The Baby and the Crystal Cube: a short story

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The Baby and the Crystal Cube
© 2017 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Description: In The Baby and the Crystal Cube, two lucid dreamers meet in recurring dreams, fall in love, and conceive a dream baby; but the unreality of the dream world leads them to distrust each other—with nightmarish results.

8,100 words. Available as an audiobook on Audible and Amazon. On Amazon in paperback and Kindle. On Barnes & Noble in paperback and Nook Book. On Apple iBooks.

THE BABY AND THE CRYSTAL CUBE

ACT I

The sun’s about to set, but it’s been like that for months—or minutes, depending on how you’re counting. Time passes differently when you dream, and you can live a lifetime in the span of a few waking seconds.

I’m counting on that for my baby, so she has time to grow. She swims in a sea of amniotic dream fluid the size of a basketball inside me. I try as hard as I can to make the sun set and rise faster.

The back porch of my dream cabin is a perfect place to watch the sunset. The swing my husband hung there rocks my unborn daughter and me back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm like a cradle.

I know she’ll be beautiful. She already is. I talked to her. But she’s sleeping now, inside me. The second trimester was exhausting, and I’m afraid of getting tired and falling awake.

The swing. It’s making me drift off. I stop it and stand, and the sun moves again. Down, I tell it. Down. When it resists the order, when brute force makes it push against me even harder, a wave of my hand turns the horizon into a bowl, ready to receive the sun. Inviting it. Enticing it.

The sun cannot resist sinking into that terrestrial womb. The last ray of its surrender glints on the ruby-red cube perched quietly on the porch railing. A tiny version of the sun crawls along the cube’s edge, arming itself with hundreds of spikes of light before terminating at the point and vanishing.

I won’t hold the cube. Not again.

I wouldn’t dream of it.

💕

The first morning of the lucid dreaming study, Drake scowled at me from across the round table and said, “Castaneda was full of shit. It’s pure fiction.”

“But the technique has potential. Look at your hands when you get lucid, to maintain it. I’m not arguing about his—”

He didn’t let me finish. “The method is no better than any other. It’s worse than some.”

I’d like to tell you we met somewhere romantic, but Professor Delnin’s laboratory was more like a 24-hour business meeting in an operating room. We were the patients: me, Drake, and half a dozen other lucid dreamers. The idea was to see if we could achieve co-lucidity; that is, becoming lucid as a group in dreams we shared.

We were all graduate students hoping to earn a few bucks over the summer. Being lab rats for a week sounded like a good idea. Sleeping on the job was a requirement.

So were the interminable meetings.

“Drake,” the professor interjected. With one finger, he pushed his thick-lensed glasses back up the bridge of his nose to be framed by his bushy, salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “Aimee’s presented one idea. Did you have another suggestion?”

The professor made nine of us in the room. We students slept in his machine the night before to calibrate his measurements and make sure everyone was comfortable. He had sat on a platform full of computers, monitoring us. We slept in a circle around him, in a ring of eight capsules wired back to the consoles in the middle like tentacles leading to a central brain.

We called the set-up the octopus, and the nickname was more than visually accurate. Each of us was like a distributed brain on a network, resembling how neurons distribute throughout the tentacles of the sea’s most famous cephalopod.

“Forget it,” said Drake. “It doesn’t matter. We can all agree to look at our hands, or we can all agree to do anything as a focal point to get lucid. But it’s not what we do. It’s where we do it.”

“You’re right,” the old man realized. “Every meeting needs a location.”

“And every location on a network,” said Drake, “needs an address.”

Drake annoyed me, but he was right, and he had a terrific jawline. I suggested the address for our group experiment. “Let’s make it memorable: 221B Baker Street. London.”

Remember when I said Drake and I didn’t meet anywhere romantic? I meant the first time we met. London was much more romantic.

💕

“Aimee? Is that you?” The disheveled beggar who shuffled toward me on the sidewalk would have been more regally robed in thrown-out dish rags than the smelly scraps shrouding his face. But I recognized the voice.

“Drake?” I placed my hand on the beggar’s shoulder and sought his eyes. “Drake, what are you doing like that?”

The beggar raised his face to mine, and the cloth fell away. The face was wood, and utterly devoid of features, like the poseable figurines artists use to model people.

I gasped and withdrew my hand. The puppet man stumbled away, as if also frightened. He waved me off with one fingerless hand, like a flipper on his wrist.

Laughter and the rapid clicking of leather-soled shoes on cobblestone approached from behind. “Not him,” said Drake. “Me!” He ran to my side and bent over, placing his hands on his thighs for support while he caught his breath. “Why would I dream I look like that?”

His tailored suit adorned him in stately black and white, from collar to toe. I said, “You look like you’re on your way to a wedding.”

“It was the most Victorian thing I could imagine on short notice. You don’t like it?”

Down the street, the wooden beggar fumbled the lid on a rubbish bin. The lid clattered along the cobblestones to the horizon. The bin tipped over and spilled all over the stranger’s feet. It spewed more waste than it could possibly have the volume to contain.

With a pang of nausea, I averted my eyes. They fell on the sign on the door whose stoop we occupied. “Look at that,” I said. “We did it. 221B!”

“I told you.” Drake smiled that self-assured smile of his I would later come to hate him for. “Let’s go inside and check it out!”

“What about the others? Shouldn’t we wait for them?”

“Those deadbeats? It’d be a miracle if any of them get lucid at all.”

“I can’t argue with that.”

Sherlock wasn’t home, so we snooped through papers he’d left strewn about his room. Then we dreamed our way through London. We rode the giant Ferris wheel that didn’t exist in Holmes’ day. We took a horse-drawn carriage across the Thames and jumped off the Tower Bridge to see if we could fly together. The Queen’s Guard kicked us off the tour group at Buckingham Palace for singing Sex Pistols at the top of our lungs, and it was probably the best week of my life.

Then we woke up.

💕

The morning meeting with Professor Delnin might as well have lasted a week, too. He wanted to talk about everything. Why did only two of us meet up? Why not all eight? Did anyone else get lucid without making the rendezvous? What happened in London? Were we sure it was a whole week?

Across the round table from me, Drake’s face sagged. He slumped over his little paper cup of black coffee and couldn’t muster the energy to sip. The steam fogged his glasses and his hair looked oily. Pointy flakes of dry skin hung trapped in the greasy spaces where his scalp poked through thinning hair.

The lab had bathrooms where early risers could freshen up before the meetings, take a shower, and brush their teeth. I hadn’t done any of that or even put on makeup. After a week of seeing a perfect complexion in mirrors all over London and none of those blemishes I can never get rid of, and not a hint of those dark, baggy circles under my eyes—I just didn’t have the energy to try that morning.

Someone should have put that in the meeting notes, but it never came up. Delnin wrote page after page of notes, and none of them contained the four words every lucid dreamer needs to understand before diving in headfirst to do what we did.

Reality is a disappointment.

💕

Later that night, asleep in the octopus, Drake and I took a three-month cruise around the world. We visited countries that don’t exist, drove on roads no human ever built, and caught a bunch of bands you’ll never hear of in Europe.

We shared a cabin, which gave us privacy from the other passengers and the crew. But when we wanted the run of the ship, I just dreamed those people away. We didn’t need them. It was our dream, not theirs.

The first time he was inside me was in our cabin, and it happened so quickly I can’t remember how we started. We didn’t make it onto the navy-blue sheets and striped pillows on the bed. We did it standing up against the tiny refrigerator like our lives depended on it and we couldn’t be bothered to get our clothes off. But suddenly, I was scared and naked.

“Drake, wait. Wait!” He did, which meant a lot to me. “This is out of control.”

He stepped away, just far enough to give me space so I could face him. “Aimee! Wow. What are we doing?”

I slapped my open palm onto his chest with a sharp smack and left it there. “As if you don’t know!”

He laughed with me. We sat next to each other on the bed. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You totally meant to.”

He coughed. “I did totally mean to. Do we have any more cigarettes on this boat?”

“They’re not good for you.”

“Aren’t they? It’s just a dream, Aimee. Nothing here can really hurt you. Right?” He kicked his feet lazily back and forth over the side of the bed like a kid.

I rested a hand on his. “But it is real here. We’ve become conscious inside the unconscious. We think and feel. We’re aware. What isn’t real about it?”

He sat still for a moment and pondered. “Maybe instead of real, we should say ‘waking’ versus dreaming.”

“Then promise me you won’t start waking smoking.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because,” I said, stretching out on the bed to reach under the pillow, “you are going to love these.” A pack of cigarettes materialized in my hand, and I drew it out. The pack bore a blue hammer logo, matching the color of our décor, and the name of the brand I dreamed up for him.

He did not need his glasses to see it. “Coffin Nails!” He laughed so hard he couldn’t catch the pack when I threw it at him, and it bounced off his chest onto the floor. “You’re getting good at that. Making things.” He got up and bent over to pick the pack off the floor. His body had become increasingly supple and firm as our dream voyage progressed.

“Thank you! But you’re on your own for a light.”

“That’s just mean.” He pulled out a single cigarette, flipped it over, and slid it back inside. He closed the pack. “Maybe I can find a light on deck.”

“Good luck. I’m scared to make fire. I don’t know if I could control it. Things happen here, and my emotions get all distorted. Jacked up. Extreme. I can’t even tell if anything makes sense.”

He laid down beside me, propping his head on one arm. “I know what you mean. Feelings get distorted just like space does. Or time. Or even objects.”

“Or identity. Haven’t you ever dreamed you were someone else—some kind of character? Or watched your own dream from a third-person perspective?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s all another layer of distortion.”

But I felt like I knew who I was so long as he was there with me, and that feeling drew me closer to him. “There must be a thousand rooms on this ship, Drake. It couldn’t possibly be constructed in the waking world the way we experience it here.”

“And it changes daily. Or hourly. Aimee.” He took my hand and kissed my fingers lightly. “I’m sorry we got carried away. But I’m not sorry.”

That earned him a playful smack on his bottom. I climbed on top of him and pinned him down. “I guess it’s the ultimate form of safe sex, isn’t it?”

Though I held his arms, he managed a shrug. “What’s the worst that can happen? We can’t get STIs from a dream. There’s no pregnancy scare. No complications. It’s at least as safe as smoking your imaginary Coffin Nails.”

“Did you just compare sex with me to smoking?”

He wasn’t threatened by my scowl. “I think it’s amazing how you make things, and what I want you to make next is love to me.”

For the next two months, that’s exactly what we did.

It’s how I got pregnant.

💕

Delnin’s meeting dragged itself like a wounded animal across the morning’s highway. After months of living on the ultimate cruise ship, the routine at the round table felt like a transfer to a penal colony. It didn’t help that Drake and I were disheveled, bleary-eyed, and generally about as useless as a pair of umbrellas in a tornado.

We did not repeat our mistake of the previous day, which was honesty and forthrightness that took up the entire morning. Instead, we stuck to a simple version we agreed on before waking.

“We did meet,” Drake told the professor, “and we walked on a beach. We picked shells out of the sand and threw them back at the water. Then we were running through the surf like a couple of kids, and that’s the last I remember.”

Delnin rapidly scribbled notes in a bland notebook. Its monotonous pages matched the dull color of Drake’s coffee cup and the blasé acoustic ceiling tiles, the boring whiteboard with faded scraps of things once written and half-erased into ghosts of dreams you can’t quite remember. I felt like I was about to puke.

