Wednesday, November 25, 2015


“Admit my privilege?” How can I not
when I am, through no merit, free from pain?
I did not pull myself out of the rot.
The splendid workings of the human brain
dragged my ancestors from the caves in which
they dwelt, and up the ladder, so that I
might never sweat my life out in a ditch,
but instead earn my living with my mind.
I had no part in earning this reward.
That those back-broken generations paid
the price IS privilege. And so towards
those weary souls who suffered much but stayed
the course, and won my freedom, lift a glass.
They weren't perfect, but they saved my ass.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Project Updates

Time to advise my adoring public of the current state of affairs regarding my work.  I've been rather prolific lately, if unsuccessful in selling most of it.

Axis of Eternity, a young adult sci-fi novel, died on the vine, as discussed below, and is available for review on this website.  Posting the story on this site has been valuable in that it has given me conclusive data as to why the story failed, specifically:  readers don't find it very interesting.  About 80% of those who start chapter one bail out before reaching chapter nine.  It would seem that the literary agents were correct to avoid this one.

The failure of a two-year project is discouraging, but it's not reason to abandon all hope in my writing.  It was, after all, my first serious attempt at publication, and very few writers knock the world on its ear the first time out.  Operating on the assumption that I don't yet know how to pace a novel-length work, I've been polishing my craft with shorter stuff, including the following:

Thump Dumps A Chump, an adult humor piece in a "black exploitation" vein, sold and published this summer by Fabula Argentea, as is recounted here.  I wound up pleased with how this one went; I learned how much simpler it was to sell short fiction than a novel, enjoyed my interactions with the publisher and got my work out in front of a few dozen people.

The Commander, the story of Fabrice, a Congolese child soldier who finds himself visited by, advised by, and occasionally controlled by, a disembodied spirit of uncertain motives.  This one sold right out of the gate and will be published in the pending YA anthology A Thousand Words for War.  All signs are encouraging here; the anthology has reached the galley stage with an eye on a spring release, and having read the whole thing I can say that there are some very formidable stories in there (wait until you read "Mechanika" by Mara Dubrishus!).  The story's been foregrounded by the publisher for publicity purposes, which seems to speak well of their opinion of it and of the overall marketability of the concept.  I found myself so encouraged by this that I wrote a companion piece which further details Fabrice's journey; that story, A Boy and a Solider, also sold right out of the gate, though I've been asked to withhold the release details by the publisher for the time being.  Depending on how the stories are received by the public, further episodes or even a novelization could be in the works.

Don, adult sci-fi featuring Don Quixote as radical climatologist, is working its way down the list of respected sci-fi mags through serial rejection.  At present it's my entry in the quarterly L. Ron Hubbard "Writers of the Future" contest, which offers a $1000 grand prize and hence tends to draw submissions from the best unpublished writers on Earth.  Having read last year's winners, I can say with some confidence that I won't be winning this.  But it's a good story, well-written and particularly appealing to readers familiar with the source material, and I'm confident that it will eventually find a home somewhere.

Magic Beans is a genetic engineering spin on "Jack and the Beanstalk" which was originally written for a YA anthology to be published by the same house that's turning out A Thousand Words for War. They politely turned it down as "too adult" for their purposes, and I'm not inclined to disagree.  It's working its way through the same serial rejection process as "Don".  It's got enough merit that I think it will eventually find a home as well, though perhaps not a high-profile one.

The Rule of Three is a Terry Pratchett tribute, an early draft of which I posted briefly here a week ago.  It's the story of three modern-day witches, their small-scale alchemists' shop, and a war with unscrupulous corporate rivals.  It's the funniest thing I've written, line-for-line, and almost certainly provides the most accessible mainstream entertainment; its shortcoming is that the Pratchett influence is a bit too obvious.  This one's just going out to publishers now, and I really don't know what to think of its prospects; it could easily resonate strongly with a top-tier editor and make it into a SFWA-qualifying publication, or it could prove so obviously derivative that it's greeted with scorn by everyone who encounters it and falls through the cracks entirely.  We shall see.

So:  some minor successes, no catastrophic failures, and potential for bigger things down the road.  Writing is fun.  I recommend it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Bartolo Colon is a Big Fat Doomed Tub of Goo

I’ve been making fun of fat people lately.  Specifically, I’ve been making fun of New York Mets relief pitcher Bartolo Colon.  A 42-year-old Dominican hurler, Mr. Colon follows in the footsteps of David Wells, Terry Forster, and numerous others who’ve exploited the low cardiovascular requirements of the position to forge a successful career for himself.  Very successful, in fact; he’s earned more than $90 million over 20 years in the majors, and has won near-universal respect for his control artistry, professionalism, and above all for his sense of humor about his body type.


Unfortunately for Mr. Colon, he is doomed.  He is pitching against my Kansas City Royals in the World Series, and like all Royals opponents, his Mets are fated to take an early lead, turn the game over to their inferior bullpen, and watch their ankles be chewed away beneath them by our relentless barrage of singles hitters.  It’s nothing personal; just the business of winning championships.

Sports fandom is a social phenomenon—always has been—and these days, manifests itself largely through the social media.  It has become customary for fan bases to talk relentless smack on their opponents:

On the opposing fans:

On their own team:

On the the length of the games:

On the umpires and broadcasters:

On ourselves:

And, above all else, on Bartolo Colon:

Some of these tweets, as you see, have won me a wider audience.  Some of them have won me direct criticism from internet trolls—speech police, people whom I’ve never met coming out of the woodwork to accuse me of “fat shaming”.  In the words of Bartolo Colon the morning after his trip to the Mexican buffet, "You wouldn't believe the blowback I got on this."

A friend of mine asserts that this is not fat shaming, but rather "an appreciation of the magnificence that is Bartolo."  I think this may be a distinction without a difference.  I am using Bartolo Colon’s status as an overweight person—a mark of societal disfavor and discrimination—as the basis for humor.  100% guilty.  And one of my strengths is that I am attentive to criticism, regardless of the source.  I consider it, and I reflect on my own behavior.

There are certainly places one doesn’t go as a sports fan.  One doesn’t isolate on personal tragedies, like Missouri basketball fans chanting “PLO” at Steve Kerr the week after his father died in a terror bombing.  One doesn’t use race or sexual orientation as a basis for mockery.  Nor are an athlete’s childhood economic circumstances fair game—the KU fans who mocked an underperforming Jamari Traylor for having been homeless are just scum, full stop.

And weight-based ridicule, especially in the media, CAN have consequences.  Kids have killed themselves over this sort of thing.  Am I a monster?  A troglodyte?  A troll?  Do I owe a vote of thanks to the white knights who rode to rescue Bartolo from my cruel words?  I’ve thought about it.  And the conclusion I’ve come to is:  in this particular instance, the people seeking to police everyone else's online speech are the problem, and they need to go piss up a rope.

As acknowledged above, fat shaming CAN be a very bad thing.  But can is not must.  But as with any other form of criticism, one has to attend to the nature of the relationship between the critic and the target.  And I think the argument that I am cyberbullying Bartolo Colon is a very, very tough sell.  It is not difficult to distinguish between the harm done to a thirteen-year-old girl by her peers, on the one hand, and the harm done to a public figure with an $11 million dollar salary on the other.  It is important to worry about the former.  It is silly to worry about the latter.

Yet the contents of my inbox suggests that there really are people who can’t tell the difference—or, perhaps, who think that the real problem is the standard set by my discourse; that tolerance of fat shaming in one forum sets a new norm that legitimizes tolerance of fat shaming in all fora.  I suspect these people would not accept the same sort of “slippery slope” argument were it to be fostered by, say, Republicans about nationalized health insurance, or the NRA about gun control.  I don’t think it’s a sincere objection.  I think it’s an argument of convenience, an excuse to play white knight.

Also, there is this.

I’m not a small man.

BMI is a bad statistic, so I won’t use it.  But there’s no disputing that I’m unhealthily overweight—probably by about 25% of my total body mass, a far higher percentage than Mr. Colon.  I suffer from attendant health issues, including hypertension and sleep apnea.  I struggle and fail to do better in terms of healthy eating and exercise.

