Episode Four of Dinosaur Planet.

Notwithstanding my sincere elation last post at completing the first draft of Princess of Shadows, the last few days I have felt rather like a sprinter who, having crossed the finish line after a supreme effort, now lies gasping for air on the infield grass. I have just barely started working on the second draft. Instead, I’ve been playing Halo and doodling with Dinosaur Planet. The fourth episode is a bit short, but it seemed to break naturally where I left it.

The rumors that reading the following prose will cause hair loss and un-American activities have not yet been substantiated by scientific study, but caution is advised. As usual, copyrighted by me, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen. God be with you.

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Episode Four: Unpleasant Surprises

Paul knelt beside Mackemann. The commander’s breathing was ragged, but he was conscious. He met Paul’s eyes and tried to reach out with his right hand.

Paul caught it, gripped it tight.

“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “I’m sorry, Mac, I didn’t see the trees….”

“Nothing…you could have done,” Mackemann wheezed. “You got…Jasper?”

“Barely,” the AI said. “I’m thinking of complaining to the management….”

Mackemann rolled his eyes in disgust; Paul said, “Shut-up, short-circuit. Mac, what can I do?”

Mackemann shook his head. “Nothing for me. I’m done. You need to leave me….”

“I can’t do that!” Paul said.

Mackemann gripped Paul’s hand harder. “Listen! I’m finished—you can’t lug me anywhere, and you have to get out of here. Now. The Weasels…know we’re here. And that smoke…ah!” Mackemann writhed in pain. “The smoke will draw them. You have to get Jasper out of here, to…someplace from which…you can transmit the intel. You’ve got to, you understand?“

Paul gulped, panting with the heat and the tight constriction of his throat. “All right, all right…I get it. What can I do for you?”

“Give me a…drink of water, and then get the hell out of here.”

Paul unzipped his suit and shrugged it off; the air was thick and humid, and he was already sweating from his exertions. His ship coverall was more than enough, it seemed, in this climate. There was a potable water canister attached to the survival kit he had pulled from the ship; he unclipped it and gave Mackemann a long drink. The commander seemed to breathe easier afterwards. “Save…the rest…for yourself,” Mackemann said.

Not saying anything, Paul reattached the canister to the kit. He snapped the kit’s locks and opened it. Every kit was equipped with a backpack and cargo belt, into which he could transfer the kit’s ration packs, weapons, shelter, and medicines. With that and Jasper’s carrying sling, he would be pretty much set.

The kit was empty.

Paul stared in surprise. Empty, or nearly so—there were no food packs, or medical supplies. There was no backpack or belt. There was just one pulse pistol, where there should have been four, as well as a pulse rifle. There were no spare energy packs. There was no tent.

“What…what the hell?” Paul whispered.

“What?” Jasper said. “What’s happened now?”

“I…must have grabbed the wrong pack,” Paul said. “This one’s got hardly anything in it.”

“Oh, that’s just typical!” Jasper said. “There are no supplies at all?”

“What do you care?” Paul snapped. “You don’t have to eat.”

You do, you moronic chunk of carbon, and if you die, I’m stuck with a moldering corpse out in the boonies somewhere, waiting for my energy pack to deplete. You grabbed the wrong pack! How could you grab the wrong pack? Of all the….”

Jasper shut up suddenly, so mid-stream that Paul looked up in alarm. “What is it?”

“We’ve got movement,” Jasper said, in a voice that utterly reminded Paul of someone cocking their ear to catch a sound. “To the southwest. “

“What, animals?” Paul asked.

“Not unless animals carry pulse weaponry,” Jasper said. “I’m picking up several energy signatures.”

“Weasels,” Paul said. His heart made a serious effort to climb up out of his throat and run for it.

“That would be my guess, too,” Jasper said.

Paul snatched the one pulse pistol out of the pack, snapped it to his belt. The only other items of use in the pack were a utility knife and a telescoping corner pole of the tent that should have been there. He grabbed them both.

He ran back to Mackemann. He wasn’t going to leave him here for the Weasels to find and torture. But as he knelt down Mackemann’s eyes were fixed, staring at nothing. Paul felt for a pulse at the commander’s neck; nothing.

“He died forty-five seconds ago,” Jasper said. “Lucky bastard. He’s out of danger.”

“We’re not.” Paul reached down and closed Mackemann’s eyes. “Sorry, Mac.” He picked up Jasper’s sling, slung it over his shoulder. “Which way?”

“The opposite direction of the Weasels, stupid,” Jasper said. “Northeast. Twenty-five degrees to your right. Right, good. Now, run.”

Paul ran.

Next Episode: A Whole New World
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Later.

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Te Deum laudamus

The first draft of Princess of Shadows is complete. It may be an exaggeration to say I hear victory bells ringing, but not by much. I was close to despair a few times, trying to get to this point. Thank God.

