Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bastard in The Promised Land, opening

No, I'm not going to post the entire novel here -- not this one, anyway. I'm just posting an early version of the new opening scene. Comments are welcome.

If anyone sees this who does not know the story, most of it takes place when Dutch is almost 18 years old, and somewhere else. But his upbringing in this place is an important element of the story, so I think this actually belongs at the beginning.


Eleven year-old Dutch ran down The Strip, close on the heels of Jan and Mark, clutching a hot, stuffed pancake he had grabbed off a vendor’s cart. The owner shouted curses st them, but they were safe – their thievery was minor compared to what would happen if he left his wares behind to chase them. A block away they paused and shoved the evidence into their mouths.

"Teach him to sell us warmed-up leftovers," Mark said as he licked his fingers.

Dutch, his mouth still full of spicy stuffing, only nodded. The older boys were letting him run with them, despite his small size. When the school year had started, a month before, the two had ganged up on him – but after giving Mark a black eye and Jan a bloody nose, they had invited him along. And kept him when he had shown that he knew The Strip better than any other boy at school.

He stamped his feet against the chill of the night and wished he had a warm suit, even a stained, second-hand one like Jan’s.

Around them, the street hummed. Music belted from the bars where veil-draped women danced on small stages; others stood in the shadows, waiting to sell a different kind of dance. A crowd of dirt-covered minors strolled by, shoving aside the Free Spacers in their almost pressed uniforms. A trio in jeans and leather jackets, most likely Tramp Traders, glared at the Free Spacers but moved out of their way.

High above Funnel City, stars shone faintly through the muddy, poisonous atmosphere of Exxon’s planet. They twinkled as the blades of giant fans, spinning on the girders just beneath the transparent dome, eclipsed them.

"Hey, guys, I’ve got something to show you," Jan said.

"Is it good?" Mark asked as he wiped his hands on his fleece pants.

"It’s not for chickens," Jan said. "We’ll have to run through the Slags."

"I’m in," Mark said.

Dutch shrugged. He wasn’t about to show fear in front of these two.

"Then follow me."

They ran down the street, passing a grocery where aromatic spices where women in saris and burqas scooped spices from open boxes. A beggar sat by the door, his footless stumps thrust forward for all to see, lifting his cup with a skeletal hand. In the next doorway, a pair of women stood together, surveying the crowd with cold eyes. A man came up, spoke to one, and exchanged a folded set of bills for a waxy packet.

The boys ran past a noodle cart, where Saki flowed as easily as broth, and a cart where the owner sold pale lumps fried in batter. They passed a street preacher, Bible in hand, arguing hotly with a crucifix-wielding priest while a Reformed Presbyterian Missionary passed out pamphlets to the gathering crowd. Dutch grabbed one to leave lying about the common room of the compound.

Jan turned sideways and dove down an alley, where the boys jumped over the prone bodies of drunkards and drug addicts. A pair of gaunt-faced men lowered the plastic cups they held to their faces, revealing black marks where the Fumerol reacted with the plastic and stained their skin. A woman screamed, thrashing at air, terrorized by her own chemical demons.
The boys kept running.

A few streets over they were still in the Strip, but the bars were smaller, the women were older, and drug addicts sat openly on doorsteps. Most of the Spacers here were Tramps, scrounging for irregular business. Some of it was legitimate, as when a parcel needed to be delivered quickly or someone needed passage to the outlying stars, but this deep into Free Spacer territory, most Tramps carried drugs or stolen goods.

"Is this prime?" asked a Predator in a flashy warm suit as he accepted a package from a man wearing an ankle-length leather coat.

"Grade-A sirloin," replied the Tramp. "Flash-frozen at the source."

As Dutch ran on, he wondered what type of drugs needed to be flash frozen.

Beyond that street lay housing blocks, towers which curled around central courtyards. Obscene graffiti decorated the windowless walls. Dogs growled behind iron gates; silent eyes watched from the narrow alleys. Filth and compost scented the air. Dutch’s uncles lived here, in a single tower with their families and all the people they owned. He glanced over his shoulder, hoping that no one would recognize him.

For a mile or more the boys ran, then stopped in the shadows next to a corner. They were at the edge of the residences, and faced a wider street lined by flickering street lights. On the other side lay the The Slags, tenement housing and convenience shops for those who could not afford protection.

In the yellowish light spilling from the open door of an all-night drug shop, six young men strutted and swaggered. Embedded jewels flashed along their fingers, wrists, and jaws, one gem for each kill or conquest. Their flat black warm suits with silver stripes announced that they were Rats, and the blasters at their hips showed they were hunting.