One might, I suppose, call me a hypocrite, or expect me to be more sympathetic to Mr. Colon’s condition.  One MIGHT—if one were an outsider accustomed to thinking of fat people as fragile porcelain mice in need of protection from hurtful words.  One MIGHT—if one believed fat people lacked all agency, were incapable of standing up for themselves (as opposed to being incapable of standing up BY themselves).  One MIGHT, if one thought people like me and Mr. Colon were in need of rescue. 

But one would not want to think those things.  Because if one did, one would be a patronizing little turd.  One’s attempt to police my speech would be a deeply insulting incursion into the community that Mr. Colon and I share.  And within that community, people like me and Mr. Colon enjoy the freedom to make fun of ourselves, and of one another.   We express our struggles in our own way, and when other people push past the invisible line that separates humor from hurt, WE tell them to stop.  WE do this.  We do not rely on outsiders to do it for us, because we are not children in need of protection.  We are big boys now.  Some of us, in fact, are very big boys indeed.

And so we would say to those who would police “fat shaming” as a matter of course and regardless of context:  thank you for your concern, and for your compassion.  Sincerely.  Thanks for recognizing that this can be a real problem.  Thanks for working to eliminate real, meaningful discrimination in this area.  Thanks for rushing to the defense of young people, and those who genuinely can’t defend themselves.  But we are not those who cannot defend themselves.  We are not those who need your protection.  So please direct those attentions elsewhere.  And where your attempts to police our speech towards ONE ANOTHER are concerned, please direct those attentions straight up your own scrawny ass.

We're gonna make Bartolo cry tonight.  But it won't be because he's fat.  No it will be because he and his teammates are bad at baseball, and will be exposed as such before a national television audience.  And if our online commentary ancillary to the game may pertain to Bartolo Colon's formidable jowls, or Jacob DeGrom's uncanny resemblance to a cocker spaniel, or David Murphy's continuing quest to bring the Secret Of Making Fire to his clan, well...truly, that's all in the game.

You, and they, can handle it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

1: Rising

There was a twisting, a sensation of being turned inside-out, and then he was rising.  He was shooting skywards like a balloon cut from its tether, utterly uncontrolled, disoriented and frantic.  There were wisps of cloud, spinning green ground receding below, crystal blue above as he plummeted upwards, a roaring in his ears.
All around him, dimming his view, was a thick haze through which electricity arced and danced, discharges of bright color―crimson red, emerald green, powder blue.  As he rose, he was continually barraged and battered by the strange energy.  He didn’t feel pain, but there was a continual, inescapable, overwhelming discomfort…a spider crawling up his leg, an itch he couldn’t scratch, throughout his entire being.  The light display might otherwise have been beautiful, but the sensation was maddening, overwhelming him with an intense desire to escape upwards, to rise higher.
He desperately grappled for his bearings, for understanding, for a single thought he could hold onto.  What is this?  What’s happening to me?  Who am I?
And, from somewhere inside himself, as if in answer: Will.  My name is Will.  I am sixteen years old.
Will reached inside his mind for more information, and came up empty.  And then he looked deeper.  And then scrambled around inside the dark vacancy…and found nothing else.  Not a clue as to his identity.  Not a single memory.
The haze around him was thinning as he rocketed skywards, the colored bolts growing less intense and more infrequent, the full-body itch mercifully beginning to loosen its grip.  Above, the sky was darkening from blue to black, though the sun still blazed directly overhead.  I must be near the edge of the stratosphere, he thought.  Then how can I breathe?  Wait…AM I breathing?  And how do I know what ‘stratosphere’ means?  Who taught me the word?  Where? When?
As the haze diminished, Will’s sight grew clearer.  Above him and off to his left was a luminous speck of light, rising like a spark from a campfire.  Focusing his attention on the light, he felt himself angling towards it and increasing his velocity, catching up to the glowing spark.  What?  How did I… Startled, his focus lost, he was sliding straight upwards again, out of control, like a cork through clear water.
Fighting for a grip, Will refocused on the light.  Slowly, he felt his control return, and once again he angled towards the glow.  With no point of reference, there was no way to judge distance or size; was he about to catch a firefly, or was he in futile pursuit of a distant star?  Will reached out towards the spark―
―and for the first time, he caught a glimpse of his own hand.  It was perfectly transparent and translucent, as was the arm attached.  There was barely more substance to his hand, to his arm, to him, than there was to the ever-diminishing haze.  Holding his palm up before his eyes, he could easily look straight through it at the spark above.
Looking down at his body for the first time, Will was nearly blinded by an intense, luminous glow in the center of his torso.  Squinting to reduce the glare, he found that the rest of him―his chest, his stomach, his legs―were as insubstantial as his hands.  Aside from the light beaming from his heart, he was barely there at all.   He should have been awestruck by this fact, by the panorama below him―the curve of the earth now plainly visible on the horizon, most of a continent stretching out below in a pastiche of faded browns and greens.  But somehow, he wasn’t.  Instead, he found himself distracted by odd questions:  why am I squinting?  If my eyelids are transparent, how can tightening them reduce the glare?
Will looked up again at the glowing spark, and then off at the horizon.  Was that another tiny glowing light off in the distance below him?  He shut his eyes―Why does that work?―then opened them again.  Fighting against panic, he sought focus, grasped for the feeling which had drawn him towards the spark above.  His mind fumbled with distractions, then grappled at the edges of…something, some inner sense he’d never used nor known he possessed.  And gradually, Will’s grip on himself grew more confident.  He willed himself to slowly rotate as he rose, and found that his body obeyed.
There was no mistaking it this time.  The light he’d been chasing was real.  As he spun slowly in midair, his ascent now slowing dramatically, the mist gradually dispersing, he could see other glowing lights off in the distance.  He counted them as he rotated.  One…two…three…four?  Five…  Shooting stars in reverse, rising against the darkening sky.
Will looked down again at himself.  His body was an afterthought, almost invisible.   And yet the heart of him blazed on, luminous in the gathering dark.  He could not name the color of the light at the center of him; he had never seen it before, yet it was somehow familiar.  And those other lights were, unmistakably, in color and by nature, a match for the light in him.
People, he thought. Each of those lights is a person.
The last wisps of electric haze dwindled in the distance below.  The roaring in Will’s ears had faded to total silence.  He was free of the full-body itch, free of the atmosphere.  Below him was the whole Earth; above him blazed the sun and stars, simultaneously, in the black void.  He was merely another glowing light among many.  There was no air, yet he felt no cold, no heat, no pain, no sense of suffocation.
I’m dead.
The realization didn’t provoke any particular terror or awe.  Will felt no anguish, no regret.  Shouldn’t I be missing someone?  My family?  My friends?  He was certain he should, but searching his mind, he couldn’t find them.  The word “mother” had a definition, but he couldn’t fit a particular image to it.  He could remember people, as a concept; he could not recall a single specific human person.
In truth, Will could barely remember himself.  My name is Will.  I am sixteen years old.  What did he look like?  An image came to mind, indistinct, as through a foggy mirror.  Dark hair, yes…a big, thick, unruly mop of it…darkish complexion…a face a bit too broad to be handsome, with narrow eyes beneath heavy brows…medium height and build.
Am I smart?  Dumb?  Strong?  Weak?  Awkward?  Popular?  Who are my friends?  What are my hobbies?  Nothing.  A total blank.
What do I do next?
Of all the questions Will was struggling with, that was the one that really had him on edge.
Isn’t there supposed to be someone or something here to tell me what comes next?  Dead relatives waiting?  A set of huge pearly gates guarded by a winged man with a checklist?  Nasty horned men brandishing pitchforks?  SOMETHING?   I mean…I don’t remember being particularly religious, but surely no faith believes that, after death, God drops you off in low earth orbit, gives you amnesia, slaps you on the back, and then wanders off to do God stuff? 
He was going to have to find his own answers, and he wasn’t going to find out anything by just drifting aimlessly in space.  Once again, he examined his surroundings.  The―person?  Soul?—that had been above him on his way up was now just off to his left, floating motionless.  Will brought up his arms and legs, swung them back in a powerful butterfly stroke, and achieved utterly nothing; he remained anchored, flailing in the void.  No, that’s not right.  It isn’t about your body.  Not here.  It’s about the mind...  Instead of exercising nonexistent muscles, Will simply decided to move towards the glow, and in wishing it, he found it was happening.  Slowly, like a dandelion seed on a summer breeze, he drifted forward.
Approaching, Will gave his neighbor a cheerful wave, only to remember that the two of them were virtually invisible to one another.  As he grew closer, he found that the lights at the center of each of them blended and echoed off of one another; in the combined glow, he could just barely see the outline of a human form.  The ghostly shape has its arm outstretched, as if to touch something, and it was looking in…
Will paused in his approach.  In what direction was his neighbor looking, exactly?
Somewhere in his consciousness, a switch was flipped.  Something behind Will’s eyes opened, and he could suddenly see the direction in which his neighbor was looking.  It was an angle incomprehensible to the mortal mind, oblique to the entire reality he had known.  He was looking not up or down, not left or right, but outwards.
And in the far distance outwards was The Light.  The Light!
Had Will thought that he and his neighbor and were luminous beings?  Relative to The Light, they were tiny flickers.  If they had been rising sparks, The Light was the bonfire itself.  How could he not have seen it before, when its intensity would have dimmed a hundred suns?  It’s no accident that living human beings can’t see The Light, he thought.  The flesh isn’t equipped for it.  It would fry your brain like an egg inside your skull.
It seemed to Will that some part of him had always known and longed for The Light, that it had always been a part of him, and of every person ever born.  The Light is unity and love.  The Light is destiny, the purpose of all human existence.  Had he sought instructions for his afterlife?  The Light was, in itself, all the instruction needed.  This is what we were made for.  To join with The Light.
With difficulty, Will pulled his eyes away from The Light.  He could see that the other human souls who had arisen alongside of his neighbor and himself were rushing outwards, with all the speed they could muster.  They were rushing towards fusion with The Light, heeding its call, seeking to disappear into it entirely.
And suddenly, Will had something new to be confused about.
Because he could look into The Light, and recognize what it signified.  He knew, at a purely instinctive level, that The Light had to be the destiny of every human being; that there could be no purpose outside of it or apart from it; that every single fiber of him should crave union with it.
And yet, somehow, he didn’t.
Will didn’t want to merge with The Light.
He didn’t want it at all.