Having said that, the war is not over yet. This puppy came in at 167,598 words, probably the biggest single chunk of writing I have ever done. Obviously it needs serious cutting; more than that, there are structural, pacing and character issues that need to be addressed.

I define a first draft as the point at which a hypothetical reader could read the manuscript and comprehend (I hope) the story arc as a whole, without major disruptions or breaks in continuity. All the major pieces, in other words, should be in place. The reader, however, would probably be asking questions like, “Why is this town named X in the first part and Y in the second?” and “Why did you put all this stuff in about the macro-economics of the Imperial grain market when we want to know if Kathy is going to get away from the cannibals?” and “How in hell did Character Z start out male and end up female without anything in the narrative about major surgery?” and so on.

In this particular story, I’ve got entire sections that I am not sure I need; characters who need to be re-written or eliminated; other sections that are too thin and need to be fleshed out. That’s aside from grammar and spelling checks, and eliminating the “holy crap, I can’t believe I wrote that!” elements. There’s a lot of work still ahead.

My next step will be an online read-through, spell-checking and fixing obvious grammar issues. Then I will apply myself to fixing the major issues with the story. Once that is done, I’ll do a hard-copy red-pen edit, which is usually where I catch the kind of sneaky errors that spell-checker misses and that tend not to be noticed on the screen (missing definite articles, etc.). Then it will be time to hand the novel over to my two beta readers, who have been very patiently waiting (well, sorta) for the next installment.

Once that’s all done, I will contract for a cover with my favorite cover artist, format the whole thing to Kindle standard, and upload it. My best guess is that I have three or four months of work still ahead of me.

But I am now over the biggest psychological hurdle I have for any story– actually completing it, however imperfectly. Once that is done, everything else is mopping-up operations and pursuit of an enemy in flight.

Later.

An update, and what is that light?

Real quick, before I take my meds and crawl into bed (in a distinct departure from sanity this evening, I walked about 99 blocks home as my daily exercise, with a twenty-pound backpack. I expect I’m going to feel that in the morning). Princess of Shadows is now over 155,000 words, and I have the growing conviction that if I maintain a good pace, I can finish the first draft this coming week. Light, end of tunnel, the standard cliche. I am in the next to last major scene, and a large part of the last major scene is already written.

Even with the draft in hand, I will have weeks of work ahead of me to fix this puppy, but the psychological hump of getting the first draft done has always been the hardest for me to overcome– I have maybe a dozen novels (or more) that I never finished, that died somewhere between beginning and end. If Shadows had been a first novel, it probably would have suffered that fate, as well– the fact that two other novels already exist was a tremendous impetus to keep plugging away. That and the people threatening to hurt me if I didn’t finish the next part of Kathy’s story. I suppose that’s a compliment.

Later.

“Chronicle” – sort of a review, with a few thoughts on power.

Recently I took some time out from my life-and-death struggle with Princess of Shadows to watch the movie Chronicle. I have a specific reason for doing so, which I will share after I talk about the film.

*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS!!!*****SPOILERS

If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, STOP READING. You have been warned.

Brief synopsis (did I mention there would be spoilers?)– three high-schoolers– a popular kid, a class-president type, and the local geek punching-bag with the obligatory dying mother and abusive father– discover a mysterious crystalline object in a sinkhole/cavern outside Seattle (mostly Cape Town, South Africa, in actuality. Probably too expensive to shoot in Seattle. Believe me, I understand that part). In some unexplained fashion contact with the object imparts telekinetic super-powers to the trio, who spend the next several weeks exercising their newfound abilities and growing more and more powerful. They eventually learn to fly and crush objects like cars.

The punching-bag (Andrew) obsessively videos everything, which is the main excuse for presenting the movie as “found footage”. I’m ambivalent about the found footage form– it always seems at least a little contrived (in Cloverfield, is the goofy camera-gumbah really going to lug the camera around right up to the moment he’s (spoiler!) eaten by the monster? Come on). Inevitably, Andrew, his mother in her last days, his father a complete thug, and high-school still a living hell, begins to go off the rails and use his powers in Ways That Can Only End In Tears– he accidentally kills the token black kid in the trio (Steve), pays back some of the school bullies, and then tries to steal enough money to buy his mother medicine. This attempt fails and puts him in the hospital. Despite his wounds, he’s still able to blow out the exterior wall of his hospital room and nearly kill his abusive father. This sets up the climatic battle between Andrew and his cousin Matt, the third member of the trio, which lays waste to a significant portion of downtown (faux-)Seattle, before Matt kills Andrew to save innocent lives. Matt then goes off to (really?) Tibet to find harmony with his powers (or something).

It was hard for me to watch this film, for several reasons. One is the fact that the three kids spend about the first third of the film being giggling dicks, as they explore their new powers. They never seem to question how they got them (indeed, the movie never explains how, or what the crystalline object was), or if there’s a downside to the powers, until Andrew begins to hurt people. Another reason was that Andrew’s story had some painful parallels to my own time in high-school. The movie as a whole seemed to have serious plot-holes and I thought it short-changed Matt’s character development, as he becomes less of a dick and more concerned with other people. I suspect some footage was left on the cutting room floor that might round out that aspect of the film in a director’s cut. Either way, personally I would give the film an “okay, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price” score.

