Good golly, I’m still here! Flinging prose up on my blog like a handful of wet tp against a wall!
Quick notes about this section:
It is not finished. It just runs aground right about where I had to leave Panera and resume Mom duties. Sorry. Blank spaces like this “_______” mean a definite Thing I just haven’t named yet. Bolded words are future-wild-west-alien-planet-slang that might be terrible.
This is attempt #2 at the scene from the previous blog post. I realized my first attempt was wasting time on throwaway characters that I should’ve been spending more efficiently on 1) filling out the world, 2) getting a bead on Billa’s psyche and voice (since this is a POV switch and it needs to feel distinct and necessary), and 3) pushing the plot along for heaven’s sake. Also on more lyrical descriptions because I love those. So hopefully this version does those things.
Toms! Who are they? What are they? What do they have to do with the UFO or whatever crash-landed? Obviously the novel will answer these questions and many more but if you are wondering about the word “tom”, go plug it in Google Translate from Swedish to English. (Swedish is not arbitrary; I promise, I have a whole book about constructed languages.) That won’t answer any of your questions but it might give you more. 🙂
Bit under 3K words following.
The fear seeped up like fog after nightfall. It soaked every street and alley, beaded up greasy on flagstones already slick with age, dampened sound.
Billa felt it as soon as he reached town and realized quickly it wasn’t just his fatigue. The platform was unusually crowded, but all traffic rushed by in strained silence. Several people in succession cuffed him carelessly as they passed and forgot to say anything about it. No smiles.
Night had fallen hard. It left Lev up there by herself, a half-circle not quite bright enough to see by. Which meant the lights were on tonight: yellow sodium-glare hollowing out pale faces, illuminating handwritten sold-out sign taped to empty newspaper stand, packing the open night away in flat black like walls around the platform. The heater was stoked, too — at least, it had a little crowd clustered (silently) around it. But Billa didn’t feel like elbowing his way in. He lit a cigarette instead, then dug his hands deep into his coat pockets and sat on the bench (steel, would be burning cold to touch now sun was down), privately thanking lucky stars for family prices on Fulke wool. Shut his eyes and decided that, regardless of where from and where it might go, silence was silence, dark dark, and he was tired.
Eleven-thirty railcar from town center loop arrived at eleven-forty-one — late by usual time, so nothing amiss there. Billa hauled himself on. Instant later a hand clapped him on the shoulder and pulled him through the tangle of bodies into back corner of the car.
Face was familiar. It was a cousin’s cousin (Billa searched for name — Jon?), one of the relations who considered Jasht an embarrassing place to live but who never managed to do anybody the favor of moving away. Jon was windblown and smelled faintly of whiskey. He attempted to back Billa into the corner but Billa couldn’t be bothered to move his feet, just leaned back slightly (lurch of railcar, smell of alcohol).
“Where have you been today? Did you hear?” asked Jon.
Billa cast his mind reluctantly back over the day. “Is this a trick question?” he asked.
Jon rolled his eyes. “Well, you’ve heard about the crashed object on the ridge this morning, of course, unless you live eight layers down.”
“Of course,” Billa said drily.
“I mean, has anybody warned you about the Tom yet?”
“No.” Billa glanced around, then back at Jon. “I can guess you’re about to.”
“Right,” Jon said, slapping Billa’s shoulder again in an unwelcome paternal way. “There’s been an incident with the Tom at Gramm’s Garage. You know the Tom? Practically six feet tall, black beard —”
“For the love of god, not this again!”
“This is different.”
“Oh, it’s bad alright, young man,” volunteered a woman leaning around Jon’s elbow. “Talk of the town today. The Tom’s finally been more trouble than he’s worth! Gramm tossed him right back to the broker this afternoon.”
“No! Back to Green Street?” cut in another, older woman on her other side, in a very loud whisper.
“Back to Green Street, yes, that’s what I heard!”
The second woman patted her necklace with tremulous hand. “Well! What the broker is going to do with him this time is beyond me.”
“Not much, it looks like,” Jon said. “Tom’s not been seen at Green Street since about six. And honestly the broker’s not dozer enough go after him — even on a normal day.”
“Back up. What’s he done?” Billa asked.
“He kicked a pneumatic jack out from under a truck while Gramm was working, and Gramm almost lost his fingers,” Jon said.
Billa’s face must have betrayed his doubts.
“They’re stronger than they look, sometimes,” Jon said knowingly.
“Nobody can budge a pneumatic jack.”
“Thought so too, but I saw Gramm’s floor myself,” said a man behind Billa. He was older and well-dressed and, unlike Jon, completely sober. He nodded grimly. “Whatever the fellow did, the jack is destroyed and when the truck fell it dug four-inch deep gashes in the concrete.”
“And he punched the handle of the back door on his way out. Warped the metal, practically bent the door in half. It’s hanging on one hinge,” Jon rushed to add.
“Oh come on,” Billa said.
