Samantha Swords Review of Talhoffer Society

Samantha Swords is an actress and a celebrity, particularly in the Western martial arts community. She has a blog on Tumblr and recently honored me with a review of The Talhoffer Society, which is linked below.

In this review, she writes about Freddie, the female POV character:

"Edelson manages to portray a strong and supremely-deadly woman as also someone facing that horrifying affliction of mortals; incremental loss of bodily function, and the unspeakable shame that comes with it. Freddie is both sharp and fragile, and quintessentially feminine."

This is probably the most exciting thing I have yet to read in a review. As a male writer, I often struggle with doubts about my female characters. Are they believable as women? Do I do them justice? Am I falling victim to stereotypes or tropes without meaning to? Knowing that I have succeeded, at least with this one character, is incredibly rewarding. Thank you, Samantha Swords!

Here is the review:

http://samanthaswords.tumblr.com/post/138589882023/my-review-of-the-talhoffer-society-which-is

 

Short Story - Pax Africana

This is a silly science fiction story I wrote exclusively for my own amusement. If Old Wounds is too dark and The Trip is too depressingly close to your own life, then read this one! I will make you happy, or it will make you say mean things about me. Either way, you won't be sad!

PAX AFRICANA

by 

Michael Edelson

 

                Parrots are cowards. When you spook them, they fly to the highest perch they can reach. That’s after flying around and squawking like idiots. It’s what Kirk did, right before they killed him. When the Jellies came I tried to save him by letting him out of his cage, but a passing patrol saw him in the tree, the highest tree, and burned poor Kirk with one of their beam weapons. I was ten, and I watched my best friend die.

                 They killed everything, those Jellies. Everything that wasn’t human: lions, tigers, bears, insects and African Gray parrots, like Kirk. I hadn’t been to the surface in seven years, but I can’t imagine there is anything up there I want to see.

                I thought about Kirk every time I used the catwalks. He would have been happy up there. He would have felt safe. I was safe enough, I suppose, but I wasn’t happy. Back then I didn’t think I’d ever be happy. And this was supposed to be one of the best days of my life, a day on which I got to breed. But some people got to do it more than others, and for me it was almost routine. I liked AL8E-3369 though, she was nice. I called her Allie.

                The catwalk I was on was very high up, and I was mortified of heights. But it was so dark that you couldn’t see anything, and if you couldn’t see it, you didn’t think about it. That’s how we lived. We didn’t think about things too much.

                I heard the dreaded humming sound and I froze. A Jelly was coasting towards me on its grav sled. I stared at it as it emerged from the shadows, unable to look away. Some people say they don’t like it when you stare at them, but I don’t think they can even tell. They don’t have eyes, so if they see, they don’t see the same way we do.

                It was a translucent green Jelly. A big one, probably around 200lbs. They were all different colors, and the colors meant something. I didn’t always know what, but I knew green. Green meant it was almost ready to reproduce. That’s just what we needed. More damned Jellies.

                It’s vodor buzzed. “Identify!”

                I hesitated a moment, then blinked away my fear and said, “Human Servitor, Designation AA1B-8723.” I know it was stupid, but I was somewhat proud of my designation. AAs were the elite of the servitors. We were granted all manner of privileges, such as lots and lots of breeding. The AA means I was deemed genetically superior to just about any other human, though to this day I don’t know what their criteria were. As an AL, Allie was almost at my level. We were close enough to breed, anyway.

                “State your purpose!” the Jelly buzzed through its vodor. They were disgusting creatures. Slimy, amorphous. And they smelled bad too. Like rancid snot. They had a name for their species, but we didn’t know what it was. Nor did we care. They looked like living gelatin, so that’s what we called them.

                “I am proceeding to level 19, section 22F, cell 3010, for scheduled breeding with human servitor AL8E-3369. Permission to proceed?”

                The Jelly hesitated. I saw it vibrate a few times, but the vodor was silent. Finally it said, “Proceed.”

                Of course there was no way past it on the narrow catwalk. Its grav sled surged forward, right at me. I dropped to the ground and gritted my teeth. When it passed over me, it was like a million insects crawling over every inch of my body. I really, really hated those things. The sleds were pretty awful too.

                Before long I stood in front of Allie’s door, and for some reason, I hesitated. I had butterflies in my stomach. There weren’t any real butterflies left anywhere on the planet, but there they were, in my gut. I was old enough when the Jelly ships came to remember things quite clearly. When I thought about there being no butterflies, it hit me hard. Harder than usual. I looked around to make sure I was alone and sat down on the grated metal floor, my back to Allie’s wall. I wanted to collect myself before I saw her. There was just enough light to see a good ways down the antiseptic hallway in both directions. Everything was metal. Cold, sterile. A pattern of closely spaced doors disappeared into the shadows. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the clanging of machines.

                Never open a door unless you know what’s behind it. Especially if that door is a wormhole to another universe. We weren’t trying to find another reality. Our physicists weren’t even sure such things existed. We were trying to travel in space. That is what wormholes are supposed to do, after all. At first they thought it didn’t work. They fired it up near Saturn, and when they sent the first probe through, there was Saturn. It was as though there was no wormhole, except that the probe wasn’t in our universe. It didn’t take them long to realize what was going on and to send a probe to Earth. Everything was the same: Jupiter, Mars, their moons. But not Earth. Earth wasn’t green or blue, it was gray, filled with lights. One giant megacity across the entire surface of the planet, even the oceans. The probe went dark, and we shut down the wormhole immediately. But it was too late. The armada arrived a few days later. Hundreds of ships. Our technology was useless against them, like throwing rocks at a tank.

                I knew what was behind Allie’s door. She was pretty, even though they didn’t let us have makeup. She didn’t need it. She was a couple of years younger than me, fifteen I think, but she’d already had several kids. I should say that she gave birth. They never let us keep our kids. We didn’t know at the time what they did to them. I know now, but...I don’t want to think about it. Some were lucky, and those became servitors.

                I knocked on the door. There was a bell, but Allie didn’t like the sound it made. The door slid open.

                Allie stood behind it, smiling. Her hair was short, like mine, but long enough that she could tease it into something that looked feminine. She was tiny, barely up to my shoulder, with a slender athletic body. Not that any of us could have had anything but slender bodies with what they fed us.

                “Hi,” she said, smiling awkwardly. “It’s that time again, huh?”

                “You know it is,” I said, and instantly regretted it. She did know, so if she was asking, it was because she wanted to pretend. “I mean, sorry...I...yeah. It’s that time. May I come in?”

                Her smile, which had waned after my crude reply, returned. “Sure, Abe, come on in.” I was a little shocked that she said it aloud in the hallway. The Jellies got mad if we used normal names. And when a Jelly got mad, there was a lot of pain, if you were lucky. AA1B. Abe. Not perfect, but I liked it. My real name had been Daniel once, but I didn’t want to remember that life.

                They were a sentient race, the Jellies, but they were nothing like us. I don’t think they had feelings, at least not the way we did. They hated all other forms of life and eradicated them wherever they went, unless they could be made to work, like we could. They killed over four billion of us when they arrived. Not randomly though. They went through our cities and towns, scanning us. Those who passed were put in transports, the rest were burned, like Kirk. Nothing but charred remains. Mostly dust. The lucky ones were put to work building another planet-wide city on our Earth, just like the one on theirs. Most of us knew that we’d be killed when the city was finished. Not all of us, of course, but most. Maintenance takes less work than construction.

                Allie’s cell was like mine, spartan, no decorations. One bed with a thin mattress, a storage cube for clothes, a toilet, a sink and a small table and chair. A reading device sat on the table. We weren’t trained to do our jobs. We were given readers with instructions and technical specs. If we couldn’t learn our designated jobs, we were burned in front of the others. But not quickly. We had to be taught a lesson, after all.

                “So,” she said. “How have you been?”

                I shrugged. “Not bad, I guess. I like my new job. I mean...I don’t hate it as much as the old one.”

                “What is it?”

                “Oh, sorry, I thought you knew. I’m a manager now. I’m responsible for forty servitors. Three supervisors report to me. We’re building a cargo elevator. It uses the same tech as the grav sleds.” I shrugged again. “It’s kinda interesting. How it works and all that.”

                She laughed. “It’s not like they’re going to explain it to you.”

                “No,” I agreed. “But I read the specs. I can’t understand it all, but I do get the basics. Anyway, what about you? Anything new?”

                She went to the sink and poured me a glass of water. She wore gray tights and a thin cotton shirt. When she leaned down, her shirt rode up and showed the top of her panties peeking up. My groin stirred. Perhaps breeding wasn’t quite as routine as I had made it out to be. Not with Allie, anyway. She was special somehow, in a way I hadn’t understood then. I barely remembered what love was, so I didn’t have much to compare my feelings to.

                She handed me the glass and frowned. I could see the light in her eyes dim for a moment.

                “Yeah,” she said. “Unfortunately.”

                “What’s wrong?” I took a sip of the metallic water. It wasn’t as good as the water in my cell, but then she wasn’t a double A.

                “They opened the wormhole again. This time they found a pristine Earth.”

