Grey Search

Chuck’s challenge this week: Random Titles.

I found my title — Grey Search — and after banishing thoughts of Gandalf fan-fiction, the only thing left clanging around in my brain was Grey Goo. I ran a little long, but I’m cutting myself a break in favor of the interesting world this found me in.

So…

Photo by Ian Norman @ Flickr.

Photo by Ian Norman @ Flickr.

Grey Search

Another day, another foray into the Grey.

I scrub up and haul on the lime green bodysuit, stuff my feet into triple-poly thermal boots, strap on the insulated mitts so thick and stiff they’re like big yeti paws. I don’t bother to check myself in the mirror: I already know I look perfectly indistinguishable from the others on my team, suiting up in their own clean rooms.

The redundancy is tedious, but chances are not worth taking.

I double check my seams and tromp down the hallway to the airlock. I breathe the canned air deep into my lungs; it’s been recycled so many times, it’s hard not to smell the stale farts and garbage in it, though the utility squad assures me that’s just my imagination. Still, it’s better than the bland, window-cleaner smelling brew they outfit the enviro-suits with. It resists contamination longer, they say. But it turns my stomach something awful.

Satch and Virge are already in the airlock, masks in place and suits pressurized. They look like a pair of Stay-Puft marshmallow men. Manx waits by the terminal, her fingers flying over the keyboard, probably reconfiguring the daily power allowances for the core. We used to have three people handling that job around the clock, until Manx got her hands on a computer and showed the council she could do the same job in a third of the time, by herself. That kind of usefulness in a place like this means you stay busy. It’s a big deal, her running Control for us.

“Bout time, Deel.” She doesn’t look up from her code. “You’ve got the Grade 3 suits today for maximum time in the field. Eight hours of pure air and another four if your purifiers hold.” She finally looks at me, arching an eyebrow under her mousy brown bangs. “Try not to push it, though.” She cut her hair. Looks almost normal again. Hasn’t looked so — happy isn’t the word — all right since Danny got caught out a few months back. I tell her it suits her. She tells me to get my mask on, then presses the button at my wrist to pressurize my suit.

The ambient world disappears with a hiss and a click. My ears pop, and I breathe in the window-cleaner-scented air.

“Big day today,” Virge’s voice crackles in my ear.

“Just come back safe,” Manx says, pressing the last few buttons on the terminal. She retreats through the airlock hatch and the door whooshes closed behind her. Red flashing lights. Klaxons. Then the far wall opens up and the sunlight spills in. We throw up our gloved hands to block out the sun, then glance at each other and trudge out into the Grey.

#

The suits are heavy, but the air feels light today. Clear skies. Endless azure stretching off into the distance, meeting a solid line of grey at the horizon, grey which continues all the way back to our feet. Can’t even see Installation 17 behind us any more. Been a long time since anybody ventured this far out.

Since Danny, we all think, but nobody says.

“Any sign yet?” Virge asks, her voice not particularly hopeful.

Not that he needs to, but Satch checks the scanner. “Not for a few miles yet.”

We plod on in silence.

#

It’s impossible to tell in the suit, but it almost looks like there’s a little breeze out here, blowing little wisps of grey dust around in swirling eddies.

“You guys see that?” I point as a fine, pale mist washes across our feet.

“Is that … wind?”

It’s too much to hope for, but there it is. There hasn’t been wind or weather since the world went Grey.

“If that’s wind…” Satch takes his time. He knows the danger of hope. “Then Danny might have been right.”

Virge knows better. “Right or not, he still died out here. Like we will if we get caught up chasing wind.”

“We should get a sample of that dust,” I say. Because if there’s still wind, then maybe the island is real, too. I’m an idiot for thinking it. The island is a myth, a fairy tale. Some land out there in the wastes, untouched by the Grey, unclaimed by it. Something in the air that keeps it pure. A place we could live like humans again.

“Stick to the mission,” Virge barks.

Satch stops walking. “Virge. You know what it could mean.”

“What I know,” Virge stops as well, pulling up right in Satch’s face, “is that Deel’s already picked up some bugs.”

She points. We look. There’s a faint steam rising from the toe of my boot.

“Shit. How long?”

“Just the last twenty minutes or so. Nothing to stress about.” She fixes Satch with a steely look. “But let’s not forget that time is a factor. Besides. Any sample would just be goo by the time we got it back.”

She’s right, of course.

