Leaving the drought behind, slowly and unsteadily

“The year had been a year of terror”

2018 as a whole was a terrible year for my creative writing, and for my fiction projects. I already mentioned the general lack of updates on this place and the personal reasons behind my writing struggles in the previous post, written in June 2018.

Six months ago I also wrote that, despite such struggles, I was cautiously optimistic about resuming work on my novel Low Fidelity, my short stories and series. It turned out to be a temporary spark. The occasional rain in a desert region.

About Off the Grid (What is Off the Grid?), I wrote that at the time I was “working on Episode 06 – Exposed in the light. It should be published here soon”. At the moment, that Episode still needs to be finished. I’ve definitely not abandoned the series, especially because of its connections with my main novel.

About The Ian Charles Winterman series, I wrote that at the time I was “working on the fourth [story], and I plan to republish the series here and in a more portable ebook format”. Much like Off the Grid‘s Episode 06, that fourth story in the Ian Charles Winterman series is still in the making. Again, my plans about this project haven’t changed. They’re just delayed.

Everything’s been delayed.

The ghost pressure trap

Writing and publishing online, especially in recent years, tends to be an endeavour that’s riddled with performance anxiety. Often, the pressure to push new material out there is quite strong. Slow pace and periods of silence mean losing whatever little and fleeting attention you’ve managed to get so far. This is already a dreadful feeling when you’re, say, writing a tech blog. With creative projects it’s even worse.

I know what you’re thinking — long-term writing projects, such as a novel or a series of stories, inherently have a very different pace than a tech blog; one cannot be expected to be creative with the same effectiveness every day, nor is one expected to advance more complex projects like these on a daily basis and provide readers with new stuff every day. And it’s true, absolutely true. But things get complicated when you self-publish and when you do everything yourself — the writing, the editing, the proofreading, the book designing, the publishing, the advertising.

Gaining (and maintaining!) a readership in this scenario is hard, no matter how good or experienced a writer you are. You find yourself in a situation where you feel you’re expected to deliver something on a somewhat regular basis, but you can’t because your creative writing develops at a completely different pace in a completely different fashion than writing, say, tech articles. And when you simply can’t produce anything substantial — for lack of inspiration, concentration, energy, time — this ends up hurting with double the intensity.

You feel you’re going nowhere. You look at your unfinished writings and ask yourself What am I doing here? Where is this going? And what’s worse is that these very feelings of aimlessness and self-doubt create a vicious circle, in turn affecting your inspiration and creativity.

But this is also largely ‘ghost’ pressure. I describe it this way because what you perceive as ‘external pressure’ under these circumstances isn’t actually external. It comes from within, it’s something you create, which is totally unnecessary. Or rather, it could be useful as a sort of self-discipline mechanism (you have set your goals, you have made plans, now stick to them!), but guessing the right dose isn’t trivial at all. It gets toxic quickly. It can be paralysing. And it’s what has been happening to me these past months. And it’s what has also made me very angry with myself, because I should know better.

What’s next

My plan for this year is simple: to publish things when they are ready, and to make people more aware of what I have already produced while I’m preparing new materials. I also need to avoid the urge of making estimates when it comes to future releases. I’m just awful at it. Worse, I create expectations I might not fulfil, and that ultimately disappoints everybody.

I definitely need to escape the ghost pressure trap, even when I actually receive the occasional email from people who apparently urge me to publish ‘new stuff’ while bizarrely conceding they haven’t read much of what I have already published.

Another idea I’ve had for this space specifically is to use it not only to publish free-to-read pieces of fiction, but also to share the occasional writing-related musings or commentary.

As for my ongoing projects, while at the moment I honestly don’t know when I’ll manage to finish and publish Episode 06 of Off the Grid or the fourth Ian Charles Winterman story, I know that fully realising the nature of my creative rut has already helped me to calm down and collect my thoughts. Another recent happy accident while writing the latest chapter of Low Fidelity led to a truly eureka moment which had the very positive effect of painting a clearer picture of where the general narrative is going, while energising me in the process. This makes me hopeful, as similar moments in the past usually led to richer, more inspired, and therefore more prolific phases.

To those who are still out there listening to what I have to say and reading my fiction, thank you. Thank you so much.

To conclude, the usual reminder

If you like what I write, if you’ve been enjoying what little I’ve published here for free, if you appreciate my more tech-oriented musings on my main website Morrick.me, or my explorations in vintage Macs and software at System Folder; or if you just like me and want to help, consider checking out my fiction and purchase my Minigrooves short stories, or send your contribution via PayPal. Or just spread the word. It helps a lot and I truly appreciate it. Thanks again!

