The Sleep of the Lion, excerpts

[it begins here]

The city spoke to Madeline Comstock in a strange, muffled voice that night as she walked its empty streets. The Yellow-cabs that usually perched like vultures at the bus depot were gone. In the distance, the fading diesel rumble of a sanitation truck sounded like the city clearing its throat to speak. But the only voice she heard was the staccato clacking of her boot heels on concrete as she strode down the deserted sidewalk. She listened to the echoes of her footsteps from the buildings around her. Even they seemed strange and muffled.

And Madeline knew why, too. For the past three months the city had been alight with fear as police seemed powerless to stop a brutal serial killer. So far, four men had been murdered, their throats slashed, their… um, bodies, mutilated.

###

She tightened her grip on her shoulder bag and studied the buildings. It had been months since Professor Leoniss’ party and everything surrounding that night was a blur in her memory. She tried to remember meeting the professor, his appearance, anything about him, but her memory seemed wiped clean. The only tangible evidence that she had even met him were the two rare books she was returning, tucked into her shoulder bag.

Even the buildings looked foreign and imposing, stretching up into the darkness over her. So much had changed since the night of that party. She checked the note in her hand for the address, found Lion Street, and began counting down the building numbers.

“It wasn’t the buildings or neighborhood that have changed,” she thought. It was her.

###

After the second murder, the media started calling him the “Slasher.” And in the darker recesses of the city where black humor was the currency of conversation, the women arched their brows while the men laughed nervously and spoke in salacious whispers about the “Cock Killer.”

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Uranium, an Element in Crisis

 

Uranium is an Element experiencing a Mid-Life Crisis

It’s heavy, unattractive, and lacking in basic conversational skills. Uranium is a metal, but unlike most metals, it’s soft and malleable and not well suited to being made into anything useful. No one will ever build a bridge from Uranium. Uranium barely conducts electricity. Other metals mock Uranium behind its back. Uranium is drab, silvery-white, almost gray. It’s dull like lead and even denser. In the Periodic Table of Elements, Uranium is the last naturally occurring element listed. The last of its kind, Uranium is a dead-end element. Uranium has a mustache, dyes its hair, owns a Corvette, and hangs out at roller rinks. Uranium is a mid-life crisis element.

Atomic Structure and other Boring Facts

The nucleus of an atom is made up of protons and neutrons. Nobody knows why. Protons are an atom’s DNA. The number of protons in a nucleus determines what an element is. The difference of just a few protons can be all the difference in the world. For example, Gold has 79 protons and who doesn’t like Gold? Gold is popular with the other elements, lives in the nice part of town and can afford to send its kids to the best schools. But add just a single proton to Gold and it becomes Mercury, a deadly poison, an undesirable character, an element you wouldn’t let your daughter date. Of course, this is just in theory. Even nerdy scientists in lab coats can’t figure out how to change one element into another by just adding a proton. Imagine if they could! They’d be rich! Does Armani make a lab coat?

Neutrons are the other thing in the nucleus of an atom. No one’s ever seen a neutron, but they seem to be important. For most elements, the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus is in balance. Hydrogen, the simplest element, has one proton and one neutron. Carbon, one of the most abundant elements, has six protons and six neutrons. Balance. Symmetry. These are good things. But as elements get bigger, things start to get out of whack. More and more neutrons are crammed into each nucleus. Argon has 47 protons – 60 neutrons; Lead, 87 protons – 125 neutrons; and Uranium boasts a paunch of 92 protons and 143 neutrons. Uranium is bloated.

At some point, Nature decides enough is enough. There have to be consequences to cramming more and more neutrons into an already grossly overcrowded nucleus. Something has to give. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first A Public Service Announcement.

