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Christmas Story 2013: Operation: North Pole

By JohnU | December 22, 2013

When the northern lights hit the spires of ice, they burst with color and the tinkling of bells. The city stands tall and deep, carved out of ice and snow, shrouded half a year in the dark of night.

It’s an ancient city. The scents of roasting and baking still waft through its streets. The air itself tastes of candy canes and nutmeg.

But the city is empty. Deserted. Abandoned long ago. The colonel frowns as she flips through reports in the middle of what they’ve dubbed Main Street. The scientists are having their own special sort of Christmas, making discoveries and observations and theories. But this isn’t what they were seeking.

It’s the third such city in ice, the third indication of civilization predating the Egyptians and the Chinese, and the third disappointment of the season.

A voice crackled on her radio. “Sir,” the voice says. “We’ve found something.”

In an icy basement of an icy structure, the Colonel joins a pair of her explorer soldiers and one of the scientists. The scientist holds something at the end of a long-limbed set of tweezers. Unlike anything else in this frozen city, it is neither ice nor snow. And it’s not twelve thousand years old.

It’s a shred of gift label. Red. Sparkly. With the name of a recipient on the inside.

“Amazing,” the scientist says.

The Colonel barely acknowledges the comment. Of course it’s amazing. It’s unexpected, unwarranted, unheard of. And though it doesn’t say Colonel on the gift tag, it is most certainly the Colonel’s name.

“That’s it,” she says. “Pack up. We’re done.” When they look questioningly at her, she says, “We’re not going to find what we’re looking for here.”

The scientists resist, of course, but they’ll return with full teams and all the proper equipment to map out every corner of the ice city. Within three hours, the helicopters are lifting off the ice and headed south.

The Colonel stares wistfully from the helicopter as they fly away.

She doesn’t see that her team has been seen. She doesn’t see the elf lowering his binoculars and picking up his satellite phone. He dials the switchboard in Copenhagen and says, “They’re leaving.”

There’s a delay before the response. “Again. They’ll be back. We’ll inform the big guy.”

The switchboard in Copenhagen sends the message to seventeen regional offices across the world. The big guy is at one of them – or about to arrive. It’s been a long time since the workshop could operate efficiently from a single remote location deep in the Arctic Circle.

Topics: Random, Fiction, InkStains | No Comments »

InkStains: An Update

By JohnU | December 1, 2013

Today is 1 December. 31 days remain in the year. I will write 30 more InkStains.

I originally intended to take up to 3 days off every month. But after several months of taking only a single day, I decided that was the true target: one day off, enforced. Some months, I almost didn’t take it, but I’ve discovered that the fount needs a day of rest as much as it needs to be pumped, cajoled, pushed, seduced, and encouraged.

Some days are weaker than others. Some stories are not good.

Some are.

At least, I believe this to be true. Maybe I’m not the best judge of my own work. Maybe mine aren’t the most objective eyes.

It’s strange, as I’m writing new stories and typing up some of the old ones (and strange to consider them all, having been written this calendar year), the themes I go back to, the imagery that twines through my work, the connections when there were never meant to be connections.

But of course all the stories are connected. All the stories are me. Even the ones that are explicitly not about me.

One thing I’ve learned: the fount never runs dry. There are always more ideas. There are always more characters, more stories, more places, more angles, more explorations. Some don’t work. That’s to be expected. Some are beautiful. Perhaps touching. Exciting.

You might ask what project I’m going to take on in 2014. I’ll share more about that later. For now, I’m going to give you a number. At the end of the eleventh month, the number of InkStains stories I’ve written: 321.

321 down. 30 to go.

Somewhere, the math is wrong. I seem to be off by 2.

UPDATE: There are two 82s and two 234s. This is wrong, and should be corrected. The true InkStains count, as of 30 November: 323.

Topics: Random | No Comments »

I saw the Moon tonight

By JohnU | November 14, 2013

Moon

Topics: Random, Inspiration, Photography | No Comments »

Me, the Cat, and the Rose

By JohnU | November 11, 2013

Self

Topics: Random, Photography, Self Portrait | No Comments »

InkStains: Day 69

By JohnU | October 27, 2013

They’re not magic dice.

Stanley stares at the pair of them. Brass, he thinks, or bronze — he’s not sure he knows the difference. Could be just gold paint. Staring at him on the bedside table, right under the lamp, in front of the clock, beside the book he’s been reading.

