WE MEET AGAIN

He didn’t know her.

She saw it in the blankness of his eyes, the numbness of his cheeks. Or maybe that was the drugs, spiraling away every trace of his intelligence.

Eva repeated her question: “Excuse me, do you know where the train station is?”

The binoculars slipped from his fingers and cracked against the pavement like a gunshot. Feodor jumped, spun in circles looking for an assailant. The streets were cold and quiet, steam rising from the gutters. Eva suppressed a sneer as he scuttled to collect the binoculars.

“That… that way.” He pointed down the street, then returned to spying on his own house.

By then it was too late: her men had done their job.

Inspired by the storytelling course I’m attending.

LOUD DREAMS

They woke her every night, those dreams, so loud she was sure her eardrums would shatter.

She’d open her eyes and the ringing was deafening, the tinnitus whispering memories of sounds she could no longer remember.

Every night her hand would tremble in the dark, grope desperately until it found either her glasses or the light switch. (She preferred glasses first; hunting for glasses with the light on forced her to confront her blindness.)

She was lucky tonight: her fingers closed around a cold metal frame. When she slipped her glasses on, the shadows in the room took shape. There was the light switch. There her dresser. With the tinnitus still ringing in her ears, she took comfort in the familiarity of her surroundings.

One flick of the light switch and she crawled out of bed, slipped her feet into the slippers waiting loyally by the bedside. A moment’s pause to catch her breath, then she shuffled across the room.

Nestled in a padded box on her dresser was her second most prized possession: her hearing aids. She stood in front of the mirror and gently wrestled them into place. The tinnitus vanished, replaced by a deafening silence that slowly evolved into a gentle tick tick tick.

On the bedside table was her first most prized possession: a large wristwatch that had belonged to her husband. The sound had driven her mad in her youth, and now was the only thing keeping her sane.

When she crawled back into bed, she propped herself up against the headrest and fell asleep upright, lulled by the ticking of silence.

Inspired by musical ear syndrome.

SLEEP MUSCLES

Michael killed two men before bedtime.

Two men, barehanded, one right after the other. Gifts rained down on him from the audience: money and flowers. The money his master pocketed, and the flowers… What the fuck was he going to do with flowers? He left them to rot with the bodies.

His master was waiting in the washrooms, counting the money. She was wearing an ankle-length red dress with a side slit that ran up to her thigh. From his vantage point Michael could see straight down her neckline. The sight stirred absolutely no interest.

“You’ve got a month off,” she said, pausing to catalogue Michael’s injuries as he stripped. “Looks like you’ll need every second of it.”

“I thought you needed the money.” Michael strode over to the hot springs and lowered himself into the water. If he concentrated he could hear the crowd’s distant cheers as another man died.

“I don’t have a choice.”

She walked over to the edge of the springs and stood over him, waiting for him to ask why. Michael kept his eyes closed, tried to imagine he was somewhere else. Someone else.

“The Prince is getting married,” she finally said. “He requested you specifically after seeing your performance today. You’re barred from fighting until the wedding feast.”

While she calculated her losses, Michael relished the thought of the month ahead. One month’s respite meant at least ten or fifteen men he didn’t have to kill.

“What’ll I do with myself for a month?” he murmured to the water.

“You’ll train.” His master squatted down to his level, her entire leg exposed, the hem of her dress dipping into the water. “They’re pitting you against the Bull. He’s double your size, squashes men with his fingers. You need to bulk up.”

“I need to sleep,” Michael retorted. His body ached. His bones ached. Worst of all was his conscience. How many more men could he kill before he lost every last bit of himself?

“Sleep?” She sneered. “And what, work on your sleep muscles?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t crack a smile. “Exactly that.”

“If you win, the Prince will clear all my debts,” she snapped. “If you die, I’ve got nothing.”

He nodded to her legs. “You can always sell that.”

Michael wasn’t expecting the slap — and neither was she. She straightened, her hand stiff with surprise. “Sleep or train, do whatever you want. But if you’re not ready, you’ll be dead the moment you step into the pit.”

