Paragon’s Fall: The Recruit – 1

The anomaly on your left whispered that you’d crossed into Canada. Not that Canada existed anymore, but changing a name doesn’t change the feel. Atlantis this side of Niagara Falls seemed calmer, more serene with all the trees — there’d been a big push, you recall, to reforest a lot of this territory as food production ramped up efficiency — than the urban streets you came from.

You ask the anomaly how she knows, because there’s no maps inside the plane ferrying all of you to Atlantis’ training facility. You’re all mashed into seats without much for entertainment, presumably as some bonding measure, but all you really want is a chance to stretch your legs, but the bulky dude to your right conked out ten minutes in and you don’t want to risk shaking up the snores.

You’re all anomalies here, and there’s no telling what the guy might do if you wake him up.

“That’s my gift,” she says. “You want to know where we are, I can tell you. Great, isn’t it?”

You suspect sarcasm, but you’ve never met her before and she’s still looking out the window as she talks, so you play it safe and say, “Is it?”

Because having a gift replicated by every Tama on every wrist on the planet doesn’t seem high value. The anomaly, who looks near enough your fourteen years, droops her shoulders a bit and sighs.

You understand that sound.

From the moment the test comes back positive, life’s a whirlwind of doctors, Paragons, parents and choices to be made before you’re ready. You barely processed the doc labeling you an anomaly before the nurse had you pressed back on the chair, the tracer getting shot into your arm. They don’t take any chances anymore – too many rogues running around to give people any freedom. 

Classes, careers, those get realigned over the next year. You fill out surveys with your interests, your teachers fill out forms about your ability, and then you get slotted. One of your parents mentions it being like drafts in the old days, something your great grandparents dealt with. A collection of confused, scared, and forced youngsters getting involved in matters too heavy for them to understand.

But you’re here now, and as the plane starts going down, you’d be lying if you’re not a little bit excited. You’ve grown up listening and watching the legends perform, and now you’re going to get the chance to be one. Your ability might not be as cool, but it’s something, and you think, in the right circumstances, you could make a pretty good name for yourself.

“I don’t know,” she finally says. “They think so. It’s not just where I am, but it’s where things are in relation to me. Like, I know you’re exactly twelve centimeters away from my right arm.”

You lean back against the seat’s hard cushion. Consider what she said. Whether a power like hers compares to yours, and whether the fact that she’s in your group means good or bad things for your Paragon prospects. Whether it’s bad you’re even thinking like that.

Because you’re part of the machine now, and the introduction video made that much clear: You are nothing without the Paragons, and the Paragons are nothing without its people.

Insertion Part Nine: Sideline

Three shots. Count’em. And Aurora said Eponi didn’t do enough when Sever started fights.

Not that those three shots — blistering bolts fired from the small spitter DefenseCorp regulations made Eponi carry — seemed to bother the swamp creature. Sever’s pilot watched from the front nose of the drop shuttle, steadily losing its war against the loose sludge drawing it down, as Gregor, Sai, Rovo, and Aurora dashed around tentacles and splashed through goo to try and figure out how to hurt the thing. The whole scene felt like a bad flick, one of those where all the budgets went to special effects and nothing to the plot.

“Why is this thing even here?” Eponi said into the squad’s channel between a warning call from Aurora to Rovo and a curse from Sai as his sword stuck again into the mud beast’s side. “Out of this entire swamp, we happen to land right on top of it? What are the odds?”

She aimed the spitter as a tentacle swept up Gregor, pulling the big man towards the top of the beast’s bulk. On the side of her weapon, a yellow strip slowly shifted towards green as the spitter sucked spare electrons from the atmosphere, charging up its own batteries to, well, spit death back out. Tech that’d started in weapons like this and then made its way to the racers she loved, giving way for days-long contests where managing battery power took as much skill as navigating the course. The prize purses for those… she’d get back to them.

“You chose the landing spot!” Rovo bothered to reply.

“Kill it!” Aurora played her part, shut down irrelevant conversation. “Eponi, help Gregor.”