The chief reason I watched the movie, though, was not fondness for the form or the genre (teenage superhero angst?). It’s because the film addresses something that has been percolating in the back of my brain for a while, trying to coalesce into a story.

How do people deal with power? Especially, how would a human being deal with the sudden acquisition of tremendous power? This is something of a recurring theme in sci-fi, from Star Trek (Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before), the X-Men (the Dark Phoenix storyline), and Stephen King’s Carrie. Obviously this is a way of talking about power and the corruption of power in the real, everyday world, a topic painfully acute nowadays, and thoroughly familiar to any student of history (what’s one of the prime prerequisites for a historian, imo? A strong stomach).

Different stories answer this question of power in different ways. Many take the position that, one way or another, love and connection to other people (or, more broadly, sentient beings), can inoculate the recipient of power from its misuse. Superman traditionally avoided using his powers for evil chiefly because he was grounded in the love of his adoptive parents, who give this alien the framework to be willing to serve and sacrifice for the people of Earth (and, yes, for Lois Lane, but then we all have mixed motives). Spiderman starts out possibly headed toward a amoral and uncaring future, but the shock of his Uncle Ben’s death brings him to his senses.

Chronicle seems to lean toward this concept– disaffected and outcast Andrew fails to maintain his humanity, while the more popular Matt stops being a prick and starts to exert himself on behalf of other people. Unfortunately Andrew’s character arc is perfectly predictable– the kid most likely to spiral in and crater does so. Matt emerges as the character most concerned with moral imperatives, and part of his character growth appears to be linked to his reconnection to a girlfriend. This disappointed me; I would have liked the story better if the kid I was rooting for the most had overcome his demons.

I suspect that this will be my approach to this question– call it “the Dark Phoenix Problem”– if I ever write a story around it. So far, it’s very vague, but that’s how most of my stories start. There’s three or four people involved, male and female, and one of them is the social outcast/nerd. There’s also a kid sister involved somehow. I think I will find it far more interesting to see how the nerd (the person I would most identify with) overcomes the temptation to power, or to its misuse. To me this would provide a much more satisfying twist, especially if the other people imbued with power were the sort of people (a youth minister? hmmm) you’d expect to use the power for good, and fail.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a really good starting place yet for the tale, and my creative pipeline is currently clogged with other projects. Maybe, someday, I’ll find the time to write it. In the meantime, I might study other tales on this theme– for example, Carrie, which obviously takes a different view of this question entirely. But only when I’m ready to lose a few nights sleep….

Okay, back to Shadows. Later.

A correction, or why science fiction is hard.

Princess of Shadows is now over 150,000 words. I’ve connected up the Bleak sequence with the next major segment, not in any particularly satisfying way, but enough to keep going on. I think I have two major segments and two minor left to do. Perhaps another 20,000 words or so, but I’ve been guessing at my word count through this whole project, so that may be off.

I should have gotten several thousand more words down, but for a good portion of the last two weeks I actually suspended writing the novel because I needed to make some notes on some details of the world of Jauthur, especially its calendar. With five moons and a day and a year noticeably longer than Earth’s, I realized I needed to outline the way the Val keep time, or there was going to be trouble.

And that’s when I discovered I was in trouble. With two novels already published I am committed to certain facts about Jauthur I can’t get around. One of these is that Jauthur has five moons– the Mother Moon, the Daughter Moon, the Son Moon, Wanderer, and Rock (a captured asteroid, in case anybody needs that explained to them). Another fact is that the Daughter Moon has a 14 day orbital period (this relates to a story detail that literally takes one character out of harm’s way and puts another in her place). The third fact is that the Mother Moon is the largest moon.

The trouble was, when I composed the first novel, Princess of Wonders, Kathy arrives on Jauthur and is confronted by the multiplicity of moons right away. In the narrative she notes that the apparent size of the Mother Moon is “ten times the apparent size of the full Moon on Earth”. I originally put that detail in to create an other-worldly vibe, just the same as when you see multiple moons or suns in science-fiction films and you know at once you’re not in Poughkeepsie any more. Well and good enough on its own.

But when I went to reconcile the moons’ orbits with the Val calendar (with two seperate months of 14 and 63 days, another story detail I was stuck with), I realized, with a kind of Hitchcockian frisson of horror, that I had made the Mother Moon way, way too big. If the moon was the same distance from Jauthur as the Moon is from Earth, then it would have been 10 times the size of the moon, or about 20,000 miles in diameter. Eek. In that case, Jauthur, a close twin of Earth at about 7800 miles in diameter, would be orbiting the Mother Moon, not vice-versa. Pushing the Mother Moon out would only make things worse, as that would make it larger– angular diameter is a pretty straightforward calculation (yes, this involved math). I could bring it closer, and so reduce its actual size, but I had committed myself in the story to having the Daughter Moon on an inner orbit versus the Mother Moon (that 14 day orbital period thingie). I could not therefore plausibly have a very large moon in a very close orbit with a lesser moon without risking possible cosmic catastrophe.

