Blood Flats: Chapter 15

After dodging the Mustang, Lee loped into the field on the other side of the road. The driver of the Mustang had stopped again and was shouting curses, yelling for Lee to come back.

Lee had doubly offended the man, apparently: First he had stepped into the Mustang’s way, and then he had turned his back on the driver’s shouts of confrontation.

He was dimly aware of the car accelerating again, the roar of all eight cylinders accentuating its driver’s anger. People were like that: They might be spoiling for a fight—but not badly enough to chase a man across a field.

As he ran through the high grass, he did not bother to look behind him. He knew that he would attract attention out in the open. People did not normally exit stores and then arbitrarily head for vacant land. If any customers in the parking lot had noticed him, he had no doubt aroused their suspicions. There was nothing that could be done about it.

A cluster of trees beckoned him, promising at least temporary cover. He permitted himself a brief glance upward just before he completed the final running steps into the shelter of the massive, grey-brown trunks. The helicopter might circle back at any moment, after all.

But for now he had outwitted his pursuers. He did notice a vulture gliding silently overhead, scanning the field and the highway for its rancid nourishment. While the carrion-feeder’s significance of an omen was obvious, he forced himself to dismiss it.

This was too much—to be hunted from the air as well as from the ground. In Iraq the enemy had not possessed helicopters. All aircraft had been friendly. On numerous occasions help had in fact arrived from the skies. This was a new feeling—to fear the sky and a mechanical bird of prey that was stalking him there.

This was not a trail through a great woods, but merely a belt of forest between two areas of cleared land. Lee had to navigate his way through a nasty patch of thorns that were flourishing in the undergrowth. He broke through the briars and his right foot came down on a pile of sticks. One of the sticks bolted and slithered quickly away in a zigzagging pattern. He had disturbed a black snake.

Lee was not afraid of snakes; and the non-venomous reptile might even be a favorable omen—certainly a more auspicious one than the vulture.

Immediately beyond the trees he came to a fence that consisted of three horizontal strands of rusted steel wire strung between rotting wood posts. Thankfully the landowner who had erected the fence some decades ago had not thought to use barbed wire.

As he grabbed a fence post and hoisted one leg over the wire, he was all the more aware of his vulnerability. He had heard that a lot of men had been killed in battle while climbing over fences in fields such as this one—though probably in those days they would have been made of split rails rather than rusted wire.

He was thinking not of Iraq this time, but of a more chronologically distant conflict: During the War between the States the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of the Ohio had briefly clashed in Hawkins County. Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Union counterpart, Major General Don Carlos Buell, had each been tasked with taking the area for their respective sides. There had been a series of skirmishes nearby that local residents still referred to as the Battle of Perryston. Lee had heard that it was still possible to find the occasional Minié ball in the forest, though he had never met anyone who actually claimed to have come across one.

Lee had barely touched ground on the other side of the fence when a shot rang out. He instinctively hit the ground, his chest pressed into the warm grass.

Then he realized that the shot had been fired several miles away, and it had probably not been fired in anger. An off-season hunter maybe, or a farmer shooing deer or vermin away from his field.

There was no danger from the shot but he was faced with yet another empty field and yet another road beyond it. Lee stayed down while a pickup truck passed along what he believed to be Route 168. Despite the wide open view the field afforded, the highway was a good distance away. The driver did not appear to have noticed him; the truck continued to chug away. Lee could hear its thirty-year-old engine rattle.

And then, overhead, he heard the thucka-thucka of the state police helicopter.

Would this never end? Lee pressed his body against the ground, knowing that his prone position really gave him no protection from the men in the helicopter. If they flew directly over him, they would easily spot him.

The sound of the helicopter’s engine and turning rotor grew closer. At least his tee shirt was a drab color. But would that really offer him any protection? He lay perfectly still, and even held his breath, convinced that his flight from the state was about to come to an end.

His present situation reminded him of one occasion in Iraq. He had been separated from his unit during a firefight in a little town seventy kilometers west of Baghdad. For more than two hours Lee had crouched behind the demolished façade of a clay brick building. The building had been a store of some sort before a tank round or a mortar had destroyed it. Lee deduced this fact from the remnants of merchandise he had noticed in the rubble: candy bars smashed to shapeless masses of stiff, hardened brown goo, punctured cola cans, and shattered CD cases.

On the other side of the street, two young men—Lee did not know if they had been al-Qaeda jihadis or Iraqi fedayeen—had been firing at him from the second-story windows of a fully intact building. The fighters appeared to be even younger than he was, probably no older than sixteen or seventeen.

Lee later concluded that the Arab fighters had not realized their advantage. Lee had been the only U.S. Marine in a three-block area. If they had grasped the degree of his isolation, the fighters could have descended from their perch and attacked him from two opposing positions, enveloping Lee in crossfire that would have been virtually inescapable.

But the two young men in the plaid headscarves had remained in the building across the street. They were able to pin Lee down but they were unable to sight him for a direct shot. Apparently they had possessed no RPGs either. So they had fired almost randomly into the rubble of the demolished store, hoping for a lucky ricochet. Lee, meanwhile, made his body small against the cover of the rubble, radioed for help, and returned fire conservatively: his ammunition had been running low.

Help had finally arrived in the form of a light armored vehicle equipped with a 25-millimeter Bushmaster chain gun. When he saw the LAV, Lee knew that the fight was all but over, and his life was no longer forfeit. The LAV’s cannon took out the front wall of the building that sheltered the two Arab fighters. The young men’s bodies fell to the street in a shower of brown, dusty debris.

In the present circumstances, Lee was even more isolated than he had been that day in Iraq. Today there were no fellow marines to come to his aid. Having landed himself on the wrong side of the law, he had more in common with the two young men in the plaid headscarves than he did with his former comrades-in-arms.

Miraculously, the helicopter veered east rather than passing directly over him. He watched its tail rotor disappear over a high, thickly wooded knob of a hillside. But the helicopter would be back.

There was a simple way of ending this. He could hike back to town now, walk into Phelps’s office, and turn himself in. Phelps wasn’t going to shoot him, after all. He would be treated humanely, in accordance with the law. Yes, he would lose his freedom—for a while. But what choice did he really have?

There would be an investigation, of course. Forensics teams would comb the trailer for fingerprints and fiber samples. With all Fitzsimmons’s drug-related traffic, that would result in a list of dozens of unidentified visitors. Would that help him or damn him? He didn’t know.

The inevitable ballistics test was also an open question. The shots that killed Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White would not be traced to Lee’s .45; but how could Lee prove that he had not discarded the actual murder weapon after fleeing the trailer park?

There were so many angles and directions that an investigation could follow; and he knew next to nothing about actual police procedure. He couldn’t possibly figure it all out.

He removed his cell phone from his pants pocket and dialed the emergency number for the Hawkins County police department. He still recalled the number from his childhood. He had memorized it when he was nine years old, as part of a fourth grade exercise in local citizenship.

He was about to push the cell phone’s send button when he heard the police siren.

Chapter 16

Table of contents

The ‘Cats’ trailer, and the literal thinking of the Internet

I just got a glimpse of the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Cats.

