19 November 2013

The boy in my heart: 2013 edition

Note: I posted this last year. It is more or less the same post, updated to reflect changes over the past year. I'll probably do a new one of these next year, but for now you get this. 

11/19/2008, 4:20 am: I see the head first. Misshapen from the trip down the birth canal, covered in a cap of black hair, matted with blood and placental goo, features squashed and smooshed and squinted and yet identifiably family, somehow. My heart leaps in my chest. I can hardly breathe. I tell my wife it's almost over, the rough labor she's been in (and lord has it ever been rough on her; I will tell you that tale sometime--but not now, as this is someone else's story) will be done soon. We're in the home stretch. Stef grabs my hand with a grip I will be feeling in my knuckles for hours hence, and at the obstetrician's urging she bears down.

The shoulders emerge: bloody, thin, fragile. So tiny, my child is. I worry, not for the first or last time, about how small the baby is, how fragile--and how clumsy I can be. It is part of the endless list of father-fears I keep tucked away in a safe corner of my mind, where I leave it and try not to obsess with it overmuch. (Once, when there was a TV story about the vaccine-autism nonsense, my wife turned to me and said, "Do you worry about autism?" My response: "I worry about everything.")

"One last push," the OB says. My wife bears down and the hips, then the legs, slip free. And I see my son for the first time. I have a perfect snapshot of the moment in my mind: The OB holding him by the head with one hand, cradling his tiny backside with the other. I see that he is a boy and I tell my wife, joy in my voice--Stef tells me that this is the moment locked in her memory, her own auditory snapshot, the sound of amazed, dazed, ecstatic wonder in my words as I shout "It's a boy!"

Then comes the messy business of cleaning up--collecting the afterbirth, wrapping the child and placing him in the warmer, stitching up my wife's partial episiotomy, shooing me out of the way as I snap photos of him in the warmer. At some point they bring him over to Stephanie, who holds him, and sings to him in a shaky, tired voice that brings me to the point of tears.

And then they bring him to me, and I hold my son for the first time. And the tears come. And I hold him close and call him my little man, and he cries, oh he cries, in a good strong voice my son cries and wails and says hello in the only wise he understands. And I never want to stop holding him. And I never want to stop feeling the way I feel in this strange, surreal sliver of time: holding a screaming infant with blood in his hair, my heart overflowing with love, my eyes overspilling with tears. And even then I know that this moment is as fleeting as any other in life and will not last, cannot last, that soon it will be past and the next moment will arrive (and disappear as well). And so I commit every detail I can to memory in the hopes of preserving some small portion of it in my heart, to return to when I need it, to sample its emotional flavor and its immediacy and above all, that wonder. That wonder I have rarely felt as strongly since I was a boy myself. That wonder I hope my son feels all through his childhood, and in some form or other all of his life.

That is the bequest I hope to give him, above money, above property, above all other things that men sometimes mistakenly value:


That's me up there, holding my son on the day he was born. Not sure if you can see the tears, but I guarantee you they are there.  

He turns five today. this is what he looks like now:

The black hair fell out and has been replaced by the straight brown locks hidden under the hat above. I am proud to say that, clumsy as I am, I never once dropped him. I hope I never do.

He's in kindergarten now, and is doing well--I will allow myself a small amount of fatherly pride and say that my kid is smart as a whip and thoroughly awesome. Also, he knows how to go along with a gag, as the following conversation from last night demonstrates:

Liam (slurping tomato soup): "Daddy, how do you make tomato soup?"
Me: "Well, you take tomatoes and you hit them with a soup hammer."
Liam: "Soup hammer?"
Me: "Yeah. BOOM!"
Liam (after thinking about it for a minute): "But we don't have a soup hammer!"
Me: "No, I guess not."
Liam: "We need to get one!"

I love that kid. :)

It's been a long, interesting five years that have gone by in an eyeblink. Liam has grown into an intelligent, quick-witted, occasionally stubborn and willful boy. I have held him when he cried, and sung him to sleep, and bought him books he still reads, and toys he still plays with.  

Right now as I write this he's getting ready for his day at school. He'll get to pass out the treats Stef is bringing with him (ALL THE CUPCAKES), and then will learn math and new words to spell and maybe do an art project. Then Stef will come to collect him and walk him home, his little sister Ella in the stroller next to him, listening as he gushes about his day. And I wish I could be there to hear him do that, and listen as he tells me what his friends said, and maybe shows me the leaves he found on the way home--but the sad reality is that I have to be at work, blogging about it and imagining it instead of experiencing it. I will have my chances to walk him to and from school in the coming months, and I know that; I just wish I could do it today, because today is his birthday, and I want to share every minute of it that I can with him.

