July has been a whirlwind month for me. It started out with a bang at Y-con, only a week after CaperCon, on the opposite end of the province. I had a fantastic time at both, was able to visit with a whole bunch of like-minded folks, and practically sold out of books.

My panel, Chaos, Clones, and Creativity, was really well attended and the response was wonderful. Several people told me that they had some “aha!” moments, which was nice to hear. If any of the things I’ve picked up on this writer’s journey of mine can ease the road for another author, I’m happy to share. The first Y-Con Writes! Open Mic had a half dozen readers and, for a first time, went well. All the stories were excellent and it’s a nice foundation to build on for future years.

If you recall, I was right on the verge of finishing Patchworld Nova when convention prep consumed the back half of May and threw a wrench in my writing schedule. I’m happy to announce that, while the interruption made things a bit more difficult, I’ve finished a solid draft of Patchworld Nova. A few people have read it entirely and the feedback has been wonderful so far. There are a few issues I’ll need to smooth out, that I was already aware of, and a pair of readers confirmed that. Thankfully though, the fixes appear easy and quick. No major re-writes required.

I missed a couple markets this month, due to being out of books. It turned out to be a good thing. It gave me time to focus on writing, and I also had some stupid health issues for a couple of weeks. Waiting for book deliveries was a good chance to deal with that, and I’m all recovered and feeling much better. Books are back, meaning I’m all set to continue making the rounds with my strange fiction.

My schedule for July is a lot less hectic. I’ll be swapping between the Bridgewater Farmer’s Market on Saturday (from 9-1) and Alderny Landing in Dartmouth on Sunday (from 11-3). I’ll also be at the Bern ART Night Market on the 26th, from 6-10, assuming the weather is good and there’s no rain. I was there for their Solstice market a few weeks back and it was a really nice time. There was good music and food to be had and an overall really fun vibe to the whole event. Plus, the maze, which is magical and amazing and has a giant spider! Reminded me of the book I’m planning to write after SHUNT.

Speaking of SHUNT, I’m polishing up the outline and diving into writing prose the next few days. I’m going to go full deep-dive and try to get the draft done in the next 10 weeks. It’s been in my brain for a very long time, so I’m hoping it’s an easy process, since I’m so mentally familiar with the story and setting. We shall see.

That’s certainly enough of an update for now. I hope everyone’s enjoying summer, surviving the heat, and doing well!

Again, this is a “working draft”. It’s gone through a couple rounds of editing, but don’t expect this to be the final version. I have swatted most of the typos, and any that remain are simply a mark of my humanity.

I hope you enjoy Chapter 6: The Scorekeeper!

Troop and the others were pelted with debris as a nearby wall exploded into dust. Their captors shoved them to the ground and took up defensive positions in the ruins of the old alleyway. The sound of gunfire echoed from every direction.

Most of the expedition were bound behind their backs, but their legs were free. Cringing from the sound of weapons, everyone stumbled to the remaining wall and ducked into a low alcove created by a collapsed roof, except for the Rovisco . The tough little guys had been extracted from their mecha and placed into a crate with their mechanics.

As the ambush hit, the Myo-rak soldiers had dropped any unnecessary gear they were carrying, leaving it on the battlefield. Their packs, equipment, and the box with the Rovisco were strewn across the middle of the roadway. Troop struggled to his feet, ran out, and started shoving their companion’s box out of the line of fire. It wasn’t easy, without his hands. Another cloud of smoke erupted near where he was standing. Enler rushed to join him and, together, they managed to tumble their smaller friends into the safer space with them.

This was the third time they’d been ambushed since they’d been taken prisoner.

The Myo-rak who’d captured them were a rough bunch, and, beyond barking their names while pounding their chests, had shown no interest in talking to them. They dragged their alien captives along, tossed them strange wafers for food, and made sure they had water, but that was all. Troop figured that they were being brought to someone with higher rank.

