Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Drake Equation

 
 
 
Don’t let the formula above scare you.  The Drake Equation is one of the most fun equations you’ll ever meet because it deals with a cool idea and serves as a starter gun to get people thinking.
 
Astrobiology is the study of life on other planets.  Alien life! Maybe friendly little green dudes, maybe hostile xenomorphs that will tear your face off.  But it’s all conjecture until you put something down on paper.  That’s what the Drake Equation does--it’s a way of estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy (assuming you want to count us, of course.)
 
Dr. Frank Drake first shared his formula back in 1961, and lately it’s been getting renewed notice.  But that long list of letters can be daunting, so let’s break it down into bite-sized pieces.
 
N is for Number.  How many civilizations send out electromagnetic signals (like radio waves)? This is the number we want to arrive at.
 
= equals
 
R* is for Rate.  Life needs heat from a nearby star, so how fast do star nurseries make new suns?
 
fp is Fraction with Planets.  How many stars have planets? This number has grown a lot since the 1960s because new planets are being found every month now.  For many years, we had no way of knowing if a star had any planets around it.
 
ne is for Number with Environment.   In a given solar system with planets, how many of the planets have an environment that could sustain life? This is where you hear about the Goldilocks Zone of not too hot or too cold, but just right.  In our solar system, Earth and Mars are in the Zone.
 
fl is Fraction and Life.  How many of our Goldilocks planets actually have life on them? Remember, “life” includes stuff like bacteria.
 
fi is Fraction and Intelligence.  Here’s where Drake culls out the bacteria and focuses on intelligent creatures.   Although I’m not sure where the cut off is.  Would dolphins and cats count as intelligent? Or those chimps that can do sign language?
 
fc is Fraction of Civilizations.  Do the intelligent aliens do some activity that puts out signals we can see? Radio programs? Rocket ships? TV shows? It has to be something we can detect.
 
L is for Length of Time.  (Maybe it should be Lt?) This factor is kind of gloomy to consider because it takes into account the idea that an otherwise intelligent civilization may destroy itself.  Like if the US and USSR had a nuclear war in the 1980s.  Such a catastrophic war might have driven humanity back into the Dark Ages, and we would have stopped sending up satellites or going to the Moon or sending probes into the far corners of our solar system.
 
Fresh science is updating these factors all the time.  There is also a fair amount of room for debate within each factor.  That’s a good thing.  The point of Dr. Drake’s equation isn’t absolute accuracy.  Rather it encourages us to think about intelligent life on other planets, and how we might go about finding it.
 
Check out the SETI site for a concise explanation of the formula.  Also, the July 2014 National Geographic has a good article titled “The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth” by Michael D. Lemonick and Mark Thiessen.  The pic of the formula is from Technology Review.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sample chapter of my new crime thriller ONE BULLET


Here is a sample chapter of my new crime thriller, ONE BULLET.  If you enjoy this chapter, please consider buying the novel, available in paperback and ebook at Amazon.  Thank you.

* * *

ONE BULLET by Mark Boss
Chapter 1
Joe

As I walk to the airport terminal, I check my pockets again.  Make sure I have my cell phone, picture ID, ticket and boarding pass.  And the password envelope.

I look back at my gal, Carly, but she's looking down at her phone.  I left her with the keys to Vlad's Lexus, and told her not to smoke in the car.  When I asked to borrow the Lexus from Vlad this morning because my Audi is in the shop, he was real reluctant.  I guess he's particular about his cars.

Inside the terminal, a trickle of sweat runs under my shirt when I enter the TSA security line.  My ticket to Philly is a there-and-back in business class, but I'm not going on any airplane ride.  The ticket is just for show.

The TSA trolls send me through the cattle gate, then wand me, and I grab the plastic tub with my stuff.  Except the envelope.  That's still in my jacket pocket, damp with sweat.  I've done a dozen exchanges like this, but there's always some nerves.