Tonight he will get a special dinne of his choosing, which has evolved from French Toast to chicken nuggets and fries to spicy chicken (whatever that might be), and we will watch Yellow Submarine and he will open his presents, and I will think about the last five years of staying up with him when he was sick, and walking with him to the store, and bitching at him to stop chasing the damn cats already, and together we'll tack another year onto the board. And I will keep treasuring every fleeting moment that goes by, and committing it to memory so I will have it in my dotage, to take out as a fondly remembered souvenir. Something to talk to him about when he is a grown man, with children of his own who frustrate him, and fill him with joy, and keep him up late at night with worry, and make him want to be better than the man he is. . . just as he does now, with me. And who will remind him of the wonders of his youth, just as he now reminds me of the wonders of mine.

I hope he keeps that wonder in his heart forever, just as I know I will keep him--and his sister--in mine. Because it is for all time, this feeling of joy, if we so choose to preserve it. And I so choose.

I choose for myself what I chose for him, five years ago: Wonder.

Happy Birthday, Liam. Your daddy loves you. And always will.

10 November 2013

. . . and this is why I shouldn't be allowed on the internet.

This is what I do when I’m home alone and the game servers are undergoing shard maintenance.

05 November 2013

What Stories have Taught Me: 100 Small Lessons

Once again I turn the blog over to my lovely wife, Stephanie Ann Whelan. She’s celebrating her 100th post on her blog today, and to honor that milestone she’s compiled a list of 100 small lessons she has learned from reading Fantasy and Science Fiction in her life.

Go and have a look, and tell her how awesome she is.


I'll be back in a few days with some content of my own.

30 October 2013

There Is No Teacher But the Enemy: On the Ender’s Game Boycott

“You're a monster.”
“Thanks. Does this mean I get a raise?”
--Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game


(Note: Potential triggers below. You have been warned.)

I’ve been thinking about Orson Scott Card and Ender’s Game a bit lately. About my conscience and how clean I want it to be. About whether it’s really possible to separate artists from their art. About whether it’s ethical to do so, at least in terms of my own personal ethics.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, mostly because of a few things I encountered on social media. One of them was an acquaintance of mine concern-trolling about John Lennon’s history of violence in his younger days--a history he had remorsefully repudiated and worked very hard to correct by the end of his life. The other was, if I remember correctly, a screed on Tumblr pointing out that while people are quick to condemn Chris Brown and Bobby Brown for beating women, they are not so quick to do so for guys like Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson--which is honest to god bullshit. I have seen plenty of people in the media and elsewhere publicly excoriating Sheen and Gibson. I have in fact done just that on this very blog back in my “Notes From the News” days, when I was trying to turn this thing into a halfassed version of Pajiba. I very pointedly said that if he was just a regular asshole instead of a famous one, Sheen’s ass would be in jail. It’s also worth noting that Mel Gibson is to this day largely persona non grata in Hollywood. Nobody wants to work with him--something he’s whined about publicly more than once. At which point my heart bleeds purple piss at the injustice of it all, because boo. Fucking. Hoo.

(Translation: fuck you Mel, you racist piece of shit.)

It rankles, because I have enjoyed work by both Gibson and sheen--though not for a long, long time in either case, and with the benefit of hindsight nowhere near as much as I used to. And now, in light of their public (and frankly criminal) assholery, I find my enjoyment of their work has dwindled to nothing. Likewise, my admiration for the work of Roman Polanski has taken a nosedive in light of the fact that the man is an unrepentant pederast who likes to pretend that he has been somehow victimized by being convicted for drugging and anally raping an underage girl. And even though Lennon worked hard to overcome his demons, I find it difficult to reconcile the man as he is presented with the man as he really was. From an ethical standpoint I find it difficult at best to separate the artist from their work.

And yet, I listen to Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday without constantly judging them by their crippling addictions. I watch and love Marx Brothers movies without reflecting on Chico’s endless womanizing and gambling addiction, or Groucho’s verbal abuse of his wives, or Zeppo’s unbelievably terrible acting and time-stopping blandness, because holy shit folks. *yawn*

I could go on: Poe’s relentless alcoholism. Picasso’s terrible treatment of women. Faulkner’s philandering. Lovecraft’s open racism. Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Page’s predilections for teenage girls. John Belushi’s addictions and blatant misogyny. Dave Sim’s honestly frightening descent into not just misogyny but outright madness.

The gist is that there is a point, an internal line where each of us struggles to reconcile the artist against the art. Can I enjoy Miles Davis’ music or Richard Pryor’s comedy while knowing they were drug addicted assholes who treated people horribly? Yes. The question is (and this is a question I struggle with frequently): Should I? And if I do, how does that sort with my dislike of Rick James for the exact same reasons?

Orson Scott Card is one of the latest manifestations of this struggle, made worse by the fact that, once upon a time, when Ender’s Game and the Alvin Maker books were being written, he was one of the brightest lights of the SF world. At the time it was published, Ender’s Game won awards and critical accolades. Sequels followed, few of them (the first two or three especially) following anything like an expected path, especially Speaker For the Dead. For decades, Ender’s Game has been held up as a high water mark for military SF--to the point where the U. S. Marine Corps keeps it on a recommended reading list for the lower ranks.

And yet, at some point, the author of this high water mark went off the rails. Significantly, Dave Sim-style off the rails.