#

The sonar pings are getting closer and closer. Danny’s tracker. The tiny transmitter encased in a shell of ultra-dense, non-reactive alloy. If we’re lucky, it’ll be all that’s left. I’ve seen my share of humans consumed by the Grey. Flesh goes quick, but the bones can resist for a while. They look like skeletons made of ash.

#

Danny’s just a bump in the goo. Wouldn’t even know he was there if not for the pinging of the sonar on Satch’s tracker. But here he is, at our feet. My boot is smoldering steadily now, up to the ankle. It’s lucky we found him — I’ve only got a few more hours to get back before the bugs got through.

Usually we’d draw straws before digging into the goo, but I’m already contaminated, so before anybody can argue, I plunge my mitts into the muck. It’s weird, the goo — solid as a rock underfoot, but dig into it or stand still for too long, it’s like riverbank mud. Goopy and sticky and awful, and I try not to think about whether I’m rooting around in Danny’s chest cavity or his skull. Then I feel it: a solid little walnut buried in the sludge. I pull it out, hold it aloft, grin through the fog in my mask.

“Let’s head back,” Virge says.

#

Our gear goes into the incinerator, and I get an extra-long hose-down. Two layers of my boot and most of the glove-arm of my suit was chewed up and crumbling away by the time we got back. Still, I get the all clear.

Manx sits in Control, staring off at something invisible about five feet in front of her. Her eyes are kissed with red and puffy. She looks like a marionette somebody threw into a chair. I sit down by the door and make a big deal of not looking at her.

Finally she speaks.

“You found him.”

“We found him.”

“He recorded a message in his tracker. If he was telling the truth, his feet had already gone Grey and he knew he wasn’t going to make it.”

Knowing Danny, he was probably a lot worse off than that, but there’s no sense saying that to Manx. “Did he find it? The island?”

Tears well in her eyes again, and I know I shouldn’t have asked. The island is too much to hope for.

“He found it.” And Manx looks at me with the wrong emotion in her eyes. There should be joy. We should be celebrating, calling the council, hell, sounding the all-call. But she looks dead inside. “He found it, but he was already contaminated, and he brought the Grey with him.” She bites back a sob. “We destroyed it, just like we destroyed everything else.”

I pat her shoulder a little aimlessly, but there’s nothing to say. I wonder if the council will spread the word that Danny found the island.  Probably not. We’re all dead anyway, but at least we can pretend we have something to live for.


Weekly Re-Motivator: Island Escape

I posted a few days ago about having a “down day”, and my wife pointed out that what I was feeling was a perfectly normal bout of depression caused by being locked in close quarters and basically chained at the wrist to two tiny humans without hope of respite for all of my waking hours and most of my non-waking ones.

In other words, this happens to stay-at-home parents. Apparently. And seeing as I’m a stay-at-home dad during the summer months, apparently it was an inevitability that I would be so stricken. But there is hope. Because this week, we’re heading out to a literal island for some much-needed time away.

Okay, so it’s maybe not an island like you think of island paradise. It’s just a barrier island in humble Georgia. But still, it’s a landmass surrounded by water, and we all know the therapeutic effects inherent to the open sea (something something waves, something something ocean breezes, something something sunset shattered and reflected millions of times in the soothing waters). Also, we’ll be just a stone’s throw from Savannah, so there will be lots of ghosts hanging about.

Also, sharks. If you’ve been watching the news, you’ll be well aware that there have been something like fifteen shark attacks on the Atlantic coast this summer. In fact, this morning’s news packages on the attacks bore so much similarity to the film Jaws I just had to shut the thing off. “All these attacks keep happening up and down the coast, and we’re coming up on the July 4th weekend… these beaches are going to be packed.” And all I can think of is a sleek dorsal fin gliding through the water with a harsh orchestral score behind it, and me fighting the urge to shout we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

But more important than avoiding becoming a sharky snack, I’m going to use the time to noodle a bunch on the project. Because despite my halfhearted jubilation and dutiful self-back-scratching over reaching the halfway mark, the project has some problems. Bugs in the batter that need picking out. Knots that need untying or cutting or being burned at both ends. Cracks in the mortar that need spackle or patching or that need to be opened right up with a jackhammer. And the only way to really come to a decision on problems like that — the only way to really see what’s functioning as intended and what’s fargoed beyond repair — is to take a step back, get a bird’s eye view, and take a good, long, look. Hike back out of the trees to get a look at the forest.

