Short Story Of the Day, Dog-Bone by Bill Chance

If the Chicxulub asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs then intelligent reptiles would be building rocket ships.

—-Bill Chance, Dog Bone

Mural, covered by “For Rent” sign
Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#19). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 

 


Dog-Bone

“After all this time, it is really going to happen.” John Random kept repeating this to himself over and over again. Ever since that layer of Iridium-enriched stuff was discovered on Earth back in the nineteen eighties; scientists, then artists, philosophers, and finally politicians talked about cosmic collisions. Now it was real.

Random kept reading about it. There on the ship, clunker though it was, he had access to all the information he needed. They were far from earth, so there was an irritating delay in conversation, (not that anyone wanted to talk anymore) but there was a constant flow of data. Before sleep period he would request books, journal articles, anything that struck his fancy and by the time he woke up, the information would be in the ship’s computer.

His partner, Zane Miller, didn’t read anything anymore. Two years ago, before the flight, Zane was selected as mission commander. He was the glamour-puss, in Random’s mind. The face of the mission. The first year, when they were still doing weekly news conferences, Zane did all the talking, John stayed in the background smiling and wearing his coveralls. Everyone knew Random was along to do the grunt work.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. As they looped back and forth through he solar system that first year, examining and mapping various objects detected from earth, the big lunar radar picked up the giant comet, the frozen, deadly snowball screaming in from beyond Neptune. It looked like it would be coming close so earth followed it and as that year went by the news became worse and worse.

Miller and Random’s mission was forgotten. First the news conferences stopped, then the mission support went away as earth’s entire focus shifted to the killer comet. It didn’t really affect them, their route was preprogrammed, too far from earth for any assistance, they were on their own. Still it started to get lonely. Random didn’t care so much, it was no mistake that someone of his temperament was selected on a multi-year space mission, but it drove Zane up the wall.

“Why complete the mission? it’s all going to be gone anyway!” Zane would rant on.

“Well, I don’t know,” Random would reply. “I guess mostly ’cause I can’t think of anything else to do.”

“Don’t you understand? It’s the end… we’re out here and earth is doomed. All dead! Gone!”

“I understand. But I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”

They had the same simple argument a hundred times during that awful month. Then Random discovered Zane had pulled out the emergency medical kit and broken all the seals. All the drug packs were gone. After that time Zane was a lot calmer, though he completely stopped his share of the checklists, never helped with the observations. He spent all the time in his sleep chamber. Sometimes Random could hear him moaning.

Not that it mattered. Random could handle the duties of the mission alone with no problem. It kept him a little busier but still left him with enough time for his reading. Between the last object and the one they were looking at next they had to loop clear out around Jupiter and back in, It was the longest hiatus of the mission. He had done a lot of reading by then, about the comet and other cosmic impacts.

He read of the schools of thought that held that evolution was largely a function of vast swaths of time and avoiding extinction events. The random nature of these collisions meant that it was a crapshoot for any species to survive long enough to migrate into space. If the Chicxulub asteroid hadn’t killed the dinosaurs then intelligent reptiles would be building rocket ships.

That was the reason for their mission. To examine the large objects floating through the solar system, to help learn their compositions and then design ways to intercept and destroy them. If man could determine a way to protect that fragile blue ball from the ravages of space, then they could gain the time needed to reach for the stars.

It was too late, obviously. Not that the mission had revealed much, anyway. Hunks of rock, chunks of ice, nothing that the spectrographs and lunar radar hadn’t predicted.

Well, nothing surprising until this object, anyway.

They had decelerated down into this vicinity and when the fusion engines had cooled enough to allow them to see out, Random had pulled the telescope into position and started visual observations. Zane had been in his chamber for days, lost in the world of the medical kit drugs.

“Umm, you’d better come out and take a look at this,” Random barked into the intercom.

“Who gives a shit!” came the expected answer.

“Really, Zane, this is something different, really different.”

