Baru’s New Home

The journey lasted just an instant. It felt like it involved a flip. Baru was well-schooled enough to know that was illusory, just a function of switching from four spatial dimensions to three. He knew the fact, but not well enough not to feel it.

Before he could see it, the new world collapsed around him. One, two, three seconds, and just as suddenly he adapted. Again, merely a mental side effect that Baru already knew about, caused by the sudden lack of sensory information. He frankly expected worse. Rumor had it that some interdimensional travelers felt the constriction for hours, and had paralyzing nightmares about the experience in perpetuity.

He peered out the window at the planet bobbing below. It would be Earth, naturally. There were other planets in this dimension, some with intelligent life and some with the same blandly generic greenery, but this was the one most nearly hospitable to Tivolian physiology. While not exactly comfortable, it was the only planet close enough that the political notion of conquering and colonizing it periodically arose. The idea never gained serious traction, not out of any moral or military reason but simply because nobody wanted to live there. At best it would be a prison colony.

Baru idly wondered if he would set foot on Earth’s surface. Maybe he should take advantage of the opportunity, just to say he’d done it, but he wasn’t one of those people who grew up dreaming about setting foot on strange new worlds. In fact, he might avoid it just to enjoy the reactions that other people would have.

“You went all the way to another dimension and didn’t even get off your ship?” they’d shriek in horror. He would arch his eyebrows; and make a small, superior smile; and airily note that “It is impossible to understand the motivations of an artist without being an artist oneself.”

Of course, he might have to, should whatever food and water supplies on there were on board run out. Baru resolved not to let that happen. He was confident he had all the information he needed to find his way home, so it was just a matter of working his way through it. He saw no reason to delay.

*****

Something from Exile Issues, which genuinely is my main project, although so much of what I post here is from other things that are still in the future. It comes from early-on in the book; Nathan (known as Baru on his home planet) has just officially been kicked out. I’m still doing my first edit of the book, which is taking longer than anticipated. Partly it was tough to get enthusiasm for the project—it’s awfully intimidating to have a whole book filled with things that I didn’t do right and have to make them right—and partly because I’ve been splitting my efforts. The latter is dangerous, although I think I’m still on the safe side of the line; I’ve gotten back into the habit of working on Exile Issues, while having other things in the works has nice side effects like feeding this blog and preventing burnout and giving me a head start on projects when I finish this one.

Speaking of burnout: December 29 would technically be the blog’s 6-month anniversary. Really, though, October is when I got serious about it, and even then there were hiccups until Mid-November. Since then, though, nearly daily posts, and everything’s still going good. So I’m going to call this an accomplishment.

Stitch and Bitch, part III

The thrilling conclusion! To recap, Part I and Part II

*****

This was not what we had in mind.

“I am a disappointment to my family. My technical skills are substandard relative to my peers. I am needlessly ungainly in appearance. My ambition is unacceptably low and my achievement level reflects that fact. My parents desired a female child.” He sniffed. “And I smell funny!”

And then Nathan forced a grin, and held it at us for an eternity in three seconds. And we broke, terrified of the tsunami that a three-eyed alien’s tears may cause.

“No, you’re okay,” I assured him.

“Really terrific,” Carla agreed.

“I know I am,” he replied. “But this is fun.

And so the abuse session continued, Carla and I levying complaints about Nathan and he detailing the shortcomings of some proto-Nathan that was him but simultaneously was wholly disconnected from him.

This Nathan was selfish and miserly and unkind to people and animals in occasionally criminal ways. He deserved his exile, the real Nathan flatly declared, and probably worse. As the self-abuse continued, most shreds of pity I felt evaporated. The individual that Nathan decried was a work of fiction, another elaborate construction for the benefit of Nathan’s guests.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Complaining is one of the great simple joys of life. My father is pretty strict about denying it; growing up if I did complain about something, or if I seemed like I was about to, he would cut me off with “I didn’t build my business by complaining—I built my business by doing something about it!” So I don’t have a whole lot of opportunity to do so. But man, when you know that there’s nobody there who’s going to complain about your complaining, it just feels good. When we’d exhausted our issues with Nathan, we moved on to a whole host of other topics: our regular jobs, defects in our apartments, mean people, the notoriously slow sandwich shop next to our office, and politics. (Carla participated in this last topic with relish, but she only ever referred to “the president,” which suggests that she doesn’t actually know his name. Given her laser focus on computers and comic books, this is plausible.)

