Friday, May 18, 2012


This is a short story I wrote a while back. I'm not very happy with most of the urban fantasy coming out these days. I think the writers have some talent but the demand by publishers to stretch everything out into a continuing series means that the storylines get stretched thin. I wanted to write something short and sweet.


  "I'm going to be making my Run the next full moon," I told Sam Cuddy, my best friend.

  "Really?" he said, voice rising with interest. "Cool!"

  We lay in the soft grass beneath the big oak tree in Feeney Park. School was out and the yellow rays of a late summer afternoon filtered through the leaves. The brim of my hat was low against the sun but I could feel its warmth across my face.

  Sam rolled over on his side to look at me, eyes wide and bright. "Tell me about it, Jess." I'd gone over this with him before, telling him as much as I knew, but I think he suspected I was holding out on him. He kept asking, hoping that I might let slip more than I'd meant to. I didn't mind playing his game.

  "You already know the sign," I chided him. "I had my first menses. My kind always have it on a full moon and the following moon is when I will have my Run." Sam made a face at that, more out of habit than true disgust. He'd gotten used to my frankness over the two years we've known each other. People -- the regular, everyday folk -- they have all sorts of cultural mores and taboos about the body and bodily functions. My kind may look like people but we are quite open about the things they are not, much to their embarrassment. I remembered his discomfort at the thought of skinnydipping at the lake last summer. I'd had no idea it was possible to blush from head to toe but Sam had shown me it was.

  "What's it like?" he asked.

  "Ask me in a month, silly," I laughed. "I haven't gone yet."

  "But you have an older sister, one who has. Surely you've talked."

  I tilted my hat down to block the sun as it found my eyes again. "Talked, yes. But this isn't really anything someone can explain to you, now is it? I've told you about what's already happening, do you understand it?"

  "Yeah, Jess," Sam said. "Your body's been changing."

  "When we first met, my sense of smell was no better than yours. Now..." I took a deep breath in through my nose, breathing out slowly. "It's like removing blinders. I smell grass, damp earth, the decay of fallen leaves. People who were in the park this morning, their dogs. Raccoons who were here the night before." I turned my head towards him, looking him in the eye. "I smell you." He made a comic show of lifting an arm and sniffing with feigned concern. "No, not like that," I laughed. "People can only notice each other if there's a perfume or a stench. I can smell so much more now, the subtle and the fleeting." I smiled at him. "You smell nice, fresh. I like it."

  He grinned back at me. "Good. I'd hate to scare you off now that we're good friends." He reached over to take my hand and I interlaced my fingers with his. I felt good, so relaxed.

  "So they're going to take you out to Talwyn Run," he prompted.

  Talwyn Run had belonged to our kind for generations, a vast tract of woodland and meadow, untouched but for people seeking communion with nature, people and my kind.  "Yes. I've only been there as a child, and following the same rules as people: never at night and never during the three days surrounding the full moon. This will be my first moon, my first Run. I will become a woman of my kind."

  Sam sighed wistfully. "Eli, you know him from Geometry? He was told he was a man after he was Bar Mitzvahed but he didn't look any different to me, still couldn't do the things his parents wouldn't let him do before he was mitzvahed. But when your folks tell you you've become a woman, you'll know it because you can turn into a wolf!"

  I smiled at his enthusiasm. I think Sam was looking forward to this even more than I was, without any of the trepidation. "Yes, there's certainly that."

  "I'd love to be there, to see it," he said wistfully. 

  I glared at him. "Sam Cuddy, I've already told you this. No, you can't. Our Were runs are kept away from people for a reason. It keeps everyone safe and happy." 

  "Safe but not happy," he said. 

  I punched his arm gently. "I promise to tell you all about it the next day." 

  He sighed. "I guess that'll just have to do." 


