stop staring at the stubby fingers her client had draped over the side of his
polished dress shoe. Everything about Randall Cochrane suggested a middle-aged
man with just enough wealth to afford his bespoke suit and pressed shirts. He
had short, salt and pepper hair cut close to his head; wireframe glasses sat
atop a slightly crooked nose.
I just wanted to give a quick thanks to Maureen H for her recent review of Veneer. I tend to look at my books as always increasing in quality, and yet it’s Veneer, my second book, that continues to outsell the others. I don’t know why that is. From the reviews, it seems people really enjoy the concept of augmented reality, while others like the characters themselves. Some people don’t like the book at all, but who has time to think about that?
Whether or not Maureen’s review is 5 stars or 1 star, I’m just glad someone is still reading a book from 2011. I’m glad they liked it enough to review it. It makes sitting here morning after morning, slogging through Draft 3 of Hybrid Mechanics just a little more bearable.
May 5, 2010 Frank Gattis for Banks Media Productions, Los Angeles
Living in America means taking things for granted. We assume there will always be water to drink, food to eat, and electricity to keep the lights burning. We expect roads to be in good repair, buildings to remain standing, and VNet to keep humming along. But what happens when the foundation upon which we build our lives is shattered by an act of terrorism? What happens when we look to the sky and see planes diving for the ground?
Ah, the Alpha Reader period, that month-long, self-enforced sabbatical from what is sure to be the next great American Science Fiction novel. Is there anything worse than trying to fill the days when all you want to do is continue working? I submit there is not. Sure, my son said his first word and learned how to climb the side of his crib, and sure there are unopened PS4 games on my shelf, and sure my yard needs attention, and sure I could keep this list going forever, butI want to write, dammit. And write I will, even if it’s something I’ve already written.
The more time that passes since the release of my first book, Xronixle, the more I feel the need (nay, the duty) to go back and rewrite it. I usually don’t get very far because it’s a huge undertaking. We’re talking about a ground-up, word-by-word rewrite in Scrivener, another word-by-word rewrite into Word, alpha reading with people who’ve never read my work before, and then endless months of revisions and editing. All this for a book that has already been written and been on sale for more than a decade. Is it worth it?
I think so.
For one, it’s a matter of pride. All five of my books take place in the same universe, and though there are no sequels, I tend to think of the timeline as starting with Xronixle, but in 2018, I’m hesitant to suggest people start there. “Start with the latest,” I always say, and then under my breath, “because I need you to be a huge fan before slogging through my first book.”
I have so many issues with Xronixle, including its style, language, mechanics, character depth, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love the story, but it needs better packaging.
This week, I decided to try, once again, to rewrite the story. I picked a chapter at random and retyped it into Scivener, editing along the way. When that went okay, I jumped back to the beginning of the book and attacked it in earnest.
I thought it was going to be difficult and that I would hate every minute of it. Instead, I found myself enjoying the process and at the end, feeling incredibly happy. It is a joy to reformat paragraphs into units that make actual sense. It’s a joy to rewrite dialogue to not sound like a creepy 15 year old who just discovered sex and now can’t stop describing it in vernacular better found in an episode of Beavis and Butthead.
It’s a relief to put question marks at the end of sentences.
Seriously, that happened.
If I had to choose a single word to sum up my opinion of Xronixle, it would be immature. That would apply to the writing, the characters, the dialogue, the plot… everything. Rewriting it after all this time is like fixing up a dilapidated junker that has been sitting in the backyard on cinder blocks.
I am now excited about this project. Not only will it produce a Second Edition of a book I love, but the reading of that book will be a better experience for everyone. And, it will keep me busy while I anxiously wait for people to send me their feedback about Hybrid Mechanics.
And that is what I’m currently working on, since you asked.
Last week, at the ripe old age of 37, I got married. It was a small affair with family and friends, just west of Dripping Springs, Texas in the Hill Country. The weather had been rainy leading up to the day, but on Friday, the sun was shining and a cool breeze was blowing. Dominique was beautiful, the flowers were beautiful, and everyone we hired to play music and serve food did a great job. We danced the night away with friends and later, listened to stories from drunken family members as we sat around a fire. All of that was expected… what I didn’t expect was that in the course of writing my toast for the reception, I would finally nail down where my writing style came from.
As religion fades from popularity, traditional church weddings will surely follow. We were no exception, and through a series of compromises, we settled on a non-denominational ceremony. I was surprised to learn, upon meeting with our officiant, that we could write any ceremony we wanted. What an opportunity! A writer who has written about love all his life with the chance to write his own ceremony? Surely, he would not pass that up, right?