The boys waited, barely breathing.

"Come on," Jan grumbled. "Get in a fight or something."

But the gang only laughed and talked loudly, all the while watching in every direction at once.

There would be a fight here, they were expecting one, but when?

Mark shuffled his feet in frustration. "Let’s run for it," he hissed.

"You wanna die?" Jan whispered back.

"I’m gonna freeze if we stand here much longer."

"Look." Dutch pointed to a young woman who was about to walk past the gang. She wore a low-cut shirt and a high, tight skirt, but the iridescent shimmers dancing up her arms and legs indicated a sheer warm-suit – something only the richer crust of Funnel City could afford. From her solitude and the steely look on her face, Dutch guessed that she was making a clandestine run to the drug shop.

She couldn’t have been more stupid.

The gang members circled about her, predators coming for the kill. She stopped, eyes wide and white. One man, apparently the leader, stepped up and ran his hand from her chin to her chest. "Time to pay the toll," he laughed.

She spat in his face.

"Now!" Jan whispered loudly, and the three boys sprinted across the street, aiming for the alley. Marc reached it first, and then Dutch dove into the sheltering shadows. Behind them, Jan tangled his feet in a plastic sheet and knocked over a trash can.

The Rats looked over and pulled their blasters.

"Here," Marc whispered to Dutch as he tossed a smoke grenade.

Dutch yanked the pin and tossed it in the center of the gang. Green smoke billowed up, distracting the rats long enough for Dutch to grab Jan’s hand and pull him into the alley. Marc grabbed Jan’s other hand, and together they pulled him deep into the alley and behind an overfilled dumpster.

A barrage of bolts streamed down the alley, punching holes in the brick walls and sending down streams of chips on the boys. The dumpster groaned and danced with direct hits. Dutch held his hands over his ears, but they still rang when the firing stopped.

"Think we got ‘em?" a coarse voice asked.

"I don’t hear anything," said a second.

The boys held their breaths.

"Want to go in and see?"

Dutch’s fingers closed around a broken brick.

"What happened to the girl? Damn it!" The footsteps ran off.

"But those brats..."

"We’ll get ‘em if they crawl out!" The voice faded off.

Silently Dutch stood and brushed off the worst of the debris. They were trapped, he realized, for the alley ended in one of the wide support pillars that held up the dome. "Now what?" he whispered to Jan.

"Up," Jan whispered back. He led them to the support pillar, and pointed out the handholds forming a ladder on the side. Silently he slid his foot onto one, then hefted himself up.

An unguarded ladder to the skies. Yes, that was worth all the danger they had faced. Dutch grinned as he followed, not even sobered by the inch-deep slash of still cooling metal beside the ladder.

The climbed upward into the icy skies, the metal cold against their bare fingers. A hundred feet up they reached the girders, which were wide enough that the boys could lie down flat. The metal above the giant fans was strangely warm, giving them comfort as they stared across the darkness of Funnel City and into the glittering brightness of the Free Spacer Complex.

It had its own dome, and was connected to Funnel City by a series of commerce tubes. The Spaceport was the largest building, but there was also a hospital, a hotel, a shopping mall – and a school. The Freespacer Vocational school, which turned planet-born grounders into spacers who would go out and work on Free Spacer ships. Dutch knew dozens of young men who had failed to stay in the school, but had learned enough to be valuable players on The Strip.

"Looks warm," Mark muttered.

"It _is_ warm," Dutch replied.

"Like you’ve been there?" Jan taunted.

Just in time Dutch remembered that his mother had warned him to tell no one of his trips to the hospital there. "I’ve heard stories."

"Wonderful stories," Mark muttered. "It’s warm, it’s bright, and there’s enough food for everyone."

_True stories,_ Dutch thought.

"And, look." Jan pointed to the open plain beyond the domes. "We can see the ships from here."
They ranged in size from tiny skipships, each only large enough to carry a single person, to a landing traders as large as a warehouse. Even larger ships stayed in orbit, sending down shuttles. There were Free Spacer ships, uniform white and red Cyclone Pharmaceutical ships, and beaten up Tramps. To the side, in a junky heap, lay the graveyard of those which had become too old to fly or who had failed to land properly.

The Free Spacer Complex was just a taste of the world beyond Funnel City. Those ships were a portal to that world, a place where milk and honey flowed from fountains, where warmth and happiness were the right of all. The Promised Land.

"Someday," he decided aloud, "I’m gonna live on those."



1 comment:

  1. Ah, a world where =beef is recognized as a drug=.

    Nice opening.