  The four of us knelt by the fireside, watching the sunset across the lake. Me, my mother, my aunt, and the priestess. All of us wore thin robes of white but mine was adorned with dark red stripes at the sleeves, the mark of the supplicant. The priestess' instruments sat on a white linen to the north of the fire. To the west a pentagram lay inscribed in fresh-turned earth, cold censures at the points. My position was at the east of the fire, the other three behind me. Our attention turned to the west as the sun touched the horizon. We kept our silence in meditation as the circle of fire seemed to quench itself in the still, dark water. Soon it was gone, a scintillation of bright rays streaking up behind the world, fading to twilight and ushering in the night. I could feel my stomach roiling in a not quite unpleasant anticipation. This was not just nerves but my body anticipating the coming transformation. I sipped the moon tea, drugged with special medicines that helped to still the body and ease what was to come. My limbs felt light and ethereal and within my mind a mix of dreamlike disembodiment and keen alertness. 

  As instructed, I turned to face the priestess now, her face grave but her eyes carrying a measure of mirth. "Who comes before me?" she asked. 

  "Jessica Hunter, a daughter of the pack," I responded. 

  "By what right do you claim admittance?" 

  "By the blood of my father, Jacob Hunter. By the blood of my mother, Sarah Hunter. Their blood is my blood and my blood belongs to the pack." 

  "Upon whose name do you call, upon whose name do you swear?" 

  "By the Fanged Goddess, consort of the Horned God, the eternal huntress, whose name is written by starlight and spoken in wonder beneath the guiding moon. Wise mother, blessed wife, great she-wolf, bringer of changes." 

  "Do you claim this birthright for yourself?" 

  "I do." 

  "Then let the test begin." 

  Moonrise was not far off. I stood and stepped into the fire. My feet found the stepping stones, unnatural things that were immune to the heat, feeling as cool as flagstones at night. The flames were low and heat radiated over my legs. I stepped out on the other side, having passed through fire. I knelt inside the pentagram. 

  The priestess took a brand and thrust it into the fire. It sputtered to flaming life. She muttered under her breath in an ancient tongue, touching the brand to the censures on the points. They let out a sweet and pleasing smoke that hung in graceful ropes in the still night air. 

  "Behold your daughter, Luna!" the priestess called out as the moon broke over the horizon. I did not need her warning, I could feel the moonlight on my skin burning hotter than the fire. I could feel my blood welling up inside, the pain muted by the steaming draught I'd consumed, the agony of transformation fuzzy and diffuse compared to the pleasure. My limbs tingled, then I felt bolts of electricity from the crown of my head down to the tips of my fingers and toes. I began to shudder as I felt my body becoming unglued, undone. 

I crouched to the ground, then fell onto my side, clutching at myself. The pain was alive inside of me, clawing against my skin from the inside. I could feel my fingers pulling in on themselves as my limbs stretched and bent. I tasted my own blood as my growing fangs nipped my lips. This pain was nearly unbearable with the moon tea; I could not imagine how it would be without it. I understood now how one could be driven to madness by the transformation. And then I lost everything to blackness. After that, I was no longer myself. 

The world is emptiness and I am a point of nothingness inside of it. And then I can smell. A riot of odors. But stronger than the rest, overpowering, something familiar. Warm. Comforting. My mother! Now I can feel her, her muzzle pressing warm against the fur at my neck. I can hear her breathing. I open my eyes to a new world. Everything is cast in sharp shades of gray, slight color hinting around the flames of the fire. Seeing it, suddenly woodsmoke is brought to the forefront of my perception. I can smell the sap bubbling. Now I notice more familiar smells, people-like, and then animal traces I can not yet identify. 

Senses still overwhelming me, I shakily get to my feet. No. Not feet. Paws. Four of them. I flex my toes and felt my claws dig into the dirt. This felt nothing like getting on my hands and knees. My body feels nothing like itself. I lick my nose automatically and became aware of my muzzle, powerful jaws with sharp teeth meant for killing. My tail sweeps back and forth. Yes, a tail! I turn in place, testing the movement of my limbs, gaining a feel of myself. An alien shape looms before my eyes and I start when I realized I saw human as Other. But when I lock eyes with her I knew her for wolfkin. 

I lope around the fire as I grow used to my skin. It fells new and ancient, powerful and deadly. It fells right. In dreams past I could remember my rational mind often felt like a passenger, riding along on the inside of me but only passively observing my actions as I danced to the anti-logic of sleep. I feel like that now, my rational mind detached and observing while animal instinct settled itself at the reins. I look up at the moon and howled. I am wolf! In the distance other wolves answered. My pack! 