Uranium, Nature’s Misunderstood Metal

Not everything about Uranium is bad. Yes, Uranium has gotten some bad press over the years, but not everything you read in the papers or hear on the evening news is altogether accurate. Let me set the record straight. When you think of Uranium, what images come to mind? Mushroom clouds? Sterile wastelands stalked by robotic overlords? Horribly mutated, giant rabbits? Well, I’m here to tell you that, despite those frightening misperceptions, the dense silver-grey metal is rather innocuous. I’ll admit that Uranium is a radioactive element. I’m not going to try to hide that fact from you. It’s true, Uranium naturally decays to Thorium, periodically coughing out a Helium atom like some kind of nuclear hairball. But this happens so infrequently. Scientists talk about this infrequency in terms of Uranium’s half-life, or the time it would take for half of all the atoms of a chunk of Uranium to undergo nuclear decay. Scientists like to talk about things in ways that make no sense to non-scientists. They use phrases like half-life and nuclear decay. Nobody knows why they do that. Maybe it makes them feel better about having to wear those dreadful lab coats! Maybe they got beat up in high school a lot. Maybe. But think of it this way – if you had two atoms of Uranium in your hand, in 704 million years, one of them would spit out a Helium atom and become Thorium. And even then (if you were still around and still interested to see what happened) the Helium atom would bounce harmlessly off your skin. Uranium is really a pussy cat that way. 704 million years! That’s a long time. I wonder what scientists will be wearing then.

Fissile (WTF?)

Uranium is the only naturally occurring fissile material on earth. Fissile is the word scientists use to describe an element that will undergo nuclear fission, that process of breaking apart an atom at its very core. Fissile. Nuclear Fission. Scientists think it’s funny to use words like these. Scientists also think it’s funny that certain elements, like Uranium and Plutonium, will undergo fission if just the right neutron comes along.

And this is Uranium’s dirty secret (the one it doesn’t like to talk about even with its closest friends). It’s a nasty, nasty secret: Uranium loves neutrons. Loves them, collects pictures of them, spends hours bathed in the glow of its computer monitors surfing the internet for them – neutrons, videos of neutrons, neutron chat rooms. It’s all sordid and disgusting. Uranium is addicted to neutrons.

Naturally, Uranium denies it has a problem. ‘It’s just fantasy,’ Uranium says. ‘It’s not like there’s even a remote chance of hooking up with any neutrons on the internet’! ‘Besides,’ Uranium rationalizes, ‘most neutrons simply don’t meet my particular standards.’ That’s true enough (as far as it goes). Uranium’s fascination with neutrons is mostly just a fantasy. And Uranium is picky. Not just any neutron will do for Uranium! No, this neutron’s too short, that neutron’s too fat, that one has weird eyes, that one has an annoying laugh… and so on and so forth. Besides, it’s not like there’s any possibility of anything ever happening. Except… sometimes there is!

The Allure of Neutrons

Sometimes a neutron comes along with just the right features, just the right jiggle, just the right kinetic energy. Uranium tries to play it cool, tries to be aloof, but Uranium is only kidding itself. It’s only a matter of time before Uranium makes its move. After all, an element can only control its urges for so long. Uranium and the neutron make eye contact, the neutron smiles demurely. Uranium introduces itself, they dance, they touch, they’re unable to control themselves. You can imagine the rest.

At first there’s excitement and heat and intense vibration just like Happy Hour at a Holiday Inn. Uranium feels fulfilled, completed, and wildly excited. You don’t need a lab coat to figure out what’s going on here! Uranium and the neutron grope each other like Sudanese wrestling lizards in heat. There’s a sloppy, drunken kiss. It’s impossible to tell where Uranium stops and the neutron begins. But before either can ask, “My place or yours?” there’s a blinding flash, a incandescent instant that explodes like bar lights after last call, and the whole thing tears itself apart in a burst of heat and light and radiation and possibly restraining orders.

The Breakup, E=mc2

Albert Einstein may have been the first person to say, “Breaking up is hard to do.” The breakup of the marriage between Uranium and the neutron is spectacular! In an instant, both Uranium and the neutron cease to exist. In a retina-searing flash of heat and energy, they become two completely different elements – Cesium and Strontium.

