“…then he just threw down the stadia pole, screamed ‘THEY’RE ALL WATCHING ME!” and took off running down the road. I don’t think he stopped running before he hit Fairbanks and the department had him flown back down to the Lower 48 by the end of the week.
”…and with that comment break time was over and the formal lecture resumed. The course was called SnowHawk, a week-long orientation course teaching the principles of arctic and mountain operations to new arrivals in the command. As I was both an officer and a home-grown Alaskan the instructors dealt with me a bit differently, seeking me out at breaks to get my input.
That latest anecdote dealt with a summer job the instructor had worked on before joining the army. The job involved making surveys of federal property up in the Brooks Range, and the stress of long daylight hours, isolation, and basic exhaustion had basically unhinged the screamer in the story. Hallucinations followed, prompting him to constantly scan the surrounding wilderness for the mysterious watchers that he knew were stalking him.
The story brought on a chuckle, but as the class resumed I continued to think about it. Truth be told, hikes and camping trips out in the wilderness had always had a slightly spooky feeling, especially when we were in the area that had burned out the middle of the Kenai Peninsula during the epic 1947 fire. As the forest was still taking baby-steps towards recovery the trees were much lower than normal, and half-burnt snags were scattered everywhere, giving a surreal flavor to the surroundings and scant protection from winds off the mountains to the east. Between the alien landscape, the constant moaning of the wind, and the isolation, it was easy to let your imagination get the best of you. This eerie atmosphere was exacerbated by my preference for speculative fiction in both print and media. After watching the series premiere of The Invaders I spent the entire night wide awake, sitting up in bed grasping a baseball bat, convinced that aliens would make a beeline for me up in my attic loft while completely ignoring my sleeping parents and sisters in the house below.
But with the same logic as “your paranoia does not rule out the possibility that someone is out to get you!” these imaginings did not rule out the existence of things that go bump in the endless Arctic night. While there’s been a paucity of Bigfoot sightings, we do have home-grown cryptids like the Lake Illiamna monster and the Kush-da-ka1, and as a teenager I saw something over the Chugach Mountains that looked and moved like a UFO.
…so there is definitely a spooky side to life on the Last Frontier, and a good portion of the fiction I have started to write involves that “oooheeeyooo”2 influence; stories that are not fully speculative/otherworldly, but also not fully anchored in reality. In any other by setting, I’d identify them by the classic television series The Twilight Zone, but even that analogy isn’t completely accurate. Dawn and dusk during the Alaskan winter is unusual; while the actual hours of daylight are short, dawn and dusk are lengthy, and bathed in an 0therworldly orange and magenta. These colors have figured prominently in my art, and now they’ll be part of my written work – from here on out I’m using the term The Magenta Zone when referring to these slightly scary stories set in Alaska.
(Second in a series of short stories tied in with the upcoming Gun Kingdoms III book. Picks up directly after the events in my previous story Dog Watch)
“Now this is going to hurt you more than it will hurt me.”
The young man sitting on the examination table visibly blanched, and a shudder rippled through his body from the end of his ponytail to the soles of his feet.
“Not to worry cadet. Just a bit of sick bay humor”, continued the doctor, mentally cursing his feeble attempt at bedside manner. Holding the torn fabric back with his mid-arms, the doctor stitched the wound while applying a balm with his upper set, all the while continuing with his commentary, “For as much as they smell, loopies leave fairly clean wounds. Keep the stitches sanitized and make good use of the healing potion I’ve given you and the rot won’t set in”.
The young cadet stood up, straightened his spectacles for the umpteenth time, and then left the sick bay, a subdued “Thanks” trailing behind him. The four-armed doctor then turned his attention to cleaning up the detritus left from treatment, putting implements and medicines away with his upper arms while mid-arms swabbed down the examination table and laid out new linens. “So young”, he thought. “The cadets we get now seem to be little more than children. Was I ever as green as young Mr. Gilgamesh?”
He continued to wipe down and restock the containers and bottles scattered around the compartment, pausing only when a low rumble from somewhere further aft in the boat shook the sick-bay slightly. Before treating the young cadet’s wound he’d been swamped with several senior petty officers suffering from what seemed to be food poisoning after dining with the Captain. It had been a special occasion, and judging from the brilliantly-colored but evil-smelling liquid splattered on the deck, the cook had apparently taken a chance with a rather exotic dish for the festivities. Fortunately only selected members of the crew had attended the banquet and sampled the exotic cuisine, and so far there had been no gastric complaints outside of that group.
With the compartment clean, the doctor sat back down, and his thoughts returned again to the young cadet.
Nana had always loudly maintained that his peculiar anatomy was a blessing from heaven, but Trevor Norridgewock considered his extra arms a curse. The valley was blessedly free from the bigotry and insults that plagued those with physical differences in other places and times, but there were constant subtle reminders that others viewed him less favorably. It had started early on when classmates complained that his extra appendages gave him an unfair advantage on the playing field, and clerks never shifted their gaze from him when he went shopping, some of them confessing later that they wondered if his mid-arms were pocketing goods while his upper arms were involved in a transaction. Most distressing was when his invitation to the cotillion was rejected with, “It’s hard enough watching where two hands are drifting during a dance, much less contend with four”, so his early departure to the academy came as a blessing rather than a sad development in his life.
At first, attitudes outside of the valley were different enough for him to wonder if he’d been overly sensitive when younger, but despite the lack of open prejudice he couldn’t help but notice the slight hesitations and diverted glances that came with every social interaction, so it was just easier to avoid the parties and concerts that came with academy life. As it was, the isolation was actually a blessing as it allowed him to concentrate on his studies, but upon graduation a career at sea seemed the best choice given the limited social interaction in a ship’s company.
His reverie was broken by the bustle of a burly master-at-arms supervising two crewman as they man-handled a crumpled and broken figure through the hatch and up onto the examination table. This definitely was not another case of food poisoning – Trevor recognized the man as Boothroyd, a crewman assigned to monitor a cargo compartment just down the passageway, and he was bruised, broken, and definitely quite dead in a manner that suggested attack by a small kraken or large bear. The doctor recognized the master-at-arms as Petty Officer Calderoni, and while one of his men placed Boothroyd’s effects on the table, Calderoni informed the doctor that they’d found him buried underneath a mountain of sacks of mealy-corn in the port cargo hold while making their rounds.
As the doctor wrote his report, Calderoni rifled through the dead man’s effects and held up a sheathed knife. “He was one for always talking about his knife and what a fine edge there was on the blade,” he said softly. He sheathed the blade and continued, “Cleaning and oiling it every time he used it. Going on about how his blade put your scalpels to shame”. Trevor smiled slightly sideways as he went about examining the body. How could such a powerful man be so soft spoken and easy going? Scuttlebutt had it that Calderoni could lift a tusker in each hand for exercise, common wisdom second only to the “Can animals talk?” rumor, but for now the doctor was just glad Calderoni was easy-going and considered the doctor to be a friend.
A conference with Captain Trinidad via speaking tube followed the examination, and after a brief discussion, Trevor was designated as the investigating officer in the matter of Boothroyd’s death. Within minutes he was standing in the port cargo compartment’s hatchway silently taking in the scene: the space was not much larger than his sickbay, and other than a lamp mounted on the bulkhead next to the hatch, unlit. The only bare spot on the deck was where the unfortunate crewman had lain, the deck being otherwise covered with the toppled sacks along with scattered mealy-corn kernels from a single torn bag.
The doctor felt a slight pressure against the side of his leg as he studied the room, and looked down to see Nick the dog standing next to him, equally engrossed in the scene. When a quick glance confirmed they were alone, Trevor reached down to the terrier with a mid-hand and scratched the dog’s head while asking, “Do you know anything about this?”
After a brief spasm of reflexive leg-kicking Nick replied in his fractured canine patois, “’s hard to say. Boof-roy and Toe-leo fought sometime. Both liked the same bitsss.”
