Creative Coaching

It’s not inspiring or beautiful, at least not in a conventional way. It’s not what anyone wants art to be about. It ultimately serves a greater purpose, but in a way that feels as draining as it feels empowering.

What is the obligation of the artist to speak to real issues, especially where suffering, injustice and oppression are concerned?

Speaking candidly, I don’t know that artists are obligated, per se. If you don’t feel pulled toward an issue, I see no reason to force yourself to address it. Conversely, if you do feel pulled toward an issue but recognize that it’ll be tough to tackle, that’s not a great reason to avoid it.

In my own writing, I sometimes gravitate toward what I know is controversial ground. Maybe not to the world at large, but to some of the people in my own life, at the very least. In those cases, I’d rather be hated for telling the truth than loved for lying.

And, yeah. I know. Not everyone perceives failure to tell the whole truth as deception. I’m too honest for my own good.

I’m also reminded of this quote, which I’ve adapted to better suit the times:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”

– Edmund Burke

I can’t deal with every evil in the world. My art can’t address every injustice. I don’t have the time or energy or (frankly) arrogance to even try.

But when an injustice pulls at me, and when it feels like it fits something I’m working on, I run with it. I assume that’s Vye tugging on my sleeve, urging me to use my gift, feeble though it may be, to attempt something good.

That’s what I do.

What about you? Do you think artists should take a stand? If so, to what degree? And when?

Flash FictionI wish I could write like this all the time.

Not the style or the content of the story. The process.

When I started this, all I had was a vague idea of a feeling somewhere between sorrow and rage. Hardly the basis for any kind of plot.

But I went with it. I let the feeling flow and I took a step. Then another. The scene unfolded and before long I was gliding along a river, carried by a current I didn’t even know was there until it swept me from an eddy and propelled me downstream.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to write like that.

It was nice. More than that. It’s been a rough week, and I needed the catharsis of this specific writing session. It was like the universe saw my need and gave my muse a little jolt.

Vye delivered, as she does when it matters.

As for the story, I like it. I hope you do, too. But as is always the case with fiction, there’s more going on than the tale. Even if this particular piece is pure shit (I don’t think it is), I’m grateful for the experience.

Also, I rarely say anything here about world events or political matters. I tend to regulate that kind of thing to my personal Facebook wall where it’s nearly guaranteed to piss someone off.

However, I’m heartbroken today. There’s been far too much violence in recent weeks, from the Orlando nightclub shooting, to unexplainable events earlier this week in Minnesota and Baton Rouge. And then, last night, tragedy hit close to home right here in Dallas.

My struggle to understand the senseless violence that resulted in multiple fatalities at a peaceful protest is part of what fueled my rage when I sat down to write. I doubt I’ll ever understand what drives people to think violence is some sort of answer.

It never is.

Whatever your views or opinions on political matters, racial issues, gun control, and a host of other hot buttons, please, please, please make this a time to set aside differences and recognize that our nation is clearly sick. We will only find recovery in unity.

Let’s find a way to stop the violence.

That’s not much of a segue into fiction, but it’ll have to do.

Peace to you and those you love. Sympathies to the victims of recent violence everywhere.

that feeling

My veins are on fire. There’s pressure on all sides, and I’m not sure if I want to hit something or cry.

So I scream.

Not a polite little yelp, and not the kind of shrill cry for which horror vixens are known. No, this is guttural. It’s deep and rough. Spittle flies from my lips as my jaw opens impossibly wide. I can feel the origins of it deep in my torso.

I push until there’s no air left in my lungs. They’re far more empty than any cleansing breath I’ve ever taken during some damn yoga class. I pause before the inhale and it feels like time has stopped.

There’s Jonas. He’s got the business edge of a knife pressed against Yara’s throat. Blood beads along the gleaming blade where it bites into her skin. He’s grinning like a predator, all teeth and hungry eyes.

Yara is the picture of peace. She trusts me more than I can understand. This isn’t the first time she’s been perilously close to death, dependent on me to save her. Even as the first wave of pain hits, she blinks like a cat bathing in the sun.

Saskia’s there, too. She and Jonas are inseparable. I can never tell if he goads her on or if she goads him. Either way, they are the Molotov and the match. The combination is bound to be destructive and difficult to contain.

My eyes are fixed on Yara’s neck, but the entire room is open to my field of vision. It’s like I’m looking at it through a panoramic lens. Jonas and Yara are about five feet away, dead center. Saskia’s a little further away and to Yara’s left.

