Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Risen - Chapter One

They tell me that it is going to get better. That we've survived worse than this before, and we'll get through this as well. I want to believe them. I want to hope. It's hard man, hard. But this morning, the sun came up, and it was fucking glorious. Such colour, such light. Maybe today is the day it gets better, maybe today is the day we win. 

Seattle Space Needle Hilton Broadcast, September 14, 2011 

The view from the tree was perfect. He could see the entire beach - from the base of the cliff to where it turned out of sight almost a mile away. The beach was cold and empty today, the surf lazily crashing against the kelp covered rocks and sending its omnipresent tang of salt into the air. The sand and rocks were devoid of anything interesting, but the motion of the surf was hypnotic in its rhythm, enough so that Michael had to consciously choose to turn and look along the tree line.

The edge of the forest was equally devoid of anything out of the ordinary. A long line of pine, interspersed here and there with white birch and a few oak and maple trees. However, the space between the tree line and the fence around the compound, kept at a strict one hundred yards, was full of activity today. The gardening crew was busy at work, keeping the produce from being overrun by weeds or insects. Without the use of chemicals, that was pretty much a full time job.

Michael watched them at their work for a while, his eyes flicking from gardener to gardener then back to the tree line, over and over again. A soft breeze brought him the sounds of their voices, mostly just talking amongst themselves, some singing softly, other teasing each other; the healthy sounds of long-time friends and family at work. One laugh in particular would carry from time to time, causing him to smile – Venerable Huang was hard at work, but even when the old man’s back was aching, he found reason to smile and joy in the world. His saffron robes stood out clearly against the black earth he toiled over, and Michael laughed when the ancient monk tossed clumps of dirt with unerring accuracy at the raised rumps of his fellow workers.

Inside the fence-line other, smaller, gardens were also being tended. The rain had been plentiful overnight and the earth was easier to work damp. Almost everyone who had no other duties was working hard to keep the gardens healthy and productive. On a day like today, with the warm June sun shining high above and a slight breeze blowing over the fields, it was easy work, even enjoyable. Unlike standing guard, where there was little chance for stretching, no friendly chats, and no room at all for pranks.

Lately, guard duty had become one of the less desirable tasks, and the sign-up sheets had been sparse compared to how they used to fill up. Everyone knew the importance of keeping a constant watch – it was how they had survived this long – and they all remembered the consequences of letting their guard down. Even so… guard duty used to be almost a high-status job, if such could really be said to exist in the commune. Even three months ago, the elders still made a point of selecting the most trustworthy and keen sighted applicants for the duty. All had to be precise sharpshooters as well. For today's list however, Michael had seen two old men and three people who wore glasses chosen for the duty, all sober and responsible no doubt, but still...

Michael shook his head out of the reverie and reminded himself that he had volunteered for this duty, for the quiet and solitude that came with it. He remembered all too well what happened when people let their guard down, when careful watches weren’t kept. He patted the military binoculars around his neck for reassurance, he'd still been entrusted with the best set of optics the commune had, and that showed how much he was still trusted to be in the role.

He leaned back against the trunk of the tree, stretching his back as he raised the glasses to his eyes and examined each of the other twelve scout stations. In every case, he saw his cohorts actively watching the area, fulfilling their duties and maintaining constant vigilance over the gardeners and beyond. A few noted him looking their way and waved casually, the only real communication the guards had access to.

A quiet chime rang through the air and he started, not realizing that it had been so long already. His shift in the tree was almost over if it was already time for the four hour check in. Like all the other sentinels, jumped to the ground and stood at the bole of his watch tree, his left hand raised above his head until he was counted, though his attention never wavered from the area he was watching. The workers in the gardens quickly ran to their assigned lines for the count, and then went back to their work, most of them taking the time to stretch and chat among themselves as they did so. After ten years, the check-ins were second nature to the commune members – every four hours, every day of their lives, night or day. The daytime check-ins were no bother at all, and most people had quickly learned to fall back asleep quickly after the night checks.

Climbing back into the tree, he perched carefully against the trunk and went back to his watch, sweeping his sector carefully, watching for any hint of movement or colour that did not belong. It had been a long time since he had personally spotted anything, over a year now. In fact, no sentinel had raised the alarm in over six months.

That's, he mused, why the watch rotation isn't as glamorous as it once was. When we saved everyone several times a week, we were heroes. Now that we just sit in the trees watching while everyone else breaks their backs, we're lazy. He chuckled softly to himself and scratched an itch. How quickly people forget.

Another hour passed without incident. The gardeners finished their duties and began to head into the compound, the last one through calling out to a few who preceded him to assist him in locking the gates. Ten feet tall and reinforced with thick timbers, the gate was heavy, even on the high quality hinges they had scrounged from the hardware store. Without any real counterweight to assist, no one could close that gate by themself, it weighed almost eight hundred pounds. Ben would know for sure he thought, looking across the field to where the older man was working on the well again.