Trevor sniffed then replied, “First off: we’ve already discussed this Nick. Two-legs don’t use that word for females – at least polite two-legs. Second: I’d heard about disagreements between the two but nothing seriousenough for murder”. He paused to pick up the empty mealy bag with an upper hand while continuing to scratch Nick between the ears with a mid. He sniffed again then continued, “Where is Toadleo’s duty station?”
The terrier pointed his nose at the back bulkhead and simply replied “De udder one”, indicating the cargo compartment on the other side of the back bulkhead. After scooping up Nick in his mid-arms and the torn sack in an upper hand, Trevor walked back to the sick bay to drop Nick off before walking around to the starboard main corridor and the storage space that mirrored the compartment where the death occurred. Inside the space he found Calderoni with his two assistants flanking a visibly distraught Toadleo.
As the doctor entered through the hatch Calderoni nodded, and then with a slight smile said, “The captain told me you were the investigating officer but I think this will be an easy one. Boothroyd and Toadleo both fancied the same bargirl back in port. I think Boothroyd was making headway and it looks like Toadleo wanted no rivals for the lass.” He pointed up to a small open hatch at the top of the bulkhead separating the two cargo spaces. “Judging from appearances and the loud sound we all heard earlier it appears that Toadleo climbed up the stacks in here, reached through the emergency hatch to the other hold, and pushed the mealy-corn bags down on Boothroyd.”
Toadleo’s swarthy and dark-haired appearance betrayed his South Coast Arcansi origins but now his face was deathly pale and he was breathing in short gasps. “I never done it. Never. Boothroyd and I had our differences but we’s still shipmates. I traded fists wif him but murder? Never! ‘Sides, Mitzi made ‘er choice and there was no more trouble ‘tween us.”
Trevor and Calderoni turned away for a brief conference, then Toadleo was led off to the brig while the doctor returned to the sickbay where a long line of green-faced crewmen waited in the passageway outside. Whatever had contaminated the captain’s banquet had now made its way into the general ship’s mess and inflicted a good part of the crew, but before he saw the first man in line, the deck started to tilt and the speaking tube whistled. With so many sick the captain had taken the Hammerhead up to cruise on the surface until enough hands recovered to safely submerge again. At the same time, in an effort to forestall losing any more crewman to the mysterious illness, the cook was issuing sausage and cheese in lieu of a hot meal.
After working through the waiting line the doctor removed his coat and sat down to eat, but after treating the largish group of dyspeptic mariners, Trevor was unable to gag down either comestible. As emergency rations, they’d been in storage for quite a while, and after slicing into both of them he found the cheese to be moldy and the sausage rancid. Cleaning his utensils got him to wondering if the grease from the sausage would make a good lubricant or rust-preventative, a thought that caused him to pause and reach for the torn mealy-corn sack, but he stopped short when a half-heard whisper echoed in from the passageway.
“Betcha hexaminin’ Petty Officer Rose wit four hands is fun!” Trevor looked up to see the master-at-arms literally filling the hatchway, his face cocked in the ever-present half-smile. The doctor wondered if Calderoni was smiling at his underling’s attempt at humor before reasoning that a man who can straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands could smile any time he wanted to.
The speaking tube whistle preempted any conversation, and the doctor was surprised to hear the captain’s voice inform him that Toadleo had escaped. While being escorted to the brig he’d taken advantage of an unsecured hatch to stun his escort and exit to the main deck. On his way out he’d grabbed a boarding pistol clipped next to the hatch, and had taken cover in the captain’s gig secured in a recess on the main deck. Searchlights on the conning tower could keep the area illuminated but the vents, davits, and stanchions littering the deck cast long shadows that made the crouching Toadleo difficult to observe.
Trevor stood up and put his jacket back on, an otherwise simple task complicated by the need to get four arms into twisted sleeves instead of two. As he stepped out of the sick-bay he paused for a moment and addressed the whispering deck hand, “For your information, Petty Officer Rose is the captain’s best diver, and I’d no sooner take liberties with her as I would you”, before heading toward the hatch and leaving the crewman to wonder how additional arms enhanced one’s hearing.
The doctor followed Calderoni to the portside conning tower hatch where his assistants were keeping watch on Toadleo in a textbook example of a standoff. The boat was cruising in less-than-friendly-waters, but between the need to vent the cloying odor of projectile-vomit, and repairs needed on damaged hull plates, submerging the Hammerhead was not an option. Neither was rushing the escapee; while the large-caliber boarding pistol fired only single-shots, Toadleo could fire and reload three times before they could get to him, and as most of the crew were still immobilized with food poisoning, the task would have to be accomplished with just the small group gathered at the hatch.
Holding up a pink envelope Calderoni quipped, “I could always disguise myself as a letter-carrier and jump him when I deliver this!” A faint trace of perfume followed the packet as he handed it to the doctor. Somehow Nick had gotten ahold of the letter and brought it to the Master-at-arms, and as Trevor scratched the terrier’s ears with a mid-hand he held the envelope in an upper and read the writing on the cover. The doctor’s eyes widened imperceptibly at the address, then he briefly knelt down, whispered something to the dog, and abruptly stepped out of the hatch into full view of the escapee.
“Are you daft doc? He’s a desperate man! He’ll shoot you down just like he killed Boothroyd!”
“No he won’t – because he’s not a murderer!”
Trevor slowly walked toward the gig, stumbling slightly when the big boarding pistol roared and clipped a neat hole into the air intake he just passed. He paused to think, “If they ever develop a metal that can hold up as a repeater for a caliber that big my job will get much busier.” He then walked a few more steps before halting a dozen yards from the crouching escapee.
“Not one step closer Doc. I’ll put an ‘ole in you in a ‘eartbeat.”
“No you won’t Toadleo. You may be a brigand but you’re not a murderer.”
The seaman’s laugh was more like a bark. “Ha! Duhn’t matter. Theys think I am. Remember? I’m a South-Coaster. We carry knives! We steal sweets from toddlers and fart in airlocks, so ‘course I’da killed ‘im.”
Trevor’s reply was equally terse as he imperceptibly eased closer, “…and I’m a four-armed freak. A natural pickpocket that no proper lady should be seen with. We both know those stereotypes aren’t true, just as we both know that you didn’t kill Boothroyd. But if you try to fight your way out you’ll just reinforce every lie that’s been told about you, me, and every other person who looks a little bit different.”
“How do you know I didn’t kill Boothroyd? I’m a pirate remember? Uh…Arrgh…Rawor! I’m a mean one I am!”
“Nick is a more convincing brigand that you are.” The doctor held up the pink envelope. “This is why I know you didn’t kill Boothroyd.”
From their vantage point Calderoni and his party flinched as the doctor walked closer to the escapee, only to be amazed when Toadleo stood up from his cover and handed him the boarding pistol before walking with the doctor back to the open hatch. Trevor then made a most contradictory announcement that a) Toadleo would return to the brig without any more trouble and b) Toadleo would shortly be absolved of all charges. The announcement came with a most nerve-wracking silence – the doctor had never seen the massive petty officer so keyed up, and for a moment Trevor feared the tension built up during the stand-off would explode into violence, but after repeating the promise that Toadleo would be compliant the tension quickly dissipated. As his two assistants led the escapee aft to the brig, Calderoni followed the doctor to the sick-bay where two shots of medicinal brandy relaxed him enough to sit still for the doctor’s explanation.
“I had my suspicions when I checked the two cargo spaces. The only thing out-of-the-ordinary in the port space was the one torn mealie-corn sack, and the bags in the starboard space were stacked far too neatly – anyone climbing up to the emergency hatch would have made a shambles of the uniform stacking.”
“Toadleo coulda restacked ‘em!”