I can’t get to both of them at the same time, leaving Yara in a tough spot.

To make matters worse, I don’t have any more magic left in me. While it’s not literally true that magic drains some kind of life essence, it’s exhausting. To the best of my knowledge it’s never been studied in a proper setting, but every caster I’ve ever known has a breaking point.

The heavier the spells, the faster we run dry.

I’ve been slinging some high caliber stuff. That’s how Yara and I got in the building to begin with. The plan was to rely on my hexes to get us in and her fieldcraft from that point forward. I mean, we’re only here for information. We didn’t expect to run into these two. They’re supposed to out for at least another two hours.

And that’s when it hits me. Barlow sold us out.

The rage finds me. Or I find it. I can feel it in my forearms. A crazed moron with a genuinely creepy grin is about to slice Yara’s throat like a piece of over-ripe fruit, and that’s all kinds of not okay.

Time kicks on again, but in super slow-mo. I begin to move without realizing I’m doing it.

I’m no ninja. Yara can disarm a man and slip into a shadow without making a peep. I have a hard time remembering which direction my own front door swings — in or out. But something primal takes over.

It’s like Yara is manifest in me. I half expect to glance to the side and see her, right there beside me in the driver’s seat of my mind. She’ll give me that cocky little smile and nod. No words. Not her style.

I inhale and step forward at the same time, drawing air into my lungs and pulling myself into the room. Jonas has his gaze fixed on Yara’s delicate skin. Saskia’s too cool for school. She’s rolling her eyes. You know, because killing someone in cold blood is so last season.

Neither of them see me coming.

Two long strides and I’m practically on top of Jonas. My arm slips under his and separates his knife hand from Yara’s throat just as the first drops of blood greet her collarbone. Twisting, I pull the blade away from her and push my opposite shoulder into Jonas with all my body weight behind it.

All 120 pounds.

Oh my God. Fuck you. 142 pounds. Happy?

Jonas is off balance. He tips and I recover. The knife drops and I catch it on its descent, something I would never be able to do if I thought about it first. Saskia is reaching for a small vial on the table to her left. I don’t know what’s in it, but it will probably melt my face so all I can think is, Don’t let the bitch get the bottle.

With a quick flick of my wrist, the knife slips from my hand into her side, finding a new home in the space between two of her lower ribs. Jonas hasn’t even had time to register the pain of hitting the floor ass first.

I decide to help with that and give him a quick little kick.

Return to normal speed.

Jonas grunts. Saskia moans and topples backward into a chair. She’s bleeding and he’s dazed, but it’s not likely either will stay down for long.

“Let’s go,” I say, reaching for Yara’s hand.

She smirks. “You get to have all the fun.”

But she knows I’m running on fumes, so she takes my hand and pulls me down the hall and out the same sidedoor I literally charmed off its hinges barely 10 minutes before.

That feeling. Veins on fire. Pressure. It lifts with a popping sound and I almost pass out in the passenger’s seat of her shitty little Chevy.

My eyes are closed, but I can hear the sound of the road. Park to the tollway. When we’re moving fast, I breathe slower. She pats my leg and nudges me.

“That was impressive,” she says.

“I had no idea what I was doing.”

“But you did it. Thanks. Only…” her voice trails off.

“Yeah?” I ask.

I can feel a headache coming on. That happens when you do too much magic. Or when someone you care about almost dies for the amusement of a psycho.

“Stick to your spells. Next time I’ll handle the wetwork.”

“Deal,” I say. “Hey, can we get a shake? I feel the need for sugar.”

“Sure,” she says, and she turns on the radio. Bieber’s voice greets us like the harbinger of hell. Yara flips the station faster that I can utter the request.

“And that’s why I love you,” I whisper.

We drive away into the night in search of dairy drinks, having only narrowly avoided a complete catastrophe.

But, you know, the weekend’s only starting.


Author’s Note:
This story contains violence, and in that sense it may seem like a strange thing to write in the wake of recent events. 
I don’t know how to reconcile that, so I can only ask that you take no offense if you find it disjointed.

I’m primarily mournful, though I won’t deny the faintly burning embers of anger deep within. They’re there, though they’re certainly not pointed at people. I don’t think it does much good to fight hate with hate.

But I want to stomp out this senselessness with all my heart.