We run through the woods, racing down narrow animal trails, across clearings, through streams. I fell my lungs burn but knew they were equal to the challenge. I was only just beginning to learn the limits of my wolf form. 

A new scent hits me like a physical blow. I come to an awkward halt, almost tumbling over myself. I put my nose to the ground and breath deeply. Something familiar but not me, not family, not pack. But what? All other thoughts are pushed from my mind, nothing but this. I felt an excitement like I'd never known. I must follow. I ignore my mother behind me as I dash forward with every bit of speed I can summon forth. I ran before. Now I fly. I barely register my mother's howl behind me. Let her follow. 

Memories from my human self flash into my awareness. The first time I met Sam. At school, two years ago. Walking up to my table in the lunchroom and using and opening line he must have heard in some silly movie. I laugh, telling him how awful it was but inviting him to sit anyway. His lips quirk in that grin that can only be Sam's and he admits it was bad. Sam, that mix of boldness and shyness. 

Even through the fur my muzzle stings as I burst through tangled scrub, something with needles tearing at me ineffectually. 

Shoes in hand, we splashed through the stream in the woods near town. Nothing to talk about, a friendly silence, companionable. Balancing on slimy rocks, eyes searching for anything of interest in the shimmering water. I remembered my exact thought at that moment, how strange it was to feel so content simply being in the presence of another. 

I leap over a fallen tree, the bark shed away from the trunk to reveal wood ghostly white in the moonlight. I clear it effortlessly. 

Sam furious. Last night his older sister had come home from her date crying, a nasty bruise blooming on her cheek. His father said things would be taken care of and he'd meant it. Sam was unsure how to comfort her and his instinct was for revenge. That was worthy. But it would be taken care of without his help. He hated himself for this impotence, seeing only the boy he was. I saw differently. I glimpsed the man he could become. 

The sound of the other wolves has grown distant. I am outracing them. My legs burn, my lungs are on fire, and still I run. 

In a theater, Sam sitting beside me. Is he in love with me? I know he is infatuated. Am I in love with him? I know I can't stop thinking about him. But the pact rules are strict. Relations within the pack are permissible at any time but it is forbidden to look outside of the pack. Weres and people can't, shouldn't mix like that. I keep my feelings to myself. I like Sam. It's safer this way.   
And now I've tracked that scent trail to the very end. He is there in a clearing filled with human things. "Picnic area," my rational mind offers helpfully. My animal side does not care. I know he is male from his scent and now I can see it with my eyes. Not a man, a boy. I growl and fell warmth travel from my insides down my limbs. I shiver with a mounting desire. He turns and sees me. There is fear in his eyes. He sucks in a giant lungful of air to scream. I close the distance and am upon him. He falls with my jaws at his throat, fangs cutting off his scream before it's even half over. Blood floods into my mouth, all warm salt and copper, and I feel a satisfaction I can only describe as sexual. I tear away the shirt covering his belly and rip it open. My first kill. I want to feed. 

I hear a wolf behind me and I whirled. My mother. Competition! I will not share. This meat is mine! I growl and bristle at her. She will not have him! She makes no move to approach but began howling, a howl filled with an emotion that did not seem animal. I stand between her and my meat, continuing to snarl my warning. She might be calling others to help drive me off. I would not have it! 

Two man shapes enter the clearing. They are pack. Would they try to steal my kill? I growl at them as well, just to be sure. They do not growl back. They do not approach. One raises a long object to his shoulder and I felt a sting at my neck at the same time I heard a puff of air. I spin around, craning to try and bite at whatever it was, not caring that my jaws could not possibly reach. The strength flees from my body and I collapse. I am losing consciousness. I fall facing my kill. I can see his face, by chance turned towards me and staring with dead, sightless eyes. A flash of recognition strickes me. Sam! And then nothing. 

I awoke laying down on something soft. I looked up and saw stars. I did not know where I was.  I did not know what I was. I raised my arm, foreleg? I wasn't sure. It was trapped beneath a blanket. I was naked. My limb escaped. I brought it before my eyes. No fur. A hand. I was human again. Why should this be surprising? The full moon! My ceremony was coming soon! But no, fragments of memory tumbled by. It had already taken place along with something else. Sam. What about Sam? Oh, God! 