Trevor held up his hand, “There wasn’t enough time between the sacks falling and apprehending Toadleo”. He then stood up and reached for Boothroyd’s knife while holding the torn mealy-corn sack in his mid-hands. “Neatly stacked cargo isn’t the only factor to consider. This greasy cloth tells the rest of the story.”
“Like all the other crewmembers who avoided food poisoning Boothroyd was issued cheese and sausage from the emergency rations. Both items were issued in bulk form and had to be cut into manageable lengths. Again – like most crewmen, Boothroyd carried a knife. A rather handsome one to be honest, and one that he took great pride in maintaining. As I discovered during my own dinner, cutting the sausage would have left a lot of grease on that blade, and Boothroyd would have lost no time in cleaning his knife…”
Trevor held up the torn sack. “…using the only cloth available. It appears that in order to clean the knife he wiped the blade along the side of the sack, accidentally cutting into the fabric as he did so. Sitting under the not-inconsiderable weight of all the other sacks it was only a matter of time before the cut-bag burst and toppled the entire stack.”
“…and crushed poor Boothroyd in the process”, finished the Master-at-arms. “But there’s still the brawl in the tavern. Couldn’t he…”
Trevor raised both upper hands again. “If you still have doubts, take a look at the pink envelope. It’s from the young lady in question and it’s addressed to Toadleo. Judging by the copious amount of cologne it’s been bathed in I am forced to conclude he had already won that earlier battle for her affections.”
“Why fight a battle you could lose when you’ve already won the war?”
Midnight came fairly quickly and Trevor was still completing his log when the eight bells signaling the change in watch-keeping rang. Judging by the reduction in retching and frantic trips to the head it appeared that the food poisoning had run its course, so it seemed safe enough retire. He closed his journal, locked the supply cabinet, and started to head for the corridor and his own cramped quarters.
As he turned to the hatch he stopped short when he spied a small furry head leaning in over the threshold. Trevor knelt down and once again scratched the terrier between his ears, then asked, “Does everyone know you can talk? I thought I was the only one.”
“Dere’s a couple more.”
“When did you get that envelope? How did you get that envelope?”
“Not so many sick now.” Nick neatly sidestepped the question. He continued, “But Rudy wiw stiw bwame ‘is farts on me!”
“and they’ll still call me a four-armed freak, but we can let the mid-watch handle it!”
(As I’ve written earlier the third Gun Kingdoms book is slowly gaining momentum and we’re looking forward to a KickStarter campaign later in the year. In past projects my contribution has been purely visual but this time around Scott has challenged/goaded/double-dog-dared me to do some writing as well. What follows is a story set on the Hammerhead, a submersible boat that figures prominently in the third book.
The color art above will appear on the book’s cover. The sketch at the end of the story is a annotated diagram of the area in where the story takes place.)
(In naval terminology: a shorter than usual (2 hour) period of duty scheduled between the hours of 1600 and 2000 that staggers the watch schedule so the same personnel are not forced to stand mid-watch every night.)
(Time is signaled throughout the vessel by a system of bells: one stroke of the bell indicates the first half hour of a watch, with an additional bell for each succeeding half hour. Eight bells indicate the end of a four-hour watch, and then the bell cycle starts over and repeats itself for the next watch.)
Why didn’t he say anything about the smell?
In the months before embarkation all Uncle Beetlemeyer could talk about was the overwhelming advantage Alyver Gilgamesh would gain by starting his shipboard career as a cadet under the command of his old academy roommate, Dusker Trinidad. So far the only overwhelming aspect of his career was the combined stench of oil, mold, fish and sweat that came into being the minute the hatches clanked shut, and grew in funkiness until the Hammerhead once again broke the surface. Never mind cannon fire or drowning – the real hazard to life in a submersible boat was the ever-present stink that wouldn’t wash out of his clothes, ruined the taste of every meal, and made life more tedious than need be.
Not that life afloat was all that great – Alyver’s first clue that Uncle Beetlemeyer had once again embroidered the truth was the “ix-nay on the oommate-ray” hissed to him when reporting dockside to meet the legendary captain for the first time. It turned out that Beetlemeyer hadn’t actually been Trinidad’s roommate, but rather an upperclassman who’d unmercifully hazed the now-famous privateer during his first year at the academy.
The second clue came when Alyver was given his watch assignment: by title he was assistant to the petty-officer-in-charge of the portside secondary propulsion pod, but in real life he was referred to as Chief Petty Officer Tho’s dog robber, and assigned the dullest and dirtiest tasks, with an occasional respite from drudgery in the form of feeding the department’s canine mascot Nick, or running errands to other parts of the boat. He also seemed to be designated target for the incredibly short temper of the power-pod’s second-in-command, Petty Officer Rudy. The ever-squinting and sporadically articulate Rudy mocked Alyver for his spectacles and denied even the questionable dignity of the title “dog robber” and instead referred to the cadet in third person as “the pimply little snot” with a social standing just below the dog.
Alyver thought “At least he isn’t constantly trying to kick me” then smiled when he remembered that for all his kicking, Rudy had yet to connect with the dog Nick. He smiled even broader when he contemplated the bliss of the next couple of hours free of the customary drudgery while Chief Tho and the others were attending some sort of event with the Capitan Trinidad somewhere astern in the main hull. Alyver wasn’t too sure if it was a dinner, lunch or breakfast – since leaving safe waters, the Hammerhead had surfaced under the cover of darkness only, and that lack of visual reference combined with the as-yet baffling time-keeping system of bells had robbed Alyver of any internal sense of time.
With the others gone he would have to catch up with his cruise-book. In addition to the smell, upended time sense, and taunts from his crew mates, Alyver was dismayed to find that during his first cruise he was expected to learn about the vessel rather than just ride around in it. Every spare moment was to be familiarizing himself about the structure, systems, and operation of the boat, and documenting that knowledge by filling a blank book with carefully annotated notes and diagrams. At first he’d approached the task with indifference, but when Tho shared his own youthful misfortune at confusing a sewage life with a water line (“they’re painted brown for a reason!”) Alyver resumed his study with an increased sense of urgency.
The deck abruptly tilted down towards the bow, startling Alyver until his ears popped and he realized that the boat had just dived a little deeper. He wondered if the dive was a matter of evading patrol boats, and when a loud scraping sound echoed from the port side of the pod he wondered if they’d encountered a minefield or anti-submersible net as well, but when the deck leveled out and the boat kept moving he relaxed and started reading the instructions for the port pod department order book.
At least twice during each period between bells he was to make one complete round of all the watertight compartments in the pod, starting at the main access hatch to the passage leading to the main hull, then:
Aft to the upper level of the engine room,
Down to the ladder in the lower engine room,
Forward to the torpedo room,
Up the ladder to the observation bay,
And aft to where he began at the main access.
In addition, there were special areas such as hull sections with recent repairs and boarding pistols clipped to strategic points on the pod bulkheads required additional scrutiny, but it seemed that in making his rounds, updating the departmental log, and reporting by speaking tube to the watch officer there wasn’t anything particularly overwhelming in the standard orders, so he leafed ahead to the special orders section to check for any unpleasant surprises listed there.
Despite being written in Petty Officer Rudy’s near-indecipherable scrawl, the first special notice was clear enough: “All check-valves made by the Gold Turtle Guild is foltifawldi broke and gots 2 be checkt at evry bell”. What wasn’t made clear was the fact that in the interest of job security the Gold Turtle Guild had designed the check valves so that they could only be tightened or loosened by use of the rather unwieldly Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner…which was longer and heavier than any other implement the pod’s toolkit. The balance of the special orders section – made up of two inch’s worth of stale-dated maintenance notices suggested skimming rather than study, and upon closing the cover, Alyver replaced the book on the shelf next to the speaking tube, then turned aft and started on his first inspection tour through the pod.
