The mnemonic I developed for these is that “libel is literary and slander is spoken.” Neither of which has anything to do with this post.
Point One: the 650 raw minutes of the audio of “Friend and Ally” are complete. The first-pass rough editing is complete. Thanks to a friend’s gifted “how to use Audacity” course, it now is taking me 45 minutes to flog a chapter into shape for ACX rather than three hours. Better: I see how I can improve that for next time. The nagging issue is that I AM EFFING SICK TO DEATH OF HEARING MY OWN VOICE! I didn’t really hear it while acting (and audiobooks is voice-acting, not reading) but having to go through this twice…! Sick of it! And Wednesday is almost upon us!*
Point Two: I’d been sitting on the first three paragraphs of a micro-story for two months now. Again with Chief Daniel Hill, but this is at the other end of the telescope, when he first settled his people as the hundred million dead of the Breakup was happening around them. No such things as coincidences, a stranger wanders through their kononia.
*I shall be appearing as the featured guest on the Star Chamber on Wednesday, March 10th, at 2100 Eastern US time. It’s recorded, so don’t think you have to get up early or stay up late.
Below the fold: an unexpected visitor to the tribe of Sardis Lake.
He was a little aware that he was lying across the back of a horse. The trot was enough to make him sick to his stomach but he fought it enough to allow himself to drift off again. The sound and light from the riverboat still loud in his ears…
Fluttering, as if from curtains. He wanted to carefully bring his eyes to slits to assess the situation before whoever might be about knew he was awake. A stab of pain from his left shoulder and a tiny intake of breath ruined his plan.
“Mister! Are you okay?” A voice from a girl or young boy asked. Widening his eyes, he came to see that he was reclining on some cushions in some sort of circular room defined by poles with heavy curtains draped from one to another. A small wood fire burned in the center with the smoke escaping through a hole in the top.
“Looks like a yurt,” he muttered, recalling the Mongol abodes. The central Asian analog of American Indian teepees. Besides the central fire, there was a scattering of a few lit candles about. With his eyes finally focusing, he saw the voice was from a young white teen boy with longish, jet black hair.
“Are you okay?” the lad asked again.
“I… think so,” the man replied, shifting about again, the pain receding, aware that his clothes were damp in places. “Did y’all fish me out of the river?”
“Not me, sir,” the boy answered politely. “We’s heard some gawdawful bang from the west, so a group of scouts mounted up and rode to see what it was. They’s said a riverboat was still burning on the far side. You’s was the only one on the east bank. My big brother patched up your shoulder and brought you back here.”
“You, and he, have my thanks,” the older man said carefully. Helping random strangers not of your religion or clan was already unheard of in the Breakup of the United States. “I do not mean to be rude, but may I have some water?”
“Dang it!” the lad yelled, smacking his left palm into his own forehead. “I’m s’posed to be lookin’ after you! Just a minnit!”
When the boy stood, the man saw the ceiling was about seven feet up. Looking about more, besides the bolster and blankets he found himself on, there were a couple of small chairs and one desk. Some furniture wooden, some plastic; likely all scavenged. As the boy came back with a glass pitcher and a plastic cup, he noted that on the hip of his patched blue jeans was a revolver.
“Here you go, sir,” he said, pouring. “And my name’s Tyler Journeycake! But everyone calls me Tank!”
Having months in Japan as a temporary refugee, then later, briefly as a consultant to a coding company, followed by what he had seen with his own eyes from Portland, Oregon to central Ohio, the man knew how to mask any feeling at all.
“A pleasure, young master,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Clive Barrett.”
While the lad chattered on about how he and his extended family had just moved to the area and what a fun adventure it all was! – the youth didn’t seem to grasp the reality of the Breakup – Barrett considered how he got where he was.
Between leaving his old family home in the little town just east of Columbus, former Ohio, it had been necessary for him to shoot eight men and two women between there and the dock two dozen miles southeast along the Ohio River from Cincinnati where a small barge, refit to burn coal, agreed to take him downriver for a third of the silver in his possession. Except to eat, he had tried to stay out of the way of the boat’s crew and to stay invisible whenever they put in for coal, water, or food. In the Breakup, any stranger was fair game, to be shot or sold. Having abandoned prayer after failing to find his first daughter, lost in the Breakup, he simply counted himself fortunate, each morning he woke up alive.