Ben was bent over the mechanism he'd been working on, some sort of contraption to bring water up faster than the old rope and pulley they had rigged up years ago. A pile of what looked like scrap lumber and a few metal fastenings were laid out on the ground near the well, and Ben was doing something with his tools, pausing every once in a while to scratch his head and pace around the project. He looked up briefly from his work when the gate closed with a thump, and then went right back to his work. That's pretty typical, Michael thought, old man has a one track mind once he gets set on something. Course, we're damned lucky he's here. Ben had been the one to design the fence, using only the materials they could scavenge to build something that big and that strong was a feat of engineering that no one else had the basic idea how to accomplish. The old man had simply thought about it for a couple of days, scratching ideas in the dirt (even then they had known that they would run out of paper fast) and muttering to himself. When he came up with his plan, the group, much smaller then, had thought he was crazy. But everyone knew that a wall was a good idea, even if they didn't have any inkling how to build it. In the end, Venerable Huang had agreed with the idea, and they'd started. Just in time – the wall had saved their lives again and again.

The survivors here in the commune had never had to worry about the hordes that they had heard of in the larger centers. The remoteness of the location, away from any real population centers, meant that not many of them had made it this far out. When they did get here, it was usually just isolated individuals or very small groups – nothing that couldn't be handled, if you were aware and ready for them. Michael remembered the one large group that had made it here, following the Miller family no doubt. There had been over a hundred of them, and their combined weight had nearly brought down the brand new fence. But it had held, and the sentinels were able to take care of the attackers, though it had been a slow and nerve racking process. Michael hadn't been on duty then, he'd only been fourteen, but he remembered carrying water to the sentinels and the other adults. They ran out of bullets long before they ran out of targets, so the older children had carried buckets of rocks and with fire hardened spears. For two days they fought off the horde, praying every moment that no more showed up.

Michael remembered the look on Ben's face the moment the fight was over. When the last of them fell, there had been a hush, then some muted cheering – everyone was too tired to sustain even a small amount of celebration. Ben had walked up to the heavy gate, its main supports sagging and splinted, but still standing strong. He'd run his calloused hand over the wood, smiling softly all the while. Michael had been standing close enough to hear him say to himself "I'll be damned, it worked." That had been even scarier for him than the attack itself – knowing that even Ben wasn't sure they were going to make it.

He smiled softly at the memory then turned his attention back to the tree line with a sigh. His stomach rumbled slightly and he grimaced, knowing that the dinner bell was still an hour away, and his watch wouldn't be over until his replacement arrived after they had eaten. He rubbed his stomach through the thick flannel shirt he wore and settled in to the trunk again. As a matter of habit, he checked that his rifle was still carefully positioned in the rack secured to the tree, and that the bow, with its quiver of arrows, was equally accessible. Just because it had been so long since the last sighting didn't mean that he should be lax in his duties.

There was a loud crash and he started, whirling about in the tree, one had grabbing the rifle and bringing it up as he spun. He had the rifle braced against his shoulder and pointed in the direction of the sound before he even registered what he was seeing – Ben, swearing up a streak and kicking a large piece of wood which had obviously fallen from the scaffold he'd been building. The old man gave the wood one more kick then turned to wave sheepishly at the closest sentinel. "Sorry, damned thing nearly broke my foot!" he hollered out, then stooped to grab the heavy piece of timber and went back to work.

Michael took a few deep breaths to steady himself, his hearth hammering in his breast as he got himself back under control. He laughed to himself as he braced the rifle back in its spot and positioned himself to resume his watch, as always scanning back and forth, along the beach, along the edge of the forest.

A spray of water off the coast caught his attention, and he watched, spell bound, as a large pod of pilot whales breached, almost as one. He found himself grinning as dozens of the small whales surfaced, splashing and whistling to one another, the shrill sounds carrying easily over the calm water. Their grey-black bodies would have been hard to see against the steel grey of the cold Atlantic water, but their movements were so excited and the group moved so quickly through the water that they were hard not to stare at. He laughed out loud when a smaller whale was flipped up and into the air by one of the bigger ones, both of them whistling and chortling at each other.

"Globicephala melas, the common long-finned pilot whale."

Michael yelped in surprise and twisted about, losing his balance and tumbling from the tree. He fell the fifteen feet from his perch and crashed to the ground. The soft loam under the tree cushioned his fall, merely driving the wind from him. As he lay on the ground, gasping to get his breath back, he heard laughter and looked over to see Angela, no doubt his replacement, gasping and wheezing as she laughed. His surprise and pain turned to embarrassment and he scrambled to his feet, comically waving a fist at her.

She looked up from her knees, saw him standing with fist raised and collapsed into gales of laughter. Her face was obscured by her long dark hair, and she laughed so hard that she couldn't stand. Howling, she fell backward onto the ground, laughing the whole time.

Michael tried to maintain his composure, tried to keep the scowl on his face, but her laugh was infectious. He chuckled to himself and then laughed out loud. He sat down beside her on the ground and the two of them leaned against one another while their laughter ran its course.