I tried to sit up, reaching out for support. My hands found cool metal. I was in the back of a pickup. Gray limned the horizon. Dawn was coming. How long was I unconscious? I saw my mother sitting in the bed with me. She was human again, face pale now, looking sick. She reached out for me and squeezed my shoulder. She looked like she was going to cry. She called for my father. I looked in that direction. There were picnic tables. Someone had set up lights. They were focused on a blue tarp. Beneath that blue tarp was a shape, a people shape. Sam! 

My father left that group of men. He walked towards us. His face was fury carved from ancient heartwood. I remember nothing but fragments. Father would see that this mess was cleaned up. This was your boyfriend, Jessica? How could we know? This is why we told you it was so important not to date outside of the pack, the sexual instinct becoming confused with the killing instinct. Any human inside a run would risk his life but one who had won a she-wolf's heart would certainly die. I thought I'd been so careful. It wasn't about how he felt about me, it was about how I felt about him. This was too much for me. I slipped back into unconsciousness. 


Father was good to his word. The problem went away. Sam disappeared. His parents could not believe he ran away. He certainly didn't run off with me. I was still here, wasn't I? Did I know where he might have gone? No, of course not. 

I sat beneath the big oak tree in Feeney Park. Our tree. I'd never thought of it that way before. Fall was coming. He liked the fall, Sam. He liked me. He wanted to see my Run. He wanted to see my glory. He never saw the danger. I felt empty inside, dead. Months have passed and time has no power against my memories; every detail remains sharp as razors. His smile. His laugh. His smell; he smelled so good. The excitement of finding his trail. How it felt to tear the life from him. The animalistic joy. And that animal is me. He's gone now, gone forever. And every time I close my eyes, I can still taste him.

I think I've caught most of the typos. The only part I'm not sure on is the tense change after her transformation. It's meant to show how different her perception is in her animal form. If it doesn't work I can always put it back to past tense.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cowboys and Kalashnikovs

A scenario exploring Peak Oil America and the post-industrial Wild West. This is not a prediction, just speculation.

We are the survivors of the prodigal age
Our forefathers wasted everything 
Soft men for soft times
Preoccupied with diversion 
All consuming trivialities
The riches of the greatest civilization ever known 
squandered, pissed away, forever lost 

We live in the squalid ruins of opulence
Men of a lean and hungry age
Too impoverished for any more self-delusion 
No expectation of a better future, only hope for survival 
No more soft men, only the hardened and the broken
Awoken from the American dream, screaming

I'm borrowing a few ideas that have come up on the Kunstlercast, namely the idea of what America might look like in an expensive energy future. The assumptions are that there will be no ready replacement for cheap fossil fuels and that the old economics and ways of life obsoleted in the 20th century will make a revival. However, there is a crisis of capital and political will. The existing infrastructure can't even be maintained, let alone rebuilding all that was dismantled. The full Kunstler scenario plays out in his World Made by Hand novels which puts everyone squarely back in the 19th century with hardly any advanced technology remaining relevant. That's a bit more radical than I'm imagining.

The setting is a hundred years from now. The American empire is dead and gone. It's been a steeper decline than even the British endured. America's political dysfunction didn't help matters. While there's still nominally a Union, the tax base has shrunken so much that federal authority is greatly diminished. Suburbia without cars is unsustainable and there has been a steep decline in population as well as a consolidation into teeming cities. There are computers and office buildings and electric vehicles in the urban areas but get thin on the ground in the boonies. Economies have become increasingly local with long-distance trade limited to the rails and waterways. The steam engine has made a comeback for trains and riverboats, coal remaining the only cheap fossil fuel left. Biodiesel is popular for some small engine applications and the feedstock is agricultural waste. Animal power in many places is cheaper and more reliable than machines. Bicycles crowd the streets. Personal electronic geegaws like satellite world phones are cheap enough that every family has one but a private car is an impossible extravagance. There's no single dominant alternative energy solution but cheap power is done for. Energy is expensive and as precious as water in the desert.

