Friday, January 30, 2015

The First Page of The Beast of Cretacea

Last night I Fed-Exed the manuscript back to Candlewick for what should be the last time. It represents roughly two and a half years of writing, including endless revisions.  Next, Candlewick will send me the first set of printed pages for review. The book's pub date is August.

This morning I was straightening up and came across something a bit surprising for me: A hand-written first draft of the first page. These days it's usually all on the computer. I have a vague recollection of writing this page while sitting on the beach at Ditch Plains during the summer of 2012.

Quite a lot has changed since then. The POV has gone from first person to third person, Ishmael is an orphan and foster child, the planet is now called Cretacea. But in other ways, the scene described is basically a condensed version of what I sent off yesterday. Here's the first scene two and a half years later:


“Wake up.”
It’s dark and gelatinous. Ishmael floats in a breathable syrup. Is this a dream? he wonders before soft, warm tendrils reach out and draw him back into a black, foamy haze.
“Come on, everyone. Rise and shine.”
Ishmael makes a fist; the gel is gone. He opens his eyes and sees hues: a woman’s copper face with an unusual sheen accentuated with serpentine tattoos. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, a gentle smile.
“Are we there?” he asks. He is lying on his back. The foamy haze has lifted, but he feels woozy and surprised by how tight his jaw feels. As if it’s rusty, in need of oil. He starts to push himself up.
“Easy, honey.” The woman places her fingertips on his collarbone to keep him from rising. “You’re here, but you’ve been in deep stasis. Take it slow.” She gently pushes him back into the molded foam. “I’ll tell you when.”
Ishmael allows himself to be eased down into the soft cushioning, but when the woman moves to the next pod, he peeks over the edge and watches while she tells the person inside it the same thing she told him. In this dimly lit chamber, there are five green oval pods, each containing a new arrival. Ishmael saw some of them the day they left Earth. Strangely, right now, that and his name are the only things he remembers.
Moments later, having awakened all of them, the woman steps into the middle of the chamber. She is wearing blue shorts and a blue shirt with the sleeves torn off, exposing arms covered with tattoos. “Listen up. My name is Charity, and I’m going to guide you through reentry. I know you’re eager to get out and look around, but unless you want to do serious damage to yourselves, I recommend that you do exactly as I say. Raise your right hands.”
Ishmael does as he’s told. Like his jaw, his elbow and shoulder feel tight and stiff.
“That’s your left hand, Billy.”
A high-pitched voice flutters: “S-sorry, ma’am.”
Now raise your left hands.”
Charity leads them through a process of moving their limbs and flexing their joints. Ishmael has never felt so stiff or feeble. Just lifting one leg leaves him momentarily breathless.
“Don’t worry about feeling weak or tired,” Charity tells them. “Just before destasis, you were infused with a biologic that will help you regain your strength and balance. We’re now going to start the process of getting vertical. Most of you won’t succeed on your first attempt. That’s expected. When you start to feel light-headed, let yourself fall back into the pod. That’s why it’s got all that nice soft cushioning. What you don’t want to do is fall forward and crack your skulls on the floor. Everyone got that?”
Muted affirmative replies.
“Okay, try to sit up.”
Slowly propping himself on his elbows, Ishmael feels his heart begin to pump harder. From this angle he can see into some of the other pods. He doesn’t remember putting on the stiff brown uniforms he and the other new arrivals are wearing. Across from him, a girl with a tangle of unkempt red hair manages to sit partway up before her eyes roll and she flops back with a soft thump.
Once his heartbeat feels steady, Ishmael lifts his torso more. Someone else tries to sit straight, loses consciousness, and falls back. Carefully, Ishmael inches up a few degrees more.
Charity glances his way and nods approvingly.
The others adopt the gradual approach. Still in the pods, they eye one another curiously. Next to the girl with the red hair is a tall fellow with broad shoulders, and a frail-looking kid with short, curly blond hair who Ishmael suspects is the one named Billy. They are all thin and bony and have dull, mud-colored skin.
The next step will be to get out of the pods and stand. “Make sure you hold on to the handrail,” Charity tells them. “Don’t try to walk. If you straighten up gradually, you shouldn’t feel dizzy, but if you do, bend your knees and lower yourself to the floor.”
The pods slowly tilt forward. Grasping handrails, Ishmael and the other new arrivals place their feet unsteadily on the floor. The tall fellow is the first to stand, but then he starts to sway. As his knees begin to buckle, Charity scoots behind him, sliding her arms under his shoulders and easing him down.