"I'm sorry," she said, trying to stifle a giggle, "but you should have seen your face as you were falling!"

"Damn it Angie, I could've been hurt! You know better than to sneak up on anyone. What if I'd had the rifle in my hands? Someone could have been shot."

She grinned and pulled herself to her feet, offering him a hand to stand. He took it and she helped to pull him up as well. "You're right Michael. That was a dumb-ass thing to do. I am sorry, and it won't happen again." She looked out over the water, where the pod was swimming out to sea again. "They are beautiful though, aren't they?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "Did you know they are one of the only cetacean species where the males stay with their mother's pod? And yet they are careful in their breeding – there is no incest."

He looked at her blankly for a moment, wondering where this lecture was coming from, then remembered "That's right, you were taking marine biology or something, weren't you?"

She smiled up at him, the top of her head barely reaching his chest. "Yup, good memory. My Masters' thesis was going to be a study of the mating habits of the pilot whales. They get together in these huge pods from time to time, over a hundred of them. We think that is where the selection of mates happens, but we've never been able to corroborate that. They are amazingly social, maybe even too social. They are prone to stranding themselves when they try to join each other – if a high ranked member gets stranded, or a young one does, the rest of the pod can end up stranded as well. We're not sure why, though there are a lot of theories." She laughed "but you don't want to stand here and listen to me talking about the mating habits of whales. You must be hungry. Shifts over man, head on back and get some dinner. Susanne made a great stew tonight."

He thanked her and turned to walk back to the compound, his stomach already rumbling.
"The Rising was probably the best thing that happened to them you know."

He turned back to face her, his head tilted quizzically. She didn't turn back to look at him, her gaze locked on the retreating whales. "They were threatened before The Rising. Maybe a couple hundred thousand left in the world. But without us hunting them, and we did, by the thousands, I bet they have almost doubled in population by now."

"Like the deer you mean?" he asked.

"Exactly. Mankind was their only significant predator. Without us hunting them for blubber and meat, they would be rebounding fast." She chuckled, "Well, maybe not as fast as the damned deer, but fast."

He nodded, unsure what to say, then waved and headed back to the compound, his stomach leading the way.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Two up, Two down!

After a serious marathon couple of days of writing, I finished the NaNoWriMo challenge.  50,000 words in 30 days.  I stopped writing mid-month for about eight days, it then decided, on November 27th, that I did want to complete the challenge.  So on November 27, with only about 25,000 words written, and a story that I wasn't sure where to take it, I picked up the thread of the idea, and ran with it.

I have to say, I am very pleased with the outcome!  Just like last year, it is by no means finished, but the ideas that it generated, and the paths the characters have taken, are fascinating.  The more I write lengthy pieces, the more interested I get in the creative process, and how it is different for everyone.  I've read several books now on how to write, and each one is different, which I suppose is the message to take from that.  If you are a writer, or want to be one, then you just have to find what works for you, and run with it.  The important part is to just keep trying.  And that's the hard part for me.

Laziness is a constant problem for me.  I don't usually feel terribly motivated to do much of anything, other than hang out with my kids and play games with them.  Which, as a father, is pretty much what I am expected to do.  So I suppose that is a win for me.  Or them. Or both.

When I was younger, I was a lot more driven.  I had long term goals and intended to follow through on them.  But as I have aged (and the big 40 is on the horizon, a month or two away now) I have found that I seek out goals and thrills less and less.  And that is OK.  There is nothing wrong with being happy with where you are.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in feeling that the place you are in your life is a good one and you don't really want to change.  But...  There is always a but, isn't there?

There is a fine line between satisfaction and complacency.  And complacency can very easily lead to stagnation.  It is important for us to challenge ourselves, it is important for us to learn new things and try new experiences, if we don't do that, we may be cutting ourselves off from something we would love, if only we tried it.

I suffer from "man-itis" - a common condition among men where we find the things we like, and then just stick to them for ever.  Ask any man about his clothes, and most of them will be able to tell you where they always buy their pants, and even that they don't have to try them on anymore, as that style and cut fit them perfectly, so they can just walk into their store of choice (mine is Mark's Work Wearhouse for pants) go over to the pant section, grab two pairs (one khaki, one blue) and take them to the counter.  Ditto our favorite restaurants and pubs.  We have our beer and our dish that we like.  We get them every time.  If it changes because the menu changes, we will be upset.

Now I don't mean to suggest that man-itis is a bad thing.  It isn't wrong or bad to stick to something that we enjoy.  But it does mean we don't learn to enjoy new things.  We don't discover new loves, new passions.  We need to make that effort to try new things all the time.  Or at least I do.  The rest of the men, you guys do what you want, but I am going to try a couple new things this week.  I have no idea what they will be, but they'll be new.

I have no idea how this turned from a quick "Hey!  I did it!" about NaNo into a discussion of personal habits and expanding horizons, but hey, that's the writing process for you.  :)