Maybe that’s something that resonates with you and maybe it isn’t. Either way, let’s focus on comforting the hurting and healing whatever cultural dysfunction facilitates these kinds of horrible events.

Weird as it may seem, writing this story helped me do that just a little bit. In the end, two people who care about each other drive away having killed no one and without any mortal wounds, themselves.

We should all be so lucky.

 

Flash FictionThis week I’m picking back up on the series I started a few weeks ago. While this is only the third installment, I already feel like it’s overdue for a name.

But I’ve got nothing, so I’ll just have to wait for inspiration.

Or Vye. Probably Vye.

There’s no prompt this time. If you haven’t read the first two parts, you should check out “Trust Issues” and “Still Here” before diving into this one. It’ll kind of make sense without the rest of the story, but you’ll be missing some key info.

As I said in the intro to the first part of this series, this is backstory for a character that appears in a book I’m working on. Or middle story. Her first appearance is before these events, and every other planned appearance will be after.

I have strong feelings toward a lot of my own characters. This one in particular really stands out. She’s a trooper. Brave, strong, smart and absolutely unwilling to lay down and die.

She kicks ass.

So my job is to make sure I tell this story in a way that makes that obvious to you, dear reader. Feel free to let me know how I’m doing so far in the comments.

And don’t you dare pull punches. If something sucks, you let me know.

dubious in dumas

We were in Dumas, Texas.

You’ve probably never been there, but you’ve been to cities like it. Or you’ve been through cities like it. There aren’t many people who actually live in places like Dumas.

It’s small. Small and located in what could justifiably be called ‘the middle of nowhere’. It’s the kind of place that begs the question, “Why is a town even here?”

Like so many small towns in Texas, the answer is a two-for-one: railroads and oil. Hell, the town even survived an honest to God grasshopper plague in the 1890’s.

I swear I’m not making that up. Google it if you don’t believe me.

Right about now you’re asking yourself why I know so much about Dumas. Two reasons. One, I was in Dumas, which means I was bored off my ass. Dumas is small and decidedly uneventful. I have a smart phone, so I read up on the place.

But, two, I was looking for anything in the history of the town that would explain why it attracts vampires. This particular visit was my third, each time hot on the heels of a blood sucker. Gordon said he’d been through Dumas before, too.

Dumas is in the panhandle. It’s a major thoroughfare for folks on their way to New Mexico and Colorado. Vamps might end up there due to nothing more than proximity, but I was dubious.

I learned that from my dad. Look for the patterns.

So far, I was coming up empty. I couldn’t pinpoint anything in the town’s history to indicate even peripheral association with any established vampiric entity. But there’s a reason for everything, and I mean every goddam thing, so I kept looking.

By the time of the morning in question, I probably knew more about Dumas than their mayor.

Gordon and I met at this crappy little diner for breakfast. It was the kind of place that served more biscuits and gravy than anything else, regardless of time of day.

Gordon was fine with that. He’s not exactly a health nut. I was miserable. I tried explaining the concept of an egg white omelet on our first morning in town and was met with a blank stare that was equal parts confusion and horror.

I sighed and ordered my eggs scrambled.

“I think this is the last of them,” Gordon said.

He was probably right. We’d tracked and staked every vampire in the Muerte cult who was north of the border.

And, yes, ‘muerte’ is Spanish for ‘death’. It’s not the cult’s actual name. I don’t think anyone knows their real name. It’s just what we hunters call them.

In Mexico, they’re a real force to be reckoned with. Imagine a full-blown drug cartel with money, secure hide-outs, inside influence over government officials, guns, and…what else? Oh yeah. Immortality.

But state-side they’ve never really thrived. All you red-white-and-bluers probably want to pat yourselves on the back and chalk that up to border control. You’d be wrong. US officials haven’t done much to stop Mexican vampires from crossing the border.

American vampires, on the other hand, have been all over it. They’re a bit on the territorial side. And, of course, there are people like Gordon and me.

“I hope so,” I said.

We believed the last half dozen were somewhere in town, laying low. But three days into our luxurious stay at the Dumas La Quinta and we still hadn’t found them.

“Are you sure about this tracking magic?” I asked.

Gordon was using some kind of tracer spell. He claimed he could track their location within a 5 mile radius. That still left us with a lot of ground to cover, but it was a helluva lot less than the entire state of Texas.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said with a mouthful of carbs. “I’ve been using this spell for years. It’s never backfired.”