With this mild euphoria in the air, Nathan’s announcement that the evening was at an end came abruptly, and for the first time, before rage had set in. He did examine our evening’s production before letting us go to bed. “Excellent, excellent,” he judged my work, a fuzzy yellow rectangle maybe seven inches wide and ten long. “And very nice work,” he commented on Carla’s which was a bit longer and a bit narrower,  deep forest green, and completely unfuzzy.

“And mine,” he said, tossing completed hats to both Carla and I. Nice hats. Carla’s was bright red with a blue lightning bolt on one side and a blue pompom on top, while mine was black with little gray flecks. Mine also had these ludicrously long flaps that would cover my ears. They looked silly, but intentionally so, and therefore cool rather than clueless. I would definitely wear it.

“For your comfort while sleeping,” Nathan explained. Carla or I, or more likely both, must have betrayed our terror at this idea. “A joke,” he amended. “These winter hats are intended for use during winter.

We thanked him sincerely—these were very nice hats, after all—and prepared for bed.

The Stitch and Bitch, part II

Part I. Part III coming tomorrow.

*****

“Perhaps you, Marty. Do you have anything that you wish to bitch about?”

He said it so conversationally, so pleasantly, that I just had to match his tone.

“Well, yes, Nathan. You, actually.” Carla started. I don’t think she expected the conversation to turn this way. “You see, you seem to be under the impression that we’re here willingly and helping you willingly. But in fact you’ve got us captured here like we’re sheep. And that’s really not very pleasant at all. We only get off of this ship maybe once a week when we go shopping, and that’s only because you’re too incompetent at it to know what food to buy. You hardly even let us up into the cockpit, so we can’t even see the outside. There may not be an outside, for all we know.”

Carla joined in. “The work that you’re making us do is boring and stupid and hopeless. It’s not the way I wanted to spend my vacation time. And we all know that Marty’s dad is going to consider this vacation time, and we’re going to be in the hole for, like, the next three years because you won’t let us go home.”

“And then there’s the evenings,” I added, taking over from Carla seamlessly when she took a breath. “And this is really the biggest point, because these events that you plan are nothing more than torture. If Carla and I wished to ballroom dance, we would have done so back on earth, by perhaps taking lessons, in a ballroom, with music, and people who know how to dance, rather than here, on a table, with an alien whose only connection to dance is having overheard the word in conversation at some point. We don’t ever wish to participate in a long jump competition, particularly not when that long jump competition lasts for more than four hours, despite having fewer than four contestants. And—oh, this is important—Debate a Philosophy night is something that can only legally be inflicted upon death row inmates and exceptionally pretentious college students who may be high!”

“You talk funny!” Carla interjected. “Use a fucking contraction! It’s not difficult! You can calculate ten to the five billion different checkers moves, so why can’t you understand that when you have the word ‘not’, it’s okay to replace the ‘o’ with an apostrophe and smush the whole thing together with the other word. The calculations are way simpler and you don’t sound like a jackass!”

The volume was rising, and making a pleasant echo against the metal shelves. “You have this whole room here, and it’s called a library. Get some books! Not metal plates that are painted to look like books, and not boxes that are painted to look like books even though they’re empty. Actual real books-that-have-words books!”

“Your computers suck!”

“You’re on earth now. Buy a frickin’ television!”

“I mean it! Your computers really suck!”

“I am a defective artist!” Nathan screamed.

The Stitch and Bitch, part I

“We are going to hold a stitch and bitch,” he declared. With that he tossed an overstuffed plastic bag down to the library table. Several skeins of brightly colored yarn spilled out of the top, including a fluffy canary yellow that bounced directly into my lap.

“That one is my favorite,” Nathan said as he landed on the table. “I am certain that you will produce something quite lovely with it.”

“I don’t knit,” I said. Carla nodded to indicate that the art was foreign to her as well.

“Everybody knits a little bit,” Nathan replied, as he distributed plastic needles around the room. They weren’t particularly sharp up close, the way I had expected them to be, so instead of fantasizing about stabbing Nathan in the heart, I had to imagine something less well protected by bone.

His eyeball, maybe?

No, dammit, I’m not a violent person by nature, and… no. I just couldn’t.

Carla’s arms twitched as she took her needles. We caught each other’s eye, and burst into cathartic laughter.