The trolls stop an old lady behind me and give her the choice of getting groped or x-rayed.  She must be ninety.

It's almost lunchtime, and it's tough getting around all the families with baby strollers and the stressed-out business types just off the flight from Atlanta.  I could use my size to push through, but I look at them and see the exhaustion on their faces and forget using my elbows and just walk.

Find Gate A3 and take a seat outside the men's room.  The setup is simple.  We meet at an airport or a courthouse, anywhere with metal detectors, that way both parties have to go unarmed.  Go in the bathroom, make the exchange, and walk out with a sack of cash.  Security doesn't check people who are leaving.

The Cartel has used the same Mexican bagman twice now and I scan the crowd for him, but he's probably already in the men's room.

I pat the envelope for the tenth time, and go to the bathroom door.  There's one of those wet floor signs in front, with a picture of a guy slipping and falling.

The bathroom is big and cold.  There's a long row of sinks and dryers on my left, then a row of urinals.  When I round the corner to the stalls, I see the kid.  He looks half Samoan, half Sasquatch.  He's even bigger than me, with cauliflower ears and some weird tattoo on his neck.

Definitely not the usual Mexican.

He smiles.  "Whassup? You got something for me?"

"Where's the regular guy?" I take a step back.  On my left, there's a boot.

A fancy stitched cowboy boot sticking toes up out from under the stall.

Ah hell.

Kid Sasquatch throws an overhand right.

Ten years ago, I'd have slipped it and punched him in the liver.

Instead, I take it on the forearm and stumble into the wall.

He comes in swinging and I pop him with a quick left that does nothing.  Try to punch him in the throat, but his chin is tucked into his shoulder.  He's a pro.

He grabs me in a clinch and shoves me against the wall.  His mouth opens to take a breath and I try to fishhook him.  He bites my thumb, and I yank it free while it's still attached.  His knees shoot up like he's bouncing a soccer ball, one after another into my gut.  I bend over to save my ribs, flex my knees to unload an upper cut and....

* * *
ONE BULLET at Amazon

The excellent cover is by Jayson Kretzer



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Problem of Parallel Universes

In 1957, a 27-year-old physicist named Hugh Everett pioneered a new interpretation of quantum physics.  Everett theorized a universe of many universes, where separate universes represented all possible outcomes of a given event.  This came to be known as the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics.

Science inspires fiction, and fiction inspires science, so I don’t know if this idea was a natural outgrowth of Everett’s studies in physics, or if science fiction stories inspired it.  After all, H.G. Wells, Edwin Abbott, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov and others used some variant on the many-worlds idea in their novels, and it’s possible Everett read these.  Whatever inspired him, he brought scientific rigor to a very intriguing idea.

He also opened a giant can of space slugs.  Strangely, I think the effect on fiction has been larger, and more damaging, than the effect on physics.  In science, it’s often the case where competing theories co-exist until one gains proof, or at least popularity.  For now, MWI exists along with other interpretations.

However, the effect on fiction is rarely addressed.  What triggered this thought is the recent online debate among Star Wars fans as to whether the novels that take place after “Return of the Jedi” will still be part of the official canon when the new Disney Star Wars movies come out.  Likewise, you have similar debates among fans of comic books and the movies that derive from them.  What happens when the Scarlet Witch in the Avengers movies is different from the Scarlet Witch in the X-Men films? Why is the movie Nick Fury the Fury of Marvel Ultimates instead of the classic Marvel books? What is canon? What takes precedence?

Even the source material can be a problem.  I recall a time when DC comics juggled a variety of parallel worlds of Earth 2 or Earth B, with some of the same heroes, or variants of traditional characters like Green Lantern.  The latest storyline of Marvel’s New Avengers addresses the gloomy idea of how to save our world when parallel Earths are being destroyed by creatures able of travel between the many worlds.