The transition from the brilliantly lit access hatch area to the dark and gloomy upper engine room was abrupt enough to stop Alyver in his tracks…or so he thought. As he looked around to try and orient himself he saw that it was in fact the raised edge of the door he had come through that was holding him back. He mentally corrected his lapse in nautical vocabulary as PO Rudy’s screech echoed in his thoughts “IT’S A HATCH NOT A DOOR YOU PITIFUL SANDCRAB!” as he groped for the ladder, but once in the lower level he found the atmosphere not nearly as fetid, and the engine noise reduced. It was even quieter as he moved through the torpedo room, the stillness disturbed slightly by the soft pat-pat-pat as Nick the dog brushed past his leg and bolted past him and up the ladder to the observation bay where he curled up in the gunner’s seat. Alyver lingered at the viewing ports for a moment, relishing the silence as he watched the moonlight flicker through the underside of the waves overhead when:
Even from a dozen yards away the alert whistle on the speaking tube felt like a razor slicing through the side of his head. Alyver smacked his shin against the raised bottom edge of the door (HATCH!) leading into the main compartment as he bolted back through the pod to the handset to the speaking tube, instantly cursing his haste as he was met with a near-indecipherable torrent of words:
Alyver stared at the handset, which at the moment seemed to be just as effective as putting it to his ear. While Chief Petty Officer Tho was adamant in his belief that the speaking tube was an appropriate means of intra-boat communication, the most Alyver understood from the garbled message was that it concerned his report – that maybe it was late – which he took to be correct when he responded to that effect and receiving in turn a pair of whistle-blasts that the handbook translated as “OVER!”
It was only then that Alyver saw the faint trace of blood seeping through his trousers – those minor collisions with hatch rims hadn’t been so minor so he sat down and tied his handkerchief around his lower leg as a rough bandage. It felt so good to be off his feet that he decided to sit for a few minutes and work on his cruise book, but as he was inking a diagram of the pod’s secondary fuel line, he remembered the special notice in the orders book regarding the check-valves that he’d failed to inspect when he made his rounds. Acting in the calm and professional manner expected of an officer-cadet he panicked and grabbed the special Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner as he bolted through the hatch to the upper engine room. If he worked fast enough he could check all the Golden Turtle Guild check-valves and “revise” the watch-log with a minimum of guilt and maybe even before (Heaven forbid!) a surprise inspection from Chief Petty Officer Tho.
He’d been surprised that Tho had accepted the captain’s invitation; at sea the Chief rarely left the pod, electing to string a hammock up in the observation compartment rather than bunking down in the main hull in the marginally larger space appropriate to his rank. He was rough mannered, profane, and thoroughly imbued with the cynicism expected in a combat veteran, but while he routinely swore that he “ate cadets for breakfast”, every order and correction Tho made came with a bit of instruction hidden amongst the pejoratives, and the Chief always stepped in when PO Rudy’s comments became too acidic. In was only then as Alyver was struggling to maneuver the hydro-spanner around in the cramped and dimly lit compartment that he realized Tho wasn’t the ogre he’d always thought him to be.
In fact, Alyver was thinking that a surprise visit wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all because it was getting kind of scary. Other than the hopelessly garbled call over the speaking tube there’d been no contact with anyone, not even idlers out in the passageway to the main hull. Other than the dog, it was like there was no one else on board, the smell seemed to be getting even worse and this check-valve problem was turning into a much more serious task than anyone imagined.
“Golden Turtle Guild?” Alyver thought. “More like Golden Turd Guild if you ask me!”
The sentiment was proved all too true as more than half of the accursed check valves were found to be defective, with those on the pod ballast lines damaged to point beyond the reach of the gentle ministrations of the hydro-spanner. A growing puddle of water on the lower engine room deck indicated that the ballast-line problem was a potential boat-killer requiring notification of the watch officer, but armed with that bullet-proof mindset endemic to adolescent males, Cadet Alyver Gilgamesh decided to handle the problem on his own.
He’d get a bigger wrench.
The hydro-spanner was already the largest wrench available, so he’d have to resort to a “cheat bar” – a long piece of pipe slipped over the spanner’s handle that increased the levering action and tighten the check-valve even more securely than before. Granted, they’d be so cinched up it would take portside with power-tools or an enchantment to remove them, but it seemed to be a reasonable trade-off. He slipped the pipe over the spanner handle and muscled the jaws of the wrench into place, then stepped back, reached up for the pipe, and started pulling, bouncing a bit to add his body weight to the force of the wrench.
“Yes!” he hissed to himself “Yes – these fittings will definitely hold until we get back to port for permanent repairs! What do you say now Petty Officer Rudy? Mr. Hatchet Face? What will you say when the little pimply cadet saves the boat! Maybe Captain Trinidad will–”
The whole world suddenly went black.
Utter blackness slowly coalesced into the dim illumination of the engine room as Alyver regained consciousness. Pain radiated from both the crown of his head and his shin and the slightest effort to sit up was met with a wave of nausea. His hand came away bloody as he reached up to lightly check his head and silently debated the risks of walking with a possible skull fracture against the royal ass-chewing he’d get for leaving his post unattended.
Alyver jackknifed to a sitting position at the shock of an unexpected voice from so close by but as he held a handkerchief to throbbing head he was unable to find the…
“Rmm-blee!! The soft voice was concerned but insistent.
He could see no one else in the compartment or through the hatch into the torpedo room. He briefly considered, then discarded, the speaking tube as a possibility reasoning that the message had been far too articulate to have come through that apparatus. It was only then that Alyver looked down to find Nick the Terrier looking up at him with far more understanding than he thought possible.
“You can talk! Why have you never talked to me before?”
“Roo ne’er ast!”
Alyver had read about familiars – four-footed animals that could think and talk, but he’d ever actually seen one, and the thrill of this new experience was as pleasing as the thought of –
Whatever injury he’d sustained to his head made the high-pitched alert whistle on the speaking tube even more painful to Alyver’s ears, but he raced up the ladder, then once again picked up the handset to deal with the tsunami of gibberish:
No mistaking that message – there was some sort of hazard to the submersible requiring all watertight hatches to be closed and while Alyver still had the freedom to move around in the pod, the big access hatch to the main hull was to be secured until further notice. As he had no idea what that threat might be it seemed prudent to make another round of checks and inspections with Nick alternately walking ahead and beside him while delivering a mostly understandable commentary. As they walked Alyver learned that ““Rmm-blee!! was Nick’s attempt at reproducing PO Rudy’s “Pimply” which he’d assumed was Alyver’s name just as he assumed his own name to be “Dammutt”. Alyver also learned that Nick’s true canine name was “One Who Stealthily Moves through the Night” which the rest of his pack had shortened to “Sneaker”.
The water was even deeper and the smell even worse when they climbed down to the site of his accident. It took several minutes of groping around in the dark to find both the hydro spanner and cheat bar and it took only a cursory glance at them and the valve they’d been used on to determine the cause of his injury: himself. As CPO Tho so bluntly put it, “Tools are designed for a specific use and any idiot using them another way is flirting with the undertaker.” When Alyver bounced his full weight on the cheat bar the hydro spanner bar slipped off the overly-tightened check valve and the tool and cheat-bar together came down on his head knocking him cold. That explained the headache, but not the wound on his shin which was bleeding much more than expected for a simple bump on a hatch rim.
As Alyver bent down to further examine his injury, a series of sharp yaps drew his attention from the lower engine spaces to the torpedo room, but his way through the hatch was blocked by an extremely agitated Sneaker crouching in full hunting stance, his stare fixed at what looked to be a pile of thicker-than-usual washers clustered around a waste disposal portal recessed into the torpedo room floor. As Alyver pushed himself past the full-arched Sneaker he heard the small dog growl an almost understandable warning, then was startled when one of the washers flipped up to a vertical stance and in three bounces flashed past Alyver’s left arm leaving a long, almost surgical slice in his bicep before slapping into the hull way behind him.