The professor wanted to know all the details about the beach, and the shells we threw. I rubbed my eyes while slurring out details that sounded vaguely dreamy.

The other students must have hated us, getting all the attention for co-lucidity while they reported a mundane parade of archetypes, fantasies, and cigar-shaped objects.

One of them reported she made something out of nothing in her dream. I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up. I wanted to go back to sleep.

💕

When I arrived at 221B that night, Drake wasn’t there. I sat on the front steps in a white dress that would have turned heads at a Renaissance Fair. I’d filled it with an overflowing mass of cleavage I simply didn’t own in waking, and topped it off with a hairstyle that was physically impossible. A massive bun gathered in curls on the back of my head and spilled in meter-long rivulets twisting in the sullen London breeze.

The city was too dreary. I drew my hand across the horizon and cleared the clouds completely. They revealed a sun which shone with a brightness and clarity rarely seen in England’s green and pleasant land of soul-crushing drizzle.

There. Sunny London. Just right.

Terrible shrieks pulled me to my feet. Lifting my skirts and ruffles, I ran toward the din. The cobblestone street led to a shipyard where anachronistic oil tankers sat alongside wooden docks like sentries. I cursed them for neglecting their duties.

The screaming continued. With the irrational certainty of the dreaming mind, I knew it came from inside a foreboding warehouse whose windows stared blankly over the displaced sea like the eyes of dead men. The building loomed, a black colossus in my suddenly sunny London, and I vowed to remove its blight from my paradise.

With a wave of my hand, the oaken crossbar and the chains securing it exploded, taking the massive double doors with them. Splinters shot through the air around me like the arrows of a million archers. All of them missed their target.

Advancing unscathed through the debris, I called out, “Drake! Drake! Where are you?”

“Aimeeeeee,” came the reply—a forlorn distortion of the vowels in my name, like a wind howling down icy fjords in a frozen hell. He screamed again, and this time the blood in my veins turned to steel and rage as if I were a mother bear in chains watching her cubs hacked to pieces in front of her.

Worse, the shriek came from everywhere at once. Drake’s voice was not in a single location, but distributed throughout the entire structure. “Drake! Tell me what happened! Retrace your steps!”

A silence more miserable than his caterwauling confronted me. A single door glowed with a sickly, greenish light—the door to the men’s toilet, judging from the sign before the light became too blinding to penetrate with eyes alone.

Pushing through the luminescence which beat on me like a cyclone, I forced my way into the room. Human filth and excrement caked its walls. All the sinks and toilets had been ripped from their bases to reveal mangled, rusted pipes. They teemed with giant roaches and deformed beetles from the diary of a psychotic entomologist.

The far wall exposed a gaping hole leading into some place dark and indistinct, and it terrified me. Drake was in there. I swallowed my fear and drowned it in a pool of black water deep inside me where no light shined at all, and I stepped in.

Drake’s smell hung in the air. Not his dream scent, the one like sandalwood and spicy musk, but the other one he had at morning meetings. I didn’t like it, but it grounded me. My emotions were getting out of control.

Blowing things up. Fjords from hell. Drowning in black pools. This wasn’t me. This was the dream cranking the volume up to eleven on my feelings.

“Fuck you, dreamland. Where’s Drake?” When I received no answer, I summoned a ball of fire into the palm of my left hand and held it before me, above eye level, like a torch.

Yes, I was afraid it would get out of control. Or burn me. But into the darkness I pressed, and if it did not want me there, then too bad for it. This was my dream. It belonged to me.

My improvised torch revealed a narrowing passage. The walls refused to behave. They bent into octagonal hallways where I met door after endless door. Through them I persevered into increasingly narrow and angular spaces. I stooped, then crouched, then crawled on my hands and knees.

The corridors forced me onto my stomach, making me worry about the baby inside me. I was just beginning to show. I dragged myself along by my elbows.

What kind of hell was I in, and how could this maze possibly fit inside the warehouse? It went on for hours. Or kilometers. What was the difference? Time was space, and space was a dimension of time. They obeyed no rules. Not any sane ones.

Drake’s intermittent shouts devolved into pathetic sobbing that made me wish for more screaming. I wanted to raise my fist and smash it into the terrifying crawlspace, but I lacked room to raise my arm more than a few centimeters. It was a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

“Shit.” I ended my struggle into the impenetrable passageways. “That’s exactly what it is. Think, Aimee. This isn’t just your dream. This is Drake’s nightmare, and all you’re doing is getting trapped inside it.”

Emotions were the problem. I wasn’t really limited by the confinement. I only faced the feeling of being trapped. Restrained. Afraid.

“I’ll show you fear, you goddamn warehouse.” I clenched my fist and gave no thought to the fact that I could barely wiggle it in the enclosure. I focused on the fear I endured for months the night before: the fear of letting loose with fire, the fear of being out of control, the fear of making something I could never unmake or force to stop.

I focused on the ball of fire in my hand, and I feared its awesome power with all my heart.

It grew from a torchlight to a blazing inferno, to a roaring volcano, then a supernova. Nothing of London survived its wrath. It wiped the stars from the sky and the blackness from the places between the stars.

It left nothing but an infinite plain surrounded by a stark, white light.

“Lover,” I said. “Come to me.”

In the center of that edgeless ivory expanse, Drake curled in a ball with his hands over his face.

I rushed to his side. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. It’s just a dream.”

He unwound from his fetal position and surveyed the glowing blankness around us. He placed his hand on my cheek as if he couldn’t believe I was real. “Aimee! I was trapped. I was in these tunnels that kept getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t—”

I threw my arms around him. “Drake, I love you so much.” I think he believed it.

Sadly, so did I.

💕

After the morning meeting with Professor Delnin, I went to Drake’s apartment for the first time. It was a sparse little studio you’d expect from a broke graduate student: a mattress on the floor, posters framed on the wall (not tacked up, thankfully), mismatched dinnerware strewn upon the furniture in clusters around cups with parched, brown layers at the bottom—coffee rapidly returning to its solid form.

It didn’t matter. After a week in London, a quarter year on a worldwide cruise, and the aftermath of the warehouse incident, I needed him inside me for real—or, I should say, for waking.

He locked the door behind us, tossed his keys on the table of his kitchen/living-room combo, and my hands were under his shirt pulling him to me.

We ended up on his twin mattress with the two pillows that were too skinny and the comforter that smelled musty, and I couldn’t get wet. Drake had a half-empty bottle of lube for me, but I swore I’d smack him if he fumbled the penetration one more time.

I got on top. “Let me do this.” I meant it to be confident. But it came out critical, as if I’d appended my words with you incompetent fuck.

A cloud passed over Drake’s face, and he could not meet my eyes. Then he wasn’t hard anymore, and I rolled off him in frustration.

Instead of spooning with me, he turned away and curled up on his side.

“Drake, I—”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just go to sleep.”

That solved everything. For a few hours.

💕

At the end of the week, we left the old professor slightly wiser than when we’d met him, but not nearly as wise as if we had been honest about our final night in the study: our honeymoon.

I don’t want to make it sound like we got dream married just because the sex was amazing, but let’s be honest. We got married because the dream sex was absolutely amazing.

In the dream, whatever awkwardness we felt at Drake’s apartment disappeared. I had an orgasm with an intensity I never believed possible. His arms encircled me, and his scruffy cheek pressed to mine and scratched it. He said, “I love you so much, Aimee.”

He was inside me, and my baby was inside me, too. My dreaming body had become the nexus of an entirely new kind of family, one that lived and breathed in a realm of ideals and emotions. I never felt so close to anyone in my life.

My husband tensed, trembled, and emptied himself into me again, and I whispered, “Drake, we’re a family now.”

The sun was made of lava and poured through pixelated caverns in the sky. I dreamed I was a canyon, and Drake was the river flowing through me. We were the earth, and we were one.

All three of us.

ACT II

Shackles bind my arms to chains that lead to iron rings set in a stone wall. Its clammy surface drips with a fungal slime. Between this wall and the one across from me lie two meters of bare stone floor. Three meters up, metal bars cross each other in a grid to let light though the single window for a few hours a day. It used to be that I could see the treetops of a distant forest, but Drake tore them all down last week in one of his tirades across the countryside.

To my right, another wall. To my left, a prison door of metal bars. Even if I had a key, I couldn’t reach it. Beyond it stands another slimy wall that fades quickly into darkness down a corridor I can’t see.

The hinges creak on the door at the end of the hall. Leaden footsteps pound with the weight of elephants. They come closer until he stands on the other side of the bars. He carries a tray of food, a cream-colored slop that drips off the edge.

I greet my husband. “Drake, you sadistic fuck! Let me out of here!”

The monster throws the tray to the floor outside the cell. He roars at me and beats his chest. He looks nothing like the man I loved.

His face resembles a gorilla’s, and black hair covers his body in a dense mat. He must weigh 150 kilos by now. But there’s something childish about his misshapen eyes, and his aggressive display irks me like a two-year-old’s tantrum.

I scream, “Look at what you’ve done to yourself! You can’t even hold on to your identity anymore!”

He grips the bars on the door in a rage, like he’s trying to tear them out of the wall. The bolts creak where the bars meet stone. I know he can tear them off. I’ve seen him do worse. He just needs some encouragement.

“Then you throw my food all over the goddamn floor, you fucking idiot! No wonder I can’t love you!”

The bars bend in his hands. He bellows so hard I can feel his rancid breath on my face. It smells like cigarettes.

“That’s right, you incompetent moron! You can’t even run a dungeon properly! You are useless!

The building trembles, and the bars strain against their housings.

“Stupid and weak and useless!”

The ropes of ape-like muscles swell in his arms, and the entire door rips free, taking chunks of the wall with it. I turn my face away to shield my eyes. His grip encloses my head like a ball of five hairy pythons. He almost snaps my neck.

The honeymoon is definitely over.

💕

Things started to go wrong the day the study ended.

After we finished our exit interviews, I spent the night at Drake’s. I dreamed about my baby. She grew inside me like a new organ, like an unfolding flower—someone who was me, and yet not me. Of all the things I’d made in the dreaming, she was the most wonderful.

But even without the professor to torment us, the next morning felt heavier than a bourbon hangover. Drake avoided my eyes during our desultory caffeine ritual.

“What’s wrong,” I asked, “besides the usual?”

He glanced up from his mug then looked into it again, as if consulting a crystal ball for an answer. He mumbled, “I can’t believe you said that last night.”

“Said what?”

“You remember. In the dream. You said our sex life was terrible.”

“What? I didn’t say that. Where were we?”

“Come on, now.”

“Fine, don’t tell me.”

“We were having dinner with my parents. And you told them what it was like in bed. It was so embarrassing! Why would you—”

“Drake, we didn’t have dinner with your parents. What are you talking about?”

“How can you just deny it?”

“Because it isn’t true!” I got up to sit beside him on his couch, but he looked away from me and studied the opposite wall. So, I stood by the coffee maker next to the sink and thought for a minute.

“Listen, Drake. How do you know for sure it was me? Don’t you dream about other people all the time?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how do you know this me at your dinner party was the lucid me, and not just some dream image you conjured up like everything else?”

He set his mug on the low table in front of the couch and placed his forehead in both hands. “Aimee, that is so fucked up.”

“But you have to admit, it’s at least possible. And, I should think, a lot more possible than my lying to you. After all we’ve been through?”

Later, we tried waking sex again. I couldn’t get off. Instead of bringing us closer, it just upset him more. If I had thought about it for a couple days, things might have ended differently.