Over-analyzed by the Internet

I think it’s pretty cool. And I am notoriously skeptical of anything that comes out of Hollywood.

Then there was this CNN article about the trailer, called, “The ‘Cats’ trailer is here and it’s horrifying the internet”.

Apparently some folks were indeed horrified…or perhaps simply unable to grasp that Cats is make-believe:

There’s a good chance your coworkers are all watching the “Cats” trailer, and there’s a very good chance they’re all horrified by it.

In a teaser clip released earlier this week, director Tom Hooper lauded the movie’s use of “digital fur technology” to create “the most perfect covering of fur.” When the cats were revealed, however — an uncanny amalgamation of the actors’ human faces and a feline-adjacent body — social media users were less than convinced.

Some were perplexed by the specifics of the cats’ anatomy: why the human/cat hybrids had breasts, for instance, or where exactly their tails protruded from.

CNN

You’re kidding me, right?

We’re talking about…anthropomorphic cats. Of course, however you depict them, there are going to be logical contradictions. 

Some folks on Twitter couldn’t get past the fact that the female felines had protruding  breasts…But where were the nipples?

Well, that’s because there is a human female actress inside the cat suit. And many human females have protruding breasts.

For the past twenty years, the cult of political correctness has taught us that we have to comb through  every element of culture looking for reasons to take offense. The result is that we now over-analyze absolutely everything.

(One thing I’ve noticed about many Millennials: They are unable to look beyond the literal, and think in abstractions. This is no doubt the result of this conditioning.)

Cats is a movie. It’s make-believe. See it or don’t see it. But if you’re “horrified” by imaginary, anthropomorphic cats, then you have much larger issues than the question of where these creatures’ tails protrude from.

Coming-of-age horror from the 1980s

How about  a coming-of-age horror tale set in 1980?

How about you get to read it for FREE? (Or at least try it for FREE.)

I’m serializing my novel 12 Hours of Halloween here on Edward Trimnell Books, where you can read it for FREE.

You can also check out the book on Amazon (available in multiple formats).

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Molly Ringwald, and the art of not being a one-trick pony

In late 1987/early 1988, I was a student at the University of Cincinnati. 

During that period, the movie Fresh Horses, starring Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald, was under production in Cincinnati. 

Cincinnati, in case you don’t know, is no Honolulu or San Francisco. If you aren’t from the Midwest, you could easily confuse Cincinnati with Pittsburgh or Cleveland. So the shooting of the Ringwald/McCarthy movie was kind of a big deal, at the time.

I (almost) met Molly Ringwald

The UC campus was one of the locations where the movie was shot. One day I was in the campus’s university center, and whom did I see from a distance? 

Molly Ringwald

Wow. 

I would like to tell the reader that I walked up to Ms. Ringwald and impressed her with my witty conversation. (And after more than 30 years, who could prove me a liar, really?) 

But no, I didn’t meet Molly Ringwald. And though I’d seen all of her movies up to that point, I didn’t get around to seeing Fresh Horses until…

Just last week, actually. 

Better late than never

That’s right. Fresh Horses hasn’t played at the cinema since Ronald Reagan was president. The movie is included with my Amazon Prime subscription. I watched it on my laptop computer a few days ago. 

Fresh Horses turned out to be a very good movie. This is the setup: Matt Larkin (Andrew McCarthy), is an up-and-coming engineering student at the University of Cincinnati. He has a brilliant career ahead of him, and he’s engaged to marry a girl from a wealthy family.

Then one day Larkin crosses the Ohio River, and meets Jewel (Molly Ringwald), a troubled young woman from the backwoods of Kentucky. 

Matt immediately falls for Jewel. He impulsively breaks up with his fiancée. But Jewel is trouble, and the relationship requires Matt to challenge his basic values. 

I’m not going to tell you how the movie ends. Suffice it to say that the film concludes with a rare feat in drama: an emotional gut-punch that doesn’t involve someone dying. 

The secret to Molly Ringwald’s success

Most of all, though, I was impressed with Molly Ringwald’s performance in the film. This got me wondering: Why is Molly Ringwald such a good actor? What is it about her?

It’s true that looks confer an advantage in show business. Watch Fresh Horses (or any other Molly Ringwald movie from her 1980s/1990s heyday) and you’ll certainly see an attractive young woman. 

But Molly Ringwald was never OMG, look-at-her, five-alarm beautiful. She has always been attractive, but attractive people are a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood. 

Molly Ringwald is a great actor because she can become so many diverse characters, without any of those characters overlapping.

Here’s what I mean: In Fresh Horses, Molly Ringwald made me believe that she was Jewel, an uneducated teenage girl from Kentucky, in the late twentieth century. 

In The Breakfast Club, she was just as convincing as Claire Standish, a snooty, popular girl from a privileged background. 

There is no trace of Claire Standish in Ringwald’s interpretation of Jewel, or vice versa. 

I also saw Molly Ringwald as Frannie Goldsmith, in the 1994 television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand

By that time, I had read The Stand at least twice. (I’ve been a Stephen King fan for decades.) And of course, I was already very familiar with Molly Ringwald. 

Nevertheless, Ringwald made me believe that she was Frannie Goldsmith. When I read The Stand for the third time a few years ago, guess who I saw in my mind’s eye as Frannie Goldsmith? 

That’s right: Molly Ringwald. 

The versatile vs. the one-trick ponies

There are plenty of actors who are quite successful, yet lack this versatility. 

Jason Statham, for example, is the exact same character in every movie. It doesn’t matter if Statham is the hero or the villain. He does one personality: the brooding, confrontational tough guy.

Humphrey Bogart was a successful actor for years, until his untimely death in 1957. But watch his movies, and he’s usually the same guy. Only one of his performances—that of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny—really stands out as unique.

It’s been said that John Wayne never played the villain. Maybe that’s because John Wayne couldn’t play the villain. Watch the Duke’s movies: You won’t see much variation in his on-screen personality from film to film.

Sean Penn is annoying as a private individual, but he’s highly versatile as an actor. I first saw him as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), his breakout role. He was completely convincing as a Southern California surfer dude from the early 1980s. 

But Penn is just as convincing as the sadistic Sgt. Tony Meserve in Casualties of War (1989), or as a convicted murderer in Dead Man Walking (1995).

I’ve seen some of his movies multiple times. None of Penn’s performances overlap. 

Sean Penn (whatever his private flaws), is versatile as an artist. He’s no one-trick pony. 

Acting isn’t the only realm of the arts where there is a division between one-trick ponies and more versatile creators. 

The Rolling Stones have now been making music for well over fifty years. There is certainly a market for what they do. But it all sounds the same.

I was never much of a Madonna fan, but she’s been around since I was in high school. Growing up, I couldn’t help but be exposed to her music.

Listen to Madonna’s music over the years, and you’ll note that her style continually changes. Her music of the mid-1980s is nothing like what she was doing by the late 1990s, or the mid-2000s.

I would wager that this is what has given Madonna (another artist who is annoying as a private individual) such a long career. Listen to her entire oeuvre, and you’re going to find at least one or two songs that you like. 

Yes, even me. 

With the Rolling Stones, on the other hand, you either love them or hate them. Because the Rolling Stones never changed.