There was inexplicably no pain, but knowing that shock was soon to follow, the cadet scooped up the small dog and bolted back into the engine room space, slamming and securing the hatch behind him. Though shock was starting to set in, he managed to make his way to an aid locker and bandages before the nausea robbed him of his footing and he sat down heaving on the deck chanting the mantras and words of power his Nana had taught him that would hopefully allow his thoughts to blunt the pain that was just now starting to manifest. Then on his third time through the chant he was interrupted by Sneaker dropping a small circular object on the deck in front him and announced “Roo-bee”
In reflex, Alyver reached for the palm-sized disc only to have Sneaker bat his hand way while stridently repeating the warning “ROO-BEE!”. The oversized washer glittered in the dim lighting, and just as it flopped in a disturbingly fish-like manner it dawned on him that with Sneaker’s vocal limitations, “Roo-bee” was the closest he could get to “Loopie” and another wave of nausea crashed over him. As he sat back, he wasn’t sure if the resultant dizziness stemmed from the injury or the realization of the dire situation he was in.
He was in big trouble.
As the bells echoed down from the main cabin Alyver took stock of his situation: The pod was being overrun by “Loopies” – more properly Petits Loups de la Mer or “little wolves of the sea” Alyver shuddered – he’d heard equally valid arguments declaring them to be mammal, fish, reptile, plants, mechanical device, or thaumaturgical construct, and as he looked at the now-dead example on the deck, he could see aspects of each category, but it was the teeth that commanded his attention. Rather than the dull yellow of most fangs in nature they were a metallic gray like a surgeon’s scalpel or a craftsman’s chisel – and there were so many for such a small creature. Alyver was surprised not by their appearance but by the fact that the wound on his arm was so slight given the razor sharpness of the loopy’s fangs. The similarity of the two wounds led to the conclusion that the scent of blood from the gash on his lower leg must have drawn a loopy to the wound while he’d been unconscious earlier.
The solution to that mystery led to another being solved – the diminutive creature stank with an overpowering stench that seemed to combine the worst aspects of sour milk and rotten fish. Unfortunately he was still faced with a third, as in how had they managed to get on board? It wasn’t like the case with rats – an infestation of loopies was a threat grave enough to require preventative measures far in excess of those meant to eliminate expected vermin like rodents, but then given their curious bounding/rolling method of locomotion It was doubtful a loopie could have successfully moved across the mooring lines the way rats did. The answer came only when he was able to examine at length the pile of “washers” thorough an inspection port set in the hatch he just closed
They’d gained entrance to the pod through a damaged waste disposal portal. Normally the portal worked like a miniature airlock with one of its two covers closed when the other was open, but it looked like the outer door had been sheared off by whatever had earlier made the loud scraping sound along the port side of the pod. The inner door also seemed damaged which meant only air pressure was keeping the seawater from flooding the pod.
Another wave of nausea swept over Alyver and he sat down and adjusted his bandage while wondering aloud: “A flood of loopies? What is the proper collective term for them? There’s a pod of whales and a murder of crows – what do you call a large group of loopies?”
He jerked awake at the unexpected voice “WHAT? WHO? WHO’S THERE?”
A brush of bristly fur on his right arm accompanied the soft humming voice as Sneaker elaborated” “Zylumm of roo-bees” but Alyver’s slight smile of amusement at the aptness at “an asylum of loopies” faded when the feline continued” ‘Rig trumles Rim-bee. Many, many roo-bees. Alpha roo-bee. Roo-bee go in all sip.”
Sneaker was right. When rest of the pod crew returned in a half hour there’d be so many loopies that Tho and the crew would be completely overwhelmed when the main hatch opened. Alyver gulped as he realized that the entire boat would be flooded with the bouncing slashing disc creatures so they had to be contained in the lower pod even if it was just a wounded cadet and a “damn mutt” doing the containing. Fortunately it appeared that the loopies were concentrated in the torpedo room with the aft hatch secured, but the forward hatch leading up into the observation bay was still open.
It all came down to a race up the ladder and forward to the hatch in the gunner’s cabin, a task that mysteriously seemed to be extremely difficult until Alyver realized in his third unsuccessful attempt to transit the a hatch that in his panic he was still tightly clutching the hydro spanner horizontally at his waist. As he entered the main cabin a squelching sound drew his attention to the forward end of the pod as an “asylum of loopies” boiled up through the hatch in the observation bay floor. Their collective bouncing was almost hypnotic, and while there was no telling how many of the disc-creatures were pouring into the damaged waste portal, all the motion made them seem much more numerous than could possibly be dealt with, but as he tentatively stepped towards them, the speaking tube alert whistle shrieked:
Alyver grabbed at the speaking tube handset, the hydro spanner clattering to the deck in the process.
The hatch! God bless us all – in a flash he remembered he’d earlier secured the main access hatch on the order of the watch officer so the immediate threat to the rest of the boat was contained – and given the lethal efficiency with which Nick/Sneaker was dispatching the squirming mass of disc creatures slowly squirming toward him it seemed that the integrity of the power pod would be shortly just as secure. He was also able to smash a number of them himself now that he was in full light and could dodge the slashing attacks that came at him in predictable arcs. His heavy work boots made short work of stomping the loopies flat, but when the attacks momentarily slowed he turned to unclip a boarding pistol from its mount as added insurance.
…but when he turned back to face the menace he saw what he could only guess to be the alpha-loopie squeezing up through the hatch. Any doubts as to the thatamurgical origin of the loopies was instantly dispelled by the decidedly unnatural appearance of this newest threat. It was circular in the same manner but much larger – the size of a true wolf and while it was also circular it moved in a horizontal rather than vertical manner. Alyver had never seen anything like it and the lack eyes, ears or mouth made a mystery of its basic existence much less the manner in which the mass of bristles, teeth, tentacles and talons slowly spun towards him.
All doubts of magical influence vanished when the single shot he was able to make with the boarding pistol flattened onto a purplish hemispherical shimmer that appeared at arm’s length from the creature. He frantically fumbled for a second cartridge but then the speaking tube whistle shrieked again.
Alyver instinctively reached for the handset, but just as he picked it up a talon-tipped tentacle flashed past him and added a second slice to the one on his left bicep.
“SOD THIS DAMN THING”
“SCREW THE SPEAKING TUBE! TO HELL WITH THAT DAMN HATCH” he screamed as he threw down the handset and turned towards his attacker, stumbling over the hydro spanner in the process. He’d had enough. In a flash he snatched up the hydro spanner and lunged toward the spinning nightmare, screaming every curse, oath and mantra he’d heard in his fifteen short years as he swung the heavy implement down, expecting it to be deflected by the same purple shimmer that stopped the bullet.
The spinning disc of tentacles and talons jerked to a stop with that first blow. Whether it was for “insurance” or to work out the tension, Alyver followed up with three more blows that started with a thunk and ended with a squish.
That final thunk was echoed with a corresponding thunk as the main hatch finally opened. Petty Officer Rudy entered the main cabin, loudly condemning the increased stench to “the pimply-faced cadet’s farts”, but as Tho and the rest of the pod crew filed through and saw the smashed remains the chief petty officer waved his second mate to silence.
Tho nudged the carcass of the alpha-loopie with the toe of his boot and said “, looking at them now they don’t seem like much but they can overrun a vessel in a flash. Happened on the first submersible I signed on with as a boy. Only three of us survived” He turned to Alyver and continued: “Sealing the pod off like that saved the whole boat. You might make a decent sub-mariner yet,” then waved in a sick-bay attendant to see to Alyver’s wounds.