Image by Katerha @Flickr.

Image by Katerha @Flickr.

And while a week away won’t do that for me — the thing’s not even finished, so I can’t do a proper big-picture analysis — it’ll help. Just like every now and then on a road trip you have to pull over and check the map, when working on a big project like this you need to build in time to catch your breath from it, to let it sit and settle before you go back to work.

I don’t yet know if I’m going to work on the novel over the week away or not. Part of me says that the vacation is primo writing time, and I should take full advantage of it. Another part of me says that vacation is vacation is vacation, and maybe I shouldn’t even bring the laptop with me.

Well, maybe I’ll just bring it to write a blarg post or two and send up a few pictures of sunsets.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


51%

I don’t update a whole lot about my projects on here anymore — I can only say the same things about authorial strife and creative doubt so many times before even I get tired of listening to myself — but the current project hit a milestone.

I was typing merrily along today, the words flying from me like so much projectile vomit from my one-year-old’s mouth (okay, that’s a lie, the words have been tooth-yankingly recalcitrant lately, springing forth only when I literally shackle myself to the desk and allow myself to do nothing but write), when I happened to glance at the progress bar.

Glancing at the progress bar is something best done rarely if at all. When you’re penning a 90,000 word novel that seems to be fighting your will to birth it into the world (sort of like, I imagine, the way a honey badger might be born), checking your overall progress is a little bit like watching paint dry. That is, if you left the paint in the can and just waited the long winter for it to congeal into a paint brick. It ticks away, slowly, resolutely, like an inchworm shimmying its way down Route 66, but I’m lucky to get 2% in a day. Some days, it doesn’t move at all, even after an hour’s slavish work in the word mines.

Nonetheless, today I checked it, my eye flopping inartfully across it like a cat falling off the arm of the sofa as it stretches for the fading noonday sun.

And it was at 51%.

Over halfway.

That’s shocking to me, because even though I know the time has been passing, and I’ve been dutifully plugging away on this project all the time, it just hasn’t had the same flow as my first project. If the first project was a traipse trough a neglected, overgrown garden — mostly clearing brambles and weeds but occasionally strolling through patches of still-blooming wildflowers — this project has been more like clear-cutting a path through the rainforest to make way for an interstate bypass. Using a hand axe. I feel every sluggish, seemingly ineffectual stroke of the axe-pen.

Still.

51% is a pretty good milestone. One worth bragging about, going into the weekend.

51% is like, I’ve rebuilt the shell of a classic Mustang in the garage, now all I have to do is put the engine back together, reassemble the transmission, rewire all of the electrics, replace the tires, and paint the thing.

51% is like, I’m making a pot luck dish for fifty of my co-workers and I’ve been to the grocery store, now all I have to do is prep the dish, cook it, portion it up neatly, wrap and seal it, and carry it in to work.

51% is like, I’ve cleaned one bathroom in the house, so I might as well clean the other bathroom, and the living room, and the kids’ bedrooms, and the garage, and maybe take down all the blinds that the cats tore up a year ago.

51% means the story is more written than not, and it would be a damn shame not to A) acknowledge that fact and B) really fling myself into the writing of it for this second half.

The pieces are all there. The characters are all there, and behaving as expected (or, if not as expected, at least teaching me how they would prefer to behave). The answers to the questions posed by the first half of the book are lurking in the mist like razor-sharp cliffs and rocks, shapes to be carefully navigated around as I search for the harbor.

Only 44,000 words to go.


Write Anyway

Some days, the writing sucks.

Like today. The kids were up way too early. The sun hasn’t come out all day, so it’s like the world never really woke up. It’s literally obscured by smoke that has blown in across the country from wildfires in Alaska. The house is a wreck and I have no drive to clean it.

In short, I feel like crap, though there’s nothing physically wrong with me.

When I got the kids down for a nap, all I wanted was to close the light-filtering curtains, crank up the white noise machine to drown out the noise of the cats crashing around in their midday shenanigans, and join them in dreamland for a blissful hour or so. I was feeling completely exhausted, bone-crushingly uninspired, will-sappingly unmotivated, and in short like a total waste of space. (I won’t call it Writer’s Block, because I firmly believe that Writer’s Block is just a fancy way of saying that I am not responsible for my creative ability. Writer’s Block can last for years. It’s a crutch. It’s a way of hiding from the work you really want to be doing. Fargo Writer’s Block.)