Writers can be divided into one-trick ponies and the more versatile, too. Dan Brown burst out of the gate in the early 2000s, with his Robert Langdon series. Angels & Demons (2000) and The Da Vinci Code (2003) blended conspiracy thriller tropes with a skepticism about Christian (and especially Roman Catholic) traditions.

But Dan Brown is a literary one-trick pony, if ever there was one. 

Since 2010, his publication dates have been growing farther apart, and his books have been losing fans rather than gaining them. USA Today called Brown’s Origin (2018) “only a fitfully entertaining religious rehash of his greatest hits”. For once, I agree with the mainstream media.

This doesn’t detract from Dan Brown’s success with the original Robert Langdon books. People will be reading The Da Vinci Code for years to come. 

But will they be reading books that Brown writes in the 2020s? I have my doubts about that.

The downsides of versatility 

On the other hand, sometimes an artist evolves, and his long-term fans don’t like the result. Case-in-point: Stephen King.

In the 1970s, and throughout most of the 1980s, Stephen King wrote taut, tightly structured novels. Most of these books were supernatural horror, but not all of them were. (There is barely a hint of the supernatural in Misery (1986). In Firestarter (1980) and The Dead Zone (1979), the supernatural is secondary to what are essentially standard thriller plots.) 

I became a fan of Stephen King during this period. I loved his early books: The Shining, Cujo, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc. 

Then Stephen King’s style changed—or evolved. I first noticed the change with It (1986). King began writing books that were much longer, and (in my view, at least), much less focused. 

As a result, I’m much less enthusiastic about the books Stephen King has written in recent years: 11/22/63, Duma Key, The Outsider. I found Lisey’s Story to be an outright slog. And I couldn’t even finish Cell or Under the Dome

Do be blunt about it: For around twenty years, I’ve been following Stephen King in a pro forma sort of way, hoping that he will go back to writing the kinds of books that he wrote during the first fifteen years of his career. 

I would really like another ‘Salem’s Lot or The Shining. King wrote a sequel to the latter, Doctor Sleep, in 2013. But for this reader, at least, the old magic simply wasn’t there.

 

Versatility, then, is a knife that cuts both ways. Artists can loose most of their audiences when they make shifts that are too abrupt.

During the early 1980s, the rock band Styx (under the influence of lead singer Dennis DeYoung) went in artistic directions that were simply too experimental for music aimed at teenagers. To make matters worse, the members of the group couldn’t decide if they wanted to do romantic ballads or straight-up rock music. Every album seemed to go in a radically different direction. 

This caused Styx to fall in the charts. The band also went on hiatus throughout the latter half of the 1980s, while Dennis DeYoung pursued several solo projects that didn’t quite fit the musical market of that era.

But the long game belongs to…

For the most part, though, I would bet on the versatile rather than the one-trick ponies. 

Back to Molly Ringwald. In All These Small Moments (2018) Ringwald plays a middle age wife and mother, going through various midlife crises.

She doesn’t suffer from the common curse of the child actor: the inability to transition into more mature adult roles. Ringwald is just as convincing in this role as she was in the characters she depicted in the 1980s and 1990s—that of teenage and twentysomething young women. 

Molly Ringwald’s days of playing teenage girls in coming-of-age films are long over; but she’ll probably be a successful actor for as long as she wants to keep doing what she does. Few people can achieve that in acting. 

Will there still be a market for Jason Statham movies in twenty years, on the other hand? Or for Jason Statham as a working actor? 

I have my doubts about that one, too.

Skip ‘Revenge’

I hate to pan a Kevin Costner movie. But Revenge (1990) just didn’t live up to my expectations.

This is the setup: A jet pilot and Vietnam vet (Kevin Costner) retires and travels to Mexico, where he is the guest of an old (and much older) friend, Mendez (Anthony Quinn).

Oh, and Mendez just happens to be a Mexican gangster. 

And the hero falls in love with Mendez’s comely young wife (Madeline Stowe). 

Of course, the lovers are discovered.

And what do Mexican gangsters do when their wives are unfaithful? Nasty stuff.

That’s the first of half of this rather long (too long, really) movie. The second half of the film is vaguely reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a revenge plot, as the hero embarks on a rather convoluted quest to exact retribution. 

For the guys, there are lots of nude shots of Madeline Stowe. (I hate to be crude, but that’s really the only good thing I can see here.)

Costner, Stowe, and Quinn all put in competent performances. But they were working with a bad script. The story structure here is flawed. Revenge felt like two movies stitched haphazardly together. 

Not everyone agrees with me, of course, though. You can watch Revenge on Amazon, and decide for yourself. (The film actually has a rather high rating average.)

Amazon Prime day, early Amazon homepages

The mega-retailer Amazon.com is gearing up for Prime Day.  

Prime Day will actually be two days: July 15th and 16th.

Among the notable aspects of this year’s Prime Day is that Amazon will be deeply discounting its internal line of products, like the Amazon Echo.

I’m old enough to remember when Amazon was just this trendy online bookstore. The early homepage didn’t look much different from other homepages of that era: the sort of thing that anyone with decent HTML skills could have made at the time.

In the intervening years, Amazon has become a juggernaut, of course. But you wouldn’t have guessed it at the time.

Today Amazon will even deliver your groceries….(See banner link below.)

Facebook changes that will impact authors and content publishers in 2019 and beyond

For several years now, authors and publishers have been negatively impacted by changes that Facebook has made to their algorithms. These changes reduce organic reach.

Organic reach means that potential readers can find third-party content through ordinary searches. For example, you execute a search for “cocker spaniels”, and you find the website of a breeder of cocker spaniels. Or maybe (more to the point here) an article or a book about cocker spaniels.   

Organic reach exists on Google, Pinterest, YouTube, and even Twitter.

But not on Facebook anymore.

Why did Facebook do this? 

Facebook partly attributes the changes to the “fake news” controversies of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. They don’t want you to be misled by Russian spambots, in other words. 

But there’s another reason, too.

Facebook wants you to buy more ads.

Only one way for Facebook to make money

Think about it: Facebook has the largest social media platform in the world. But Facebook doesn’t manufacture devices, like Apple does. They aren’t a retail operation, like Amazon is. 

Facebook’s only real source of revenue is: ad spending. There are thousands of corporate brands, small businesses, and solo entrepreneurs (including authors) who are on the platform to get attention.

And when those entities spend money on Facebook ads, Mark Zuckerberg makes money. Facebook’s ad revenue hit the $55 billion mark in 2018.

Facebook’s new focus: groups

According to a report from Sassysuite, Facebook will soon change its algorithms yet again, to further diminish publisher content in individual newsfeeds. (This is a continuation of what Facebook has been doing for several years now.)

But here’s another twist: The next round of changes to the Facebook algorithms will redirect a large portion of the site’s focus to groups. 

So, according to recent post on Sassysuite, if you want to engage with an audience on Facebook, then you should build a group on Facebook, and engage inside the group.

Groups are problematic for fiction authors seeking to connect with new readers.

That might work for certain kinds of authors and publishers. Anyone who writes and publishes about a particular hobby (coin collecting, fishing) should do well with a group.