2: The Boy of Oak and Iron

Beside a rough-hewn wood-frame building, a hulking boy was splitting logs, and every time he brought down the axe, he imagined a skull beneath it.
            Off to the east, the sun was slowly sinking behind the chalky hills, its dying rays painting the high grass with a hazy, golden corona.  The boy―the young man, really―had wide, handsome features, skin the color of rich mahogany, and close-cropped hair.  Thick rivulets of sweat ran down his face to stain his leather tunic and trousers.  He raised the axe in work-hardened palms, and with an explosive cry, he brought it down in a thunderous arc, through the rail of oak and deep into the stump beneath it.  His every muscle―and he had an abundance of them―ached from the effort, and from the long day’s hunt behind him.  He barely noticed.  His heart hurt worse.
            Behind him, on the front stoop of the building, a door opened.  The woman who emerged was perhaps in her early thirties, a little more than a decade older than the teenager, slight of build and clad in rough cotton, milky-skinned, with mouselike features.  She rested her hands on the porch railing and watched the boy, her intelligent brown eyes full of concern.
            The boy never turned, but felt her eyes on him all the same.  “Don’t mind me, Rosemary.  Just making myself useful.  Chopping some firewood.”  With a massive surge, he wrenched the axe free, and stooped to replace the log with another.
            The woman spoke, her tone calm.  “Jason,” she said.  “It’s midsummer.”
            The boy paused.  Wiped his brow.  Blinked.  Looked, as if for the first time, at the scene around him.  Virtually the entire yard was littered with split logs, some of which had been chopped again and again, to tiny fragments, far past any conceivable use.  He lowered the axe; his shoulders slumped in resignation.
            “I know,” he muttered.  “It’s just…I get so angry sometimes.”  His face was miasma of self-loathing and repressed rage, a skyfull of dreary drizzle and incipient thunder.
            The woman descended from the porch and reached up―reached up quite some distance―to carefully wrap her arm around the boy’s broad shoulders; at full stretch, she was almost able to touch his far arm with the tips of her fingers.  She ushered him back to the stoop.  “I know you do, Jason,” she cooed.  She sat him down on the steps, then sat herself beside him.  “And you’ve a right to be.  But we’ve talked about this.  You have to learn to channel it.  Splitting logs isn’t what we need it for right now.  It isn’t productive.”
            A slow fire kindled in Jason’s eyes.  “Logs aren’t what I wanna take an axe to.”
            “Jason.”  Her tone was sharper, commanding.  The boy looked at her fiercely; she looked back at him quietly; slowly, the fire in his eyes died.
            They sat together in silence for perhaps a minute.  The last of the sun’s rays were dwindling on the horizon, and the moons were coming out overhead.  Finally, the boy spoke.  “Nothing will ever be enough, will it?  He’ll never forgive me.”
            The woman sighed and smiled sadly.  “Jason,” she said.  “Ben didn’t mean to snap at you, I’m sure.  And it certainly has nothing to do with what happened two months ago.”  She shook her head.  “It’s been…well, it’s been a long day for him.  And you know that he has a lot on his mind.  He has an entire town to look after.  All of Haven depends on Ben for guidance.  I think the strain’s too much for him at times.”  She drew her mouth into a tight line.  “That’s no excuse, of course.  But he does love you, Jason.  He loves you and I more than anything else on Elysium.”  She smiled warmly, and reached up again to wrap an arm around him; “Just as much as I love you.  You do know that, right?  You know that we love you?”  She tightened her grip as best she could, and perhaps the misery in the teen’s face abated a bit.
            “Sure,” he responded.  “Yeah.  I…I guess.  And I love you too, Rosemary.  I love you both.  I just wish…”  Jason’s jaw worked as he fumbled for words.  “…I just wish, you know, that I deserved it more.”
            “Jason.”  Rosemary’s tone was sharper this time.  “We’ve talked about this.  You mustn’t think about yourself that way.”
            “But it’s true!”  He turned to her, his face full of consternation.  “I mean…Ben’s amazing.  He knows everything there is to know about plants, and about people…he can build a house, or set a bone, or even run an army.  And everybody in Haven trusts him and depends upon him.  And you…you build new bodies for people!  You literally bring the dead back to life!”
            Rosemary sighed.  “No, Jason,” she said, her expression indicating that they were on well-worn conversational ground.  “People rebuild their own bodies.  They bring themselves back to life.  I’m merely a guide.”
            “Yeah, but still!  I mean…both of you…people need you.”  He stared back down at his hands.  “What do people need me for?”  he mumbled.
            Rosemary smiled reassuringly.  “People need you to be you, Jason.  Maybe you can’t operate an apothecary like Ben, or guide an incarnation like me.  But neither Ben nor I can run down a deer in the wild.  Neither of us can fight off three hillmen singlehanded with nothing but a flint sickle.  We need you to keep Haven fed.  We need you to keep Haven safe.  And Ben needs you, Jason, to remind him of what it is he’s fighting to create here.  You make him proud.  He may not say so, he may not be capable of saying so, but there’s a reason that you’re the only newcomer he’d have in his home…in our home.  You always make him proud.”
That drew a slow, sheepish smile.  “And you have to remember, Jason,” Rosemary continued,  “we’ve put in a bit more time here than you have.  It’s only been, what, eighteen months?  Whereas I’ve had fourteen years.  And Ben has been here for well over two hundred.”
The boy frowned.  “Eighteen months is enough, though.”  He shook his head.  “Enough to have known better.  Enough to have not been taken in by a pretty face.  Enough to have not been made a fool of.”
Rosemary stood, then stepped down off the stoop.  Crouching in front of Jason, she grasped him by the hands, and stared straight into his eyes.  “Jason, you have to let it go.  You were far from the only one fooled by them.  And you certainly weren’t the only one taken in by Delia’s charms.”
“Yeah.  But…hillman spies!  And I trusted them!”  Jason blushed.  “I trusted her.”  He swallowed.  “At least you knew better than we did.  If you hadn’t, who knows how much more they would have been able to accomplish…”
Rosemary smiled ruefully.  “Yes, Jason, you did trust her.  And you do trust.  You are yourself so trustworthy that I think sometimes that it never occurs to you that other people might not be.”
            He ground his teeth.  “I wish I weren’t.  So trusting, I mean.”  He shook his head.  “And…and so angry.”
Rosemary smiled.  “I don’t.  Jason, I don’t wish you were anything other than what you are.  And neither does Ben.”  Her delicate hand kneaded at the back of his neck affectionately.  “Jason, you really must learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.  We’re all doing the best we can here.  This world we’ve found…it’s all about second chances.  It’s all about the opportunity to do better.  I’m convinced of it.  So that when we’re the best versions of ourselves we can be, we can enter The Light with clear consciences.”
Jason stared at the ground for a moment, then back up at Rosemary.  “You think so?”  She nodded, but his expression remained quizzical.  “I wish…”  He spread his hands, grasping aimlessly at the air for a moment, then they dropped bonelessly to his knees.  “…I just wish I remembered.  You know.  I just wish I knew what I was, before.  But it’s all a blur.”
            Rosemary returned to his side and wrapped a comforting arm around him again.  “It’s like that for all of us, Jason.  You know that.”
“Just a blur.  Just…a name, and those loose memories.  The games, and the friends, and dad…and that…”  Slowly, his face crashed.  “…and that other thing.”
Rosemary interjected quickly.  “And soccer, Jason.”
Instantly, Jason’s entire demeanor changed, his face exploding into an expression of pure joy.  “Soccer!  Yeah!  Game in two weeks!  It’s gonna be epic!  Are you coming this time?”
Rosemary smiled again, although this smile might perhaps have held something in reserve.  “Of course, Jason.  I wouldn’t miss it.”  But Jason was grinning maniacally, all glumness forgotten, and she gave him another reassuring squeeze.  “For now, let’s head back inside, all right?”  Instantly, Jason popped up onto his feet and reached down to pull Rosemary up with him.