Does this dilute, well, everything? Is the death of Darth Vader less meaningful if in a parallel world he lives and takes over the throne from the emperor? What about Obi Wan’s noble sacrifice? Does Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom have the same impact when we know that in the universe next door, Frodo stayed home to plant an apple orchard until orcs overran the Shire?

If there is always another place where a given event didn’t happen, does it rob the events we know of meaning? Perhaps there are people that find the idea comforting.  In another universe, their spouse who died in a car accident is still alive, and they’re happy together.  That’s somewhat reassuring.  But to the one subjective observer (you), our lives are a series of events that happen in a fixed sequence, with no jumps backward or forward, and no splits onto other routes or branches.  We race through life like toy cars on a racetrack, at maximum speed and without deviation.

So when we read fiction that presents us with alternate storylines of familiar characters, not only can it confuse us, but I worry that it weakens the original material.  For me, Batman has only one tragic origin, and he exists in only one Gotham.  Frodo did throw the ring in Mount Doom, and Darth Vader died saving his son from the emperor.

I wish that creative people would stop reworking the material of others.  I don’t need to see a re-imagining of a movie I saw 20 years ago.  Or a new novel that takes a classic work from Jane Austen or Tolstoy and inserts zombies. 

As creative people, we should be making up our own characters and our own universes.  Will these be derivative of past works? Certainly.  Everything is.  But we can put our own stamp on them, and maybe even add something to the mix.  Let’s leave the parallel worlds to the physicists.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Interview with writer and artist Jayson Kretzer


Today let's visit with artist and writer Jayson Kretzer, and talk about his newest work.

Mark:  What are the title and the topic of your new comic book?

Jayson:  Wannabe Heroes is the title and I’d say the topic is geek culture and superheroes. The comic follows the adventures of six people entrenched in the geek community as they develop unique powers and battle with an array of villains, including a comic shop owner who’s frustrated with digital comic readers and online shoppers who just use his store as a hangout.  It’s all in good fun, though, as it’s an all-ages book.

Mark:  Where can readers find it, and in what formats is it available?

Jayson:  Right now the best places to get this comic are at my website, WannabeHeroes.com for the digital version, and at IndyPlanet.com for the print version. Of course, if you live close enough to Panama City, FL, then be sure to check in with Arena Comics & Gaming and Comic Emporium as both shops are currently carrying the book.

Mark:  I'm always fascinated with archetypal characters and their lineage.  For instance, I think you can trace a line from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Spock--they are all characters who use logic but not emotion to solve problems.  Another example:  ancient strongmen like Hercules, Samson and Gilgamesh are the precursors to Superman and the Hulk.

Your Wannabe characters include a cosplayer, a gamer, an elitist, a comic book collector and an artist.  You managed to capture much of our culture in these archetypes.  How did you come up with this idea?

Jayson:  Honestly, I’m not sure I remember exactly how I came up with the idea.  I think it just sort of developed after I started really paying attention to the comic convention crowd (and the usual suspects who hang out at my local comic shop).  One thing I do remember is that I really wanted to make sure there was a character that most any geek, myself included, could relate to.

Mark:  When you drew pictures as a boy, did you also write stories to go with them, or did that come later?

Jayson: They were always tied together. I don’t think I could even finish drawing a character before my brain was already working on a backstory for them. I love drawing, but it’s the writing that fuels my passion for art.  If I were to just do illustrations with no input on a story, I doubt I’d remain sane for long. That is, if I even qualify as sane now.

Mark:  I know you're working on a novel.  Do you feel you have more freedom with that format, or do novels seem to have as many conventions and standard practices as comic books do?

Jayson:  I’d say I feel more freedom working in comics. Mainly because with comics I don’t have to just tell you about things, I can show them to you in different ways, from different angles and such.  I know there are those who can work magic with their prose, but I’m not one of them...and don’t get me started on my bad grammar skills!  I’m a storyteller, not a writer.  That’s probably another reason I prefer the comics medium--if I do it right, I can tell a whole story without using a single word and that’s always been such a fascinating idea to me.