But we just went to sleep as usual. It made everything better before. Why wouldn’t it work again?

I hadn’t considered Drake’s insecurity was a kind of fear. When people are scared and insecure, they try to make themselves feel better by seizing control of a situation.

And the situation was me.

💕

That night, we spent a week building a cabin where we could watch sunsets from the porch, swing with our baby, and rock ourselves until we fell awake. That probably sounds ideal, but it turned into a house of horrors.

Like the time I walked into the baby’s room and it was full of maggots and animal corpses. We had just painted it!

For weeks, I had found these nightmare rooms. When I slammed their doors, the hallways began twisting into Drake’s claustrophobic mazes. I could fix most of the damage, but perpetually rebuilding became a chore. What’s the point of having a dream life if all you do is bend halls back into shape after your neurotic husband’s nightmares mess them up for the millionth time?

The maggot-ridden baby room was the last straw. I confronted him in our living room. “Drake, you’ve got to get a grip. This phobia you have is wrecking the cabin. It’s all wrong all the time!”

“And that’s my fault? This is your dream, too, Aimee. Your rooms full of nightmares. A baby crib full of death? That’s you dreaming that!”

“I would never—”

“Bullshit! You’re terrified something’s going to hurt her, or that you’re about to fuck it all up.”

He might have been right. He might have been wrong. But he was definitely grabbing my arm, and I didn’t like it. “Get your hands off me.”

“Why? Are you scared?”

Fear ran through my bones like a cold electric current. My powerlessness angered me. My wife was a complete bitch.

Wait. I am the wife.

I slapped his face. “Let me go!”

He hit me back with a closed fist. “You like it rough?” He shoved me backwards until the wall stopped us, and his body pressed against mine. “Is that what gets you off?!”

I pushed back, but he was heavier than before. Bigger. Hairier. “Damn you!”

Drake answered not with a curse but a savage roar. His body and his face changed, transforming into something stronger and more brutish, like a Cro-Magnon devolving into his primate ancestors.

He pinned me to the wall and tore at my clothes, and I feared for my baby.

I felt what Drake felt: frightened by a loss of control, and angry. With impossible strength, I pushed him away. He flew backwards like a missile into the wall. It caved at the impact like a moon crater, and a chunk of the ceiling the size of a semi-truck fell on him.

The house groaned. It pulsed all around me, like a beating heart. Deep in its labyrinthine rooms, nightmares blossomed and bore terrifying fruit. As the dust settled on my buried husband, I shut my eyes and turned my attention to the cabin.

Every door on every room slammed shut and locked at my command. Behind their wooden portals stormed a menagerie of demons, corpses, soldiers with their eyes torn out stripping the skin from babies, angry mobs hanging their scapegoats with barbed wire instead of rope, mothers drowning their children in boiling water, fathers beating their daughters with baseball bats.

With an involuntary shudder, I opened my eyes. My daughter would suffer no such fate.

The pile of rubble stirred. A malevolent beast howled his thirst for vengeance. The broken beams and rafters tumbled from the pile.

Drake was still alive, but he no longer resembled the man I married. Shaking off the debris that crumbled away and thundered on the floor, he rose to his feet to face me.

Breathing laboriously, he found the clarity to speak words instead of grunts. “You,” he said. “I’ll show you.” He picked up a rafter from the floor and swung it about, destroying everything in his reach.

My dream cabin started coming down around my ears. Dropping to one knee, I crouched and covered my head. It was no good. I had to get out.

I should have forced myself to wake up. But any judgment of my actions must consider this was not merely my dream. It was ours.

Just like in the warehouse, emotion gipped me, a collaborative emotion growing out of the co-lucidity. Drake’s frustration and my fear, the suspicion I was to blame for all this, they fed off each other. They made a feedback loop, intensifying our feelings until rationality evaporated.

From my crouch, I gathered my strength and shot like a bullet through the ceiling and into the sky.

The thing Drake had become burst from the cabin a moment later in a wild frenzy. He began demolishing the dreamland, uprooting trees, throwing boulders, and pounding mountains with his huge, hairy fists.

He was so bent on destruction he forgot about me. I took a deep breath and descended to the ground beside him. “Drake, you maniac! Stop!”

My proximity did nothing to quell his anger. When I tried to place a hand on his shoulder, he hurled me away. I tumbled across a field of Venus flytraps and tombstones.

I needed to get away from him, get space to clear my mind and focus. His emotions overflowing onto mine weren’t helping anything. They only locked us tighter into the unreasoning dream.

And that was the key. I couldn’t overcome the dream. It was too powerful. I needed to accept the troubling emotions it brought me. Brute force was not the answer, but receptivity.

Receptivity, and separation. I rose to my feet and shouted, “What do you want, Drake? Do you want me to be your slave? Your prisoner? Fine!”

I did what he could not, and let go of my fear of imprisonment. I choose my jail and summoned it into existence: a sturdy stone fortress with bars on the windows and locks on the doors. It rose all around me from the ground, wall by wall, turret by turret, until it towered overhead.

Drake accepted its reality. It fit his paranoid fantasy, and his belief I was to blame for his feelings of inadequacy. After all, the guilty deserve to be punished.

I made myself a dungeon, and decorated accordingly. As my husband lost himself in a month-long rampage across the landscape, I meditated, gathered my thoughts and feelings, and put them back in order.

I needed to wake up, but not as badly as Drake. His monstrous form and boundless hate made him feel powerful, so much more than in the waking. He could lose himself in it. Maybe he already had. But he was my husband, and I couldn’t ignore the possibility he might never wake up voluntarily.

When I was ready to confront him, I called out for food. “Drake, I’m starving! You’re murdering me! Is that what you want? How can I love you if I die?”

Then we dreamed he brought me food, and I taunted him. He tore the door off, and nearly tore my head off, too.

Better for him if he had.

I called up the fire into my right hand and pressed it against his face. “Wake up, Drake!”

The stench of burning hair would have sickened me if Drake didn’t do much worse, thrashing my body back and forth about the stone cell like a child beating the walls with a doll. Then the fire grew, and it covered me.

Drake’s flesh seared. He flung me away. My skull struck the wall. My ears rang, and his bellowing did not help. Pushing off the stones, as the flames cascaded upward from my skin and snapped in the air, I had words with the father of my child. His were incoherent, bestial things. Mine were, “Wake the fuck up!”

Even a monster could burn. He backed away.

“That’s right, you sick bastard. Wake up!”

The heat blistered his shrieking face, and I pressed the advantage. I struck him again. The flames grew white hot until his hideous, primitive form disintegrated to reveal the naked man inside.

💕

I woke with a start, already in motion, flinging off the smelly comforter and pouncing on Drake. He put his arms over his face to block my swinging fists. I pummeled him anyway. “You son of a bitch!”

He shouted my name and a string of curses. “Stop! Stop! What is wrong with you?”

“Beating me up and threatening me? Wrecking my cabin? Ripping my goddamn head off?!”

“What are you talking about?”

If he had so much as raised a hand against me, I would have bashed his brain with a desk lamp. But he didn’t fight back. I relented.

“Aimee, what the hell?” He kept his arms over his face.

Months I put up with your shit!” Exasperated, I got to my feet.

From his mattress on the floor, he asked, “What happened?”

I told him, and didn’t finish half of it before he denied it.

“This is the same thing that happened yesterday,” he interrupted. “Just like when I thought it was you at the dinner party.”

That caught me off-guard. I settled onto the floor next to his mattress and studied his eyes and lips.

“You can’t seriously believe I would do stuff like that to you.” He turned away as if I’d hurt more than his face. “Or be some kind of monster.”

“Drake.” His bare shoulder begged for my touch, but I drew my hand away. “I can’t deal with this before coffee.”

Disappointment awaited me in the kitchen. “You’re out of coffee!”

Drake groped the floor near his alarm clock to find his glasses, peeled himself off the mattress, and drifted into the kitchen like a dead animal floating on the open sea. “I’ll go get some. Store should be open.” He grabbed a grey hoodie and pulled a pack of cigarettes from its pocket. He slapped the top of the box half-heartedly against an open palm.

I’d never seen him with a waking pack of cigs before. “I’ll go with you.”

He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “No, I’ll just go,” he huffed. “I’m not useless.”

The door slammed behind him with the force of a petulant child throwing his toys.

I’m not useless. The phrase stopped me colder than the slamming door. Useless.

I peeked through the blinds on the living-room window. Off-white slats parted to reveal Drake’s car, two stories down in the parking lot, crawling past the apartments and slithering onto the main street.

Why would he choose that exact phrase? The same words I yelled at him in the dungeon? The same insult I yelled at him in a dream he said he never joined me in? I hadn’t even told him about the dungeon before he interrupted—

Fuck.

I set Drake’s alarm clock for five minutes later. It wasn’t much time, but once I fell asleep, I could gain weeks to do what I needed. Not just for myself, but for my baby—my daughter, now into her second trimester in the dreaming. It wasn’t safe for her there with that maniac around.

I fell to sleep and got to work.

Drake returned 27 minutes later, smelling like an ashtray.

The stink made me heave. I kissed him on the cheek. “What do you say we get drunk? I’ll buy.”

Men don’t mind running errands if there’s booze in it for them. I sent him back out with a pair of 20s from my purse. He returned with a liter of vodka and a 12-pack of beer.

We drank until he passed out.

💕

I became lucid at 221B. “Drake! Where are you?”

He emerged from the door of an eye-glass shop at the far end of the street. He walked toward me, instead of flying. Were his powers in the dream devolving? Or just his self-image?

I pulled down the front of my Ren Fair blouse. “See anything you like?”

He tried to touch me, but I pulled away. “You’re not going to lose your temper, are you?”

“Don’t toy with me, Aimee. Come here.”

“Maybe I don’t like being ordered around.”

He replied with a growl that rumbled through the streets all the way to the anachronistic shipyard. His fingers curled into fists.

“That’s what I thought.” For the last time, I turned the brass knob at 221B and flung open the door. “Come and get me. If you’re man enough.” His roar rang in my ears, and the clatter of my shoes up the wooden steps to Holmes’ room was matched by the stomping of huge, hairy feet behind me.

He was already growing larger when he hit the doorway into the detective’s study. His massive bulk rammed the wood frame. The force cracked the plaster on the walls, but they held.

Drake squeezed through the entrance to Holmes’ room in a rage, and nothing was safe from his swinging, simian fists. He knocked over a table, shattering its kerosene lamp on the floor, scattering vials and beakers and notebooks from Holmes’ experiments. Drake ripped the bookshelves down from the wall. They crushed the books that tumbled out of them.

From the next room, I called, “I’m not impressed!” I dashed out the back door. It led up another flight of stairs.

Drake charged through the room behind me and forced his way into the stairwell. Its narrow ascent frustrated him even more. The steps went up for half a kilometer, where they angled off to some unseen destination.

“It’s getting tight in here, monkey boy. Why don’t you go back the way you came?”

His fear of the enclosure overcame his rage, and the monster twisted his head around to peer over his shoulder.

I waved my hand in a circle and drew it into a fist. The staircase behind him sealed shut.

“Aimeeeee,” he shouted, and charged.

I abandoned running and flew up the stairwell faster than he could climb. At the turning point, a door led into an even narrower tunnel with uneven, reflective sides, an octagonal tube of mirrors. My image appeared on a thousand surfaces.

