so on. Rocky checked life support to be sure, though he knew there wouldn’t be enough to get him back to Earth, let alone where he wanted to go. Well, he was going to die out here anyway. Might as well die higher than anyone else had ever gone.

He programmed a course perpendicular to the galactic plane, upward and outward. “See you at the top,” he said, and grinned.

Twelve: From Russia With Love

12. From Russia With Love, Matt Munro. Another “not a big star” Bond song artist, but he did have a reasonable career and it was the first Bond film to have a title theme other than the iconic Bond theme. He does a pretty good job crafting a song that fit the sixties and is about as memorable as the old film itself.

 

Fiction: From Russia With Love

Siberia is most famous as a prison, but it was more: a community, a mining town, home to many tribes that lived by hunting. That guy who’d been living in the woods with his family and didn’t know World War Two was over? Yeah, they were in Siberia. Miserable, frostbitten, wolf-scared and malnourished, but alive. If ever a place on Earth was a geographical oubliette, it was Siberia.

I’d gone up with the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development team to scout out one of the places in Siberia that even the Russian government hadn’t visited in probably three decades, since before the breakup of the USSR. I didn’t speak Russian, but none of the biologists did, and I’d grown up in Michigan, so they reckoned I could deal with Siberia. I didn’t care; it was likely to be more interesting than sitting in New York reviewing photos of laboratories from decimated Middle East cities to see if anything looked like a biological weapon.

When our soldiers or our allies’ had overrun an area, we could get pictures. For this set of laboratories, if you were going to send in photographers, you might as well just send the experts onsite and get a better opinion. So the fifteen of us flew coach to Moscow (the U.N. doesn’t spring for first class) and then caught a train up to Siberia. The landscape didn’t gradually thin out; it went from city to farm in an eyeblink, and from farm to forest almost as quickly. Then it was just forest, for hours and hours.

At least the U.N. sent us in July, so it was still light when the military bus from the train station came around a corner and stopped. We all craned our necks to the windows and peered out at a sight that looked worthy of a post-apocalyptic movie set. Trees leaned toward the concrete boxes and vines grew up their sides so that we could barely see the structures except for swaths of grey here and there, an occasional corner, the sheen of glass. It was pretty enough if you didn’t have to go walk into it, and fortunately we sciencey types didn’t have to.

The four members of our team who did have to got out their hazmat suits and their implements of destruction. They had a short conversation with the half-dozen Russian military police who’d accompanied us and then trooped off to clear the buildings.

The closest thing I had to a friend on this trip was Vanessa, a chemist from Queens who had a mutual friend in the U.N. We’d started out by gossiping about our friend’s many romantic affairs (not always strictly serial) and had gone on to build a rapport over the terrible airplane food, train food, and military food. “I’ll wager you’re busier than I am,” she said now, indicating the lab. “Who knows what could be growing in there.”

I eyed the flash of machetes against the vines and nodded. “Any potential biological weapons will probably be dead, though. Chemicals could still be viable.”

“Chemicals don’t mutate.”

I inclined my head. “Is that an offer to be my assistant?”

She snorted, and then we all snapped to attention as the team cleared away a primary door. “They’re going in,” said the team coordinator, and then he said something in Russian and the military lifted their guns to the ready.

“As if King Kong is going to come charging out,” I said. “What, are they going to shoot the viruses?”

We weren’t privy to the conversation between the coordinator and the advance crew, but all four of them disappeared into the lab. “The rest of you, get your suits on,” he ordered us, and Vanessa and I grabbed our stiff cloth suits and stepped into them.

She was just fitting her helmet on and I’d gotten mine sealed when there was a commotion, and one of the advance team stumbled out of the lab. And he wasn’t alone.

We all tensed at once. The military raised their guns. The person clinging to our teammate was a woman dressed in a tattered lab coat, saying something over and over in Russian. She didn’t seem to be attacking him; in those few seconds, it looked to me almost as though she were a wife trying to stop her husband from walking out on her. But our teammate, terrified, kept batting at her until he tripped. Then he went down and she went down on top of him, circling him with her arms.

Russian words flew back and forth around us, and then there was a loud crack that silenced everyone. The woman’s body jerked and then lay still atop the suited man. Slowly, blood seeped out onto the white lab coat.

“Who’s got their suit sealed? Go get her off him!”

I ran forward before Vanessa could stop me, along with a couple others, and we pulled the woman off him. Her face didn’t look afraid or angry, I remember. She looked blissful.