Physically, he couldn’t help but see an armadillo when he looked at them, even though he knew that was wrong. He’d never seen an live armadillo, and the hulking brutes only had a passing resemblance when he really looked at them. But they had big curved plates on their backs and along their arms. That was enough to seal the deal in his mind. They were semi-cyclopian, with one big eye in the front, and two tiny ones that were difficult to see on their temples. Wide nostrils were high on their cheeks, spaced between the primary eye. They were big, much bigger than the humans and Ancervin, almost double their height, beefy and broad.

Every one of them had an antennae, like the kind you’d see on a car, protruding from their heads. These weren’t part of their bodies, but looked to be attached, perhaps screwed, into their skulls. At the top, each had a small blue ball. The guys that kept ambushing them had red balls. Sargent Bayfield informed everyone that they were probably a uniform equivalent, as if Troop and Callie needed to be soldiers to figure that out.

While they’d been lucky before, it didn’t look like their team was going to win this particular skirmish. At the back end of the alley, a trio were already down, lying in the dirt, and the attackers were closing in on the front guys. Everyone huddled in the dusty shadows as they passed the tied-up captives. The new Myo-rak ignored them, focused on their enemies. Their weapons shot bright white lights from their muzzles.

It wasn’t long before the battle ended.

The new guys poked through the gear of their vanquished foes, eventually coming to the spot where Troop and the others had ridden out the fight. This fresh crew of aliens had the same reaction as the ones who’d originally found them. They seemed annoyed, more than upset or surprised. The one who was in charge did almost exactly what the last guy had done, assigning a half dozen of his men to take charge of the inconvenient interlopers, and sent them on their way, delivering the problem to someone with more authority.

Troop figured they were about to be marched off the Red Ball headquarters, now that they’d been taken from the Blue Ball guys. But he was wrong. They gathered them up, retrieved their gear, and marched them in the exact same direction.

Same route. Different guards.

Troop didn’t understand it, but he didn’t have any say in the matter one way or another.

On they marched.

The whole patch, as far as they could tell, was nothing but mountains of rubble and the remains of ruined buildings. They wove their way through it, avoiding patrols, and doing their best to keep out of sight. When they finally saw their destination, there was no doubt it was where they were being taken.

Up ahead, rising out of the sea of ruin, was a single, perfectly undamaged, building. In all but scale, it looked like a boring, run-of-the-mill, office building. The kind of place you’d fill with cubicles and water coolers. Surrounding it, on every side, was a small patch of lush green grass, no bigger than a sidewalk. There were benches and planters filled with tulips along this, mere steps away from the piles of cracked brick, toppled walls, and twisted metal.

They were ushered through big glass revolving doors into an open lobby. An abstract sculpture rose from a bubbling fountain. Calm music, a flute-like hum, was playing in the background. Their new captors, passed them off to yet another set of hands. Troop noticed right away, all the Myo-rak inside the building had white balls on their heads. Once free of their burdens, the soldiers who’d brought them rushed back outside, eager to return to their war.

The White Ball guys weren’t as rough-and-tumble as the others. They sorted them by species and escorted them into odd, open-platform elevators. They dropped them off at different floors, separated them as individuals, stripped them, and put each of them into their own rooms.

All alone, in his underwear, Troop waited. It didn’t take very long for something to happen.

The door opened and a particularly large Myo-rak wheeled in a strange machine on a rolling cart. It had a silver screen with a bunch of metal balls magnetically stuck to it. The alien sat down, took the device from the cart and set it on his lap. He looked to Troop, touched his own throat, and dragged his hand toward his mouth, while making a series of noises. Then he pointed at Troop.

“You want me to talk?”

The creature spun some of the balls on the screen with his thumb, moving them around like marbles. He repeated the gesture.

“Okay, I guess I’ll talk,” said Troop.

Unsure what to talk about, Troop decided to paraphrase the events of their trip. Figuring that the creature had no idea what he was saying, he skipped over lots of it, and just gave the basics. When this only took him a few minutes, and he stopped talking, the sitting alien prompted him to continue. Whenever he stopped, he was encouraged to continue. Resigning himself to it, he just rambled, going into everything from his friendships with Enler and Callie, his past and his relationship with his mother, and every little detail of their trip so far. It took more than half a day, and he’d just gotten to the world with horrible hair, when the Myo-rak held up his hand.

“Stop,” he said.