After some head-scratching and fumbling around with calculating orbital periods the old fashioned way (confession– my scientific notation skills are way rusty) before locating orbital period calculators on the Web, I decided that the simplest thing to do would be to make the one correction to the text that would restore a degree of plausibility to the story– I changed the apparent size of the Mother Moon from ten times the Earth’s Moon to two, with the Mother Moon at about 250,000 miles and with a 30 day period. This made the whole arrangement of moons a lot easier to swallow– but it meant altering the text of a novel that’s been published for almost two years, something I find galling, even if it was just correcting one detail. But it was necessary because I didn’t stop to think about the world I was building when I first wrote the story.

At this point you may be asking why this matters in a piece of fiction. I wrote a story, after all, not a treatise on lunar orbital systems. My answer is that this is a piece of science fiction, which operates (when done right) by a different set of rules. I’m firmly of the opinion that anybody who seriously tackles sci-fi should at least attempt to get the basic science right, however many warp drives you have, or however much cavorite you coat your spaceship with. Otherwise you should stick to fantasy, where you can do what you please (though even fantasy should have internally consistent rules for its worlds). I’m not writing hard science-fiction– the Divine Lotus series is more about the sociology of modernization and imperialism– but it would make me ill to leave something obviously wrong in the narrative when I can correct it.

So be warned– science-fiction is hard. Do your homework first. Think about your world. And practice your scientific notation. It’ll come in handy.

Later.

Episode Three of Dinosaur Planet

Not sure the title is totally appropriate for this episode, but I picked it before I knew exactly what was going to happen in this part, and then I was stuck with it. Oh, well.

I’ve been playing way too much Halo the last few days, but I still managed to get Princess of Shadows to over 145,000 words this week. Kathy is in the House of Glory, hiding from just about everybody at the moment. I’m probably doing too much of a Dickens homage with a gang of street kids led by a pickpocket named Dart. May need to think about that.

The dubious scribblings below are copyrighted by me, 2013, because 1). I wrote them, and 2). it would be really skeevy to try to blame them on someone else.

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Episode Three: Run Through the Jungle

When Paul could see straight again—when the universe stopped tumbling, crashing, and ripping apart— he found himself hanging sideways in the straps of his seat. There was a stink of burning insulation and of ozone. He looked about, gasping. The air was warm and humid. The cockpit canopy was gone; its top had been sheared off, and only a jagged rim of transmetal remained.

“Wake up,” someone was yelling. “Wake up, you stupid organic, the damn ship’s on fire!”

It was Jasper; the AI had focused his audio output so that it sounded as if it were right in Paul’s ear. “All right, all right,” Paul answered. He blinked and understood for the first time what he was seeing.

The scout ship had gone right through the belt of trees—apparently it was only a few yards thick—and was now lying canted over on its port side by about thirty degrees, in a shallow eddy of the river. Water, roiled by the impact and fouled by mud and leaking hydraulics, swirled around the ship. The air-foils on both sides had been ripped off by the trees. Leaves and branches were still falling. A pall of thick black smoke billowed up from the ship’s aft section.

“Mackemann!” Paul yelled. He removed his helmet, clawed at his harness release, and flipped it open. He fell sideways onto the cockpit bulkhead; water was pouring over its edge. “Mackemann!” He looked around.

Mackemann, still strapped into the commander’s seat, met Paul’s eyes. His face was twisted with agony above the tree-branch that protruded from his chest.

“Oh, God,” Paul murmured. He stumbled aft through the water. He had to climb up on the seat’s frame to reach Mackemann’s harness release. When he popped it, Mackemann fell, loose-limbed, right on top of him. Paul, not quite ready for the man’s weight, staggered and fell to his knees. The water rose to Paul’s chest, and threatened to pull him under. At the last moment, though, Paul got a grip on a support strut of the command seat and pulled himself up, with Mackemann over his shoulder.

Somehow Paul got himself and Mackemann out of the cockpit and into the water. The backwater was warm, and rose to Paul’s waist. The current was not strong. Paul slogged ashore.

The scoutship had scythed its way through the trees; the ship’s track was marked by plowed earth, scored tree trunks, and at least two fallen trees. The broken-off air-foil tips and other debris from the ship smoldered in the underbrush. Leaves and torn vegetation still swirled in the air.

Paul had no time to study the destruction, though. He laid Mackemann on the ground, in one of the ship’s plowed furrows, and leaned over him. Blood seeped from around the branch in his chest; some of Mackemann’s blood now stained the shoulder of Paul’s spacesuit. Paul removed the commander’s helmet. Mackemann gasped in pain, but he met Paul’s gaze. “Go…pull…Jasper,” Mackemann managed.