Alyver assumed it was just a form of bedside manner when the medic cheerily prattled on as he went about dressing wounds, but it was also obvious he was gathering information for Chief Tho. The mystery of the killing blow with the hydro spanner was solved when he Alyver recalled the string of invectives he screamed as he made the killing blow. It turned out that the sick-bay attendant’s interest into things magical was just as intense as that of the cadet’s grandmother – included in the stream of epithets Alyver had let fly was a verse very similar enough to an incantation of a nullification that weakened the purple shimmer just enough for the hydro spanner to work its own type of magic.
A tot of rum from the sick-bay attendant took the edge off the pain and he sat back against the bulkhead feeling dreamingly warm. Nick/Sneaker was lying next to him on the deck, but when he tilted his head down to speak, the dog shook his head in a disturbingly human manner and the cadet assumed that a talking dog was not common knowledge to the crew. With thoughts of a possible second tot Alyver turned back to the medic, but then a deep rumble not immediately identifiable as someone clearing their throat brought his attention to the front again to see Chief Petty Officer Tho towering before him.
“A cadet that can handle a grave situation as well you did is capable of doing much more than polishing the brass work and looking after the dog. After you’ve spent some time on the mend we’ll see about training you for other more important duties–“
“…such as proper terminology when using the speaking tube.”
It’s been a while since I’ve taken a look at this page, and I was surprised to see that the last time I posted anything was the 28th of last month – and while I long ago came to grips with the way time sprints even faster with each year, I was saddened that I haven’t been able to keep up with the race. I always figured that whether I was sitting at my desk in the studio or balancing a keyboard on my lap while curled up in my papa chair I would always be able to write.
Well, it looks like I may have been a little overoptimistic, but then I’ve had my share of distractions, with most of them involving health issues to include:
An upcoming Mohs treatment to deal with a trace of basal cell carcinoma on the tip of my nose.
An upcoming second injection of Covid-19
A change in pain management for my never-ending battle with ankylosing spondylitis is not going well.
…all of which means a marked uptick in pain, anxiety, and depression. I’m hoping that I will make my way through this particular rough patch, but I always wonder if this is the point at which I become bed-ridden or worse. I try to fight the fear but sometimes it gets ahead of me and all I can do is drift through the day and continue trying…which includes typing out something out like this.
In the same way marching a unit soldiers requires “marking time” – keeping step in the same place – to keep the parade running properly writing notes like this will hopefully keep me functioning until better days.
“Whaddya mean? Gus! Baby! (Sniff) – Its pure gold. Emmy material.”
“Maybe, but it’s not for me. I had to struggle just wading through the series treatment.”
“What’s not to like?”
“Are you kidding me? “COP ROCK 2025.” The original series was so bad that I can’t unsee it, but you’ve managed to make something so tasteless that I doubt even Fox would run it!”
“(sniff) Are you going to start whining about seeing Dennis Franz’ ass again?”
“For the record that was “NYPD Blue” – but I’d still take that image over suffering through Justin Bieber as Frank Furillo Jr. Holy hell Brandon, that’s yet another classic you’re butchering. I can’t work – I WON’T work on crap like this.”
A very unbrandonlike pause gave me just enough time to worry about the effect this conversation was having on my already troublesome blood pressure, but then he continued at a lower volume and slower rate.
“Yes, yes you can…and you will. (sniff) May I remind you that we have a contract and you still owe us a script?”
I knew at that point there was no getting through to this broadcast wunderkind any time soon so I mumbled something about time zones and headaches, hung up and slumped at my desk disgusted. Actually at this point “disgusted” was an understatement, but I wasn’t sure who I was more disgusted with – Brandon for his patently offensive series proposal, or me for prostituting my talents by working on the aforementioned offensive material.
What happened to the novel I was going to write?
When did I become such a whore?
Is there a word for what I’d become? Writer-whore? Wr-hore? Whorter?”
…I longed for (much) earlier days – university days when I wrote for myself and enjoyed what I did. I doffed my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose as I wrestled with the fact that I was getting more depressed by the minute and needed to distract myself, so after replacing the lid on the container of mixed nuts that fueled my creative efforts, I grabbed the mouse and started clicking through websites. In most situations this would be every wife’s nightmare – it’s late at night and her husband is hunched over a computer, his attention riveted to images on a flickering screen, but in my case it wasn’t pornography fueling my imagination and causing my heart to race – it was Alaska creating the fantasies. At my age porn holds far less appeal than the thrill of vicariously revisiting the mountains, forests, and paths of my youth, but unfortunately the after-effects of this type of digital dalliance are just as debilitating as any erotic addiction. When I finally shut down my computer I was feeling so flat that Gina didn’t even notice when I crawled into bed beside her.
The Second Night
I forget the precise label to my geographic enabler – Google Earth, MapQuest, or one of several other virtually identical services providing a satellite’s-eye view of the earth’s surface so precise that instincts lingering from a previous incarnation as an intelligence officer screamed “Who the hell cleared this?” When I finally convinced myself that what I was seeing was not a breach of national security I started digitally exploring the various scenes of my youth, but then as is the case with all addictions, my gateway drug began to pale, and I graduated from the alleys of my Anchorage childhood to the “hard stuff” – close-up views of Fairbanks and the University. I don’t remember when I first found the camera aimed down Cushman Avenue but I do remember the thrill that came over me when I took in that modest skyline for the first time in five decades. The intersections had changed slightly, and captions told me that most of the buildings had changed owners and names several times, but as long as the Immaculate Conception Church was still on the east side of the road the scene was just familiar enough to make my heart skip a beat the same way it did the day Debbie helped me unpack my bags for my first year at the university.
My early childhood as a service brat meant that unlike some of my former high school classmates, moving five hundred miles away from home held no terror for me. If leaving home for college equated to some sort of symbolic death of adolescence, I’d been resurrected to an eighteen year old’s idea of heaven with plenty of beer every weekend, cool music playing all the time, a stone-cold fox for girlfriend, and no parental supervision.
The Third Night
While the task was far from easy, I was able to hammer the beginnings of a script out of Brandon’s craptacular concept. Unfortunately the task required ingestion of caffeine far in excess of any recommended levels so by the time I hit control-S I had a splitting headache bad enough to preclude any more cashew-crunching for the night…but as tired as I was I still felt drawn to the webcam aimed down that particular stretch of pavement in downtown Fairbanks. Getting a good day’s worth of word-crunching was always a mixed blessing: I was thankful I had an income, and if pressed I had to admit that what fame I did enjoy was …well, enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that I could have done something better with my life. I rubbed my eyes, replaced my glasses, and looked back at the screen as the scene changed slightly – even though it’s referred to as a real-time view, it’s actually a series of still photographs that change almost imperceptivity, giving you something more like flipping through a sequence of still photos than live photography.
Half aloud I wondered, “How many times had I walked past that church?” – Which was followed immediately by the equally quasi-vocalized, “More times than I care to remember” – The long hair, boots, and tattered surplus parka made hitchhiking in subzero a hard sell no matter how innocuous the inane smiley face embroidered in yellow on the left shoulder. I’d walked down that street countless times because the university bookstore’s stock of girlfriend-getting ammunition was extremely limited, requiring frequent trinket runs into town, which in turn meant that I got to know that stretch of Cushman like the back of my hand…or mitten as the case may be. From what I could see on the screen, not much had changed over the years as there was no lack of scruffy people walking along under the gaze of the sub-arctic webcam, but I passed that off as yet another quirk of life in the Last Frontier. College kids down here in the lower 48 came surprisingly well equipped with cars, laptops and smartphones, but judging from what I saw, current Alaskan students would fit right in with us back in the day… even down to the long-haired figure in an Army surplus parka, blue jeans, and work boots that was crossing the screen as it powered down.