Troop’s eyes went wide. “You can speak!”

“I can now, yes. There are still tears… no. That’s not the right word, gaps. But they are few. Your species, and the small ones, are finished. I have enough. The others, the ones you call Ancervin. Their communication is not primarily verbal. They will take longer to learn.”

Troop stared at the creature, his mouth hanging open in surprise. The alien continued to talk.

“I can see by your surprise. You people are not as adept at translation. Our ‘patch’, as you call them, has dozens of active factions. Each one develops a new language every few months, to confound enemy codebreakers. Your speech, by comparison, is refreshingly direct and stable. May I ask your name?”

Troop couldn’t help but stammer as he answered. “Troop. I’m called Troop.”

The Myo-rak dipped his head. “I am Hyus, and I would very much like to know, exactly how you have escaped your prison cell.”

______________________

Once they were able to speak to one another, the way they were treated was much improved. They were given back their clothes and the Myo-rak housed them their own floor of the building. Hyus apologized over the lack of food variety, offering them more of the tasteless wafers. He confirmed they were all capable of eating them, and made sure nobody was lacking anything they required to survive. New bedding, cots, and makeshift furniture (built smaller, specifically for them) was provided.

Their own ability to talk to each other opened up with Hyus’ help, as he served as intermediary to the team of Rovisco. Up until now, the expedition had been relying on hand gestures and pantomime to communicate with the gerbil guys. Troop and the others had been glad to have had them join up, but never really knew if they’d done it because they were explorers, if they also wanted escape, or if they were simply looking for adventure. With help from Hyus, they determined that they had also figured out that the Dyson Plate had altered course and sped up. Knowing this, and with their own version of the Drip not functioning, they’d understood what the Human/Ancervin team had been doing and wanted to help solve the problem. The shadowy figures of the Outbreak, who were killing other species, had been a surprise to them.

Troop stood with Callie, gazing out one of the windows at the war-swept world beyond. Tiny puffs of smoke and flashes of light dotted the landscape. Off to their left, a column of beetle-like vehicles wound its way through the ruin.

“It all looks so senseless,” said Troop.

Callie didn’t respond. She had a pained expression on her face, and she seemed lost in thought. Troop continued. “I wonder if this is all because of their Drip? A fight for resources? It makes me think about those patches we crossed, with nobody in them. Maybe their people were already gone, unable to survive without their own Drips.”

Callie, standing at his side, didn’t appear to hear him. He reached out and touched her shoulder. “Callie?”

She turned sharply. “What?”

“Are you okay?”

She rubbed at her right ear. “I’m sorry. Were you talking? I didn’t hear you. I’ve been getting this ringing in my ear lately. Bursts of really bad tinnitus.”

One of Bayfield’s two remaining soldiers, Anderson, had decent field medicine skills. He’d been managing to keep them patched up pretty well. “You could have Don look at it.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s fine. It’s only once in a while. I probably hit my head in one of those ambushes.”

While the state of their captivity had improved, Sargent Bayfield and the Rovisco were eager to leave. This trip had already taken weeks longer than they’d hoped, and there was still a long way to go. They didn’t want to spend it languishing in a military prison, no matter how nice it was. Everyone’s nerves were on edge, wondering how long the Myo-rak were going to keep them there, or if they’d let them go at all.

But Hyus wasn’t done with all his questions. Endless questions. All day, every day, he continued his interrogations. More than the rest of them, he spoke with Troop. Enler was acutely aware of this fact.

“Secrets of our accomplishment, they mine for, buried deep. A means of producing a blade fitting their fists,” he suggested.

Troop wasn’t sure. “They’ve already taken ours. What would be the point? He does ask about it, but he seems more concerned about our guns than the Knife.”

“Then why you?” wondered Enler. “The Bayfield is wounds and slicing. He is the one for these questions.”

Troop agree. “Yeah. I have no idea, Enler. I don’t know why he keeps picking me.”

It was no surprise when their conversation was cut short as Troop was summoned again. He’d been amicable as the days had passed on, but his patience was wearing thin, both with the captivity and his being singled out for endless questions.