Current projects — Status as of June 2018

A full year has passed since I last updated this place.

Not that it ever had this overwhelming crowd of regular visitors — this is certainly not the kind of site you check every day — but I thought it was time to write an update for the people out there who appreciate my writing and my fiction in particular.

It’s been a rough year

The loss of my father in November 2017 was devastating for me. Apart from an early period of intense prolificness, my creative inspiration and output have always been of an ebb-and-flow nature. In the months preceding my dad’s passing, this creative tide had already begun to ebb, and that terrible event just froze everything — I was unable to write a single line of fiction for a few months. Despite the physical distance between us, his presence contributed a lot to my internal balance as a person. Despite his worsening health, I kept feeling protected, in a sense. Like when you’re away on a mission, but you know someone trustworthy is holding the fort, literally and figuratively. So you can afford not to worry about a certain subset of things and can focus on other worries.

His passing created a huge void and had a generally destabilising effect on me. Now there was this pounding, pulsating grief for his loss; now there was this new set of things to take care of and worry about (helping my mother, first and foremost, since she isn’t in good shape either), on top of the usual everyday stuff that brings worry and stress.

In this picture, my inspiration basically flatlined — there was suddenly no time for creative writing, but more importantly no time to even think about something to write, ideas for short stories, ideas to move forward with Low Fidelity or any of my smaller series like Off the Grid or Ian Charles Winterman. According to a timeline I had drawn in early 2017, I should have already published Minigrooves Vol. 3. The truth is, I’ve only jotted down a rough draft of the first short story.

The flow returns

Little by little, in recent weeks, I’ve felt my creative juices come back. Nothing spectacular, but way better than nothing at all. I have tried to force my way back into my own different writing projects by re-reading a lot of previously-written material, to rekindle the connection with my works, revisit characters and plots, and situations left hanging.

Current projects: an overview

Low Fidelity — (What is Low Fidelity?) The first book of the series is almost over. I’m writing Chapter 25 of the planned 32, but it’s not a fixed number, and if the story reaches the point I want it to reach in fewer chapters, so be it. I’ve stopped trying to make predictions and promises, but hopefully the book will be published within the next months, and before the end of the year. My intention is to publish it on the Apple Books and Amazon platforms, like my Minigrooves short stories, but I would also like to produce a traditional paper edition. If you know of affordable online services for this kind of operation, do let me know.

Minigrooves Vol. 3 — I have no idea when it will come out. The short story is still my favourite, congenial format of creative writing, and when I’m inspired it typically doesn’t take too long for me to write a bunch of stories. Realistically, though, I don’t expect to publish Volume 3 before 2019. At this moment, my science fiction novel Low Fidelity has precedence. For Volume 3 I’m exploring the possibility of writing a series of short stories based on a common theme.

Off the Grid — (What is Off the Grid?) I’m currently working on Episode 06 – Exposed in the light. It should be published here soon.

The Ian Charles Winterman series — This is a series of short stories that focus on the character of Ian Charles Winterman, a consultant detective with a unique gift — a sort of heightened perceptiveness that allows him to have special insights and intuitions, and help the police force specifically in cases of abductions and missing persons.

Ian Charles Winterman is first introduced in a much shorter story, The Vanished, that appeared on Volume 2 of Minigrooves. I wrote The Vanished in March 2014, and initially it was just one of the different stories that would be included in the second volume of Minigrooves, but then I liked the premise and the characters, and started thinking about a whole series of cases involving Winterman. The first three stories were featured in ‘Single Special’ issues of my digital magazine, Vantage Point, which I produced between 2014 and 2016. I’m currently working on the fourth, and I plan to republish the series here and in a more portable ebook format.

Consider supporting my writing

This past year and a half has been a struggle, and morale has suffered. I know that today, unless you give frequent updates and showcase a generally prolific output, it doesn’t seem like you’re producing that much. But just because my first two books of short stories have been published in 2013 and 2016 respectively, it doesn’t mean they’re ‘old’. If you like what I write, if you’ve been enjoying what little I’ve published here for free, if you appreciate my more tech-oriented musings on my main website Morrick.me, or my explorations in vintage Macs and software at System Folder; or if you just like me and want to help, consider checking out my fiction and purchase my Minigrooves short stories, or send your contribution via PayPal. It’s truly appreciated.

Off the Grid — Episode 05

And the night wings die

After punching the intruder in the face a couple of times to wipe that smirk off his face, Wright sits down, trying to compose himself.

– If they have my son, they’ll be able to find and penetrate this place, no matter the level of cloaking.