                Allie worked in some sort of communications center, so she heard things. I had no doubt that what she was telling me was true. This wasn’t the first time they had done it, but they’d struck out in previous attempts. The thought of them opening up that door, finding another Earth and doing to them what they did to us—that was almost too much. The Jellies weren’t from Earth. They had come to the version that we found on the other side of our wormhole and sterilized it exactly as they later did to ours. No one knew where they came from, not then anyway.

                “Pristine? What do you mean?”

                “I mean one with no civilization. It’s all jungles and forests and oceans. Can you imagine that? How beautiful it must be?”

                I frowned. “Yeah. But...not for long.”

                We didn’t talk much after that. She sat on the bed, I sat next to her. I drank my water, she drank hers. I held her hand, she kissed me, and we had sex, just like we were supposed to. It was great. It was always great with Allie.

                Later, back in my own cell, I lay awake for most of the night. It was hard to sleep, thinking about what the Jellies were doing to that perfect, beautiful Earth. Maybe it too had lions, tigers and elephants. All the wondrous biodiversity that our planet once had. And more! Because there weren’t any humans to mess it up. If only we had found that planet first, if only we had never found the Jellies. What would life have been like? But then I kinda knew. I was old enough to remember. We would have messed up the same way the Jellies would, only slower and with a lot more self delusion. Maybe we’d just gotten what we deserved.

                I kept thinking, day dreaming, about the Jellies traveling to yet another new world, but this time instead of a clean Earth, there would be an advanced civilization. Maybe on that world, the Roman Empire never fell, and they would obliterate the Jellies with giant starships bearing the golden eagle. Then they would come to our Earth and save us too. They were nice dreams, and the best part was, maybe, one day, they could come true. If the Jellies kept opening that wormhole to different realities, who knew what they would find? If we found an advanced race of malevolent Jello snacks that took over our planet, why the hell not?

                The next morning, the rumor mill was turning at full speed. There were fewer Jellies around than usual, and the most popular conjecture was that they were all part of the invasion fleet that was going to sweep down on Earth 2—that’s what we’d taken to calling it—and scour it clean of all living things. I now know that the Jellies didn’t kill all life, just all macro life. They had a special cocktail of microorganisms they’d cooked up that could sustain a biosphere without plants or animals. We never learned why they hated living things so much. That’s going to be a mystery forever I guess.

                BB, short for BB2Z-1283, started taking bets with ration cards. The odds favored half of us being exported to this freshly sterilized new planet within the week. Close favorites were increased breeding for everyone, not just the Alphabets, to make more servitors. Alphabets—that was what we called our top three genetic tiers—A,B and C.

                I thought about putting an end to the betting, it was in very poor taste considering what was happening, but they seemed to enjoy it. Joyce, JC1K-3239, even made a board to keep track of odds and bet amounts using an unallocated sheet of wall metal and a piece natural chalk someone found in the tunnels below the catwalks. We didn’t know what sort of metal it was, but it wasn’t magnetic and we could neither bend nor scratch it. I guess not even my imaginary Romans could have stood up to these Jellies, if even their ordinary walls were nearly indestructible.

                The next few days there were fewer and fewer Jellies. We figured they were having a field day on Earth 2, killing, looting, polluting. What disgusting creatures. For the millionth time, I wished death on all of them.

                I saw Allie again, on the third night. She had more news from the communications center. The Jellies were sending more and more ships through the wormhole. Oh well, so much for day dreams. The “terraforming” must be going full tilt.

                On the fourth day, we needed to activate the power to the level we were working on, and we couldn’t reach any Jellies on the com panel.

                “What do we do now?” BB asked. “We can’t proceed until they turn the power on. We’re all done on this level.”

                “I don’t know,” I said. “So I guess...I guess we’ll just wait.”

                BB looked skeptical. “Are you sure? I mean...if they catch us idle, it will be your ass.”

                “Well what else do you want me to do? The com’s working, and no one is answering.”

                We waited. Nervously. We waited for several hours. Then I decided to go looking for a Jelly. Maybe the com system was down after all. I mean...it didn’t seem to be, but who knew? Maybe it was like the old days when you had a connection to your router but the modem was down.

                I wandered for over an hour. All of the restricted areas were sealed off as usual, but there were no Jellies outside of them. I returned to my crew and sent them all to their cells for the night. We exchanged nervous glances and they dispersed with some muttering and head shaking.

                The next morning there were still no Jellies. I decided to go up to the next level and start the preliminary work there before finishing up below. In retrospect, it was what I should have done from the start. I was lucky that there hadn’t been any Jellies around to see my screw-up, or I’d be down in the tunnels chipping away at rock with a pickaxe.

                That night, there was a knock at my door. It was Allie.

                “What are you doing here?” I asked. “Did they schedule another breeding session?”

                “The access door to the com center is locked,” she said, walking past me into my cell. I shut the door behind her.

                “Locked?”

                “Yeah, I couldn’t get to work this morning. And no one is answering the coms!”

                “What did you do?” Suddenly, I had a disturbing thought. What if the Jellies had changed their mind about this planet? What if they left us all here to die?

                “I walked around, looking for one of them. I tried all the com panels, nothing. I wasn’t the only one wandering too. Something’s happening. I think...I think they...”

                “Left us here?” I gave voice to my thoughts, and it made me shiver.

                She nodded and swiped an errant tear. “Can I stay with you tonight?”

                I blinked. “All night? Here? But...what if they...I mean...”

                “If they catch us, that means they are here, and they can tell us what to do. I’ll just say I was scared because I thought they’d left us.”

                The thing is, she really was scared because she thought they’d left us. A part of me hated her for being so weak, so dependent. But it was a fleeting thought. None of this was her fault. She must have been eight or so when they came and took her from her parents. The day they murdered my pet, my best friend, Kirk. I hated the Jellies for killing him. I hated them more than I hated anything in the world. If they left us here, then that was good. Maybe we would have a chance to start again. Though the thought of over two billion people trying to survive on a world that had been scoured clean of life without the Jellies’ technology wasn’t something I dared to think about for very long.

                Allie stayed with me that night, and we made love. Not just sex like before. It was different this time. This time we did it because we wanted to, not because the Jellies told us to, and we took our time. Afterwards we held each other, kissed a lot, and finally slept. I think at that moment I realized that I loved her, and I never wanted to breed with anyone else again.

                The ration machines didn’t work that next morning. They were empty. We waited until a little past lunch time, then we decided that enough was enough. We got some molecular welders and broke through a security door. That last moment before the door fell was very scary. If there were a Jelly on the other side, he’d burn as all before we could blink.

                There wasn’t. Just an empty corridor. We went up to the higher levels past empty rooms and desolate hallways until we made it to the surface access door. We sent a group back for the welder and got it open. The sun was so bright. I remembered the sun, but never like this. An orb so bright it burned me eyes even when closed. Shielding our eyes with our hands, we walked onto white sand that disappeared into the horizon. In the distance, in all directions, were groups of men and women, just like us, coming out of other access doors. Some groups were large, some small like ours. We waved at them, some waved back. There were no Jellies. Not a one.

                As my eyes adjusted I looked all around and noticed that the sand wasn’t quite everywhere. Far in the distance, all around, were fragments of the unfinished mega city that was supposed to one day cover the entire surface of our planet.

                “They left us!” I said, anger in my tone.

                “There’s no food,” Allie said.

                “We’ll find something!” BB said excitedly. I guess that’s one of the reasons he was a B and not an A. There would be no food. There was nothing alive on the planet but us that was bigger than a bacteria.

                “They didn’t leave us!” a girl shouted. “Look!”

                We looked. I heard it before I saw anything.  A deep thrumming. Darkness fell across the sand as something passed in front of the sun, and then there it was.

                It was a starship, enormous, bristling with weapons. An absurd amount of weapons. It was nothing like the clean gleaming Jelly spheres we’d seen before. As it got lower I was able to make out more details. It was black, its hull smooth and glistening, except where the weapons were mounted. The entire ship seemed to have been built around a titanic cannon that had to be a mile long. I later learned that the cannons fired beams of microscopic black holes that could destroy a planet. It was a Dreadnought in the true sense of the word. Fear nothing. And it wasn’t alone. Far in the distance, more Dreadnoughts were descending. They hovered a few thousand feet in the air, thrumming ominously, blocking out the sun. Small craft detached from the base of their massive hulls and headed towards the surface.

                The one from the nearest Dreadnought was coming towards our group. It was sleek and vaguely bird shaped, its shiny black hull reflected the sand below and the battleship above, and as it got closer, it reflected our terrified faces. What new horror had the Jellies unleashed upon us? Were they going to eradicate us rather than let us starve to death? Had they found better servitors on that pristine Earth with which they would replace us?

                We were terrified, but we dared not move. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Maybe the spheres we had seen before had been transport ships, and these were the Jellies’ battle cruisers. We wanted to run, and some of us did, but where would we go? Those few that panicked disappeared through the access doors.

                All of the landing craft touched down almost at the same time, at least the ones we could make out. I don’t want to admit this, but as the platform descended from its hull, I almost lost it. Almost. I stayed.

                The platform was occupied by a tight formation of humanoid robots. They were about seven feet tall and carried intimidating weapons in human-like hands. Their features were too complicated for my struggling brain to process. They kept their weapons lowered as they marched towards us. I felt Allie’s hand grip mine tightly, her nails digging in. Was this the end?

