Writers Writing About Writers

It’s about time I came clean with who I am. That guest at the dinner party two chapters ago? Earl Hartman? Well that’s me. I’m not crazy about writing about myself, but after all, I was there. So that’s who I am. A novelist telling a story. Only this time, it really happened. How fortunate I was to be involved, even peripherally, since I have the ability to cogently record things. It all began while I was at work on my previous novel, where Guy Quinn stumbles upon a group of contraband seed-traders who genetically engineer plants for extra-terrestrial communication:

 

 - With autumn-fire hair in waterfall curls beside her winter face, wearing a green vest of clouds and floral patterns, Maleia rolled her aquamarine eyes and slammed down her empty shot glass. She had seen Guy Quinn from across the bar, even over the sea of heads. Neither of them belonged here, in this land, and both of their attempts to blend in only made them stand out more to each other.

Guy hitched his fingers in his belt-loop and scanned every part of the bar that didn’t have her in  it, as if looking for the shortest line. She came to him.

“I don’t want any trouble when your man gets out of the pisser,” said Guy.

“I’m here alone,” Maleia replied. “Reminds me of someone.” 

Feigning an arrow through the heart, Guy backed up and leaned against the wall, purposefully letting her corner him. “Hurts, but you can’t get to me that easy. Traveling people tend to unwind in spaces reckoned safe for travelers. It’s not too much of a stretch to think we’d run into each other.”

“You’re just like you were in school,” said Maleia. “Never the usual social cues. No ‘how-are-you?’ or ‘what-have-you-been-up-to?’ Always something new.”

“It’s a gesture of respect. To let the other person say things to make themselves feel comfortable. I’m far more interested in why no one’s messing with you here,” said Guy.

Maleia cast her gaze around the bar and heads seemed to turn away from her, like she had an anti-magnetic gaze. “When I realized I might have to stay here awhile, I decided that certain behaviors where not to be tolerated.” She gestured to the bar. “But money spends everywhere, and I think best when I can pull from other people’s thoughts. Just most other people don’t like that.”

Guy waved to the other patrons, none of whom were looking at him. “It’s okay, I know her,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Okay, you win,” said Maleia. “What have you been up to?”

“I’m an adventure novelist,” said Guy. “Got a series about a guy named Carlos Parks. Done okay for myself. Good reviews, steady sales.”

“What has that got to do with any other aspect of your life?” asked Maleia.

“It just pays the bills and I don’t have to think about it,” said Guy. “Come on, I’ll buy you a copy and sign it.” -

 

: His goggles broke through the salty meniscus and Carlos tore the air-pipe out of his mouth. The boat was already speeding. With one hand on the ladder, the wake kicking his body up and down, Carlos undid the straps on his air-pipes with the other hand, the pipes he knew now had been replaced with XF-42, the deadly hallucinogenic poison used on the Sultan of Egria to get him in a paranoid delusion so he would launch a chemical attack on the humanitarian Navy fleet docked in the Bay of Opleyya.

Fresh air felt amazing, and despite his current danger, Parks felt his mind bring his body up to speed on the situation. Once he cast his breathing tubes into the turbulent wake, he climbed effortlessly onto the main deck. He wouldn’t have to contend with much, as most of the crew had been airlifted, still blindfolded, upon completion of their duties. They were not allowed to know the coordinates of their location. Only the captain remained at the helm and now Carlos understood why. Because Carlos was supposed to be dead.

The shipwreck they sent him to was planted, and poorly. But he’d been hallucinating. Luckily, he’d recognized the Sultan’s symptoms when they happened and never questioned his judgement when he began seeing them in himself.

Carlos zipped off the suit and took a look around. The ship was quite deserted, as he thought it would be. Hopefully Ioakim was still prisoner on board and hadn’t been executed. That would have to wait until after the captain.

He remembered where the helm was due to the champagne breakfast they’d had this morning. A spectacular view. As Carlos suspected, the captain, being alone, had to focus all his attention on the ship. He had a portable radio on a TV dinner stand by the controls and was fully occupied with weather, currents, and communicating events and future instructions. Carlos was able to tiptoe nearly right behind him before speaking.