I won’t bore you with another long recap of the often-bizarre things Orson Scott Card has said and done during the latter half of his career. They’re a matter of public record, should one care to look them up. However some of the highlights include: near-future SF that is really just an arch-conservative screed drawn from the darkest depths of culture warrior paranoia; a half-assed rewrite of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that not only completely misses the point of the play, but injects such a virulent strain of homophobia into the proceedings that The Bard’s corpse is still probably facepalming over it; calling for the violent overthrow of the United States government if gays are allowed to marry; and, most recently, claiming that the government will create a national police force of young, urban men (ie, teh blackz), and use it to, uh, take over the country?

As Maureen Johnson said at the time, "I don't know where Orson Scott Card goes from here, except maybe to declare war on the moon.".

In the middle of all this, a long-gestating film adaptation of Ender’s Game has been in the works, winding up being produced by Lions Gate. The movie debuts Friday. It’s gotten good reviews so far, and based on the trailer looks like a damn good adaptation. And to its credit, Lions Gate has gone out of its way to distance itself and the movie from Card, going so far as to organize benefits for LGBT charities as an anodyne against Card opening his mouth and unintentionally sabotaging the film every couple of weeks.

Despite all this, there is a semi-organized boycott of the film planned, and it’s sizable enough to potentially impact its opening weekend earnings. And of course there is the inevitable blowback from people who are saying alternately that a) Card has nothing to do with the movie apart from having written the book it’s based on. b) Card is entitled to his opinions, why can’t we just stop censoring him, and c) the boycotters are the real bigots, because the people who made the movie are going to suffer if it doesn’t make money so you should support the actors and the crew, you bigotty bigot you.

I’m going to address these, briefly, point by point:

a) Card may not have anything to do with the movie, but the boycotters rightly point out that enough new people may come to Card through this movie to buy his books without realizing that he has, as mentioned above, gone significantly off the rails, and people who might not want to support him financially could unintentionally wind up doing so without foreknowledge of the man and his current sociopolitical leanings.

b) Given that Card seems to clamber up onto his soapbox at will and has no trouble expressing his opinions, I fail to see where he is being censored. He is indeed free to express his opinions, cracked as they may be. What he is not is free from criticism if people disagree with the positions he takes--and as a better man than you or I once said, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” What these people seem to think is that Card can say what he wants without being held responsible for it. That is, putting it kindly bullshit. It is not the way the real world works. Words and actions have consequences--as Card, who recently lost a writing job at DC Comics because his positions were having a detrimental effect on that company’s bottom line, has been finding out.

c) HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAH, no. Don’t be dense. Boycotting a movie most assuredly does not make one a bigot--unless that movie is Exodus and one is George Lincoln Rockwell. See, here’s the thing: that whole “you’re the bigot for speaking out against someone else’s bigotry” is a favorite argument of those who wish to escape the consequences of their own intolerant, bigoted  views and/or actions, because it’s easier to hang a funhouse mirror in front of one's accusers than it is to look in a mirror to see if their accusations are true. It’s a tu quoque argument, a logical fallacy that speaks of poor logic and reasoning, especially in this situation. Here’s why: the crew, actors, director, and producers of the Ender’s Game movie have already been paid. They belong to unions that make sure they receive a set rate of pay for the work they do, as a matter of fact. I guarantee you that your “support” of them means not damn thing one to any man Jack or woman Jill of them.

And really, in the end, what do you think you are supporting by naming as bigots the people who speak out against intolerance? Whether you like it or not, whether the cast or the crew or the producers or Lions Gate likes it or not, Ender’s Game is closely associated with a man who said, in part: “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage…” Speaking out against that is, I assure you, not an act of bigotry, but of pure patriotism.

And I guess in that, I have my answer. I cannot separate Orson Scott Card from Ender’s Game any more than I could separate Roman Polanski from The Pianist or Chinatown. It passes that line in me which I will not cross. I will not see the movie--my apologies to the cast and crew, as I understand from the early reviews that they did a great job all around. But I cannot in good conscience support Orson Scott Card, even indirectly. 

You who are reading this may feel differently, and you know, that’s all right. I understand even if I don’t agree. You may not think of it as supporting Card, or you may not care as much about it as I do, and that’s fine--you don’t have to engage in a long winded act of justification as I have done here. I’m not judging anyone who goes to see the movie. I hope you have a good time and that the popcorn is tasty. 

As for me: I’m going to spend some more time in quiet contemplation of my decision, and of that line inside me. Because that's one tough goddamn line to assay.

28 October 2013


One I almost forgot, and I’m a bit ashamed that I did as it may be my one true claim to fame (such as it may be). Out of everyone on this site, in America, or in the world, I may well be the *only* person who has ever:

Played air guitar.

While dressed as Santa Claus.

During a Chanukah-themed music video.