“She just attacked me.” The guy talked into his radio and I could hear him now. “Just ran up.”

“Is there anyone else in there?”

“Maybe? I was the last one in and she came out of a side passage.”

We moved the woman’s body near the lab and hoped that she wasn’t carrying some windborne disease; distance would have to serve to quarantine her for the moment. Then we had to figure out how to go in. The three other team members weren’t answering their radios, and we didn’t want to go in weaponless. But the Russian government had insisted that only the military be armed, and also that they would not enter the lab, so we didn’t even have enough suits for them.

We could’ve just left the whole thing. We voted, and it was a close thing, but seven of us didn’t want to abandon the three guys who might be simply in a shielded chamber and unable to hear us. So the rest of the team trooped into the lab, keeping close together, while the shaken fellow who’d been attacked remained outside.

The first dark room was a waiting room. We went through the single door, which had been left ajar, and continued back into the lab.

We were scientists, not rescuers, was the problem. So while we kept an ear out for any noises–and there were noises aplenty–we also couldn’t help looking around at the rooms we were walking through. And when we stopped at a room full of journals, we couldn’t help but flip through some of them. At least, some of the others did, and the few of us who couldn’t read Russian listened to the translation.

The weirdest thing was that the journals only spanned a couple decades, from the fifties to the early seventies. But the rest could have been somewhere else; this had the look of a storage room. The other weird thing, once they started reading them, was that most of the journals were gibberish.

“Seriously,” Vanessa said. “It’s just like hippie gushing about how beautiful the world is. Double rainbows and all that crap. There’s no scientific method at all.”

“Take a look at this one,” Joe, the other chemist (they had different specialties, but don’t ask me to tell you what they are) said, holding open a journal. “I don’t know this word, but it looks like it’s describing a stone of…some kind of origin.”

“Extraterrestrial,” the team coordinator said.

We all looked at each other. “Little green men?” someone said.

“E.T.”

“Little green stones.”

“Guys, it’s true.”

We’d all clustered around the journal, and now we spun around. One of our team was standing in the doorway. His faceplate was open, and he wore a beatific smile. “It’s true. They’re aliens and they’re trying to teach us to love.”

“Jesus, Mike, close your suit!”

“It’s too late.”

“He’s exposed.”

“Stay back.”

We babbled over the radio. None of it had any effect on Mike, who did in fact stay back. “Just listen,” he said. “You can hear the message if you listen.”

Joe, I think, said, “Let’s get out of here,” but then Vanessa shushed him and we all listened.

Mike was humming something, and the way he was doing it was weird, really relaxing. I thought it sounded a bit like some New Age music an old girlfriend of mine used to listen to, and then I noticed Vanessa standing beside me.

It was like seeing her for the first time. Her dark skin shone in the lab’s meager light, and it wasn’t just that she was pretty. I remembered all the great times we’d shared. I wanted to tell her, but before I could, my radio crackled to life again.

“Adam, you’re a great guy.”

“I love you, Jess.”

“I love all you guys.”

“Vanessa,” I said, and found her looking at me.

“I know, Kris,” she said. I could see her bright smile through the glass, and then it seemed really stupid that we had these faceplates between us. All around us everyone was opening theirs, so we did too.

Her lips tasted of her menthol lip balm. She smelled like a pine forest.

“You see?” Mike said.

We did. We thought about the poor military guys on the bus and how we should tell them about this love, and a bunch of us crowded out to the doorway, leaving about half the team who were getting out of their suits to get more industrious at the whole loving thing.

As we got to the doorway, the team coordinator spoke Russian over the radio, but as we came out onto the grass, he laughed. “They don’t have radios,” he said. “I forgot about that.” He raised his arms and shouted something in Russian.

The soldiers were lined up in a row and they looked terrified. I felt sorry for them, living in fear like that. Was that how I’d been once? I wanted to hug them and tell them it was going to be all right.

The air filled with sharp, loud pops. Something punched me in the gut, then again in the chest. All around me, my team, my friends, my loves were falling, tumbling, lying. I reached out and found Vanessa’s hand. Her eyes met mine. “Love,” she whispered.

“Love.” I said the word and then, as my breath failed, I started humming the tune Mike had hummed. It was easy once you knew how to do it. All of us hummed it, but our voices were weak and the wind didn’t carry, and the soldiers stared at us with wide eyes and then turned and fled back into the bus.

The last sight I remember seeing was the fourth member of our advance team looking at us through a window of the bus. He still wore his suit, but his faceplate was open, and on his face was the most dazzling, loving smile.