They turned to enter the building, Jason opening the door and holding it for her.  “Remember, Jason,” she said, quietly, as they went inside.  “Elysium’s not about who we were.  It’s not even about who we are now.  It’s about who we can become.”

3: Less Than A Thought

            Who am I???
            The question echoed in the vacant cavern of Will’s consciousness, leaving panic in its wake.  He’d have screamed, if only he’d had the lips and the lungs to do so.  Inwardly, he grasped for purchase, and found none; the infinite void which surrounded him was far less terrifying than the void at the center of himself.  
            And yet…there was something there that he could cling to.  One single anchoring fact, lodged within his reeling brain.  My name is Will.  I am sixteen years old.
            Rotating slowly in space, the Earth far below him, Will focused on that one single shred of information.  Get a grip, Will.  Panic won’t help.  Slow down your breathing and your heart ra…okay, that’s not really possible.  That’s two less things to worry about, I guess.
            Anyway, calm down.  Get a grip.
            You have a name.  And you may not have a body, or memories, but you have a thinking mind.  Cogito, ergo sum―I think, therefore, I am.  You still exist.  You have perception of your surroundings.
             And you’re not alone…
At every moment, new glowing specks were emerging from the fog below.  New souls discovered The Light, then turned outwards towards it.  The specks became streaks, fleeing down a newly discovered axis towards glory, unanimous in their purpose.
The sole exceptions appeared to be Will and the figure he’d seen rising alongside him.  His neighbor’s form was still hovering in place―perceiving the light, basking in its glow, but not yet moving towards it.
Okay.  I don’t know what’s going on…but others might.  So…how do I ask them?  How do I communicate?  He sensed that he had no voice, and he knew that even if he’d had one, the vacuum of space would not have carried sound.  This is all going to take some getting used to.
What can I doIf nothing else, I can move.  Whatever stuff I’m made of now, it weighs less than a thought. I can use my mind to move…
Will drifted left, then concentrated, pushing himself in the direction he’d only just discovered, turning outwards, interposing himself between his neighbor and The Light.  Will saw the ghostly head turn in his direction, and he eased back inwards, moving right…and accelerating.
That’s better.  And it’s getting easier.  I’m getting the hang of this…  Will turned a pirouette, then drifted back past the still-inert form of his neighbor.  The figure was flailing its limbs in an echo of Will’s earlier attempt at “swimming”.  How to explain?  Will floated outwards again, into his neighbor’s field of vision.  Hoping that he was visible, at least in silhouette, he pointed with his index finger directly at his own temple.  It’s not out there, buddy, it’s in here.  Mind over matter.  The figure paused.  Will swooped to the left, to the right, pointed at his head again.  Very slowly, he saw his neighbor began to drift―right, then left, mirroring his own movements.  Ha!
Focusing his thoughts, Will exploded upwards, flying away from the planet below him―and then, outwards, away from Earth and towards The Light.  Faster, ever faster, his neighbor shadowing him now, Will extended his arms ahead of him―and then outwards from his sides, like wings.  Flying.
Flight was a dream made real, swooping and soaring, free from constraint.  And as Will experienced it for the first time, he knew that every child’s fancy―that every toddler who ever looked at a bird in flight and knew, just knew, that what was natural for them was natural for her as well―had been correct.  He knew that flight wasn’t just possible for, but fundamental to human beings.  Not possible for an incarnate human, no, but there was more to a human being than his or her body, and nothing was more natural to an unencumbered soul than flight.  And there, beyond the bonds of Earth, Will and his companion awoke for the first time to a new part of themselves, and to how much more there might be to humanity than their flesh had permitted them to know.
Upwards away from Earth, then back down as low as they dared, until the crawling horror of the lightning haze shooed them away.  Across the edge of the sky, cometlike; then outwards towards The Light, Earth not shrinking but somehow fading behind them, like a mirage; then back inwards, Earth swelling back into tangibility; then outwards further still.  Will found himself to be the more agile of the two―Wow!  I’m GOOD at this!—but his companion was gaining strength, first trailing in his wake, nipping at his heels; then, at the first opportunity, taking off in new directions, daring him to follow. 
He was without memory, without prospects or a plan.  But Will was no longer a perfect enigma to himself; he didn’t, after all, need to have a body to be somebody.
I am Will.  I am sixteen years old.  And even without a voice, even without a physical form, I’m not without resources.  I have a mind, and I think it’s a good one.  I have a friend, and I’m able to help him.  I have a million questions, and I intend to see them answered.
And I can fly.  My God, how I can fly! 

Will pursued his new friend upwards and outwards and across the stars.  If this is death, he thought, I can live with it.