“Is that a thing in magic? Spells can backfire?”

He nodded, gulping down the sludge we were assured was coffee.

“You bet. A few years ago there was a noob in New England who tried to hex someone higher up the food chain. Either his target had kick-ass protection or he just got the incantation wrong. Either way, splat.”

“Splat?”

“Quite literally. He got turned inside out.”

“That’ll spoil your weekend.”

“It was a pain in the ass. I was on the clean-up crew. Had to scrub down his entire apartment and wipe the memories of every neighbor.”

“The smell?” I asked.

“And the sound. The transformation was…violent.”

“Ouch.”

I know, I know. It’s not the kind of conversation people should have while eating. But think about what we do. We hunt monsters. You can tell yourself staking a vampire is noble all you want. It’s messy, too.

We were so used to being up to our knees and elbows in blood that the thought of an inside-out human didn’t even stop Gordon from spreading a generous portion of strawberry jam on his toast.

Our agenda for the day was hunt and peck. There were only so many places a small cluster of vamps could hide out during daylight hours. If Gordon’s tracer spell was working, they were still in town, which meant they’d found a damn good place.

We just had to find them.

We finished breakfast, paid the tab, and headed out into the dusty streets of Dumas looking for six Mexican vampires who I believed did not want to be found.

Boy, was I wrong.

Flash FictionI’m not going to lie. My use of two of the words from this week’s 100-word flash fiction prompt feel like cheating. Pairing ‘lemon’ and ‘bun’ was far too easy.

But I followed the rules, so the fact that it didn’t take much effort doesn’t constitute a violation.

Sometimes flash fiction prompts are that way. I’ve tackled prompts that made me feel like a contortionist. The words or specific scene required were so bizarre, so out of the ordinary, that I had to bend in all kinds of directions just to make them fit.

Other times the stuff just flows.

I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. (I don’t really feel inclined to look ANY horse in the mouth.) When it works, it works.

The only thing I really don’t like about this short piece is that it’s nothing more than a teaser. Sometimes I’m okay with that. This week it leaves me feeling ill at ease. Maybe this is a part of something bigger I just haven’t conceptualized yet.

I’m counting on Vye to clue me in.

Regardless, the prompt is from The Prediction:

100 words maximum, excluding the title, of flash fiction or poetry using all of the three words above (‘bun’, ‘imperfect’, and ‘lemon’) in the genres of horror, fantasy or science fiction.

in the details

“It’s the devil,” he said.

He was entirely sincere, and that made his simple proclamation terrifying. The fact that he said it while eating a lemon sticky bun only made the entire situation seem surreal.

He was hunched over a massive tome, a finger of his free hand tracing a line of archaic text written in a language that could have rightly been labeled ‘dead’ even when it was spoken.

“What do we do?” I asked.

He looked up, still chewing.

“We face him,” he said matter-of-factly. “In our imperfection. You know, when I’m done with breakfast.”

Inconvenient Adventure

On Friday, I posted a story.

On Saturday, it was gone.

Completely gone. Vanished. Missing. Very nearly without a trace. It was as though someone or something had simply wiped it from my site.

I don’t know where it went. My hosting service doesn’t know where it went. There were no server errors. No downtime. It just…left.

When I discovered this, I was fairly upset. I liked that story. It was the second installment in a series. I can remember a lot of what was in it, but I don’t know that I can capture the same tone. The conversations, if I try to mimic the originals, will likely sound off. Plus, it was something of mine.

It felt like a friend I’d only just met moved away without a trace.

I cycled through a couple of emotions — grief, sadness and anger were at the forefront — and then I realized it was truly no big deal. It’s a setback, yes, but maybe my next version will be better than the first. Maybe it will go off in a different direction. Maybe Violet took one look at that story and thought, “Oh, no. This won’t do…” and this whole situation is one of her schemes for the sake of the story.

If so, whatever comes next will be better.

And why shouldn’t I believe that? No matter what caused the technological hiccup, whatever I write in its place will be better.

In writing, you can think of the things that don’t go your way as inconveniences. Or you can cast them as adventures. One leads to heartache. The other, to discovery.

The choice is yours.

Flash FictionThis week, something totally different. Think of it as a gift. I’ll let you decide whether or not it’s the literary equivalent of a lump of coal.