                When the robots got close, they parted to reveal a naked, hairy ape creature in their center. It stood about five feet tall and avoided eye contact. On its shoulder sat—

                Kirk.

                I mean, it wasn’t actually Kirk. But it looked a hell of a lot like him. Its head was bigger, a lot bigger. Its body was too, but not nearly as much as the oversized head. It looked comical, and stared at us with that same goofy look that Kirk used to have whenever he was nervous, which, being an African Gray parrot, was most of the time.

                It spoke in a perfect male human voice, and I will never forget its words. After it spoke, I collapsed, overcome. I didn’t wake until much later.

                It said, “Greetings humans of Earth! I am Ar-[screech]-[pop]-[click], Captain of the [series of screeches] battleship Kar-[loud screech!]-[click-click]-hoo. We are here to liberate you!” I can still hear it when I close my eyes, every last click and pop.

                Parrots.

                We were saved by violent galactic space parrots.

                It made a strange kind of sense. Most people used to think that the smartest animals on Earth were whales, gorillas or dolphins, but they were wrong. The smartest animals on Earth, after humans, were African Gray parrots. They scored higher on intelligence tests than gorillas did, and they took those tests in English, not sign language. On that particular Earth, in that wonderful reality, parrots developed sentient intelligence first, and formed a symbiotic relationship with the most advanced primate species.

                I told you before, parrots are cowards. They hid their civilization in the trees, and built massive starships to keep them safe in case that didn’t work. When the Jellies came and made their intentions known, the dreadnoughts appeared and blew them out of space. Taken aback, the Jellies mobilized their battle fleets and came in force. No one had ever been able to fight back before, and so they wanted to end the threat quickly. The parrot dreadnoughts, protected by energy shields and nearly indestructible hulls, fired black holes at the Jelly fleet. Black holes! The Jellies never stood a chance.

                But that wasn’t the end of it though. The Jellies had attacked the peace loving and cowardly parrots in their own homes. That meant they all had to die. All of them. The parrot fleet hunted the remaining Jellies down and killed them all, down to the last newly budded blob. Then the parrots set out to find the Jelly home world. Both of them, in both universes. It didn’t take them long.  That’s s why I said some things will remain a mystery forever. There aren’t any Jellies left to ask. Not in our universe, and not in that of the parrots.

                Us humans, on the other hand, the parrots loved. We were just like their apes, which were part beloved family pet and part working partner. They did all the manual labor, each with a parrot on their shoulder, and were rewarded with luxurious living conditions. They weren’t slaves—it was a mutually beneficial relationship. The apes were almost sentient, and they had freedom. Any ape that preferred to live a natural life in the jungle had that choice. Many took it. A few even chose to live in our jungles. Which reminds me...

                The parrots didn’t just save us. They saved our planet. They reseeded it with plants, animals and insects from their own world, which were genetically identical to the ones we used to have.

                Never open a door unless you know what’s behind it. It was a lesson the Jellies learned too late. As for the parrots, well, they’re cowards after all. They locked the wormhole open between our two realities and did something to space there to keep any others from forming.

                Pax Africana, that’s what I call it. The African Peace, after the parrots ancestor species. It’s how we live now. Allie and I, our children, and all of humanity. In peace, out in the open, under beautiful star filled skies, amongst trees and rivers, teeming with life. Every now and then, a parrot comes to visit. They like our stories and are fascinated with our dexterous fingers, which we use to preen their feather chutes. They claim we’re better at it than their apes, but I think they just like novelty. Be careful if a parrot visits you though. They love to talk. They’ll talk all night if you let them. That’s when they’re not singing. Some of them are pretty good. Some.  

                I still miss Kirk, but there’s a parrot that lives not too far from me who looks just like him. He lets me call him Kirk. We go fishing sometimes. Kirk loves fish. Except jellyfish. No one likes jellyfish.

                Kirk and I were fishing one day and a thought occurred to me, so I asked him.

                “What would you have done if we had shown up on your planet? Looking to get its resources?”

                Kirk thought about it by staring at me with big wide goofy eyes and shaking his head in the way of his people. “I suppose,” he said after a moment. “That we would have identified ourselves and asked you to fuck off.” The parrots had taken quite well to our colloquialisms.

                “Would you have show us your technology?”

                Kirk blinked rapidly, a sign of negation. “No. We only show our technology to friends and things we want to eradicate.”

                I thought about that for a good three minutes. “But we wouldn’t have listened. We would have asked to set up an embassy or something and then just landed with mining ships and made excuses.”

                Kirk shook his head violently again. “That would have been very bad.”

                “Yeah,” I agreed, thinking of the Jellies.

                “But it’s better this way, “ Kirk said and bobbed his head up and down in a display of pleasure. “Now we are friends and no one has to be eradicated.” His line went taught. “I got one!” he shouted and flapped his wings excitedly. His ape started to reel it in.

Short Story - The Trip

This is a science fiction story, though it's more of a social commentary. I don't expect that it's original or ground breaking, just fun. That is why we read short stories, isn't it? 

I wrote this while working as a technical writer in corporate America. If you've ever seen the movie Office Space then you have some idea what that's like and you may understand my motivation. At one point I was one of the highest paid technical writers in NYC, which is saying quite a bit. That was shortly before I joined the Dot Com boom and experienced a brief flirtation with wealth. I was never like the people in this story though. I always had one rule: never work for someone who knows your job. If someone knows what you do, then that person can expect you to do it efficiently. Forget that noise! I was like Scotty in engineering. "Yes captain, I can do that...it will take four days!" Sure it will, Scotty. Sure it will. 

The Trip

by

Michael Edelson

     Whenever I’m in the tubeway I always think back to my ninth birthday. My father took me to the opening of a very long movie at a brand new theater across town. Back in the 20s a forty five minute movie was considered normal, and I did enjoy it, though I’ve no doubt that part of it was the novelty of actually getting to spend time with my old man. It was that first ride on the tubetrain that really captured my imagination and made that day memorable though.

     It’s hard for me to rationalize what I ever saw in the tubeway when I look at it through adult eyes, but I can’t deny that I sometimes get a tingle when I see the sleek tubetrain pull up to the station. The only thing I can think of is that when I was nine, the then futuristic looking train represented my hope for a better and calmer tomorrow. Gliding through translucent tunnels on maglev rails at over three hundred miles per hour, the train was quiet, and despite its speed, somehow serene. You could actually expect to find a seat back then, and the cushions were new and smelled like fresh plastic.

     The train itself no longer holds any interest for me,  particularly because I can’t usually see much of it from inside. In fact I can barely stand without pressing up against the people around me. The smell of mingled sweat is unpleasant and strong, despite the untiring efforts of the train’s filtration system. The smell follows me everywhere I go, and no matter how many times I have my apartment cleaned I can’t seem to rid myself of it.

     All around me, eyephones are blinking and passenger’s eyes are darting back forth as they respond to images only they can see. I can make out fragments of a dozen or more conversations taking place within a few feet of where I’m standing. Just as I’m about to sigh with disgust, my own eyephone blinks with an incoming call. I am no stranger to hypocrisy.

     A subconscious effort of will on my part displays a true-to-life image of my assistant overlaid on the scene in front of me.

     “Mr. Wang?” he says in that ridiculously whiny voice he considers respectful. He fears me, of course, as his job is the only thing keeping him out of the undercity. There is a place in our society for people without corporate affiliation, but it’s not a place anyone in their right mind would want to be.

     “Yes?” I reply, almost in a whisper. I have no desire to add to the din around me, though on an average twenty minute commute I deal with no less than five or six calls, most of them from my sniveling assistant. Of course that’s in the privacy of my acar. It’s been years since I’ve had to take the tubetrain.

     “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Sudhir Pandit from Yamamoto needs to confirm some of the details of your meeting next week.”

     I sigh. “Carl, I’m on vacation. Can’t this wait four days?”

     He swallows, sensing my irritation. “I’m sorry, sir, but technically your vacation doesn’t start for another two hours and Mr. Pandit insists…”

     “Put him through,” I say, trying my best to keep the resignation out of my voice. It only takes me a minute to deal with the hard faced Indian, but then most things today take only a minute or two. Efficiency is not only the new religion, it’s practically the law.

     My father used to tell me that when I grew up, I would be someone important, that I would climb above the squirming masses and their uber-hectic lives. He was partially right, I am someone very important. In a society where world leaders spend their time begging for corporate handouts to fund their social programs, being the CFO of a fortune one hundred firm is like being the prime minister of a small nation back when the world was at least partially sane. Yet in my cushy executive acar I am just as busy and overwhelmed as these miserable wretches crowded into this tubetrain capsule. Am I really better off? So much of life is online that how you get around and what sort of office you sit in makes little difference.

     If there were a better way to live, I’d call my life a dismal failure when held up against my father’s hopes, but there isn’t, not really. I suppose I could go to work for Globacom. They’ve offered to buy out my portfolio and their upper management doesn’t work on Sundays. If you believe rumors, though, they’ll be going Chapter 32 within the year. Risking unemployment and a possible one way trip to the undercity is not worth a few supposed days off, if you ask me.