But most people who buy books don’t necessarily want to join an author’s group. 

For example, last month I read a great novel by Lisa Scottoline, After Anna. I enjoyed After Anna, and I would be open to buying future books by Scottoline. 

But do I want to join a Lisa Scottoline group? Probably not…Let’s be honest. And if that’s the only way Lisa Scottoline can practically reach me (without a huge ad spend), is Facebook still a good way for Scottoline and other authors to connect with readers?

Most readers don’t read only one author. So is every author supposed to have her own group now? And will authors need to convince readers to join their groups, versus just getting them to read a post? (Like Facebook used to be, in other words.)

Digital sharecropping

Then there’s another issue. I’ve written before about the dangers of digital sharecropping. If you build a group on Facebook’s real estate, Facebook owns that group at the end of the day; you don’t.

And Facebook can take it away from you, anytime. Or (more likely) Facebook can charge you money for every engagement there.

Should authors unfriend Facebook?

Call me cynical, but Facebook is on the verge of becoming more trouble than it’s worth. I still like the platform for keeping in touch with my high school friends, and looking at relatives’ vacation photos. 

As an author and blogger, though…not so much. I’m devoting only a small amount of time to Facebook nowadays. And with skyrocketing ad costs on the platform, I’m in no hurry to give Mark Zuckerberg more of my money. 

He already has a net worth of $72 billion, after all.

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Should you sign up for Kindle Unlimited?

Amazon Kindle Unlimited

As both a writer and a reader, I know Kindle Unlimited from the inside out.

Kindle Unlimited (at the time of this writing) costs $9.99 per month. 

(Keep reading for information about the FREE TRIAL, though.)

Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon program that gives members more or less unlimited access (hence the name of the program) to a vast body of enrolled books.

How many books, exactly? 

I don’t know how many titles are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited at the moment. Probably no one does. But more are added every day. 

It’s a big, big bunch. (That’s a technical term, by the way.)

There are more books in Kindle Unlimited than you are going to read in your lifetime (even if you’re still in your twenties, and you don’t drink, smoke, or eat trans fats). 

Or to put it another way: You will never exhaust the books available to you in Kindle Unlimited. 

I can promise you that. 

So….what kinds of books are included with a Kindle Unlimited membership?

Well, first of all: These are Kindle, electronic books. (You probably already know that, but I should mention this just in case.) 

Not paperbacks or hardcovers, etc. 

Some Kindle Unlimited titles do include FREE audiobooks, too…but not all of them. Kindle Unlimited is primarily about ebooks. 

“Yeah, I get that. But what kinds of books?”

A lot of fiction. 

(Some nonfiction, too…But a lot of fiction.)

Genre fiction abounds in Kindle Unlimited. Romance, science fiction, fantasy, cozy mystery, etc. 

Oh, yes, and erotica, too. (Since you’ll be reading on your Kindle device, no one will know what you’re reading: the modern equivalent of the plain brown wrapper.)

Series

Many Kindle Unlimited authors publish series. So if you find a character whom you like, you may be able to follow that character on numerous adventures, over the course of a long series of books. 

Constant authorial output

Kindle Unlimited authors are largely compensated by page reads. (Like I said, as an author, I know the program from both sides.) Therefore, many of them are writing machines, in the grand tradition of the old pulp writers. 

Are there any downsides to Kindle Unlimited?

Kindle Unlimited is a great deal for voracious readers who like certain kinds of books. But there are a few other things (not necessarily sales points) that you should know about the program. With Kindle Unlimited, as with almost everything else, your mileage may vary 

In Kindle Unlimited, you won’t find the books that you see on the shelves at Walmart. 

Books by John Grisham, Stephen King, Lisa Scottoline, and James Patterson, etc. generally aren’t enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. 

(You can still order these books for your Kindle, of course—but you’ll have to pay for them.)

Authoritative nonfiction titles are scarce in Kindle Unlimited.

I like to read big, thick nonfiction books, especially about history and economics. For example: Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Those aren’t the kinds of books that typically show up in Kindle Unlimited. 

Once again: Kindle Unlimited is mostly about genre fiction.

Maybe you won’t read as much as you think you will.

Life happens, right? Maybe you’ll plan on reading…But you’ll be busy at work…Or you’ll go on vacation, or….

You know what I mean. 

And if that happens, you might not get your monthly fee’s worth.

Moreover, not every reader is a truly voracious reader.  

Are you the sort of reader who reads four or five books per year? Kindle Unlimited (probably) isn’t your thing.

Do you read multiple books per week? Then Kindle Unlimited might be for you.

The bottom line

Kindle Unlimited is a great program. Moreover, it’s an Amazon program, and you probably already have a relationship with Amazon. (If you don’t have a relationship with Amazon and you live in the U.S., you are an extreme rarity, indeed.)

But as I said: Your mileage may vary. 

So…what’s the best thing to do?

In my opinion, your best option is to sign up for a Kindle Unlimited 30-day FREE trial.

That way, if you like Kindle Unlimited, you can continue with it.

On the other hand, if you determine that Kindle Unlimited isn’t your thing, you can cancel, nothing lost.

Why not give Kindle Unlimited a try?

You have nothing to lose, after all.

I strongly recommend that you give Kindle Unlimited a FREE try. And while you’re thinking about Kindle Unlimited, you might also want to check out the newest Kindle devices from Amazon.

Should the writer plot?

That perennial question…

From my YouTube channel: Should the writer plot?

As I explain in the video, either process can result in a successful story.

But there are two things that you must do…and you can do these either as a plotter or a discovery writer.

I also mention my short story, “The Dreams of Lord Satu” (FREE to read here on Edward Trimnell Books), and I recommend John Sandford’s crime novel, Mortal Prey.

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 12

When he returned to Leonis III and his home overlooking the Saris River valley, Beth was waiting for him. She had prepared his favorite meal: roast Leonis pheasant and wild sarkis berries. 

As he ate and relished his homecoming, Marc could not take his eyes off Beth. 

Every aspect of her fascinated him anew, as if he were seeing her for the first time. She favored him with her wry, upturned smile while he told her the broad details of his trip to Kelphi. Her breasts formed an enticing outline beneath the white and silver-colored gown she had selected for the evening. 

It seemed that he was noticing some facets of her beauty for the very first time. The skin of her neck—above her carotid artery—looked so soft and pliable. 

Marc stared at her neck and took another bite of pheasant.

The next morning Marc arrived early at the main offices of the Rapid GeoWorks company. The security droid that screened visitors and employees in the lobby chirped out a message at him:

“Please report directly to the office of Larry Dozier, vice president of sales.”

Marc sighed. He had half-expected an early summons from his boss, but he had hoped that he might be able to put it off for a few hours. He was not feeling himself. 

He had experienced a bout of light-headedness on the way to work, and something even more alarming: partial memory loss. He could not recall the previous night he had spent with Beth. 

He could remember embracing her upon his arrival, and their dinner together: pheasant and sarkis berries.

And how beautiful Beth had looked….. 

But the rest of the night was a blank—he could recall nothing about it.

Marc was concerned but not panicked. The Kelphi might have destroyed some of his brain cells. It was certainly possible—probable, in fact. He would therefore need to make an appointment with a neuro-physician, who would be able to repair most, if not all, of the damage. In all likelihood, his injuries would not be permanent.