“The way I see it -” Carlos began.

The captain shrieked and turned around, no relief on his eyes upon seeing Carlos.

“Once the ship comes to a full stop, we’ve got a few hours before your fastest men can get here, but I’ll have the Navy here in half that.”

The Captain briefly glanced around him and was obviously unarmed and unprepared for combat. His breathing became more regular and he tried plan A of every supervillian: denial.

“Were you never able to go out for the dive, Mr. Parks? I must have a word with my -”

“Can it Ahab,” said Carlos. “You know what you did. Or maybe you don’t. How can you be totally sure that you prepared the XF-42 correctly? Colorless, odorless. It could have leaked out, even a little when you filled the air pipes with it. First time it’s ever been done. Would have been more amazing if you hadn’t made a mistake. Taken a bit too much to the head.”

Stepping back from the controls, the Captain felt his pulse, then looked at his hands and back at Carlos Parks. “You - you’re dead. This isn’t real.” He started laughing. “This isn’t real!”

“How do you know you’re alone on this ship?” asked Carlos. “If this isn’t real, whose to say that any of your memories are?”

“But I - uh, have we even left the dock?” the Captain wondered to himself, staring out the window. “Are we even on a boat? Is the moon in June a spoon humming a tune?” He flung his cap against the wall and pulled out a tuft of hair in each hand. He ran a finger along his lips. “bublbublbublub . . .” he turned and ran out the door and jumped over the side, the wake tossing him quickly behind the boat like a seal playing with a ball.

Carlos quickly went to the controls. First he pulled an emergency stop which he hoped wouldn’t destroy the ship. Luckily, the button did what it said and he heard the hum of the engines raise in tone as their rotations slowed and the ship came to a stop. He didn’t know his location but he could find the Navy frequency on the radio. Luckily, the Captain’s radio was not a civilian one, but an illegal listening device. Criminals always became their own undoing. Before he called the Navy though . . .

Climbing down the port to the lower level, the ship revealed its true character. Only the very top was reserved for the smuggler elite. The rest was two levels of cells, then the engine room and storage. The halls were narrow, the floor, a steel grate and the walls gray but the lights were red. Designed for maximum discomfort.

The singing rang through the halls long before he could find the cell that Iokim was in. Iokim often sang to himself. Nonsensical joyous songs from his homeland. Nonsensical at least, to Carlos. The constant joyousness was also a mystery, but it had helped them through numerous scrapes, Iokim being somewhat impervious to the notion of mortal danger.

Carlos got to what he thought was the right door and knocked. “Room service,” he said.

Iokim’s song stopped and there was the the sound of him jumping to his feet. “Oh Mr. Carlos. You’ve come. I thought they forgot to get me along with everybody else. I just sing until I die.”

Fiddling with the latch, Carlos eventually heard the satisfying click and the heavy steel door practically pushed itself open. Iokem ran out and gave Carlos a giant hug.

“You save me once again,” he said.

“Yeah, no problem. Buy me a drink sometime,” Carlos replied.

Iokem couldn’t believe the luxury of the upper decks. “Next time, I definitely reserve a cabin up here,” he said.

Carlos got on the radio and called the Navy. Less than an hour ETA. He let Iokem’s infallible sense of food lead them to the kitchen where they made sandwiches and found some beer. Then they set up chairs on the upper deck and awaited their rescue. There was not a cloud in sight.

“I think I see China,” said Iokem.

“You know that naked-eye visibility out here is only about three miles?” said Carlos. “I barely believe it myself.”

Iokem asked how Carlos dealt with the Captain.

“I just got him to believe that his memories weren’t real and he decided to . . . change that.”

“You mean you just talked him into giving up?” asked Iokem.

“Something like that,” said Carlos. “I write novels for a living. My character is a professor of philosophy. Nick Jansen. So I have to do research sometimes. I believe it was Descartes who first pointed out that everything we know about life is based on an unprovable and fallible premise.”