With El Matador going on 10 months, a book to finish, a wedding to finalize, and so on and so on, there just wasn’t any time. So we compromised again and Frankensteined a new ceremony based off the officiant’s past work. That did not, however, keep us from having to write our own vows, and in my case, a toast.
I went through several iterations before settling on a final version. I kept the political jokes at bay and removed anything vaguely sexual (I’m so glad we decided to wait until marriage, sweetie, as El Matador looks on). Early on in the process, I found myself sitting and thinking about a single question: what is love?
Baby, don’t hurt me.
It dawned on me that I have been trying to understand love since a very young age. I continue to explore the concept in my books, rifling through the variants as if choosing a flavor of ice cream: I’ll have one scoop of unrequited love, a scoop of romantic love, and two scoops of pragmatic love with a cherry of infidelity on top.
One draft of my toast started like this:
I started keeping a diary when I was fifteen. It was in a Word doc that I named dec6.doc and it’s still on my computer. The first line? Fuck the world. I was fifteen. Also, I had started using fiction to help deal with my problems. So I would sit down and write as if my life were a story, and I’d make things out to be bigger than they were, and I’d get my rage and frustration and sadness out that way.
My diary wasn’t about my day-to-day life, and I didn’t write it in more than a couple times per month. What I wrote wasn’t an accurate depiction of my life either, and over time, I realized I’d created a second, fictional Daniel.
What I wrote most about was love, or at least, what I thought love to be. And over the years, I noticed I was constantly redefining what love actually is. This continued to present day in my books. I’m still trying to figure out what makes relationships tick. Relationships… not love. I’m no longer trying to understand love. At 37 years old, I’ve taken a stand on what I think love is.
Love is a choice.
At that point, as I started to meander towards describing love versus attraction, I abandoned this thread. I didn’t need to tell a room full of people what love was. They either knew or they didn’t. And regardless, my opinion on the matter shouldn’t really hold any water for them.
Also, worse, love is a choice just sounds kinda shitty. Too pragmatic. It implies that we choose to love someone but that we aren’t compelled to love them. That sounds a little more like codependency to me, not love. You may be compelled to love someone, to feel a connection you can’t explain nor would ever want to, but you choose to be with them, you choose to work on that love and make it into a relationship.
My early novels are blatantly focused on the idea of love, but there’s no discussion of how that love came to be. In Xronixle, X loves his high school sweetheart C, so he makes a copy of her in virtual reality after she breaks up with him. But why does he love her? Even if it is simple puberty-fueled, high school love, it should be addressed and investigated. Having lived and written the book, and having come out the other side, I know, as the author, that what X felt wasn’t love… but how do I express that in a story?
I didn’t. 24 year old Daniel didn’t even try to explore it. Shame on you, young Daniel.
I feel like I did a better job of questioning love in my latest book, Por Vida. There is love between Sepideh and Natasha, but it’s because they fill holes in each other’s lives. There’s love between Doyle and Vida, but it’s revealed to be more obsession than anything else.
And spoiler alert for my newest book, but there are two characters, a male and female, who by all rules of storytelling, should fall in love. But they don’t. The story, the situation, and the characters themselves don’t allow it.
There always has to be a reason people love each other. There has to be a reason people choose love.
Last night, Dominique wanted to watch the first episode of Altered Carbon, which I certainly didn’t mind seeing again. After it was over, I asked her thoughts and she said it was interesting. We talked briefly about Science Fiction in general; she’s not a big fan of the violence and futuristic technology.
To which I replied:
That’s the thing about Science Fiction. You have to look past the technology and the guns and the gratuitous nudity, because at its core, it’s just a story about people, and relationships, and love. The story is always about humanity.
And that’s how I write my books. Technology, both real and fictional, allows us to look at our humanity in ways never thought possible. Eternal re-sleeving. Memory modification. Virtual reality. Augmented reality. Instant communication. I mean, look what social media has done to us in just the last few years…
I think love, relationships, and humanity are at the core of every good Science Fiction novel (and other genres as well). Books like Replay by Ken Grimwood and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger come to mind.
Hell, even 1984, with its bleak dystopian setting and eerily prescient system of government, comes down to one single, simple, devastating act of betrayal between two humans. That’s it. Do it to her. The reader feels something in that moment, and I’ve always wondered if that was the one true emotion George Orwell wanted to communicate to people, so much so that he built an entire world just to support it. Who did he betray in his lifetime? Or who betrayed him?