A little over a week ago my sister introduced me to the poet Tony Hoagland. (You can check out one of his poems, “Beauty”, here.) His work is remarkable and (quite literally) inspirational. I’ve been toying with the idea of dabbling in poetry again since reading some of his. That said, I haven’t written poetry in years. I won’t make the claim that what you find below is good. Hell, I may be breaking all kinds of iron-clad rules for verse. I really don’t know, and I don’t see myself losing much sleep over it, either.

What I know is this was fun to write, in part because it just flowed. I saw the story taking shape and I didn’t have to do much but allow it. That’s a rare enough treat for any writer, so when it happens to me I never fight against it. I just assume Vye is with me and I go.

As is sometimes the case with my Friday fiction, this one is based on a prompt, courtesy of The Prediction:

100 words maximum, excluding the title, of flash fiction or poetry using all of the three words above (‘vindicate’, ‘paint’, and ‘crow’) in the genres of horror, fantasy or science fiction.

for vindication

Not for justice,
but vindication
painted in crow’s blood across
the milky white of her sun-bleached bones.

Searing red heat burns in his marrow,
a constant cry
robbing him of
sleep,
joy,
release,
relief.
That she should be taken–
he cannot abide this.

He hunts.

With tooth and claw,
with hammer and projectile anvil,
scratching his way from one to another,
introducing each to what he hopes will be a
fitting end.

But it’s not enough.

When they catch him,
blood-sprayed,
red-handed,
he doesn’t fight.
He simply lifts the barrel one last time,
and fires.

Even that brings no peace.

On WritingThere have been periods when stress, anxiety or the general chaos of things has made it tough to write. Even if I have the time, I may not have the emotional bandwidth.

Non-writers don’t know this, but writing takes a toll. It drains you and fulfills you at the same time. Sometimes more one than the other. On average I’d say it’s considerably more fulfilling than draining, but you’re always putting something into it. There is never a time when you go to the blank page, and, like a gambler trying to saddle up to a table without a single chip, risk nothing and somehow walk away a winner. That doesn’t happen.

Nope, you always have to give something to your work, like a sacrifice made to the muses.

But when stress is running high, I find it much harder to ante up. I don’t have the emotional currency in my account. I’m stretched thin, in the words of Bilbo, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” There’s a buzzing in my head all the time. White noise. It pops and sizzles and zings, an electric bedlam that serves as the backdrop to anything else I might be thinking.

Not the best mental state for writing.

And here’s the damnable part. It doesn’t produce writer’s block, at least not for me. It merely slows me down. A paragraph that should have taken two minutes will take 20. I can still work, but the work is tediously slow and so much more draining than at other times. Whatever fulfillment I might normally find is almost completely missing. It’s like climbing a mountain every day only to be swept up in an avalanche each night, unharmed but always delivered back to base camp as if I’d made no progress at all.

So what do you do when your head’s full of white noise? When everyday stresses, both great and small, pull and pick at you, making it hard to get anything done in your stories? It’s not like other emotional states, this mental chaos. Anger you could funnel into your writing. Jealousy or hurt, too. But this, this is like a black hole sucking away your fiction and even your desire to produce it.

I can only tell you what I do. I turn on music, something that soothes me, make a strong cup of coffee, and keep at it. Not with nose-to-the-grind-stone intensity, but at a steady pace. Something I can maintain without getting out of breath. I try to hear past the white noise, listening for Vye’s voice, and I take what joy I can in whatever I manage to produce on such days.

Far from a magic bullet, I know, but that’s why writing is work.

What about you? How do you carry on writing when the interior of your mind feels overwhelmed with the white noise of life?

Haunted

So very true. For the writer, perhaps more so.

It’s tempting to hold back. Ideas flit across my mind all the time that sound insane.

I can’t write that down, I say to myself. I’ll sound crazy! That’s too personal. Too gory. Too dark. Too twisted, too revealing, too intimate.

And then Vye gently nudges me. She says nothing, but I know what that nudge means. The story decides. My job is to write it, not intercept it. Often, I find that in writing, my own issues surface. But they inch toward resolution, too. It’s all a part of the process.

As a muse, Vye gets that. I have to be reminded.

Don’t shy away from subject matter in your stories. Don’t sway to the temptation to pull back. Your fiction will be weaker for it, and you will, too. The things we don’t say haunt us. Exercise them. Say it all.

Don't Do It

I like that quote.

If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, that may surprise you. Once a week, I go out of my way to post something meant to encourage other writers, and that quote doesn’t sound particularly encouraging. (Not at first glance, anyway.)