Eponi squeezed off another yellow bolt towards the top of the beast. It vanished into the mud with a sizzle, doing nothing to assist Gregor as the mud beast threw him into a nearby tree. Gregor hit the trunk, a rotting thing that looked more like a harbinger of horrors rather than a plant, and broke it, landing on the tree’s gnarled roots below. Eponi grimaced—that looked like it hurt—and stood. Gregor didn’t move, except for his right leg’s slow slide towards the muck. Guess she could help him avoid drowning in the disgusting swamp.

With the boosters kicking, Eponi leapt off the nose of the drop shuttle and flew over Sai’s swinging blade, a sliding tentacle, and Rovo’s scattershot spitter blasts. For a hot second, the roots seemed like they might be beyond Eponi’s grasp, but, as ever, the helmet’s calculations proved correct and Eponi landed right in the middle of the green zone her visor had highlighted. Racers had strict limits on their autopilots, their computer assists, so natural skill took precedence. Out here? The less DefenseCorp could leave in the hands of its soldiers, the better. Took a lot of the thrill away.

“You alive, big guy?” Eponi said, reaching Gregor and dragging—with the help of energy augments in her suit—him away from the liquid. She sent the words through the touch-comm, a near field link that’d send the sound right to Gregor without muddling the squad’s open channel. “Fight’s still going. They could use your hammer out there.”

A hammer that, Eponi noted, still occupied prime position in the mud thing’s crown. Though it seemed like Sever had made some headway – much of the mud had been burned or cut away, revealing a grassy-green set of scales and fur, as though the creature had blended a bunch of species and chosen the ugliest parts of each. The fight’s good news did nothing to spur Gregor; the man stayed still.

“Clear to wake him up?” Eponi tossed out to the channel.

“Clear!” came Aurora’s reply.

“Sorry, buddy.” Eponi pressed in on a tiny pair of notches beneath Gregor’s helmet, against his neck.

Those notches ran a quick verification scan against Eponi’s gloves, making sure she had friendly credentials. Her visor screen split into halves, the left green and the right red. Eponi winked with her left eye, and when the visor flashed all green for a microsecond, she let go of her teammate. Stepped back and watched as Gregor’s suit hummed to a whining, glass-breaking sound. At the noise’s apex, Gregor twitched, his hands and feet flaring out followed by a heavy sigh. His eyes opened, found Eponi’s, and then shut again.

“I hate that,” Gregor said on their near-field channel.

“How many times?”

“Lost count after a dozen.”

Eponi stopped herself from noting DefenseCorp regs suggested all kinds of harmful effects linked to repeated shock-jock tech. Sever held a fuzzy relationship with DefenseCorp, and that may as well extend to this too. Impossible missions demanded impossible compromises, or something like that.

The mud creature let out its first real noise of the fight, a gibbering, wet cough arising from its middle as Sai finally managed to get his sword through the creature’s liquid sludge armor and cut into the good stuff. As death rattles went, Eponi had heard far better screams from pilots as their racers plummeted into endless crevasses or slipped into lava rivers. Aurora and Rovo apparently agreed, taking advantage of the creature’s distress to boost their way near Sai and concentrate their fire into the fresh wound. Like a poorly chosen microwave meal, the heat built up through the middle of the monster before it exploded, raining prodigious muck and worse all over the squad.

Except for Eponi, who’d taken Gregor’s rise as an opportunity for cover and crouched behind the large man. Guts and glory splattered around everyone except her, and Eponi didn’t give one single damn. She’d lived, made it one step closer to that pay day.

“Look at you,” Rovo said roughly five minutes later, as the squad turned to unloading essentials from the drop shuttle. Aurora tasked Eponi and Rovo with the foodstuffs, which they were throwing into expandable buoy-packs, so named for their negative pressure pockets designed to repel gravity enough to make heavy weights an easy carry. “All clean. The rest of us have some natural camouflage.”

“Just doing my part,” Eponi replied, shoveling micro-energy bars by the armful into one of the gray packs. “I’ll draw all the fire.”

“Fire from what?”

Eponi had already forgotten Rovo had the rookie disease — all threats were hypothetical, because Rovo hadn’t experienced them yet. Not outside of a simulator, anyway.

“Did you miss the skiffs?”

“They weren’t that dangerous, and we made it away from them.” Rovo filled his pack to the brim and tugged on the taut string towards the top. The pull triggered the pack’s closing mechanism, and the buoy-pack compressed around the more substantial meal packets Rovo had chosen, creating a rounded cube the Sever, with Eponi’s help, slotted into a pair of back notches on his armor. “If that’s all we’re dealing with, minus the swamp monster, I think this ought to be simple.”