This has been cited as evidence that there is NOTHING I will not do for my friends. :)

Ten Things I Have Done That You (Probably) Haven't

Over at John Scalzi's blog there's a list of ten things Scalzi has done or has had happen to him that are most likely unique in your experience. He invited people to crate their own lists and either put them in the comments or link to their lists in the comments. Since I've been away for a bit I thought it would be a good way to get back here and do something someone might want to see. Or point and laugh at, as the case may be. In any event, here's my list:

1) Was hit by a car and knocked 30 feet, suffering only minor injuries. In the process I was literally knocked into the next town. The intersection where it happened was the "border" between two suburbs, so I was hit by the car in one town and landed in the second one. Caused a jurisdictional nightmare that took about 2 years to solve.

2) Won a giant foam rubber cowboy hat in a dancing contest.

3) Met Marshall Brodien, who played Wizzo, the World's Wackiest Wizard on WGN's Bozo's Circus, in a restaurant men's room. He was gracious enough to shake my hand, seeing as how I'd just washed it.

4) Saw the Violent Femmes and the Grateful Dead live at the same concert venue on the same date.

5) Flew on the same plane as Spike Lee from New York to Chicago. He was in first class and I saw him when I was boarding.

6) Had the tip of my right middle finger chopped off in an industrial accident.

7) Sold a pie to once-notorious Chicago TV/media critic Gary Deeb.

8) Drove 800 miles from Chicago to New York in 2005 in a moving van, with my then-girlfriend, now-wife in the passenger seat, and two cats in separate carriers on the steering column between us, through one of the worst winter storms in then-recent memory. There was sleet and ice on day 1, at which point we discovered that while we had plenty of de-icer for the windshield, the washer jets did not work properly, rendering it useless. On day 2 we drove through thick fog in the Pennsylvania mountains, our hazards on, at about 30-40 mph, and still made it to Jersey by nightfall. And on the third day, it was 50-60 degrees and shirtsleeve weather.

9) Danced to "The Rainbow Connection" at a wedding reception (specifically, mine).

10) Almost impaled myself on the handlebar of the bicycle I was riding at about age 10 when I went over a hill too fast, went airborne off the seat, and the wheel turned sideways to present the handlebar--which was missing a grip and was just a hollow tube of bare, slightly rusty metal--right to my oncoming belly. I bounced off. To this day I do not know why I am not dead.

That's my list--what's yours? Head over to Scalzi's blog and comment! I'm closing comments here, in fact, so you'll have no choice, muaahahahah!

19 September 2013

Banned Books Week: There are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.

“I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied.”

Some days you get out of bed and see something in the news and wonder if we wouldn't be better off  leaving the world to the bloodydamn cockroaches.

Go read this. When you're done throwing things at the wall come back and we'll talk.

[Time crawls by. The shattering of crockery is heard. A man comes to fix the holes that have suddenly appeared in the drywall.]

So--let's talk.

I was going to get all incendiary here. I was going to go off on a major rant about the judgmental fools who place themselves above us and tell us they know better than we what is good for our children. I was going to get all self-righteous and declamatory on their asses and launch into a rant worthy of Johnathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" here. I was going to post names and phone numbers and urge you to call these nincompoops at their homes and demand to know where the hell they get the almighty nerve . . . and then I stopped myself.

Because I understood, in a moment of clarity that broke through my smoldering rage, that this would do nobody any good. It would be counterproductive. It would be employing bullying tactics used by some of the worst people on the internet--hell, some of the worst people in the world--to make an argument that, were it valid, would not need to see such tactics used in its service. I cannot in good conscience, after all I have posted on this blog (especially recently), allow myself to return to that brand of snide, smug, holier-than-thou posturing. 

Instead let's try something different. Let's look at the arguments used against the book to remove it from the shelves of the Randolph County school libraries, and let's move on from there to make a (hopefully) better case for ourselves.

"I am an invisible man. 
No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: 
Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me."

Those are the opening sentences of Ralph Ellison's still-remarkable novel, a novel that received multiple critical raves when it was released, won its author the 1953 National Book Award, and was named by Time magazine as one of the top 100 English-language novels ever written. That's heady stuff for a book that, according to the Randolph County School Board, is a "hard read" that has "no literary value."

[The blogger holds his breath, counts to ten, prays to St. Anthony.]

Value is, of course, a subjective term, especially when dealing with opinions of literary worth. Even so it beggars the imagination that a North Carolina school board (whose qualifications to judge such matters I would very much like to see presented in the public arena for scrutiny equal to that which they have given Ellison's novel), should fly in the face of sixty years of critical elevation, awards, laudatory essays, tributes, and say that its wholly subjective opinion should mean more, and should be the final word on Invisible Man's literary worth. In fact, not only does it beggar the imagination, it cons the imagination out of its life savings and fucks off to the Seychelles for a nice long vacation from reality.

The reality is, Invisible Man is an astounding, accomplished novel, in a way an American answer to Notes From the Underground. It is beautifully written, by turns heartbreaking, terrifying, incendiary, and always, always, unflinching in its depiction of race relations in America during the last century. To read it and say it has no literary value is to say that the sky is orange. To read it and say it has no literary value is to speak to something deeper, something darker, something unspoken--because to bring it into the light is too discomfiting for that reader to admit to. In public.