Marc was a little nervous as he stepped into Larry’s office. Although he believed that his trip had been a success, he could not entirely discount the possibility that something had gone wrong. Perhaps he had irrevocably offended Lord Satu after all, his subsequent gestures of conciliation be damned.

But Larry Dozier immediately put these phantom apprehensions to rest.

“Good man!” Larry practically shouted. He rose up from his chair and clapped Marc on the back. 

“We received the digitally signed and notarized contract from Kelphi last night,” the vice president explained. “You’ve done it, Marc. Put her there!”

Dozier extended his hand and Marc shook it. Dozier gripped his palm tightly. This was a standard Larry Dozier maneuver: he liked to assert his dominance with an overly aggressive handshake.

Then a puzzled expression crossed Larry’s face. He abruptly released Marc’s hand and stared at his own upturned palm. 

Dozier’s look of puzzlement changed to a look of outright disgust. 

“What the hell is this, Marc?” he demanded. “This looks like dried blood. “

The vice president frantically wiped his right hand on the lapel of his expensive suit jacket, leaving a trail of scarlet smears.

Marc examined his own palms. A red, coppery smelling liquid was indeed drying on both hands. He immediately ruled out the possibility that the congealing fluid could be anything other than blood. A combat veteran, Marc knew its characteristics all too well.

Fleeting, fragmentary memories of the previous night were now coming back to him, mixed with Anton’s response to his question about the existence of a “Lady Satu.” 

Kelphi mating practices are a bit violent,” Anton had said. 

Had he done something horrible to Beth? The sort of thing a male Kelphi would do?

Why would he even imagine such a thing? There was no one he loved more than Beth.

But why did his last memory of kissing Beth blur with the taste of the pheasant’s flesh? 

Unbidden, a smattering of last night’s sounds and images returned to him. Unfamiliar and powerful emotions surged forth as well. He recalled the pheasant meat tasting raw and bloody, and Beth screaming in pain and terror as he consumed it. He had been ravenous with his own hunger and desire. He had not had the will to stop himself.

And why did thoughts of the Kelphi no longer fill him with revulsion? Didn’t he hate the Kelphi? Or had he been wrong about that, too?

Marc blinked. The light of Larry Dozier’s office seemed painfully bright, almost blinding. He had a desire to crouch down closer to the ground, on all (ten?) of his legs. Why did he have only two legs when he should have ten? That part didn’t make sense; but he would figure it out soon enough.

“Submission is the path to peace…..”

His feelings of horror were crowded out by a dawning sense of revelation: Lord Satu had created him anew: What Marc had done to Beth had been horrible in one aspect, but it had been inevitable in another, predestined from the moment he had emerged into the murky air of the birthing cave on Kelphi. 

Larry Dozier was shouting at him, pressing him for an explanation. Marc barely heard him, so strong was the buzzing sound inside his ears.

As Marc stepped toward Larry, the vice president of sales had no time to react. Marc’s new instincts took over, and he intuitively grasped how Larry Dozier could be gutted and dismembered within a few short seconds. His military training also helped him, of course; but that training was acquired. This new fount of knowledge at his disposal was instinctual, a part of his biological identity. 

Marc had been a born killer since he was a larva.

He thought about his human liaison on Kelphi. Anton’s knowledge of his masters was adequate; but Marc presently understood them in ways that Anton never would. If he ever encountered Anton again, he would give the bearded man an education regarding the alien race that he served so faithfully. 

The buzzing rose to a crescendo in his ears and he felt a fresh wave of wooziness. He looked down at Larry’s corpse and the blood-smeared carpet. He salivated. He had not eaten in several hours and his hunger was returning.

At last he was able to recall everything he had done to Beth. In his past life it would have horrified him; but in this moment he saw the world through different eyes. Beth and Larry were both prey. Marc now understood the mind of a Kelphi. And from that perspective, it all seemed perfectly natural.

THE END

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 11

They made their way back out of the cave. As they climbed a slippery, sloping bend in one of the dark passageways, Marc stumbled and lost his footing.

Anton waited for him; and though the other man’s face was obscured by shadows, Marc could sense his impatience. 

As he struggled to his feet, Marc had a flash of memory: of being a larva clawing his way through rancid, bloody matter. Then his emergence into the nearly lightless air of the birthing cave.

Marc shuddered. These were not his memories; they were Kelphi memories. When Lord Satu had accessed his mind, some of the creature’s own thoughts and impressions had apparently remained behind. The images of the Kelphi birthing process were a sort of psychological filth that now clung to his grey matter. 

He pushed the images away. They will fade with time, he told himself.  

“I’m coming,” he called out to Anton. Marc forced himself to his feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

Part 12

Table of contents

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 10

Marc was not even surprised when Anton showed up at the inn the following morning. His host was cordial, and barely mentioned the previous day’s confrontation. 

“My superiors tell me that everything is going to be alright now,” Anton said. “You are prepared to act as a proper human does on Kelphi.”

Before Marc could reply, Anton said: “I’m sure that everything will be fine now. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I believe that Rapid GeoWorks will get the contract—as long as you don’t offend Lord Satu any further.”

Once inside Lord Satu’s cave, Marc again witnessed the bizarre sight of Anton yielding his consciousness to the Kelphi. Anton passed through the same fit: His chin jerked upward and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. 

Then Anton entered a trance state, and addressed Marc as the Kelphi’s “vessel.”

“Ah,” Anton said with a gurgle. “You are back. This pleases me.” 

“I am here to please you, Lord Satu,” Marc said.

“Kindly resume where we left off. I want to hear more about how you will fix our problem.”

Marc continued to explain the volcano stabilization process. He knew the details well. When the Kelphi asked more questions, Marc was able to answer without missing a beat.

Then he felt the inevitable tap, tap, tap. An invisible, scaly limb skittered across his head. An unseen appendage traversed his forehead and eye sockets. Without actually touching him, the Kelphi wrapped itself around his consciousness. Behind the psychic grip was a monstrous force that was deliberately restraining itself. It was a giant claw that could have crushed his skull in an instant.

Horrifying as the prospect before him was, Marc had made his decision. Larry was counting on him. Beth was counting on him. Instead of barring the Kelphi as he had done previously, Marc dropped his defenses. 

Given an opening, Lord Satu did not hesitate. Marc felt an immediate, sharp stab, as if a shaft of metal had been surgically implanted in his brain. The Kelphi’s invasion was painful at first; but it was immediately followed by a numbness that was not wholly unpleasant. Marc swayed on his feet. He was woozy, intoxicated. He paused in mid-sentence, halting his explanation about the containment of lava flows.  

What was it that the minstrel had said? “Submission is the path to peace.”  

Marc did not feel at peace as the alien presence rushed inside his head like a cold liquid and expanded there. He heard a dim buzzing sound inside his ears. Blood pounded in his temples and his vision blurred.   

He was now “acting like a proper human does on Kelphi”—to borrow Anton’s expression. And he felt violated in doing so. The Kelphi’s mental tentacles were somehow polluting him, he was sure. 