“We don’t get simple missions. Don’t know what they told you when you signed on with Sever, but we’re here to handle what DefenseCorp won’t touch with its legitimate squads. That means high risk, high reward.”

“Is that why you’re here? The reward?”

Seeing someone’s expression through their mask required x-ray vision, so Eponi couldn’t quite tell whether Rovo had asked the question honestly or not. Then she realized she didn’t care.

“I’m here. That should tell you the reward isn’t all that good,” Eponi replied. “But we get to stay away from the rest of DefenseCorp’s crap, and we can ditch out whenever we want. No contracts, no clauses, no complaints. That’s enough for me.”

“Kind of hard to ditch out now.”

Eponi finished her own pack, and as Rovo slapped it into place on her back, Aurora made the general evac call. Time to get away from the drop shuttle, march through the muck, and figure out where this VIP happened to get himself stuck.

“That’s the real secret,” Eponi said as she punched in the drop shuttle’s self-destruct code. It’d take a couple hours to go off, long enough for Sever to get far enough away from any eyes attracted to the fire. “Once you’re a part of Sever, there is no way out. Not alive, anyway.”

Todoist – A solid blend of features and function

I’ll say it straight up – Todoist, and specifically Todoist PRO (not all that expensive at a yearly rate) is my current task list of choice. It’s not perfect, for reasons I’ll get into, but of the forces on this particular battlefield, it has the best overall blend of tools and ease of use for a single person (me!).

So what’s the experience? Well, Todoist goes the minimal route. While it’ll integrate with Google Calendar, it doesn’t play quite as smooth with gmail as Google Tasks, nor does it prompt you to assemble teams with pictures like Asana. Rather, it strikes a balance by being quick to load, fast to interact with, and brings a couple of big time savers to the table:

  1. Dynamic due date typing – I didn’t know how much I’d use this until I started, uh, using it. It’s natural to say that you want something done tomorrow, or in a week. In most task managers I’ve played with, you can’t simply type that in the title of the task and have the manager parse it out, but Todoist does. Typing pay the rent tomorrow will get you a task, due tomorrow, to pay the rent. It’s fast and easy.
  2. Project Templates – You need the pro version for this, but like I noted in some of the other reviews, many of the things I do are repetitive. Every book needs a cover, needs to be formatted, needs a spell check and so on. Rather than typing out those tasks every time (and, more dangerously, forgetting one and then publishing a book without a key piece…), I can load up a previous project and I’m good to go.

Todoist offers a bunch of fiddly extras too, but you’re welcome to ignore those as you go along. Do I care about all the colors, or use the ‘comment’ feature? Nah, but I guess it’s nice that they’re available.

Unlike Google Tasks, Todoist lets you easily group projects that are related to one another, making it easier to see, at a glance, how many tasks I have to do to keep the house from falling apart (so, so many) compared to how many overdue tasks I have to update this and other websites (also so, so many). You can do this with Asana too, but it’s a bigger deal than click-and-drag.

And that seems to be the guiding principle for Todoist – it knows that it’s on a screen, and not everything’s going to be check-the-box simple, but it tries. Most things are a click away, from weekly/daily task views to any of your projects you want to examine more closely. Tasks themselves have zero required fields to fill out – no teams here, really.

So Todoist is winning the war by sheer efficiency. But that’s for me, and it may not fit you.

If you’re working within an enterprise, Outlook gives you benefits that may be impossible to ignore. If you’re working with teams, Asana brings a lot of benefits Todoist just doesn’t have, provided everyone’s willing to play their game.

And if you want a simple day-to-day list that you mark up and down, Google Tasks is as no-frills as it gets.

Or, you know, you could pull out that pen and paper.

Asana – For When You Need It All

If Google Tasks puts all its chips on integration, Asana takes the opposite approach and scatters its strengths all over a wide swath of features that make it a clear stand-out if you’re working with a bunch of goons you’ve got to boss around.

For my purposes, and in general as a solo task manager, spending a lot of time assigning things to ‘me’ and tracking ‘my load’ and such means a whole lot of wasted effort. Like buy a big truck when you live in the middle of the city, or a Rolex when you just need something to tell you the time – it’ll get the job done, it just may not be the right tool.