In my subjective opinion, of course.

Having dispensed with that aspect of the argument, let's turn our attention to the original complaint against the novel, brought by a single parent of an 11th grade student--who says, among other things:

“The narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experiences and his feelings about the events portrayed in his life. This novel is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers. You must respect all religions and point of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read, without their knowledge. This book is freely in your library for them to read.”

[The blogger holds his breath, counts to ten, and somehow manages not to need St. Anthony's intercession this time.]

Rather than go after the multiple instances of low-hanging fruit that so enticingly present themselves in this parent's letter, I would instead prefer to note the following:

Invisible Man was one of three books on a supplemental summer reading list that the high school juniors in question could pick from, the other two books being Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and Passing by Nella Larsen. Honors students were required to pick two of the three books. At no point was anyone required to read Ellison's novel. At no point was a gun held to a head. At no point were stentorian voices heard to say "YOU MUST READ THIS WHETHER YOUR PARENTS THINK IT APPROPRIATE OR NOT."

Bearing this in mind it is difficult, at best, to see how anyone's religion or parental authority was disrespected or disregarded.

As to the book being "freely" on the shelves for anyone to read--well, hey. Welcome to America. That's what we're supposed to do here. And we are not required to bow to any religious or parental authority, imagined or assumed, while doing so. If we so choose of our own free will to accede to such well-meaning squeamishness, then that is one thing. But to have the decision forced upon us by such nauseous good intention is something else entirely.

Much is made in certain arenas of the "tryanny of the majority," and how if we are not careful the majority opinion can trample the rights of the minority. And that argument has value sometimes. But it is also, sometimes, just as likely that the real tyranny can arise from a frightened but well-meaning minority, fearful of that trampling, looking to get its licks in before any imagined "tyranny" can take place. And when that happens, we are all lessened because of it. 

In short: It is not for one parent to decide what all other parents' children should read. It never has been. It never should be. It is my hope that the other parents with high school students in the Randolph County system will not walk, but run to their local bookstores and buy copies of Invisible Man. Multiple copies. And leave them in public places to be picked up and read by anyone who chooses to do so. It is not the only appropriate response to this situation . . . but in many ways, it is the most American response to it.

As to the appropriateness of Ellison's novel to an eleventh grade reader . . . allow me to share with you a story.

I came across Invisible Man when I was a high school junior. Not as an assignment, not as part of a supplemental list, but because I was told by an adult I trusted that it was a damned good book, and I could probably get a lot out of it. So I found a copy at the public library, and started nibbling at the first few chapters--and then devoured the damned thing. And in a lot of ways, it changed me. Scenes and images from the novel--the harrowing "battle royal," the shocking reveal of the true contents of Bledsoe's letters, the glass eye, the startling appearance of Ras during the riot--have stayed with me to this day. I have not read the novel since--too many new things to read, all the time--but I'm beginning to think, after today, that I should read it again. And this time I will buy a copy, so we will have it on the shelves of our home for my children to read when my wife and I decide they are old enough.

When we decide. Not the school board. And not my other-fearing neighbor. And we will allow our children to see the world awake, not sleepwalking and fearful.

“For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being 'for' society and then 'against' it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase - still it's a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn't accept any other; that much I've learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.” 

Remain in light.

08 September 2013

The Harshest Mistress, or: Miles Vorkosigan to go before I sleep

I wasn't going to write about Paul Cook's rather incoherent and inept screed on the Amazing Stories website. First, because he was roundly and soundly eviscerated in the comments--so much so that Amazing Stories actually shut the comments down within a few hours of Cook's piece posting, which has to be some kind of record. Second, other people have taken Cook to task already in the last few days, and they have pretty much said all the things I wanted to say anyway. Third, I find that my posts of late have all been of a piece, namely "THIS IS FUCKED UP AND WRONG AND I DON'T LIKE IT YOU GUYS," and I'm trying to be more positive and think about what I do like in SF/F, not what I don't like. Keep your sunny side up, and all that. Entropy is enough of an asshole without me adding to it via my own considerable cynicism and negativity, so nyah.

And then a fourth point came to light yesterday evening, quite unexpectedly, courtesy of my wife.

I don't mention my wife here much, except in passing--an error I mean to correct, as she's pretty damned awesome. Stef is a librarian par excellence and the author of her own blog, Views From the Tesseract, a great blog about kids' SF and Fantasy that updates more regularly than mine (dammit) and gets more views than mine as a result (which is a lesson for me, hmmm?).

I linked to Cook's piece on Facebook, and she was, shall we say, less than amused with Mr. Cook and his pedantic disposition. She ranted a bit in her comments on FB, and I thought she'd finished with it. Little did I know she had not--until lo and behold, last night she called me over to her computer, and showed me the following bit of brilliance, which I now reproduce her for you with her permission, and with my thanks:


“The Harshest Mistress” By Stephanie Ann Whelan
©2013 by the author and this website; all rights reserved.