Mark:  What's next for the Wannabe Heroes brand?

Jayson: Wannabe Heroes issues 2-4 are currently in the workings and I’m writing some other comic projects, some that I hope to find artists for and some with artists already on board. All in all, I’m planning on 2014 being a very productive year for Wannabe Studios, so stay tuned! hehe

Mark:  Thanks to Jayson for stopping by.

Jayson: Thanks so much, Mark and I'm looking forward to the next time I get you on the Wannabe Podcast! :)

Please hit the links and check out Jayson's work!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Interview with author Nathan Hawke



In this post, author Nathan Hawke visits to answer questions about his fantasy trilogy.  THE CRIMSON SHIELD, COLD REDEMPTION and THE LAST BASTION tell the tale of Gallow, a warrior determined to stay true to his beliefs in a chaotic world at war.  All three are available as paperbacks and ebooks.

Let's get right to the questions.

Mark:  Most fantasy novels are set at a Medieval or even Renaissance level of technology.  One of the aspects I enjoy about your series is that the technology seems more Dark Ages--spear and shield, axe and sword.  Was this a conscious choice to do something different?

Nathan: Yes, and there are several reasons for that. I have an alter-ego who’s been writing fantasy for some time and the settings there are drawn from early renaissance Italy, and from Arabia and China of a similar time. What I find these settings all have in common is a great deal of opulence, concentration of huge wealth and power into the hands of a small number of individuals, marvellous works of art and architecture and a great deal of politics.

In that regard, I wonder if there might be a general trend in fantasy for the vogue to be moving steadily forward in time. We already have some great fantasy taking characters akin to the musketeers and setting them in a magical fantasy world – in five years perhaps in the next great swathe of fantasy everyone will carry flintlock pistols instead of swords. So part of my reason was simply to step away from that and move to a setting quite different to the ones I was already using.

Another reason was that I happened to be in York for the Jorvik Viking Festival when the suggestion was first made to do something different. A part of it, for me, too, was I wanted a certain tone. I think SFX, when they reviewed The Crimson Shield, muttered something about too much A Song of Ice and Fire influence in the story; and I can see some similarities – the dirt, the blood, little focus on anything that’s actually fantastical, the focus on character instead – but in part exactly the thing I was trying to get away from was the current penchant for very grey characters – no stand-up heroes, no cardboard villains, the replacement of some notion of higher ideals with a self-obsessed “what’s best for me?”

Much as I love that sort of characterisation (my alter-ego has followed that path with gleeful enthusiasm), I find myself missing the fictional heroes of my youth, the lone wolf whose sense of serving some greater purpose or duty overcomes or replaces their greed or sense of vengeance. It’s a character trope that fits with ‘simple times’ and belongs very strongly in the Western genre as well. I don’t know if there’s some sort of unconscious social commentary thing going on with fantasy at the moment – a sort of ‘oh, look, if everyone acts like a self-serving s--- with no shred of social conscience, everything either stays crappy or gets even crappier’ but I found myself very much wanting to write a character who wasn’t like that, someone with a sense of values and purpose I’d be happy to aspire to. In a way, the desire for that character drove the setting towards one in which one man really could make a difference.

Mark:  Gallow's world is well formed, but I can't help searching for comparisons with our own history.  I see the Lhosir as a Viking culture, but it's trickier with the others.  Are the Marroc based on the Britons, or perhaps the Saxons? Their use of long knives made me think of the Saxon scramasax knives.  And are the Vathen horsesoldiers something like the Huns or Magyars? I'm curious what cultures inspired you.

Nathan: I really didn’t hide the Viking influence behind the Lhosir at all, did I? Of the three cultures in The Crimson Shield, that one was pretty shameless and blatant, a premeditated theft. The Vathen are much more deliberately nebulous. Historically, Europe received wave after wave of mounted invaders and I didn’t particularly pick one, largely because the Vathen are, as far as most of the characters are concerned, an ill-defined and unknown threat. I haven’t chosen yet because I don’t have to, but I suspect if I come back to the Vathen in any depth then they’ll be something of a hybrid.