A cacophony of popping joints accompanied me as I slowly stood up from my chair and stepped over the now unused outdoor gear that littered the floor of my office towards the bedroom and my sleeping sweetheart. I felt the slightest twinge of guilt when I realized my memories of this patch of frost-heaved cement were substantially clearer than those of the streets around Gina’s first apartment, but driving an air-conditioned Trans-Am through Pawtucket in 1980 didn’t have nearly the same impact on my life as hitchhiking along a highway just three degrees south of the Arctic Circle ten years earlier….
The Fourth Night
The door was ajar, so I peeked in, assuming she’d been asleep for hours, but I’d figured wrong. An improbable “Hey G.I!. Me so horny love you long time!” hissed through the doorway followed by a throw pillow. I walked in, sat on the edge of the bed and whispered back: “…and here I’ve been thinking all along that it was student loans that paid your way through college!”
Gina elbowed her way up from reclining to semi-reclining, her long raven-colored hair spilling down across the pillows. She kissed me, then said “You’ve been spending a lot of time with that machine lately. Is there anything I need to be worried about?” I kissed her forehead then looked at her. In forty years I’d never done anything to cause those eyes to view me with reproach. I loved my wife more than life itself, but late-night digital forays came from a world that she never was a part of and knew nothing about.
“Naw. It’s no big deal. It’s just some barbarian warrior stuff Bernie and I have cooked up. Still trying to write our own version of Conan without Arnold Swartznegger. Bernie just wants to get my feedback on what he’s come up with so far.
“Gus!” It was long and drawn hiss out like a dying inner tube. “I don’t think any of you guys ever emotionally matured past nineteen. Still daydreaming about guys in fur jockstraps swinging swords and rescuing bimbos in metal underwear.” She planted a kiss on my cheek. “Just don’t stay up too late – you’re supposed to see the cardiologist tomorrow – remember?”
I left the room and headed towards my laptop. I thought: “Oh my God – I’ve just lied to Gina. I have never lied to Gina. Never. Ever!”
“What the hell is the matter with me? I’m acting like an addict hiding away his habit.”
Unfortunately as is the case with any drug used to excess, nostalgia can bring on unexpected damage. I can readily detect the warning signs for excessive use of alcohol or drugs, but reliving both the joy and pain of that time so long ago was doing more damage than anything I could have snorted, injected, or ingested, and by now it had brought on an elevated pulse and blood pressure that worried my doctor, but how could I explain that 2021’s heart issues had their origin fifty years earlier?
Without warning, the clock in the hall started to chime… eleven times. It was late, and the mild annoyance at meeting with my cardiologist so early in the morning wasn’t nearly as bothersome as the cold sweat brought on by just the mention of the word “stint,” but as I reached for the power button something showed up on the left side of the screen that stopped me mid-yawn. As the web cam image refreshed, a faint figure progressively became closer and clearer until it was distinct enough for me to make specific details:
Blue jeans and work boots
An army surplus parka with a yellow happy face embroidered on the shoulder.
The Fifth Night
It was a favor guaranteed to put a strain on any friendship – even a friendship a half century old – but there were compelling reasons Bernie was the only person I could call for help. For starters he had the insight brought on by the (slight) difference in our ages. When my primary goal in life was to meet William Shatner he had well-mapped out plans for a career in local government. While he and his girlfriend were exploring the Kama Sutra I was still wondering if Debbie’s new retainer would make French-kissing her taste metallic. Most importantly for this situation he was the only one of us to end up back living in Fairbanks, and by default, the only person I could call on to verify what I thought I was seeing. It was a tribute to his character that he agreed to help me out by waiting at the site of the web-cam and verifying what was visible over the Internet.
I started this latest legume-fueled session just as I had the previous four nights but when his red SUV was nowhere to be seen in the foreground of the web-cam’s image my ears began to boom with the trip-hammer heartbeat that always came with blood pressure climbing. Fortunately a panic-fueled volley of text messages established that he was in fact parked down in front of the office building, so close that upon inspection I could see that a thin red line – the front of his SUV’s hood – poked into the image area.
The rotating illuminated sign across the river first read a balmy -26o then announced that the appointed time had arrived. I tapped out a “see anything?” text on my phone which was answered almost immediately with a terse “Nope”. I screwed my eyes shut, pinched the bridge of my nose out of habit, and thought to myself “I’m going fricking crazy,” as my pulse and blood pressure went into a roller-coaster ride that couldn’t be doing me any good. A couple of key strokes gave me a slightly more distinct image …and a better view of a figure now moving past the church on the left, a hooded figure in the grey-green parka moving down the left side of the screen, passing Immaculate Conception Church in screen-refresh intervals. The harsh street light illumination and fog coming up off the river obscured details, but I definitely could see the damning yellow happy face grinning like a jaundiced maniac from his left shoulder.
Me: “Do you see him?”
Me: “A young guy in an old army parka.”
Me: “The way I used to look. Me. Him. Screw it.”
Our text-message badminton was abruptly cut short by an incoming FaceTime call from Bernie showing absolutely NO ONE walking along the sidewalk next to the church, while the continually refreshing web-cam showed the figure in the parka continuing to walk down the street and past the Immaculate Conception Church, until the last image when he/me turned, looked straight into the lens and flashed the peace sign.
The Sixth Night
I’m going to die tonight. I’ve lied to my wife and now I am mixed up with something right out of Twilight Zone – no, not Twilight Zone – Night Gallery because this is a whole lot scarier than Twilight Zone at this point, but I can’t pull myself away from my laptop, and now God is going to strike me down for lying to Gina.
My phone chirped out an incessant summons. but when Bernie’s number showed up on caller I.D., I sent the call directly to voice mail and reflected on my self-made bastard status. He was genuinely concerned after last night’s fiasco and knew better than most the toll it had taken on me and my heart…but there was no way I was going to walk away without at least a few questions answered. In purest cinematic fashion He/me appeared right on time and started walking down Cushman Avenue just like he had for the previous nights. I had ceased trying to make any sense of the situation but found it impossible to look away even though I could feel my pulse thunder in my ear and there was something terribly wrong with my left arm.
“Dammit! Not now. Not when I’m so close”
He/me slowed a bit before passing off screen to the left then he abruptly stopped, looked up into the webcam camera and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. He smiled and opened the sheet up to reveal neat block printing:
IT’S BEEN A GOOD LIFE, EH?
IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON.
…then he/me tucked the paper into his pocket and the he/me image started to break into pixilated shards, but as he walked past the church and out of view I found I couldn’t breathe. My inner Cro-Magnon howled at the merciless irony of a heart attack robbing me of closure to a half-century of heartbreak…then there was a kind of “huff” sound and I could breathe again. What I’d thought of as cardiac arrest was in fact a piece of Brazil nut that had gotten temporarily lodged “in the wrong pipe,” …and it turned out that the pain in my arm was brought on when the day pack slung on the back of my chair slid down with the strap catching and eventually numbing my arm.
I took a deep breath and felt a wave of warmth spill over my shoulders while the pins and needles in my arm slowly faded. It had been too easy to let the advancing years send me mentally and emotionally fleeing to that simpler and easier time in my life – and whether it was an episode of Night Gallery I was experiencing or not, I couldn’t take up permanent residence. If I’d been able to freeze the calendar at 1971 I’d have missed so much in my life: Gina, the kids, my career, the first time we saw Full Metal Jacket in Sensurround– hell, even After The Love is Gone by Earth, Wind and Fire, which had been inexplicably playing in my internal mix-tape since I first heard it five years after I left Fairbanks.
Whatever this anomaly may have been , it made me realize something I needed to accept: as comfortable and carefree as 1971 seemed from the vantage of the 21st century I would have been a much poorer man had there really been a way to break the dial of the cosmic TV set of life and just stayed in that place forever. After putting the lid back on the mixed nuts I clicked on the Arctic-Cam URL, deleted it, and went to bed.