Outside, a storm rages. Lightning flashes and flashes, the thunder won’t stop, the rain smacks the window in waves. But the bed is warm. Promising, if lonely.

Inside, it’s warm, the lights are still on — though not many of them. It’s not quite midnight. There’s no need to get up early in the morning.

And there’s the dice.

He dreamt once — it couldn’t have been just last night — that’s he’d rolled a pair of dice just like the two sitting on his table now.

He’s not a gambler. Maybe the occasional lottery ticket, but only on a whim. He doesn’t even know the rules of craps. Last time he touched dice was probably for an exciting, whiskey-fueled game of college Yahtzee.

He hasn’t seen the inside of a college classroom in quite a while.

He barely remembers the dream. There was no wager, not that he calls, no prize, nothing. If he saw what he rolled, he doesn’t retain that information.

Dice have no special meaning for him. His father wasn’t a gambler, either. His mother didn’t spend her weekends in Atlantic City. He’s never even been in a casino. He never understood the point of Monopoly. He prefers crosswords. He works them in ink, not pencil.

But he doesn’t throw dice. He doesn’t shoot dice. He doesn’t toss them. He’s not a bone-rolling kind of guy.

He’s trying to remember if the table had been clear when he turned on the light. He doesn’t know. The dice might have been sitting there the whole time. But surely not since that long ago or maybe recent dream.

He’s also listening for any sound that might suggest he’s not alone in the apartment. There’s only the thunder, and the rain, relentless sounds that drown out anything else.

So he checks the place. He doesn’t bother with a baseball bat; he generally doesn’t keep one near the bed. Living room, kitchen, bathroom — they’re all empty. It’s just him in the apartment. He knows he didn’t put them there.

Back in the bedroom, he stares again at the dice. They’ve been set on snake eyes — a pair of ones. Is that supposed to be a bad thing? An ill omen?

He doesn’t know.

Eventually, as no answer presents itself, and since he’s not even sure of the questions, he lays down in bed — facing away from the dice — and tries to sleep.

He can try to blame the storm, but that’d be a lie. He can’t keep his eyes closed. He watches the light show through his window for a while, thinks about maybe going to a movie tomorrow, or making a big breakfast, but he can’t escape the dice.

He turns over. Lying on his side, he glances at the dice. They mock him. They don’t move, don’t really do anything at all, but just their presence is a tease. It’s as if they’re saying, “We dare you to pick us up.”

What’s the worst that can happen? It’s not like he’ll roll these brass dice and open up some interdimensional portal and release a legion of demons upon the earth on this otherwise peaceful stormy night.

He can’t keep his eyes closed. Even after turning out the lights, the constant lightning makes the dice flash like a cat’s eyes in the dark.

“Fine,” he says.

Stanley scoops up the dice.

They’re heavier than he expected, and colder, though he wouldn’t say frozen. They click between his fingers when they touch. No depth to the sound. No resonance. Nothing to compete with the thunder.

He moves them around in his hand, getting a good feel for them, warming them up, learning absolutely nothing. He blows into his fist for luck. Isn’t that what they do? He thinks he should say something about shoes, but he doesn’t understand the reference.

Reluctantly, and with perhaps a small degree of anger, Stanley releases the dice on his bedside table. They bounce and clatter, they knock into the side of his book.

One lands on a four, the other a five.

Nine.

He doesn’t think that would be a willing roll in craps. Shouldn’t that be a seven or an eleven or something?

Did the storm pause in that moment before he threw them? No. Only his imagination paused.

No interdimensional portal comes up. No demons emerge. Nothing changes.

They are, after all, just dice. There’s nothing magical about them.

When he finally falls asleep, Stanley dreams of throwing dice and rolling bones.

Topics: Random | No Comments »

InkStains: Day 276

By JohnU | October 16, 2013

It started with a star.

The star burst into existence and burned brightly for a good many years before it grew bored.

The star said, “I should not be alone in this corner of the universe.” So the star spewed molten gas in great big streams.

The gases spun, looking much like a nebula to faraway observers, and eventually settled into spheres that became planets.

Five or six of these gas giants retained so much heat, they collapsed in on themselves and became solid.

One, too close to the star, melted and returned to the source.

The furthest of these, unable to withstand the distance, shattered into a thousand thousand pieces.