“HEY!” Jasper yelled. “Haven’t you forgotten something?”

Paul stood and ran back to the ship. Flames now roared out it’s stern. Paul could feel their heat. He clambered back into the cockpit and pulled the emergency handle on the AI hardware compartment. The compartment hatch unlatched; Paul lifted it off and threw it aside.

Inside the compartment were the AI’s memory cells and processors; below was an inner compartment. Paul pulled its cover. Inside was a small ovoid, slightly larger than a football—the transport unit. A small bank of status lights burned green at one end; in the middle of the surface was a blue-glowing sensor eye.

“About damn time,” Jasper said; when he spoke the status lights flickered. “Get me the hell out of here.”

“Keep your circuits on,” Paul muttered. He disconnected the data and external power links. The moment he did the main AI cells flashed violent activity on all their lights. In the midst of everything, Paul wondered if that meant that there was a stay-behind Jasper, now frantically entrapped in the ship’s circuits, or a newborn AI, confused and unsure what was going on. Either thought was horrible, but Paul could only attend to the business he had now, literally, in hand.

“Come on, move it,” Jasper said. “That fire is creeping closer to the auxiliary battery stacks—when those catch fire they’ll explode.”

“I know, I know,” Paul said, through gritted teeth. The fire was closer, both outside and inside the ship; Paul could feel its heat pulsing through the bulkhead of the AI compartment. He released one, then two of the three clamps holding the transport unit. The third, behind the unit, seemed jammed; his fingers slipped and could not get a grip on the nut holding down the attaching rod.

“You do realize that we are both about to fry here, right?” Jasper said.

“Oh, shut up,” Paul snapped. He shifted his position, put his shoulder into the compartment, and got proper grip on the locking nut and freed it. His shoulder felt singed where it had contacted the bulkhead, even through his suit.

He stood and lifted the transport unit out of the compartment. “The carrying sling, get the carrying sling, you moron, unless you want to cradle me in your arms the whole way,” Jasper said. Paul stopped. Another small sub-compartment held tools, and a fabric shoulder-sling for the transport unit. Paul grabbed that last item, nearly burning his fingers this time, and then he waded back toward shore. The flames in the stern were now five meters high and had burned through the ship’s skin amidships.

Paul laid Jasper and the sling down by Mackemann, then turned back toward the ship. “What the hell are you doing?” Jasper said.

“Survival packs,” Paul yelled. He had to hold a hand up to ward off the heat. He reached the cockpit. The survival packs were where Mackemann had racked them. Paul released the catches on the first and snatched it out. Something in the lower deck of the ship started hissing and popping, and Paul turned and ran.

He reached Mackemann. They were much too close to the ship. Jasper went into the sling, the sling over Paul’s shoulder. Paul picked up Mackemann and heaved him over his other shoulder. The man groaned; Paul was sure it would have been a scream of pain for any other man in his state.

Somehow Paul managed to pick up the survival pack with the hand that wasn’t steadying Mackemann. With his knees threatening to buckle, Paul set off at the best run through the trees that he could manage, which wasn’t much better than a slow jog.

Ten meters, twenty—he circled around a huge tree with roots that threatened to trip him—thirty. The roar of the fire behind him grew louder.

“Get down, get down!” Jasper yelled from the sling. “It’s going to blow!”

Paul threw Mackemann down in the lee of a large tree root, and threw himself down on the commander. There was a soft whump and then a sharp crack, and the air compressed horribly around them. The pressure threatened to burst his eardrums, and for a moment he couldn’t breathe.

The shock-wave passed. Paul kept his head down for another couple of moments, until he was sure things had stopped falling. Only then did he look up over the root

The scout ship was flame from one end to another. A gaping hole had been blown in the starboard side. The cockpit collapsed into the deck below and all Paul could see was fire. The smoke rose up black and solid, like an ink mark drawn to point to the ship’s position.

“It’s gone,” Jasper said.

Next episode: Unpleasant Surprises

A short, very short, in fact, tiny, update

Princess of Shadows is now over 140,000 words. This is despite me continuing to doodle with both Dinosaur Planet and Princess of Fire. Fire, in particular, seems to be a story that is eager to be born. Among other things, I’m laying down some fun interactions between Kathy and her thug cousin Iron– gives me the opportunity to inject some Robert Burns into the narrative.

Getting Kathy through the Bleak sequence, but it seems pretty flat at the moment. I need this town to reek of coal-dust and despair, but at the moment its mostly Kathy wandering around complaining about being hungry. I just keep telling myself I’ll fix it in the second draft. I hope I can keep that promise.

Later.

The beginning of the end of the middle of the end…or something like that….

Shadows is now over 137,000 words, and I am happy to report that Kathy has finally left the farming village and gone on to Bleak, which I hope will live up to its name. It’s the armpit of the Empire, with starving workers, bloated industrial magnates, haughty overlords and tainted water supplies. A wonderful place.