“Think about it! He’s all worked up because that thing crashed on the ridge. And I’d be surprised if that’s the last fuss he raises tonight, which is why I’m warning you, since he’s apparently gone running and you live over that way —”
“Why would any idiot rub today’s news in a Tom’s face?” Billa asked irritably.
“No idiot would have to. It’s been on the radio all day.”
“Haven’t you been listening?” asked the old woman.
“I’ve been busy.”
“But I heard he was acting up since morning, before Gramm even had the radio on,” Jon said. He leaned close. “I’ve been saying it for years, there’s something uncanny about Toms. They know things.”
Billa declined to comment.
Jon leaned closer. “So what was it?”
“What was what?” Billa asked. He knew what.
“The object that crashed on the ridge, smartass. You were up there at least part of the day, weren’t you? Some kind of vehicle and possibly intelligent, the radio said. Whatever that means.”
“Well, it seemed to be tracking and following things. That’s probably what it means.”
“You mean you saw it personally?”
By now, every occupant of the railcar was paying rapt attention.
“It wouldn’t have been your plane that the news mentioned flying with the K-A’s?” asked the well-dressed man.
“You did take your Hornet out the hangar at sunup,” supplied a new voice from knee-level. Billa looked down. A lowborn kid sitting cross-legged on the railcar floor smiled toothlessly back up.
The well-dressed man snapped his fingers. “That’s right — you’re Ghavan’s boy! Billa Henjik, that’s who you are!”
“Go on, then,” said someone else.
“What was it?” Passengers clustered around him. “They keep repeating the same official statement on the radio, nothing new since morning.”
“Pay your fare if you tell,” someone offered.
Billa sighed, but smiled underneath.
About this time the railcar passed Gramm’s Garage. Half a dozen heads craned out of windows to catch a glimpse, through the shadows, of what might have been a two-inch steel door bent in half and hanging by one hinge.
“Well, I’ll be,” said a subdued voice.
“You needn’t tell us everything, young man, I’m sure,” said the first woman, “but is it anything we ought to worry about?”
“As though a riled-up Tom isn’t enough to worry about,” said someone darkly.
“Right,” Jon said, in Billa’s ear (probably imagined he was whispering). “Just want to know what we’re dealing with — before, you know, anyone else does.”
“Was it a weapon?” asked the older woman.
“Did it attack someone?” asked Jon.
“Was it collecting samples of native flora?”
“Did it speak, or attempt to communicate using gestures?”
“Look, alright,” said Billa, finally managing to make himself heard. “I only know what I saw. Take that?”
“And this next stop is my stop.”
So Billa told his eager audience that no, it didn’t look like a weapon; no, it didn’t look alive; and in his opinion the attack was more of a chase (but who could know the thing’s mind, if it even had one?). He told them yes, it seemed to be jamming their radios; yes, it survived two bombings by way of some immaterial shielding; and yes, it had apparently collected some samples of dirt (though whatever it had meant to do with them, it certainly wasn’t going to do now). And he told them several times that the thing was, and had been for hours at this point, just a sooty heap incapable of doing anything more than just blowing away. Thanks to himself, Andar, and (yes, grudgingly) two ___ pilots from Davspar.
He also recounted his flight and the missile hits, leaving out no heroic detail. The women looked shocked — the gratifying type of shock. The lowborn kid gazed starstruck as though Billa were an apparition of ___ himself.
Even Jon was satisfied enough to let him struggle off the railcar at Sable stop (along with the lowborn kid, who stumped off barely noticed and singing to himself).
Jon waved as soberly as he could manage and whisper-shouted, “Stay tough, man!”
Billa flicked his cigarette stump into the gravel and waved back.
“And don’t give that Tom —”
“Good night, Jon!”
Billa rubbed eyes as he walked home. Same paces to corner, same unthinking grip on railing, and same blind hop over cracked pavement — almost. He tripped this time and blamed fatigue. He stopped at his door under a dizzy flickering light (moments from death, that bulb, landlord surely knew but no replacement yet) and fumbled in pockets: turned up key to hangar, cursed; turned up motorbike key, cursed. Finally pushed correct key into lock (sticky, had to be rattled and cursed at) and was home.
Somewhat. Too cold and dark and a little stale, untouched since morning which felt like a lifetime ago. Billa fumbled along wall and turned up heater. Home in a few minutes, then, once it was warm enough to kick off boots. [Note to self: Is this really Billa’s POV, though? Is Billa the kind of guy who spends time consciously thinking about what “home” feels like, or is he (pretty sure that he is) satisfied by objective facts?]
Turned on lamp. Discovered kitchen window had come ajar again, so that the kettle he’d left on windowsill had iced over. Cursed accordingly (just for form’s sake; heart wasn’t in it anymore), then looked at the ice and decided to call it a double-mistake-turned-fortune. Ice was okay, boiled water double okay. He put the kettle on stove.
He set to pounding wadded newspaper under the window frame with back end of a screwdriver. When he stopped to rummage for the sealing tape, he heard a sound from the other side of his kitchen door. Fatigue evaporated. He froze.