“How long are you going to keep us? I’ve told you everything that’s going on. You know about what’s out there now, killing people. You need to let us go!”

Hyus exhaled two quick puffs, loudly. “Do I, now? From what you’ve said, you barely survived your escapade. You should be happy for the reprieve, here in our little paradise.”

Troop recoiled. “Paradise? You people are in the middle of a war!”

It was Hyus’ turn to flinch. “War? What are you talking about?”

Troop pointed to a random wall, indicating outside. “The war! All those soldiers running around, killing each other! All those factions you mentioned, fighting all the time.”

Hyus’ face contorted into a maze of wrinkles, reducing his side eyes to mere slits. After a moment, his expression opened up, going wide with a flash of understanding. 

“You think we’re hurting each other!” He spoke as if it were a revelation. “That we are violent!”

Troop nodded in vigorous agreement. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Hyus got up from his usual position on the floor. “Come with me.”

Troop followed him to an elevator, and they went up to the top floor. They emerged into a control center. There were low stations with dozens of Myo-rak sitting on the floor, rolling their little orbs across silver screens. There were larger display panels, with maps drawn from lines of magnetized liquid. They followed troop movements and carried tiny beads of color in their flow, indicating factions. In the middle of the room, there was something that looked like a scoreboard.

Hyus spread his arms, indicating all of it. “This is the heart of our world; the scoring center. It is where faction points are tallied in the Grand Game, the Eternal War, the Endless Struggle. So, as you can see, it is all just a game. Not actual violence.”

Troop had trouble wrapping his head around it. They were tracking every move of their war and keeping score? For what? He didn’t see how it made a difference. “Hyus, even if you call it a game, your people are still hurting each other. They’re still dying!”

Hyus walked over to one of the screens, pointing at symbols that Troop couldn’t understand. “No! Not at all! The rules of engagement are capture and conversion only. None of the weapons harm, only incapacitate. All our people are free to do as they choose, and they all choose to play. Either soldier or support, but all participate. Willingly. All fed. All safe. We strive toward unity! Together, we are ally and enemy both, collective in our effort!”

The weapons didn’t harm? Troop distinctly remembered ducking from a firefight and being pelted with rubble. “I’ve seen you killing each other!”

Hyus let out two quick snorty breaths. “Did you? You saw wounds? Blood? Bodies?”

Troop racked his memory. Sure, he remembered seeing fallen Myo-rak, lying on the ground. But no gore or viscera. The guns had fired some sort of lights. The blasts that had knocked them around, had vaporized the nearby walls into harmless dust. They’d taken no damage themselves as they’d been captured. The soldiers had disabled the mechs with some sort of energy gun, and they’d captured the humans and Ancervin with a combination of sonic grenades and physical restraint.

“This is all just a game?” asked Troop.

“Not just a game, the game. The game where we, as a people, find our purpose. Every faction represents a way of thinking. As we are captured, our beliefs change, aligning with our teams, allowing us perspective and understanding. When one faction finally proves victorious, we will know our true selves,” answered Hyus.

“You are the violent ones, who came into our home with weapons capable of killing. You are fortunate that you are so unskilled with them. I do not know what we would have done if you’d managed to actually harm anyone.” He shook his head in disapproval.

Now, Troop understood why they’d been captives. Hyus wasn’t a commander, or some kind of prison guard; he was a referee. They were in the penalty box for being too rough.

“So, what are you going to do with us?” asked Troop.

“You are not a part of the Eternal Struggle. In fact, your very presence has caused disruption, as the two factions you’ve encountered have shifted their ideology to compensate for the possibilities your presence exposes; the ability to breach the forcefields. I can’t imagine the collective chaos that will ensue if all the factions knew the terrifying things that you’ve told me. Such revelations could either unify us, or break the great game itself. Everyone here agrees, you must go.”

Troop was relieved to hear it. “That’s what we want too! Just, give us our stuff, let us pass. We’ll be out of your hair in no time.”

The hairless alien frowned at the colloquialism. “Onward? Or back to where you came from? Armed? Or stripped of your tools of death? These are the questions we must answer.”