My production has been ticking upward toward 1000 words or so a day this last week– somehow the idea that I have only about two or three major sequences left is energizing me. It might also be that I’ve gotten past some really tough parts and what’s left feels much more doable. I am hoping that I can finish the draft of Shadows in another month (maybe). I’ll still have weeks and weeks of works after that– the online second draft, the hard-copy red-pen edit (yes, I still do that), and then giving the polished draft to my beta readers. At that rate it will be summer before I publish, but that’s better than where I was three months ago, when I wondered if I would ever finish this thing.

Later.

A quick update and a request for feedback.

Princess of Shadows is now over 129,000 words, and while what I’m putting down at the moment seems kinda weak, I’m plowing ahead. It’s that or sink.

I spent a couple of minutes this afternoon thinking about the blurb for the novel. With Kindle self-publishing, you write your own blurbs. Frankly, some writers on Kindle (not naming names) cannot write a blurb to save their life. Personally, I try to remember all the back-cover blurbs I ever read while looking through the paperback selection at Target or TG&Y, trying to figure out if this particular book was worth spending my very meager weekly allowance on. To me the best ones always seemed to be short, but enticing, hinting at dangers and adventures without describing too much. In that spirit I’ve dummied up a draft blurb. Any feedback would be appreciated.

Kathy Pennington has fallen into the hands of the mysterious Lord Twilight, who plans to sell her to the highest bidder—whether that is Gehman rebels, dissident Val lords, or sinister foreign agents who plan a painful and terrible end for her. Trapped in Twilight’s fortress, Kathy has only her wits to make good her escape.

But even if she gets away, safety lies across the whole of the Empire, along twisting paths filled with deadly enemies and deep shadows.

Not sure about that last line. Anyway, thanks.

Episode Two of Dinosaur Planet.

I had this about halfway done, so I decided to finish it off and post it. I hope taking occasional side trips into not very serious doodles is helping me relax about writing Princess of Shadows. At least, I’m having a little fun with writing something. And I haven’t even gotten to the Cave Women yet….

Once again, this episode has not been closely copyedited, and may cause premature brain-cell death and tooth decay. Despite its failings, it is copyrighted by me, the perpetrator, 2013.

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DINOSAUR PLANET

Episode 2

Falling into Terror

They prepared. Once the course was laid in for the planet, and all unnecessary systems were shut down, Mackemann broke out survival packs and checked supplies. “We have to assume that the ship will not be habitable once we land,” he told Paul. “If we make a rough landing, we may need to abandon immediately.”

“Of course, with a really rough landing, you won’t have to worry about abandoning anything, because you’ll be dead,” Jasper interrupted. “The only downside to that is that I would probably be dead with you.”

“You wouldn’t be dead,” Mackemann said back, “because you’re not alive now.”

“And you guys talk about me being rude!” Jasper snapped.

“We have to be ready,” Mackemann said to Paul, ignoring the AI, “not least because this is an un-surveyed world and we have no idea what’s down there.”

“I understand,” Paul said.

Mackemann leaned in close. “Don’t let the short-circuit get your goat, Paul. It’s not your fault you got tagged for this mission out of school. You’re doing fine.”

“Thanks,” Paul said. He wasn’t sure he believed Mackemann, but he appreciated the effort.

“Just remember,” Mackemann said, lowering his voice, “JSP-15 AIs are all a little more than sketchy when it comes to their interpersonal programming matrices….”

“I heard that,” Jasper said.

Once Mackemann had the survival gear checked out, there was nothing to do but wait for the ship to fall toward the planet. It got very quiet in the cockpit, and more than a little cold with the life-support at minimum; Mackemann had them put on pressure suits, per emergency landing protocols, which had the advantage that they could run the suit heat to even things out.

Paul tracked their course and worried about their energy levels. Considering the damage to external surfaces, they would have to expend some energy on internal integrity fields and skin shielding– which Mackemann had managed to coax back to minimal functionality with a lashed-up bypass in the engineering space– to keep the heat of re-entry from burning through something vital. Alliance Sparrow-class scout ships were tough– they had to be, to operate far behind the front in enemy space, where they had to self-sustain, take damage and still get back with their intelligence. Their ship, however, had taken a lot of damage and was going to need all the help it could get just getting to the ground.

But every erg expended protecting the ship from re-entry heat and stress would be one less erg available to power the ship’s flight afterward. And the power for re-entry would be whatever was left over when they completed the necessary braking maneuver to drop them into the planet’s atmosphere. Paul ran through several possible scenarios and could not decide which he disliked the most– they were all fairly ugly. The fly-by-wire subsystem was out, and there was no pre-configured flight-profile for an unexplored world. The re-entry would have to be flown manually. Paul more than half-expected Jasper to be sarcastic about that, but the AI, for once, said nothing. Paul wondered if Jasper realized this was no time to be chipping away at the self-confidence of the only pilot they had.