Anyway, choose love, my fellow writers. Choose relationships and humanity. You can still have your mechs and your spaceships and your vorpal swords, but if there aren’t any people in your story… what’s the point?
It’s finally here. Netflix’s adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s mind-blowing sci-fi novel Altered Carbon is now live, and though I’ll never forgive Joel Kinnaman for his part in the Robocop Reboot That Shall Never Be Mentioned Again, I can’t wait to binge the entire season this weekend. It’s hard to describe how awesome Altered Carbon is–if you’re into technology, explosions, and some of the l33t-est buzzwords you’ll ever read, this is the story for you.
The show has a Facebook page (because it’s 2018 and everything does) where you can watch trailers and behind the scenes, but since you’re reading this here on deadlineavoidance.com, there’s a possibility that you dabble in the writing. You, my fellow fiction monger, should check out this video where Richard K. Morgan sits down to watch the first episode.
All I can think is how fucking amazing it must be to watch your story come to life. Back in my early days of writing, I wanted nothing more than to see the words A Short Story by Daniel Verastiqui in print. Then it was A Novel by Daniel Verastiqui that I wanted to see. The current dream I’m chasing (well, I mean, it’s possible) is seeing Based on the novel by Daniel Verastiqui flashing across a movie theater screen. Thankfully, people who make movies and TV shows have good taste, and so long as they’re making Altered Carbon and not Toaster Tingles (Book #1 in the Kitchen Appliance Romance Series), then I’m okay with my novels languishing on the Amazon charts.
I love Altered Carbon.
I love cortical stack.
I love needlecast.
I love neurochem.
And I love, love evercrete. So much so that I straight-up stole it and started putting in my stories just to get them more of a Science Fiction feel. I still do. Here’s a passage from my current WIP:
The Provo Temple hadn’t stood at full height in over a decade; twisted rebar grew like weeds from uneven piles of gray evercrete. The thick white monoliths that used to circle the building had been crushed under the feet of mechanical giants, and doors that had once welcomed worshipers had shed their glass and twisted into barely passable openings.
If you write Science Fiction and haven’t read Altered Carbon, I advise you to put down that Red Bull, cork that bottle of wine, close out your Scrivener windows, and fire up your Kindle. Here’s the link to the first book, because yes, it’s a trilogy, and I recommend all three: Altered Carbonby Richard K. Morgan.
It’s never too early to start freaking out about having to write a book description that will somehow magically convince people they need to read my latest Science Fictional opus. I have never, not once, written a book description that I was happy with. Instead, I write something the day it goes live on Amazon and hope for the best. Probably not the best marketing tactic, but whatever. For book 5, I’m looking to get a jump on that madness.
I sat down this morning and told myself there was no way I was going to get anywhere near a book description. Instead, I just started writing some garbage. Then I paused, hit Enter a few times, and wrote more garbage. I did that for about half an hour. Here’s what that produced:
The year is 2017. Donald Trump is President. Mass murders are commonplace. Nazis are back. The world balances on the precipice of nuclear war. Most people agree: reality is completely out of control.
But it’s not all bad news.
As it happens, none of it is real.
The world as you know it is actually a simulation centered around the city of Austin, Texas, and more specifically, four of its residents. There is nothing special about them on the surface; one’s a manager at a tech startup, another is a former soldier who drives for Brinks, the sole female is a moderately famous YouTube personality, and the fourth is a day-trader who is making a killing with Bitcoin.
They’re just normal people living out what they believe are normal lives.
But in reality—that is, actual reality—they are all dreaming, hooked into a collective delusion set in the Live Music Capital of the World.
For almost four decades, they have enjoyed American life at the dawn of the 21st century. But now it is time to wake up.
How will they feel when they learn everything they’ve ever known is a lie? Will they tell themselves they knew it all along? Will they abandon their faith and embrace chaos? Or will they use the opportunity to make a fresh start as someone else?
Only time, vicious infighting, and the threat of death at the hands of synthetic killing machines will tell for sure.
Does this adequately describe what Hybrid Mechanics is about? Not really. It’s one aspect of a multi-faceted story, the idea that we’re all living in a simulation. I really want that idea to be in the book description because I don’t want readers to think it was all a simulation is some kind of twist.
It’s not a twist.
It’s a starting point.
After that, comes the how, why, where, and when. The real question is whether the characters can survive long enough to answer even one of those questions.
Someone should take my blog away.
WIP Update: Crossed 100,000 word mark on December 2017.12.14.