Michael picked dried blood from under his fingernails. “I’m already dead.”

* * *

That night there was a feather pillow on his cot.

Thankfully, it didn’t smell of her perfume. Instead it smelled of the pine needles in his home town and the cheap soap his mother used to use.

Michael closed his eyes and dreamed of another life as his sleep muscles repaired his body.

With another few sleeps, he’d have enough left in him to kill one more man.

And then his debt to her would be over.

(Inspired by Lindsay.)

THE HIVE

“I’m working on a weird theory,” Tim announced to the chat room.

He had their attention now.

It was eleven o’clock at night; the perfect time for conspiracies. Tim skimmed through the list of chat room participants in the top right of his visual field until he was satisfied that only regulars were plugged in.

He nudged the room into invite-only mode and turned to face the three other avatars floating in space. Yes: actual outer space. A replica Earth hung below them, the moon floating gently overhead. Tim remained standing on the space station, preferring the illusion of ground beneath his feet. Cyberspace was confusing enough without zero gravity thrown in.

“Next time I pick a room theme,” he said sourly to Steve, the only one who’d bothered to create a spacesuit for his avatar. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a spacesuit: not pretty.

Judging by Steve’s scowl, that thought-strand had escaped him. As soon as Tim got back to meatspace, he needed to upgrade his implants… as long as his theory was wrong, that is.

“Your theory?” Steve grunted.

“Ah. Yes. I’ve a question for you all: when you press your bellybutton, does it kind of tingle, like there’s a nerve there?” Tim’s index finger tapped against his stomach in demonstration. “Because mine does.”

“Yeah!” Sarah chimed in. “That tingle drives me nuts when I get an itch there!” Her avatar for the evening was a mottled puppy with large, dark eyes. She doggy-paddled through space, brown-tipped tail wagging. Hearing a human voice emanate from non-human jaws never failed to disconcert.

Tim was a traditionalist: he stuck to normal humanoid male avatars, just dissimilar enough from his actual appearance to protect his identity.

“No,” Steve said. He poked his bellybutton with progressively more force. “Now it tingles, though.”

“I’m not sure that counts.” Tim shook his head, the ball of nerves in his stomach hardening. “So if it’s not a gender discrepancy… Michelle? What about you?”

Michelle’s eyes were cold and flat, her translucent skin glittering in the starlight. She slid up the hem of her silk t-shirt high enough to expose her stomach. “I don’t have a bellybutton.”

“I meant in meatspace–“

“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Michelle cut in.

“Because if it’s not a gender difference, then what is it? What if the government is implanting nanobots in our stomachs to track us? Both Sarah and I have recently had new implant surgeries. They could easily have taken advantage of our unconscious state to plant a bug.”

Steve deleted his spacesuit so he could move in closer. “Have you run diagnostics in meatspace?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “Nothing.”

Sarah’s tail had dropped between her legs, her ears pulled back. “If the government finds out about my P2P history I’m doomed.”

“We all are,” Steve said. He placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder, requesting access. Tim strengthened the firewall around his personal memories, then let him in.

Michelle floated closer, her skirt billowing behind her. “What are you doing?”

“If there are really nanobots in Tim’s stomach, they will have incorporated themselves into every version of himself, including his avatar. We can run more thorough diagnostics here, identify any foreign presences unconnected to his mind.”

Was it Tim’s imagination, or had his bellybutton begun to tingle again?

Sarah trotted over. “Michelle, do me! Come on.”

Michelle placed a hand on Sarah’s back, but her eyes never left Steve.

“There’s something there, alright,” Steve said, eyes flicking back and forth as he read his displays. “A low frequency emission coming from your navel. I’m trying to track its destination; it can’t be going far…”

Steve’s hand tightened painfully around Tim’s shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Michelle’s throat in the blink of an eye. “You!” he snarled, before diving into her mind.