“You wake me up again and I’ll come out there, kick your ass, and knock you out into space, You Hear!”

Random didn’t have any answer for that so he shut down the intercom and looked back into the telescope.

The object wasn’t an ordinary hunk of space rock, that was for sure. It was much larger than they expected, maybe two miles in length. Jet-black and smooth. He glanced at the radio spectroscope and confirmed that it absorbed almost all the radiation that fell on it. That is why the radar underestimated its size. It was very regular in shape, elongated, with a double lobed swelling at each end. It looked like a giant dog-bone. Like a colossal stylized chew-toy.

Random knew it wasn’t natural. He also knew it hadn’t been made on earth.

For weeks, Random held position near the object, studying it. He tried to get the attention of mission control back on earth, but they weren’t even monitoring his broadcasts. Every ounce of effort, every minute of time was being spent back there preparing the interceptor rockets that would attempt to destroy the comet before it reached earth. They were working around the clock, even though they knew it was hopeless.

Random carefully recorded his observations. “This is the greatest discovery of all time”, he reminded himself. He tried not to think about the fact that there wouldn’t be an earth to return to and nobody to see his work.

On the day the earth was going to send its missiles toward the comet, Zane Miller emerged from his chamber. He looked awful, trembling, trying to shake off his months of drug induced haze.

“Today’s the day,” he said to Random, like nothing had happened.

“Yup,” was all he could think in reply.

“What the hell is that!” Zane screamed, pointing out the view-port.

“It’s the object… other than that, I have no idea.”

The dog-bone wasn’t jet-black any more. It was glowing red now.

“It’s heating up,” said Random. “It’s been gaining hundreds of degrees every day for a week now. It moving too. For weeks it held the same orientation but three days ago I came out here and it had rotated almost ninety degrees.”

Visibly shaken, Zane sat down across from Random and they tuned in the Earth broadcast. Every ear on the planet or off would be watching as the rockets streaked toward the comet, all life on earth hanging in the balance.

The rockets flew, the enormous bombs exploded on cue. But it was like throwing a pebble at a bullet. Everybody knew that it was hopeless, but watched breathlessly as the lunar radar tracked the comet. Slowly the announcer conveyed the inevitable, that the missiles hadn’t worked, that the comet had pierced the explosions unharmed, that the earth was doomed.

“Well, that’s it, Zane said,” glancing back to his chamber, thinking about the medication, thinking about what might be put together to form a fatal dose.

Random was suddenly startled by a bright light from the view-port.

“Jeez, look!”

The object was white hot. Glowing as bright as a small oblong sun. Suddenly, it visibly shuddered and threw off a bolt of incredible energy. For a split second the beam was visible and even though the view-port darkened automatically the light was so intense both men were blinded for minutes.

When their eyesight returned they peered out the view-port, then trained the telescope on the object to confirm what they saw. The dog-bone was dark and black again. Cold. Inert.

They looked at each other. Even before the announcement came in from earth they knew where the beam had gone.

“It is a miracle!” said the announcer. “The missiles must have weakened the comet to the point that once it neared the earth’s gravity, it fell apart. It has been completely destroyed, blown into a million pieces.”

For another week they continued to watch the object as earth reported amazing meteor showers and millions killed as the remains of the comet continued to pound the planet. Man, life itself, would survive, though.

Then they received a message from mission control, the first that had come through in months.

“Hello, how are you?”

“Fine,” replied Random.

“I guess you have heard the great news. What are you looking at now?”

The two men had known this question was coming and they had decided on an answer.

“Only another chunk of ice and rock.”

On the long trip back, Zane helped Random carefully erase all the records of the observations of the object. They spliced together bits of data from other observations and blurred the records, nobody would suspect the location of the dog-bone.

Then Zane retreated to his chamber and his medical kit. He knew he wouldn’t be able to survive without the drugs. It would be a decade before he found that fatal dose.