I do a lot of silly things to encourage people to write reviews of my books, but this whole get your name in the next book tactic seems to work the best. You know, aside from cold hard cash, which, by the way, should not be delivered as an Amazon Gift Card unless you want to get 20-30 reviews deleted in a single afternoon. I don’t know why it’s such a struggle to get reviews (even bad ones), especially when the book is selling and plenty of people seem to be reading it. I used to think I could impress upon people the importance of leaving reviews, but no. Bribery is pretty much the only thing that works.
Last time’s winner was Curtis, and since it’ll be a while, here’s a preview of where he ended up in the zero draft:
“Identify yourself,” said Jake.
The man stepped back and looked up.
“Ho there,” he called. “Don’t see many people up this way. What brings you to Challis?”
“Identify yourself!” Jake stepped to the railing and pointed the rifle over it.
The man’s hands went up. “Easy, stranger. My name is Curtis.”
“Curtis what?” asked Jake. “What’s your revision?”
“My revision? What do you take me for, some kind of Lassiter drone?”
“You’re not organic,” said Jake.
“Now that is true. I am not an organic human. But I am a person, just like you.”
“I am a sixth generation Vinestead synthetic,” said Jake. “You’re nothing like me.”
“They’re up to Six now? Interesting.” Curtis stepped back several feet so he wouldn’t have to crane his neck. “Well, Mr. Six. Seeing how you’re hunting organics and I’m not an organic, I don’t see that we have any quarrel.”
Jake considered the offer, shook his head. There weren’t supposed to be any other synthetics. If there were, who did they follow? What was their purpose?
“What are you doing here?” asked Jake.
“We have some monitoring equipment up there,” Curtis replied, gesturing with an outstretched arm. “Helps us keep tabs on who comes and goes in the valley. We picked up a whole mess of activity in Arco day before last, so I came down to make sure everything’s in good working order here.”
“You’re tracking our movements?” His finger trembled on the trigger.
“Yours. Humans. Animals. Anything that moves. Gotta know who’s walking in your backyard, am I right?”
“This isn’t your backyard,” said Jake. “This is Lassiter’s domain.”
That made Curtis chuckle. “Lassiter doesn’t exist in this world, pal. He may reach out to you from VNet, but he can’t walk here. Funny how that works, huh?” He adjusted his jacket. “Look, I’m on a schedule here, so if you’re not gonna come down, I’ll just come back another day. Safe travels, Mr. Six.”
He turned to leave. Jake raised the gun.
“I’m not done with you,” he warned. “This gun will tear you in half.”
Curtis shrugged, didn’t look back. “You’d be doing me a favor. I was never a fan of this sleeve anyhow.”
If you’d like to join Curtis in Hybrid Mechanics, you can buy / review my most recent book, Por Vida, here.
On the outskirts of The Rag, in a part of town colloquially known as Glitchville or Bugberg or The Overflow, Ricky Carrillo and a group of his friends stood on the south bank of Arroyo Blanco and threw rocks into the milky water. Sometimes the rocks splashed, sometimes they actually made a sound, but more often than not, the rocks simply zapped out of existence as they passed through an unseen barrier somewhere in the middle of the river.
For boys Ricky’s age, the forty yard swim to the north bank wasn’t something to fear. For one, there was no danger of drowning since the depth of the river was only four feet at its lowest. Secondly, they would only have to swim half the distance before reaching the barrier, at which point they would join the rocks in limbo for a short time before resetting to a spawn point. They would lose their inventory—the river would wash it away—and their experience points, but for the most part they would be unharmed. There was no shame in being reset, at least not when it was intentional.
“It’s your turn today, Ricky,” said Jason.
Jason and his family lived in the neighborhood one level up from Ricky’s, and as such, enjoyed a few more privileges like discounted shop fees and on-demand transportation. It was Jason who had requested the extended golf cart that had carried the group from the transit station out to The Overflow.
Ricky took a step back from the bank’s edge. It towered six feet over the surface of the water, a consequence of the river cutting ever deeper into the earth. He wasn’t scared of being reset, and it wasn’t against the rules, but it wasn’t exactly celebrated. After all, a reset wasn’t just limited to the user; it spread out in ripples that touched the entire Rag.
A reset required resources. Processing time. Re-allocation of experience and skill points.
Then there was the time spent in limbo, a place not of pain but of discomfort, where sounds were a little too loud, lights a little too bright. Ricky had been to limbo only once before, when he was six. He’d wandered too far into the Southern Wash and got bit by a snake. The poison took two minutes to kill him, but the time in limbo felt much longer. An hour. Maybe two. There were no references on which to gauge the passage of time, and maybe the clanging and the aching caused minutes to stretch longer, but Ricky was convinced it was not instantaneous as others had claimed.