     It’s not like I need to take chances. I am one of the least unfortunate of the non-investment class. My portfolio is worth more than a billion, but it’s all funny money. The only truly rich of today’s world sit on corporate boards. The rest of us are only permitted the illusion of wealth, so long as we continue to spend our lives working to enrich the elites of the upper crust. As a wage slave, I am permitted to keep only a tiny fraction of my assets in liquid form, the rest must be invested in my company’s stock with a conditional vestment based on my continued employment. So I might be as rich as a board member of a less prosperous corporation, but only as long as I continue to work. The board member actually has real money. I wonder who bought that law.

     To be fair, my life has no small share of privileges, and this tubetrain ride is taking me to one of them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m far too high up the ladder to ride the train, but today I decided to remind myself of what I was leaving behind, however temporarily. I’m on my way to the cosmoport to catch a shuttle to Isley Station in high Earth orbit. From there I will take the journey of a lifetime, something I have worked my ass off for ever since I’ve read about it in the scientific journals. It can be said that my current status is owed at least in part to my ambition to one day be able to afford this incredible luxury.

It is without exception the most expensive vacation money can buy, by an extremely wide margin. One step down the ladder is the Red Sands resort on Mars, and I can go there 368 times for what this one trip is costing me. Assuming I had the time to go to Mars, of course. I don’t feel bad, though. One thing you can always do with funny money is spend it, as long as it’s not on assets. So why not blow a fifth of my portfolio on something that will make me truly happy, at least for a little while?

     The train ride is a blur. I try very hard to pay attention, to revel in the drudgery of common life before embarking on my voyage, but I can’t. I’m too excited. I feel alive for the first time since I can remember.

     The train pulls into the cosmoport and I hustle to get off in the few seconds I have before the doors close. Trying to press my way down the right passageway I fight through the crowds as the moving floor carries me to shuttle check in. Another call comes in on my eyephone and I deal with it without paying too much attention, just like always. I notice that I have about 140 emails, but technically I don’t have to get those until I come back from vacation, so I don’t.

     Security is over quickly, and the full body scan is interesting as always. Like most people, I look over it, trying to spot tumors. Why not? You never know.

     Before long I’m sitting in a seat in the shuttle listening to safety warnings from the cockpit. Blah, blah, blah. As though they really care if I die. I’ve already signed the damned waiver. At least first class isn’t as crowded as the rest of the cabin. I can actually sit without touching anyone.

     Takeoff is uneventful and smooth, and I doze of for a little while before the shuttle breaks the atmosphere. As I wipe the sleep from my eyes, we dock with the station and people are already crawling over each other trying to get to their carryons. Space flight isn’t cheap, so these bustling mad persons are all high ranking executives. Look at how successful they all are. Can’t even spare a minute to disembark gracefully.

     Once I step onto Isley, things become much less hectic. The halls are nearly empty. I can walk without bumping into people. I stop for a snack and there are only two people in line ahead of me. I am starting to get really excited. Just being on this station is vacation enough for most people, but not for me. I’m taken back to that day at the movies with my father again. I can remember my childish excitement and I’m thrilled to be feeling it again with all its intensity! Now, for once, my money is worth something to me. I’ve never reveled in the power my position gives me they way most of my peers do. I just don’t get their desire to force their pathetic wills on others, or their constant need to display their opulence. It’s amazing to me that even in 2065 the best and brightest of us can’t overcome our most basic human instincts.

     Here I am, finally, at the entrance to the embarkation center. I am greeted by a smiling woman in a lab coverall.

     “Mr. Wang,” she says, extending her hand. I shake it. “We are honored to host you today. Would you like to take a tour of the facilities before you depart?”

     “Not really,” I say. I’m very eager to get started.”

     She smiles. “Certainly sir. If you’re ready, then, please follow me.”

     She takes me down a few corridors. I pass a room where two CEOs I recognize from last week’s Intracom conference are receiving a lecture around a 3V set. The disembodied voice is talking about relativity and the direct subtraction of energy, whatever that means. I’m curious about the details, but not enough to postpone my vacation or to risk getting caught up in a networking session. I don’t like being so eager or impatient, but that’s the way life has made me.

     We go through a door and emerge into what looks like a large hangar bay. In the bay are three silver spheres about the size of a tubetrain section floating above the floor. A maglev bridge connects a door on the surface of each sphere to a metal stairway. Surrounding each sphere are robotic arms that terminate in a point of light that glows so brightly that I can’t look directly at it. I stop for a bit, staring at the one that is to be mine. I know it’s mine because it’s the only one with an open door.

     “Amazing, aren’t they?” the woman says. I think she must have told me her name at one point, but I can’t remember. Sometimes details just get lost in the noise.

     “Yes,” I say, not wanting to take my eyes off the sphere. “I’ve always wondered…ah, never mind.” I don’t have time for this. I’m spending enough money on this vacation to start a mid size company. I want to get underway before some emergency at the office calls me back. Once in the sphere, I’ll be safe, but out here...

     “Are you certain? I can give you a brief rundown. Or you can ask a question. I promise to make the answer as quick and concise as possible.”

     “Quick? Well I guess it can’t hurt. I was just wondering. Isn’t it supposed to work the other way around? I don’t know much about relativity, but…”

     “It can work both ways,” she replies, not even momentarily confused by my poorly phrased question. My scientific education is minimal and I don’t exactly have time to better myself. “What we do is more akin to deceleration, relative to the Earth.”

     “Won’t that mean the sphere has to go somewhere? Or rather not go and be left behind?”

     “Normally, yes, but we’re not actually changing its velocity. Were extracting energy directly, which gives us the same results without the necessity for displacement.”

     “I see,” I lie. I don’t really understand the nuances, but then I don’t really care. “I’m ready to get started.”

     She smiles and points toward the stairs. I walk up, focusing on each step as my heart pounds in my chest with excitement. I take one last look at the brilliant sphere, then step inside. The door hisses shut behind me.

     “We’ll begin as soon as you are ready, sir,” the woman’s voice says through an intercom in the sphere.

     I step through another door four feet from the first and into a small but comfortable living space. The spherical walls are white and glaring, but soon they will show whatever animated landscape or other image I want them to show. I think I’ll start with a mountain lake in what Colorado used to look like. No one around, of course. The one thing I don’t want to see is a human being.

     There is a comfortable lavatory, a kitchenette stocked with sufficient food for my “trip,” a couch, a bed and some other furniture. I have water, various hard and soft drinks and of course lots of snacks. Even real fruit. I sit on the plush sofa near the bookcase and browse the titles, relishing in the smell of the leather bindings. A 3V set in the floor is supposed to be stocked with nearly every movie and serial ever made. An eLife headset lies on a small coffee table. It’s supposed to have special games and simulations, ones that last for days or weeks instead of minutes.

     The most prominent feature, at least to me, is a clock on the wall. It is an old fashioned digital clock with large red digits. Above the display are words that send a tingle down my spine; “Earth Time(GMT)”. The seconds tick away.

     “We are ready when you are, sir,” the woman’s voice says. “Just say the word.”

     “I’m ready.” I shout eagerly.

     I feel a little strange as the floor seems to lurch under my feet, though of course the sphere doesn’t move. That much I do understand. I stare at the Earth Time clock incredulously as the changing numbers begin to slow down. In just a few perceived seconds, the time on the clock reads 07:16:11. And doesn’t change. I stare at the clock, refusing to look away, until it ticks over. It now reads 07:16:12. According my eyephone, sixty seconds have passed. My vacation is four Earth days long. It’s what I get every year. I will be here for eight months.

     Eight whole months. Nothing can disturb me, it is impossible to communicate with the outside world. I will talk to no one, see no one. I will read, watch 3V, play eLife games, whatever I want. I think I’ll start with a long nap. I’m really very tired.

     What an amazing privilege I have earned. Not even the irony of it can ruin the moment. The pinnacle of human technological achievement is the ability to give us back the very thing we started with. No matter. At least for me, the promise of the bright future I first saw in that sleek tubetrain nearly 40 years ago has finally materialized. I can, at last, afford some free time. I wish my father were here to see me.

      

Short Story - Old Wounds

I've decided to start my blog with some short stories. The first one is called Old Wounds, which I wrote in college in an attempt to reconcile my love of Japanese culture and martial arts with the atrocities I was learning about in history class. I submitted it to a couple of magazines and it was rejected, but with some pretty significant praise. It was too dark for their magazine, I was told, and they were right. So, if you're the sort to need trigger warnings, here they are. This is a very dark story. You have been warned.

 

 

Old Wounds

by

Michael Edelson

 

 

     "Are we ready?" Harmon asked, picking up the little recorder and turning it around in his big clumsy hand. "Ah, okay.” He noticed the little red light and set it down on the black table next to a bowl of oddly shaped pears. "We were talking about your first few days on the job?”

     The old man seemed uncomfortable. He shifted about on the couch and pulled on his collar. His eyes were fixed on something far away. The living room was cluttered with old books and trinkets, stacked and placed neatly. A large open window gave a good view of the old man's garden, where a small bamboo fountain sent water trickling over a dark gray stone. An orchestra of chirping cicadas filled the night air, drowning out the sounds of the distant city. The noisy bugs lived for a short while, their only purpose seemed to be catering to the swarms of birds that gorged on their slow moving bodies.