But I wrote anyway.

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And I felt better.

It damn sure wasn’t my best work, but upon reflection, it probably wasn’t my worst, either. And the house is still a mess, and my son is cranky because he peed the bed, and my daughter is clinging to me like a tick to the underside of a particularly furry dog because she fell asleep way too late. And there are dishes to do and toys to pick up, and the world still feels kinda sharknado-ey today.

But there are always these days. The kids are always going to find reasons to be cranky or jittery or whiny or loud or awful. The house is always going to be messy or in need of repair or stinky from last night’s dishes I didn’t wash or the trash I didn’t take out. There will always be days when the weather sucks, when my mood sucks, when the world itself seems to want you not to write. Or, you know, whatever your thing is. Life and the world will get in the way of your thing.

But today I wrote anyway, and I feel a little better.

Because I really want to be a writer. And if I’m not writing, then I’m not a writer.

Photo by Ramiro Ramirez @ Flickr.


Every Single Night (A Broken Bedtime Routine)

Kids are smart, yeah?

My son is so smart, he’s running the house right now. He hates bedtime. Going up to his own little room while there is still life happening downstairs absolutely crushes him. He has crippling fear of missing out. And he has learned how to twist his fear to take advantage of ours.

See, his little sister goes to bed about an hour ahead of him, which he’s fine with. Her room is across the hall from his, and… well, let’s just say the walls are pretty thin. You can easily hear another person talking on the other side of any wall in the house, let alone screaming. So when we put him to bed, he screams.

We’ll come to what he’s screaming about in a moment, but the takeaway is, we feel incredibly hamstrung. Intellectually we know that giving him any sort of attention for the screaming only reinforces the behavior. On the other hand, every second we let him go on screaming is another second that might wake his 1-year-old sister, and coaxing the baby back to bed is a taller order than convincing the boy to do the same. (Also, if she doesn’t get enough sleep, she can seriously put the screws to us the next day.)

So, my wife is losing sleep, and I’m losing sleep, and bedtime is now one of the most stressful times of day. It takes upwards of an hour to get both of the bundles of joy down to sleep, and putting big brother down is a recursive process that seriously drives us to distraction every single night.

Which brings us to what he screams about. This is really best described as a series of steps:

  1. I announce bedtime. He screams because he doesn’t want to go to bed.
  2. I threaten to carry him upstairs to bed. (This works because he is at the age where he wants to do everything himself). He relents.
  3. I tell him to brush his teeth. He screams because he doesn’t want to brush his teeth.
  4. I say, fine, come get dressed for bed. (This works because he really does want to brush his teeth and he doesn’t want to miss out on an excuse to noodle around in the bathroom for five minutes.) He relents.
  5. We read a book. These days it’s a seek-n-find the differences between pictures book of all his favorites: Cars, Toy Story, that kind of thing, but whatever it is, he only wants to read this one book for weeks at a time. This makes him happy.
  6. We sing some bedtime songs in the rocking chair. This works, because he loves to sing.
  7. It’s bedtime. I crawl into bed with him, because this is what he demands, and tell him he can have the usual five minutes. For five minutes, there is peace.
  8. Time to go. I get up. He screams because he knows he’s about to be on his own, which he can’t stand. I tell him I’m not listening to this nonsense: it’s time for bed. I leave the room and listen to him scream for about five minutes or so, hoping to god he won’t wake the baby. He’s screaming about one of these things:
    1. He wants his door cracked.
    2. He wants a stuffed animal.
      1. But not the stuffed animal he has with him, a different one that’s across the room.
    3. He wants to read another book.
    4. He wants to rock some more.
    5. He wants his door closed.
    6. He wants me to lay down with him again (if mommy was the last one in the room).
    7. He wants mommy to rock him (if it was me putting him to bed).
  9. He might reuse and rotate these excuses, but he’ll use them liberally just to get my wife or myself back into the room. He’ll work his way down the list, strongarming us into coming back to his room three or four times over before he spots the inadvertent eye twitch or pulsing blood vessel in my forehead that tells him the gig is up.
  10. He asks for a kiss in the most pitiful way possible, gets it, and rolls over to go to sleep.

Again, I know that indulging him is the wrong thing to do, but I really think he’s figured out that we have to see to him to keep from waking up the baby.

The three-year-old has outsmarted the college-educated adults.


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