4: The Man Who Made His Mark

            Ben watched through the window of his residence above the apothecary as Jason emerged into the morning light.  The young man stretched, hoisted a quiver of arrows and a longbow onto his shoulder, fixed his harpoon across his back, and jogged off down the muddy path towards the outskirts of town and his day’s labors.
            There is loyalty, Ben thought, watching him go.  There is the vigor of youth and the shining light of honor.  There is the absence of guile and the presence of courage.  There is all that is best in men.  There is all that is best in Haven.
            I do not deserve to have him in my care.  I do not deserve to have him in my life.
            He had been cruel, unthinkingly cruel, to Jason the previous evening.  The boy had been going on and on about the intricacies of the day’s hunt.  Babbling, as was his wont.  Rosemary, sweet Rosemary, kind and honorable as always, had been attentive, asking intelligent questions, expressing admiration and sympathy at all the appropriate moments.  He, meanwhile, had been the same pompous ass as ever, barely listening, absorbed in the latest reports of activity by the hillmen.  There were rumors, terrible rumors, of a swelling power to the north, of a gathering together of warring tribes; more immediately, there were threats of renewed activity on the very outskirts of Haven itself.  No doubt it was the Mencks again, probing at their defenses, seeking to exploit whatever information Imre and Delia had uncovered prior to their discovery.  That episode had been a black eye for him, and no mistake.  His own fault, of course, and he could scarcely blame his one great political enemy, the most dangerous man in Haven, for moving into the gap his neglect had created…and then, suddenly, Jason and Rosemary had both been staring at him, awaiting his response to some remark.  “Well, what, boy?” he had blurted.  “Yes, yes, you failed to kill a deer!  A great tragedy!  My condolences!”
            Jason had, of course, slunk away like a beaten dog, and Ben had endured a withering glare from his beloved as she had moved to comfort the boy.  Later, Jason had returned, an eager puppy, as if Ben’s words had never cut him.  Ben had not apologized.  Apologies were the business of the weak.  A strong man did not attempt to excuse his misbehavior, he sought to correct it.  But Ben was an old, old man―centuries old, one of the oldest still living in Haven―and he had begun to suspect that his nature was too deeply ingrained in him to be changed now.
            The worse for Haven if that is true.  And the worse for my immortal soul.  By God, I have to be a better man than I was.  I MUST get it right this time around.
            Turning from the window to his washbasin, Ben stared at his reflection in the mirrored glass.  The glass was a rare item in their primitive community; there were no glazeries within the city limits, or indeed any nearer than Himmelgarten, and the hillmen were so eager to swoop down upon any caravan between towns that trade goods were obscenely expensive.  The figure looking back out of the glass at him bore three days’ beard growth.  It had an impressive hawk’s beak of a nose, a strong jaw, short dark hair thinning out on top, pale grey eyes.  It was the face of a man perhaps forty years old, and even fourteen years after the fact, he still couldn’t get used to how new it looked.  How young it looked.
            My face is a lie.  My life is a lie.
            Ben rolled up his sleeves, revealing muscular forearms, darkly tanned, the left laced with tiny scars.  Reaching into the basin, he did his feeble best to make lather out of a crude cake of soap and the water therein, and spread the thin foam over his cheeks and chin with a horsehair brush.  He reached for his razor, an item still rarer than the mirror-glass…not mere iron, but steel, or a reasonable approximation thereof.  Few of the blades stored in the Redoubt or elsewhere in town held as keen an edgeForged with great effort at the hottest of Haven’s smithies and bestowed upon him by a collection of grateful citizens.    If they had known me better, they would have cut my throat with it.
Ben scraped away at the dark bristles, and reflected on the events that had brought him to Elysium, and to the town which he had helped build, which he had helped name.  Departure and exile from Earth.  My second exile, he thought ruefully.  Rejection of The Light, a blessing of which he was so manifestly unworthy.  The discovery of soulflight, the requisite period of wandering, in space and up and down the Axis of Eternity.  The eventual discovery of the planet Elysium and the small cluster of rickety shacks by the river, which he’d named the Quinnipiac.  Returning to the material world under Penelope’s guidance; that first group of friends, Anders and Greta and Bald Will and Xibal, the seed stock of what would become, in time, a thriving community.  All of those first friends were gone now, gone to The Light.  All but him.
            The hardest part, of course, had been piecing together the tiny fragments of their memories.  The bare scraps of knowledge that had been all they had brought with them into the postmortal world.  So much had been lost; so much had to be rediscovered.  He knew that his own Earthly era had been one of musketry and gunpowder, of workhouses and manufactories, but who knew how to recreate them?  And no doubt life on Earth had come further still in the intervening centuries.  Newcomers to Haven now told wondrous tales of powered flight and recorded music and electrified imagery, but the new arrivals seemed to know less than ever about how the devices that ran their lives actually worked.  Haven’s level of technology was late medieval at the very best.
            So much of Earthly life had been forgotten.  Not by his enemy, of course.  Ammerman remembered everything, it seemed, including the one bit of information that Ben most wanted forgotten.  And, in truth, Ben remembered more of Earthly life than most.  Far more, in fact, than he let on.
            Ben remembered the whiff of grapeshot and the pounding of cannon.  Ben remembered his cowardly superior, who’d skulked in his tent while he himself taken command, leading their forces to victory, and leaving him with a wound that left him limping for the rest of his life on Earth.  He remembered the coward’s surrogates croaking at one another in the halls of power, undermining him at every turn, denying him every scrap of credit for the victory his courage had won them.  And Ben remembered what he’d done in response, and what it had cost him.
            So now Ben strove every moment of every day to build a new community.  To protect it from all enemies without and within―from the hillmen, and from the one man who could, by speaking two words, bring Ben’s whole world crashing down.  And to facilitate his efforts, Ben had adopted the identity of another, better man.  One of the greatest men of Ben’s day, in fact―a scientist and philosopher, a wit and a statesman, and above all, a patriot.  He’d done it in the hope that, if anyone ever did come to Haven with the requisite memories, his true name would remain unknown.  And oh, how well it had worked.  He hadn’t fooled Ammerman, of course―nothing seemed to fool Ammerman―but in a cruel twist, he had fooled Rosemary.  He had made a fool of the most wonderful woman on two worlds.  She loved him for the man he pretended to be―but if she ever knew his true name, she would revile him as the worst of traitors.
            Staring into the mirror-glass, Ben saw a clean face, and a tarnished soul.  He lowered the razor to the back of his own left forearm.  He gritted his teeth.  Slowly, agonizingly, he drew it across lengthwise, leaving a small, shallow cut.  The very least of what he deserved.
            And then he stopped up the slowly welling blood with a cloth until it coagulated, and he drew down his sleeve over the mark.  Because Haven―brawling, riotous, madcap Haven―had to be led.  Had to be dragged forward into the future.  Had to be protected from itself, and from the designs of its enemies, and from Ammerman most of all.  It was not an easy job at the best of times; he had only the most tenuous grasp of the reins.  But there was no one else.  So he would maintain appearances.  And he would fight a new war, on a new world, against the enemies of his community.  But he was under no illusions.  He could fool the world as to his nature.  But he could never fool himself.

Ben stared into the mirror-glass and hated.  Because no matter how long he stared, no matter what face he wore, the man staring back at him would always be a traitor.  And no matter whom he pretended to be, no matter what name he took, his true name would forever be synonymous with treason.