     "Mr. Nakamura?" Blair attempted to snap him out of his recollection, at least enough so that he could share his thoughts. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know, but he was here to do a job. Besides, he thought, with all the people they’d interviewed in the past few weeks, he doubted he would feel anything at all.

     "Yes...yes..." the old man mumbled, staring off into nothing. "I remember everything.” He shook his head sadly. Blair didn't know how to feel about him, about what he'd done. Nakamura was a subsidized farmer now, tending rice on his little plot with his skinny little wife and his dogs. The Japanese government paid him to harvest his crop and sell it for ridiculous prices at the local markets. Weekend farmers they called them, people who had regular jobs but farmed in their free time. Nakamura was old and retired, so rice farming was all he had left. Yet a very long time ago, he had been something else, something terrible. At least that’s what the Chinese newspapers claimed.

     "It was cold," the old man said. He spoke perfect English, his accent slight and almost undetectable. Blair had read something in his file about spending some time in the States.

    "Cold on that first day," he continued. “It was always cold in Manchuria, but this kind of cold was worse. It ate through my skin, pierced me right to the bone. I couldn't stop shivering, even though the army issued the warmest coats to the officers.” The old man’s eyes clouded as he struggled to recall every possible detail. Blair never understood why people like Nakamura talked so openly about what they had done. It was as though they had made peace with themselves, with God. How that was possible, he would never know.

    As the old man talked, Blair felt himself drawn into his words, perhaps because Nakamura didn't seem to be aware of the two reporters at all as he told his tale.

     "I was sent in right away to meet the commander." The old man said, his lips twisting into a frown. There was a potent memory there, Blair thought, if it could arouse such a reaction after so many decades. Nakamura continued. "I didn't like the look of him at all. A cold, evil man. His eyes cut me apart worse than the weather. I saw things in those eyes, but I had no idea at the time what took place in Unit 738.

     "'No fraternization with locals,' was the first thing out of his mouth. 'Keep your distance. If you like a girl, rape her. Don't talk any nonsense about marriage. There'll be no Chinese brides in my unit.'“

     Harmon cringed. The old man looked at him, pausing in his story, but Harmon just smiled reassuringly and motioned for him to continue, so he did.

     "What could I think? My father did not raise a rapist. He had more to say, though, this commander.

     "'Don't shoot your gun unless you have to' he ordered. 'Guns need to be clean and bullets are to be conserved. If you need to kill a Chinese, use your sword. Understand?’

     "'Yes, commander.' I told him. I would have agreed to anything just to be away from him.

     "'Do you know what we do here?' he asked me, smiling for the first time. It was not a pleasant smile, however, and it chilled me more than his cold stare had.

     "'No, commander.' I said.

     "'Good,' he actually laughed. 'You will learn soon enough.’

     "All I knew was that it was a research facility, a sub-branch of a larger unit several miles to the South. I was to be the assistant commander of the guard company. As an officer I had some power, but there would be a guard captain. I just hoped he was not like this man.”

     "Was he?" Harmon asked, scribbling on a little notepad. 

     "No." The old man hesitated, remembering. "I met him a little later, and he was very different. He was nervous, unsure, his eyes moved a lot. Not at all what I expected.

     "'Good afternoon. You're lieutenant Nakamura?' he asked me. 'I'm captain Takahashi. Please come with me, I'll show you to your quarters. You and I share a room.’

     "As we walked, he handed me a pair of earplugs. 'What are these for?' I asked him. I thought there was little shooting in this part of Manchuria.

     "The captain looked troubled. 'Sometimes they continue the experiments at night. Those are so you can sleep.'“

     "I didn't know what he meant, but I feared...”

     Nakamura's wife chose this moment to come in to the room carrying a tray of sweets and tea. She set this down without a word, smiled, bowed, and left. Blair watched her shuffling little feet as she walked along the tatami covered floor. She was very sweet and quiet, smiling and bowing without saying a word. He wondered if she knew what her husband had done during the war.

     "I apologize…" the old man began.

     "No need, Mr. Nakamura." Blair told him, taking a cup of tea to his lips. "Please, continue.” He picked up one of the sweets and began to remove the plastic wrap.

     "Of course," he rubbed his chin and looked off into nothing again. After a few moments of silence, he began.

     "There was no noise that first night, so I thought maybe I was afraid of nothing." He looked down at his hands for a moment before continuing.

     "In the morning, I was called to the prisoner area for an inspection. I was very disturbed. I had never seen such miserable people. They were so skinny... no, more than skinny, like skeletons with skin. They were naked, dirty, their eyes had no light. I never thought about why there would be prisoners in a laboratory. I guess I was a fool, naive.

     "After the inspection the captain took me to see the soldiers. There were regular army soldiers here, and there were our guards. The soldiers and their officers usually came and went, using our base as a staging area. The only permanent officers were Takahashi, the commander, and I.

     "All of the guards saluted me, just like all soldiers had to, but there was something different about the way these men did it. As I walked up and down the ranks, I saw things in their eyes that I had never seen before. They looked...like cats left all night in a chicken coop. Almost feral. I asked the captain about it later.

     "He didn't want to answer. He was young, a little older than I was, also a university man. He didn't treat me like a subordinate, more like a friend. It wasn't a good feeling, though. It was almost like he needed me, and that's not something you want from a leader.

     "'They all get like that here," he said, looking away. 'They get to do what they want. Women, small girls, small boys. They kill or brutalize the men. Dr. Tanaka lets them do anything to the prisoners, and when he needs new ones...well. A lot of times they cut up some of the ones the doctor says are useless with their swords.’ The captain looked down at the ground.

     "That's horrible!" Harmon exclaimed. "How could civilized men behave that way?”

     "Alan, please," Blair put on a hand on his colleague's shoulder, though he was also surprised at the old man’s frankness. Others they had spoken to were much less direct when recalling the more gruesome details. "Mr. Nakamura doesn't seem as though he liked it any more than we do.”

     The old man smiled sadly.

     "No, I did not like it. I didn't know what to say. I remembered my father at my commissioning ceremony. He was very proud. He said'Today you are samurai like all Nakamura before you. Serve your emperor well.’ I didn't think commanding child rapists was what he had in mind.

     "'Is there nothing we can do?’ I demanded, forgetting myself. Another senior officer would have chastised me for speaking out of place, but the captain didn't seem to notice. Or maybe he didn't care.

     "'No,' he shook his head. 'Doctor Tanaka runs this place, and the commander is his puppet. Everyone does what the doctor wants, and the doctor wants these men brutal. I don’t like it any more than you, but I can't do anything about it.’

     "I didn't realize the importance of what he had told me until much later. It wasn't until the third day that I was called into the laboratory. The doctor, dressed in his white silk coat, stood over a man strapped down to a steel bunk. Two assistants stood next to a tray of surgical implements. Captain Takahashi was there also, and he looked very unhappy.

     "'Is the man sick?' I whispered to him, and he looked at me like I was the biggest fool in the world. Perhaps he was right.’

     "The man, a Chinese, was staring around him, eyes wide with terror. Then the doctor took a scalpel...and...”

     The old man shook suddenly, and covered his eyes with his hands.

     "Mr. Nakamura?" Harmon leaned forward in his chair. "Mr. Nakamura? Are you all right?”

     The old man removed his hands from his eyes and looked up at us.

     "What? Oh yes...yes.. I'm all right. I'm sorry...but...” He shook his head. "I'll continue now," he said. Harmon eased back into his chair, and the old man started to talk again.

     "He cut open his body from right below the neck to the groin. The man screamed so loudly I thought my ears would burst. The leather straps stretched as he fought to get free, seemingly on the verge of tearing. His blood spilled over the side of the bunk, feeding dark puddles on the floor. I moved to stop it, but Takahashi put a hand on my arm.

     "'If you interfere, he'll have you shot. It's what happens here. This is the purpose of this place.’

     "'But why?' I asked, my voice barely heard above the horrific screams.

     "'To test vaccines and chemicals. I don't know the details.’ The man's screams continued as we talked. 

     "'Why don't they give him anesthetic?' I demanded. Surely they could have done something!  What I was seeing was inhuman! 

     "The captain shook his head. 'Anesthetic interferes with the vaccines…or something like that. They can't give him any.’

     "I watched his ribs clamped open, his organs poked and prodded. I listened to his screams, saw the bloody spittle spraying from his mouth. Some of his arteries were clamped so he would not bleed to death too quickly. Finally, after more than ten minutes, he was dead. Doctor Tanaka put down his scalpel and left the room. I never got a good look at his face behind the surgical mask, but that was good. I never wanted to.

     "When I was finally allowed to leave I went to the nearest toilet and emptied my stomach. I had never seen such things. This was not why I joined the army. I thought I would face an honorable enemy on a battlefield, not witness an innocent tortured to death so that some new weapon could be made that killed millions without a single soldier to swing a sword or fire a gun. I could barely stand it, only my sense of duty kept me from running away.