“Onward and armed!” Troop pleaded. “You’ve heard what I had to tell you! You know what’s out there. Those worlds, they’re not non-violent. We’ll die without weapons.”

Hyus looked to the smaller human. “Now, you see me. I see you. We have come to understanding. All that is left is for me to consider the choices.”

He led Troop back to the elevator. “You will have my answer in the morning.”

_____________________________

Two days later, Troop perched on the top planks of a makeshift ladder so he could reach high enough to carve a wide opening through a yellow force-field.

Sargent Bayfield, helping hold the rickety thing upright, hadn’t stopped complaining since Hyus had told them his decision.

“This is bullshit, Troop! I’ve got to get those weapons back. We can’t put our fate in these guy’s hands.” For the most part, Troop agreed with the man. But another part of him wasn’t so sure. The Myo-rak’s decision came with almost as many benefits as drawbacks.

The most important part of the verdict had fallen in their favor; they were going ahead, continuing on to the Spire. But, the violently peaceful Myo-rak had refused to allow them their weapons. Not without seeing the the myriad denizens of the Dyson Plate for themselves. They claimed that, for all they knew, Troop and the others could be lying about the dangers. They insisted that the expedition may, in fact, be the dangerous aggressors they warned against.

To sort out the truth of it, Hyus had decided to join them.

He brought a trio of soldiers, each with a different colored head ball, and provided an armored transport. The vehicle was a great hulking thing, longer than a bus, with ten sturdy legs. All of the expedition weapons came along, but were stowed in the cargo bay, under lock and key. When, or if, Hyus saw that they were needed, he assured everyone that they would be returned. Until such time, the expedition would be under the protection of the Myo-rak’s non-lethal arsenal.

Bayfield, and the mech-driving Rovisco, were furious over it. Troop, remembering how easily they’d been captured even when they’d had their armaments, was less upset. The decision, from the Myo-rak perspective, was measured and reasonable. Much better than what he’d have expected from his own human government. He was confident that, before long, they’d understand the problem and return their tools. For now, he was grateful that they had a well-armored, safe ride.

He finished the last cut and the rift blinked open, just barely big enough for the transport to get through. Hyus, off to the side, stared at the feat with his big central eye wide.

“Truly, that is a miraculous thing you people have devised!” he said.

At Troop’s side, Enler wiggled his antlers and spoke. “We are un-alone in this marvel. Time is no friend.” It was clear from his face, Hyus still didn’t understand the Ancervin.

“We’re not the only ones who’ve figured it out. We need to hurry,” Troop translated.

The Myo-rak soldiers went first, weapons raised, and the others followed with the vehicle.

Troop couldn’t help but hope that their trip would be dangerous. The sooner they hit a rough patch, the sooner they’d get their things back. He felt bad thinking it almost as soon as the idea entered his head. They didn’t need that kind of trouble. They had problems enough. He knew he should have been hoping for the opposite. Clear worlds with good air, obstacle free, and filled with allies was what they needed. Not something awful just to prove he was right.

The next world was a little bit of both.

The landscape was mushrooms and broken glass flickering beneath a green sky filled with sheet lightning. Tall spires of clear, jagged crystal rose out of a forest of enormous toadstools. Bolts of electricity danced down, playing off the reflective spires, as if they were antennae. Between these peaks, just overhead, arcs jumped from spike to spike. Far too close for Troop’s comfort. As clear as the crystal antennae were, he figured that they must have been laced with some sort of transparent metal in order to be so conductive. Loud cracks of thunder, enough to set their ears ringing, punctuated their progress. For all the conditions of a storm, it wasn’t raining and the air was dry, electrically charged.

They did their best to stay under the coverage of the caps, and made their way into the fungal patch.

The day was grim and flickering, beneath the endless cloud storm. Long and slow, it dragged on for almost thirty hours. As night fell, progress became difficult on account of the variations in the light. Going from darkness, to the blinding flashes just above, wasn’t something anyone’s eyes were able to deal with well. Nobody wanted to waste a whole night to wait for the phenomenon to pass though. Now with sixty hour days. But when their drivers eyes couldn’t take any more, they decided to stop for a short while, and press on once they’d rested. While it was possible to fit everyone in the transport for traveling, it wasn’t big enough for stretching out and sleeping comfortably. They found a good spot under an enormous mushroom and set up camp alongside the stalk, using the transport as cover on the other side.