Continuing with the preview of my next book I am sharing the introduction of Chapter 1969:
There began to be an odd type of symmetry in current events:
Spring brought a smile to young men all over the nation as President Nixon initiated “Vietnamization” of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Christmas brought mixed emotions to those same young men as the government replaced the draft with a Draft lottery eliminating deferments and spreading conscription on a more equitable basis across economic classes
New York teams managed to book-end the year by the Jets winning the Super Bowl and the Mets “losing last place” in the World Series
In July the crew of Apollo 11 rocketed to the Moon over the same weekend that Senator Kennedy dove back under the water three times to rescue Mary Jo Kopechne.
The following month the brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate & friends at the direction of Charles Manson in August came close to overwhelming three days of “fun and music” at Woodstock barely a week later
Even if there hadn’t have been 250,000 people marching on Washington DC it was obvious that Dissatisfaction with the Vietnam conflict was continuing to build…which made Richard Nixon’s secret plan to pull the nation out of the conflict a major factor in his electoral victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in his election to president the previous fall.
Local developments included:
A late-winter freak build-up of ice in the lower Kenai river caused flooding in lower-lying areas of Soldotna
The same dry conditions created Swanson River Kalifornsky beach road and several smaller fires along the highway to Anchorage. For the entire summer There was a yellow cast to the sunlight, and everyone smelled like bacon.
The Don’t Make Waves Committee (later Greenpeace) began protesting of nuclear testing in the Aleutian Islands
…and according to her account Hilary Clinton spent the summer in a fish cannery in Valdex
Paper, pencils and dice were the only accessories used in the first roleplaying games I experienced many years ago, so it was a big deal when 25mm miniatures arrived to aid in visualizing game events. Scarcity and a wide range in quality made us loath to retire characters when called to do during play, and one friend dealt with the situation by renaming and reusing his favorite figure. His prize 25mm figure started out as “Beowulf” only to become “Beowulf Junior” after one particularly lethal gaming session only go be reincarnated as “Son of Beowulf Junior” and eventually “Friend of The Son of Beowulf Junior” shortly before I graduated and moved away from that area and gaming.
I’m in a similar situation as we start to ramp up for the second book. The existence of other books with titles that play off the Midnight Sun / Midnight Son pun prompts me to rule out a simple “Midnight Son 2” title for the second book in the series but for now that will be the working title for the second volume in the series which will cover high school from 1968 to 1971. I had originally planned the Kickstarter for that book to happen next month (May 2020) but the uncertainty brought on by the Covid 19/Corona Virus pandemic is requiring an extra measure of flexibility in planning, but I did want to give you all a heads-up, hence this post today.
While Midnight Son 2 covers a short time span it will actually be a longer book, reflecting the added complexity in life brought on as we approach adulthood. Some of that added length will also come about by the inclusion of section headings for each individual year, bringing into context the increased influence of current events in my life – especially during the turbulent times of the late 1960s/70s. What follows is the intro for the first section:
I turned off the television and just sat for a couple of minutes, my mind still spinning from rapid-fire dialog and chaotic change in scenes. I had just witnessed a fifteen-year-old boy’s dream come true – 58 minutes of social and political satire interspersed with counter-culture graffiti and sexual innuendo. It was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and while I initially hated it for replacing the Man from UNCLE it was a perfect introduction to the 1960s, or rather that period from 1968 to 1972 which had all the social characteristics of “The Summer of Love” that comes to mind when most people think of the “The Sixties”. It seemed like we were all witnessing the birth of a new exciting world, but all the same it was an unnerving time to be a teenager.
The TET offensive simultaneously terrified and angered an American public already unhappy with the lack of progress and increasing body count of the Vietnam war in general.
Every newscast had a segment on riots somewhere in the Lower 48. Whether sparked by unrest over the Vietnam War or the glacial progress of civil rights, riots seemed to be happening everywhere with collective turbulence culminating in the organized chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Hints of a thaw between the East and the West disappeared when Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled over the Prague Spring movement in Czechoslovakia.
It seemed like everyone was getting shot. For a while I’d lived with the assumption that President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was enough to shock some collective sense into the nation but then Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in April followed by Robert F. Kennedy two months later.
On the other hand:
Manned Apollo missions commenced with Apollo’s circumnavigation of the moon making a nice Christmas present.
…we were all very pleased but a little confused when the Beatles released the White Album at Christmas time.
For me 1968 started out in much the same way as previous years – trying to stay warm while waiting six months for first-run movies to finally hit the local theaters. Our governor Wally Hickel was drafted by President Richard Nixon to serve as Secretary of the Interior and Ted Stevens was appointed to the Senate after Bob Bartlett died during heart surgery. The first mall in Anchorage opened up at the intersection of the Seward Highway and Northern Lights Boulevard, a third television station (KHAR channel 13) began broadcasting and a two inch column at the bottom of the front page of the Daily News casually announced that maybe – just maybe – there was oil to be tapped on the North Slope.
I’d spent most of the school year just surviving and the summer of 1968 looked to be a pleasant change of pace. I had grown an inch or two in height while losing an inch or two from my waistline and gaining some coordination in the process. One of the biggest changes involved what I listened to each day – during the summer I bought a very basic record player and while the sound quality was marginally better than a Kenner Close-N-Play it allowed me to explore music beyond the scope of the 2:45 standards coming over my AM clock-radio. From this point on songs became “time-stamped” to what was going on in life.
…and to reflect THAT very fundamental change in my life each chapter in this volume will be annotated with the song or album that was my favorite at the time, which will again bring some added insight to what was going on during that period.
After close to a week’s anticipation the first diagnosed case of coronavirus has been reported at the local hospital. I’m not a phone-addict so I don’t have a solid, up-to-the- minute report on Clarksville’s collective reaction to the news, but in here in the Singletree subdivision the reaction is…hollow.
Everyone is still sequestered in their homes and while there are still a few people going to work no one is on the street: no kids playing, no joggers, no shade-tree mechanics -no sixty-six year old geezers hobbling along trying to get some fresh air. The noise level has been noticeably reduced but I wouldn’t say things are quiet. “Quiet” has a happy connotation – as in you become quiet as you’re falling asleep for a nap or silently waiting for the movie to start. Quiet is a voluntary state you enter in preparation for something good.
The lack of noise here is very different. The yells, clatter, rustlings and bustlings that make up the low-level chaotic soundtrack of a regular day has been gutted by a nervous anticipation, leaving us with a hollow quality of life – and sound. There are only two other times in my life that I’ve felt that “hollowness”:
The day after the Great Alaskan Earthquake of March 1964 while living in Anchorage
The day after the 9/11 attacks
With time there were better, less “hollow” days after both of those events, especially when people pitched in to help each other. Here’s hoping the hollowness goes away after this one in the same way.
I’m a semi-shut-in (if that’s a thing) so I’m used to my horizons being clipped short and using Amazon for shopping…but from where I stand it’s not just the mall, church of my grandson’s school that seems deserted – it’s feels deserted here as well. I can’t speak for all of my other word-crunching friends but for me personally – I’ve never had such low readership figures, looks, likes whatever you call it. I hope it’s just quirk brought on by the virus and that as time goes on we all get back to reading and commenting.
All but three of the books have been shipped and should start showing up in the mail anytime soon. The three books that have “misfired” are either overseas customers that I had to postpone for a couple of days and a few folks for whom I still lack shipping information. To that end I’ve sent reminders out via regular email (and I’m sending reminders via the KickStarter system right after I send this update) but if you have any doubts as to whether you’ve sent me address information please err on the side of caution and email me soonest.
Thanks again for a great campaign – it’s given me the momentum to get a couple of other projects going for 2020 to include a Midnight Son Part II coming out sometime this spring and a retrospective volume covering my “Elvis years” producing covers and concept designs for the role-playing game market.
…and with that I wish you a joyous Christmas/Festivus/Hannukah/Kwansaa/Life Day/Solstice – Happy Holidays to all!