Random was in charge now. He monitored the mission, fixed the little things that came up, did the grunt work. He read some more, read about how man could protect itself, could continue on, could someday reach for the stars. He chuckled to himself when he thought about that. He thought about the time far in the future when people were able to venture out beyond.

He thought about the blinding light, about the dog-bone; and about what, and who, they would find on that day.

The Strange Bird

For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

 

Bird, Scavenging along an Interstate Highway in Texas

Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.

One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.

Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.

And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.

And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.

The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.

And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist,  or The Hobbit, or something like that.  The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:

In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.

There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.

So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.

 

 

Joy Cannot Fend Off Evil

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts

(click to enlarge)
Mural, Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark,  I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:

Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to BookstoreWild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night

 

But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.

 

I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”

 

What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)

 

I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end

 

With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows

 

Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella)  Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)

 

So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.

 

But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….

So little time, so many books.

 

 

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

 “Desire is suffering. A simple equation, and a nice catchphrase. But flipped around, it is more troubling: suffering is desire.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

I was looking for something fun and not too heavy to read so I paged through the books I’d bought (mostly during Amazon sales) for my Kindle and settled the cursor over “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu – clicking it into my “READING” folder.

It’s an odd, postmodern bit of strangeness. You know, right away, when you find out that the protagonist’s name is Charles Yu, the same as the author. You suspect that the protagonist claims to have written the book that you are reading… and you would be right… sort of.

Yu (the protagonist) works as a time machine repairman. For the last ten years he has lived in his own time machine, a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. Though there isn’t any extra space in the thing, he does have two companions – TAMMY, his love interest – an attractive bit of programming, and Ed, his non-existent, ontologically valid dog.

He works in Minor Universe 31 (not a coincidence that it has the same model number as his machine) – which is a pretty grim stretch of time-space continuum. It is broken, never really finished, and cobbled together from New York and Los Angeles scrunched together, with half of Tokyo thrown in for leavening.

Protagonist Yu gets himself in a real jam. He returns to his time machine after it gets some needed maintenance and sees himself climbing out of it. He panics, shoots himself, then jumps into the time machine and escapes into the past.

He is now stuck in a time loop. His only hope is to write a book that will tell his future self how to escape from the trap. The book that he is writing is “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” and you are reading it.

There are, obviously, many twists and turns of space and time and many turns of phrase and twists of fate. Physics enters into it too. And hypertext.

The book has links in it – including a link to a YouTube video on the famous Libet experiment on free will.

So I don’t know if I really decided to read this book… or simply went along with the flow when I discovered that I had already moved it into my READING folder on my Kindle – then fooled myself into believing that I had chosen it – and now am lying to y’all about deciding…. or something like that.

So, all well and good. Food for thought. But, the big question is, do you give a damn?

And the answer is, surprisingly, yes. The beating heart of the book is the relationship between Charles Yu and his father. I can say with pretty strong confidence that the grip of emotion is present in both the author and his eponymous protagonist. The story is the search for his father, who has also become lost in time, and an examination of the father and son’s life together. This is the meat of the story. There are a few passages that will rip your heart out… and that is the reason to read the book.

The science fictional pyrotechnics are just added dessert.

 “I don’t miss him anymore. Most of the time, anyway. I want to. I wish I could but unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience… It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

Oh, and this book sure feels unstageable and unfilmable… but it’s been adapted into a one-man play and Chris Columbus has optioned it for a film.

“There must be some kind of internal time distortion effect in here, because when I look at myself in the little mirror above my sink, what I see is my father’s face, my face turning into his. I am beginning to feel how the man looked, especially how he looked on those nights he came home so tired he couldn’t even make it through dinner without nodding off, sitting there with his bowl of soup cooling in front of him, a rich pork-and-winter-melon-saturated broth that, moment by moment, was losing – or giving up – its tiny quantum of heat into the vast average temperature of the universe.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe “