Reset: Chapter 34: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (3)

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The dream was shocking. Audacious. Like it had come from the devil himself, designed to scare the foolish mortal to death in his sleep.

He was on an airplane, sitting with the other passengers, frightened but docile. He heard the shouts, the chanting–“Allahu Akbar!” and the ululating cries of victory. Some laughter, but mostly screams. The woman next to him started to talk; her mouth moved but Joe only heard sounds like drums emanating from her blurred face.

And then out of the window he could see, growing bigger, the North Tower, the plane drawn to it like it had gravity, inviting the impact the way a catcher calls the winning pitch. Put ‘er there, buddy boy. He can’t hit the ones that come in hard and fast.

Hard and fast . . .

He awoke before impact, jerking upright and gasping the way he thought only happened in movies. The buzzing in his brain began anew, the telltale sign of that cognitive dissonance born of the impossible. Something else that should be impossible was the woman in the bed next to him. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 34: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (3)”

Reset: Chapter 33: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (2)

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Her voice came crackling over the loudspeaker in an angry snarl. “Who’s this?”

“Hi Gwen,” said Joe into the intercom next to the door. “It’s Joe. Can you let me in?”

“Joe! Are you alright?”

Joe sniffed noisily and gave his nose a swipe with his arm. “Yeah. No. I don’t know.”

“Okay, stay right there. I’m coming down now.”

Joe nodded, as if Gwendolyn could see him through the speaker. But that technology was at least a decade away.

He glanced at his watch, groaning at the late hour. He shouldn’t have woken her up. He should have gone back to his own dorm room and into his own bed like a responsible adult, keeping his worries to himself. But he couldn’t stand the thought of Nick. And Joe knew he wasn’t a responsible adult. Not anymore.

When Gwendolyn opened the door, Joe marveled at how good she looked given the time of night. Dressed in a Navy blue pajama set with furry moccasin slippers on her feet and her hair piled haphazardly on top of her head, she still appeared controlled, beautiful. She was also wearing glasses, big thick ones that would be all the rage among young women in another ten years.

Joe hurried through the open door to spare both Gwendolyn and himself from the chilly wind. The door shut behind him with a soft whump. “Are you sure you’re alright?” said Gwendolyn, “what’s going on?”

Joe sniffed again, corralling some errant snot. He looked around the lobby of Parsons, empty but still too public. “Can we talk in your room? Continue reading Reset: Chapter 33: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter 32: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (1)

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It was getting late, Joe was getting hungry, and he still couldn’t force his thoughts into any defined shape. Three thousand people were going to die in two days’ time and all his idiot friends could think about was getting rich and getting laid.

They’re the idiots, he thought bitterly, yet here I am, wandering campus like an answer would fall from the sky.

He found himself, once again, on the road that lead to the next town, outside a small Italian restaurant on the fringes of Hollister that Joe knew wouldn’t be open a year from now. He had circled downtown six or seven times by now, conspicuously avoiding the throngs of nighttime revelers who hooted and laughed and yelled obscenities at him, at passing cars, at each other. During one circuit he saw a very tall, very attractive girl in a miniskirt squatting down in the alley between two buildings to pee. In the future, this girl might have been his stockbroker, or his accountant, or the teacher of his children, but for now, she was just another party girl at a party school.

The thought had angered him, because it made him think of Jason, which in turn made him think about Nick. Nick made him think about Amy, who made him think about Gwendolyn, finally leading his thoughts to Sandra. And thoughts of Sandra brought him back to Jason, starting the cycle anew.

There was no question about what he had to do, he had thought at one time. But like a parasite worming its way into his body, Nick’s honeyed words burrowed into his mind like worms: Gwendolyn . . . she’s perfect for you . . . forget Jason . . . Not just Jason. Jason and three thousand other doomed souls. But hey! What did they matter next to his personal happiness!

He smacked his fist into the rough brick of the building behind him. The pain that followed was sharp and welcome. He left behind a small smear of blood as he lifted his hand, painting a world he didn’t belong in with a little piece himself.

God damn you Nick! Joe kicked his leg, venting his rage at a garbage can minding its own business by a telephone pole. It toppled with a bang, vomiting trash violently all over the road.

A window opened overhead with a sound like a sword being unsheathed. “The hell’s wrong with you, buddy? Want me to call the cops?”

“Sorry,” Joe muttered, ignoring the barrage of curses, too ashamed to look up at the speaker. He ducked his head and ran around the corner to the hill leading back up to Main Street.

It was cold; Joe rubbed his arms for warmth, wishing he had his jacket. September days were pleasant in New Hampshire, but September nights still had teeth.

Cold, hungry, tired, depressed, confused . . . Joe finally felt one-hundred percent like a teenager, all vestiges of wisdom and maturity sublimating into the chilly night.

9/11 . . . the thought of reliving that day, knowing it was going to happen, made Joe crazy. Crazier, he supposed, although at this point it was just a matter of degrees. If you’ve already lost most of your marbles, what difference did a few more really make?

But it was a moot point. All of it. There wasn’t anything he could do by himself. He had never felt so helpless, not even when Aunt Gina had died, or when he heard the final divorce decree, the judge tearing everything he had built for himself and his family to pieces. If God was really, there and had given him a chance to do good, He would surely be disappointed with His creation’s lack of conviction.

It was the knowing that was the worst part. Why couldn’t Nick have turned on The Machine without telling him about it? Being sent into the past without any advanced knowledge of the future actually did sound like paradise. Would his path have differed from what it had been the first time? Probably. Gwen’s had, hadn’t it?

I gave it the old college try, he thought, literally and figuratively. It made him smile for a second. And then, just like the teenager he had once again become, Joe sat down on the curb and wept, not caring about the partiers’ comments as they passed.

Chapter 31                                               Table of Contents                                             Chapter 33

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Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier

The Ophian Rising, Soul Cycle Book IV by Brian Niemeier

With a heavy heart, I finished reading The Ophian Rising, the fourth and final book in Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle. And thus closes one of the most interesting, unique, satisfying, and fun book series I have read in a long time.

In my review of the first book, Nethereal, I described it as such:

Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series.

Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy?

Who cares? It’s fun.

This description works across the entire series.

I refuse to get into spoiler territory here, as interested readers need to experience the Soul Cycle for themselves. What I’d like to do instead is explain why this series works so well, and encourage you to read it for yourself.

All I’ll say about The Ophian Rising is that:

  1. Brian’s writing, good to start with, gets better and better with each book.
  2. The Soul Cycle needs to be read from front-to-back in order to pick up on everything Brian has subtly wove into it. I plan on doing a re-read of the whole series soon.
  3. Brian knows how to tell a lean story that’s still satisfying (more on this later).

And here is my only complaint about The Ophian Rising: I wish that it, and the series itself, was longer. That’s right: Brian has left me wanting more. Thankfully, I know he has no plan to stop writing anything anytime soon.

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Why You Should Read The Soul Cycle

Regular readers know that I’ve written about Brian before. He edited the manuscript for my own novel, The Rust Man, and writes about many topics on his own blog that I’ve used as springboards for further discussion here.

I’m going to distill a few of Brian’s biggest points for you, and then explain why, if these sound good to you, you should read his work.

  • The era of the doorstop novel is over.
  • Readers want something they can pick up that will grip them from the start and keep them reading–the key word here is immediacy.
  • Favor clear writing over clever writing.
  • People crave heroes that are actually heroic–good and evil matter!
  • Books are competing with TV, social media, movies, video games, and streaming video.
  • Keep your politics out of your writing–shoehorning contemporary issues into your fiction is a recipe for disaster, or at least for severely limiting your audience.
  • The era of big publishing is over. Indies are where it’s at.
  • Indie does not equal low quality. Not anymore.
  • And finally: If it has nothing to do with your story, get rid of it.

I can safely say that The Soul Cycle series embodies all of these principles. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier”

Book Review: Making Peace by Adam Lane Smith

A romance writer gets embedded as a journalist with a group of peacekeepers on a brutal, technologically stunted though strategically important planet and has to deal with a war between the two most powerful ruling trade families? And there’s magic, assassin’s guilds, and lots and lots of sword fighting? Sign me up.

Making Peace is the debut novel from Adam Lane Smith, and he enters the burgeoning indie author market with a splash. Or given the nature of Making Peace, should I say explosion.

The framing device Smith uses is particularly unique: Belkan Candor is a famous romance novelist from the lush, civilized planet Garden. For some reason, a mysterious and wealthy benefactor pays a lot of money to Belkan’s publisher to send him to the city of Tiers on the planet Sivern to write about the Peacekeepers, a group of dedicated warriors tasked with investigating the crimes among, and preventing a war between, Sivern’s ruling houses.

Sivern is an interesting place, particularly for a foppish dandy like Belkan. Technology is artificially suppressed, leading to a world that’s quasi-medieval, though nano-mages are still allowed. Sivern is also the galaxy’s sole producer of the super-strong ceramic called Sivernite, as well as a decorative plant called Ripplewood. And commerce rules everything, with power held firmly in the grasp of the trade houses. The planet is so vital  and powerful, the fact that slavery exists is tolerated for the sake of commerce.

The houses are constantly jockeying for power, status, and influence, as well as the sweet profits of trade, and this competition tends to grind down the poor and powerless of Tiers between its grinding gears–and in Tiers, “poor” and “powerless” means nearly everybody else. This is where the Keepers come in.

It takes Belkan a while to warm up to his new companions, but slowly he learns about their backgrounds, how they ended up in a place like Tiers in a group like the Keepers, and grows to like and trust them. Which is good, because although he’s supposed to be a mere chronicler of events, Belkan ends up becoming an integral part of the Keepers’ investigation into a string of brutal murders in the First House.

Continue reading “Book Review: Making Peace by Adam Lane Smith”

Reset: Chapter 30: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (3)

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Gwendolyn was the lone figure at the bus stop on Main Street, looking beautiful in the afternoon sun, stylish as always in a pair of flattering jeans and a light white jacket over a gray t-shirt, accented tastefully with a few bracelets. Those ubiquitous large sunglasses seemed to cover half of her face. All of a sudden Joe, in his jeans and t-shirt, felt underdressed. It wasn’t as if his current wardrobe was filled with fine attire, but he hadn’t remembered being such a slob at eighteen.

It was past noon and Joe, still full from breakfast, was glad when Gwendolyn suggested that they take a bus to the mall in Portsmouth instead of getting lunch. A dollar and your student ID was all it took to go nearly anywhere on the New Hampshire seacoast back then.

“Hey,” said Gwendolyn as Joe came near. She gave him a warm hug. “How’s your aunt?”

“She’s great,” said Joe. He was smiling. It felt good and it made his heart sting. Memories of Jason flashed into his mind: At Fenway Park with an oversized Red Sox cap on his little head . . . struggling with his snowsuit on a winter morning . . . laughing in delight as he barreled down a slide, Joe and Sandra waiting at the bottom with their arms around each other’s waists . . . he had traded his son’s life for his aunt’s. And it didn’t feel like a fair exchange.

“Are you sure everything’s alright? If this is a bad time, you can let me know.”

“I’m fine, really,” said Joe. “I’m sorry I flaked out on you, Gwen. Things have just been–”

Gwendolyn raised a finger and put it on Joe’s lips. The urge to kiss it was difficult to resist. “Family is the important thing. I can wait.” Her finger moved to his cheek, lightly touching the angry bruises like two red, round eyes. “Now how did this happen?”

“Like I said, things are crazy. I’ll tell you on the bus. Speaking of which . . . .”

“It’ll come soon enough.”

* * *

Joe let Gwendolyn drag him to Victoria’s Secret. It wasn’t that he disliked the store. But there was a sense of infidelity that he could not shake.

Meanwhile, somewhere Sandra is getting God-knows-what attention from God-knows how many boys, and she doesn’t even know that I exist . . .