Iokem asked the question by raising his eyebrows.

“That we can actually know anything to be true,” said Carlos. “Kurt Godel later mathematically showed it.”

“You a writer?” asked Iokem. “I never knew that. How does that affect the rest of your life?”

“Not at all,“ said Carlos. “It just pays the bills.” :

 

{ Nick Jansen summarized for his class his final confrontation with the Terror Management Terrorist. The lab of the TMT of course appeared to be a house like any other, white picket fence included. But Jansen knew to be on his guard. The foot-soldiers of the TMT had had their fear of death so systematically removed that they bordered on invisible. He recalled with embarrassment how badly he had underestimated the TMT’s infiltration of campus. A few manifestos placed strategically that when read, lead to the immediate removal of the fear of death followed by a moral shift of such seismic profundity that psychologists had yet to even name the type of person it produced.

Luckily, the students who were converted by the manifesto all left school and Jansen thought he had seen the last of that strange phenomenon. Mass hysterias, seemingly inexplicable, have happened throughout history.

And then the murders began. Disgraced professor Becker Emerson volunteered his interpretation for a news program during which he revealed himself to be the Terror Management Terrorist and that, as predicted, the world would pay dearly for ignoring his research.

No one knew how he did it, but he claimed he could drain our surplus consciousness - all the distractions of culture and identity - to create fearless people capable of extraordinary evolutionary leaps.

Now, in is lab, Nick Jansen was about to find out how the TMT did it. Out of the corner of his eye, a person appeared. Well, not appeared, the person had always been there, but just decided to act now. Jansen grabbed a huge book from the shelf and caught the butcher knife, which for a moment, the killer tried to wedge out of the book. Jansen took this moment to knee the killer in the groin. Still susceptible to physiological distress, it turns out.

Jansen tossed the book aside and pinned the killer on the ground, preparing to ask the location of his leader. The killer’s look of pain ceased and was replaced by the vacant malevolence that was the trademark of Emerson’s foot-soldiers. Jansen had been tricked. With a few barely discernible moves - an expert combination of several martial arts - Jansen was caught in the killer’s grip. An agony spread from his limbs, crawled up his neck and threatened to black him out when he heard Emerson say ‘enough.’

The killer let go and a relief so total immersed Jansen like a warm bath. He giggled a bit, almost forgot where he was, so good it felt not to be in that grip anymore. A gentle hand took his, and Emerson helped Jansen to his feet and led him to the couch.

Phantoms surrounded Jansen on all sides. The room had been teeming with people and he had not seen a single one. They all watched the duo on the couch as their leader prepared for his greatest challenge of all.

“I see you’ve counteracted the manifestos,” said Emerson. “Very cleaver, using religious arguments when you yourself are not a religious man, Dr. Jansen.”

“If it works, it works,” Jansen replied. “What was it that movie detective said? ‘You can never have too many saviors.’”

“Does not the fact that it works test your un-faith?” asked Emerson.

“Ideas are more powerful than the words that describe them,” Jansen replied. “This may seen fine to you,” he gestured to the student who held Emerson’s tea for him, “but it’s out of your control.”

Emerson had the student hold his teacup to his lips and serve him. The hand of the student was bright red, and no one wanted to look at what the skin behind the cup looked like. “Is that all you want to know?” asked Emerson. “Where does it end? It ended, Professor, with my first success. With a total adoption of my manifesto, centuries upon centuries of war and injustice will be brought to an end. Everything stems from the ignorance of our impermanence. The willful ignorance. Wars establish countries designed to outlive people, political and religious ideas. Even silly little fictions are designed to live forever. Taking away the folly of pretending is like coming up for air after those moments of panic. Your entire life has been a panic over things that don’t matter, imposed by the fear of the one thing that does. Remove that, and you’re free. Aside from certain physiological limitations, but as you’ve seen, even a good many of those can be overcome. Our bodies and minds are capable of miracles that make religious literature seem like a quarter behind the ear. What do you have to lose? Your social games? Romantic ills? War? Poverty? Injustice? Everything that causes anxiety and misery? I beg you - do you want me to share something? - your resistance against me is more powerful than I ever dreamed, and so I beg you - for the good of humanity, allow my message to spread.”

