The Hopeful Wanderer 30 – Fifteen Minutes

Fifteen minutes of hope. That was all it took to drive me into standing in line for a week, winding step by step through the bottom of a valley alongside hundreds of other travelers from the world over, all sharing that same hope with me. No one maintained the line, yet in it we stood, hemmed in by long-standing tradition set down by years of previous hopefuls. Old stalls set up along the line sold food and supplies at intervals. I told tales of my wanderings to those around me and heard more in turn. Line mates became friends became family, until they reached the end of the line and departed, never to return.

For the destination of this line was a single sandglass set upon a stone pedestal, containing fifteen minutes’ worth of black sand within. From where I stood, I could see it at last, glinting in the setting sunlight. A woman took her place on a worn stump set before the pedestal, hands clenched as she stared into the upper glass bulb. Then she smiled, laughing as her eyes filled with tears, spirited away to the past. From here, only the mirage of images danced inside the glass, disclosing none of her secrets to onlookers. Fifteen minutes of perfect, detailed memory. But only once, never again.

Variations of the same repeated with the next several in line. When I reached the sandglass myself, night had fallen and tiny stars winked overhead. Anything, I thought as I took my seat. I hoped for any of my memories from before I began to wander. Anything at all.

But when I flipped the sandglass and stared into the orb, precious sand running to the bottom, no images materialized. Nothing, not a single recollection, up until the last grain fell through.

hr-line

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The Hopeful Wanderer 29 – Future and Past

The damp scent of recent rain hung over a nighttime city as I passed through its back alleys. I splashed through puddles painted royal purple and ocean blue from neon lights advertising a nearby club venue, the vibrant colors running together down the wet asphalt like a river of spilled paint. Music pulsed through the tiled walls nearest me, exploding louder when someone, no more defined than a mere shadow, entered the club through its side door. Once they had gone, only I and one other person walking ahead of me remained.

I whistled an impromptu tune in time to the beat vibrating through the soles of my shoes, meaning to alert the person ahead to my ambivalent presence. At the sound, they paused and turned to look back at me. Their face became illuminated in the honey glow of a wall light. Eyes silver as stars widened in a dark face, the light glinting along choppy strands of moon-pale hair. My breath caught in my throat.

It was my face.

The me ahead of me ran, shoes smacking wet pavement, and swung left down another passage. When I reached the opening and peered down the purple and blue-lit alley, they — or I or whichever — were gone.

I stalked forward, looking behind trash bins and parked scooters, but found no one. After I passed a night club, bass-heavy music bled from within when someone opened and closed the door.

Jaunty whistling started up behind me.

When I looked back, there I stood, expression startled. Like the other me was seeing our duplicity for the first time.

I ran. As I reached the first left turn, intuition niggled at me and I passed it, instead hooking the next right. When no one followed, I grinned, knowing I’d broken the time loop.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 28 – A Deceptive Drift

I was digging. Cold, dry flakes of snow bit at my bare fingertips, leaching the warmth from them. Knee deep in it, I didn’t dare move any farther forward. She had gone down right here, the snow too light to bear her weight, closing over her head with just a small impression to show where she had vanished.

Breathing hard, I shoveled armfuls of snow aside, sweat dripping into my eyes. I was up to my chest in it now, unable to feel my fingers anymore. How far had she sunk into this snow drift? She’d been tossing handfuls of flakes into the air, laughing at the way they glittered golden white in the morning sunlight. Leaping and dancing with the joy of the first snow.

I had yelled it. “Wait!” Just before she stepped off the ledge. I didn’t know this area, but I hadn’t liked the way the distant line of the rocky shelf curved around right next to her and vanished beneath the smooth plane of snow.

My fingers brushed against long hair. Then I unearthed a waving hand, and the other. Wrapping my fingers around her wrists, I leaned back and pulled hard. Only the snow packed around my knees kept me from sliding down after her. When her head came free, she gasped in a huge gulp of air, coughing up lungfuls of snow. I dragged her back a step, and another, until she rolled onto the safety of the ledge with me.

We lay there like crash-landed snow angels. When she caught her breath, she looked back at the drift that had almost claimed her, the hole fast filling with dry, slithery snow. Then she said simply, “We’ll have to warn the others about that.”

I could only nod my agreement.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 27 – An Abandoned Bonfire

Orange sparks drifted upward into the night sky. Below them, flames fed upon fragrant pine boughs, leaping high and higher. The popping hiss of logs and branches lent the dancing flames voice, like a smoker singing to the tune of the whistling wind.

I had questions for the builder of this bonfire, for those fluttering sparks contained puffs of stardust, occasionally throwing off sunshine and sparkling colors. After I found it unattended, I waited, watching, long into the night, but the maker never returned. Nor did the fire burn down. As my mind grew weary, the crackling sounded more like laughter, and the flame tips looked like twirling fingertips.

Late into the night, one blink turned longer than the ones before, and on the other side of it, I found someone bent at the waist, peering into my face. This someone was made of fire.

I sat up straight where I had dozed against a tree trunk, drawing back from the heat of the flames.

The fire spirit squinted kerosene blue eyes in the approximation of a smile. “Well met, cousin.”

“Cousin?” I echoed. Behind it, the bonfire was nothing but embers.