The Marroc were constructed as a culture that didn’t fit very well with the Lhosir (I can see the Lhosir and Vathen getting along fine if they didn’t slaughter each other to the last man standing first). So they started off based on Saxons but were warped more away from that and made more passive. I was trying to set up a clash of ideologies between “be true to yourself” (Lhosir) and “be true to your community” (Marroc) and that skewed both the Lhosir and the Marroc away from their historical starting points. Then to dump Gallow in the middle, caught between them and trying to reconcile these two different views of the world.

Mark:  There is a strong element of horror in these stories, particularly with the Shadewalkers--these undead, implacable killers that come down out of the mountains during snow storms and murder innocent families on remote farms.  Those scenes really freaked me out.  Do you read horror, and what influenced the development of these creatures?

Nathan: Um… would it be deeply, deeply sad of me to say Skyrim? There I was, starting off on writing these books with a very Norse feel and at the same time playing a game with a very Norse feel and, well, it’s full of dragons and draugar and I already had the dragons covered elsewhere and so the draugar sort of… crept in. And then that led me into the Fateguard and Beyard (who made Cold Redemption the best of the three books if you ask me) and the entrance to the Aulian tomb under Witches’ Reach . . . so yes. That’s what nudged the shadewalkers into the story in the first place. I do read horror, no more or less than any other genre but I like it when it’s done well. I like the creeping dread type of horror, the sense of cosmic forces beyond control or understanding. Lovecraftian horror, which I think fits very well with a fantasy setting. I’m glad I freaked you out. I consider that a success J

Mark:  The action scenes are intense, and you don't flinch away from portraying the confusion and violence of close combat, plus the psychological after effects of killing a fellow human being. Do you train in martial arts or did you go to school in a really rough neighborhood? 

Nathan: I grew up in a town of retired colonels and it could hardly have been less rough. I have done several martial arts on and off over the years but I’m not sure that’s helpful – if anything it’s possibly counter-productive since martial arts tend to emphasis discipline and control and most real fights (best I can tell from my pretty limited experience) show little of either.

I can recommend this to anyone planning on writing a battle scene: go and hang out with your nearest medieval, Viking or civil war re-enactment group (for civil war, go as a pikeman – the musket block is much more civilised). Get kitted up and go out onto a battlefield with a hundred or so folk on each side. Make sure you’re in the shield wall or in the pike block. Re-enact for ten minutes. By this time you will discover that you are soaked through with sweat, absolutely exhausted and gasping for breath. You may well have shouted yourself hoarse without realising it. You will have discovered that in close combat in a massed battle you can barely move. There is no finesse, it’s largely brute strength and good kit. The adrenaline rush is quite something and once it wears off you will feel utterly battered. Bear in mind that everyone around you was actively trying not to hurt you, even though they frequently failed. You will find you have the stamina to go at it again before long but even if you don’t you’re going to hurt the next day in all manner of places you didn’t even know you had.

You could get yourself off down to a Motorhead/Guns’N’Roses/Prodigy/Pendulum/all-of-the-above gig (depending on your age) and go play in the mosh pit for the beginnings of a similar experience and then imagine everyone with shields, armour, sharp metal things actively trying to hurt you, but the intensity really isn’t the same. On the other side of things I’ve had cause to talk to people who have been in vehicles hit by roadside bombs multiple times and seen their friend in the next seat have his leg blown half off, to people who have shot and killed others and who have seen men beside them die. It’s second hand but you get to hear the raw story and see the emotion. The filter of Hollywood and TV frequently kills all that.

Mark:  I know others have compared your work to David Gemmell, but for me it has the feel of Robert Howard's sword and sorcery stories, and the driving pace I associate with Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Will you tell us some of your favorite authors? 