Jansen shook his head. “You’re not afraid of me. You could have killed me ten times over the second I set foot through the door. What are you really doing?” As if in answer, he beheld the blank TV on the wall, mirroring their movements. “Turn that on!”

Chuckling, Emerson asked, “wouldn’t you rather discuss philosophy with me?”

Jansen looked around him.

“There’s nowhere to run. You’re too late. But since you insist.” A student switched on to the news. The town was in shambles. The National Guard would fire their weapons upon invisible foes. Civilians got mowed down in the process. Burning cars littered the streets. Emerson tutted. “They never listen.” He turned to Jansen. “Do you really prefer this to what could be? Is this really the easier route to go, rather than opposing my ideas?”

More gunfire was heard and the news camera dropped. An anchor looked on, then was torn to pieces herself. A few sets of feet ran by, then the camera was picked up. A student showed herself. It was Maya Fertillo.

“Professor Jansen,” said Emerson, “does your heart still long for your forbidden fruit? I can take that ache away.”

Maya spoke. “If anyone is still watching this, we’re continuing our meetings.” She moved her hands and twisted her face before dropping the camera and running.

“Hell of a time for her Huntington’s to start acting up,” said Emerson. He turned back to Jansen. “Why are you always so interested in what you can’t have?”

Nick Jansen’s face remained vacant.

Emerson swiped his hand back and forth in front of it. “Is that all it takes? First the death of your wife, the abandonment of your child, and now this? Your nubile lady-love taken by random genetics? I recognize that stare.”

A shudder shook the walls, and a window broke. Emerson looked toward it. He gave a signal to his students who appeared to vanish into thin air, one by one. Before his own disappearance, Emerson said to Jansen, “if there’s anyone still there, you’re welcome at any time.”

Jansen heard the tanks running through the streets. He would be captured if the Guard decided to invade homes. But he didn’t think they would if no one went outside. The TV had died, along with the power. But what he hadn’t told Emerson was that Maya’s spasming was not her Huntington’s acting up. It was a body-language code, developed by some particularly gifted students. They wanted to see if they could hold conversations across classrooms without Professors noticing and only Jansen had caught on. He hadn’t been able to crack the code himself and had gone - in humiliation it must be said - to Maya Fertillo and begged for the cypher. 

On the news, she had told the students who understood the code where to meet. Emerson’s foot-soldiers who evolved beyond social cues would never understand.

Jansen leaned back on the makeshift desk. An old summer camp was their new village. Students were routinely sent out to recruit others, and the population was growing fast. Either Emerson’s soldiers stopped caring enough to do nothing, or they were planning another war. At any rate, the new society began now.

Jansen had always been told, even in the old world that he should write his adventures down.

“I’ll let you in a little secret,” he said to the class. “I’d been working on a novel and never really cracked it until things went to shit. In this day and age it’d be totally unbelievable, but I think that’s why it’s working now.”

Jansen was also often told that it was important to document what had happened and how to combat the decay of society for future generations but he just couldn’t bring himself to make it work. Somewhere among the group, was someone who would be perfect for that task, but it wasn’t him.

“I always liked the literary sad-sack,” he said. “Kind of self-indulgent, but endearing. Of course, nothing like my own life, which is why I never got around to it. But I’ve got a lot more spare time nowadays. The character’s name is Earl Hartman. I know, a total loser name, and he’s a published but non-successful writer who works for an ad-firm, but not even on the creative side of things. His wife finds great pleasure in their children’s accomplishments but he just can’t get over his ego-centrism and learn to look at the world around him. Failure after failure accompanies this.”

The students just stared at Nick Jansen, chuckling to himself. “It sounds bleak now that I say it out loud, but I’ve found it funny and charming. Anyways, screw you. I can have fun. It has nothing to do with my real life and that’s what’s important.” }