Cesium and Strontium try to get by as best they can, but things are stacked against them. They can never measure up to their parents. Something is missing. Scientists will tell you that if you add up all the protons and neutrons in Cesium and Strontium, they don’t total up to those in the original Uranium and its neutron. Some of the proton and neutrons are missing, turned instantly into energy. Scientists call that the mass–energy equivalence and (if you give them half a chance) will gleefully explain to you about Einstein’s famous E = mc2 equation which shows that the energy (E) released in the breaking up of Uranium is equal to the weight (m) of the missing protons and neutrons multiplied by the speed of light (c) squared. Nobody really understands what that means but it is a huge amount of energy. Uranium is obliterated, split into two lesser elements, and part of its mass is just missing. It’s like part of Uranium’s possessions were dumped in its front yard and set on fire. Fission is a bitch.

Children of the Apocalypse

Uranium’s problems are over, but you know it can’t end there. Divorce is always hardest on the children. The same is true of the divorce of Uranium and its neutron. The once harmless and perfectly normal Uranium atom is gone, changed by its neutron dalliance into Cesium and Strontium, unnatural elements vomited out of the fission breakup loaded with emotional baggage and the psychological scars of intense radioactivity – gamma rays and x-rays. Scientists like gamma rays and x-rays in the same way some people like rubber-necking at bad traffic accidents. They’re attracted to the perverse. But the damage done by the fission break up is irreparable. Before the break up, Uranium was just an element in crisis, lonely, overweight, dull and soft. Neutrons were its only love and, even though Uranium couldn’t control its unhealthy obsession with neutrons, it was safe. You could hold it in your hand. You might even have felt sorry for it. But after the breakup – after fission – the damaged children Cesium and Strontium are too much for anyone to handle. They’re sociopathic, they disrespect authority, and they’re so destructive they would kill you dead in seconds. It’s all the same to Cesium and Strontium. They’re dead inside. And they’ll stay that way for millions of years. Even scientists find that heartbreaking.

Powerless Flight

“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight – how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating.”

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

The summer I was fifteen, my father read Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The short tale of a seagull’s rebellious pursuit of the joys of flight captured his imagination in a way I was too young to understand. He began talking, especially in the evenings as he drank, in uncharacteristic and sweepingly poetic ways about the freedom of flight and finding one’s true destiny in life. At fifteen, I was too young to be cynical but I had a vague feeling that this change in him had more to do with the echo of angry voices rattling through our house late at night than it did with any book.

My older brother Tom told me in whispers the truth of the things I could only imagine when I buried my head under my pillow at night. Soon enough the divorce, and both my parents’ drinking would make it all too clear, but at the time I only knew that the book had reawakened in my father a desire to fly which he wanted to share with me that summer. I never considered, and unlikely could not have understood, the feelings my father might have had, whatever demons he might have been struggling with; I only stared out the passenger window as he drove me to glider lessons at the small airport in Endwell, watching the Susquehanna River wind its way beside the road, flanked by rolling hills, thick and green.

###

A pilot performs a pre-flight check as a safeguard against regret. Walking around the plane, a laminated check sheet in hand, the pilot observes, handles, and tests the critical components one-by-one: the landing wheel axle cotter pin; the wing strut bolt safety wire; the rudder, aileron, the elevator control linkages. The pre-flight check is thorough – as thorough as necessary to prevent regret at six thousand feet. The pilot completes the checklist with that thought in mind.

###

My father was an experienced pilot. I remember as a boy standing with my mother in the apple orchard behind Richard’s Funeral home in Owego, watching him practice take offs and landings in a single-engine Cessna in the field beyond. I was too young then to understand my mother’s apprehension, or appreciate the dark cynicism of learning to fly in a field behind a funeral home. To my young heart, the plane swooping in over the trees, dipping to just brush the grass with its wheels then arcing back into the air, was a simple and thrilling experience. I watched, in the scented shade of apple trees, as my father flew like the birds slipping silently overhead.