Drake huffed outside the door, flexing his gorilla nostrils and breathing heavily. “You can’t trap me here,” he said. “I can just wake up.”

“Can you? Why don’t you try?”

The twisted grimace on that ape-like face would have been comical if not for the storm of fear and frustration that blew up in his eyes.

“Go ahead, big man. Wake up!”

He smashed his fist into the wall, which did not crack. “What did you do?!”

“Temper, temper.”

“Arrr!” He beat the unyielding wall again. “What did you do?!”

“Drugged the shit out of you while we were drinking. You couldn’t wake up now if the goddamn house was on fire. Get the picture?”

He screamed, “I’ll kill you!” Into the tunnel he pursued me.

The maze I led him through almost got me lost, too—even though I’d built it. It took weeks in the dreaming, during my five-minute nap. In that time, I pondered a question the philosophy majors had beaten like a dead horse for centuries: could an all-powerful being create a rock so heavy she couldn’t move it?

They would have been jealous of my having a world where I could do original research on the topic. For my proof of concept, I created a dream substance so durable I couldn’t break it.

I built Drake’s nightmare from it.

He chased me through kilometers of twisting corridors which grew smaller as they receded behind him until, at last, he was wedged in tight. Immobilized. He seethed.

Being smaller, I was ahead of him by a meter—close enough to smell the hate-filled terror in his sweat, but not close enough to touch. I pressed my back to the wall of the dead end I’d led him to. “This is where I get out.”

His unearthly throat poured out a stream of pre-linguistic curses from a species of brutes.

“It’s too bad it had to be like this, Drake. But I have my daughter to think about. Good-bye.” The wall behind me swung open like a hatch. I leapt into damp London air and slammed the hatch closed. Lifting my arms, I summoned four sheets of ruby-red crystal down from the grey sky. Each was 20 meters high and just as wide.

They dropped vertically like guillotine blades, with a resounding thunder, enclosing the property on Baker Street on all four sides. A fifth sheet of crystal dropped horizontally to cover the top. Drake, in the heat of the chase into the building, had failed to notice the entire foundation had been replaced with a similar sheet of crystal.

There it was, my proof of concept: unbreakable dream crystal. I traced lines in the air with my index finger, and all along the cube’s edges flared a radiance with the intensity of an enormous arc welder. The cube sealed at the seams. I couldn’t break the stuff, but I could bond it to itself. And I could resize it.

The cube shrank until it was small enough to hold in my hand. I can’t imagine the effect on Drake as his enclosure grew ever tighter, taking him with it. But perhaps it wasn’t complete torture. Just as time inside a dream can be longer than the time which passes in waking, objects in dreams can hold more volume inside than they appear to on the outside.

Either way, my baby and I were safe. I plucked the cube from the ground and flew back to my cabin. There, I repaired all of Drake’s destruction and architectural distortions before watching the sunset.

A whisper flowed from inside me. “Mama.”

Holding my belly, I considered attempting to dream about giving birth right then, but my daughter wasn’t some inanimate object to be manipulated. Like her lucidly dreaming parents, she was a consciousness inside the unconscious.

But I could exert control over the dream. That’s when I started speeding up time until I was too exhausted to do it anymore, and I fell awake.

💕

Drake curled like a fetus on his inadequate mattress, drugged out of his mind. Maybe if we’d taken the time to get to know each other in the waking, outside of the Delnin study and his bachelor hovel, he would have known my purse held a travelling pharmacy.

Mom’s sleeping pills I stole so she wouldn’t accidentally overdose. Anti-depressants I bought from a girl in political science lecture. Hydrocodone I didn’t take when I got a tooth pulled. Liquid morphine I took from Gramma’s medicine cabinet when she was on hospice.

Drake looked so peaceful. I was tempted to make my own chemical cocktail for the road. Then I considered suffocating him with his pillow.

Instead, I walked out. I wanted to have my baby. I wanted to meet my daughter and hold her close. I wanted to go the hell back to sleep.

I left Drake’s door unlocked, in case the pillow idea sounded better a few hours later.

It did.

 

THE END

mars 2016 march logo

A Concrete Retrospective

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This post compiles a series of posts from five years ago about one of my favorite comic books: Concrete. All but one of my Concrete books got sold off several years ago, but I miss them and would like to replace them soon. While I nostalgically re-read my graphic-novel-sized collection of Concrete’s short stories, enjoy this retrospective and discover some sublime artwork.

Concrete began in the pages of the first volume of Dark Horse Presents as a series of short stories. Many of the plots involved the fact that Concrete was a writer before his strange metamorphosis. The naturalistic pages above and below come from a simple story about Concrete having to sleep in the desert while his human companions stop to sleep at a hotel.

Collector’s GuideDark Horse Presents #32 (Annual); Dark Horse, 1989.
– Reprinted in Concrete Complete Short Stories 1986-1989, TPB.

If you got stuck in a nearly invulnerable body with incredible strength, endurance, and eyesight, what would you do? Dress up in tights and play superhero? Doubtful! No, you’d want to see the world and have adventures! In the second issue of Concrete, Chadwick’s creation tackles one of many heroic feats: swimming across the Atlantic Ocean!

concrete-001

Collector’s Guide: The back cover of Concrete #1; Dark Horse, 1987. Full story appears in Concrete #2. Reprinted in Complete Concrete with issues #2-10
– Reprinted in Concrete TPB #1 with issues #2-5
– Reprinted in Concrete Land and Sea with #2 and expanded material

In the sixth issue of Concrete, our cement superstar takes a break from his adventures to help a struggling family on a farm. With his incredible strength and endurance, he plows fields, builds aqueducts, clears land, and more. The character interaction is especially strong in this story. Chadwick gives Concrete plenty of room to explore ideas about sustainable agriculture — a subject you don’t often see covered in comic books!

Collector’s GuideConcrete #6, Dark Horse, 1987.
Concrete #6 reprinted in Concrete TPB #2 and Complete Concrete.

One of Concrete’s more traumatizing moments comes when his strange body begins to change in ways he can’t explain. It starts with little horns growing out of his forehead. He keeps them under control with a belt sander for a while, but soon his entire body gets out of control. It’s an interesting story, and Paul Chadwick uses the strange growths as a compelling visual element.

a page from Concrete #7

back cover of Concrete #6

Collector’s GuideConcrete #6-7; Dark Horse, 1988.
– Reprinted in Concrete TPB #2 and Complete Concrete

In issues #8-9 of Concrete, the rocky hero tackles Mount Everest and undertakes a humanitarian mission to dam an alpine river for a village.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t spoil the story to know he makes it. Many exciting twists of fate await you if you climb with Concrete!

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cover of #9

Collector’s GuideConcrete #7-9; Dark Horse, 1988.
– Reprinted in Complete Concrete with issues #1-10 and in Concrete TPB #2

concrete-004

Concrete’s triumphant moment atop Everest

The back cover of Concrete #9 shows Concrete’s last visit to his elderly mother. The point of view is from his mother in the bed, and she is reflected in the mirror over Concrete’s shoulder. Paul Chadwick made the story moving while working in lighter comedic moments about how difficult it is for Concrete to get around unnoticed. This story serves as a good example of the humanism shaping this series.

Collector’s GuideConcrete #9-10; Dark Horse, 1988.
– Reprinted in Complete Concrete with issues #1-10
– Reprinted in Concrete TPB #2

Concrete was a writer and avid reader. (And a thinker, too, despite his rugged appearance!) Paul Chadwick draws Concrete at home, in his modified chair, enjoying a good book.

Also included here is a page from one of the short stories in Dark Horse Presents. Concrete and his friend visit a man with an impressive art collection and library — including an entire room full of bagged and boarded comic books, perfectly filed. Wouldn’t you love to spend a few weeks in there? Also, the man has a secret room with cool paintings that capture Concrete’s imagination. And what guy doesn’t like the idea of having his own secret cave?

Collector’s GuideConcrete #10; Dark Horse, 1988. And Dark Horse Presents #66.
– Concrete #10 reprinted in Concrete TPB #2 and Complete Concrete
– Short story reprinted in Concrete Complete Short Stories 1986-1989, TPB.

For the first nine issues of Concrete, Paul Chadwick used the back covers for artwork giving readers a sneak peek at the next issue’s theme. For the tenth and final issue, Chadwick depicted Concrete taking a meditative moment in a lush forest. Part of the joy of reading Concrete is moments like these, where Chadwick illustrates nature.


The final issue of Concrete’s ongoing title was by no means the end. Chadwick switched to a limited series format for subsequent Concrete stories. The longer form allowed him to expand Concrete’s world and life. You can find them individually or as Volumes #3-7 of the Concrete TPB.

Collector’s GuideConcrete #10; Dark Horse, 1987.
– Reprinted in Complete Concrete with issues #1-9 and in Concrete TPB #2

silence

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Silence is a 102-minute music set I streamed in July 2017. You can download it free of charge at:

https://app.box.com/s/h09i9zrtyygrq7j7xqlisuopets6j4z6

The set list is available as a text file.

PBN Set 15: Silence
July 2017

Linton Kwesi Johnson – Two Sounds of Silence
Delerium – Silence (with Sarah McLachlan)
Valentine Six – Silencer
Flogging Molly – A Prayer for Me in Silence
Béla Fleck – Prelude to Silence
Prasanna – Culture of Silence
Charlie Haden, Liberation Music Orchestra – Silence
Prasanna – Nasika Blues
Bill Dutcher – Echoing Pathways
Charles Lloyd – Nataraj
Trio Nine – Fragments of Multiplying Images
Robert Silverman – Scherzo: Allegro energico
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Reality Poem
Avik Deirmenjian read by Silva Uzbashian – Armenian Poem 1
Philippa Fallon – Tomorrow Is a Drag (from High School Confidential, 1958)
Savages – Shut Up
Sonic Youth – Small Flowers Crack Concrete
Sonic Youth – Tremens
Trio Nine – Cezanne
Boris – Interference Demon / The Evil One Which Sobs (live)

space modulator

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Space Modulator is a 103-minute music set I streamed in March 2018. You can download it free of charge at:

https://app.box.com/s/0n2jnibbbtwd2cipgsp18yjjfdojdyi0

The set list is available as a text file.

PBN Set 22: Space Modulator
March 2018

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Weapon of Choice (UK Version)
The Donnas – All Messed Up
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – I’m in Your Mind (medley) (Live on KEXP)
Unlabeled Bagpipes and Drums Track
Russian Circles – Deficit
10000 Russos – Stakonovets
Marvin the Martian and Bugs Bunny – Space Modulator
Sonic Youth – Hyperstation
Apathy and OC – The Broadcast
Bonehawk – Nomad
Graham Day and The Gaolers – Wanna Smoke
Flogging Molly – The Light of a Fading Star
Flyying Colours – It’s Tomorrow Now
Joy – Misunderstood
Captain Crimson – Ghost Town
Robert Walter – Dump Track
Sonora Ritual – Ryff Ryder
Unida – Delta Alba Plex
Chapstik – Black Opium Fermata
Alice in Chains – Sickman
Alice in Chains – Pretty Done
Graham Day and the Gaolers – Glad I’m Not Young

sidewayz

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Sidewayz is a 98-minute music set I streamed in May 2017. You can download it free of charge as an mp3 file from:

https://app.box.com/s/e4g1r9j42cza5xua5z7ebmmi711p55ij

The set list is available as a text file.