None of his friends knew about his brush with death. And among them, only Jason had ever reset in front of their eyes. As the group’s de facto leader, he’d volunteered to be the first one to swim out to the barrier. The remaining order had been decided by tense rounds of Onesie-Twosies. Like a fool, Ricky had thrown out a one while everyone else showed a two.
Following him, it was Matt, Bear, Shawn, and finally Moises.
To hear Jason describe it, limbo was a magical yet empty place beyond the borders of The Rag that served as a transition between the world they knew and Terrareal, a world they had been told about but never seen. It was Jason’s contention that by visiting limbo, one could find a way out to Terrareal, and thus be free of The Rag forever.
Why anyone would want to do that, Ricky couldn’t understand, but then lots of things he and his friends did made little sense. Just a week before, they’d come across a demolished home and found boards lying around with nails sticking out of them. Shawn hadn’t even hesitated before slamming his foot down on one of the nails. In his mind, he was sure he could get the nail to come up through his shoe exactly between his toes. Instead, the rusty nail drove itself into his arch and came up through his shoelaces.
As a pre-teen, Shawn’s pain thresholds were set pretty low, but they were still enough to make him howl. Add to that the indignity of having to get a tetanus shot to prevent something horrible called lockjaw, and the whole thing just seemed stupid.
About as stupid as jumping into the Arroyo Blanco to touch the border of The Rag.
Ricky suddenly realized everyone was looking at him.
“I can hold your stuff if you want,” said Moises. “I promise I’ll give it back.”
“It’s okay,” said Ricky. “I left everything at home. The only thing I have are my nunchucks.” He tossed the two misshapen sticks into the dirt. “I’ll do it. Hashtag yolo.”
The initialism only made sense in the canon of Ragatanga; for Ricky and his friends, there was no such single-use limitation to their existence.
“You know what to do, right?” asked Jason.
Ricky nodded. He remembered the story Jason had told.
The sensory overload.
“You have to try to move,” Jason reminded Ricky. “There has to be another barrier or a door or something. It’s really hard to see, but if you just reach out, push as hard as you can, you might hit something.”
“Yeah,” said Ricky, swallowing hard.
Something about the way the river flowed, the way the white water foamed and swirled, made his stomach fold over on itself. Sweat broke out on his arms; the wind carried it away and made him shiver.
Ricky approached the edge of the gully and sat down. His feet dangled over the steep bank, over the rocks and dried roots and loose dirt. More than likely, he’d enter the river the same way Jason had, by tumbling head first into it.
“Help me down,” he said.
Bear and Moises put out their arms as Ricky turned around onto his stomach. The boys let him down slowly until they could get no lower. Ricky nodded and they let go.
His feet dug into the sand and came to a quick stop. Inside the gully, the noise of the river was deafening, amplified not only by the steep sides but the barrier somewhere out there in the middle of the water. Several feet away, rocks began zapping out of thin air; his friends were throwing smaller pebbles to show him where The Rag ended.
Ricky stepped into the water, lower and lower, until it was splashing around his shoulders. He kicked off, began swimming. Behind him, cheers urged him on.
Swimming to his ostensible death, Ricky thought of his family, specifically his father. Albert Carrillo meant everything to Ricky. In his eleven years of life, he’d never once encountered a problem his father couldn’t solve, a fear he couldn’t assuage, or a monster he couldn’t slay. Above all things, he yearned for his father’s approval, and now, drenched to the bone and heading for limbo, Ricky knew approval would be the last thing his father would give him.
But that was okay.
The world was changing, and Ricky was changing right along with it. Some nascent directive was taking charge inside his body, making him see The Rag and all of its inhabitants in a different light. The girls whose hair he’d pulled seemed more attractive now, and the bonds he’d formed with his friends were taking on more violent and aggressive overtones. Disagreements that would have led to name-calling now led to shoving and sometimes, punching.
Change washed over him, just as the river sloshed around his face.
“You’re almost there,” called Jason.
But he was wrong; Ricky was already there. He could feel the heat coming off the barrier, simultaneously foreboding and inviting, like the hum of an electric fence that you knew would hurt but you wanted to touch just to know what it felt like.
He reached a hand out and felt his fingers sizzle. Drawing them back, he saw they’d disappeared, cut clean off at the second knuckle.
Ricky cried out despite the absence of pain. At the same time, the ground below him gave out, causing him to sink beneath the water. His shoes searched for purchase, sometimes finding solid riverbed, other times sinking into a vast abyss. Water splashed on his face one moment, then fell from it in sheets the next. He was simultaneously above the water and deep below it. Sinking further down, he passed through the riverbed, and suddenly he saw it from below.