5: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The position of the sun remained unchanged as Will and his companion―Buddy, Will had named him in a fit of giddy, flight-induced madness―darted outwards and inwards, first towards The Light, then away from it.  The sun and the stars in the background shone steadily, permanent, immovable.  Those, however, seemed to be the only fixed points of reference.  The planet beneath them, Will quickly learned, was not a constant at all; a few seconds’ journey towards The Light was enough to dislodge it from reality, to leave the two of them floating in empty space. 
Will was outbound, face towards The Light, chasing his companion, when Buddy suddenly disappeared from view.   Pulling up short, Will was surprised to discover that the stars had disappeared as well. To his left and right, above and below and in every standard compass direction, there was nothing but inky blackness.  Even outwards, The Light seemed dimmed.  Wow.  I can’t see my hand in front of my face.  Of course, that’s nothing new...
Back inwards, Will thought.  Retrace our steps.  Earth’s the only landmark; Buddy will be headed back that way.  Of course, to this point, Buddy’s been anything but predictable.  That Immelman he pulled back there would have broken my back, if I had a back to break.  Still, he’d have lost me long ago if he’d really been trying to…
Will thoughts brought him to a sudden halt.  An “Immelman.”  It’s named after a German pilot.  It’s a sort of midair U-turn with a roll.  I know this.
But I have no memories.  So HOW do I know it?
His reverie was interrupted by the sight of a dull glow, shining feebly through the dark cloud straight ahead.  He pushed forward, grinning inwardly.  Nice try, Bud.  Tag, you’re it…    But as he grew closer to the light, Will began to realize that it wasn’t Buddy he was chasing.  This wasn’t a human soul’s light at all, but something altogether new.  This glow was sharper than the one in his torso; it was piercing, penetrating, and had the same hypnotic character as The Light itself.  It, too, promised peace, serenity, union.
Will felt his senses dulling as he focused on the new glow, his thoughts suffused with a low, droning buzz.  The source was just ahead of him, a grapefruit-sized globe, darting about, bobbing and jiggling erratically.  What is it?  A piece of The Light itself?  What happens if I grab it? 
As he moved in, Will spotted Buddy in his peripheral vision.  He was just inwards, his dim glow growing in the darkness as he drifted towards both Will and the shining globe.  Will shifted position to make himself visible to his companion.  As he did so, the globe passed directly between Will and The Light.  Behind the sphere, silhouetted perfectly, he caught a glimpse of a massive, dark shape.
Will reacted without thinking, darting aside and inwards, as the globe was suddenly yanked upwards and out of view.  There was the colossal THUD of something snapping shut just behind him, dispersing the inky blackness in an explosion of force.
Will glanced back and outwards.  Six feet’s worth of face stared back at him through milk-white beady eyes.  A jaw protruded, gaped wide, dagger teeth lancing upwards preposterously beyond the confines of rubbery lips.  In front of the thing, extending on a strand from the center of its forehead, dangled the glowing globe, casting its already frightening features into a harsh moonscape of glare and shadow. 
As quickly as he could, Will darted between the creature and Buddy, hoping to draw his friend’s attention to the threat.  He needn’t have bothered; Buddy was already away, cutting downwards and outwards at top speed.  Unfortunately, the creature had noticed Buddy as well.  It thrashed a fluked tail, somehow propelling itself forwards in the void, its massive, bulbous, fish-like form gaining momentum as it chased him down.
With a flash of pride, Will noted that Buddy had picked up some tricks from him in their time together; he was a much better flier than he’d been when they’d met.  Nonetheless, he was a newcomer matched up against a creature in its native element, and this was no time to be a fish out of water.  The thing was gaining on him, steadily and unmistakably.  Will pursued the two of them outwards, The Light full in his face as he flew.  It seemed to him that he understood Buddy’s plan―it hunts in darkness, move towards The Light to scare it off―but emerging from the black cloud and into standard space didn’t seem to deter it.  The two of them had joined the traffic of eternity; they were among thousands of souls moving towards The Light, and among them Will could see more of the fish-things, feeding.  As he watched, one of the monsters easily caught a soul from behind, the soul’s torso light exploding in a violent burst as the creature snapped its jaw shut.
Buddy was quicker, more difficult prey, but the predator was locked on and closing fast.  And now it was on him.  With a desperate burst of speed, Will closed on the two of them, flashing across the beast’s field of vision just as it was opening its maw.  It flicked its head in Will’s direction at the last possible moment; he darted up and aside, then straight down and further out.
Will put on more speed.  The thing was tailing him now.  He was faster than Buddy―no doubt of that, as Buddy was losing ground of the two of them―but Will was far from sure that he’d prove fast enough.  His concentration was stretched to its limit.  He did a barrel roll down and right, plunging ever outwards―
―and an entire planet flickered into existence, filling the space below him, and was gone almost as quickly.
Will spun back inwards, The Light at his back.  There was the planet again, a massive continent of unfamiliar shape below, green and brown, surrounded by a vast blue sea.  The haze! he thought, remembering Earth and the electric, itching mist that had forced him away.  The haze will drive it off!  He arced into a steep dive, straight down towards the planet’s surface. 
Will glanced back.  The thing was right behind him, Buddy a dwindling speck in the distance, still chasing.  This had to work, or he was done for.  He steeled his mind for the hideous itching, crawling sensation that would surely arrive at any minute.
He plunged, amidst the roaring noise from the planet’s atmosphere, a falling star this time.
Any minute now.
He was at the edge of his willpower.  His nerves were fraying.  He sensed jaws opening behind him, and discovered that he still had a bit of extra speed left after all.  He couldn’t have been more than a mile above the surface now, and he could see individual features of the terrain―the wide curve of a river, trees like silver matchsticks.
Any minute…
Through the terror that filled Will’s mind, a sickening realization.  There’s no haze here.  This wasn’t Earth, but another world entirely; the air was clear, and there would be no mind-burn to drive off the predator behind him.  He had to think of a new plan immediately.  Below him, the ground was a blur.  He caught the shapes of green, grassy hills, bare expanses of flint and sandstone―creeping figures―
walking figures?
Will executed a hairpin turn in an instant, quick as thought―no mass means no momentum―and bought a few precious moments as the creature skidded off at an angle, adjusting.  Another dive, desperately searching the landscape for what he thought he’d seen.
And there they were―tiny at this distance, but with a definite shape―unmistakably two-legged and upright.  People?  No glowing―not souls, but flesh-and-blood people?  But there was no time; the fish-thing was back on his tail, descending behind him and gaining.  Will angled lower, into a shallow river valley cutting through the hills, and up ahead…Are those huts?  HousesIs that building alongside the river a mill?
Will tried another hairpin turn, but by this time his pursuer was onto his tricks, and it bought him virtually no space at all.  He had no more new tactics to throw at it.  He was out of time.  He was almost low enough now to read the expressions on the faces of the people―and yes, they were recognizably people―he’d seen below.  A whole community of them―a collection of ramshackle structures overlooked by a high cliff, atop which a figure pointed in his direction.  Will heard the distant, tiny echo of a shout.  First several figures, then perhaps a dozen, began scurrying about, antlike.
On top of an otherwise nondescript hill not far down the valley, a sudden fire blossomed.  Will fled towards it.  At the base of the hill he spotted a wildly gesticulating figure, beckoning him downwards―and towards a narrow fissure in the rock.  He plunged.
As Will approached the fissure, two thoughts struck him.  The first was that, even if he could get into the crack, the thing behind him would merely turn around and gobble up Buddy.  The second realization, as he passed the point of no return, was that the crack―no, not a crack, a cave mouth―wasn’t narrow enough to keep thing from following him inside.  He was headed full speed towards a dead end.  But he was committed; it was too late to turn aside…
As he flashed through the cave mouth and into darkness, he heard a crashing thump behind him, then a bellowing roar.  Making a mockery of inertia, he stopped dead on the spot, and turned.
The fish-thing was grounded, caught in the thick ropes of some kind of net, weighted at the corners with heavy stones.  Three figures, two men and a woman, all of them dressed in rough garments of leather and wool, were wrestling with the net’s edges, shouting wildly.  The beast was taking no interest in them whatsoever; its beady eyes were fixed upon him.  Will was thunderstruck.  It’s not made of soul-stuff.  The fish-thing is tangible.  And they’ve caught it.
As he watched, a powerfully built, dark-skinned young man leaped down into the cave mouth.  In both fists he wielded a harpoon, jagged dark metal with a bone shaft.  With a roar, he plunged it deep into the thing’s right eye.  A geyser of green, inky fluid gushed forth.  The monster emitted a croaking, shuddering squeal―such a tiny noise from something that big―thrashed, flailed, subsided, deflated, died.
Outside, in the bright sunlight, Will could barely see the dim glow of Buddy as he streaked downwards towards the cave mouth.  Pulling up short, his companion hovered, seemingly uncertain.  Will’s rescuers took no notice.  After making sure―very, very violently sure―that they had finished off the fish-thing, they hurried into the cave, their eyes searching.
The first inside was the huge figure who’d wielded the harpoon.  He blinked, his eyes adjusting to the gloom of the cave after the bright sunlight outside.  His eyes scanned the darkness, then alighted on Will.  He can see me.  Behind the man, Will saw Buddy enter the cave, then move to interpose himself between the dark-skinned giant and Will, as if to protect him.
The muscle-man’s face was hard, his tunic speckled with the fish’s greenish ichor, his hands covered in it.  His eyes flicked to Buddy, to Will, back to Buddy, alert, weighing, appraising.  He turned and shouted over his shoulder―in perfect English, his accent flat and unmistakably Midwestern American.  “Two!  Holy crap, two!  Frank!  Orson!  Antonia!  There’s two of them!  Go get Ben!”
As one of Will’s rescuers sprinted away, the other two moved forward to flank the harpoonist.  The one on the left wore a dirty beard, a thin stubble of brown hair cropped close to his head.  As he advanced, he wiped a wicked-looking iron knife on the leg of his buckskin trousers, leaving a greenish smear, then tucked it into his belt.  The one on the right was a woman―tall, lean, tanned, her limbs all corded tendon, her long dark hair dangling behind her in a tight braid.  She displayed a stone-headed maul in front of her, braced diagonally across her body.  Each of the three figures had the eyes of a killer; if he’d had to pick, Will supposed the woman was the scariest of all.
The three of them looked Buddy and Will over for a long, quiet moment.  They shared sidelong glances with one another―and then, in an instant, all the tension left their bodies.  Wide grins split their features, the bearded man’s smile demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that dental care was not a local priority.
The huge black man’s smile was the widest of them all.  Now that Will had a good long look at him, he realized that he wasn’t actually a man at all.  He was weathered, to be sure, but for all of his bulk, he was far younger than Will had initially thought.  He’s actually not all that much older than me.
The man―or boy―spread his arms wide and opened his bloody hands.  “Welcome!” he shouted.  “Welcome to Elysium!”