Out west the ranchers have large herds of cattle, just like back in the day. The ranching economy provides a basis for a modest standard of living. The only other growth industry is in the dismantling of the abandoned cities for valuable scrap. China has weathered the downturn magnificently. Chinese windjammers carry much of what remains of global trade and completely dominate the Pacific route between North America and Asia. In a reverse of the Century of Humiliation which marked foreign imperial dominance of China, now the Chinese are able to call the shots on the Pacific side of a diminished America. Washington might not like it but they have nothing left to bargain with. They can't even maintain the tritium initiators for the nuclear arsenal, not that the solid fuel motors of the ICBM's are in any condition to fire.

You have ranchers trying to make a living, homesteaders trying to do the same. You have the cattle drives and cattle towns, Chinese traders and their mercenary escorts, fortune-seekers, gamblers, bandits and common folk, all trying to earn a living. Overworked lawmen struggle to keep the peace. Bullets are plentiful and life is cheap.

The image the title of this post brings to mind should be plain enough: a western gunfighter with an automatic weapon. Seems a little incongruous? Perhaps.  But if you skip ahead to the three minute mark you can see the Chinese army making a cavalry charge in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.

To recap the assumptions going into this scenario:

Q: Why does everything revert back to mostly 19th century technology?
A: Cheap energy is gone.

Q: Why haven't alternative energy sources allowed us to maintain the standard of living to which we've become accustomed?
A: Because the fundamental assumption of this setting is that none of the alternate energy solutions can fully replace the cheap energy, fossil fuel economy.

Q: So what about the wind, solar, biogas and small-scale hydro you mention in the background?
A: The experts say it won't scale to the extent needed for things to continue as normal. Whether they're right or wrong, I don't know. This is the assumption. Solar power isn't going to air condition the 5,000 square-foot McMansion.

Q: I'm pretty sure that things could play out a bit better with those technologies if only...
A: And that's where failure of the political process comes in. How can people end up starving to death when there's produce rotting in the fields? Politics. At any point in this scenario you can say "It doesn't have to be this way, if only..." just remember it's all politics and a good deal of stupidity.

Q: I don't agree with your assumptions.
A: I'm not evangelizing. This is a scenario, it's not prophecy. That's why they're called assumptions, not certainties.

Q: What happened to coal?
A: It never went away. But I think that most coal use will be industrial. We won't see a national power grid energized to make sure people get their air conditioning, microwave burritos and television.

Q: So the whole world isn't de-industrialized?
A: No, but China will no longer be making all the plastic crap to fill Wal-Mart's shelves with. If America doesn't make anything, what do we have to trade with? Nobody has a use for money that can't buy anything. Petroleum is no longer the basis of a global economy, nobody wants our petro-dollars. Globalization is dead and gone.

Q: How are you measuring pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial?
A: Per-capita energy usage. It's a big parabola; in the West the peak in the 1970's.

Q: So you would call this a scaling back of dreams?
A: Exactly. At our height we were able to go to the moon. We could be confident that our children would have a higher standard of living than ourselves and we saw how ours was better than our parents. The march of progress is over. Just hanging on to what we've got would be nice. Cutting our losses is the reality. Running as fast as we can just to stay in place and seeing ourselves start to slide back, that's the nightmare.

Q: So where does the high-tech stuff that does exist come from?
A: From the remaining manufacturing centers. The product lifecycle will be a lot longer. The advantage to consumer electronics is that they have a high value to weight ratio, not unlike precious metals, gemstones and spices. They'll form the basis of the new spice trade as it were.

Q: But consumer stuff is so cheap, you just throw it away when it breaks and buy another one.
A: That age is over and anything made cheaply enough that it can't be fixed when it breaks will no longer be bought. Planned obsolescence is unacceptable at this point.

Q: Is there an Internet?
A: Good question. I'm not sure how long existing infrastructure will last with buried fiber. Power and phone lines require maintenance and would likely become expensive to maintain. I think that the Internet could go dark in the hinterlands with only the main cities connected. But there are some ideas like AMPRNet (AMateur Packet Radio Network). It's low-bandwidth so you could be back to the days of trickling in large transfers over a period of weeks with sneakernets used to move large caches of data. The Chinese could very well be operating a satellite-based network for their own purposes but it would not be public access for the masses. And if satellite launches prove too expensive, there's always the potential for solar-powered, unmanned aircraft operating as telecommunication relays.

This is the first pass at the concept. I'll elaborate more in subsequent posts.