     "They explained it all to me later. The doctors were infecting the patients with viruses and diseases and then testing their experimental cures. The vivisection was to see first hand the condition of the organs. It had to be performed on living tissue, so the people were not killed first. Sometimes they tested various chemicals to determine their effectiveness as weapons. This facility did less of that then others because it was primarily medical. The mere thought that there were other, bigger places like this one sickened me even more.

     "I couldn't sleep at all that night. I kept hearing the screams. It wasn't all in my head; there was another experiment going on. The screams belonged to a woman, and as bad as I thought the man's screams were, they could not compare to this. I didn't know what to do."

     Captain Takahashi just sat there, staring at nothing. I barely saw his tears as I left the room. I didn't know where I was going, I just knew that I had to go somewhere, to at least try to get away and make my silent protest. I took my sword and my pistol; I didn’t feel safe there.

     "I walked down the hall, and before realizing where I was heading I was in front of the laboratory. I didn't really know the place yet, and the screams sounded like they came from everywhere. Perhaps in a way they did.

     "There were three soldiers next to the door, peeking into the key-hole. They were laughing and drinking sake; none of them saw me. They all had army swords with them, cast metal handles and machined blades. One of them leaned on his as he peeked through the hole. Fake swords for fake warriors, I thought. Though these swords should have been made of shit.

     "'He cut off her tit!' the peeping soldier declared, moving aside so another could see. 'Wonder what he’ll cut next.’ They all laughed.

     "'Wasn’t that the girl you had yesterday?' another soldier asked the first.

     "’Yes,' the first laughed. 'But it never screamed like that.’

     "Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken my sword out of its sheath. My father's sword, my family sword. My ancestors carried that sword since Nobunaga took the field to unify Japan. Perhaps he should have left it alone.”

     The old man pointed to a pedestal near the window where a beautifully mounted katana rested on a stand. "My son will have it after me. It has never taken a life unjustly.”

     He stopped for a moment to stare at it. Blair turned also, though Harmon seemed oblivious. The sword seemed so peaceful, just sitting there in the lacquered stand next to a couple of little bonsai trees, as though it couldn't possibly hurt anyone. Art objects, they called them now.

     "I wanted to kill them all." The old man continued. "How could they talk like that? How could they watch that and laugh? They were supposed to be soldiers!  They gave them swords to foster pride and samurai spirit, not to lean on while watching women tortured to death. But these were not warriors, these were animals, animals that had to be killed.

     "I would have killed them then," he said sadly. "But they saw me walk up, and instantly jumped away from the door.

     “They all saluted, and I couldn't bring myself to strike. They were my soldiers, my responsibility.

     "'Get out.' I growled at them. 'Get out before I kill you.’ I raised my sword and they ran away, almost scrambling over each other as they raced down the hall. I sheathed the blade and sat down against the door. The girl was still screaming. I don't know what came over me, whether it was morbid curiosity or simple masochism, but I looked into the keyhole.

     "I saw her, or what was left of her, twitching on the bunk. Her torso was a mess of red, no longer human. The doctor was cutting something from her lower abdomen, talking to his assistants in a calm voice as he did it. She turned her head and I saw her face, her once pretty face, eyes dancing madly. I had to look away.

     "I cried for a long time. After I was done crying, and she was done screaming, I went back to my room. The captain was not there. I went into my bags and took out my dagger. I wanted to kill myself. But as the blade touched my stomach my courage failed me. I pictured myself on that table, my body cut open, and I threw the dagger under the bed.

     "What had we become? The Japanese have always been a harsh people; we had to be, but we were never like this. We were never inhuman. This was not just one mad man that could be killed. This was our people, our nation. I thought at the time that it was only us, though of course we know now that the madness infected us all. The Germans had done things just as bad, and at the end of the war, the Americans bought our research, paying with immunity for those responsible. They let those monsters go home to their families.”

     He hesitated. "I mean no offense...”

     "None taken," Blair smiled. "Things are different now.”

     Nakamura did not seem convinced. He looked at Blair for a moment, then continued.

     "Takahashi came back before morning, his eyes wild. He ordered me out of the room and I heard him weeping from outside. He had been there that night, in the lab.

     “I knew the men sneered at him behind his back for what they considered his 'weakness,' but at that moment my respect for him deepened. He would have been a great leader, if they had sent him to war. More importantly, he was a good man. His presence helped me stay sane. If I was the only one that cared about what was happening there...”

     The old man shook his head and sighed.

     "I just don't think I would have made it through the first few days.”

     "Couldn't you just request a transfer?" Harmon asked, not seeming to believe the old man's plight. Blair knew things were not that simple.

     The old man shook his head. "A Japanese officer does not ask for a transfer. He serves where he is sent. I had no choice, and leaving never occurred to me. I stayed.

     "The next day we went on a patrol. We had orders to bring back ten prisoners. Captain Takahashi had delegated the duty to me, and gave me ten men to carry it out. I resented him for it, but I did understand him. If I had been the captain, I would have made him do it.

     "We went out early in the morning. The snow was piled thick, and the soldiers had on so much clothing that their faces were covered. This made it easier for me to be around them.

     "The sergeant explained to me that we just went into a house and pulled people out. That was how we found prisoners. He also said that the doctor had asked for at least four children this time. Healthy ones.

     "I had to give the orders. It killed me, but I had to do it. What were the alternatives? Would I be the next one on that table? If I could save these people by sacrificing myself then I would have. But if it was not me giving the orders, it would besomeone else. Those people would still die.

     "I left it up to the sergeant which house to raid, it was not a decision I could have made. I didn't even look, and I tried not to hear the screams of the people they dragged out into the street. One girl was wearing only a thin nightdress. They ripped this off of her and threw her down to the ground, the snow clinging to her shivering body. One soldier started to urinate on her as she lay shaking by his feet and the others laughed. Some of his urine froze on her skin, leaving sheets of yellow ice.”

     Harmon cringed and looked away, his face pained. Blair clenched a fist. Such senseless brutality. If only the Japanese were unique in this, it could have been easy to hate and lay blame as he was sure Harmon did. Blair knew better, however. He had served in Viet Nam, had seen things. Maybe that was why he was so caught up in Nakamura’s story.

     The old man continued.

     "I watched him empty his bladder on the poor girl who was weeping and trying to shield her face. She looked up at him, and her eyes seemed to ask 'why?’ There was no answer. At that moment, I lost control.

     "I took the butt of my rifle and struck the soldier in the back of the head. He crumpled onto the ground. The others stopped laughing and looked at me. They saw my anger. For a soldier to touch an officer was death, but an officer could kill a solider if he wanted to. They backed away and the sergeant formed them into a line. Some of them picked up their unconscious comrade and slung him over their shoulders.

     "The girl was dying in the cold, so I took off my overcoat and put it over her freezing body. She looked up at me without understanding. I helped her stand and she took my hand. She was young, and would have been pretty had her face not been red and twisted with pain. She was in her teens, maybe sixteen or seventeen, maybe a little less. Her feet were in the snow and she had no shoes. I could see her toes turning blue. I was strong, so I picked her up and wrapped her body in the coat. I was very cold, but it was only discomfort. For her, it was a matter of survival. It was only half a mile to the base.

     "Takahashi saw us coming, but he did not seem to see the girl. I had expected him to say something, but he just watched as I put her into the cell with the others. When we were alone, he called me aside.

     "'They found something in the snow this morning while you were gone.’ His eyes were intent, focused on something far off. I had never seen him like this; he was visibly disturbed, yet at the same time, there was something else. He seemed anxious.

     "'What was it?' I asked him.

     "'A pigeon. Frozen solid. It had a note on its leg.’

     "’What did the note say?’ I didn't think the army still used pigeons, but then I didn't think the army pissed on freezing girls. I was too bitter and too heartbroken to care much about Takahashi's message. Until I saw it, that is.

     "I read the note. It was written on leather. Deerskin, I think, and it was very old. The characters were archaic, but both Takahashi and I were educated men. Still, we could barely read them.

     "The note read:  'Sanada-sama, we have been held up in Korea because of the weather, but we are on our way and will arrive within a few days. The horses are not good in the mountains and the Chinese are made of ice, they ignore the cold. Crossing was not easy. We will make all possible haste, as we look forward to carrying out our purpose. Signed, Saigo Nobuyuki.

     "'How could this have been frozen in the snow? Is it never summer here?’ I asked, bewildered. 'This is at least 400 years old!’

     "Takahashi looked crazed. 'It hasn't been here.' he cried. 'The snow melts in the summer. This message came today!’

     "'Don't be ridiculous!' I told him. 'This is old!  From Hideyoshi's invasion!  Maybe some joker put it here.’ But I didn’t believe that. The soldiers most likely didn't even know that Hideyoshi had ever invaded Korea. I would not have been surprised if some of them didn't even know who Hideyoshi was.

     "’We have wronged our ancestors!' Takahashi whispered insanely.

     "I wanted to slap him. He was obviously so guilt-ridden he was starting to lose his mind. How long before I joined him, I wondered.

     "I couldn't stop thinking about the girl, and I soon forgot about the note. Whatever was happening here, a 400 year old note wasn't going to help anyone. I went to the cells where she was kept.