In a voice like burning brush, the spirit said, “You have flames in your heart.” It then executed an exhilarated spin, shedding more colorful sparks into the grass all around.

I smiled at such delight. “And you have a star in yours.” Licking my thumb, I snuffed out a smoldering thread of my coat. “Which way from here, cousin?”

“Hopeward,” the fiery creature cried, dancing back onto its bed of coals. “Duskward!”

With a whoosh, the flames sank into the earth, leaving nothing behind but a patch of black soot. The final flaming tendril was a finger, pointing me toward the west.


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Writing Life: Time Change

I have one particular writing nemesis, and that’s the time change.

Every year at around this time — when it’s getting dark at 7p and earlier — my writing suffers. I write in the evening, after coming home from work, but now, the encroaching darkness tricks my brain into thinking it’s bedtime. I can’t possibly write right now. Not enough time, not enough time…

I think I read somewhere that the cold and the dark are what triggered the idea for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to happen in November. Now that Halloween is over, what else are we writers going to do?

Yet as the nights have grown longer in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a downswing in my productivity. I cannot even imagine trying to drag 300 words out of my brain right now, let alone 1600+. Better to slowly get used to writing after sunset again, until sweet, sweet Daylight Savings Time rolls back around.


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Book Review: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, it also now must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit.

Artificial Condition Synopsis

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

I was terrible and picked up both Artificial Condition and its sequel Rogue Protocol from the library at the same time so no one could snag them before me. Muahahahaha!

What I Liked

Plot

Murderbot undergoes some serious character changes in Artificial Condition as it works to uncover its past and, in the end, make some decisions about its future. For once it works for humans it chooses, not ones chosen for it by its company, and though its responsibilities change as such, it still gives all its effort to protect them. Almost as if, given the opportunity, bots might be capable of decency when not controlled and governed by corporate overlords. All this while keeping its own identity as a dangerous rogue SecUnit a secret.

Plots, subplots, and revelations populate Artificial Condition, packing action and intrigue into just a handful of chapters that I wished would go on forever.

Characters

In Artificial Condition, our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, now it must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit. It also has to deal with the responsibility of when those choices go badly wrong for the humans it contracts to protect.

In All Systems Red, Wells casually introduced polygamy into this sci-fi future world. Artificial Condition zooms in on this aspect with the appearance of three young technologists who are married to each other and a few others still back at their base. To cap this off, one of them, Rami, identifies as a third gender, or a tercera (third, get it?), using pronouns like ‘te’ and ‘ter’ (because ’tis’ would just be confusing). I. love. it. This essentially non-binary character acts centrally to the plot in a leadership role for the other two, making choices that drive the story forward.

Theme

Embracing humanity. Sort of. Murderbot would much rather remain the SecUnit it was created to be, but to get the information it wants, it has to reluctantly keep building on its previous character development and manage to act human enough to fool other humans, even going so far as to dress like a human, shedding its comforting armor.

The narrative of Artificial Condition also shows a Research Transport Vessel whom Murderbot dubs ART displaying emotion, both for humans and for MurderBot as it prods its SecUnit passenger toward character growth. (‘ART,’ ‘Artificial Condition,‘ do you get it?) Even a handful of ComfortUnits show something like soul in their decision making, both in positive and negative choices.

All, however, retain their bot-ness, their otherness, their deep-seated difference from humans. I appreciate so much that the narrative arc for freed bots or otherwise doesn’t just focus on them becoming human. They are allowed to simply equip human behavior where applicable and necessary for individual evolution.

Ending

The conclusion of Artificial Condition kicks ass. After experiencing Murderbot’s fighting capabilities in All Systems Red, the reader knows things are about to go down (possibly in flames) as the plot hurtles toward the end.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.31 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer 26 – An Inviting Stairwell

Dug several levels into the earth, a double set of stairs twisted around and around each other in graceful spirals – spirals that put me in mind of the arms of a galaxy. Black wrought-iron railing echoed the emptiness of space. This and the marble flooring below suggested opulence and grandeur deep underground. Warm, inviting light illuminated the steps, which were somehow clean despite exposure to the open sky. From my position where raw dirt met carved step, I straightened, taking in the contrasting ruined city around me, reminded of things like illusions and trapdoor spiders.

Below, what I had mistaken for statuary centered between the staircases suddenly moved. A man swiveled his head to look up at me, his handsome face illuminated in the weak afternoon light. He grinned and his smile was all white teeth. Making an invitational gesture, he said, “Come on down here.”

With a shrug, I obliged. The handrail bit my bare palms with cold but warmed as I descended. The man kept his eyes on me, contorting his neck around when I passed behind him. Predatory, hungering. Obvious. At last, I came to a stop before him, hands in pockets, eyebrows raised as if to say, well?

A pause. Then the man lunged forward, fingers outstretched, mouth open wide, wide, wide. But he stopped short, arms windmilling when his feet did not follow. He was stuck to the floor.

“I know of you,” I said, as he collected himself. “The townspeople entrapped you here, so you could not lure their families into your lair.”

His face contorted into misery. “Please free me,” he whimpered.

I shook my head. “Ask the descendants of your victims; maybe they’ll let you out to kill again.” At his hopeful expression, I said, “Somehow, though, I doubt they will.”


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