What is wrong?” Lord Satu asked through Anton. “Are you ill?”

You’re not going to beat me, Marc thought. He wondered if Lord Satu had read this sentiment as it occurred. Probably he had.

“I’m fine,” Marc answered. “Anyway, as I was saying…”  

While Marc talked, he could feel the creature rifling through his mind as if his thoughts and memories were the pages of a book. He now had no secrets from the Kelphi, he was quite certain.

Then the Kelphi withdrew. One moment another being was ransacking his consciousness; and the next moment it was gone. Marc was once again alone inside his own head. 

The rushing sense of release brought relief—a feeling like gasping for air after being held underwater. Interrupting his own speech again, Marc took a series of deep, rapid breaths. He was dizzy. The buzzing inside his ears continued, as did the throbbing in his temples. 

And the Kelphi had only accessed his mind. How invasive it would be to submit as Anton was now submitting. Marc couldn’t imagine how a human could allow himself to be used as a mere “vessel.” But he knew that he had come close to that a few minutes ago.

There were more questions and answers about the volcano. Then the discussion concluded with Lord Satu’s assurances that matters were proceeding satisfactorily. 

Marc’s second interview with Lord Satu was over. Anton stumbled and collapsed onto the ground as Lord Satu relinquished him. He let out a low groan as he stood up and steadied himself. 

This time, Marc did not offer to help him up.

Part 11

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Star Wars Authentics

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 9

The next morning Anton knocked on the door of his room at the inn nearly an hour before their appointed rendezvous time. When Marc opened the door, the gaunt, bearded man spoke bluntly:

“All further negotiations have been cancelled. You have insulted Lord Satu.”

“What are you talking about?” Marc asked. He had been rousted from bed and was still half asleep.

“You did not yield access to your thought patterns when Lord Satu desired to examine them.”

Examine them?” Marc shot back. “That creature was making you dance around like a marionette. You’re damned right I did not ‘yield access.’ Not on your life!”

“Have it your way,” Anton said. “But Lord Satu considered your resistance to be a grave insult. On our planet, it is customary for a human to yield access to his thoughts when a Kelphi desires it.”

“I’ve already told you what I think about how the humans here behave, bowing and scraping like pathetic insects.”

“You are to prepare to leave Kelphi immediately,” Anton said. “We will find another company to aid us with the geological stabilization project. Unless….”

“Unless what?”

“Unless you are prepared to show the Lord Satu proper respect.”

Anton had barely departed before Marc realized the corner in which Lord Satu had placed him. He would either have to open his mind to the Kelphi—and face the unimaginable consequences—or he would have to bear the responsibility of losing a large contract for the Rapid GeoWorks Company. 

When Marc spoke to Larry Dozier via his portable telecommunicator an hour later, he described the situation and his dilemma.

But for the vice president of sales, there was no dilemma.

“Marc, you’ve got to go back to them—on your hands and knees if necessary! Tell them that you’ll let this Lord Satu read your mind if he wants to. Just do it!”

“Larry, I’m not going to allow that. In the Defense Forces they taught us that a human should never give an alien access to his mind. When another being takes control of your mind, it might decide to rearrange a few things while it’s in there.”

“And why would this particular being want to do that?” Larry asked. “Geez, Marc. This thing is our customer after all! Or it was—until you offended it.”

“Larry, I don’t think you understand.”

“No, Marc. I don’t think you understand. I attended a board meeting yesterday. The economy of the entire Leonis system is depressed right now. Rapid GeoWorks needs this contract, or there are going to be some personnel cuts. And do you think the directors would look favorably on a sales rep who blew a major contract?”

The implied threat was clear: It was now a choice between his job or his personal safety. It might well come down to a choice between his job or his life.

Larry Dozier could go to hell—along with Anton and Lord Satu and this entire planet.

Then he remembered that his actions were tied to another person. It would be easy enough to forsake this job if he were alone in life. That was no longer the case: he also had Beth to think about.

He knew that Beth sincerely loved him; but that did not diminish the material sacrifices that she had made in marrying him. Women of Beth’s caliber were much sought after; she could have had any number of wealthier, more established men. 

Instead she had married for love—chaining herself to a Defense Forces veteran whose future success as a civilian was still an open question.

He thought about his debts: What if they lost the house on the knoll above the Saris River valley? Beth adored that house. He imagined her disappointment if they had to abandon the house for a crowded tenement in the city. 

I would die for Beth, he thought; and he knew that this was true, so deep was his love for her. He would not fail her; he would not let her down.

Therefore, shouldn’t I be able to take this one risk for her, if her happiness is at stake? 

And it really wasn’t such a huge risk, was it? His training in the Leonis Defense Forces had prepared him to withstand psychological attacks. He wasn’t just another civilian.

“Okay Larry,” Marc said at last. “I’ll do it.”

“Good man!” Larry said. “Damn good man! Trust me on this, Marc. I’m only looking out for your future here.”

You liar, Marc thought. You’re looking out for your own position in the company. You could care less about my future.

“I’ll make the necessary communications,” Larry went on. “I’ll contact the senior human officials on Kelphi. We can smooth his over. You’ll see.”  

Part 10

Table of contents

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 8

The driver dropped them off at a tavern on the outskirts of the city, and Anton told him to return in two hours.  

“I know this place,” Anton said to Marc. The hovercraft sped away. “The food is good here.”

Marc found himself doubting Anton’s assurances. Eating establishments on Leonis III were typically brighter, cleaner, and more modern-looking than this place. The tavern consisted of a long cinderblock structure covered by a rusted metal roof. The tavern reminded Marc of a barn or a warehouse. A weak light glowed behind its shuttered windows, which were coated with a heavy film of dust. 

They entered a room filled with the smells of cooking, sweating bodies, and alcohol. The tavern’s interior was semi-dark and the air was close. Decorations were few. There was no paint on the interior brick walls. A massive wrought iron chandelier hung overhead; gaseous flames dancing inside its rings of light-globes.  

Customers milled about; many appeared to be intoxicated. There was raucous laughter and apparent good humor; but several of the hooded faces at the bar turned to eye Marc suspiciously when he entered.

Marc followed Anton across the stone-tiled floor to a rough-hewn wooden table in a corner of the main room. A waitress soon spotted them and presented herself to take their order. Marc allowed Anton to order for him: he was unfamiliar with the human foods of Kelphi. 

Along with the food, they also ordered a pitcher of Kelphi grog. It was bitter and sweet and mostly water, from what Marc could tell. 

While they were waiting for their food to arrive, Marc queried his host about the alien race that dominated life on this planet. He was especially curious about the Kelphi he had met today.

“Does this Lord Satu have a wife?” Marc asked. “Is there a ‘Lady Satu’”?

Anton shook his head. “You are unlikely to see any female Kelphi.”

“What’s up with that? Do the males hold some grudge against the females of their own species? Do they keep them sequestered away?”   

“That isn’t the case,” Anton explained. “Kelphi mating practices are a bit violent.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” Marc quipped, unable to stop himself.

Anton ignored the barb. “Immediately after mating, the Kelphi male kills the female and eats part of her. But the larva lives within the female’s carcass. The whelp quickly matures, and it lives off its mother’s flesh during the period of gestation. It finally emerges—and that is a process which few humans would consider to be pleasant, I assure you.”