But boy oh boy if you like pretty interfaces with lots of color, unicorn sparkle animations, and options to include head-shot circles of every team member so you can stare at their stock-photo smiles every time you’re once again delaying the due date because of their incompetence, Asana is for you.

All this, of course, presupposes that your team-based environment isn’t on some other enterprise project management software like MS Project or even a moldy set of Excel spreadsheets running macros like that weird guy you once knew that now runs seemingly every marathon and posts endless pictures of each of them.

Anyway, point being, Asana is going to fit those groups that don’t have an integrated solution but depend on team-based timing to get things done. As a writer, even those outside folks I work with aren’t going to bother getting Asana just so I can send them tasks that they could do by email. And if they’re not going to buy into the system for me (one client), then it’s not worth it for me to deal with all the extra fields for what amounts to a splashy to-do list.

You’ve fought a good fight, Asana, but this just isn’t your war to win.

Google Tasks – The Integration Almost Gets There

Believe it or not, but creative projects are much like all other projects in life. Writing a novel consists of a number of steps, and writing a novel on schedule requires completing those steps by the deadline. You can’t just wake up, pour some bourbon in your coffee and expect epiphanies to stroll in through the door. You either treat it like a job, or it doesn’t happen.

To that end, we look at our first entrant in this To-Do List War, the relatively fresh Google Tasks. One of the world’s largest companies took a look at the hordes of task managers out there and all their giant features lists and said hey, we can integrate with gmail. What more do you want?

And to be fair to Google, that one feature is almost enough. They brought the ultimate weapon to the fight – the instant access to your task list while you’re emailing away – and figured that would be enough.

The Google Tasks icon hovers over on the right side, next to the Calendar and whatnot, in gmail’s tableau. In a single click, Tasks creeps in from the right and hangs out, not being all pushy. If you don’t have any tasks there, a pleasant little message informs you of your apparent success. Sometimes I open it to a blank list just to make myself feel better.

Unfortunately, Tasks built out this integration, which functions just like Outlook, and then failed to make everything as easy as Outlook. It’s not just a single click to turn an email into a task, and it’s difficult to sort tasks efficiently or group them into projects. While you can create ‘lists’, you won’t be able to see all your lists at once, sorted into tasks only due ‘Today’, or ‘Tomorrow’, which both Outlook and Todoist fulfill.

There’s also no dynamic dating from typing, meaning it’s difficult to stream-of-consciousness rattle off a bunch of tasks and slot them into their due dates without using a mouse. All of these claims, by the way, are based on me testing them out. I consider myself an average user, not a hyper-savvy savant who can parse out macro hotkey sequences as if by magic. If something’s not self-evident, I’m not gonna find it.

So here we have this killer gmail integration that could be perfect, and Tasks forgets to bring the rest of the war machine to the fight. Everything else is difficult. Subtasking exists, but there’s no templates in sight. It’s hard to move tasks around or color code them appropriately. In short, it’s a bummer that’s going to, nonetheless, be perfect for some people.

And who are those people?

The ones who want a quick and dirty way to digitize their daily tasks and have them hang out in gmail because that’s where they spend most of their time. It’s a perfect melding, and setting a time in the task squeezes it right into your Google calendar. Dynamic dating doesn’t matter if you’re gonna do everything either before or after lunch, and you don’t need templates to note that you’ve gotta get those TPS reports to Bill by five.

But for a novel, or anything that’s going to take weeks and months from start to finish, you don’t want to be starting your list from scratch every day, and you don’t want to retype a 70-step project every time you start the next book. Thus, Google Tasks falls ever so slightly short.

Just goes to show that the biggest weapon doesn’t always win the war.

The To-Do List War

As a way of displacing my own faults in my disastrous efforts to find and stick with a to-do list system, I’ve come to favor thinking of all the apps and websites as equally incompetent armies vying for the prize at the center of the battlefield. In this flight of fancy (and possibly only in this flight of fancy), the prize is me.

So who do we have fighting for the privilege of letting me click boxes, type in due dates, and sync with my Google calendar?

Let’s meet the contestants:

  1. Google Tasks – the peasant horde, this easy to-do-lister offers painless execution that is utterly confounded by larger, more complex project management.