Each apartment in ____ building, even (by contrivance of a vertical air shaft down the building’s center) those below ground, had its own courtyard in back — or so the adverts said. In reality the courtyards weren’t much more than outdoor closets, wide enough for a couple of ashcans, no outlet and walls too high to talk over. Most tenants chose to fill theirs with their unplugged icebox in order to save space (most of the year, temperature was comparable); Billa stored tools and the frame of a half-built bike instead. Some evenings a bat flapped its way in as well and scraped amongst toolboxes looking for crumbs. It was a familiar noise which after all these months Billa was starting to find soothing.
This was not that noise.
It was a thump followed by clatter, made by something much heavier and clumsier than a bat. It was the kind of noise that, on any other midnight, would make him want to kick open the footlocker and make sure revolver was loaded.
Quietly (cursing inside his head), Billa edged towards kitchen door. Eased the latch slowly open, presented revolver around edge of door, and said steadily, “Who’s there?”
Nobody answered. Nothing moved. Billa stared around courtyard — seemed to be a shadow of something behind bike frame. He edged toward it, knelt down, groaned. It was a pair of boots, with feet in them, attached to somebody crumpled in corner breathing heavily. Billa tapped the bottom of closest boot with revolver barrel.
“Hey,” he said.
The somebody twitched.
“It’s alright,” Billa said, as the somebody drew in a sharp breath and put hand to head.
“At least, alright on my end. Not so much on yours, I guess?”
“Billa?” inquired a thick voice.
“Yes, and would be, as it’s my yard you’ve climbed into.”
“Thank God. I thought maybe I miscounted. And then I passed out.”
“Rough, yes. Maybe not so good.” The figure pulled feet in, braced hand on wall, and stood up.
He was a giant. Far taller than any human had a right to be — head level with top of courtyard wall. When he turned eyes (downward) toward Billa they glinted, glowing white circles, like eyes of a dog in the dark.
Billa was accustomed to sight of Toms but still the night-eyes gave him a jump.
“Damn it, Victor,” Billa said. He tucked the revolver into the back of his belt and twitched shirttail over it. Anxiously looked up over wall (as far as he could) but saw just brick wall opposite, neighbors’ back windows dark. Quiet. Okay.
“Nobody followed me,” Victor said, and ducked head apologetically (or maybe just suddenly remembered to keep it out of sight). “And I told you before, I don’t mention this to anybody. No trouble for you.”
“Hah! Too late for that,” Billa said. “Had plenty of trouble today; you’re just the whip on top.”
There was a pause. The bat flew in, spooked, and flew away again.
“Heard you kicked a truck onto your boss,” Billa prompted.
“I am not going to lie to you about that,” said Victor.
“That’s a relief. You’re a terrible liar.”
“I kicked the truck down, yes, but not on him, exactly,” Victor said. “And technically, not my boss. Not anymore.”
“But was it actually the pneumatic jack —”
“Yeah. Sure. So I kicked a little hard.”
Billa blew out breath, laughed. “Alright, fine. Why?”
“Look, you’re supposed to be somewhere else tonight, yeah?” Billa said.
Victor raised his right forearm and rapped it with the knuckles of left: sound of stiff leather. Was wearing a cuff. “Green Street.”
“Lucky for you broker doesn’t care much, but you’re gonna have trouble about that if you’re not back by morning,” Billa said.
“Too late for that,” Victor replied. “Why do you think I am here? Cold as hell out here. And climbing over six walls in a row is not easy!”
He leaned forward, until slant of light from kitchen hit him in the face and Billa saw what was meant by rough day.
One dark eyebrow was cut through and caked with dried blood. The eyelid underneath was swollen and deep purple, and even the white of that eye was blotched with red. The bridge of Victor’s nose — prominent nose, not its fault — had been smashed across by something blunt and heavy. And it was a little hard to see in the dark, but across Victor’s throat might have been a very particular pattern of small bruises.
“Police might care, but Broker’s probably just as happy if I never show up,” Victor said, and gingerly scratched the cut eyebrow. “Didn’t give a shit about this. Wouldn’t even cuff me until Gramm finally offered to forfeit money back.”
“Who started it?” Billa asked, after a while.
Victor just shrugged again. “You mean this morning? Or last year? It depends.”
Billa sucked his teeth, thinking. He could order Victor to go back; threaten to tell landlord or phone broker. For form’s sake.
“Look, no trouble for you, alright?” Victor said again, with a bit of impatient sigh. “I had to throw some people off my trail. I need just a few minutes here, then I go.”
Billa reflected that at least, until Victor actually stepped inside his apartment, nobody could could be blamed either for trespassing or for hiding a runaway.
The kettle in the kitchen started to shriek.
Billa seized the edge of kitchen door and waved impatiently. “For god’s sake, come on, then,” he said. “Before someone sees you.”
“Are you —”
“You’re not sleeping in the courtyard again. You barely fit unfolded back here anyway. Get!”