“I can imagine,” Marc said, trying not to imagine. 

It turned out that the Kelphi were similar to the Terran spiders in more ways than one. Spiders had been stowaways on the original pioneer ships. They were common on most of the worlds now inhabited by humans, and every human on Leonis was familiar with them.

The spider mating ritual was also violent. Among most species, it was common for the female to kill the male after copulation. The Kelphi had their own, similar version of sexual homicide—only in reverse. The male slaughtered the female.

“You don’t much like the Kelphi, do you?” Anton asked.

“What human being would? Frankly, I don’t see how you all manage to live under them, in this state of subjugation.”

“What you call subjugation we call coexistence. We have found ways to be valuable to the Kelphi. And they seldom take us as prey anymore.”

Marc stifled a snort. This was unbelievable. But he reminded himself of his obligations to his company.

And besides, he had more questions.

“What do they eat, then?”

“Other creatures—livestock that we raise for them.”

“But a Kelphi can still kill a human—eat a human, for that matter—as freely as a human can take the life of a chicken. Am I correct?”

“You are correct,” Anton allowed. “But most of the time they choose not to. Why would any rational being destroy a valuable asset?”

Because it’s hungry, Marc wanted to say—though he held his tongue. He knew that this line of discussion would only lead to trouble. 

Luckily, their conversation was interrupted when a noticeable silence fell upon the room. There was a little stage in the center of the tavern, where a minstrel was preparing to perform. The minstrel was a young woman. She had pale skin—like most all of the humans on this darkened planet. Her flaxen hair was braided on either side of her head. The dress she wore was a simple, bluish garment that might have been homemade. 

The minstrel sat on a small stool that had been placed in the center of the stage. She lifted a small musical instrument to her breast: a fretted lute with perhaps a dozen strings.

As the minstrel plucked the first few chords of her song, Anton nodded in recognition. The muscles in his face relaxed. Anton was apparently a connoisseur of Kelphi folk music. Marc remembered having read that this sort of entertainment was popular among the humans of this planet.

Although the minstrel was obviously trying to give a quality performance, Marc didn’t think much of her voice, her playing, or the song. But what could you expect here on Kelphi? These people had precious little to enjoy; it would therefore not take much in the way of entertainment to enthrall them.

“You seem to know this song,” Marc whispered discreetly to Anton. 

“Yes. She is singing one of the ballads of Horat. Horat was a poet and thinker who lived on Kelphi about a hundred solar cycles ago—not long after the end of the human-Kelphi conflict. He chronicled the new state of peace that was established between the two races. His ideas have quite a following.” 

As the minstrel plucked her lute and sang, Marc paid particular attention to the next verse:

 

 

“Submission is the path to peace

I unclench my fist, and free my mind

Come take my hand, come close my eyes

Show me the path to paradise

 

 

 

Resistance is the cause of pain

Surrender brings its just reward

I drop my sword, and so attain

The end of strife, release from war”

 

 

And we humans of Leonis would rather die than live as slaves, Mark thought, memories of the recent war ever-present in his mind.

Marc wanted to ask how the great poet Horat had died: Had he been devoured by one of those beasts? But he knew that such an inquiry was bound to offend his host.

* * *

Part 9

Table of contents

The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 7

They had been aboard the hovercraft for the better part of an hour when Anton became talkative again. 

“We’ve completed our business for the day,” he said. “It’s time for you to see a bit of the human city.” 

The human city was a mass of gray stone buildings and foggy streets. The few people about the streets were dressed much like Anton, in drab hooded garments. Although it was still early in the Kelphi “day,” full darkness had already fallen. 

The pilot steered the hovercraft past a building that appeared to be a police station. Six uniformed men were leading a throng of bedraggled prisoners into the station. There were perhaps twenty captives, both men and women. Marc noted that some of them had been badly beaten.

“What’s that all about?” Marc asked as the hovercraft zipped by and the prisoners receded into the distance.

“Ah, them,” Anton said. “A pity. Despite the peace that we have achieved with the Kelphi, there are still those who want to provoke another war between our two races.”

“And so those were….”

“Rebels,” Anton explained. “They were involved in an assassination plot. They were gathering explosives and weapons. They were planning to kill twelve prominent Kelphi.” 

Anton laughed. “They would have had no chance of success; but the attempt would have resulted in another great bloodletting.” 

“For humans or for Kelphi?”

“For humans, of course. The Kelphi would have slaughtered thousands of us in retaliation.”

“The solution, then, is to side with the Kelphi against your own race?” Marc asked.

Anton replied with an edge in his voice. “Easy for you to say. Try living here, Mr. Jonas, and you might see things differently. You don’t understand the realities of life on Kelphi.”

I understand perfectly, Marc thought. These people have sold out—they’ve discarded their honor, and even their humanity. All for what Anton calls “peace.”

But Marc could not say this. He was here on official business, as a representative of the Rapid GeoWorks Company. His priority was the volcano stabilization contract—not arguing politics and philosophy.

Moreover, there was probably nothing to be accomplished anyway. The humans of Kelphi, Marc judged, were beyond redemption.

Part 8

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 6

Lord Satu’s lair consisted of a giant, labyrinthine cave complex carved out of a mountainside. The site lay about an hour outside the human city. 

There was a space in the main, outer cave for the hovercraft to dock; and Marc followed Anton into the darkness. “You’ll need your personal lighting device,” Anton said, as he withdrew a lighting device of his own and switched it on. Anton cautioned him to watch his footing, and with good reason: The ground beneath Marc’s boots was slippery and irregular. 

“We have a bit of a walk ahead of us,” the Kelphi’s human intermediary explained. 

He was now leading Mark out of a large open part of the cave complex into a network of narrower tunnels. But even here there was more than enough room for the two of them to walk side-by-side. The walls of the cave rose high above them. When Marc briefly shone his light overhead, the beam swept over jagged stalactites.

It grew very cold as they journeyed deeper into the cave. The chill pierced Marc even through his flight suit. At Anton’s instruction, he had left his flight helmet in the hovercraft; and he now wondered if he would need its auxiliary oxygen function after all. The atmosphere of Kelphi was supposed to be breathable; but the air in here was thin and moldy. 

“This way,” Anton said, steering Marc to the right at a place where the cave forked in two directions. Marc followed, and his nostrils were assaulted by a rancid organic smell that reminded him of decay. It was a smell not unlike one that he remembered from the war: the reek of moldering bodies.

“Come on,” Anton urged. “Why are you hesitating?”

“It’s—that smell.”

“Don’t worry about that. There is no danger to you.”

“How can I be sure? Tell me—”

“I told you. There is no danger. But there is no time to linger here talking. I fear we are already late.” 

And with that Anton continued on. Having no real alternative, Marc followed.

After a few more minutes the floor of the cave sloped sharply downward. The tunnel emptied into a vast, vaulted chamber within the interior of the mountain. 

Anton extinguished his personal lighting device and placed it back within his robes. 

“Turn off your light,” Anton whispered urgently. “Or you’ll show disrespect.”