    Strengths: Quick and agile, good at the basics. Has a great relationship with Google Calendar and is easy to access from within Gmail.

    Weaknesses: Too simple to handle project templates, easy nesting of projects within one another, and has a Sword of Damocles hanging over its head due to Google’s willingness to kill products like a hangman during the French Revolution.
  2. Asana – a lumbering war machine built for vast enterprises and team-wide efforts. Loaded with features that are useless for the solo tasker, but stuffed with fun animations that make it attractive nonetheless.

    Strengths: All the nested tasks, due date stringiness, and project templates you could ask for. Asana comes ready to bring industrial-strength features without the sheer scale of something like MS Project.

    Weaknesses: We’re not trying to project plan the Olympics here. Asana’s simply too much for a day-to-day manager. Like buying a Hummer when you live in the city – it might be fascinating for a few days, but then you’ll just be asking why?
  3. Todoist – the savvy crew that brings the right level of sophistication, but lacks the overwhelming firepower to claim the prize straight out, this task manager has the current lead.

    Strengths: Dynamic date-placing while typing the task name saves clicks (e.g. typing buy groceries tomorrow and hitting enter will create the buy groceries task and set it due for tomorrow). Simple click-and-drag for arranging projects and tasks is, well, simple.

    Weaknesses: Pro subscription isn’t expensive, but it’s damn near necessary to make this mercenary group useful. Project templates don’t have an easy relative date function that I’ve found – e.g. set the final due date to X and have all the other tasks swap to X-1, X-5, etc.
  4. A pen and a piece of paper – the old standby that’s been coasting on experience and dependability for a long time now. Always in the running yet never quite good enough.

    Strengths: Best-in-class performance for a day’s tasks. Incredibly satisfying to physically check those boxes. Customizable, and easy to flip back and see how many boxes you’ve checked as a morale booster.

    Weaknesses: Difficult to plot out big projects on paper unless you’re willing to make a big ol’ mess of a journal. Requires a journal, a pen, and having both on you to make adjustments or look up tasks in question.

Is this a comprehensive list of all the task management apps and methods out there? Nah. Is this a comprehensive list of all the ones I’ve tried to use with any degree of effort? Yep. I’ve looked at others and written them off for one reason or another, so these are the four I’m gonna look at more closely and we’ll see which one comes out on top in the end.

It’ll be a no-holds-barred battle to see which of these worthy contenders winds up as the champion of the checkboxes, the king of the kalendar, the duke of the dailies… you get the idea.

Insertion Part Eight: The Beast

Gregor laughed. Shook his head at the sight of the thing, and then laughed some more. He didn’t expect to find this kind of entertainment out here. So far away from any active combat zones, on some long DefenseCorp patrol given to Sever and the Nautilus as a sort-of break. And here he was, face to face with something he’d never seen, never heard of.

The monster was disgusting. A living mess.


His visor, coated with a super-slick film, washed itself clean of the mud that stuck to every other part of him. Gregor even had to heft twice to pull his hammer out of the grime it’d been stuck in after his swing. Fine. He preferred having to work for his fun.

Holding his maul in his hands, Gregor stared up at the blob. Looked for a weak point. Didn’t find any. Which meant straight ahead.

“Cleared to go in?” Gregor said.

“Cleared,” Aurora replied a moment later, her voice coming clear through their suit’s communications.

They gave Gregor an early break in the laser fire. Sever’s assault weapons would superheat a mud beast like this one and turned it into a boiling mass of crap. Before that happened, Gregor wanted to get his swings in. He double pumped his heels, activating the boost pads in his boots, and Gregor popped out of the mud. He swung the hammer left to right as Gregor flew through the air and connected with the mud beast. Grime and glory splattered all over as the weapon found its mark. Then the hammer head stuck, and Gregor, his momentum still going, flew chest first into the front of the beast. Smacked it like a wet noodle, the hit jarring Gregor’s weapon free — of his grip, the mud still had strong hold of the hammer — and Gregor rolled down the thing’s front, splashing in the water at its base.

On his back, he could see his hammer still sticking out of the creature as Sever’s bright yellow bolts resumed. He had to get the hammer back. Couldn’t risk losing it in the swamp. Gregor tried to sit up when something collided with his face. Pressed him back down into the muck and cut off his vision.