PBN SET 10: Sidewayz
May 2017

Soundgarden – Boot Camp
Danzig – Trouble (Elvis Presley)
Paul Wall – Sittin’ Sidewayz
Chingy – Right Thurr
Eric B and Rakim – Don’t Sweat The Technique
Control Machete – Comprendes Mendes
Snoop Dogg – Gzs and Hustlas

PBN Station ID 4
Pile – Special Snowflakes EP
Jorma Kaukonen – Red River Blues
Wayne Hancock – Tulsa
Doc & Merle Watson/Merle Watson – Coal Miner’s Blues
Dolly Parton – Muleskinner Blues
Hank Williams – The Blues Come Around
Bill Frisell – Blues Dream
Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Blues for Alice [Master Take]
Milt Jackson – Blues at Twilight
Kokolo-Soul Power

PBN Station ID 3
KK & Alisha Chinai – Touch Me (Dhoom 2 Soundtrack)
Daler Mehndi – Tunak Tunak Tun
BunHeaD – Touch Me Crazy
Das Racist – Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell

Never See the Night: a short story

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Never See the Night © 2017 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Description: An interplanetary biologist locks himself in a fortified research lab with an alien octopus, stranding his teammates outside in the path of a ferocious hurricane on a water-covered world. The animal already killed one of them, and the scientist-commandos must get inside to confront it, or die in the storm. But the octopus has plans of its own, because it just discovered a new species, too: humans.

4,400 words. Available in paperback, Kindle, Nook Book, and iBooks. Audiobook on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

🐙

NEVER SEE THE NIGHT

 

“We’re trapped on this rock until we can figure out how to get back in there.” Lieutenant Aoto wiped saltwater spray from his faceplate. Waves splashed the rocky plateau from 500 meters below. A single human-made structure populated the planet labeled Gelnikov 14 on official charts—a fortified research lab Aoto and his two corporals could no longer enter.

Aoto’s team was one of many exploring potentially habitable planets in the sector. Hundreds of scientist-commandos traveled in one carrier ship to a given sector, then dispersed into small units to examine as many worlds as possible. If any held special promise, researchers on less-promising worlds combined forces and worked together.

But during preliminary explorations, each team was isolated. Signals took days to travel from planet to planet or back to the main carrier, and then there was travel time to consider.

Braxton smashed his gloved palm against the card reader to the left of the hexagonal door frame. Nothing happened. “How’s he defeating our blasted keys? There’s no point in having a mag-stripe in your glove if the damn thing won’t work!”

Sarafina scowled as Braxton repeated the entry method she had already abandoned. “He’d have to tamper with the code to defeat all the redundancies in the security system. But he’s not that smart.”

Braxton scoffed. “I thought he was a bloody genius.”

“In his field,” said Sarafina. “And his field isn’t hacking encrypted systems.”

“You should know, Sara. Weren’t you his little thing back at the Academy?”

“Ram it, Brax. That was a long time ago.”

“Fine. I’ll get rammed. We’re all dead anyway when the storm hits.”

Aoto frowned inside his helmet. “How long do we have?”

The station sat like a fortress overlooking a kingdom where every horizon was the sea. Two moons hung above it, low and heavy in the sky, their craters visible to the naked eye. They were simply too big for this planet, and the team had calculated their orbits would decay and bring them crashing into the worldwide ocean within a few hundred million years. As the twin moons orbited Gelnikov 14, their competing gravities gave birth to tidal forces that periodically swept the planet with cyclonic winds and waves as big as mountains.

The impregnable research lab could withstand the severe climates of almost any planet. The ship which delivered the team to this oceanic tombstone had bolted the station into the rock with metal rods a meter in diameter and twenty meters deep. That same ship would return one month from its date of departure, after depositing similar stations on other worlds.

Braxton consulted his chart. “We’ve got about thirty minutes. Then hold onto your skivvies, because you, me, and the lovely Corporal Sarafina are all getting blown right into the drink. We’ll be up to our bollocks in brine and done for. You saw the last one.”

The previous hurricane tore every last pebble and mote of dust from the few ragged peaks jutting out of the extra-solar Panthalassa. Nothing survived more than two weeks on those islands—not barnacles, not even bacteria. Only the sea held life. Only the sea, and the station.

“I did see,” said Aoto, “and that’s why we’re getting back in that lab. And if you have any more cheerful descriptions about this team dying, you can ram them. That’s an order.”

“Sir.” Braxton glared, but he shut up.

“As much as I hate to agree,” said Sarafina, “he’s right about the storm. We get in, or else.”

“I wasn’t bloody wrong,” said Braxton.

“Listen, you two.” Aoto frowned. “Hisako’s dead. But we’re still alive. Now quit your pissing contest and think of something!”

The first thing Sarafina thought of was Hisako’s mutilated body lying in a pool of her own blood and half-eaten organs. Then Sarafina thought of the animal that killed her friend, and the man who locked himself inside the station with it.

It was true she had gone to the Academy with Cedric. It was also true he was not smart enough to code the kind of virus he would need to defeat the security system controlling entry to the station. “We don’t have any explosives at all?”

Aoto pulled a standard-issue plasma rifle from its housing on his back. He considered recommending to Central that regulation field gear should include demolition supplies. “Besides our rifles, we’re not geared for anything but a routine reading and instrument calibration. Even if we could blow a hole in the door, we’d destroy the only thing that can keep us alive.”

“If we could tamp the charge, we could minimize the—”

“I have a lovely bedsheet,” Braxton interrupted. “We can tack it up over your huge ramming hole in the door when the hurricane comes to kill us! Sod it!”

Aoto ignored the outburst. “Sara, what could have gotten into him? What can he possibly be thinking?”

“Maybe he isn’t,” she said. “Maybe that animal is thinking for him. Haven’t you noticed how weird he’s been acting around it since we reeled it in?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Look at the blood trail on the ground! Hisako came from inside the station, already wounded. Look at her! She’s been torn apart by something wild. Not a weapon.” By his silence, Sarafina knew Aoto understood. “Lieutenant, if he’s cracked the security protocol, he’s either the luckiest gambler alive, or he had help. And I sure as hell don’t think either of you is using him to commit suicide.”

Braxton said, “Hisako, maybe?”

“Never,” said Aoto.

“Nah, I guess not.” Braxton shrugged. “She never seemed like the type who would even break the rules, let alone ram her whole crew on a piss-poor planet like this hole.”

“She wouldn’t break the rules,” Aoto agreed, “but she’d damn well be prepared for anything.”

“Anything except getting eaten.”

“You are a pig,” said Sarafina.

“And pigs can’t swim, mate. So unless you’re in the mood for a wee dip—”

Aoto raised his voice. “She would have been prepared. She would have had her own key.”

Sarafina said, “You’re right, Lieutenant. Even her redundancies had redundancies. She always had a back door.”

“We need to find it.” A shadow descended over the faceplate on Aoto’s helmet, blocking his eyes and then his entire face from view. “Fast.”

🐙

Cedric wasn’t thinking about Hisako’s corpse. He had liked her. It wasn’t that. She was a fine addition to the crew, and one of the most expert microbiologists he ever served with. She also specialized in coding, and her skills were legendary among even the youngest cadets at the Academy. No one knew more about the station’s computer protocols than she did.

But Cedric’s thoughts simply did not wander near the red pool of blood waiting in his memory. For a dozen minutes, his train of thought ran along tracks which offered no window into the plight of his teammates locked outside, either.

The station, too, would soon be windowless when it sealed against the hurricane. Even the narrow blades of sunlight cutting through transparent, shatterproof slits would soon be blocked out. Every last gasket, vent, and portal would lock down to withstand anything short of a meteoric collision.

Cedric had no doubt the station could survive a cataclysm, even if the entire structure broke off with a chunk of the island still bolted to the bottom. Being tossed about by currents and wind would make him physically ill, but he could strap himself to a soft seat or a mattress and ride it out.

After all, he had the octopus.

🐙

“What do you suppose his end game is?” Braxton held what remained of Hisako, cradling her from behind with his elbows in her armpits. As he held the corpse, Sarafina pulled open straps and fasteners on Hisako’s survival suit.

She yanked off the boots. “Whatever it is, he’s had a quarter hour to think about it. Maybe he’s even sorted what to do when Central comes to retrieve us. Which won’t be for a week until after the storm blows over.”

“I wouldn’t fly a carrier through her either,” said Aoto. “We’re on our own.” Two weeks ago, Aoto photographed a storm with a drone secured to the station’s roof. The drone did not survive.

But its pictures reminded him of Jupiter’s atmosphere, only seen from underneath. Murky, swirling chaos blossomed into hypnotic clouds the size of continents, and dark. They held nothing of the dying sunlight exposing every detail of Hisako’s broken body, the cavity torn from her stomach to her sternum, and what little remained inside it.

Braxton turned his face away. “Aye, the old bird is a sight. This is worse than dissection lab.”

“Maybe it isn’t his end game,” suggested Sarafina. She tugged at a leg of Hisako’s suit. “Can you at least get her glove off, Braxton? For Saturn’s sake. There you go, ‘mate’.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” said Aoto. “If what you say is right, and that animal is somehow controlling him, then it’s not his game at all. It’s that thing’s.”

“Bloody octopus,” said Braxton. “You should have let me scuttle it when we had the chance. I told you it weren’t good for food anyway. That blasted thing’s more toxic than Granny’s meat pie.”

“Neurotoxins!” Aoto clapped his hands together loudly. “That’s it! He’s been poisoned by contact with the animal. This isn’t a plan. This is madness.”

“Crazy or controlled,” said Sarafina, “he’s in the captain’s chair now. And we’d better be prepared to end it.”

“Agreed, Corporal. Sickens me to say it, but—wait! What’s that inside her glove?”

“Look at what your first mate of cheerful imagery turned up.” Braxton pulled a flexible plastic card out of the glove. A meager remnant of sunlight sparkled on its sleek surface. “It’s our backstage pass to the one safe place to bunk on this toilet for the next week.”

Sarafina snatched it from him. “At least you’re good for something.”

“Good work,” said Aoto. “I told you she was always prepared.”

“Sir, what do we do when we get in?”

“We take him down,” said Aoto.

“Aye. And jettison his little buddy right into the squall.”

🐙

The octopus had achieved many things humans knew nothing about these past few hundred million years, including its ascension to the throne of the planet’s apex predator. This had come easily once the species evolved its neural network.

The vaunted intelligence of Earth’s octopuses paled in comparison to this extra-solar beast’s. The brain cells distributed through its body and tentacles had become so sensitive that, like all members of its species, it could read its prey’s mind.

The octopuses learned from every thinking creature they consumed. Though most animals on Gelnikov 14 had not developed any form of culture, their minds held memories of where they had been born, where they fed, where they spawned, and details of environments the octopuses had never explored.

The eight-armed predators absorbed all this knowledge until they possessed an uncanny understanding of their planet’s inhabitants and geography. Though their telepathy was useless over distances larger than a meter beyond their tentacles’ reach, individual octopuses learned on their own, and then shared everything when they met each other.

If researchers such as Lieutenant Aoto’s crew had studied the phenomenon, they would have projected this learning curve into the development of Gelnikov’s first global culture. The dawn of octopus civilization loomed on the watery horizon.

But civilization required abstractions the octopuses’ environment had never pressured them to discover: mathematics, the scientific method, microbiology and medicine, and astronomy. The species possessed the raw intelligence to grasp these concepts, but it had never encountered them.