Nathan:  All sorts for all sorts of different reasons. I like deeply involving characters (Donna Tartt: The Secret History, not genre at all). I like deeply complicated and intricate expositions of how things work interspersed with fast wit (Anything by Neal Stephenson). Grimy weirdness (Peter Higgins: Wolfhound Century). Labyrinthine politics and murdering (the first two Song of Ice and Fire books). And speed and pace and a story that GETS ON WITH IT so yes, Gemmell at his best and I grew up more of a swords-and-sorcery lad than a Middle Earth boy and I did read a lot of Conan. Gavin Smith when he’s not being wrong about lasers and Star Wars. That Stephen Deas bloke has a stab at doing all of the above at once and generally failing but I gather his dragons are pretty sweet ;-). All the other Gollancz authors, they’re all brilliant too… And then you have authors I read simply for their sheer use of language – Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes springs to mind and M John Harrison’s Light. KJ Parker’s Scavenger books. Elizabeth Moon: The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter – that would be a good one to pick up if you liked Gallow.

Mark:  What's your next project? And will we see more Gallow?

Nathan:  Gallow is pretty dormant at the moment. The three Gallow books came out about six months ago and they didn’t take the world by storm. Gollancz have been supportive but at the moment it’s a case of wait and see. If sales of the second and third books grow then I’m hopeful we’ll see some more of him. There might be a short story or two or maybe a novella in the interim.

As Stephen Deas I have Dragon Queen coming out in paperback in April and its sequel, The Splintered Gods following in June and am hard at work on the last of that trilogy. Gavin Smith and I have a linked pair of SF novels coming out later in the year: Badass aliens, sweary SAS men – they fight! I also have The Royalist coming out later this year, a historical crime thriller set during the English civil war. But what comes next next…? I dunno. What takes your fancy? If not more Gallow then maybe some actual Vikings. I quite fancy some Bronze Age action. A military task force caught in deep space between two warring alien cultures. A noir version of The X-Files set in the 24th century? Magicians of the Great Depression? A band of mercenaries escorting an insane wizard across a hostile wilderness? Ezio vs. Geralt fanfic? Anything’s possible…

Mark:  Many thanks to Nathan Hawke for this interview.  Be sure to check out his author site (www.nathanhawke.com) because it has one of the coolest fantasy maps I've seen.

 

 



Thursday, January 30, 2014

Crypto Currencies and the Roles of Miners, Speculators and Investors



There is a lot of media coverage of Bitcoin these days, both in the financial news and sometimes the crime news.  Here at ChimpWithPencil we first talked about Bitcoin in January 2013.  I wrote, "I think that as we watch governments around the world make poor financial decisions, and banks fail from reckless greed and ineffective management, we will see more virtual currencies like Bitcoin."

Huh.  I obviously have a gift for underestimating.  There aren't just three or four crypto currencies now, there are sixty or seventy.  You can visit sites like CoinMarketCap and CryptMarketCap to see their stock-style tickers.  Most of these virtual currencies are based on the Bitcoin model, but some attempt to improve on it, or even go in a different direction.

With the spread of these alt-currencies, we're also seeing new roles for people interested in crypto currencies.  At first, there were only Miners--people with the computer equipment, technical skill, and patience necessary to mine for Bitcoins.  And there were a few places online who accepted Bitcoin as payment--sometimes in legitimate places and sometimes in dodgy places on the Darknet.  We can classify these people as 'Users' because they simply used Bitcoin, but didn't necessarily mine it.  Although I suspect most early Users were also Miners.

The proliferation of new coins has opened up two new roles (or character classes for my RPG friends).  Speculators and Investors.  There have long been speculators in the world currency market, making (or losing) money on the changes in value of the various currencies.  This speculation wouldn't be possible in the crypto currency world without the rise of trade sites, often called 'exchanges.'

Exchanges allow account holders to trade crypto currencies, transfer them, deposit and withdraw, and in some cases even cash out for physical, state-owned currencies.  For instance, you can trade Bitcoins for US dollars. 