“Why, Dex?” you ask. “Why rub my nose in it? You know there are days when I feel like I can’t write! For crying out loud, you’ve admitted right here in your own words that you have days like that, too. Vye, back me up here.”

Fair enough. And if I were saying the days when we feel like we can’t write should guide our efforts, you’d be right to call me on the carpet. But that’s not what I’m saying. Not at all.

You can’t jump off a building and soar through the air like Superman. You can’t plan your finances based on the assumption that you’re going to win the lottery. You can’t drink a gallon of milk in less than an hour without puking violently. You. Can. Not.

But you can write.

Listen, if those feelings of inadequacy we feel from time to time were real, if the hours you spend pounding on the keyboard were truly wasted time, then you’d be attempting something you simply cannot do. If that were the case, I’d tell you to stop. What’s the point in beating your head against a brick wall? When I hear that yet another idiot is planning to take the milk challenge, I just shake my head and hope they secretly like throwing up. But writing’s not like that.

If you want to write, if it’s something you feel a deep passion for, then you can. Okay, so you may not be able to write at the level of Faulkner or Tolkien, but doesn’t mean you can’t write. (It also doesn’t mean you won’t one day write at that level.)

What you really need to stop doing is telling yourself you can’t. If that were true, you’d be wasting your time with every keystroke. As it is, each and every word produced makes you a better writer so long as you’re willing to continue to learn, develop and grow, and so long as the passion that fuels your desire to write keeps burning.

If you can’t do something, don’t do it. That’s common sense, folks. But if you can do something, especially something worth doing, you should.

You can write. Get to it.

Flash FictionThis week, I’m taking an unexpected break from The Dark Calling. I wasn’t planning to, but Vye insisted.

A couple of nights ago, I had a vivid dream. I couldn’t remember all of it when I woke, but I remembered enough. It was grim stuff, this dream, but I immediately began thinking through how it might play out in a story. That sort of thing–dreaming a loose-knit plot–has only happened to me a handful of times, but when it does I’ve found it’s worth my time to see where it goes. The first time I wrote down a dream, the story that followed went on to become a trilogy. (In my mind. I haven’t written it yet, but I will. And, let me tell you, it’s going to kick ass.)

So, I had this weird fucking dream, and that, my friends, is the story you’re about to read. I have no idea from whence it came. (Vye is looking at me. She’s giving me that look…so, yeah. I guess that’s where it came from.)

I’ll return to The Dark Calling next week. This week, enjoy the tumble down an entirely different rabbit hole.

everyone’s a killer

The facility was on lockdown, as it had been for 276 days–far longer than any of the inhabitants expected. Completely cut off from the outside world, they had no idea what disaster had befallen the planet. The most likely candidate, most thought, was nuclear war, but it could have been a localized weather event, too. However, had that been the case, surely someone would have rescued them by now. Any guess was pure speculation, but the smart money was on something global.

It could have been the zombie apocalypse, for all they knew

Whatever caused it, the facility’s security system was designed to seal all exterior doors in response to any kind of environment-threatening event. The experiments they conducted were…delicate. Sudden changes to their lab environment could produce unexpected results. Of course, their work also violated a number of international treaties. It was entirely possible that someone outside the facility had hacked the system, triggered a security alert, and was planning to just let them all rot there. Such were the risks in their line of work.

But the inhabitants of Golf-Echo-November 126, the facility’s formal designation, were not planning to simply wait for rescue or death. They were fighters. They would do something, damn it. They would survive.

*          *          *

Carl, Anna, Karen and Scott were sitting in the facility’s small cafeteria, weighing options.

“It’s inhuman,” Karen said. “I don’t think we should even be talking about it.”

Carl rolled his eyes. “I swear to God, Karen, if you use that word one more time, I’ll put a bullet in you, myself.”

“Calm down, Carl,” Scott said. “She means it as a figure of speech.”

“No, I don’t,” Karen clarified. “I mean it quite literally. Any anyway, you’re the one ‘swearing to God’, for fuck’s sake.”

“Now that is a figure of speech. No one ever means it literally,” Carl said.

“I bet Pharaoh meant it when he set the Israelites free–right after God killed all the first born sons of Egypt,” Anna said quietly.

Carl shook his head in disbelief. He leaned toward Scott and said, “I can’t talk to them when they’re like this. It’s like they lack the capacity for reason.”