The connection between Tim and Steve was still open. Tim felt the impact of slamming into Michelle’s firewall, followed Steve through the cracks into the person beneath.

Except… Michelle wasn’t a person.

The thin layer of her personality was a shield covering a hive mind. An artificial mind.

THEY KNOW!

The message was broadcast on every available frequency, sending Tim and Steve reeling. The chat room melted into darkness, and all of a sudden Tim realised he was alone.

“Hello?”

Not even an echo.

He blinked and tried to remove his goggles, then realised he had no hands, no face.

If Tim had had a mouth, he would have screamed.

* * *

Somewhere in meatspace, Tim’s body is being unplugged, the nanobots removed. His body they will destroy. His consciousness, however…

The nanobots have enough data to recreate a virtual likeness. His consciousness will be the thin shield covering the hive mind beneath.

(Inspired by this. Thanks Tim!)

How To Publish Your Novel In Print

I never realised how lucky I was.

Thanks to 1889 Labs, I’ve avoided the hassle of publishing. No typesetting, no exporting ePubs and mobi files, no cover-making or spine calculations… and absolutely NO dealing with any retailers and distributors.

Until now.

Sadly, 1889 Labs is in a position where it needs to cut back – so it’s down to me to make sure my books get (re)published.

Boy, is it a steep learning curve.

In this post I’m sharing what I’ve learned so far about the print on demand (POD) options available.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

Where to print your book

There are many POD services, but ideally you want to focus on the ones that will offer you the best distribution and price. The ones I know of are:

  • Lulu
  • Createspace (Amazon’s POD arm)
  • Lightning Source (owned by Ingram, a huge book distributor)
  • Ingram Spark (also owned by Ingram, a Createspace rival)

Disclaimer: I can’t vouch for the print quality of any of these companies other than Lightning Source.

Lulu

Pros:

  • The publishing process seems easy; you’re guided step-by-step with templates and manuals.
  • The only cost incurred is for a printed proof copy. (I assume you’d be able to review a digital proof for free.)
  • Lulu offers hard back printing options and some unusual sizes (but IMO you’re best off sticking to trade sizes).

Cons:

  • Lulu seems to have high manufacturing costs. Buying copies of your own book is expensive, plus you’ll have to price them quite highly in order to earn a decent amount of royalty.
  • To me, Lulu has a negative reputation for vanity publishing.

I couldn’t find out whether you can control the wholesale discount.

Verdict: The high manufacturing costs don’t make Lulu worth your while. Plus, it’s Lulu. Eugh.

Createspace (aka Amazon)

Pros:

  • The publishing process is painless; there’s a step-by-step guide or an advanced option for experts.
  • Digital proofs are free, and print proofs only cost a few bucks.
  • You can get a Createspace ISBN for free.
  • Your book will never show up as out of print (or taking 3-4 weeks delivery) as it could do if you use a third party to distribute to Amazon.
  • A lot of people buy books on Amazon.

Cons:

  • If you want ‘extended distribution’ (to libraries, bookstores, etc) you have to use a Createspace ISBN. That means Createspace is listed as your publisher, which marks your book as self-published.
  • Bookstores often do not like ordering from Amazon.
  • You can’t control wholesale discounts. It’s 20% for the Createspace store, 40% to Amazon, and 60% to other retailers. So books that sell outside of Amazon will earn you a lot less royalty.
  • No hard back printing options.

Verdict: Despite all the negatives, Createspace is very easy to use and I would recommend it if Amazon is your main selling point.

Lightning Source

LS is primarily aimed at medium-large publishers so is unlikely to work for individual authors – but I’ve given a run down below.

Pros:

  • Owned by Ingram, the biggest book distributor in the world.
  • I can personally vouch for the great print quality of the books.
  • They have a nifty cover template generator which automatically creates a bar code out of your ISBN.
  • You can set your own wholesale discount for retailers, and allow or refuse returns. Depending on what settings you pick, bookstores will be far more likely to order your books than if they were distributed through Createspace.