The star, however, was pleased, and breathed life into the fourth planet, which was bluest and bravest. Eventually, a great civilization rose from those seeds, and they flourished for ten thousand revolutions of the star. They even escaped the confines of their own atmosphere.

Expeditions to the third and fifth planets — they didn’t regard the string of asteroids as a place capable of supporting life — ended in failure. Neither team returned.

On the sixth planet, the exploration ended in absolute disaster: the explosion continues even today.

On the third planet, where they crashed, they attempted to survive in the young wilds. The star had breathed a bit of life into this place, too, and the explorers tried their best to interact peaceably.

But the third planet was still young and wild, and no form of intelligent life had yet evolved. The beasts of this world consumed the explorers.

Their smallest molecules have been recycled so frequently and spread so thinly, there’s no part of the planet in which they cannot be found; but they exist in so minute a quantity, they cannot be found.

The star could not stop the comet. When it came, the comet crashed through the fourth planet, ripped away most of its atmosphere, and left almost no one alive and the surface dry and red.

The few that survived went underground and adapted.

On the third planet, civilizations eventually rose and fell and rose, only to destroy themselves time and again.

They still do this.

The star, saddened by the fates of its children, remained quiet for a long time. When the comet came back again, the star lashed out and swallowed it.

The star thinks of trying again. It can spew a fresh stream of fiery iron gas and diamond dust, evaporate the planets it has already created, and breathe life into a new species.

But the star is patient. The star has time. The star can start a new life experiment after this one finishes. The occupants of that third planet seem to constantly find more and more effective means of mass suicide.

But who knows? The star retains a small bit of hope, there merest trace of it, that the little reckless life forms will yet find a way to flourish.

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InkStains: Day 255

By JohnU | September 22, 2013

I am meant to be on a quest. I should be lost, off the map, in near-constant danger, surviving by my wits. There should be murderous natives, treacherous allies, beautiful women, and motorcycles.

I should be trapped within a labyrinth, seeking treasure and trying to avoid the minotaur. I should be fending off hungry carnivores and wicked men.

My kung fu skills ought to be tested. Can I hit a moving target from the side of an out-of-control locomotive with a .45? Can I land a helicopter after the pilot’s been inconveniently decapitated?

Some skills, only experience will teach you.

I should be in formal wear for a dinner party with thieves and madmen and poets.

I should be vanquishing enemies and charming the ladies and making friends with worldly-wise street urchins. I should be dining with kings and beggars alike. I should be riding through the desert on the back of a stinking, unruly camel.

I should have a bag full of diamonds dangling from my hip, a knife in my boot, poison in my rucksack.

And of course, I should be recording my travels and adventures in amazing detail, almost daily, so that after my untimely death — by misadventure — tales of both my heroics and my failings can be published in a series of volumes for all to read.

I should be famous — or at least, in certain circles, infamous.

I should be driving fancy high performance vehicles on long European highways, in pursuit or being pursued. Some of those vehicles should be mine.

I should have a collection of keepsakes — a shabti from some Egyptian pyramid, Shanghai jade, a black and white photo of a cabaret singer in Berlin.

I should be infiltrating fifth columns, spending nights in an asylum, flirting with ambassadors’ wives, rising with the Angels, wandering with the gypsies.

I should be a man who never sleeps, a man who knows his whiskey, a card player and lock picker, a servant and a master.

I should be in disguise.

I should be familiar with the underground of Paris, New York, and Tokyo. There should be a statue of me in Rome, songs about me in Senegal, myths in Haiti, and a broken-hearted tango dancer in Argentina waking up in the middle of every night calling my name.

I should be a man of action. A man of letters. A man of mystery. A man of the world.

I should have friends on both sides of every conflict.

But I can have none of these things, because I’m still — still — waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I should be free.

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Dragonfly

By JohnU | September 8, 2013

The dragonfly landed on my car antenna. I wasn’t even in my car or using it. She looked at me. She made a point of turning around to look at me. Then she said, “Photograph me like one of your butterflies.”

Dragonfly

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September Butterfly 2: The Sequel

By JohnU | September 7, 2013

Turns out, there’s an entire Butterfly Haven in my backyard.

September Butterfly 2

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September Butterfly

By JohnU | September 7, 2013

She stopped me and posed and said, “Go get your camera. I’ll wait here.”

Then she waited.

September Butterfly

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