Jim Starbucker revved the propulsion jets on his Cylotron 2800 just the hair necessary to propel him through the waiting entry hatch. He’d given it just enough juice to sail straight in, where the magnetic landing strip pulled it down with a firm thud. The portal slid closed and three sets of alloyed plates wove back together, interlocking and glowing with the green of a firm seal. Still, Jim waited until the entryway plates radiated out before he popped his helmet off.

With the ease of a long practiced maneuver, Jim popped the harness and dismounted, yanking his gunnysack and rifle free of their clamps. A quick code punch and the Cylotron switched to electric power, rising to low hover and purring off to it’s preprogrammed park slot. Jim headed out the entryway door, swiping his tag for the scanner eyes. There was a quick burst of violet light as the customs sensory program identified him and checked for contraband. Five seconds later the last doors cycled away.

“Welcome to Podkayne Station, Lieutenant Starbucker. Enjoy your stay.”

The melodious alto voice was simply computer created, but he liked to imagine there was an actual person behind it. “Thanks Poddie.”

He stepped out onto the raised entryway that formed a sort of balcony over the whole internal landscape of the fortress of steel and light that was Podcayne Station. Still the same hum and thrum of the internal engines, the same tang of recycled air, the same half lit signs welcoming the weary traveler in a hundred different languages. He was home.

He could have simply taken a hover pad—he had a full license to pilot one. But he decided to book a station cab instead. Just take it easy and let someone else drive for a change. The robo cab driver tipped its hat 

“Where to, Mac?” it barked from it’s voicepad. Apparently the station still remembered his setting preference for New York Cabbie.

“Baley’s Saloon. Level 26.”

“You got it, Mac.” The cab sped away from the entry ramp, pulling into a scenic curve around the core walls. Jim sat back and watched it all. Took it all in. The air whisked past them as the cabbie honked raucously at a hover disc driver who got too close, then the vehicle dived in a fancy corkscrew spin, heading down into the station.

Hints of jasmine and lavender tickled his nose. Jim stiffened, scanned the air around him. The scents were gone as quick as they’d come. Must have been a trick of the mind, thought Jim. There’s no way any of Them would be here.

After all, that was what the fighting on the borders was all about, wasn’t it? He’d been on the front lines for nearly ten years now—but that was lightyears from here. Podcayne station was safe. It had to be.

“Here ya go, Mac.” The robo driver barked again, breaking him out of his thoughts. Jim scanned his credit chit and disembarked onto the walkway.

Some parts of Podcayne stuck to the sleek metal and glass, or the synthetic nanocrafted shells that flickered with inset light and color. Level 26 preferred to remember old Earth . Imitation wood facades, holographic flowers and gardens, he’d heard rumors that somewhere on 26 was an honest to God pinball and Pacman pizza joint. Jim hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, but then, Baley’s suited him just fine. The saloon was on the station perimeter, away from tourist traffic, tucked into a corner strip, between a Pierson's Pharmacy and Wu's Genuine Italian Restaurant. It looked like the kind of place you’d see in old movies. No one knew where Baley got the earthstone and how he managed to shift it past the customs scanners. But the entire walkway was paved in smooth stone. The rest of the structure kept in character with synth wood panels and plasti-glass windows .

It was kind of place men went to drink--where the bartender always knew your name.

He’d been coming here since he was a raw recruit, just out of basic training and on leave with no where else to go. There hadn’t been much else for a backwater planet kid with no family and no money. GalactiCorp took him in, trained him up and set him out on the Rim, battling Them on the front lines. The first time he’d come in accidentally, and hadn’t known he’d been looking for the place until he found it. Bailey had chatted with him and offered him a rental space above the saloon for a song.

“I did my time on the Rim.” The old soldier had told him. “You need a place, you’ve got one here. It’s a sad thing when a soldier has no place to lay his head at night."

That had been twenty long years ago. Countless battles, advances and retreats. Comrades lost to Them. And Baley’s had been there, just like always. A promise that made the cold and merciless stars more bearable.

Jim stepped inside the saloon and handed his T. Swift regulation laser rifle and gunny sack to the service droid with a prompt to deliver it to his room. Once his coat and helmet were stowed, he strode into the reassuringly familiar world of Baley’s saloon.

The lights were dim, except around the bar itself where synth light tracks kept everything illuminated. Huddles of drinkers sat in shadows at their own tables. Someone had keyed in a jazz playlist tonight. There were a few bodies up at the bar, but most of the stools were empty. It had been this way the last few times Jim had been here; everybody was going to the new place in Sector G called Fuzzy's. No loyalty from some people. He'd been there once—it was a cheap imitation of a real saloon, not like this place or Callahan's down in the chronoports. There was no there there. It smelled wrong, somehow.

“Jim Starbucker? Where the hell have you been? Your ass was due for leave two months ago!” boomed Al. The seven foot Martian-born bartender had spotted him almost immediately. Al was Baley’s right hand man these last few years. The old man was still spry and had a wicked sense of humor, but the decades were catching up with him.