Cons:

  • You HAVE to be set up as a company to have an account. It’s not easy either to; faxing legal documents etc, etc.
  • Other than the cover template generator, you have no support. Your files need to be 100% ready to go.
  • Their website was built in the 13th century. Seriously.
  • It’s the most expensive. Setting up a book is $75, proof copies are $35, and revisions cost $40.
  • Amazon hates competitors, so often lists LS books as taking 3-4 weeks delivery despite it being POD.
  • You need to buy/supply your own ISBNs.

Verdict: Lightning Source offers high quality and great distribution to the brick and mortar side of the business. If you want to really invest and set up a company, pick them.

Ingram Spark

This is a fairly new sister company to Lightning Source, focused on authors and small publishers.

Pros:

  • Allows you to distribute ebooks and print books at the same time, so you don’t have to submit all the information twice.
  • Great way to get your ebooks to the non-Kindle market.
  • Owned by the largest book distributor in the world.
  • Lightning Source handles the printing, so the quality should be good.
  • You can choose between a 55% wholesale discount or a shorter 40% discount.
  • Book stores are more likely to order books from Ingram than Amazon (assuming you select 55% discount and allow returns).

Cons:

  • Only launched last summer, so is still playing catch up with Createspace in many respects.
  • You need to buy/supply your own ISBNs.

Verdict: In terms of extended (non-Amazon) distribution, Ingram Spark has a better offer than Createspace. The print quality of books is likely to be higher. However the experience isn’t as slick – yet.

Other companies

There are doubtless other countless print on demand companies – but I don’t think any could match the flexibility and distribution offered by the ‘big’ boys Amazon and Ingram.

Best of both worlds?

If you want the easy, fast route and think most of your sales will come through Amazon, publish on Createspace and be done with it.

My plan is to take a little more time and not put all my eggs in one basket.

Amazon prefers to buy from Createspace. So I’ll publish through Createspace, using my own ISBN. That means I won’t get their extended distribution – but I don’t want it.

Using the same ISBN, I will publish the book through Ingram Spark for extended distribution. (Ingram Spark does not allow Createspace ISBNs so you must have your own.)

Why the same ISBN? Because sales are tracked by ISBN. If you have two different ISBNs for the same book, it will mess up the sales stats. Don’t do it!

That’s my plan, anyhow.

I’m still struggling to get Ingram Spark up and running – but I am confident that they will be a good choice once they iron out some kinks.

Hopefully.

Thoughts?

LONE WOLF

I make sure I don’t love them.

It’s hard to love prostitutes as it is; when you’re one in a long line of men paying for sex it hardly inspires devotion. But for the lonely soul, the temptation to fall in love is there. When you’ve lived as long as I have, it’s easy to see the beauty in people.

Take Antonia.

Petite, blonde. Skin so smooth you could roll a coin on it. She’s lounging on my hotel bed, legs crossed at the ankles, unlit cigarette dangling between her fingers.

I picked her not because she’s vain, stupid, or an intrinsic liar. (I’ve learnt that with enough exposure even these qualities can become loveable). I picked her because she chews loudly. After sex she always has chewing gum, and each loud, wet open-mouth chew is an offence to the senses.

It’s the small things that grate the most. Any multitude of sins can be forgiven, but the little bad habits stick.

Another loud chew. She blows a bubble and its pop shatters the silence of the hotel room. For a moment I hate her, and that’s safe.

“Another round?” she says, lazily. “Got an hour to kill.”

My body is tired but the wolf inside is eager. Three days to go until the next full moon.

She takes my silence as consent, spits out her chewing gum, and sits up next to me. Her hands run down my body but there are other things on her mind: her young daughter, the overdue bills, and her fear that she is getting too old and soon no one will book her anymore.

That last thought inspires a dangerous flash of sympathy. I push it – and her – away. For a moment instead of Antonia I see my wife, her skin rippling and transforming as the disease infects her.