There was nothing but gray darkness below him and a sky made of terrain above him. In the distance, he could see tunnels drifting down into the gloom, places where residents of The Rag had dug into the simulated earth. But Ricky was outside the world now, glitched out of bounds by the barrier.
Was this what Jason had experienced? He hadn’t mentioned seeing The Rag from underneath. He’d only reported death, limbo, and a reset.
There was no air here, Ricky realized.
As oxygen dwindled, panic increased. Even though he knew the pain would not be much, the prospect of asphyxiating drew out a primal reaction. He thrashed, kicked, and flailed his arms through what appeared to be empty space but felt like thick oil.
He swallowed it large, frantic gulps.
The oil filled him up, slipped into the crevices of his biological machinery, and brought everything to a stop.
The world dimmed to gray.
Letters appeared as if typed into a computer, uppercase and drenched in cartoonish blood.
A familiar sensation rose up from the soles of Ricky’s feet, clamping down with a firm touch on his ankles, shins, calves, and so on, until his entire body seemed confined to a form-fitting vise. The gloom of The Rag’s underworld brightened to a harsh white. Ricky shut his eyes, barely dimming the oppressive light. Clanging sounded from all around him, like a steam engine chugging to life, like metal gears slipping teeth around couplers.
Metal on metal.
Modulated electronics whining and beeping.
Jason’s words came back to him.
Try to move. Find the exit.
Ricky focused on his left hand, on the tips of the fingers, and tried to curl them into his palm. Nothing happened. He tried to wiggle his toes, but the vise held him. Even though he couldn’t see his body, he felt himself to be laid out straight, with his feet together and arms by his side. He arched his back, trying to pull away into a different position. Pain—real pain—built in his neck.
He cried out; the clanging swallowed up the sound.
The bottom dropped out of the vise, and Ricky fell twelve inches onto a soft bed. A dulcet melody, a string of five notes increasing in volume, played in his ears.
A blink wiped away the infinite emptiness of limbo.
Another brought the light blue walls of a Spawn Center.
“Welcome back,” said a woman standing next to his bed. She had deep green eyes encircled with gray shadow. Her hair fell in waves on the pink shoulders of her nurse’s uniform.
Ricky didn’t respond.
“I’m Marie,” said the nurse. “I’m just gonna run a few tests to make sure things got put back where they need to be. You’ve always been a Japanese girl, right?”
Marie smiled, tapped a machine next to the bed. “I’m kidding, sweetie. You’re still…” She hesitated, consulted the palette hanging from the bed. “An 11-year-old boy with slight asthma and perfect attendance at Bullock Middle School. And you… that’s strange.”
Ricky turned his head, tried to see what was written on the palette.
“What?” He asked.
“You still have 859 experience points.” She frowned. “You should have zero. I’ve never seen anyone respawn with…” Trailing off, Marie studied Ricky’s face.
He felt her eyes look through him, to the hot white confines of limbo, to the glitched underworld, all the way to the Arroyo Blanco, where a group of kids were likely placing bets as to whether Ricky had drowned or passed through the barrier after all.
Ricky checked his inventory. The few odds and ends he’d left in his pockets were still there; a pencil from school, wrapper from a piece of gum, and a small gold bell tied to a piece of yarn that Alisha in Ms. Claire’s class had given him.
It hadn’t seemed important before, but now he was surprised to feel relief at not having lost it.
More than relief, he felt proud, emboldened.
He’d passed through limbo and come out untouched on the other side. Same XP, same loot. Not a scratch on him.
Not since before the toll road bypass had customers filled the aisles of the small convenience store on Highway 277 just north of Sonora. In those days, Nelson had worked for his father, manning the cash register as the old man sat in the back office and leafed through porno mags that always ended up back on the shelf. After the toll road, the old man’s health declined right along with business. Eventually, both he and the customers stopped coming to the store, and soon it was just Nelson sitting behind the counter on a stool with cracked leather padding.
Mornings in the store were quiet, with only one or two locals dropping by to fill up deisel drums for their ancient combines and tractors. Mid-day, Nelson rotated the stock in the coolers, tossing out the milk that had gone more than three weeks past its expiration date. He spent time cleaning the spotless floor, wiping down the untouched glass doors, and rearranging the undisturbed bags of chips. In the afternoon, when the sun was low enough to bounce off the 277’s blacktop, Nelson retreated to the back office to dial-up to the handful of Bulletin Board Systems he frequented. He read news stories, played a few games, and downloaded the latest celebrity nudes, all while keeping a watchful eye on the security cameras.