Peter doesn’t seem to react at first. He takes his backpack, rummages inside, until he finds what he was looking for — a small blue steel case. As soon as he opens it and takes out what appears to be a tape measure, Wright recognises the tool: – An Elastocable-26!? Do they still issue that to field operatives?

– This is a 35-calibre Elastocable, and no, they don’t, but I like to collect useful stuff.

After sizing up the guest, Peter releases the Elastocable, which quickly wraps the man in a sort of tight cocoon, leaving out the head and the legs from the knee down.

Wright stares at Peter for a bit, impatiently. When the two make eye contact, he says: – You seem strangely quiet, my friend. Y’do realise what’s about to happen?

Peter is evidently lost in thought, and just nods slowly.

– Will ya tell me what’s running in that head of yours?

Peter looks at the intruder, then his gaze meets Wright’s again. – I’m just thinking that maybe this kerel is bluffing.

– Go on.

– For starters, you were checking that helmet before, and said he has sent a distress signal. Can it actually get through your snowglobe? I’m no engineer, but from what you’ve told me, I’m assuming all digital transmissions have to pass through a firewall…

– You’re right. Let’s have a look.

Wright returns to the studio and sits at an isolated workstation. He types a few commands and the monitor screen fills with overlapping log windows. He performs a search restricted to the last 30 minutes of activity. – Aha, it would seem you were right. The broadcast request was rejected and quarantined.

A pause.

– …So nobody’s coming. For now, at least. But what… what about my son?

– I don’t know what happened to him, but let’s establish a timeline. When did he leave?

– Uh, three days ago, early morning.

– Okay, where did he go?

– Remember I told you that I designed the snowglobe with two other scientists? My son is working with one of them to improve the cloaking technology we’re implementing here. William Tyrrell, the scientist, has been living and working out of an abandoned AAR. Well, for security reasons Tyrrell hasn’t disclosed the exact location of his shelter to anybody but my son.

– Not even to you? Seems odd.

– Nae, Tyrrell and I… we had our, er, disagreements in the past. He’s not talking to me anymore. But trusts my son implicitly… They seem to work very well together…

The way Peter is looking at him makes Wright realise he’s starting to get carried away; he quickly recaps: – So, well… Robert, my son, left three days ago to visit Tyrrell. I don’t know how far away Tyrrell lives, so I don’t know how long it takes to reach his shelter. Peter always leaves on foot, and stays off the grid all the time he’s away.

Peter ponders, then asks: – How long does he usually stay away when he goes see this Tyrrell?

– Sometimes five days or so. Once recently he stayed for more than a week. He told me they were making significant progress with a new type of suit they’d been testing and— Wait a minute…

Fighting his repulsion, Wright moves closer to the intruder and examines the parts of the suit the Elastocable has left exposed. Then he checks the helmet again. Peter thinks he understands where this is going: – This is not the prototype, right?

Without diverting his gaze from the helmet’s HUD, Wright says: – It’s definitely the suit Robert had with him, but yeah, not the prototype…

Fok… – grunts the intruder as he looks away from Peter’s grin.

Peter then turns to Wright again: – So perhaps your son managed to fool these idiots. He’s certainly smarter.

– I wonder why someone like Covington would recruit people like them.

– Well, from what I know they’re good at hacking, but strategising isn’t exactly their forte.

– Right, Covington’s the mastermind. Or at least he fancies himself one.

A pause, then Peter gets up, approaches the intruder, crouches near him, slaps him in the face, and says to Wright: – Well, it’s time we make this fool talk, so we can find out where they’re keeping your son.

– That won’t be necessary.

The three men are startled by the voice, which doesn’t appear to come from any specific point in the room, and sounds slightly muffled and machine-altered. Before they realise where it’s coming from, there’s a faint crackle, and Peter notices little flashes of a dim, violet light, just out of the corner of his eye. Seconds later, the figure of Robert Wright appears, standing behind Peter.

Jeremy Wright can’t believe his eyes: – Robbie! You’re safe! …The hell happened!?

Peter adds: – And more importantly, for how long have you been here?

Father and son exchange a sort of forearm handshake that strikes Peter: it’s a brief but intense gesture, revealing a glimpse of deep affection between these two otherwise restrained men. Then Robert turns to Peter, his voice now normal: – I’ve been here long enough to understand a few things… (looking again at his father) They attacked me early this morning while I was getting back from Tyrrell’s place. This prototype suit still has some power issues and doesn’t self-recharge properly, so I was travelling using the standard cloaking of my regular suit, the one this dunce is wearing now. Anyway, there were three of them, and somehow they knew my position… they were probably using some kind of modded binoculars… and before I could even try an escape route, they knocked me out with a flash grenade.

– Did they hurt you, son?