Until now.

🐙

Cedric’s hands moved so quickly they made a blur above the touchscreen. His fingers pounded the surface like ten jackhammers, tapping so fast they created a constant hum instead of a staccato rhythm. The characters on the screen meant nothing to him. They looked like something Hisako would come up with, but that was all.

The code elicited responses from the machine.

Disable status updates to Central?

Execute.

Disable external access override?

Execute.

Disable external life support systems?

His mind rebelled at touching one more time to execute the command. In a brief window of four seconds, he became aware of his true surroundings. He was not writing poetry at all, as he fervently believed. A shiver ran through his body, and a single bead of sweat fell from the tip of his nose.

He said, “I can’t.” Then he remembered, but his four seconds were up.

The memory sank below the surface of his consciousness. He executed the code, and nothing remained in his mind of the treachery he committed nineteen minutes ago.

While everyone else was suiting up in the other room, Cedric had walked back and asked Hisako to help him with a data file about their specimens, animals they brought up from the sea in traps suspended from cables reaching down the island’s ragged sides.

With a sigh, she followed him out through the station’s main room and then to the doorway leading to the specimen lab.

When the meadow appeared before her, Hisako’s mammalian brain felt disoriented. She looked over her shoulder, expecting to see the room she had just walked through, but the meadow stretched to the horizon in every direction.

She remembered she was late for class. Abandoning her backwards gaze, she took the path that opened at her feet, a walkway through waist-high grasses and wildflowers. They waved back and forth in the gentle afternoon breeze like tentacles floating in sunlit water.

At the end of the path, her podium waited.

The octopus gripped her tightly in its tentacles and gnawed a hole in her skull to expose her brain. Blood sprayed from the wound until the webbing between the tentacles covered it. Suckers probed the mass of electrified fat and sought its knowledge.

The mammal went into shock and was rapidly dying. The octopus set its beak to work on the soft area below Hisako’s ribs and, in seconds, tore a gaping hole in her abdomen. A tentacle slithered into the spurting injury and worked its way up to the mammal’s heart. Hisako. That’s what the mammal called itself. The tentacle wrapped around the heart and squeezed it rhythmically. The blood flow would continue a few moments longer.

“Good morning, cadets.” Hisako tapped the top of her podium. In response, a monitor lit up behind her. Two meters tall and twice as wide, it imposed a glowing white pane on the otherwise uninterrupted meadow. The incongruity of its presence left Hisako untroubled. She only had eyes for her students.

“Good morning, Professor.” Thirty-seven voices answered in unison, and their various pitches harmonized like a sumptuous choir. Each voice belonged to an octopus, and each octopus occupied a desk just like the ones in classrooms at the Academy. Tentacles spilled out of the human-sized seats, and the animals’ sucker-covered skin swirled with royal purple and magenta in ever-shifting patterns. Microscopic nodules in the skin rippled with changing pigments, creating hypnotic patterns like streaks of ivory lightning caught in a kaleidoscope of flesh.

Hisako realized she was staring, and she cleared her throat. “Today’s lesson is critical to the security of our research laboratories.” With a stylus, she wrote security on the podium’s surface. The word appeared on the monitor behind her, in giant red letters. She underlined them.

It did not seem odd to her when each of the thirty-seven students magically produced a similar stylus at the end of a tentacle and wrote the word on its own desktop. She only wished all her classes would be so attentive.

“I’m so happy you’re all here,” she said, and a bright pink blush filled her cheeks. “Today, I will teach you how to write a virus to override the security controls at a research station. I’ll explain as we go. Let’s start with the first line of code.”

Thirty-seven styluses followed hers, copying every character and comment in perfect detail.

Hisako’s heart swelled with pride. It beat stronger than ever before, pumping an erotic warmth into her limbs until her breath became rapid. She wanted nothing more than for all her students to succeed. Hisako loved them, and she couldn’t find the words to express how deeply she loved them—only machine language, and symbols, and everything about software she spent a lifetime learning and inventing.

Then the code was complete, and there was no more Hisako in the classroom or anywhere else.

The octopus located her liver and brought the rich, fatty organ to its mouth. The cephalopod next devoured her heart, savoring the protein and iron in the meat. Then it craved submersion in water again, and the creature slid away from the corpse and back to its open tank, leaving a gelatinous trail of slime and blood behind it.

In a thought that resembled Hisako’s mathematical, analytical attitude, the octopus decided it needed to simplify the variables. Controlling all the large, mammalian brains in the station at once presented an insurmountable challenge. The humans were not so simple as fish and crustaceans. They could resist, and their thoughts demonstrated a glorious complexity unlike anything the octopus had ever encountered, save in another of its kind.

To Cedric, it left the chore of dragging the mutilated body out the front door. At the creature’s command, Cedric shouted, “Something’s wrong with Hisako! Come quickly!”

His three comrades rushed into the room to find Cedric by the open door.

The breach of protocol irked Aoto. “She went out by herself?”

“Something’s got her out there! It’s killing her!” Cedric waved them to the door, and in their rush to see what alarmed him, they ran right past the scarlet smears on the floor.

Aoto saw the body first. The horror drew him to a sudden stop outside the station. “My god,” he shouted. “Hisako!”

Sarafina and Braxton nearly ran him over.

“I’ll get the med kit!” Sarafina spun on her heels to bolt back through the door.

It slammed in her face.

“Ram it!” She pounded her gloved fist on the silent steel barrier. “Cedric! Cedric! Open the bloody door!”

But Cedric did not. He was too busy typing faster than he would have thought humanly possible, if he had any thoughts of his own left inside him.

🐙

“Be ready for anything,” said Sarafina. “Just take him down fast.” She held Hisako’s backup key in her left hand, not close enough to activate the security panel on the door, but close. Her right arm held her plasma rifle so she could fire from the hip. “On three.”

Her teammates stood side-by-side in the door frame. Each held a rifle.

Braxton said, “That’s my sexy Sara, talkin’ all bad-ass.”

“Ram it, Brax. You son of a—”

He raised his left palm to her. “Bitch, I’m not hittin’ on ya.” He tipped his helmet. “I’m just sayin’ good-bye.”

“Shut up and count,” Aoto commanded. “This isn’t a joke.” He nodded to Sarafina. “On three.” He brought the butt of his plasma rifle up to his shoulder. “One.”

“Two,” said Sarafina, in unison with him. She held the keycard centimeters from the panel. “Three!”

The card slammed onto the reader. The door slid open in a flash, and the rifles fired.

Aoto’s shot hit Cedric in the lower arm. The lieutenant advanced, covering Cedric with his rifle. The wound looked awful, but not immediately fatal. Yet Cedric crumpled on the floor and made no sound.

“Get in there and kill it!” Aoto kept his rifle trained on Cedric, who didn’t move a muscle. Blood soaked his once-white lab coat, and its color spread in a pool on the floor.

With Hisako’s key, Sarafina opened the specimen lab’s door. She charged inside, with Braxton close behind her. The muzzle of her rifle found the octopus tank.

Empty.

Both she and Braxton did an immediate about-face, thinking the creature was behind them.

Just above Braxton’s head, eight purple and magenta tentacles crackled with their strange, pigmentary lightning. The foul-tempered scientist never saw them.

Instead, he saw his lieutenant transformed into a terrible creature with countless arms sprouting from him and tearing Braxton’s father to pieces. Braxton screamed and blasted Aoto twice.

The first bolt severed Aoto’s leg at the hip. The second blew a hole in his torso and splattered his lungs and intestines across the far wall.

Braxton whipped around to finish off the monstrosity he saw in place of Sarafina, but she shot him first. The bolt caught him in the shoulder and smacked him to the side. He bounced off the wall and landed face-first in a pile of gore that used to be Aoto.

He rolled onto his back and took aim. Sarafina, from the doorway to the specimen room, pulverized Braxton with half a dozen plasma bursts. His body became a red blur as chunks of bone and gristle pelted the walls.

From its hiding place, the octopus dropped on Sarafina.

The corporal had such lovely hair. She always had, ever since she was a girl. It seemed like a good time to brush her long, beautiful hair. She stood before a full-length mirror, in a cabin where she spent her childhood summers, and the dark wood of the interior matched the mirror’s frame. An indistinct white light shone through a single window, revealing no detail of the landscape beyond.

She removed her helmet and dropped it on the floor. It clunked twice and rolled away lopsidedly. A brush appeared in her hand, and she groomed herself, daydreaming about the kinds of boys she would like to meet someday, and worlds she might like to explore.

The beak that chewed into her skull had evolved to make short work of giant clams, so the mammal’s endoskeleton offered little sport. But as human blood filled its beak, and its skin contacted the brain inside the white, crunchy bone, the octopus found much which delighted it.

Sarafina’s reflection in the mirror turned purple, and bands of magenta played along her arms—all eight of them, each holding a soft, wonderful brush. “I’ll tell you a secret,” she said. “But only because we’re such good friends. Promise not to tell?”

The octopus promised, and Sarafina told it all about the humans who would return to the station after the storm. And the humans on the other carriers, and other stations, on other worlds flung all across the galaxy.

All of them full of food.

Then she died.

🐙

Cedric lived quite a bit longer. When the storm hit, a mere seven minutes after his crew’s ill-fated break-in, Cedric was sawing off his arm just above the elbow. Aoto’s plasma bolt had turned his bone to fragments, like ivory shrapnel embedded in several pounds of ground meat. The limb was beyond saving, and blood loss would surely kill him.

But the octopus wanted him alive.

Cedric sawed through the carnage at the end of his arm while whistling a cheerful melody. He covered the stump with adhesive bandages that bonded to each other chemically, and to his skin. The blood stopped in seconds. Cedric drank two pints of the sugar-water that passed for juice in the station’s larder.

He fell asleep sitting up while the storm sang him a lullaby composed of thunder and torment, a week-long crescendo of elemental assault on his steel fortress. A few days into it, he sawed off his right foot and fed it to the octopus—just like he had the arm.

The rest of the time, Cedric sat at the console, slurping sustenance from shiny bags of liquid food and reading the encyclopedia. The octopus was always near, touching him, draping itself around him like a colorful overcoat, secreting its neurotoxic venom and thinking with his thoughts. Cedric understood most of what he read, skipped the chapters on topology and theoretical physics he couldn’t comprehend, and assimilated new material into what he already knew. It made learning easy for his molluscan master.

The storm exhausted its fury until only a steady drizzle remained. In a moment of clarity, when the creature was soaking in its tank, Cedric remembered the carrier and its scheduled return. Warn them. The thought possessed him with manic urgency. He scrambled for the console, stepping in dried blood and stumbling on the stump where his right foot used to be and, much to his surprise, no longer was.

His face struck the edge of the console and knocked out his two front teeth. He cried and cursed and frantically pulled himself up.

But as the screen glowed at his touch, he resumed whistling his simple melody, and the warning he intended to type with his one remaining hand came out completely wrong.

love is a lie
death is ecstasy

my eternal enemy
your seas have no horizon

your moons are scarred
from burning in the light

the craters of their eyes
will never see the night

Then Cedric’s mother called to him, and he turned to her. She reminded him he needed to dress warmly before going outside.

He did as he was told.

🐙

The drizzle made the steep rock sides of the island slippery, and Cedric had no hope of a graceful descent. Still, he gripped a metal cable in his single hand. Lying on his belly to put no weight on his amputated ankle, he slid over the edge of the plateau.