###

A glider has no engine or any means of propelling itself into the air and relies on a tow plane to pull it aloft in a ballet of follow-the-leader at the end of a two-hundred foot tow rope. The glider feels awkward and ungainly as the tow plane begins to pull it down the grass runway. Its wings struggle to generate lift, the pilot grips the stick tightly to keep the tips from dipping and dragging along the ground. The glider’s single landing wheel hops and jostles, transmitting each harsh bump with jolts that shake the entire plane. As the speed builds up, the glider comes into its own; the control stick feels lighter, the wings more responsive until – only part-way down the runway – the glider is flying.

###

When I was in college, I lived with my father for a few months in a trailer he rented near Richard’s Funeral Home. He had nearly burned his house down in a drunken stupor and needed a place to stay. The time I lived with him there was the only time I remember him not drinking. His sobriety, born of fire and nurtured by three months in an intensive care unit, seemed incongruous to me. I was glad he wasn’t drinking, but he seemed unsettled and we would often watch television together in an impenetrable silence. Like his sobriety, the trailer was temporary.

###

The tow plane is heavier than the glider and requires more speed before it can lift off. The glider floats behind, ten feet off the ground like a kite, pent up, pulling its string taut, waiting to be released. The glider pilot concentrates to keep from climbing higher and lifting the tow plane’s tail, driving its propeller disastrously into the ground. But the glider is stable, and unless the cross-winds are severe, it glides patiently until the tow plane at last springs into the air and begins the sharp ascent to the release altitude.

###

I remember watching the evening news once in the trailer with my father and being overtaken by the feeling that something strange was happening just outside the periphery of my vision. If I turned my head suddenly, I thought, I would catch whatever it was. I looked at my father cautiously and was startled to see that he and I were sitting in exactly the same posture – slouched in our respective chairs, right ankle crossed on left knee, chin cradled in left palm, left elbow propped on an armrest. It was striking, like an unexpected reflection in a mirror. I wondered if that meant I was destined to be like him.

###

Once released from the tow line, the glider begins to fall at a rate determined by its glide ratio – the horizontal distance it will cover for every foot it falls. A typical training glider has a glide ratio of 22:1, meaning that for every foot it falls, it will glide forward twenty-two. From a tow to three-thousand feet, the glider will glide almost twelve miles. In order to extend the flight, the pilot searches for “thermals,” currents of warm, rising air strong enough to carry the glider upwards. Cultivated fields, empty shopping center parking lots, warmed by the summer sun, are areas where thermals may form. An experienced pilot searches the sky for hawks or eagles, wings outstretched, soaring in slow spirals, buoyed up in the rising shafts of air and points the glider in that direction. By mimicking the soaring birds, a flight can be extended. But only for hours, not forever. One way or another, gravity always wins.

###

For the longest time, the word that came to mind when I thought of my father was the empty and aching word regret. Regret is something a son shouldn’t feel towards his father. Regret is toxic to the human soul. It seeps and festers. It’s corrosive.

###

Landing a glider is a lesson in the inevitability of gravity. Giving up the pursuit of thermals, the pilot heads towards the airport in a gentle descent, losing altitude while gaining speed in a series of turns describing a mile-wide rectangular pattern around the airport – the landing pattern. Each corner of the pattern is defined by landmarks on the quickly approaching ground: the housing development at the bend in the river at 1000 feet, 50 miles per hour; the waste treatment facility beside the airport at 500 feet, 60 miles per hours; streaking over the end of the runway at 100 feet, 70 miles per hour. The glider arcs down gently in a parabolic curve, the ground reaches up to meet it, the two nestle into each other.