“How about these?” said Gwendolyn, holding up a pair of small black booty-shorts that were ostensibly being marketed as pajamas. “I need some new ones, you know.”

Words caught in Joe’s throat as he imagined Gwendolyn in them. His expression must have been comically skeptical, because she started to laugh. “I know, right? Who sleeps in stuff like this? Please.” She dropped the shorts and shook her head, moving on to the shelves where more conventional pajama sets lived. “This is more my style.”

“Right,” said Joe.

“Oh, come on,” said Gwendolyn with a mischievous smirk. “You know I’d look good in that.”

Joe shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?!” said Gwendolyn. “Maybe? Are you saying there’s a chance that I wouldn’t?

“All I’m saying is that it’s tough to judge what you haven’t seen.”

Joe worried he had gone too far–where had his unnatural confidence come from? But if Gwendolyn was offended, she hid it behind a self-satisfied smile.

They walked out of the store, Joe narrowly dodging a group of preteens careening towards the food court. “Gwendolyn,” said Joe as he caught his balance.

“Gwen,” she replied. “Hey, why don’t we do something tonight? Me and the girls were just going to hang out, maybe go see a movie or something. Are you interested? Something low-key, you know? I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you nervous.”

“You’re not,” said Joe. He started scratching the back of his head although it didn’t itch. Sandra, who was a shockingly good poker player, called that his “tell.” “You always scratch your head when you’re uncomfortable, or you’re lying.” And then she would invariably add, “So what are you lying about now?”

“I already made plans with the guys,” he said, hating how it sounded.

“Oh.”

Joe couldn’t stop himself; the excuses came unbidden. “Yeah. We’re not doing anything, really. Nothing fun. We just have some stuff to talk over.”

“So is this, like, a school project or something?”

“No,” said Joe. “Well, it’s a project, just not for school.”

“That’s fine,” said Gwendolyn, forcing a smile. “Guy time. I got you. If you don’t want to hang out tonight, you can just say so. I won’t be offended.”

“It’s not that, Gwen.”

“I suppose it’s with your friend Nick?” she said as they continued their walk. “I’m thirsty.”

“Let’s get a drink,” said Joe. “Yeah, it’s with Nick, and . . .” He stopped short, unable to believe whose head he now saw towering above the throngs of diners in the food court.

Gwendolyn elbowed him playfully in the ribs. “Speak of the devil. Maybe now I can find out what your secret meeting is all about! You’re a really mysterious guy, you know.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 30: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (3)”

Reset: Chapter 29: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (2)

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“Get your goddamn phone!” Nick barked from the top bunk.

Joe sawed out one final snore, his hand flopping to the ringing offender on his nightstand. “Hello?”

“Good morning Joey!” said his mother cheerily. “Where are you?”

“In bed,” he said, sitting up halfway. “Everything alright?”

“Absolutely fine! Your Aunt and I are coming to take you to breakfast!”

“Oh. Is dad with you?”

“No honey, he needs to stay and watch the little ones. We’ll be there in an hour. And Joey?”

“Yeah mom?”

“Thank you again. For everything.”

“Of course. See you soon.” He hung up and swung his legs over the bed. His mom hadn’t invited Nick, which was just as well because Nick had already returned to sleep, dead to the world. He probably had plans with Amy anyway.

Quietly, he walked to his computer. Gwendolyn deserved some kind of closure. She was a nice girl, really. And Joe couldn’t shake the feeling that, by befriending her, he had set her on a course that would irrevocably change her life from the way it was supposed to unfold. Another life ruined . . .

“Hi Gwen,” he typed, “I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. I had some family stuff going on. But my Aunt is doing well. She and my mother are coming to take me to breakfast today. I would like to see you after if you’re free. I’ll give you a call when I get back. Please let me know if this works. Sincerely, Joe.”

He clicked “Send” and sat back, wondering about the email’s tone. Was it too friendly? Too formal? Too dry? He didn’t want to give Gwendolyn the wrong idea. Wrong idea about what? he thought, feeling more confused than he was about the time travel.