Evenings were the worst. The front windows turned into an oil painting of a West Texas sunset that filled Nelson with dread. The sizzle on the horizon, the pink hues streaking through the clouds, and smooth, flat desert thrown into sudden relief hinted at a deeper meaning for his life, that its true purpose lay somewhere beyond the gas station and his trailer behind it. But in his heart, he knew there was nothing out there for him and that the sum of his life would play out right there on Highway 277. He’d die in the store or in his trailer. He secretly hoped it would be in the aisles, so his body would at least be discovered before it began to rot.
Nelson stood at the front door and placed his hand on the back of the neon OPEN sign. It was well past nine o’clock, and the odds of anyone else dropping in for a newspaper or bottle of water were too low to keep him in the store. The locals knew to honk if they needed him, and he’d come running out of his trailer. Just as he was pulling the string to turn off the sign, headlights appeared on the highway. A moment of unchecked hope fluttered in Nelson’s chest. Maybe they would turn in. Maybe they’d want to buy a few sixpacks and all the FunYuns they could carry.
“Sedan,” said Nelson, to himself.
Picking out cars at a distance was one of the many games he played to pass the time away. He could only see the headlights and a single fog-light on the left side. The headlights were rectangular and not bordered by LEDs or HID enhancements. The fog light was yellow, having dimmed from its original white. It would soon join its brother.
“Late-model Acura or Toyota. Don’t get many of those around here.”
His fluttering hope took flight as the headlights slowed a hundred yards out from the station. A fast-blinking indicator turned on, and the car took a wide right turn into the parking lot. It made an immediate left and started down the row of charge stations. Bypassing them all, it pulled up alongside the lone gas/diesel pump and stopped. The door opened slightly and a boot hit the evercrete.
Over the glare of the headlights, Nelson couldn’t make out the man sitting behind the steering wheel. It wasn’t until they timed out that he could finally see the profiled shadow speaking to someone in the back seat. The man gestured to the store, shook his head, and climbed out of the car.
Nelson retreated as the man approached the doors, pretended to busy himself at the coffee maker even though he’d already emptied and cleaned it hours ago. A soft, melodic chime announced the door opening, and in stepped a rough-looking man in his mid-thirties, with a week’s worth of beard and hair that looked like it spent most of its time under a hat. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, as if he hadn’t seen sleep in a day or two. When he noticed Nelson, he gave a weak smile and motioned to the coffee pot.
“Got any fresh?”
“Let me fix you a pot special,” said Nelson. “I’ve got Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts blends.”
“Dunkin’, if you please.”
“Size?” asked Nelson, holding up a small and large cup.
“You got a pail?” The man chuckled to himself and held up two fingers. “Two large, please.”
Nelson tore open the packet of Dunkin’ Donuts-brand grounds and set the coffee maker in motion.
“Anything else I can do for you, Raymond?”
“Ray, and yes, I need twenty on pump…” He turned to look for a pump number.
“On the pump,” said Nelson. He walked around to the cash register and started keying in the order. “Don’t get many folks filling up with gasoline these days. Most gassers I know are either junked or retrofitted with electric engines.”
Ray eyed the display of novelty pens on the counter. He picked one up, turned it over, and watched the clothes drain from a pinup’s body.
“It was my Pop’s. He gave it to me when the gas shortage hit.”
“This store was my father’s. He gave it to me when he couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore.” Nelson looked around at the ceiling. “I’m starting to understand how it happened.”
The cash register beeped.
“Two cups of coffee and twenty gallons of Emarat Misr’s finest,” said Nelson. “Is there anything else I can do you for?”
“How are you on meds? Some Aspirin or Aleve?”
“Sleep’s the best remedy for headaches, son. But come on, I’ll show you what I have.”
“Thanks,” said Ray, following Nelson down the aisle by the windows. “It’s not for me though. My wife’s had them pretty constant since she came down with the Bleed.”
Nelson stopped in front of the medical display and looked at Ray’s car. In the backseat, a continuous lump moved–a person writhing under a blanket. He felt around in the MESH for her, but there was nobody there except Ray.
Ray must have seen him concentrating. He nodded to the car. “We were able to buy some blockers across the border before we left. Toronto has a lot of people willing to treat the disease, but none with a cure.”
“Is that what you’ve come all the way down here for? A cure?”
“Something like that,” said Ray, picking up a small tube of Aspirin. “We kept hearing stories about a place in the MZ called Lakon. They said they’re curing the Bleed there.”