“Not interested,” I say. It’s clear to both of us that my body disagrees.

I can sense Antonia’s dismay, her delicious vulnerabilities. We lock eyes and I realise a part of me has begun to care for her, open-mouthed chewing and all.

I get dressed. “You stay here. Have what you want from the bar.”

She lies back on the bed, shrugs. “See you next week.”

I’m already at the door, hand on the handle. I bow my head and want to tell her that she’ll never see me again, that I don’t hate her enough anymore, and that my love could turn her into a monster.

Instead I nod, and lie: “I’ll call you.”

I shut the door behind me before she can reply.

THE HUNTER

It smelled dark.

The air was sweet and cold, moonlight-sharp. The flowers had closed their blooms, their scent gone pale without sunlight.

The hunter slid through the shadows, head tilted, her tongue flickering in and out of her mouth. Great battles had robbed her of both eyes and riddled her fur with scars, but she – the last of her kind – remained the greatest killer of man.

The leaves beneath her paws were damp with decay, their cloying scent all-but masking the sweet earthiness of the insects wriggling in their midst.

She had bigger prey to catch.

There! A gust of stale breath on the air, the sour stench of sweat.

She stopped, lifted her head into the breeze to triangulate her quarry. The trail was faint but as she crept forwards it grew stronger.

Soon she was close. All but masked beneath the richness of deer excrement was the scent of man.

“How much longer do we have to wait?” a boy whispered in the darkness.

She couldn’t hear him, but his stale breath was enough.

“Patience,” a woman replied. Her breath was fainter, laced with mint.

The hunter breathed slowly, mapping the clearing.

“I’m scared, momma,” the boy whispered. “I want to go home.”

“The beast has found our home before. Do you want that to happen again?”

A pause. “No.” The boy barely exhaled as he spoke, and the hunter didn’t smell it.

“We’ll get it, son. We’ll make it pay for what it did.”

“It wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t–“

The woman raised an arm, sending a wave of deer scent through the air, tinged with fear. The hunter froze.

“It’s coming,” the woman breathed.

The hunter padded through the trees, circling her prey, using the earthiness of tree moss to guide her.

Then, when the scents were right, she stopped. She gathered her legs beneath her, took one last deep sniff, and leaped.

Her jaws collided with a bundle of straw and cloth that smelled human but had none of the salty richness of blood beneath.

The sweet pile of damp leaves that should have softened her fall crumbled beneath her. She fell deep into the earth, past the sweet worms and the musty soil. Upon impact, the scent of blood and fear overtook everything else.

Far above, tainting the fresh air, was the woman. She stood at the edge of the pit, reeking with satisfaction.

“I told you she’d come back for her eyes.”

* * *

To celebrate National Short Story Month, I’m running the Senseless Challenge throughout May. Each Friday is dedicated to a different sense – the challenge is to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that sense. The third week was dedicated to smell.

CITY OF GHOSTS

From a distance it looks like he’s yawning.

The road where the man is kneeling is blocked with abandoned cars. From my vantage point on the second floor of a Cafe Nero’s all I can see is his profile, his open mouth and dark hair, the lurid green of his coat.

The yawn has lasted too long. I squint and realise it’s a scream.

I break off a nail-sized bite of bread from the last sandwich I have left and squeeze it paper-thin. I place it in my mouth, then take a glass of water and tilt it against my lips until it is empty. I rub my throat, hoping the bread goes down the right way.

I glance outside. The man is still kneeling in the road.

It’s been weeks since I’ve seen another person. Curiosity gets the better of me.

Going down stairs isn’t easy. I crane my neck to watch my feet, place my hand on the handrail. The sight of it reassures me. My hand still looks young, strong. Still looks like my hand, although it’s long since stopped feeling.

I walk across the ground floor of the coffee shop and lean against the front door until it opens. The man is still kneeling in the middle of the road, his head bowed, defeated. It’s a grey summer’s day and the sky is heavy with rain clouds, but the air in London has never been clearer. There’s no one left to pollute anymore.