###

The regret I felt about my father is mostly gone now. Regret’s a hard thing to live with for long and finds its way out of a body over time. But sitting in the viewing room of Richard’s Funeral Home in 1985 with just my brother and sisters, my wife and a few friends, struggling with an uncomfortable lack of grief for my father – a man who had determined to drink himself slowly to death – I realized that whatever relationship I had with him existed from that point on only in my memory. There would be nothing I could do to change any bit of it. Whatever faults he had, were in the casket with him. Whatever thoughts or hopes I had, whatever angry words I wished to take back, whatever emptiness I felt for moments not realized… There was no longer anything I could do to change any of it.

Somehow knowing that then, and accepting it even now, dulls the regret enough to make it tolerable. But I don’t know if I will ever fly again.

THE END

They Eat Their Young

The Wizard of Oz played on the TV as he typed on his laptop but he wasn’t paying much attention. He was onto something good. A good story. It had been weeks since he had a good story idea and in just thirty minutes he had written something decent, start to finish, in one sitting. He carefully re-read the last paragraph and stretched his palms to the ceiling to relieve the tension in his shoulders from hunching over his laptop. He’d be much more comfortable in his office upstairs with his office chair, large LCD monitor, and ergonomic keyboard but the monitor in the twins’ downstairs bedroom was broken and if they started acting up he’d never be able to hear them from his office. And lately–since they’d turned four–they had been acting up often. So he could either hunch over his laptop on the coffee table in the living room or not write at all.

And not writing at all wasn’t an option. The broken baby monitor was only item #68 of a very long list of household deficiencies that he had no hope of rectifying unless he could finally write some stories that paid. He was sure the baby monitor was precisely item #68 because his wife was rigorous in preparing and numbering the list and she reminded him of it daily. She also reminded him daily of the assembly line job in her father’s trinket factory that was waiting for him whenever, as she put it, he “gave up this stupid dream of being a writer!”

Lions

The words on his laptop went out of focus and he shook his head to clear his wife’s voice from his thoughts. On TV, The Wizard of Oz was over and a nature program was on. The camera panned slowly across a golden African plain, then zoomed in on a dark clump in the grass that appeared to be moving.

“When a cub is born,” the narrator intoned gravely, “The mother will begin at once to nurse, unless she suffers from some deficiency. Here a long drought has deprived a mother lion of her normal prey and water. Malnourished and dehydrated, her body is no longer capable of producing milk.”  The camera zoomed in even closer, almost miraculously, on a tiny lion cub, its eyes barely open, as its mother batted it aside. “Without it’s mother’s care, this cub will soon die.”

Tigers

He looked at his laptop and grunted distractedly, then settled back to watch the rest of the program.

“Elsewhere,” the narrator continued as a jungle scene appeared, “A female tiger and her cubs are caught in a tragic power struggle.”

The camera followed a young adult male as he warily circled a mother and her brood.

“This tiger’s mate has been ousted from the streak by a younger, stronger male. Almost immediately, the victorious male will kill, and often eat, any of his rival’s cubs. These nursing cubs will not survive. There is nothing the mother can do about it and perversely, when she comes in heat again, she will willingly mate with the very male who killed her cubs.”

And Bears

He closed the screen on his laptop, his story now forgotten. On TV, a scene of a deep forest came into view.

“It’s not always just Nature and circumstance that are the cruelest,” the narrator said. “Here, a black bear, whether through instinct or insanity or simply discipline taken to the extreme, has picked her cub up by the scruff of its neck and carried it far away from the den. Each time she does the cub returns, sometimes days later, only to be picked up and carried away again. Eventually the cub does not return.”

Oh My…

The pitiful mewing of the bear cub was interrupted by a loud thump coming from the twins’ bedroom. He paused the TV show and listened. The thump was followed by laughter and a crash, like an entire shelf of books being dumped from the bookcase in their room.