Scott was unfazed. “Reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive. This is an emotional decision. You can’t expect the other three of us to approach it with the same level of dispassion you favor. You’re an alpha. We’re all betas. It’s more complex for us.” Then, to the other two: “But Carl is right. We have to talk about it. The fact is, we’re out of food. The store room is almost empty. We’ve waited too long to try to override the security system, and it’s taking longer than expected. At this point, if we don’t do something to feed ourselves, we’ll starve before we can bypass the security protocols and open the doors.”

“So melodramatic,” Carl said.

“It’s true, Carl,” Anna said. “Don’t you care about living?”

Carl laughed.

Karen seized the opportunity to jump back into the fray. “My point is, they’re not just lab subjects. They’re not cattle, either. Can any of us, besides Carl, really kill them? Are we going to actually carve them into steaks and eat them? I wasn’t made for this. I’m not a killer.”

“Everyone is a killer if the options are kill or be killed,” Carl said.

Karen was tired. They all were. This discussion had been going on for two days, and they were no nearer a consensus now than they had been when Scott first suggested a grim solution to the problem of food. Carl didn’t have the access code to Barracks 1 or he would have likely slaughtered them already. They’d probably be dining on fresh meat that very day if he could have facilitated a quick and dirty fix.

“He’s right,” Anna said after several moments. “Carl, I mean. It’s kill or be killed. I guess we have to decide which we want. Failure to make a decision might as well be a decision to die, because that’s what will happen if we just keep doing this.”

There were tears in Karen’s eyes. “I’m not doing it. I’m not even helping.”

“Will you at least eat?” Scott asked. “We’ll spare you any details. No names. No indication of who the meat came from. None of the rest of us want you to die.”

“I don’t know,” Karen said. “I…I have to think about it.” She stood and walked away from the table, toward Barracks 2. Her first steps were shaky, and then she broke into a light run. She could be heard sobbing even as she reached the doorway.

“I’ll talk to her,” Anna said. “She’ll come around.”

“Like I care,” Carl said.

“Stuff it, Carl,” Scott said. “We need her. She’s the coding expert. If we don’t have her, there’s no way we’re getting those doors open. We’ll all expire right here.”

Carl shrugged. “Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,” he quoted.

“Passing through nature to eternity,” Anna added.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Carl said. He stood and stretched, the joints in his back popping as he did. Lazily, he cross the mess hall toward the facility’s labs, away from both barracks.

“We’re going to have to deal with him, Scott. We can’t let an alpha out of here. That’s a prime directive,” Anna said quietly when Carl was gone.

“I know,” Scott conceded. “Later. For now, let’s just go ahead and cut the oxygen supply to Barracks 1 before any of us has a chance to think about this too much. When they’re dead, we’ll haul the bodies to the freezer. We should have enough meat for weeks.”

“Okay,” Anna said. “Lead the way.”

*          *          *

Dr. Nichols was crouched by her bed when she heard the fan stop. Dr. McAlister heard it, too. “What was that?” he asked.

“The fan,” Dr. Nichols said. “It stopped.”

“What?!” Dr. Andrews exclaimed. “Why?”

“They shut it off,” Dr. Nichols said.

“Why would they do that?!” Dr. Andrew’s voice was breaking. Despite the news that air was in short supply, he sounded like he was hyperventilating.

Dr. Nichols spoke with patience. “Because we’re out of food. They’ll resort to the most logical substitute–us.”

Dr. Andrews was lying on his bunk. He began to thrash like a petulant child. He hadn’t dealt with the mutiny well. That’s what we get for letting a greenhorn join the team, Dr. Nichols thought, not for the first time.

To her side, Dr. McAlister laughed. “Well,” he said. “We did it, I guess. They’re still functioning. Hell, they’re doing what we would be doing if we’d gotten the drop on them.”

“True,” Dr. Nichols said.

“We should have put Carl down months before this happened,” he said.

Dr. Andrews was crying into his pillow.

“We should have,” Dr. Nichols concurred, “but he was the most promising alpha. Our first almost-human piece of real, honest-to-God bio-tech. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“Me, either,” Dr. McAlister said. “And now, those living machines are most likely going to eat us. We hadn’t even reached the point of programming any of them to kill. They’re picking up right where we left off.”

Dr. Nichols sighed. “Everyone’s a killer,” she said. “if the options are kill or be killed.”