Hand-over-hand descent would have been possible for someone in peak athletic condition, but this luxury eluded Cedric. His grip slowly slid down the cable, which burned his hand until it blistered. The blisters popped open, and a thick, oozing liquid mixed with his blood to leave a dark red trail.

The octopus rode him the whole way.

It had only days to find others of its kind and gather them to the island, to show them the cages and explain where they led, to a gathering of food that built weapons and spacecraft with access to the entire galaxy, libraries full of knowledge, and technology ripe for the plunder—all operated by animals an octopus could easily control, one at a time.

Metal tore through muscle and tendon until Cedric’s hand failed him, and he could grasp no longer. The scientist fell from the rocky wall, plummeting hundreds of meters through the sullen spray. But he was not afraid of drowning. He was not afraid of anything.

After all, he had the octopus.

THE END

mars 2016 march logo

blues for chris cornell

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Blues for Chris Cornell is an 84-minute music set I streamed in May 2017. You can download it free of charge as an mp3 from:

https://app.box.com/s/lur7k33dedgcm8qymqempil1v963dbgj

The set list is available as a text file.

PBN Set 7: Blues for Chris Cornell
May 2017

Arsenal & John Garcia: Diggin’ a Hole
Hank Williams: There’s No Room in My Heart for the Blues
Styx: Prelude/Suite Madame Blue
Soundgarden: Black Saturday
Tinariwen: Assuf D Alwa
Bireli Lagrene: Un Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi
Wayne Hancock: Railroad Blues
Doc & Merle Watson: Slidin’ Delta
Doc Watson: The Train That Carried My Girl From Town
Debashish Bhattacharya: Amrit Anand
Warhorse: Red Sea
Stonerror: The Wolf
Stonerror: Tomorrow Never Knows (live Beatles cover)
Slo Burn: Prizefighter
Mad City Rockers & John Garcia: Stronger
Narla: Invisible Whole
Breeders: Invisible Man
Henry Rollins: Invisible Woman Blues
Screaming Trees: Invisible Lantern
Soundgarden: Nothing to Say
Soundgarden: Boot Camp
Soundgarden: Fourth of July

 

 

Blackened Sole with Noodles

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BLACKENED SOLE WITH NOODLES

Usually I blacken catfish, but fillet of sole was on sale. Why not try it with that pack of Ramen I picked up on a whim? And of course, toppings.

blackened sole with noodles.jpg

Prep:

I soaked the fillet of sole for about an hour in a marinade of one take-out packet of soy sauce and an equal amount of juice from my jar of pickled jalapeños.

While that sat, I ground a pile of black pepper onto a plate, and added an even bigger pile of chili powder, then stirred that together.

Also, I got my pans ready, because the fish and Ramen will cook super fast, and that’s no time to be fumbling with pans. I put water in a small sauce pan for the noodles, and olive oil in the frying pan for the fish. Don’t skimp on the oil; it keeps the fish from sticking to the pan.

Cooking:

When I was ready for the fish, I got the water boiling, and heated the oil in the frying pan to medium heat. “Blackening” can turn into “burning” very quickly, so it’s best to not be too aggressive with the heat.

I put the fish one piece at a time onto the blackening mixture and gently but thoroughly coated each side, then set the fish in the hot oil. This is no time to dawdle, because fillet of sole is a delicate cut of fish, and it only takes a couple minutes on each side to cook all the way through.

The water was boiling, so I dropped in a whole pack of Ramen. The noodles finished at almost the same time as the fish. I drained most of the water and added ½ to ¾ of the flavor packet. (I wasn’t making broth like the Ramen instructions say to, so adding the whole packet to mostly dry noodles would make them way too salty.) Stirring in the seasoning was easy because the noodles were still wet and steamy.

Serving:

Spread the noodles on the plate, and set the fish on top. I heated nacho cheese sauce and sprinkled on diced jalapeños, with a light drizzle of red hot sauce. (The pile of green stuff in the photo is quinoa pesto I was taste-testing. It’s good on its own but totally wrong for this dish.)

Taste Review:

I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by this inexpensive concoction, but it was all kinds of awesome. More sensitive palates could dial back the saltiness and spiciness by using less of the flavor packet and not garnishing with jalapeños. The Ramen was perfect for this, but you could make a deluxe version with angel hair or fettuccine pasta. This dish could probably feed two if it included a side.

 

Battered Cod with Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Injuries

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Battered Cod with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Of all the meals posted this month, this one was the closest to ecstasy, but also the most painful, because I burnt the ever-loving shit out of my finger while making it. It all started when Sprouts put nearly a pound of Alaskan cod on “manager’s special”, and I thought, “Isn’t that what British pubs use for fish and chips?”

battered cod garlic mashed potatoes

Marinating the Fish.

I cut the cod into five pieces and soaked them in the juice of one Persian lime mixed with one take-out packet of soy sauce. I don’t know what’s special about Persian limes other than that they were on sale, and the ones I bought were seedless, which is convenient. The fish marinated in the fridge for about an hour while I worked on everything else.

Potatoes Like a Boss.

The secret to great mashed potatoes is realizing the potatoes are merely the vehicle for flavor. Potatoes are neutral, like blank pages in a book. Your mission is to write a flavor masterpiece on those pages.

I started with roasted garlic butter. The last time I made garlic butter, it didn’t have enough garlic flavor for me. This time, I upped my game. Instead of regular garlic, I roasted two entire bulbs of elephant garlic, which is convenient because of the bigger cloves (which means less peeling).

Roasting garlic is easy: get rid of all the papery skins, chop off the hard tops of each clove, rub the cloves in plenty of olive oil, and bake them at 350F. The bigger cloves in elephant garlic take a little longer to get completely tender compared to the smaller cloves in regular garlic, around 20 minutes.

While the garlic cooked, I melted a stick and a half of unsalted butter in a sauce pan on low heat.

I also chopped a gigantic Russet potato, peeling and all, and boiled it until it was super tender. This potato must have weighed a pound or more; it was a real beast. It ended up in 32 small chunks so it would cook quickly, which took about 20 minutes. When the potato was tender, I drained off the water. Easy stuff.

Right about the same time, the garlic was tender and smelling so good! I removed the hard skins from the cloves and used an immersion blender to puree the garlic and butter together. That’s it. Now you are a garlic butter expert.

I poured off half of this butter mix for later meals, then combined the remains with the potatoes, a generous pour of half-and-half (not milk, you savages—get some cream in the mix!), a splash of sea salt, a sprinkle of dried rosemary, and an “Italian blend” of grated cheeses (parmesan, romano and asiago). I pureed it all with the immersion blender, pouring in some more half-and-half when it seemed too thick for my little blender to handle.

The result was so good that I could have stopped right there and just eaten mashed potatoes for dinner.

The Topping.

It’s not my revolution if I can’t put toppings on it. I didn’t want boring brown gravy (though I do love that), so I made a chopped veggie topping by dicing a Roma tomato and a bit of red onion. I added diced, pickled jalapeños for heat and color, and a generous heap of dried rosemary. I shook it all up in a plastic container so the rosemary would soften a bit in the veggie moisture.

The Fish Fry of Doom.

I made a breading by whisking together flour, chili powder, black pepper, and sea salt. I suspect the “flour” was leftover waffle mix from last year, in an unmarked container. But waffle and pancake mixes are mostly flour anyway, so why not? I worried this would screw things up, but the breading tasted great.

I love coconut oil, but olive oil is better for a fish fry since it has a higher burning point. Once the oil heated up in my frying pan over medium heat, I started coating the fish chunks in the flour/spice mix and placing them in the pan.

Here’s where I fucked up. When setting the fourth chunk of fish in the pan, one of my fingers dipped into the hot oil with it. I suggest you don’t repeat this step, because I’m typing this three hours after I finished my meal, and if I take off my ice pack for more than five seconds, my finger screams like a motherfucker. So, unless you really enjoy physical pain that will give you the vocabulary of Samuel L. Jackson in a Quentin Tarantino movie, I have a suggestion for you. Put the goddamned fish in the motherfucking pan using TONGS!

Chalk this up to lessons learned. It’s difficult to cook fish, photograph it, eat it, and type one-handed. Somehow, I held my ever-so-manly pink Hello Kitty ice pack on my finger, reduced the heat a little on the fish fry, and flipped all the pieces once. They came out perfectly, and I saved three of the five chunks for leftovers.

hello kitty ice pack pink

I can’t tell you how many times this Hello Kitty ice pack has rescued me from total agony.

Serving.

Fish and potatoes on a plate! Drizzle with some of the still-warm garlic butter and the diced veggie topping, and dinner is ready! Ice Pack Optional!

Taste Review.

This may be one of my top ten tastiest meals of all time. The fish turned out great, despite the medical emergency in the middle of frying it. The improvised veggie topping surprised me by being the perfect flavor bridge between the fish and potatoes, without traditional gravy. I’ve made mashed potatoes many times, but it’s been a few years, and this batch made me fall in love with them all over again. I’ll send you a postcard from our honeymoon.

In the spirit of injury-induced profanity which informed this post, my potatoes would like you to know that, bitch, they ballin’!

 

 

seedling

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seedling

the body is soil
the world is dirt

ideas and emotions are seeds
longing to sprout
to break through the surface
unfurling green wings to capture the sun

they might grow unfettered or be consumed

they might live for centuries
or be wrapped in fire
presented as gifts
to the blackening sky

they might become medicine or poison

they might flourish in obscurity
or wither under the attention of millions

they might fill a forest like arboreal soldiers
marching in chaotic ranks to the coast
or stand isolated on the cliff edge
where only pumas sleep in their branches

they might drink their fill or die of thirst

seeds neither know nor care for any of this
gravity tugs their roots
the sun summons leaves
the stalk joins earth to heaven

the seedling wants to grow
yet desires nothing
seeking light
without ever looking

its substance and soul
are one and the same

Sausage with Black Bean and Spinach Salsa

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SAUSAGE WITH BLACK BEAN AND SPINACH SALSA

Sprouts put a package of three bratwurst-sized pork sausage links on sale, so I scooped them up for another creative culinary experiment. Yes, there are sausages hiding in this photo! What can I say? I like toppings.

sausage with black bean spinach salsa.jpg

Prep:

Rinse about ¾ of a bunch of spinach (minus the stems) first and thoroughly drain the water. The water needs time to drain before adding the spinach to the mix later, so you don’t get an explosion of popping grease when water meets hot oil.

Cooking:

I did this all in one frying pan, as usual. I browned the sausages on one side in coconut oil over medium to medium-high heat. After flipping them over and browning the other side, I pulled them out of the pan, sliced them in half lengthwise, and laid them out in the pan so the (former) inside was directly on the pan’s surface. This browned more surface area and sped up the process of cooking the interior.

When the sausages were fully cooked, I pulled them out and put all the spinach in the pan without removing any of the oil or melted sausage fat. Fat equals flavor, and we aren’t counting calories here.

I added two generous scoops each of canned black beans, diced pickled jalapeños, and fire-roasted salsa. Cooking over medium-high heat boiled off some of the liquid to thicken the mix a bit. (I worried this level of heat might harm the flavor, but it didn’t.) After a few minutes of occasional stirring, the spinach was fully sautéed and ready to pour over the sausages.

Serving:

Top with freshly ground black pepper, and it’s good to go!