As we wore down, Nathan said “I do not understand,” in that deadpan manner of his, which naturally set us off again. We spent a long time like that, completely incapacitated by laughter, followed by a struggle to regain composure, which would lead to more laughter, and so on. Eventually, however, it dribbled off, our faces wracked with pain but our spirits lifted.

Once it was clear that Carla and I were no longer maniacal, Nathan gave both of us a small piece of paper with basic yarn-looping instructions. “These were provided at the store,” he explained, “so I thought it wise to bring them for you.”

“If everyone knits a little, I don’t see why it’s necessary,” I joked. Carla gave the hint of a smile, but the laughter was finished.

Nathan worked his needles with expert purpose. No doubt he had never actually seen them in use before, but he was simply making the blindingly obvious calculations necessary to produce whatever it was that he was producing. I didn’t want to give him the chance to confirm this theory pretentiously, so I didn’t ask him about it.

I looked over the instructions; they were perfectly clear and easy to follow. I had nothing in mind to make, nor any instructions on how to do more than a couple basic knots, so I resigned myself to doing just that.

By the standards of our evenings on board, it was bliss. Relaxing—Zen-like, even. And miraculously enough, silent, apart from the rhythmic, gentle needle clicks that contributed to my trance. I had nearly completed three full rows before Nathan decided to screw it up.

“Excellent work so far,” he said. “However, this is only part of the evening’s activities.” I groaned inwardly.

“It is time for us to bitch,” he declared.

Carla and I greeted this pronouncement with silence, so Nathan prompted Carla: “Bitch about something, please.”

“I don’t generally use that word,” she said. “It’s kind of rude.”

“Nonsense!” Nathan countered exuberantly. “Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch!”

Carla sighed and didn’t say anything.

*****

I’ve never knitted, although I’ve watched people do so on the el and I’ve even read so-called “trend stories” (translation: We have to fill space) that say all-male knitting groups are on the upswing. So presumably the plucky transdimensional exile of Exile Issues has read those trend stories too, and believed them.

This will be a three-parter, incidentally, so watch for more tomorrow and Wednesday.

Beyond that, well, one of the problems with editing, which is where my current focus is, is that I’m not generating anything new. This is the last piece that I’ve identified that can stand up on its own and that’s worth sharing.

On the other hand, I’ve reached sort of a nice break point in my editing—today I finished tying up one of the major threads that I started but didn’t complete in my original writing. There will still be some clean-up needed, but the heavy lifting of that element is done. So for the next few days, maybe through the weekend even, I’ll focus on writing new stuff, even though it will probably be for potential future use rather than the top priority that is Exile Issues.

Eventually, it will all come together—the work that I’m doing on future projects now will save me time on them in the future. Right?

Nathan at HR

I entered the offices of Three Harbors Publishing Company as I normally do, fifteen minutes ahead of my usually scheduled moment to begin my labors. All was normal for approximately one hour before Stephanie, the man from human resources who hired me, appeared at my cubicle and asked me to come with him. Stephanie chooses to dress as a woman and present himself as one, but in these efforts he is a rather glorious failure, as the wig he affects appears to be nothing more than the sickly wisps of a dying blond spider, and his frame could support a sequoia tree. When we entered Stephanie’s office, he informed me that I had missed work yesterday.

“I am aware of that,” I said, because I was. “I was the one who was absent.”

“Right. Three Harbors Publishing Company has a zero tolerance policy for unexcused absences.”

I informed Stephanie that that policy seemed unwise, because in some instances unexcused absences may have utterly valid explanations, such as mine, although I declined to provide that explanation. Stephanie, however, failed to be moved, and he explained that zero tolerance means that no explanation would be sufficient to justify an unexcused absence.

To me that is unjust. What if, for example, Stephanie’s wife gave birth to a baby who was taken hostage by baby smugglers who could only be thwarted by an unexcused absence? This suggestion only succeeded in angering him and he declined to speak any more to me, apart from insisting variously that I “sign here” and “initial here.”

After that he escorted me to my cubicle and gave me a small cardboard box and a few minutes to collect possessions. I had not brought any of my own possessions into the office at any time, so I gathered items such as books and staplers and sticky notes into the box. When Stephanie saw what I was doing, he informed me that I had to stop what I was doing, and he took the box from me and walked me out of the building.

Along the way we met Johnathan, who was my boss. He is male and dresses like one. “Nathan,” he said. “I am…” What he was, however, he never explained. He simply stood there awkwardly, as if he expected me to speak, and then he retreated into his office and closed the door.

We wastefully took the elevator downstairs, even though it is only one flight, and Stephanie walked me to the outer doors. He informed me that I must leave the premises, and then watched me as I did so. And I returned here, which is not the original plan that we discussed, as I am early, but I hope you will forgive the confusion.

*****

This is another quickie passage from Exile Issues, at least for now. I like it—Human Resources departments are difficult to navigate successfully for humans, so for people from other dimensions, it would have to be even harder—but there are a fair number of presuppositions that as I’ve edited may no longer be valid.

Stephanie is based loosely on a person who worked at a company that I used to work at. I didn’t know him, but he was hard not to notice, dressed as he was in incredibly unconvincing drag. Which is perfectly fine, if that’s what you want to do, but at the same time, I can’t pretend to not notice.

Alien Technology Museum, Part II: Scientist Randall Buckford

Part I

*****

“I would like to express my extreme displeasure with you and your ‘museum,’” Randall Buckford continued, pronouncing the quotation marks around “museum.” They all did that too. Marty had even begun making air quotes with his fingers at the appropriate point in the conversation.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” Marty announced. He had cultivated a tone of voice that made it sound like this was his absolute favorite conversation to have ever, and he utilized it here aggressively.

Randall Buckford greeted this tone with a lengthy silence. This was a reasonably common reaction. Scientists generally expected Marty to address their problems before they informed him what they were. Marty used to prompt the caller after a little while, but he stopped when he realized that silence worked in his favor, both because it kept the callers off-balance and because every second they weren’t talking was inherently better than any second in which they were.

“Yeah, um,” Randall Buckford eventually continued. “I, and I think I speak on behalf of the entire UFO community, consider what you are doing to be the height of irresponsibility. We have expended countless energies in the quest to have our scientific inquiries taken seriously, but your little ‘museum’”—Marty was slow on the air quotes that time—“makes a mockery of that which you ought to be fighting for with all your heart. Shame, shame, shame!”

This monologue wasn’t strictly false. Mr. Hawley had stripped anything remotely functional from Nathan’s craft, and the displays dropped plenty of cartoonish fiction into the mix. (Most popularly, several references to bluish four-legged aliens from Planet Epsilon, plush doll versions of which could conveniently be purchased in six sizes at the museum gift shop.) Of course, it presupposed that Marty was interested in advancing the science of extraterrestrials, rather than making some cash.

Marty left some more silence in response to the rant. Randall Buckford was quicker to address it this time, though. “Well?” He growled. “I didn’t call you to have you meditate at me!”

Marty presented himself as the soul of innocence. “I’m not sure what to say. You didn’t ask any question or make any demand of me, so there’s really no thread for me to pick up and continue the conversation.”

“I want you to shut down the museum! It’s ludicrous! You claim that the ship’s engines could generate 1.6 exowatts of power, when current alien technology maxes out at 4.7 petawatts! And I examined those so-called engines, and there is simply no way!”

“Let me address your second point first, Randall Buckford,” Marty said rationally. “You are correct that the engines on display are non-functional. This is technology way in advance of our own; if we displayed it, would you want some terrorist to come and study it and use it as a weapon against us?”

“I guess not,” Randall Buckford meekly admitted.

“After all, you’d be one of the first they came after.” Nothing wrong with stroking an ego, Marty had learned. “As for your first point, all I can say is that the engine is being studied at the…” Marty let his voice trail off tantalizingly.

“At the what!

“No, I’ve said too much. Very secretive organization, you know.”

“Of course I do!” Randall Buckford lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Which secretive organization are we talking about, though? Extraterrestrial Information Council? Alien Abduction Research Council?”

Marty clucked his tongue sadly. “The fact that you don’t know tells me that you aren’t a part of this group,” he said, dripping with disapproval.  “A 1.6 exowatt engine, well, it creates a bit of a buzz.”

“So tell me about it!”

“This group, they’re big on secrecy. They’d probably have me put down if I spilled the beans.”

“But I am a scientist! I am an expert in my field!”

“I’m sure you are, Randall Buckford, and I’m also sure that when you make a worthy discovery the group will find you and welcome you with open arms.” Randall Buckford tried to interject, but Marty cut him off. “I’m afraid I have to end this conversation. Secrecy, you know. Good day.”

*****

As I hope shows, I quite enjoyed writing Scientist Randall Buckford as a bit player. I suppose he’s based loosely on, well, far too many of my professional interactions, which tend to be with people who have the gift of absolute certainty and the curse (to me) of being generally wrong. But there’s no direct analog in my life.

(Except the meditation line. I heard that from a potential landlord when I called to ask about an apartment, and he didn’t like that I didn’t have an instantaneous reaction to a question. I didn’t take the place.)

Alien Technology Museum, part I

Some six months later, the museum was running, and by most measures successful. Nine to five, Wednesday through Sunday, steady crowds streamed through the former factory. They skewed towards families, thanks to a deal that Marty brokered. While Nathan’s ship was the museum’s centerpiece, he’d conceived of several brightly colored, interactive exhibits that had plenty of levers to flip and buttons to press and weird sounds that could be made. Mr. Hawley complained at first about this—“You’re not providing much information here,” he argued—but he relaxed a bit about the dumbing down of the museum when he realized that he was in charge of engineering a sizeable job for a client that happened to be himself. Carla, meanwhile, programmed applications in support of a number of these exhibits. While she was mildly annoyed that the most consistently popular one was the most pathetically simple one, a game of Tic-Tac-Toe that replaced the X’s and O’s with stock images of aliens and flying saucers, she never complained in public about this.

Marty even started taking his marketing role seriously. Within two weeks of opening, the Northbrook newspaper ran an article on this wacky new museum so unlike what the suburb was accustomed to. Tiny radio stations followed, with jaded failed DJs doing remote broadcasts from within the craft itself. Marty perfected a persona quickly in this phase, answering every question with the precise truth, but in a boisterous tone that suggested the whole thing was an elaborate prank. The DJs, at least, got a chuckle from it, and it made good radio, and even though not one of them believed Marty’s story, they all encouraged their listeners to stop by with quite a bit more enthusiasm than if they had been covering, say, the library’s brand-new display of Midwestern quilts of the 1980s.

It was just over a month after opening that the Chicago Tribune took notice. And once they were on board, the big radio stations, the ones powerful enough to be heard around the lake from Wisconsin to Michigan, started fighting over the opportunity to come, and the local morning TV news shows, and Marty even had the first whiff of interest from national television.

The one drawback to all of this publicity was that it worked too well. It mostly attracted parents with kiddies that they wanted to keep happy for an afternoon, but the serious UFOlogists came too. They were a small minority of the audience, but they hated the museum with the heat of the fusion engines they insisted real aliens had perfected.

So, roughly once a day, Marty would have the opportunity to field an angry phone call from one of these enthusiasts, and today’s was quite typical.

“My name is Randall Buckford, and I am a scientist.” They always proclaimed themselves scientists. It reminded Marty of a rather inept teacher from high school, who taught sociology and spent the first three weeks covering all of the ways in which his subject was a science. Marty nearly failed the class, because about a third of the final exam was questions on whether or not sociology was a science, and he just couldn’t bring himself to say that it was.

*****

I should have posted this segment of Exile Issues (and the second part coming tomorrow) before yesterday‘s excerpt, since it provides some of the background information. The Tic-Tac-Toe bit was inspired by a remarkably popular and enduring exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota (where I grew up) — the first room that you went into had a computer that played the game, with the super-big pixels of the late 70’s or early 80’s. I don’t know off-hand precisely how long the game stayed there, but it was always there for as long as my family made its annual visits (which probably lasted until I was about twelve).

The sociology bit also comes from my experience taking the class in high school, which was taught by the second-most-stupid teacher that I had there.* I was never in danger of failing, but at the first open house of the year he told my parents that I was. (The real reason was that I had been out sick for a test that week and the points from the make-up test hadn’t been incorporated into the grade book yet. He neglected to tell my parents this fact.)

*The first taught health, had a [non-accredited] Ph.D. by mail, and one time claimed to have learned everything he knew about biochemistry from the movie Lorenzo’s Oil. While I’m inclined to believe him (the amount of knowledge he had could have fit into a Hollywood movie, with time left for plot, a romantic subplot, a trip to the snack bar, a pair of pee breaks, and at least an hour of making out in the back row), it’s not a quality that I’d look for in a competent teacher.