Currency speculation is a tricky thing.  Before a stock purchase, you can research a company and see if their products are doing well.  Or you can buy into mutual funds that are diversified.  But predicting swings in currency can be very difficult.

Although there is a lively trade in crypto currencies, there are also Investors who are sitting on their coins like a dragon on its horde.  They're hoping their coins will grow in value.  For example, when I first learned about Bitcoin, one Bitcoin sold for $9 USD.  Today, a single Bitcoin is worth about $800.00.  (I really wish I'd spent $18 back then and bought a couple.)

It isn't hard to find articles that deride the crypto currency market, and there are plenty that encourage it, too.  But with a total worth of around $10 billion USD, I think the world of crypto currency has grown too big to ignore. 

(Please note:  All investments involve risk.  If you're looking to Mine, Speculate, or Invest, do some serious research first.)

(Photo found via Google Images on http://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/uncharted-waters/are-it-workers-the-coal-miners-of-the-21st-century/)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Free chapter of DEAD GIRL



Winter is a good time to curl up with a warm pet and an exciting book.  So here's the opening chapter from my novel DEAD GIRL.  (You have to supply your own pet.)

* * *

DEAD GIRL by Mark Boss


A mob rushed her, feet and elbows flying.

Dahlia Grove dodged her attackers and kicked the soccer ball to center field.  She caught a forearm to the ribs as she cut back and ran down the sideline.  "Go right," she yelled and the midfielders and forwards shifted.

Her teammate Jessica corralled the ball and took it up field, but defenders swarmed her.  She hooked her left foot around and passed the ball high to Dahlia.

The ball soared through the night air.  A girl went up to head the ball, and Dahlia leaped, too.  Their heads crashed together, skull to skull.

The ball flew out of bounds.  A whistle blew.

While the other girl sank to one knee, Dahlia shook her head and staggered to the ball.  As she raised the dew-slick ball above her head, she saw her parents and little brother, Andrew, in the stands, eyes wide.  She winked at them.  I'm fine.

She slung the ball into play and watched the Ivanovich sisters pass it back and forth on their way to the goal.  She jogged back onto the field, still shaking the stars out of her head from the collision.  Her ponytail of long, black hair came loose and she stopped to pull it tight.

Something behind her left eye popped--a sudden, sharp lance straight into her brain.  Her legs buckled.  What the hell?

The world turned sideways as she fell.  Wet grass tickled her right cheek.  The pain spiked.  Then nothing...

* * *

Margaret left the elevator and hurried down the hallway, her black rubber clogs clopping on the waxed floor.  As she walked, the short nurse tugged on latex gloves to hide the half-healed chemical burns on her hands.

When she entered the hospital room, Robin pounced on her.  "Where have you been?" Robin asked.

"I was on my lunch break," Margaret said as she slinked past her supervisor.  The double occupancy hospital room was a mess, and there was a new patient in the bed by the door.  "What happened?" she asked.

"Mrs. Barrow flat lined," Robin said.  "We revived her, but she's barely holding on."  The tall nurse rubbed hand sanitizer between her fingers.  "She's your patient.  You should have been here."

Margaret shrugged.  "I have to eat."  She unwrapped a piece of sour apple gum to cover the double-layered smell of Lysol and human waste.

Robin stood at the foot of the other bed, where a lean girl with long, dark hair lay in a coma.  As Robin checked the girl's vitals, Margaret asked, "Who's the dead girl?"

"Don't call her that.  She has a name--Dahlia Grove."  Robin flipped through the girl's chart.  "She came in last Saturday for a concussion and they found a brain tumor.  Doctors say she won't last a week."

Margaret took the TV remote from Mrs. Barrow's nightstand and clicked it.  A long scream came out of the television mounted on the wall, then a deep voice said, "Evil lurks in America's heartland."

"Oh, Heartland Serial Killers is on.  I love this show," Margaret said.

"Really?" Robin looked up from Dahlia's chart. 