Taste Review:

Unseasoned pork sausage is a bit bland on its own, but this dish made it part of a flavor explosion! The result reminded me of a rich gumbo, but with a much shorter cooking time. It might be even better if the sausage meat were first removed from the skins and cooked on its own, crumbling it into bits and stirring in the rest of the mix as it cooks. With three sausages and this topping, I could easily feed three people, so I saved 2/3 of this dish for later.

eclipse

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eclipse

when the sun disappears
we dance in its umbra

embracing lightless silence
where mockingbirds dare not fly

darkness belongs to bodies
we plant kisses like seeds

and if one star
carves its absence like a scar

then you and i are healing
in the wound

 

charcoal planets 1 v2

Pastel Planets 1
Buy it as a print or card.

Serrano Pepper Hashbrowns with Cheese

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SERRANO PEPPER HASHBROWNS WITH CHEESE

I never ate Yukon potatoes before, but the little ones at Sprouts looked so cute that I had to take a couple home for something special. Why not a spicy twist on an old breakfast favorite? Why not slather them with so many tasty toppings we can hardly see them?

serrano pepper hashbrowns with cheese.jpg

Prep:

I put two Yukon potatoes in a sauce pan with cold water and a dash of sea salt, then boiled them for no more than five minutes. I ran them under cold tap water to cool them down, and shredded them along with two serrano peppers. I ground some black pepper into the mix and a generous amount of chili powder, then mushed them about into four little patties.

Cooking:

I fried them in a skillet with coconut oil on medium heat. They were browning a little too fast, so I reduced the heat to medium-low and flipped them.

While they cooked, I took the mouth of a small jar and cut out circles from slices of Colby Jack cheese, and set the circles on the patties to melt.

Serving:

I topped them with a drizzle of chipotle ranch dressing and sprinkled on some more chili powder and black pepper. A little scoop of diced, pickled jalapeños in the center completed the presentation.

Taste Review:

Delicious and enjoyably spicy, but they could use a touch of sea salt in the patty mix for flavor. This batch turned out slightly mushier than the crisp perfection I envisioned, so I’d consider frying them in a lot more oil to get that deep-fried vibe. Olive oil might be better than coconut, since it can take a slightly higher heat. Overall, they tasted great, with a little room for improvement in crispiness.

The Martian Top 40

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Mars Will Send No More is approaching the end of its eighth year, so I’ve been doing maintenance on it, clearing out dead wood and tidying up a bit. With more than 1500 posts, this garden of artistic obsessions requires pruning now and then. But I don’t mind. It’s fun to take a trip down memory lane and re-experience the ramshackle madness and mayhem upon which this blog was founded.

It’s a strange time for comic book blogs. Lloyd Wright at Diversions of the Groovy Kind is celebrating ten years of bronze-age comics blogging with nearly 3000 posts, and he’s musing on how life has changed since he started. He’s returned to writing comic books after stoking the fires of his nostalgia, and he’s a grandfather now, so he plans to post less frequently. Lloyd was a big influence on Mars in its formative days, so visit Diversions to wish him well and check out his latest original creations.

Paul O’Connor at Longbox Graveyard was an early supporter of my blogging endeavors when Mars was getting off the ground, and he’s been through changes, too. His “graveyard” has long since been been pruned and organized into a collection of his bronze-age favorites. He’s survived Californian fires, moved to Canada and returned, and is doubtlessly pondering his next conquest in the wake of leaving Twitter and putting his blog on indefinite hiatus. Drop by the Longbox to explore his entertaining collection of personal musings and generous guest blogs by fellow comic-book fans, and let him know we’d love to see him back.

Here on the distant frontiers of my Martian outpost, I’ve got no plans to abandon these virtual fortifications any time soon. We can always find something to rap about, whether it’s poetry, writing, art, food, or cats. But in honor of Lloyd and Paul and all the comic book bloggers out there, I’ll share an update about the comic book posts that have been the most popular here. Some of them overlap with my twenty-two all-time favorite comics, which you can find on the Archives Page. Some of them are from the earliest days of this blog, and others have recently rocketed to the top.

Here they are, in descending order starting from the currently most-viewed. Thank you for indulging and sharing my obsessions and joys, and stay creative.

Our Top Forty Most-Viewed Comic Book Posts
Magneto Rips out all of Wolverine’s Adamantium!
First Appearance of Spider-man’s Black Costume!
The Death of Barry Allen: Crisis on Infinite Earths 8
EC Comics & Ray Bradbury: There Will Come Soft Rains!
KISS: 1977 Marvel Comics Super Special #1
Dinosaurs of Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson!
Animal Man 5: The Coyote Gospel!
G.I. Joe 21 – The Silent Issue!
Miracleman 15: Nemesis!
Origin of Starfire!
X-Men: Fatal Attractions Wrap Around Covers With Holograms!
The Conception and Birth of Nightcrawler!
Wolverine Aces the Red Skull!
Jack Kirby’s 2001 A Space Odyssey – First Issue!
Complete Jack Kirby Portfolio from 1971!
Wolverine Aces the Hulk!
Origin of Galactus by Jack Kirby
Michael Zulli’s Ninja Turtles!
Black Cat: She’s So Totally Amoral!
Your Guide to Getting Started Selling Comic Books on eBay
All I’ve Got to Worry About Is Shooting My Dinosaur!
Jim Starlin’s Psychic Battle Motif: Thanos vs. Galactus
Jim Lee X-Men Posters 3!
A Look Inside Bruce Jones’ Run on the Incredible Hulk
Jim Lee X-Men Posters 1
Robert Crumb’s Meatball!
Todd McFarlane’s Torment of the Lizard!
Scenes from Jack Kirby’s Black Hole Adaptation!
Do You Want to Know More about the Creepy Guy at the End of Avengers?
Jim Lee X-Men Posters 2!
Anatomy of a Comic Book Bad Girl!
Origins of OMAC: Made of the Future: EC Comics
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Graphic Novel Collection by First
Preeeeeeeesenting… The Women’s Texas Championship!
Rick Griffin: Man from Utopia!
Tygers: Alan Moore’s Legendary Empire of Tears!
The Human Head According to John Buscema!
What If Spider-Man Had Stopped the Burglar?!
Wolverine Gallery 22: Jim Lee
Judge Dredd versus Satanus, the Black Tyrannosaur!

Spicy Lemon Swordfish with Spinach

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SPICY LEMON SWORDFISH WITH SPINACH

Swordfish has a meatier texture than many fishes, more like a steak, but I find the taste a bit bland. Since the manager at Sprouts put out a half-pound chunk of swordfish at a steep discount, I improvised an intensely flavorful marinade to liven things up.

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Marinade:

  • A spoonful of sun-dried tomatoes with a splash of oil from the jar.
  • A spoonful of diced, pickled jalapeños with a splash of liquid from the jar.
  • The juice of one fresh lemon.
  • One take-out packet of soy sauce.

I cut the chunk of swordfish into quarters, like four mini-steaks, and marinated them about 90 minutes in the refrigerator.

Cooking:

All the fish and marinade went into a frying pan on medium-high heat, hot enough to boil the marinade. I ground a generous amount of fresh black pepper onto the fish, flipped it once, and ground more pepper on it.

Then I added a pile of chopped spinach leaves to the pan. I let the spinach and marinade cook about a minute longer after I pulled the fish out, so the liquid reduced and thickened, a bit like a sauce.

Serving:

After scraping all the saucy spinach goodness onto the fish, I sprinkled it with sunflower seeds and even more pepper, and added a dollop of hummus on the side.

Taste Review:

I wanted intense flavor, and I got it! More sensitive palates might prefer less lemon juice. More adventurous palates might desire more jalapeños. A half-pound of swordfish is more filling than I expected, but this was a delicious meal—and a lot cheaper and easier than it looks!

pollen

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pollen

words we create together
for each other
lavender-scented and improvised
bloom like wild roses in a field
untidy and free
scattered in summer sunlight
delicate as lace

our blossoms want to stay
unplucked from our stems
we cover this field
in a scent we share
embracing bees
who drink from us

we hold them close within our petals
for moments we never recapture
but always remember
giving grains of pollen like gifts

paper-thin wings
carry our presents
to distant lovers we never meet
flowers who want to taste and touch us
to grow as we have grown
and fill this place
with creations of their own

simple

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simple

you make it sound so simple

as if we could feast on angels’ corpses
dragging tomorrow over us
like a blanket

as if we could inhale
the first breath of stars
and claim their color as our own

to you it all makes sense

the way a song splashes on stones
bathed in light
they never see

how water holds you aloft
when you dream of drowning
and forgetting

you come here all the time

to this windowless shelter full of holes
this expanse that ceases
at your fingertips

you call it home
and it answers you
in silence and thunder

 

blackout poems from the archives

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blackout poetry -017

While organizing my writing files today, I found my collection of blackout poems from a few years ago. Some were eventually combined or otherwise transformed into poems I published in Anything Sounds Like a Symphony. If you’re looking for off-beat inspiration for your own poetry adventures, give this method a shot. I didn’t invent it. It came to me through a friend of Austin Kleon, who made a name for himself doing this to pages of newspapers and launched a successful series of books including Newspaper Blackout and the New York Times Bestseller Steal Like an Artist.

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I didn’t use newspapers, but a stack of National Geographic and old Playboy magazines, and odds and ends like an issue of Seattle’s Stranger.

You can do it with anything! In a writing course I took last January from Joanne Fedler, we did a similar exercise with our own material. We started with free-writing based on our recent dreams, just filling the pages with anything that came to mind, and then we highlighted only the most captivating words or short phrases. We used those as prompts for additional writing, like new starting points, but my highlighted pages resembled a blackout poem. Anyway, here’s the lot of them, from the archives.

 

 

Meteor Mags: The Battle of Vesta 4 – now in paperback and ebook!

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bov4 cover kindle

Four Action-Packed Stories Full of Anarchy, Asteroids, and Excessive Ammunition Continue The Adventures of Meteor Mags and PatchesHoist the Jolly Roger and Get Ready to Rock!

Available on Amazon in paperback (224 pages) and Kindle. Also available on iTunes and at Barnes & Noble for Nook Book.

Rings of Ceres: A hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat return to a decimated asteroid civilization to rescue friends and kick ass, but they get caught up in violent riots between the desperate citizens of Ceres and the mercenary security forces guarding the mining corporations.

Jam Room: Meteor Mags leads a jam session with the teenagers who want to start a punk band called Dumpster Kittens!

The Battle of Vesta 4: Meteor Mags and her fun-loving crew throw the birthday party of a lifetime—until death rains down from the sky! Mosh at the rock’n’roll party of the century as the Psycho 78s record their new album! Flee in terror as Club Assteroid falls under the dragons’ assault from space! Discover the underground caverns of Vesta and join the resistance! Take one last hell ride aboard the Queen Anne before it all goes up in flame! Strap on your battle armor and get ready for the most brutal, barbaric, blood-soaked fight of your life: The Battle of Vesta 4!

Hunted to Extinction: Meteor Mags and Patches undertake one last hunt to exterminate the space lizards from our solar system. Their journey reveals the fate of Tarzi’s parents, a tragedy that connects our criminal crew to a powerful potential ally. Plus, Mags gets a new ship, and it’s got even more kick-ass stolen technology to help her plunder the System! Her club might have been destroyed, but Meteor Mags and her friends will never accept defeat so long as they live.

May not be suitable for children or carbon-based life.

 

fresh ink

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A couple of new illustrations for The Battle of Vesta 4.

mags 37 - drums - small copy

mags 36 - dances - small copy