– Just a few punches, to intimidate me. Nothing I can’t handle. They told me that if I didn’t give them my suit and brief them on the new cloaking tech I was developing, they would publish the coordinates of this place and Tyrrell’s shelter on all the underground networks. I was pretty sure they were just bluffing about this location, but it was entirely possible they’d found out about Tyrrell and I couldn’t risk exposing him…

Peter continues: – …So you gave them your regular suit and had them believe it was the prototype.

Robert nods: – While the real prototype is this I’m wearing. See? It looks like a plain undersuit.

Jeremy Wright is fascinated: – It’s really thin. But what about the helmet? Does it work without one?

Robert removes his glasses, and touches a sensor on the right hinge. A bare-bones HUD lights up on the lenses. – Rather inconspicuous, don’t you think?

His father is visibly proud. Peter wonders: – How did you trick them into thinking that your regular suit was the prototype? Didn’t they ask for a demonstration?

– They did. (Nodding towards the intruder) He grabbed the suit from me and put it on. I was being restrained by the other two blokes. I told them I needed to show them how to access the hidden features still in development, and as soon as I had my hands free, I activated the undersuit and got away as fast as I could.

Peter remains concerned: – Good for you, really. But the fact that this guy has managed to find this station and enter undetected makes me think they actually knew where to find us, and that means this whole place is compromised…

– He’s right, Robbie.

– That may be my fault, actually. The suit’s helmet was storing mapping data in its cache… (He turns to Peter and explains) It’s what allows me to move about in poor visibility conditions without losing track of my path, and also helps me to avoid the strongest pockets of radiation that remain in the region. (He stares at the floor) They must have figured out this location by dumping the data and comparing the paths I took at different times in the past. I’m sorry, father, I didn’t have time to delete the cache before they took the suit from me.

Jeremy Wright isn’t really worried: – Nae, it’s okay lad, I think we can still contain the situation. There were three of them, you said? Chances are they uploaded the new mapping data to the helmet, and sent this joker on his way… But it’s unlikely they broadcast this station’s coordinates before receiving confirmation from him.

Robert nods: – And the snowglobe’s preventing any unauthorised outgoing comm, so that leaves us with two hackers who may have some idea as to where this place is, and one who’s actually found it.

– So we set a trap to lure the other two somewhere nearby and we eliminate the problem.

Peter cuts in: – Sorry to interrupt, but—

But a loud alert coming from one of the workstations interrupts Peter and attracts everyone’s attention. Robert is quicker than his father and sits before one of the largest displays in the room, showing a map of the area with faintly illuminated overlays and a few dots scattered all over — some of them blink at a very slow rate, others don’t blink at all, and one dot is currently blinking rapidly and in a different hue. Robert inputs a few commands, and the map’s magnification increases. His father and Peter are standing behind him. He strokes his chin and grins as he points to the blinking dot: – We won’t have to lure them after all. They’re coming down the D1314, approaching the old Serqueux sanitation complex.

– Oh, that’d have been a great site for an ambush, – remarks Jeremy Wright.

Peter puts his finger near the screen and draws a segment in the air: – Yes, this section here is all dirt road and dead trees, and they’re going to reach it soon.

Wright gives his son a gentle pat on the shoulder: – So, what’s the plan now?

– We need to keep them near the complex. Then we’ll return their friend there. And then we’ll, um, send them on their way.

Peter draws close to Jeremy Wright and holds his forearm gently but firmly: – Any news for me, from Bekah? Can you check if she got in touch while we were all busy with that fool over there?

The man approaches the workstation monitoring encrypted convo channels, wakes the display, and checks for unread private hails. Nothing yet. This makes Peter antsy again: – I’m worried for her. If Section 9 investigators figure out just how much she’s helped me so far, things are gonna get ugly for her.

Robert Wright joins the conversation: – You’re not giving your friend enough credit. Bekah048’s reputation in the hacker circles definitely precedes her. From what I’ve understood, you are close colleagues, but I bet you didn’t really know about her hacker status until this situation broke out.

– No, not really. I mean, obviously I knew she was passionate about everything related to technology, past and present, but that she was actually involved in hacking activities…

– You see? That’s because she’s smart and careful and paranoid about not leaving traces. She knows time’s of the essence. As soon as her hack’s ready, she’ll activate it.

Peter is slightly surprised at the amount of details Robert seems to know: – Just how long have you been here, cloaked?

– You had just arrived. When I escaped, I didn’t run straight here. I know this experimental cloaking is practically undetectable, but I took precautions just in case the suit’s power system failed and left me exposed. When I passed the old shelters in the razed area of Gournay, the HUD started displaying the coordinates of the standard suit, so I knew that dunce was coming here, and I followed him.