The planet grew in the one holo-screen they allowed to operate. It looked like most other Class V worlds– blue oceans underlying swirling white cloud systems, with brown-green landmasses scattered about. Paul just hoped that there were some nice, flat plains or sandy beaches to set the ship down on. Even better would be a secret Alliance base with a tarmac, rescue crews and a bar, but he thought that might be a tad optimistic.

The last hour seemed to rush by. Paul finished all his calculations and made sure the space-normal thrusters were ready. Mackemann had both of them put their helmets on, with visors open. “Listen,” he told them, “whatever happens, our information has to get back to the Alliance. That was no motley of Verturi ships we saw out around Dennal IV—they’re building up for something big. Jasper– are you ready?”

“Way ahead of you, as usual,” the AI said. “I’ve been twinning my core functions and all data storage to my Core Transport Unit for the last hour, with updates every five milliseconds. Once we land, pull me and get me in my travel case and we’re good to go. Just don’t drop me.”

“No promises,” Paul muttered.

“I heard that, too,” Jasper said.

“Enough,” Mackemann said. “I don’t know what the situation is on the ground, but we have to do everything we can to regain contact with the Alliance with our information. And stay out of Verturi hands.”

“Understood, skipper,” Paul said.

Ten minutes later, the trajectory plot indicated it was time to turn the ship for re-entry. Paul did so, then shifted everything to manual and waited. Time started playing tricks on him again– the minutes now seemed to ooze past like thick oil.

At five minutes Paul started the countdown to burn, started the integrity and skin fields, and said a prayer. It seemed to mostly be around the theme of ‘please get us down’. Then it was thirty seconds, and then ten.

Jasper yelled, “Retro!” and the ship bucked, pressing Paul and Mackemann into their seats. The gees built to about five or so, just as Paul had calculated, and went on for minutes. He watched the ship’s energy reserve and sweated.

“Cutoff!” Jasper yelled.

The deceleration ended. Paul immediately turned the ship, positioning it for re-entry. He checked the energy reserve readings and felt his throat tighten. Not good.

“Sphincter-check time,” Mackemann muttered.

“I don’t have any,” Jasper said.

“Lucky you,” Mackemann said.

Paul noticed a slight vibration in his control surfaces. In the space of seconds, the vibration became a shuddering. “Upper atmosphere,” Paul announced. “Skin temperatures increasing.”

“Put a little more power into the skin field,” Mackemann said.

“We don’t have much to spare,” Paul warned him.

“We don’t have any choice,” Mackemann said.

Paul obeyed. The ship continued to shudder; the external view showed a white-red vortex of flame building around the ship, until it obscured the planet below. Paul, working to keep the ship in the correct orientation, switched to a stern view. Behind the scout ship was a tail of super-heated plasma miles long. No secrecy there– they were advertising their arrival on the planet to any being who could look up.

“Passing one hundred thousand meters,” Mackemann said. “Surface temperature stabilizing, but we don’t want to have to keep it where it is for long.”

“It’ll take as long as it takes,” Paul said. Sweat stood on his face. The ship was showing a tendency to yaw to starboard; Paul had to constantly compensate, or the ship could tumble out of control in a moment.

“Passing ninety-thousand meters,” Mackemann said.

“That jury-rig you pasted together on the internal shielding is starting to go,” Jasper said.

“Try to keep it breathing for just a few more minutes,” Mackemann said.

“It’s not really under warranty, you know,” Jasper said.

“Oh, shove the comedy routine, all right?” Mackemann said.

The shuddering in the ship frame grew worse. Paul glanced at his readouts. They were approaching the moment of maximum dynamic stress, as the ship reached its greatest velocity before the thickening atmosphere began to slow it down. If something was going to fail catastrophically, it would be now.

“Seventy-thousand meters,” Mackemann said.

Something shrieked in the aft end of the ship. In the external view debris flew off the ship and vaporized in the plasma stream. The ship bucked; Paul cursed and fought with his controls.

“We’ve lost a secondary stabilizer,” Jasper said.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Paul said. In addition to the yaw, the ship now wanted roll. Paul now had to think about compensating in two different directions at once. The next few minutes were lost to him as he struggled with the ship’s controls.

Mackemann called out the steadily decreasing altitude. Slowly, Paul noticed the ship stabilizing; in the external view the aurora glow of the re-entry envelope faded. Airspeed—and it was airspeed now—came down to the merely supersonic.

“Skin’s temperature’s dropping,” Jasper announced.

Paul put the nose of the ship down. They were deep in the atmosphere now, sharing the sky with high clouds and sunlight. The ship leveled out and glided. “We did it,” Paul said, feeling like a man reprieved from the headman. His hands trembled on the controls.

“We’re not out of this yet,” Mackemann said. “Jasper, what’s it look like ahead?”

“Ocean under us at the moment, but there’s a landmass ahead,” the AI replied. “Can’t tell too much about it yet. By the way, we just passed ten thousand meters.”