“Gregor, hold on! One of the tentacles— ” Sai, the one who got them into this mess.

“I can tell,” Gregor cut him off. “Get it off me.”

Gregor’s suit registered the ripples in the water as Sai made his way over, while Gregor reached with his hands and grabbed the tentacle slamming his face down into the swamp. Tried to get a good grip, but the slime-coated trunk made for difficult grabbing from a pair of metal-covered armored gloves. Defense tended to trump grip, but, far from the first time, Gregor cursed their suit design anyway.

Fine. Gregor dropped his left hand away to his waist, slapped it against the side of his power suit and popped a small little disk free. Held it up into the air,, just out of the water, and squeezed. A single long blade unfurled from the center of the disk, and once it had straightened, the last quarter of it bent to a right angle, blade to the side. Gregor couldn’t see any of this, but felt the expected vibrations in his hand as the tool spun up. An emergency saw.

Gregor held the blade to the trunk. Felt it dig into the muddy, moldy mass. And just as quickly felt the blade gum up. Snap and break apart. Not surprising – the disks were meant to cut through malfunctioning harnesses, safety nets, and ropes. Not to cleave through a mud monster in the swamps of Dynas.

Gregor felt, rather than saw, Sai collide with the trunk. A shuddering charge, which did nothing. At least that Gregor could tell.

“Use your damn sword, Sai,” Gregor yelled. That was Sai’s whole point anyway. Bombs and blades.

“I wanted to keep it clean,” Sai replied. Because of course he did.

“Where do you think you are? A showroom?”

The pressure increased, and the tentacle pushed Gregor deep down beneath the water’s surface. Till he felt the swamp-floor mud sucking at his back. Creasing into his armor and wrapping around the sides of his helmet. He’d be buried in moments.

All once the pressure ceased. Gregor had his own power again. He pressed his arms, kicked his legs under him, and pushed them into the goop. Propelled his way to the surface. The suits weren’t made for swimming, but the swamp wasn’t an ocean – the shallow and thick water gave Gregor enough heft to pull himself to the surface.

The end of the trunk still stuck to Gregor’s mask, so he couldn’t see, but the little heads-up display, in neon blue letters, told him he’d made it out of the muck. That he could, if Gregor so chose, open his helmet without sending swamp water cascading in. Opening a helmet in a live combat zone, unless in cases of critical malfunction, was against DefenseCorp policy. Voided his insurance – particularly the large payout that would come if Gregor met his demise. Too much to lose, and Gregor had heard DefenseCorp would take any opening it had to keep that payout low. Like most of Sever, family — siblings, parents in his case — waited and no doubt hoped to one day receive the final payout from Gregor’s suicidal career choice.

Gregor set his hands to the trunk again and, without the rest of the tentacle pressing it, managed to tear the suction away from his helmet and launch the limb away into the swamp. The ugly swamp once more made itself visible, and once more left Gregor utterly unimpressed.

The rest of the fight was going about as well as he’d expected. Aurora, Eponi and Rovo were still launching spit-fire at the creature, which seemed unaffected. Its tentacles whirled around, and Gregor saw that some of the them were longer than the shuttle, blazing through the air like swinging tree trunks. The monster made Sever squad dive and roll around. Dodge the swinging limbs, keep from getting sucked in or captured. Or beat down into the muck. Near him, Sai tried to go to work with the blade, but every cut came away with more mud and zero creature.

Gregor could help with that. He turned towards the monster, saw a tentacle start to swim through the swamp towards him. The mercenary squatted and snarled, “Come and get me you bloated bastard.”

The long, slimy limb swept out of the swamp and Gregor jumped, caught hold of it as the tentacle scooped up beneath him. It lifted Gregor up, higher than the creature itself, trying to fling him off. Exactly what Gregor hoped. As a trunk flew over the mud creature’s head, Gregor let go, dropping and spinning through the air until he landed, with a sickening splat, right on the creature’s head. Not that there really was a head, more like the top of a mound.

Gregor glanced left, down. The hammer stuck a meter beneath him, jammed into the side of the beast. Even if he could get to it, how would Gregor swing it before he wound up back in the swamp? One problem at a time. Gregor reached over his back, where, aside from the hammer, hung a pair of heavy assault rifles. Latched into the back of his power suit. Ready to go.