He went down the hall and listened outside their bedroom door. They weren’t napping, but that was okay. Weeks ago, he had turned the bedroom door knob around so that the lock was on the outside and they couldn’t escape. He thought he was being the cool dad by telling them that they could play when their mother was out running errands and they were supposed to be napping, as long as they played quietly.

Another loud thump against the bedroom door startled him. He heard more laughing and the sounds of things being thrown against the wall. They were definitely not playing quietly. He put on his pissed off dad face and opened the door.

For a moment, he couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. He tilted his head, puzzled. His son was standing on the bed arms raised, naked and somehow painted white from head to toe. His brown eyes stood out sharply against his whitewashed face, his expression one of surprise. His daughter appeared in the corner of the room like a chameleon slipping out of its camouflage. He hadn’t seen her at first because she, also naked and white from head to toe, blended perfectly into the corner of the room where the walls had become white in thick hand streaks of what appeared to be paint. His pissed off dad face morphed into one of pure confusion, then shock and horror as the scene he was witnessing began to make sense.

The storage cupboard at the bottom of the changing table was pried open and the door hung awkwardly on a broken hinge. A half dozen empty jars of diaper cream lay strewn about the room. Thick, white handprints of greasy Desitin were everywhere.

The twins, after their initial surprised looks, which to him seemed more looks of annoyance at being interrupted than looks of guilt at being caught doing anything wrong, resumed their revelry like wild aboriginal dancers, laughing gleefully, spinning and jumping, flinging their toys and books about the room, leaving greasy, white, indelible prints on everything they touched.

008

His shock dissolved into mute numbness. His face went slack. He backed out of the room and closed and locked the door. He sat on the couch and stared at his laptop. His wife would be home soon, he knew with dread. He pondered the grim calculus and apparent parental wisdom of lions and tigers and bears.

 

004

002

 

Memories of Ligea, (excerpt 1)

CHAPTER 1 – Winter

To Tomas Stillman, it seemed that winter was the craftiest season. Winter didn’t announce itself to his senses like the first fragrant blush of spring; or invite his body to play like summer, with warm breezes across his shoulder; or even, like its closest cousin fall, bid his heart safe rest within a panoply of colors. No, Tomas Stillman was convinced that winter was a creeping season and for nearly fifty years he had been surprised each year as it crept in slowly, the result, he was sure, of some perverse derangement of the universe.

Ligea

It wasn’t that he didn’t know that winter had always come; he could mark its coming on the calendar. He knew with a elemental certainty that it followed the course of the other seasons, like night following day and death following life. But its coming had always slipped unnoticed, unheralded into his soul, like days flowing along a dark river of time until something struck him. It could be the paler cast of shadow on the sidewalk as he walked along. It could be a brief flash of memory like an unremembered photograph, or a snippet of unintelligible conversation overheard like a falling melody. When this might happen he could never tell, though he knew with inevitable certainty that it would each year. Still, there was something in his makeup that resisted the idea and he went on about his life ignoring it to the best of his ability. Inevitably some arrangement of random details would fall together like tumblers in a vault and the idea of winter would open within him.

Conrad, (excerpt 4)

Fiona spends her days inside the dwelling waiting for Lydia to return, carefully obeying her Guardian. Sometimes, if she has been obedient and completed her lessons without complaint, her Guardian lets her play outside, providing the sun is strong enough to light the corralled play area behind the dwelling but not so strong as to hurt the Guardian’s eyes. “Dim eyes,” Fiona says to herself, in the pedantic tone she uses when she pretends to correct her Guardian.

Today is brighter than other days but despite Fiona’s protests, the Guardian says it is too dark. Fiona knows when her Guardian makes up her mind, she is as intractable as her size is formidable.

Portrait of Myself

Undergrowth with Two Figures
Undergrowth with Two Figures – Van Gogh

Two faceless figures stand in a wood. Yellow white flowers swallow our feet.