Half a mile down the valley, a tall, bony man sat at a workbench, making minute adjustments to a crossbow.  His eyes were locked on the device, his brow furrowed in concentration.  A heavyset Asian man was addressing him.  A casual observer might have thought that the tall man was too focused on his task to be listening.  The observer would have been mistaken.  The tall man was used to dividing his mind between many tasks and to giving each his full attention simultaneously.  He was even more used to being underestimated by casual observers.
“As far as I can tell, Mr. Ammerman sir, that’s the whole story,” the second man explained.  His posture was deferential, his voice quiet and low.  “The two of them rocketed into the Redoubt, and did not emerge again.  Nor did the psychovore.  And in the interim, both Ben and all of his key stooges have gathered there.  It may be worth investigating.”
Ammerman never looked up from his project.  “Nope,” he said.  “Believe I’ll bide my time on this’un, Takashi.  Thanks for lettin’ me know, though.  Yer a good man.”
Takashi bowed low and turned to leave, then turned back for a moment.  “If I may be so bold, sir…”
“No need to ‘sir’ me,” the tall man replied.  “Prefer if y’ didn’t, truth be.  Yer a free man.  Don’t owe nothin’ t’ nobody.  Remember that.  An act th’ part, y’ wanna run with me an’ mine.”  He looked up, regarding Takashi with eyes of iron.  “F’r a free man, boldness ain’t a may be.  It’s a must be.”
Takashi stared for a moment, then stood a bit straighter.  “Then it shall be,” he stated.  “Mister Ammerman, then.  I meant to say…I saw them, on the way in.  And the first of the two souls was, by some margin, the fastest that I have ever seen.”
His eyes having returned the weapon in front of him, his hands busy again, Ammerman nodded.  “That’s what I been told by others as well, Takashi.  Best believe I’ve made note of it.  An’ we’ll get around to it.  Matter o’ fact, when the time comes, I reckon he’ll come to us.”  He paused.  “When th’ time’s right.  Not b’fore.”
Takashi nodded, and silently took his leave.  Ammerman continued his work, his hands moving quickly and surely over the weapon’s every mechanism.
A casual observer would not, of course, have been able to see into the mind of John Ammerman.  But if she had, and if she had been able to work her way through the elaborate, trap-filled labyrinth therein, through all the blind alleys and backchannels, to arrive at the very center of his thoughts, she would have seen a single message written there, in letters of fire.

This could be the one.

6: Opening Presence

            New arrivals!
            Jason knew he was grinning like a fool, but he just couldn’t help himself.  As grateful as he was for the protective embrace of Haven, it was only so large, and there were only so many people to meet.  For anyone who was as fascinated by people as Jason, that was a hard burden to bear.  So on those rare occasions on which outsiders arrived, he had a tendency to jump in headfirst. 
            New souls!  New friends!  They WILL be my friends, right?  I mean, they have to be!  I mean, they don’t HAVE TO have to, but…I saved them from the psychovore!  I mean, yeah, I lost my temper again, but…I saved them!  That’s gotta count for something!  And that one was FAST!  Wow, was he fast!  I wonder who they are?  I mean, yeah, probably they’re old people, almost everybody is, at first, but still…wow!  I wonder if they’ll be my friends?  I wonder what they’re like?
            In another world, in another life, Jason had been the sort of person who snuck downstairs on Christmas morning and unwrapped his presents early.

New arrivals.
As Ben regarded the two lights in the center of the cave, his mind ground through the possibilities.  Two new arrivals, less than a month after the attempt by the hillmen to infiltrate us in exactly this same fashion.  They couldn’t possibly be so stupid as to try the same trick twice, could they?  Could these actually be Imre and Delia?  Unlikely.  When those two left us, they were still very much alive.  And very much in possession of information about Haven’s layout, and its defenses.
The odds are against this being an infiltration.  Still…two of them at once.  That doesn’t happen often.  And where there is companionship, there is always the possibility of conspiracy.  This will have to be handled carefully, lest it become another wedge for John Ammerman to exploit.  Still…he has provided me with the exact mechanism I need to control the situation…
In another world, in another life, Ben had been the sort of person who carefully inspected his Christmas presents for improvised explosives.