"Come on, they can't hear it."  Margaret waved at the comatose patients.

"Show some respect."  Robin reached up and mashed the TV's power button.  "Mrs. Barrow needs a fresh IV, her bag is almost empty.  I have to go get meds."

"Okay, sorry, gosh."  Margaret dumped a pot of dead flowers in the trash.  "Could you grab me an IV bag while you're getting meds? They're on the top shelf and I can't reach them."

"Fine."  Robin opened the door to the hallway.  "I'll be back in a minute."

As soon as the wide door swung shut, Margaret took a flat stone carved with a symbolic glyph from her pocket.  She rubbed the enchanted stone to activate it, and slipped it under Mrs. Barrow's mattress.  Margaret walked to Dahlia's bed and stood smacking her wad of gum.  She watched the dark-haired girl breathe.

* * *

The Shadow Lands

 

Eyes shut, Dahlia took a deep breath of cold air and caught the faint scent of sour apples.

And the smell of something else.  Something thick and coppery.

She opened her eyes and stared up at an unlit fluorescent ceiling panel.  When she brushed her long, dark hair out her eyes, her face felt greasy.

Where am I?

She sat up, but a wave of dizziness hit her.  She put out her hands to steady herself and felt a tug.  A clear tube was taped to one wrist.

Why do I have an IV? Ah, crap, I'm in a hospital.  What happened?

She looked over her shoulder.  The medical monitors behind her were blank.  The power is out.  Don't hospitals have emergency generators?  

The wide metal door on her right was shut.  To the left, a gauzy curtain hung from a track on the ceiling.  Beyond the fabric, gray light seeped through a window on the far wall.

Something moved on the other side of the curtain, but it wasn't close enough to make a silhouette.  She heard a low smacking sound.

She pushed the bed covers aside and a fat cockroach ran from under the sheet.  She flinched and the bed creaked.

The smacking sound paused.  Dahlia froze.  She inhaled the scent of salt and old pennies. 

The sound resumed, wet and crunchy, like someone munching celery.

She eased her legs off the bed.  The cold tile floor shocked her bare feet.  She looked down.  A thin, red ribbon rolled along a grout line between the tiles toward her toes.

That's blood.

The ribbon trickled toward her.  She moved her feet apart and it ran under the bed.  Looked at the bedside table and saw a landline phone and an empty plastic tray.  She reached for the phone, then saw the big, red emergency button on the wall and pressed it.

She expected to hear an alarm or voices from the hall, but nothing happened.

Something splashed onto the floor beyond the curtain, and the thick scent of human waste made her gag.

Run.

She lurched up, but her head spun.  Reached out to catch herself as she fell and caught a handful of curtain. 

The curtain tore away and she fell to her knees.    

Looked up.

Eight feet away an old woman lay in a bed identical to hers.  A hunchbacked monster the color of pus straddled the woman.  Its jaws burrowed into her chest cavity.  Blood and feces dripped to the floor.

Dahlia tried to scream but only hissed.

The old woman's head turned.  Her eyes found Dahlia's.  Her lips moved.  "Help me."

The monster retracted from the woman's ribcage.  Its bloody head rotated on a boney, elongated neck.  Small, hard eyes glared at her.  The monster's mouth split into a red smile.

This time Dahlia screamed.

She scrambled up and around her bed, tearing the IV from her wrist.

The multi-limbed monster flowed to the floor like a giant millipede.

She grabbed the door handle and pulled.  The monster oozed forward.

She ran into the corridor and shouted, "Help! Someone help!"

Dahlia took three steps and stopped.

There were no people--no nurses, no patients, no visitors.  The electricity was out.  Weak gray light from the windows showed brown smears on the walls, and wide blooms of black mold.  Wires dangled from the ceiling.  She stood in a puddle of cold, slimy water.

A low moan sounded behind her.  The monster poked its head out the door, sniffed, and entered the hallway.

She ran.

* * *

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