I awake, longing for the dream, to suckle it. The composition of shadow and color a beguiling perfection. Only there can figures be that cannot be. Only there can rootless trees fence us in. Only there can flowers sway from yellow to white to yellow with the breeze.

I listen for your breath in measured moments beside me. I long for your warmth. My suitcases where you put them by your closet, edges in a tidy line, whisper, “No.” Beside the bed I see your neat swirling handwriting on the note.

Please don’t make this harder for me.

Your Van Gogh print stares from across a room drained of color.

Before I pack, before I look through closets and dressers and cabinets for the bits and pieces, I will leave you a gift. A painting as yet untitled. A memento of a relationship even a cage of trees could not contain.

My arm is a brush. My hand soft camel hair stroked to a point. My torso a palette. I dip my hand into me, swirl color. Brown tones of entrails, a smudge of bilious green smeared with pale pink of skin, white of bone. The soft blue of my eyes. The bright crimson of heart.

The brush flies throughout the room returning color. Then, with a deft stroke, I erase the figures from the print leaving only trees, swaying yellow white flowers. And shadow.

On your pillow I paint a final image. A disconnected ear, to listen for your soft breath.

THE END

Conrad, (excerpt 3)

Lydia steals glances at the Overseers in the guard towers that jut up regularly overlooking the compound, breaking the monotony of soot-stained walls comprising the boundary of the compound. The towers seem to glow against the dull metallic sky. The dying daylight glints against the giant Company logos on the side of each tower. Lydia’s eyes come to rest on the emblem of the nearest tower, a white triangle standing on point on a shield of black. The emblem is white and bright and in complete contrast with every surface it adorns. At times, Lydia recognizes the glimmer of beauty that must have once been accorded the symbol. At times, she sees its artistic aspect, its symmetry, its contrast of color and shape, beautiful like something she saw as a child in a picture book.

Conrad, (excerpt 2)

[a longer section of this is posted here: https://thedailydriverblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/conrad-excerpt-5/]

Lydia

Lydia watches through a hole in another factory wall as a wood cutter in a courtyard beyond swings his axe in swooping arcs against a splitting block. Waning sunlight glints from the blade at the top of each swing, a silver blur striking Lydia’s eyes. She flinches as the axe finds its mark and wood explodes in the thick cloud of breath expanding around the wood cutter in the frozen air.

The wood tumbles and thuds in the snow. He gives a furtive glance as his big hand scoops up the logs and tosses them onto the pile behind the furnace. Lydia hears another man on the other side of the furnace, hears him talking loudly and throwing the split wood into the furnace. Logs thump into the furnace in measure with the wood cutter’s axe.

Conrad, (excerpt 1)

 

“From hills to seas to jagged mountain steeps, no truer truth exists than the company you keep.” Anonymous, c. Early 21st Century

“It is better to be useful and to work than to be free. For work serves mankind while freedom serves only man.” The Company Manual, page 16

Conrad sits at a gray corner workstation in a factory filled with gray workstations. From where he sits, rows of them stretch away on diagonals into the expanse of the factory. Massive incandescent bulbs glow high overhead, tainting the factory air yellow. Conrad gazes over his work lenses and the straight lines of the workstation rows seem to bend and shimmer like a mirage in the distance. Men sit at the workstations, each dressed like Conrad in gray coveralls, shirt, cap, and brown boots. Aside from their faces — and the markings on their caps denoting their work groups and hierarchy — there is nothing to distinguish one man from the next.

Power stanchions stretch up from each workstation like thin, black arms and disappear into the tangle of cables, beams, and blackness in the factory’s tall ceiling. At regular intervals among the stanchions, glowing signs mark sectors of the factory floor in a coded pattern of diagonal marks and hashes. At every workstation, the Company logo — a black shield with a plain white triangle like an inverted A — glows in the corner of a liquid crystal display panel. Surveyors in black coveralls patrol each sector, peering over the shoulder of each worker, tapping magnetic pens against electronic clipboards, completing checklists.