Shaking his head, he stripped down and gathered his things for the shower. Before long, he was sitting on a stone bench in the quad, enjoying the sun on his face and trying hard to think of things other than planes crashing into buildings.

* * *

The ringing in his head exploded when he saw his mother’s red SUV pull up to the curb; he almost fell off of the bench , his vision shaking like some malevolent force was using his head as a maraca.

He managed to get back to a sitting position, clinging to the bench with a grip as tenuous as his hold on sanity. It was his mom and his aunt. It had to be. There was something about coming into contact with loved ones he knew so well that was setting his mind off like a bomb. If it didn’t stop, he feared his brains would start leaking from his ears.

Both Mom and Aunt Gina rushed out of the car, followed by ten-thousand after-images. He thought he heard them yelling his name. He also thought he said “I’m fine,” but all that came out was a thin stream of pale vomit splattering on the pavement between them.

He felt a little better after that, glad he hadn’t eaten much lately. The rattling subsided just enough for him to hear the sounds he was making, a meaningless “bar bar bar,” like an ancient Persian trying to speak to an Athenian. He held up a hand, but could not scrape together the equilibrium to stand.

“My God Joey,” yelled his mother, “what’s wrong?”

“Seizure! He’s having a seizure!” said Aunt Gina hysterically.

His mother sat on the bench and put an arm around him, trying to hug him into submission. His aunt did the same on the other side. Joe felt his teeth rattle so hard his jaws hurt; it sounded like a skeleton falling down the stairs. “F-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-fine,” he managed to say.

“Oh my God, you are not fine,” said his mother. “Gina, call 9-1-1!”

“N-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-no!” Joe said, spittle flying. “F-f-f-f-f-f-fever. S-s-s-s-s-s-s-started last n-n-night.” The shaking in his head subsided like an ocean of molasses, but ebb it did. “Th-th-th-th-thought it would g-g-g-g-go away. I’m c-c-c-c-c-cold,” he said. His strength returned enough for him to lift an arm and wipe his mouth. “God, my head . . .” It felt like a bowling ball had been lodged in his sinus cavity and was expanding like a balloon, determined to blow up his face like a Pelean eruption.

He felt his mother’s reassuring hands rubbing his shoulder. “Joey, let’s go to the hospital.”

“N-n-n-n-no. I th-th-think breakfast will do the t-t-trick.” He clenched his jaw to stop the chattering until the muscles hurt. “C-c-c-coffee always helps.

“That’s the Italian side of you,” Aunt Gina said. “The side that never says die. Just look at me!”

Joey did. She was his mother’s twin sister. They looked identical, right down to the reddish hue they dyed their hair, Aunt Gina being slightly thinner. Although Joe looked like a Gallagher, all rounded face and blue-eyes, his mother like to claim he had inherited all of the Rossi common sense and none of the Gallagher temper.

“How are you feeling?” Joe asked his Aunt.

Aunt Gina gave his cheek a strong pinch that made him wince; the woman had a death grip that could rival a C-clamp. “That’s just like you, thinking of everyone else but yourself. I’m doing great, Joey. I couldn’t feel better, now that I’m face to face with my savior.” She took his face with both hands and planted a loud kiss on his forehead.

“Let’s not get blasphemous, Gina,” said Joe’s mother. “I love him, but get a grip.”

Aunt Gina waved a hand. “You know what I mean. But he didn’t just save my life. He saved that other boy’s as well.”

“Oh God, what happened to your cheek?” his mother said.

“What’s on my cheek?”

“Those bruises, Joey.”

“Oh, right. We played basketball last night and I kind of ran into somebody’s elbow.” He managed to stand, steadying himself with a hand on his mother’s shoulder. “Shall we go? Smith’s has the best breakfast in town . . . so I’ve heard. We can walk there.”

“No, let’s drive,” his mother said.

“Lazy!” said Aunt Gina. “I’m the one with cancer, and you want to drive?” She rolled her eyes. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 29: Saturday, September 8, 2001 (2)”