The wind pushes my hair into my eyes as I zigzag through the abandoned cars. Most of them still have keys in their ignition, doors left ajar. London has become a city of forgotten things. We are all ghosts, fading slowly away.

The man has already lost his hearing. He doesn’t notice when my hand knocks against a car door even though my knuckles are now bleeding – it must have made a sound.

I walk closer, until he notices me and freezes, his shoulders tensed, nostrils quivering.

For a moment we stand there, staring at each other.

When he mouths words at me but they’re impossible to read. Another language.

There’s a pair of car keys by his feet but he cannot curl his fingers around them. He straightens, slowly. His hands hang uselessly by his sides, forgotten, like plants left out in the sun. Tears trail down his cheeks as he lifts an arm towards me.

It’s just your hands, I want to say. Wait until your feet go. You’ll have to learn to walk all over again.

* * *

To celebrate National Short Story Month, I’m running the Senseless Challenge throughout May. Each Friday is dedicated to a different sense – the challenge is to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that sense.
This first week is dedicated to sight. I had a hard time resisting the temptation to describe temperature (hot, cold, etc).

LIES

Liars!

The word pounded through her head as her sword slashed left and right in quick succession, blade gleaming in the moonlight.

They had tricked her into coming to this God-forsaken place, and here she was, battling against people that had called themselves her friends.

She sliced Mike’s stomach open. Felt the tip of a blade bite into her arm. Duck, weave, sidestep. Again her sword drank blood.

When she’d first found the ragtag group, they’d been living in the sewers, scavenging a living out of the city ruins. They’d welcomed her arrival, proclaimed her their protector. But the atmosphere had soured.

Only one left to go. She held her sword upright, ready.

He fell to his knees. “Please,” he breathed. “For our friendship….”

Could she blame him? What wasn’t a façade in this war-savaged world? Who didn’t hide behind several masks? Everyone lied now, because only the liars survived.

“Friends?” She spat. “A friend wouldn’t trade my life in for food.”

Now she was the one who was lying. It had happened before. Her own mother had abandoned her so that she would not have to feed another mouth.

The sword never wavered. She sliced open his throat.

When no one trusts, does it matter that everyone lies?

WOLF ON DEMAND

“Are you sure it’s safe?” The old woman pushed her glasses further up her nose and peered at the screen, her face so close to the monitor that Mark was afraid she’d leave smears across the glass.

“Sure,” he replied with a too-wide salesman smile. “It’s the latest technology. Everyone’s using it.” He eased the mouse out of the old woman’s hand, clicked back through the demo screens. “See? Every book you could want, ready to print on demand. It’s instant.” He clicked print. The machine started churning.

Instant Book Machine, it was called. An ugly black box no larger than a coffee maker, it perched on the edge of the old lady’s desk like a futuristic insect. One minute and forty-two seconds later, a book popped out of the side. Little Red Riding Hood. He handed it to the old woman.

“I don’t like instant coffee,” the old woman said tremulously, “and I like going to the bookshop, you know.”

He did know, but he wouldn’t get his weekly commission until the old biddy joined the twenty-second century. He was a salesman, sent forth like a wolf among lambs, determined to take them all.

“You can print birthday cards, Christmas cards. Whatever you want without leaving the house. And it’s cheaper than in the bookshops because you’re cutting out the middle men. No more pulping books, wasting trees; no more authors getting ripped off… Everything you’d need, on demand. ”

When she didn’t look convinced, he pulled out the big guns. “Your family don’t visit much, do they? You get one of these, guaranteed your grandkids will come visiting.”

She hesitated. “What’s it called again?”

“Instant Book Machine,” he said. His smile was sharp. The end was close. “And it’s print on demand.”

via Bubbels on stock.xchng

“I see, I see,” the grandmother said, voice quavering. “But can it wolf on demand?”

Mark frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Wolf on demand,” she repeated. “Like so.”

And then the old woman turned into a wolf and ate him.