New arrivals...
The older of the two men in front of Will was thickly built, tending a bit towards plumpness, but moved with the easy grace of an athlete.  He had strong features and thinning hair.  Torchlight from the cave walls reflected off of his pale gray eyes as he regarded Will and Buddy.  Of the dozen or so people who’d been in and out of the cave in the last half hour, he was easily the oldest.  He wasn’t yet forty.
And, more to the point, he’s a human being with a physical body, Will thought.  They all are.  And the majority of them speak recognizable American English.  How is that possible?
The older man turned to the huge black boy who’d rescued them.  “So, Jason…the psychovore chased them down here?”
“Sorta.”  The young man could have snapped the older one in two over his knee without a second thought, yet in his presence their rescuer was deferential, perhaps even a little bit intimidated.  “Buck was on top of Greta’s Bluff, and he spotted the heartlight over the river not far from Phillip’s farm.  He sent word to light the signal fire, and I guess it guided them in.”  His eyes lit up.  “My God, Ben, you should have seen them fly!”
The older man gave Will and Buddy an appraising look.  “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,” he ruminated.  “We’ve had new souls arrive before.  We’ve been generous towards them.  And on occasion, our hospitality has been taken advantage of.  We must remain vigilant.  Still…to bait a psychovore?  To risk not merely a single bodily incarnation, but one’s very soul?  The hillmen may take life more lightly than we do, but not that lightly, I think.”
Will was completely bewildered.  Are they still speaking English?  I mean, okay…the fish thing that chased me is a “psychovore”, apparently.  I get that.  But…hillmen?  An “incarnation”?   If Will had had a head, it would have been spinning.
As Will fumbled with his thoughts, the conversation raced on ahead of him. “Trust me, Ben, I’ve got a good feeling about these two,” Jason exclaimed.  He licked his lips, then continued.  “Besides…I mean…we can’t just put everybody through the wringer, right?  I mean, everybody’s been new in Haven at some point.  Everybody needs help at first.  Like you and Rosemary helped me.  You remember what it was like.  They’re probably scared, and confused.  We gotta help out.  I mean, it’s only fair.”
The black boy was wide-eyed, his expression open and sincere.  The older man’s expression was more calculating.  “Fairness is an elusive concept in time of war, Jason.  Your kindness and your trust do you credit.  But is blind trust the right approach under these circumstances?  What do you think Mr. Ammerman would say?” 
Jason’s lip curled in contempt.  “I could care less what that ba-”  He caught himself just in time.  “…what that man thinks.”
“And yet there are those who do care about his opinion, Jason.  Whether we like it or not―whether we like him or not―he was right about Delia and the other spies, and we were wrong.  And as a result, the community has chosen to insist upon his protocols for new arrivals.”  Once again, Ben turned his full gaze upon Jason.  Jason was the taller of the two men by, at a conservative estimate, eight inches; with Ben looking him in the eye, it seemed to Will, he physically shrank in stature.  “John Ammerman and I have had our share of fallings-out, to put it mildly.  You and I may not care much for the man.  But that’s just one more reason to make sure that we’re not made fools of again.”  Ben turned again, regarding Buddy and Will with a jaundiced eye.  “How confident are you in your impression of these two, Jason?  Confident enough to run the risks involved?  To do what is necessary, if it comes to it?”
Jason stood, twisting his hands, eyes downcast.  At length he spoke, albeit in a small, tremulous voice.  “I…I guess so, Ben.  I’ll…I’ll sponsor them.  If that’s what it takes.  I’m just saying…”  Jason swallowed, then seemed to grow in stature, to gain six or seven years of age in the space of a sentence.  “…everyone deserves a chance, you know?  A chance to be loyal.”
Ben stood silent for several seconds, looking up at the boy.  Then he nodded slowly.  “I agree.”  He clapped the boy on the back.  “Go tell Mr. Ammerman.  He will be skeptical, I am sure.  When is he not?  But the system is of his design, and I am sure he will abide by its terms.  The risk is yours.  Be sure that you do not take it lightly.”
Jason’s smile burst out again, irrepressible.  As he turned to go, however, Ben raised a finger.  “Jason…we’ve been ignoring something rather obvious.  These two didn’t arrive on Elysium of their own volition, but were chased here.  There is every reason to think that they were seeking The Light and found themselves diverted.  They may be here against their will.”
Jason’s expression crashed momentarily, but then went strangely solemn.  “You’re right.  Hadn’t thoughta that.”  He stared at the two heartlights; Ben turned in their direction as well, addressing them directly.
“I hope you will forgive my cohort and me for our insufficient hospitality.  These are somewhat trying times in Haven.”  He cleared his throat.  “There is much to explain.  I fear that the conversation must by necessity be rather one-sided, and I recognize that you may well have grander priorities at present than listening to a foolish old man.  Still, let us start by attempting to establish a common tongue.  Do you speak English?  Please bear in mind that Jason and I, in our current form, can see nothing of you but your heartlights.  Please bob up and down once for yes; I will take the absence of motion as a no.”
Will lifted himself off of the cave floor, then settled back.  Off to his right, Buddy did the same.
“Excellent.  That will simplify things considerably.  There are speakers of many languages here in our community, but we find that the preponderance of those who discover Haven are for some reason native English speakers.  It has become our lingua franca―which is, I suppose, a paradox,” he said, flashing a sideways grin.
“In any case, I must congratulate you on your escape.  The predator pursuing you was, as you may have gathered, a psychovore.  Though itself a tangible being and,”―here he gestured to the cave mouth―”fortunately, a mortal one,”―Jason smiled at the comment―”it feeds off of soul energy, which is to say, the energy of the will.  It is one of the few things we know of which can actually kill a soul―which is to say, extinguish the otherwise immortal aspect of a human being.”
“You will have discovered, shortly following your earthly demises, the Axis of Eternity, the direction between worlds, at one end of which lies The Light.  Having seen The Light, you know its appeal.  Its inexorable pull.”  Ben hesitated.  “We of Haven…and more broadly, all of us, all over this world of Elysium…we are souls, like yourselves.  We lived mortal lives, as you did, and died.”  Another pause.  “But we are exceptional in one respect.  Almost all souls choose to enter The Light immediately after they die.  Jason and I, and all of those who have chosen to inhabit this world, are different.   There is something in us that resists unity with The Light.  Not eternally, but temporarily.  We feel…unready.”
Ben’s lips shut in a tight grimace.  “Why?  Who can say?  Some think it may be a moral failing in us, that our souls are somehow damaged or broken.  I have heard it said that Elysium is Purgatory, though I myself do not believe our afterlife here is so harsh as to merit that description.  Others think that we are simply made differently.  In any case, when a soul such as mine or Jason’s resists The Light’s unifying call, it wanders in the four dimensions of space―the three normal dimensions, and the Axis of Eternity as well.  Over time, many such souls find Elysium.  We sojourn here.  And then, when we feel ready, we move on, to become one with The Light, as is our destiny.”
“Jason and I, obviously, are no longer disembodied spirits.  We have chosen to undergo the difficult process called Incarnation.  We live again as mortal men, and as such, we are blind to The Light and to the axis which contains it.  You might say that our community, Haven, is a community of ‘lost souls.’  Not evil, mind you, but lost.  Or, to use my beloved Rosemary’s phrase, ‘rogue souls.’”  Jason gave a nod of affirmation.  “The two of you, however, may not be like us.  You did not seek Elysium, but escaped to it.  Such an event is rare.  Few who attract a psychovore’s attention possess the means to evade it.  In fact, I cannot say that I know of any present member of our community who arrived in this manner.”
A long, pregnant pause.  “If you were en route to The Light at the time you were attacked, you need not await my permission to resume your journey.  Jason will agree, I am sure, that you owe him no debt.”  The boy’s face was sad, but he nodded agreement.  “By all means, go forth, with our blessing.  Perhaps you will find God behind The Light; who can say?  No one who has gone into The Light has ever returned.”  Another pause.  “Or, if you choose…you may remain here, on this world.  You may seek any of the other communities of Elysium, travelling in spirit form.  Or, if you choose to respect the rules and practices of Haven, to contribute to the common good, to share with us what scraps of the mortal world you remember, you may stay here.  We will assist you in the incarnation process.  You will be a full member of our community.”
“And as a full member of our community, you will be under Jason’s sponsorship.  By which I mean this:  if you harm our community, both you and he will be accountable.”  A longer pause.  “And if you betray our community to its enemies, Jason will bear the responsibility of killing you, as often as necessary.” 
As often as necessary?  Will looked Jason over.  Had he thought Jason had the eyes of a killer?  Certainly, Jason had murdered the psychovore willingly enough.  Yet, as formidable as he was, there was a gentleness there as well.  Perhaps even a touch of naiveté.  He could kill a man easily enough.  But WOULD he?
“The choice is yours,” Ben concluded.  “Again, please recall that we cannot see anything of you except your heartlights.  If you wish to leave, then we wish you a safe journey.  If, however, you wish to stay, please signal that desire by bobbing once.”
Will hovered in place, reflecting.  I’ve been cast adrift in an uncaring universe, without even memories to guide me.  I know thousands of words and facts, but I have no idea how I know them.  About myself as a person, I know virtually nothing…except that I’m the sort of person who can’t stop asking questions.  But without a body, I have no way of asking them aloud.  Without a body, I have no real shot at answers.  And whoever these people are, whatever they’re after, it’s clear that they’ve got a better sense of the state of affairs in the afterlife than I do.
Besides which, what’s the alternative?  The Light may mean something to everyone else, but it still means nothing to me.  Maybe there’s something wrong with me―maybe I’m what Ben would call “broken”.  If so, this whole community is broken.  Maybe, together, we can figure out why…
Ben had barely finished speaking when Will bobbed up and down.  At that, Will, Jason, and Ben turned their attention to Buddy.  Buddy hovered motionless for some time.  Finally, slowly, he bobbed up and down as well.
Jason’s face exploded again into an exuberant smile; clearly, he wasn’t very good at hiding his feelings.  Ben turned to him and nodded.  “Very well.  Jason, go inform Mr. Ammerman of their decision, and of your commitment to sponsoring them.  Bring Buck back with you as well, if you would; it is time that we showed these two their new home.  Oh, by the way…the other three members of your hunting party are unanimous; they recognize your primary claim on the psychovore’s hide.” 
Jason shouted “YES!”―whether at their decision to stay or at his new trophy, Will had no idea.  As Jason pumped his fist, he exposed a right bicep the size of a cantaloupe.  Will made a mental note:  It would be best not to give this guy a reason to kill you.  But Jason was already on his way out of the cave.  “You won’t regret this!” he shouted, departing.  “You’ll love it here!  You’ll see!”
That left the two spirits alone with Ben.  The older man chuckled, and turned to them again, smiling.  “A very fine young man, that one.  You’ll never meet a more loyal fellow, and his streak of honor runs right to his core.”
Slowly, Ben’s smile faded.  “I say that of his honor.  I make no such claim about my own.   I know myself too well to make such assertions.”
Ben strode over close to Buddy and Will.  He stood perhaps three feet away.  Will could not help but notice that the man was staring, for the first time, not at the glow in his chest, but higher―at the level where, Will realized, Ben knew his eyes must be.  And Will felt, for the first time, exactly why a man of Jason’s stature might shrink in Ben’s presence.
“I hope that Jason is right.  That you will love it here, and that you will make our home your own.  But understand this.  That boy has honored me with his trust.  He has chosen to honor the two of you in the same way.  I am not yet ready to see him lose faith in his fellow man.  And I will not countenance the betrayal of this community.”
Ben’s eyes were the gray of thin ice on a newly-frozen pond, and his voice was the cracking of that ice beneath Will’s feet.  “I meant what I said about him killing you.  It would break his heart, but he would do it.”  He paused.  “But you know now, don’t you, that death is not the last, or the worst, of consequences?” 
“I promise you this.  If you betray Haven, that boy―for all his skill at arms―will be the very least of your problems.”

            New arrivals, thought Buddy.  A dozen of them in the last hour.  Parading through this cave, beating their chests and acting important.  And with the sole exception of that one woman in that first hunting party, every one of them a man.  And weren’t all those men so very, very impressed with themselves?

In another world, in another life, Buddy had been the sort of person whose Christmas presents consisted largely of pink stuff.