He popped one off, swung it over his shoulder as Gregor knelt on the beast. Pressed the nozzle down into the top of the mound. Pulled the trigger and held it.

A DefenseCorp heavy assault rifle spewed fifty bolts a second. Even without a laser’s recoil, repeated fire superheated the mirrors in the barrel and tended to send accuracy plummeting. The weapon ought to scare the living hell of anything Gregor shot as it filled the air with lethal fire. But the monster was as big as a house, and Gregor was right on top of it. Accuracy was not a question. Terror a secondary concern. Death mattered most, and at this range, the assault rifle delivered.

Bolts bubbled down into the creature, boiling deep holes that, in the moments before mud rushed to fill them, Gregor could see what looked like green-colored flesh. Good to know something lived beneath the gunk, that they weren’t fighting the swamp itself. Real life could be taken, could be scared away or burned to a crisp.

“The fun part’s beneath the mud!” Gregor shouted.

And then he was flying. Hit by a tentacle, soaring through the air. Gregor felt a crack in his back as he slammed into a tree and plummeted face first into the mud. Down and out.

Out of Sight and its romantic repartee

Watching Out of Sight, which appeared on HBO Now at the start of September, was a choice made as part of my knee-jerk search to find strange artifacts of film from my middle/high school years that achieved critical recognition despite being unknown to me personally.

Wow. That’s a paragraph.

Point being, the movie was supposed to be good, I hadn’t seen it, and it being from the 90s all rolled together to make it perfect weeknight viewing. Out of Sight also happens to be based on an Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, which showers the movie in bonus points.

Of the whole movie, though, there are two scenes I wanna mention, and both consist of the two stars (George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez) in straight up conversation with each other. There’s tension around both – in the first, Clooney’s Jack Foley is escaping from prison and has kidnapped Lopez’s Karen Sisco, a cop, and, with the help of his friend, shoved himself and her into the trunk of their getaway car. In the second, much later in the film, the two meet in a fancy hotel lounge to fan the flames of a forbidden fling.

Both scenes lean hard on the stars to carry them – neither one has much in the way of outside action. There’s almost no movement, and while the car scene is occasionally cuts to other events, our stars remain firmly in focus. This could have been a disaster – wooden exposition, or even witty words delivered with forced comedy would have broken the immersion. Instead, we get an exchange that sounds pretty darn real – from the scene in the car:

Jack Foley: You sure are easy to talk to. I was thinkin’, if we met under different circumstances…if you were in a bar and I came up and we started talkin’…I wonder what would happen.

Karen Sisco: Nothing.

Jack Foley: If you didn’t know who I was.

Karen Sisco: You’d probably tell me.

Jack Foley: Just saying if we met under different circumstances…

Karen Sisco: You have got to be kidding.

Now, take those words and read them aloud yourself. Kinda sleazy, kinda blah. You get the impression that Karen Sisco might be about to pour her drink out all over Jack Foley’s head. Instead, Clooney and Lopez honey over the words, charm oozing out of Clooney’s delivery and an exasperated amusement from from Lopez, who seems in disbelief over the whole situation and, too, with herself. Why’s she talking to this guy? Why’s he so ridiculous? Is she actually having fun here, trapped in the trunk of the car?

The situation’s so implausible, but we’re willing to believe it because the delivery, coupled with a conversation that sounds real, makes it so.

Now, in the second scene, at the hotel bar, the stakes are raised. Sisco could arrest Foley at any moment, and the question is… why doesn’t she? And Foley attempts to provide an answer with a line that ought to come off as corny and cliched, but in the moment, because Clooney delivers it with the stammering urgency of someone desperate to make their point, we buy in:

Karen Sisco: Well, does this make any sense to you?

Jack Foley: It doesn’t have to. It’s something that happens. It’s like seeing someone for the first time… like you could be passing on the street, and you look at each other and for a few seconds… there’s this kind of a recognition… like you both know something. The next moment, the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it, because it was there, and you let it go, and you think to yourself, “What if I had stopped? If I had said something?”

Jack Foley: “What if, what if?” And it may only happen a few times in your life.

Jack Foley: Or once.

Karen Sisco: Or once.