“Out on the Rim. We ran into a whole troop of the enemy out there. Lost some good men. Too many. They couldn’t let me go until reinforcements arrived. “

Al shook his head. “That bad? The news links all say we’re winning.”

Jim shook his head. “Can’t say official, but we’re just managing to keep them off the perimeter these days. Dunno. Maybe we’re holdin' them back, but we sure as hell ain’t advanced any in the last 2 years.”

Already Al had poured his usual: single-malt scotch into the nano-glass. The tiny bots lit up gold as they worked to adjust the container to the perfect temperature, then hummed green once that temperature was reached.

Jim traded a few more comments with Al before the man left him in peace to nurse his drink. Jim stared around at the tables. He thought he’d spotted a few of his brothers in arms gathered in the back. But just as he was about to head on over, a much more interesting prospect caught his eye.

She was four barstools over, dressed in a cadet uniform. He’d never cared much for the drab blue dress togs--but he had to admit, the tunic was a hell of a lot more appealing with those oh so sensual curvies underneath. She was a fresh young thing, straight brown hair at regulation length, the “shiny” of cadet school not worn off yet.

They’d only started enlisting girls in the last ten years. Jim had been against it at first, but had to admit having some women around the barracks made for something prettier to look at than the average soldier. Besides, most of them seemed to shoot and fight pretty well. The commander stuck most of them back at the outpost with work that’d keep them busy and out of harm’s way.

She was sizing him up with bright green eyes; he raised his drink to her in acknowledgement. She grinned back, and raised her own drink in turn. Jim slid off his stool and swaggered over while she sipped her cocktail and watched him.

“So you’re the famous Lieutenant Starbucker,” she murmured. “Everyone talks about you at the Academy. Did you really pilot a broken winged Stormblade Destroyer through the wormhole juncture without a solar shield?”

“Didn’t have much choice about it.” Jim replied with a shrug and wince. “Just did what I had to out there, Cadet . . .”

“Kate Striker, sir. Comm specialist for the Asimov.”

The Asimov? That’s the new top of the line Intergalactic Jumpership, isn’t it?”

“She’s a beaut. Holds twenty thousand troops, covers light years twice as fast as anything else we’ve got and she’s got the new hyperbeam Gatekeeper missles.”

Jim let out a low whistle. “So what’s a cadet with a plum position on the Asimov doing out here at Podcayne?”

“Oh, my parents live over on Tanstaafl. I’m catching the commuter ship there at zero eight hundred Podturn to celebrate my graduation and new post.” She explained. “Some of the boys I met on the way here told me about this place. I decided I might as well while away my time here.” She unleashed a brilliant, gleaming smile upon him. Her teeth were so straight you could use them to graph geometry proofs. “I didn’t think I’d get the chance to actually meet you.”

After a few more stories and a few more dazzling smiles from Kate, Jim was happy to escort the eager young cadet up to his room. The place was painfully utilitarian—just a bed some chairs, a table for card playing and a storage locker for his clothes and personal items. The kind of Spartan that gave Spartans a bad rep.

Kate didn’t seem to mind; she merrily oohed and aahed over his wealth of medals and his laser rifle. 

“We only get hand phasers on board the Asimov. We handled some laser rifles at the Academy, but nothing like the T.Swift series.”

“Want to give it a try?” Jim offered. “There’s a target practice zone about thirty clicks from here. We can take my Cylotron. Just me, you and all the stars you can shoot at.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “You say the sweetest things, Jim.” She caressed the grips of the rifle then set it back on its charging stand. “You’ve been out on the Rim a long time, haven’t you?” she asked, sliding off her uniform jacket , revealing shapely, well muscled arms.

“ Twenty years about.”

“That’s a long time to be fighting.” She murmured, bending down to unzip her boots. Jim looked on, not bothering to hide his appreciation of the view she provided. “Do you ever think of stopping?”

Jim shrugged. “I get to retire in another ten, maybe fifteen years. If I’m lucky I’ll have enough saved for my own ship. “

Kate stood back up, stepping out her boots. “No Jim, I don’t mean retire. I mean do you ever think this fighting is pointless?” She stretched her arms up towards the low ceiling. He was so entranced by the view that afforded him that he almost missed what she said next. “Look at you, struggling out on the Rim. What’s it all for?”

“What do you mean, what’s it all for? To protect US. To keep our worlds, our people safe from Them. We’ve seen what they do . . . what their worlds are like. It’s awful. Their corruption gets in and poisons everything. Everything! I lost six hundred good soldiers just last month to Them! We have to protect the homespace and keep them out!” Jim knew on some level he was being baited but he didn’t care. The question rankled like a cold shock on his spine. “They want it all. Kate. They aren’t happy with their worlds. They want ours too. And if they get them, there won’t be any place left for us to go.”

“But Jim,” Kate murmured, green eyes shining in the low panel light. “This is outer space. Isn’t there room enough for everybody?”