    "She looked up at me, cautious, not knowing what to expect. She thought I was there to rape her. I had brought some food with me, but it did not seem right to give it only to her. I went back to the kitchen and took some rice. The cook didn't question me, he couldn't, because of my position. I took the rice and some water back to the cell and gave it to the new prisoners, saving the biggest portion for the girl. She stared at me with gratitude. And she said, in Chinese, 'thank you.’ My Chinese was good, but I would have known what she was saying had I not understood a word.

     I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl that night. I didn’t sleep much in that place, and what sleep I got was usually plagued by nightmares, horrific images of suffering and blood. That night, however, all I could see was her face, smiling at me as I gave her the rice. I didn’t sleep, not fully, but I did rest, and for that I was thankful. Takahashi, however, slept like an infant. There was no muttering from him that night, no tossing and turning on his cot. I was glad for him, and perhaps a little envious that I did not share whatever madness gave him such a peaceful night.

     "The next morning, they found another note. This time, the commander had seen it and he had called Doctor Tanaka. Takahashi had told them of the first note, but it was nowhere to be found. He claimed he put it in the office and the soldier on duty at the time said he had seen the captain stuff it into a drawer. But as mysteriously as it had come, it was gone.

     "The second note was even more peculiar than the first, and it was attached to a similar frozen pigeon. It read'Sanada-sama, we are only two days from the camp. Our swords sing with anticipation and even seem to quiver in their sheaths. We lost two horses and one man on the way, but morale is good and our supplies hold out. We will bring back the heads of the dishonored and present them to you on pikes. Signed, Saigo Nobuyuki.’

     "The doctor was bewildered, and he took the note to ponder as an intellectual mystery. The commander mentioned that it might bring him prestige if he brought it to the universities back home and demanded that the first note be found. The soldier who was on duty when Takahashi put the note away was arrested and detained. Whether he had stolen it or fallen asleep on duty, his punishment could have been severe. After several hours, however, the commander calmed down and grudgingly released him. He did so on his own, for neither Takahashi nor myself interfered at all on the man's behalf. Both of us would have gladly watched him or any of the others executed.

     "Takahashi, well, he almost completely lost his mind after seeing the second note. He rambled on and on that 'they' were coming to kill us all. I covered for him, as he neglected almost all of his duties. I tried to calm him down, but he would have none of it. I was the only one he would talk to about this. As crazy as it sounds, I swear the he seemed happy that someone was coming to butcher us. I had never seen him so certain, so full of purpose. He kept saying over and over again that our past would redeem us. I concluded that he finally had more than he could take and snapped, and I decided that I would continue to cover for him as long as it took. I think he would have done the same for me.

     "That night, the doctor was conducting experiments with frostbite. He had the young children I had brought from the village out in the cold until they were almost dead and completely frostbitten, then he would bring them into the laboratory to test various cures. One boy kept closing his hands and hiding them under his armpits, so the doctor ordered my soldiers to stick large sewing needles in his middle fingers so he could not bend them.

     "I couldn't bear to watch it so I went to the cell and took the girl back to my room. Takahashi was not around, so she and I were alone. She was sure I wanted to rape her, but because I had been kind to her she started to take off her nightshirt. I stopped her. I only wanted her company. She was a normal human being, not touched by this madness, at least not yet. I made her some tea and gave her some more rice. She was so skinny!  Her breasts were very small and her hips were straight, yet she was pretty and I liked her. I think she was as desperate as I was for companionship.

     "Afterwards she ate she told me about herself. She was a farmer's daughter, all of her brothers had been either killed or taken by my men. She didn't know what happened to them here, and I didn't want to tell her. I was, after all, a Japanese soldier. Her name was Ling Ling, and she was sixteen years old. When my soldiers dragged her out of the house, she had been washing her hair.

     "I had to take her back into the cell in the morning, because Takahashi came back and said that I could take her if I wanted to but I could not keep her in the room. It wasn't that he cared, he explained, but if the doctor or the commander caught her there in the day-time, it would be trouble. 'No fraternization' the commander had said. Only rape was allowed here.

     "I gave the girl...I didn’t want to use her name...I gave her some food and water for her and the others and put her back in the cell. Using her name would mean I could never put her back in there no matter what the doctor said. The girl was supposed to be in the cell, Ling Ling was supposed to be at home with what was left of her family; that was just how it was. I would take her out the next night again. She was somehow more important to me than anything else. It didn't make sense, but it didn't have to. Everything around me was twisted and evil. Everything but her. She had just been washing her hair. In my dreams I washed the yellow icicles from her face.

     "My duty for the day was to stand in the lab and watch more vivisections. Doctor Tanaka thought that it would harden us, and besides, it was possible for prisoners to break free. Poor Takahashi looked ready to die, plainly unable to hide his shivering.

     "I don’t need to talk about what he did, it was more of the same, each event more horrible than the one before.

     "Why I didn't do anything I don't know. It's so easy to just stand there and watch, in the back of my mind I was thankful that it was not me under that scalpel.

    “When I was finally allowed to leave I went straight to the holding cells and got the girl. I took her to my room and cried in her arms. That's all I did all night, just held her and wept. Takahashi didn't say anything, he didn't even seem to notice either of us. He just stared up at the ceiling and kept mumbling about the samurai.

     "I wondered if he was right. I wanted him to be right, more than anything. What we had done here, it was worse than a disgrace. It was the coldest darkest thing in the world dragged out of its cave and brought out where it could eat the hearts of men. It had no mercy, no compassion, its evil was its disregard for the lives and emotions of others. When I was a child, I saw a boy in my village throwing rocks at a cat. I sent him home with a black eye, and his father had come to our house to complain. My father acted very angry with me, but when the man left he took me aside and told me that he was very proud. The strong should protect the weak, he had said. What would he think of me now, standing by while people were cut apart?

     "I wanted, perhaps even more than crazy Takahashi for Hideyoshi's samurai to come up out of their graves and kill us all. To end this forever. It was their names we were desecrating here, their essence. In the name of conquest, as they had come, we came here and did this. They not been saints. Real people did bad things sometimes, not like in stories. But this was something else entirely.

     "The next morning, I had to supervise a detail that dumped bodies into a pit to be buried. I recognized the boy who had wanted to bend his fingers. His skin was all cracked and peeling because they had tried to heat him with scolding water after he was frostbitten. I caught a glimmer from the shiny metal pin that was still in his finger before the soldiers dumped pumice on the bodies.

     "While I watched the dead covered by dirt, an alarm sounded by the main gate of the complex. I left the soldiers to their work and went to investigate. Some Chinese person, or so the guards claimed, had shot arrows into the wall of one of the buildings. The guards on duty hadn't seen anything except the flying arrows, but they pulled them out of the wall and showed them to me. They were Japanese arrows, the whistling kind that were used to signal. I had seen some on display at a neighbor's house when I was a boy. I didn't care at all at the time, there were other things on my mind.

     "The doctor was performing more experiments, and once more I had to watch. I walked to the room like a prisoner to the hangman’s noose, waiting for the rope to snap my neck. I didn’t know how much more of it I could bear before I became as crazy as my captain. The hallway was long, each step was an agonizing process of fighting fear and loathing. Finally I wound up in the room, taking my place by the guards. Takahashi was conspicuously absent, and I was glad for him.

     "They brought someone in. It was a skinny little girl, terrified and trembling. My own numbed mind took a moment to realize it was the girl. It was Ling Ling.

     "I saw the smiles on the two guards’ faces. Apparently they knew I spent time with her, and they had most likely told Tanaka. They put her on the table and strapped her down. They wouldn’t have had time to infect her with anything, this was to be done purely for my benefit.

     "I was shocked. I didn't know what to do. She was my one light in an ocean of darkness. Would I stand by and let her die like I did for the others? Would my father have done the same? Yet what could I do? There were faces in the fog that covered my world, aging faces of long dead heroes, glaring sternly and condemning with their silence.

     "Tanaka took out a scalpel and ripped open her dirty dress. With a piece of cotton soaked in alcohol, he wiped some of the dirt off of her skin. His hand callously shoved some of her long black hair away from her neck. The hair she had wanted to wash would soon be covered in blood. Did he even know that she was a person? At that moment the girl realized what was about to happen, what all the screaming she had heard here meant. Tears poured out of her eyes like water from a tap. She began to sob hysterically. She turned to me with a pleading look, her eyes wild. She said something in Chinese, then called out my name.

     "The scalpel came down just below her chest and a drop of red trickled down her white skin. The scalpel moved and her skin parted, red flesh underneath.

     "Blood splashed all over her torso as meat and bone were cut. Her eyes opened wide, staring in disbelief at the severed flesh. But it was not her flesh.

     "Doctor Tanaka's head fell on her chest, a stream of crimson flowed between her breasts. His body collapsed in a heap at my feet, my bloodstained sword held tightly in both trembling hands. Ling Ling stared in horror at the blood, slowly realizing that most of it was not her own.

     "I didn't really know what I was doing, but I turned to the two soldiers, and before the first could move I raised my sword and cut him down, splitting his shoulder and cutting open his chest. Pulling the ancestral blade free I turned to the second guard.

     "Paralyzed with fear, he fumbled for his rifle as my right hand sent the sword point smashing into his face. His cheekbone shattered under the force and the point cut into his mouth. I pulled out the bloody sword as he clutched his face, screaming in pain and terror as his blood flowed through the cracks between his fingers. I finished him by splitting his skull, then wiped my sword on a medical cloth.