“Don’t anyone else faint. There’s only one of me to catch you.” She squats before the tall fellow, who is now sitting on the floor with his head between his knees. “You okay, Queequeg?”
 He places his hands flat on the floor. “Yeah, I think so. Thanks.”
“That was a little too fast,” she says, helping him up. “Try it more slowly this time.”
By now, Ishmael and the others are standing unsteadily, still gripping the handrails. The floor gradually tilts beneath them.
“Feels like a ship,” says a boy Ishmael hadn’t noticed before. He is short and chubby with neatly cut black hair and evenly trimmed fingernails. For a moment, Ishmael stares, unable to remember the last time he saw anyone with so much as an extra ounce on them.
“That’s because this is a ship, Mr. Lopez-Makarova,” Charity replies.
“You may address me as Pip,” the boy says.
“W-where are we?” asks the frail-looking blond kid, his high-pitched voice quavering.
 “You’ll hear about that later, Billy. If I told you now, you’d just forget. Memory loss is a side-effect of deep stasis, but it will pass. Right now just concentrate on keeping your balance. Oh, and one more piece of business. Hold out your left wrists.”
They do as they’re told, and she scans their wrists with a tablet, starting with Billy, whose slim wrist reflects his fine, delicate features. Ishmael focuses on the strange symbol tattooed on the inside of his own wrist. The one-inch square resembles circuitry, with clear and copper-colored filaments woven through a black matrix code. A registry, he remembers.
Illuminating the red-haired girl’s wrist with purple light, Charity gives her a curious look.
“Got a problem?” the girl growls.
“That attitude won’t help you here, Gwendolyn.”
“Nobody calls me that,” she snaps. “It’s Gwen.”
Charity moves to Queequeg who holds up an unmarked wrist. “Sorry, don’t have one.”
That catches Ishmael by surprise. Despite his addled memory, he’s certain that back in Black Range everyone had a registry — it was the law. But Charity accepts the boy’s answer and moves to Ishmael. As the purple light passes over his wrist, he catches a glimpse of gold filigree. Charity gazes at him with an expression he can’t quite decipher, then turns away.
Ishmael wonders if any of the others noticed that she didn’t even try to scan the wrist of the boy named Pip.
It’s not long before the new arrivals take their first steps. Feeling as shaky as a toddler, Ishmael finds it hard to separate his own unsteadiness from the mild sway of the ship. Charity is both gentle and demanding, directing them through each stage of movement. Finally she hands out goggles. “We’re going up on deck. Be careful with these. They’re delicate and in short supply. Once we’re up top, under no circumstances are you to take them off. To do so will mean risking severe macular damage.”
“Then maybe we shouldn’t go up on deck.” Gwen tosses her goggles back.
Charity lurches to catch them before they hit the floor. “Did you hear anything I just said? They’re delicate. You can’t toss them around. And you are going up.”
When the redheaded girl crosses her arms and juts out her chin defiantly, Charity steps close, then lowers her voice. “Don’t be stupid, Gwen. You’re here to make money, and to do that you’ll have to cooperate and take orders.” She holds out the goggles. “Unless you’d rather spend the voyage in a stinking hot cell next to the reactor.”
Gwen snorts but does as she’s told. Charity turns to the others. “Okay, everyone, it’s time to meet your new world.”
Eager to see what’s out there, Ishmael puts on the goggles. They’re different from VRgogs, which are always dark for virtual reality. These stay clear while Charity leads them out of the chamber and up several ladderways. At the end of a long passageway, she pushes open a hatch. Through it comes a blinding glare far brighter than anything Ishmael ever experienced on Earth. The hot air wafts in.
“One at a time,” Charity orders.
Queequeg goes first and seems to melt into the powerful brightness outside. He’s followed by Gwen, then Pip. Ishmael shuffles closer, his pulse revving with excitement. As he steps through the hatch, a blast of torrid air hits him; the top of his head begins to feel hot, as though he’s standing under a heat cell. Even with the goggles darkening automatically, he has to squint in the painfully bright whiteout. Meanwhile, he’s bombarded with a host of bewildering sounds, smells, and sensations.
But there is one thing he knows for certain: for the first time in his life, he is standing in sunlight.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Rock

 As part of the program I do at schools, I talk about failure and how important it is to keep trying. To get the kids interested, I use the example of Dwayne Johnson, and his various incarnations - football player, Rocky Maivia -- before he became a huge success. For years I've asked students if they knew what he was before he became a movie star. Most kids would answer that he was a wrestler. A few knew he'd tried football. Today I asked a crowd of 6th graders, "Does anyone know what The Rock started out as?"
A kid raised his hand and I called on him.
He cleared his throat and said, "A pebble?"