It was in the black and blinding night that the inhabitants of the patch arrived. They were thin, fibrous beings, made out of plant matter. They looked like grass and mushroom stems, woven into misshapen mannequins. These braided figures, sprouting extra limbs and heads, circled the vehicle, coming around to inspect the camp. The Myo-rak sentry noticed them quickly, and sounded an alert. By the time everyone was awake and up, there were dozens of the things, slowly emerging from the spongy forest.

“Hold your fire,” said Hyus. “They look curious.”

It was difficult to see them all at once, but with every jolt of lightning, more of them appeared. Flash by flash, they moved closer, without seeming to move at all. One, in particular, took the lead. Hyus faced it and raised his arms, showing it that he meant no harm.

He spoke, but his words were gibberish to his plant-like audience. It didn’t matter though, it was more about displaying his manner of communicating than any real attempt to talk to the mycopian aliens.

The forefront being opened several of its mouths wide, revealing layers of delicate lamella. With a wet, retching sound, it ejected spores from the back of their multiple throats. The pulsating green glop struck one of the Myo-rack guards at Hyus’ side. The soldier howled in pain as thin roots penetrated the plates of the natural armor around his elbow, and a cluster of bulbous growths expanded from where the slop had hit him. As a group, the other surrounding creatures stretched their mouths wide, gagging in a sickening chorus that was loud enough to drown out the constant rumble of thunder.

Hyus was quick to issue orders. The first bit was in a language Troop couldn’t understand. After that, the Myo-rak switched back to English. “Get into the transport! We’re leaving!”

As soon as the odd creatures had started gagging, Troop had run for the vehicle. It was the only safe place to hide. Moments later, disgusting blobs began raining down all around them. Bayfield, with his pair of soldiers and a few of the Ancervin, tore into the tents, grabbing what supplies they could and hauling them inside as fast as possible. The pair of uninjured Myo-rak threw out sonic grenades and flash bombs, with little effect. The sound and light they produced weren’t significantly different than the normal chaos of night here. The creatures ignored them.

Seeing that his men were about to be overrun, Hyus called them back, dragging his injured companion to safety. Bayfield and the others abandoned their task, leaving half the tents, and everything in them, behind. As soon as everyone had piled in, the giant machine stomped away, taking care not to crush any of the horking plant people as they left. On the ground, the infected Myo-rak shuddered, his whole body convulsing with a seizure. His big central eye rolled up into his head while his side eyes squinted shut in pain.

Sargent Bayfield punched the wall, shouting at Hyus. “This is why we need our guns!”

Hyus shook his head, no. “That is why we kept them.”

It looked for a moment like Bayfield was going to attack the big armadillo man, but his senses got a hold of him. On the floor, the trembling Myo-rak thrashed a furious spasm and stopped moving. The strange fungus began to crawl across his body.

Bayfield pointed at the still figure. “Without weapons, we’re all going to die out here, just like him. That’s your fault, Armadillo Man! Yours!” He marched to the back of the transport, fuming.

Hyus was wearing a sympathetic expression that was surprisingly easy to read. He looked to Troop. “We couldn’t hurt them. Those spores might have been how they communicate. Maybe, all they wanted was to talk to us.”

Troop shrugged. “Sure. Maybe. But even if that was the case, how they communicate kills. This isn’t a game anymore, Hyus. The sooner you realize that, the safer we’ll be.”

Hyus didn’t respond, looking down at the body on the floor of the vehicle. Even though the guard was dead, the fungus continued to grow, sprouting from his neck and shoulder, spreading down to his fingertips.

Enler spoke. “Must remove shell. A verdant garden, it remains.”

Troop translated, and Hyus agreed. Whatever funerary rites the Myo-rak had were ignored. They wrapped the body, dropped it out the back hatch without any ceremony, and disinfected the interior as best they could.

Nobody spoke until they’d passed through the next force-field and into a new, brighter patch.

Chapter 7: The Paradise arrives at the end of July!


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