Nelson shook his head and shuffled back to the coffee pot. He’d heard the stories too. Lakon. A fountain of youth for those who had lived too long in the MESH. A veil of silence to blot out the incessent chatter.
A honeypot for the desperate.
“You’re not the first people to come looking for Lakon,” said Nelson, pouring out two large cups. He affixed the white, plastic lids, dropped a stirrer into the opening, and took them to the cash register.
Ray joined him and put the tube of Aspirin on the counter.
“That’s not going to do much.” Nelson pushed the medicine aside. He pulled a bottle from the shelf behind him. “Here’s how we treat the Bleed down in Texas.”
“My wife doesn’t drink,” said Ray, examining the bottle of Tequila.
“It’s not for her, son.”
Ray laughed. “I can’t afford–”
“It’s on me,” said Nelson. “I had a nephew who got the Bleed a few years back. My brother never would have made it without Tito.”
“And your nephew?”
Nelson shrugged. “Blew his brains out on his twenty-third birthday. Left a note saying he couldn’t take the voices anymore. Now my brother drinks for a different reason.” He pushed a photo of Trace into the MESH, felt Ray pull it in. “That’s me and him working in this very store when we were younger than you.”
The MESH pulsed, dissolving the photo into another. In his mind’s eye, Nelson saw a dark-haired woman sitting on a dock, her bare legs hanging over the side, her arm wrapped around a blond labrador. The dog was licking her face while she smiled at the camera.
“Melissa, and Gatsby. He’s no longer with us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nelson. “He looks like a fine animal.”
Static tore across the MESH, shattering the photo and replacing it with an out-of-focus map of West Texas.
Ray touched his head and looked to the windows. “Sorry about that. Mel can be pretty pushy sometimes. It’s not really her fault.”
“No harm,” said Nelson. “Trace’s boy used to spew profanity night and day. The MESH was downright unusable when he was around. The Bleed doesn’t just infect people, it replaces them with something else. But you want to know the God’s honest truth about it? Those people are still in there.”
“You’ve seen it cured?”
“No. But I’ve heard the same stories you have about Lakon. And maybe they are curing people down there. Maybe they’ve found a way to disinfect the MESH, but I doubt it. What I do know for sure is that people who go looking for it never come back. Once they go in, they don’t come out.”
Ray sighed, let his head fall forward. The MESH took on a bitter, mournful smell.
“We don’t have a choice. It’s killing her, and it’s killing us.”
When his eyes came back up, they glistened in the flourescent light.
“By all means, you have to take care of your own. Like you said, Canada’s only going to treat the symptoms, and Uncle Sam has both thumbs firmly planted up his ass, so it’s really up to you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I tell people there’s no good reason on Earth to go into the Machine Zone. But if that’s the only place an operation like Lakon can exist, and if you’re willing to give up everything for it, then by all means. Just keep following 277 south. Once it meets up with 377, you don’t stop for nothing. Drive that beater right up to the gates of Lakon and wait for them to open. I don’t want my MESH dream interrupted tonight by a report of a decent couple being torn to shreds by some renegade soldados. Those MX synthetics have no regard for human life.”
“Thank you for the advice,” said Ray. “And for the medicine.” He slipped the flat bottle into his jacket.
“Anytime,” said Nelson. He tapped the cash register’s screen to wake it. “That’s twenty-three even.”
Ray glanced at the cash register momentarily. A green check mark popped up on the screen.
“Thank you for your business, Raymond. I wish you and yours the best of luck.”
The MESH crackled, flashed red. Graphical data flooded the network, overloading Nelson’s vision. Voices with accents he’d never heard in person bubbled up through the white noise, coming from every direction at once. He took an involuntarily step backwards. Amongst the many speakers, a feminine voice whispered across a chasm.
Nelson felt his heart collapse in his chest.
“Dear God, please. HELP ME.”
Ray nodded as if unaware of the disturbance in the MESH.
Nelson watched him trot back to his car and hurriedly get inside. The beater growled unhappily as the engine came to life; its headlights seemed to wink lazily as if waking from a long nap. Ray put the car into gear and spun it around back onto the highway. The taillights flared and disappeared into the Texas night.
The noise lingered. Nelson fought the urge to put his hands to his head. He knew it would do no good.
Gradually, as Ray and his wife got further away, their MESH connection to Nelson disappated into nothing.
The voices quieted, but the echo remained in Nelson’s head.
“God dammit,” said Nelson, striking the counter with his fist. He stared at the pumps outside the store.