It’s a freaking fairy tale line, but delivered here, in this way and between these two characters, a bank robber and a marshal, we believe it. The rest of the story almost doesn’t matter because we just want to spend more time watching how these two are going to find a way to be together.

So what’s the point? I guess the point is that with a little bit of tension, fun characters, and dialogue that doesn’t sound like it came out of an 8th grade English class, you can immerse people into your story even without the special effects, the action, or the world-ending stakes.

All you need is two people talking.

A New Morning

Today’s the day. You’re turning thirteen. You wake up, tap your wrist to turn off your alarm, and blink into the foggy early spring morning. There’s a slight pain on your left side, easily written off as a misadventure in tossing and turning while carousing the dream zone. Your head’s a little blurry too, like a signal’s getting interrupted, but that’s just waking up, right?

Your mom calls from downstairs. Breakfast. School. The usual routine demands, and you follow them. All the way through to the shower, the clothes, and while you don’t need a backpack – something your parents laugh about – with all your books and notes stored in the Tama on your wrist, you’re nonetheless checking that you haven’t forgotten anything as you reach for the lift’s call button – it’s a long ride to ground in the stacks – when it hits.

At first, it’s like your skin is burning. Only not just your skin but everything inside it too. Except there’s no flame. No sound either except your own shouting, which you realize you’re doing when your parents run over, their faces showing a deeper kind of fear than you’ve ever seen. This isn’t concern about a skinned knee or the flu, but an existential crisis.

And you know why. You’ve been told, taught, tested. Warned that some anomalies are never caught before it happens. Now it’s happening to you.

You’re kneeling now, hands pressed against the faux-wood flooring, a quiet plea to nature in this metal place. Take a breath, your mother’s saying, and she reaches for you even as your dad tells her not to. You feel her hand on your shoulder and it’s a reaction honed by years of parent-child support to reach up and grab hold.

The burn becomes kinetic, a fiery thrum coursing from your right hand, still on that wood, through your shoulders, your nerves, through your left arm to that clasped hand. You’re looking right at her when it happens, and the shock in those eyes as they turn brown and knotted will stay with you forever.

Next comes your father, unwilling to believe what’s happened, and you, tears doing their work on your eyes, turn to him for answers. You touch his shirt, you grab his hand, and the fire burns again. Sharp, but even in this horrible moment you begin to understand it, measure the flow and, like flexing a muscle, turn it off.

You are a miracle. A genetic lottery winner. A silent house cheers.

Read Your Old Work

Writing, painting (digitally, anyway), and other creative endeavors are some of the few activities where you can look back at your old work and see whether you’ve grown (or regressed!) since you began. Play an instrument and you can probably tell whether you’ve improved, or maybe you took the time to record yourself and post it to YouTube in a early bid to make yourself a star that flamed out amid endless laughter from friends and classmates… where was I?


At this moment I’m polishing up a prior work whose world I’m planning to go back to for some future stories, mostly because I like the setting and characters enough to hang out with them some more and see what they have to say. Because years had passed between that piece and me coming back to it, I somewhat expected rereading it to be like pulling the dusty cover off an old couch and discovering maggoty, rotting insides. I’d see countless mistakes staining every chapter, a molding frame that wouldn’t stand up to even a cursory inspection, and the general fetid air that comes from a shambling tale told dully.

But here’s the thing – it’s not bad! Things to clean up, sure, but they’re more akin to spare threads sneaking loose or some wood that needs a new stain. Hardly a total loss. In fact, I’d even say it’s readable!

Even with that, though, I can see where I’ve grown. The way I write scenes, now, more complete. The settings more evolved and detailed. So on and so forth. The fun part of this, though, is seeing that the early bars aren’t quite so low, and yet I’ve still leaped quite a bit higher on my latest efforts. In other words, I’m improving, but I didn’t start all that far back to begin with.

And that, I think, is the best part. You get a bit of a boost for yourself – realize you’re not as hopeless, and never were, as you might think you are at the lowest points. Rereading my old work helps give me the confidence to keep going. Those old stories are a measuring stick – not only for how far I’ve come since, but how far I’d already gone when I started.

So, if you have the chance or ability, take the time to look back at where you’ve come from. Might be you’ll laugh, might be you’ll shake your head, might be you’ll find inspiration to keep on going.