Jim froze . . . the scents of lavender and jasmine suddenly assaulted him. He stared at the Cadet.

“No. We’ve kept you out. You can’t be here!” Kate smiled and shook her head a bit sadly as she unzipped the front of her suit.

“Poor Jim. Don’t you know? Your wars aren’t keeping us out anymore. We’re already here.”

She was wearing pearls. And ruffles under the suit. And–dear God—a corset.

Kate pulled off the rest of the suit and readjusted her leather trousers. “That’s better. I don’t know how you stand those things—those uniforms are soooo boring.”

Jim backed against the wall, desperate to get a grip on his rifle.

“You can’t have Podcayne.”

Kate waggled a finger. “You don’t get to decide that anymore, Jim dear. This is a new age. Podcayne is a sweet old station, but it could use some improvements. We’re thinking of having a few antigrav balls. And maybe we’ll even import some horses. Wouldn’t it be charming to have horses?” She smiled another dazzling smile, but this time Jim was left icy.

“Horses in space don’t make sense!” he gasped.

“No? Oh . . . well, maybe not.“ Kate made a pouting face and then pulled a Stygian silencer from somewhere in that curved bosom. “You could join us, Jim. We’re always looking for handsome men with relationship issues. I’m sure there’s someone out there who could be your soulmate.”

“No! Never! We’re not about that! I won’t bargain with such . . . froufrou and silliness!” Jim grappled along the wall, desperately searching for the security panel.

“Oh, well then—I guess it’s goodbye, Lt. Starbucker. Too bad; I’d have liked to join you for target practice.” Kate regarded him with a sigh and wry smile. She patted her hair into place, blew him a kiss and then she raised the silencer to fire.

There was a bright flash, and an explosive crack.

She fell, with a smoking hole in her forehead. Jim fell back against the wall shaking with reaction and clutching his Colt .45 series 700. It had been his father’s way back when, and Jim had defied customs and found a way to sneak it aboard Podcayne. Now he was grateful he’d taken the chance.

As soon as he had his feet steady under him, he grabbed his rifle and made his way back to Baley’s. Al raised an eyebrow at his appearance.

“Back so soon? Thought that sweet little thing would keep you busy for at least a few hours. What happened?”

“I need to talk to Baley. It’s an emergency.” Jim barked.

Al blinked. “Baley isn’t here, Jim. He’s off setting up some new ventures for the saloon. Settle down, have a drink. What’s got you so all-fired upset?”

“Podcayne’s been compromised, Al. They’re here already. The wars haven’t kept them out. “ He blindly picked up the drink Al handed him. “We need to regroup, I need to let my superior—oh hell, I need to let them all know! I’ve got to patch a link in to our Intelligence Unit.”

Jim brought the drink to his lips . . . and froze. There was a paper umbrella in his glass. Worse the drink was something pink and bubbly.

He flung it to the floor where it tinkled like music.

“Now Jim,” Al adminshed, “that wasn’t really polite. Peony wine is hard to come by as of yet. And here you spilled it all over the floor. And you don’t need to worry about letting anyone know. They’ll all know soon enough.”

Jim stared at Al. When had he gotten the weird looking swirly tattoo? And was that . . . nail polish? Al too?

He backed away and raised his pistol. “What’ve you done with Baley, traitor?” he demanded hotly.

“Baley?” Al laughed. “Son, Baley’s out getting us some chandeliers and tablecloths for this joint. We figure we can have it up to snuff in a few months. “

“No. No! He wouldn’t, you can’t –this isn’t right!”

Jim fired, but the force screen over the bar merely disintegrated the bullet.

“You’re not playing well with others Jim. Don’t you get it? There’s room for all of us here. It doesn’t have to be war.”

Jim swore and raced out the door, nearly colliding with a group of men outside. He could just make out their fatigues in the haze of panic, and grabbed one of them. They were his men! His brothers! They couldn’t have given in to the enemy.

“Aronson! Haldeman! Kinsey! They’re here. The Enemy got behind us somehow.”

“They’re everywhere, Jim. It’s like this everywhere.” One of the men whispered.

“Tell me you didn’t give in, tanj-dammit! You're soldiers! You don’t put up with foolery and fizzy drinks and . . . that romance nonsense!”

“We fought all we could, Jim” Aronsen muttered weakly. “They’re a devious bunch, but we resisted being drawn in. But we couldn’t win against them. I’m sorry.”

“So that’s it? You gave up? You’re manly men! The best of the best! Soaring on the cutting edges of space with guns and toughness and uncompromising facts. You don’t give in to romance and fantasy! “

Kinsey put a shakey hand on Jim’s shoulder.

Jim stared full into Kinney’s face, the grey skin, the shadowed eyes. The rotting stench that rolled off the soldier.

“I’m sorry. It’s worse than that.”

A desperate glance confirmed that all three of his comrades were desiccated, rotting corpses.

“We’re dead, Jim.”



My wife is awesome. I think I'll marry her. ;)