Peter shakes his head and nudges Jeremy Wright: – See? We were here sharing stories, and we didn’t know there was a fucking cloaking party going on… (A beat, then to Robert) Hey, I could’ve hit you when I knifed our ‘guest’!

– I was behind you when that happened, don’t worry.

Jeremy Wright cuts in: – Lads, we have to go out there and figure out a diversion to keep those two hackers close to the Serqueux complex.

Robert sits at another workstation. What Peter thought was an old, inoperative mini-mainframe, comes to life, the admin console on the small 18-inch display loading obsolete protocols. Robert explains: – With this, I can tap into the old war emergency network and issue a biohazard alert for the areas in the vicinity of the complex, urging anyone there to stay in Serqueux until further notice.

Peter raises an eyebrow: – Isn’t that going to sound a little too suspicious? Maybe they’ll think it’s just an old warning and dismiss it.

Robert grins as he turns his attention back to the workstation’s display. His father explains: – Here in the continent, biohazard warnings are still taken very seriously to this day, especially in the areas surrounding abandoned medical facilities. Old containers storing waste or toxic chemicals may break with age or radiation, and create unsafe pockets that need to be quarantined. The emergency system we’re tapping into was designed to be nuclear-proof, so it’s still considered reliable.

– Well, I hope they know that.

At the warning broadcast prompt, Robert types: Attention, please. A Level 3 biohazard has been detected at warehouse E6 of the Serqueux sanitation complex. For your safety, it is essential you remain confined in either Building 3 or Building 5 of the main complex until further notice. 

That’s what the automated message over the PA system will sound like. When he gives confirmation, the console starts autotranslating the warning before the final, bilingual broadcast: Attention, s’il vous plaît. Un risque biologique de niveau 3 a été détecté dans l’entrepôt E6 …

The three men now go back to watching the radar display. Shortly after, the rapidly-blinking dot stops, then proceeds towards the Serqueux complex in the straightest possible line.

– Good, – mutters Robert.

Peter glances at the injured intruder again, and suggests they should try to extract some information out of him before delivering him to his mates.

– What could he possibly know? – asks Jeremy Wright. – And d’ya think he’s gonna tell us anything anyway?

– It’s worth a try. For starts, he could know how many Semis4 mercenaries are working for Covington…

As they approach him, he’s already shaking his head. – I vont tel ya niks… nothing!

Peter scoffs and speaks to Wright, without breaking eye contact with the stranger: – These guys crack me up. They’re geeks who receive an even more basic military training than we forensic scientists in London State do, but they love to act tough. (To the stranger) What’s your name?

– …

– I don’t even get to know your name? Come on. Let’s try it again.

Peter takes out the Elastocable’s steel case, and touches a button on its lid. The Elastocable’s grip tightens. The man struggles and gasps for air. Peter touches another button, and the Elastocable relaxes the grip.

Reddy, Reddy! (inhales) Name is Reddy.

– Okay, Reddy. Another question: who else knows about your location?

He snickers: – Ya’ll know fery soon.

– This piece of shite isn’t taking us seriously. I think I’ve another canister of acid powder around here.

Again, fear appears to be a good motivator: – Vait! I tel ya.

Still sitting at the radar workstation, Robert says: – For being someone who didn’t want to reveal anything, this bloke is surely chatty!

Reddy continues: – Only 822 ant 416 know.

– What?

– I dont know teir names, only codenames.

– Your mates, are they those two entering Serqueux? – asks Peter while vaguely pointing in the direction of the workstations. Reddy hesitates, then nods.

– How many are out there looking for me? How many did Section 9 recruit?

Robert gets up and moves away from the workstation.

– I… I…

How many!? – yells Jeremy Wright in Reddy’s left ear.

– Dont know exact number! Meself, 416, 822… I know of anoter unit in anoter region… Six men… ant…

Reddy looks paler and weaker.

– You all must have kept in touch via comms. Coordinate the search, divide the area in sectors to cover, and the like. Reddy!? Come on! (Peter slaps his face)

Reddy struggles and starts mumbling in Semis4 slang; then, louder: – Dont know, dont know, Mr Covington—

His eyes wander off. When they see Robert enter the kitchen, they widen in horror. – Vait! Mr Covington koordinates! Operatifs, information, evry-ting kompartementalised! Vee merely receive orders, ek sweer!!

As Peter starts turning to see what’s happening behind him, he hears a soft, low-pitched whine.

Hiss.

A dark blot stains Reddy’s forehead. His figure remains still for a second, then slowly sinks to the floor. The Elastocable releases and retracts.