     The two assistants were huddling in the corner, mumbling incoherently. They were guilty also, but they were so pathetic I could not bring myself to use my sword on them. I took out my pistol and shot the first in the nose. He wheezed and kicked for a moment as the other watched in terror. I shot the second in his stomach, then his head. One of his eyes bulged and popped and he died.

     "I cut Ling Ling loose. She looked at me, and all I could see in her expression was bewilderment. I felt foolish, because I enjoyed that look, as I had enjoyed killing the doctors and soldiers. They would kill us both, of course, when they came running. There was nothing we could do, nowhere we could go.

     "Just then I heard some sort of commotion outside, the whining of horses, the shouts of men, and dying screams. I didn't think of it at the time, but there weren't any horses. They had some in the village, maybe they were from there.

     "I thought that this was our chance. It sounded like the Chinese had attacked the base. I took the girl to a storage closet and barricaded the door. We sat there, huddling together, until the noise had died down, and many hours passed by. The cut on her chest was small and stopped bleeding after I tied a cloth around it.

     "When I thought it might be safe, we left the closet.

     "I was not prepared for what I saw. There were bodies everywhere; guards, research assistants, the commander. They were all dead; they had been cut, some almost completely in half. Others were shot by arrows.

     I went to the prison area to let the Chinese out, but someone had beaten me to it. The doors were open and the prisoners were nowhere to be seen. None of the bodies that littered the ground belonged to them.

     I decided that I had to leave, and so I went to my room to collect my things. I found Takahashi there, his headless body sitting on its heels, dagger planted firmly in his gut. Who had cut off his head? I wondered. It really didn't matter. He had died honorably, as no one else in this place had. I knew he could never have lived with what he had seen, what he had done. I didn't see his head, but I knew that if I did there would be a smile on his lips. This was the best end for him.

     I was not sure my situation was much different. I had the girl, however, and someone had to take care of her now that her family was dead. Perhaps help make up for what was done to her people, if only just a little. Without looking too long or too hard, or caring too much what had really happened, I took Ling Ling and left. The war was over in just a few weeks, and I returned home.”

     "What happened to the girl?" Harmon asked, picking up the tape recorder.

     "She is still alive today," the old man said, smiling briefly. "She married and has many children.”  

     "That was a remarkable story, Mr. Nakamura" Blair said, standing up. Harmon shut off the tape recorder.

     The old man smiled. "Thank you. Few would have listened. It's a story that needed to be told.”

     "Yes,” Blair agreed. "It is. Forgive our rudeness, but I'm afraid we must leave now. Our plane leaves very soon and we still have to return the rental car. Good day, Mr. Nakamura, and thank you for your time.”

     "Good day" the old man said.

     "We'll call you to let you know how it goes.” Harmon and Blair shook the old man's hand and left his home, exchanging pleasantries with his wife on their way out.

     Once outside, they walked on the dirt road, headed for their car. The night was quieter now, and the distant sounds of the city could barely be heard. Blair felt as though he had stepped out of the past. He sighed, breathing in the cool night air.

     "What a crazy old man," Harmon said sharply, his eyes wide to catch the faint moonlight as he reached for a pack of cigarettes. "Where did he come up with such crap? He must be so guilt-ridden he made the whole thing up just to keep from going mad. Like that poor Tashikashi.”

     "Takahashi. And it's not so crazy," Blair said. "Not if you read the file.”

     "What are you talking about?” Harmon demanded, lighting his cigarette. "Don't tell me you believe that old nut?”

     Blair shrugged. "He was stationed in Unit 738. It was a smaller sub-complex not far from the main research center. When our relief forces got there, they found a bunch of Japanese bodies hacked to pieces. They thought the locals must have done it, but they couldn't find anyone who knew anything about it. And some of the things they saw, like bodies cut nearly in half, or guns that were fully loaded and hadn’t been fired. They found stuff too, like those arrowheads he told us about. All authentic and very old. They couldn’t explain any of it, so they just took lots of photos.”

     "You're not saying..." Harmon began.

     "I don't know, Alan. Whether Nakamura and Takahashi just went nuts and killed everybody there, or if it really was long dead samurai that came back from the grave to right the wrongs, it doesn't matter. Justice was done. That's what counts.”

     "You’re as nuts as that old man is.”

     "Come," Blair said. "I have some of the records in my carry-on. I'll show you some of the photos when we’re on the plane."

     The two men got into their car and drove off, while the old man watched them from his house. When they were gone, he took his sword from the rack and pulled it from its sheath. Admiring the beauty of the blade in the moonlight, he began to weep.

     "What is it?" his wife came to him and knelt by his side.

     "Nothing, don't worry yourself.” He dried his eyes with his sleeve.

     "Did those Americans upset you?" she asked, stroking his white wispy hair.

     Putting away the sword, he opened the folds of her kimono and parted her undergarment. His fingers delicately caressed a barely noticeable scar a few inches below her sternum.

     "Why do you call back old wounds?" she pulled away and closed her kimono. After retying her sash, she took his head in her hands and pressed it to her chest.

     "The wounds call me," he whispered and began to weep once more.

 

 

The Journey Begins

 

SEED is the first book that I’m publishing on my own, and as I write this, I’m waiting for the final proof from Amazon before going live. I may or may not be chewing my fingernails in nervous anticipation.

So how does someone give up on a lifelong dream of being a traditionally published author and start on the road to self publishing? In my case, one doesn’t give up. It’s merely a different path to the same objective.

I decided to get serious about writing in 2008 when I sat down and knocked out a 90,000 word novel in about a month. It’s called ICE FALL and it will be released shortly. I was so excited about the project that I told myself if I didn’t have a publisher within a year, I would publish it myself. Obviously, that’s not what happened. Instead of giving up, I kept writing. My second novel, SEED, got me my first literary agent.

When I signed the contract, I was ecstatic. I thought that my dreams had finally come true and that my life was about to change. My excitement did not let up even as the rejections from the major publishing houses kept coming in. Partly because publisher rejections are normal. Only one publisher has to say yes, and it is rare for more than one of them to do so (especially for first time authors). Mostly it was because my agent was sending me the feedback that the editors were giving him along with their rejections, and some of it was amazing. I hope I don’t get him in trouble for sharing it, but it’s pretty standard practice for agents to do that. My second agent did the same thing. Yes, I had another agent! More on that later.

An editor from Little, Brown and Co. (they publish James Patterson, among many others) had this to say about SEED:

In terms of SEED—I can see why you’re so high on this—the high-concept premise is immediately gripping and suspenseful. Edelson’s ability for clever intricate plotting is in full evidence in the way he’s set up the rules and limited supplies of the environment—Alex’s supply of weaponry, the apparent leadership positions implied by varying cabin sizes—and it’s a wonder to watch the pattern of the group’s interactions fall naturally into place from this strong set-up.
The psychological dimension to this story of a group trapped in claustrophobic quarters is also quite strong—the interplay of the many character types is generally both realistic and compelling, especially in regards to Alex and Yael. Edelson has an assured, seemingly effortless way with words and an ear for natural, breezy dialogue. All in all, a strong first effort from a writer who is going places.

When I read that, I couldn't help buy feel elated, even though they ended up passing. I got a lot of feedback like that, though that was the best example. Why weren't they buying? Ultimately it had to do with not wanting to take a chance on a new writer, the book not fitting what they were looking for or conflicting with something else on their list. 

Here is an example, from an unnamed editor at Bantam:

...unfortunately, I worry that the project bears a bit too much resemblance to something we are working on here in house, which is another [redacted due to plot spoilers] thing.  His [redacted due to plot spoilers] thing was wonderful and original, but I still worry it would be treading a bit too much on the same ground.
 I'm sorry that this wasn't quite the book for me, because the author clearly has talent.  And I'd be delighted to look at anything else he has in the pipeline.

Eventually, every one of the big publishing houses said no and I wasn't interested in small press. My agent and I parted ways amicably and I moved on to other projects. Although I was disheartened that SEED did not sell, the feedback I got from the major publishers bolstered my confidence and convinced me to move forward. This feedback wasn't meant for me, and these people don't blow smoke up your ass. If they say that you have talent and that you're going places, then that's pretty awesome. 

Several years and several books later, I read THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, and learned that it too had been rejected by everyone and then self published. I thought that was ridiculous, since it was one of the best books I've ever readI loved every minute of it! If you don't know what happened next, I'll give you a hint. THE MARTIAN isn't just a book anymore, it's a hugely successful film starring Matt Damon. That got me thinking. Why not try the same thing with SEED? It had gone the distance, and there was nothing else to do with it. Maybe it too could become a movie starring Matt Damon! Or, you know, something like that. 

So that’s my plan. Try the traditional route first with every book I write, and if that doesn’t work, throw it to the wolves and hope they enjoy the taste. You're the wolves, by the way, so be gentle! If you enjoy one of my books, spread the word! Review it on Amazon and on Goodreads. Post about it on social media. At this point, I’ll either make it or not, based solely on skill, talent and the enthusiasm of my fans. And that’s the way it should be. There are no more gate keepers standing between us, only the desolate stretches of obscurity.