A few miles past Paducah, Kentucky, the barge had stopped to take on more coal. Knowing what was just to the southwest of their position, Barrett had finally walked onto dry land to ask a few questions. The activity and answers had surprised him: someone had shown up with bags of gold and silver coins and was in the process of taking everything not nailed down from the Gaseous Diffusion Plant. One of the few places in the former US which had once processed uranium ore for fuel. Or weapons. Sharing a glass of white lightning with a local loading a truck, he’d caught the name “John Carrel” and the city of Knoxville. Are they trying to make a redoubt of technological civilization? Or are they trying to make bombs to end it, once and for all? Walking back onto the barge, his former engineer’s eyes thought the coal they had taken on was “tri-high” lignite. He wondered how far downriver they would make it.
The barge began to shudder just south of former Memphis. The captain had said taking random shots from the riverside was the new normal, so once again he had hidden under his tarp, surrounded by crates of unaged alcohol. If this thing blows, I should burn to death in less than a minute. Seems right for failing my family. Still, the sun had just set and he heard no shots, so wandered up and over to the wheelhouse.
“A good last evening to you, Mister Barrett,” the barge’s captain said with a rictus upon seeing him. “There’s a fire down below and I’m seeing if I can get us to the far bank – ”
There was a small explosion under their feet, blowing a hole in the side of the barge.
“ – just a bit north of the village of Helena, there, on the Arkansas side. Less likely we get killed on the shore if we do survive…” the captain trailed off, speaking to their skin color.
“Is there anything I can do?” Barrett asked.
Instead, he wandered to the port side of the barge and stared out into the dark band that was the great river and the black sky that was his only future. When the explosion came, he never heard it.
“Hey! Hey? Mister?” the lad called.
“Yes?” he replied, lifting his head. “My apologies, Pan, but I drifted off there a bit. Perhaps shock. You said something about the chief of your people, when you came south?”
“Oh! Well, here’s more water. And it’s Tank, not Pan, Mister! So’s when Chief Hill…”
When the boy started on about the man who had been the central organizer of their sudden relocation from the Midwest to northern Mississippi, a feeling grew in his chest reminiscent of one of his angina attacks. I have got to get out of here.
“I… don’t mean to interrupt again, Pan, but when did you say your Chief was due back?” he asked.
“Late tomorrow, Mister, maybe jus’ after nightfall.” The lad stared hard at his guest from his cross-legged seat. “That’s twice now. Why Pan?”
“So. You caught that, did you?” Barrett couldn’t smile anymore. “Two reasons. One, you’re more mischievous than the adults here know; am I right?”
The boy said nothing, but his cheeks grew red.
“The other… ouch!” In trying to shift, his cracked ribs shifted. “I… must sleep now.”
“S… sure, Mister.”
Sent by his mother to check on their injured guest just after sunup, Tank tapped once on the pole at the left of the tent’s entrance before coming in. The fire was banked and not quite out but the blankets where the man had been…
“Mister? Mister! MISTER!” The boy panicked and ran for the grown-ups.
Several of the tribe were expert trackers but once his boots let into the concrete and asphalt of Oxford, just south of their land, they were at a loss. Only one half-blind woman claimed that a stranger was out of the village to the west. When she described his aura as evil, they chose to not follow.
Just after sundown, Chief Daniel Hill rode back from Tupelo and a difficult breech birth. Beyond tired, he let his little nephew, made of trouble, tell him the story of their mysterious visitor. At the culmination, the disappearance, Hill shook his head, his black hair past his shoulders describing arcs behind him.
“This is your best story yet, Tank!” he said with a weary smile. “If the others hadn’t seen him, I’d think you made all this up! Still… I don’t think this was a man. I think it was… something else.”
“Pan. Chief. My name is Pan.”
“What’s that?” Hill raised his head and forced his eyes to focus. The boy was holding out a scrap of paper to him. Taking it, he saw a charcoal drawing of a tank with two words scribbled below it.
Daniel Hill felt the spirits in the room with them and shuddered, now fully awake.
“Did… did this man give you a name?” Hill whispered.
“Dear God…! It can’t be…!”