Paul didn’t like their glide ratio much, but there was little he could do about it. “We’re zero on auxiliary power,” he said. “Emergency cells only at this point.”

“Jasper, can we direct some of those to the impulse thrusters?” Mackemann asked.

“Yes, but they won’t give us more than a minute or two of powered flight,” Jasper said.

“Even few seconds thrust could make the difference,” Mackemann said. “Switch half the cells over.”

“On it.” Paul reckoned it was a sign how preoccupied the AI was that it didn’t make a snarky comment. Jasper performed the switch-over. The two main impulse thrusters immediately showed positive for power on Paul’s panel, but at low levels. He didn’t engage the thrusters yet. Wait.

Mackemann set the ship’s canopy to transparent, and all at once they were surrounded by sky. They descended through cumulus clouds, passing through cotton-wool whiteness into bright sunshine. Below them was a wide sea, glinting in the sun; ahead was dark land. Paul felt a lurch in the pit of his stomach; behind the fringe of coastline was a tall range of snow-topped mountains, jagged saw-teeth pointing skyward, looking as if they were ready to snatch the scout-ship out of the air.

“Ah, hell,” Mackemann said. “Jasper, are we going to clear those?”

“Only if we stay above seven thousand meters, and considering that we’re now at six thousand, it ain’t looking hopeful….”

“Power to thrusters,” Paul said. “Climbing….”

The impulse thrusters shoved him and Mackemann back in their seats. The scout-ship climbed. Paul could feel it shudder and moan under the added stress. Just a few minutes, he pleaded, whether with the ship or with God, he wasn’t sure. Just a few minutes.

They reached the land. The mountains came at them, much more quickly than Paul expected. He gave the thrusters an extra push. The scout-ship complained but climbed. One ice-topped peak in particular lunged at them. It glittered in the sun, horribly close—and then shot past beneath them, as if it had leapt upward and missed its catch.

“Holy spit,” Jasper said. “We cleared that by about two hundred meters. It’s a really good thing I don’t have a bladder.”

In front of them now was a long slope, covered in glaciers, descending from the peaks down toward braided river-valleys. A warning tone chimed from Paul’s panel; the emergency power-cells were empty.

“Zero power on all cells,” Jasper announced, redundantly. “We’re going to drop like a gut-shot canary….”

“We’re catching some up-drafts,” Paul announced. The controls were stiff in his hands, but not impossible. “I think we can make that stream dead ahead.”

“Do the best you can,” Mackemann said. “Either on the ice below or in the water, prepare for crash-landing.”

“Wait!” Jasper said. “I’m picking up something….”

“What?” Mackemann demanded.

“Power-source reading,” Jasper said. “Not quite on our track, more to the south and east…looks like a base reactor of some sort.”

“Alliance?” Mackemann said.

Jasper actually didn’t answer for a moment, which Paul would have thought impossible. “No,” the AI said. “Verturi. Definite Verturi signature.”

“Damn,” Mackemann said. “The weasels are here?”

“Worry about it later,” Paul told him. “We’re landing here, like it or not.”

They left the glaciers behind; forest, thick and green, passed underneath. They dropped under two thousand meters, and then one thousand. Paul worried that they were coming in too fast, but he wanted to hang on to as much air-speed as they could, as long as they could, to reach the river, shining ahead. If they went down in the trees they wouldn’t have a chance.

Then they were over the river. It was wide and smooth-surfaced. White-winged flyers rose in flocks before in them in alarm, going by too fast for Paul to get even a glimpse. Paul pulled up the ship’s nose, trying to bleed off airspeed, while Jasper called out, “Six hundred meters…five hundred meters…slow it down, you stupid organic, you’re too fast…four hundred meters….”

The ship slowed and came down. They passed over a rocky set of rapids perhaps a kilometer long, and Paul fought to keep the ship off those, and then they were past the rapids and over another broad stretch of the river. One hundred meters, he heard Jasper say, but it was a faraway sound, much quieter and distant than the hammering of his own heart, the pulse of his own breathing, and the sound of the wind over the ship’s airframe. The primary was behind them; he could see the ship’s shadow on the water before them, growing larger and more solid.

The ship’s belly kissed the surface of the water. Just a shudder, and the ship was airborne once more, skipping off the river like a flat stone. Paul fought the controls, easing the ship back down. The ship hit the water again, and this time it stayed. Water rooster-tailed behind them, spray covered the canopy. Something shrieked and the ship lurched, but it stayed on its belly and slowed.

Trees!” Jasper cried. Paul saw a tall stand of trees dead ahead, growing on a spit of land protruding into the river. He tried to turn the ship, but there was no power and the vessel didn’t respond to the controls, because it wasn’t a flying machine anymore, just a dead-weight of ceramic and metal plowing through the water. Paul had one moment to taste rage and failure, before the ship hit.

*********************************************

Next Episode: Run Through the Jungle

Pray and Write

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