Marc complied. There was enough illumination in this room for him to see, though it was still quite dim. At several places about the floor, greenish white rocks were housed within open clay jars. The rocks glowed with what appeared to be a natural photoluminescence. 

And then he had his first glimpse of a Kelphi. He had seen images of them before, of course; but this was the first time he had been within killing distance of one.

Lord Satu occupied a low, nestlike enclosure on the far side of the chamber. Like all Kelphi, his head drew immediate attention. The head of a Kelphi was oblong and as tall as a man. The Kelphi saw their surroundings through a set of four compound eyes. Below the eyes were what appeared to be nostrils—and below that the mouth. The Kelphi mouth was suited to the species’ carnivorous nature: serrated fangs lined its upper and lower jaws. Marc had no doubt that the jaws could easily snap a man in half. 

Lord Satu’s body was tucked behind his head. Marc knew that the body would be about as long as two men, and encased within a semi-rigid shell. 

A Kelphi perambulated on five pairs of long, jointed legs. It looks like a spider, Marc thought. As the two humans approached, Lord Satu’s legs skittered about the ground before lifting the creature into a standing position. Marc felt his hackles rise; the Kelphi was poised to pounce on them, if for some reason this interview went awry  

The Kelphi were physically imposing; but Marc knew that they could not have defeated their human co-inhabitants with brawn alone. Humankind had defeated, subdued, and occasionally exterminated any number of species throughout the known universe. Many of these life forms were larger, stronger, and more savage than the Kelphi.

But the Kelphi did not rely on physical prowess alone; and this had given them the decisive advantage in their conflict with humans. Non-physical powers had enabled the Kelphi to maintain control over a subdued human race throughout the many years since the establishment of the Postwar System. 

Anton motioned for Marc to remain where he stood. Then he took three diffident steps toward Lord Satu. He bowed before the Kelphi, and said to Marc: “The Lord Satu will speak through me.”

Marc realized that he was about to get his first demonstration of the Kelphi’s non-physical powers. 

Anton stood perfectly erect and closed his eyes. Lord Satu’s jaws moved back and forth, up and down. Marc could hear the razor-sharp teeth scraping against each other. The Kelphi emitted a high-pitched clicking sound. Marc restrained the urge to place his fingertips in his ears. 

Anton’s chin jerked upward. His eyelids opened and the eyes themselves rolled backward, revealing only white. He moved spasmodically about, as if attached to an electric current. But somehow he remained on his feet.

All the while, the Kelphi continued its clicking. Finally the clicks flattened out into a steady, rhythmic pulse. 

Now Anton appeared to regain his composure. He steadied himself and addressed Marc.

“Hello,” Anton said in a voice that was not quite his own. “Allow me to welcome you to our humble planet.”     

Marc hesitated before addressing the Kelphi.

“Thank you. And allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marc Jonas.”

“Your presence here pleases me,” the Kelphi said through Anton’s lips. 

“Lord Satu, I presume?”

“You are correct.”

A thin trickle of blood began to run from one side of Anton’s nose.

Marc found it difficult to keep the purpose of his visit in mind. The Kelphi was distracting enough; and Anton’s sudden trance was even worse, somehow.  

“Both myself and my company are eager to resolve your problem.”

Anton laughed hoarsely. It was the most macabre sound Marc had ever heard.

“Straight into business now, are we? No interest in the exchange of ideas…of thought patterns?”

Marc glanced over at the Kelphi, at the rows of teeth inside Lord Satu’s open mouth. “Excuse me, Lord Satu. I assure you that I meant no offense. I was only trying to demonstrate my respect for your time.”

A fresh electrical pulse seemed to surge through Anton’s body. His eyelids fluttered.

“Well, perhaps it is better that we do not tarry in the business at hand. This vessel is weak, after all. And I do not know how long it will continue to function to my satisfaction.”

It took Marc a moment to grasp that the “vessel” Lord Satu was talking about was Anton’s body.

Marc needed no further prompting. He launched into his analysis of the collapsing volcano on Kelphi. He had received the specifications well in advance of his trip, so that he had practically memorized them. He was able to succinctly explain how the Rapid GeoWorks Company would stabilize the volcano and prevent additional damage.

He found the Kelphi to be quite intelligent. During Marc’s lengthy explanations, Lord Satu stopped him several times to ask insightful questions. He was beginning to let down his guard, beginning to believe that this might turn out to be just another business trip, after all—despite the strangeness of Kelphi. 

Until Lord Satu attempted to pry open his mind.

Marc was not entirely unprepared for the trespass. The Kelphi were by no means the only creatures in the universe that possessed psychic abilities. A number of species had developed these skills according to their evolutionary needs. (Some scientists even believed that prehistoric humans on Terra had once possessed rudimentary telepathic skills; but they had atrophied with the emergence of spoken language.) 

Since telepathy had obvious potential as a weapon, members of the Leonis Defense Forces were trained in physic protection techniques. When he felt the Kelphi begin to probe his thoughts, Marc visualized an impenetrable iron wall around his mind, as he had been taught in the LDF academy. 

This stopped the Kelphi’s incursion. Stopped it cold. 

All the while, Marc and the Kelphi continued to talk about the volcano stabilization project. Lord Satu wielded his human intermediary like an inanimate tool. Neither acknowledged the Kelphi’s attempt to invade Marc’s mind, nor Marc’s successful thwarting of the attempt.

When the discussion concluded, Anton’s body underwent another series of jerky movements. He collapsed onto the stony floor of the cave. 

Lifting himself to his hands and knees, Anton began gasping for air. His beard was soaked with sweat.

“Are you alright?” Marc asked. “Can I help you?”

Anton waved him away. 

“I’m fine. It’s always like this. This is normal.”

Normal? Marc silently remarked. Not my idea of “normal”. No way in hell.

Anton wiped his nose with one hand, then studied the blood on his palm. 

There was a sound of stirring from within the Kelphi’s nest. Lord Satu had apparently forgotten them. With the gripping appendage on one leg, he dislodged a smile pile of stones and lifted a torn and bloody carcass from beneath the cairn. Lord Satu placed the entire hunk of fur-coated flesh into his mouth. Marc could not determine what species the dismembered animal was; but he was as least relieved to conclude that it was not human. 

“We should go now,” Anton said.  

Anton was quiet during the walk back to the transport. He swayed as he trudged along, as if moderately intoxicated. Once he slipped and Marc had to help him up, though he waved Marc away as soon as he righted himself. 

That Kelphi has fried his brain cells, Marc thought. At least for the time being.

Part 7

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 5

Anton came for him early the next morning. A hovercraft transport and pilot were waiting outside the inn. 

Once they were inside the transport craft, Anton turned to Marc and said: “You’re going to meet Lord Satu today.”

“The Kelphi Minister of Geological Affairs,” Marc said. He had done his homework.

“You may think of him as that,” Anton replied. “But that is a human term, an approximation of his real capacity within the Kelphi hierarchy.”

“Okay,” Marc said. I stand corrected.

“You’ve never had an interview with a Kelphi before, so I’m going to give you some cautionary advice.”

“Please do.”

“Remember that Kelphi isn’t like other planets. Remember that humans here have a restricted status.”

“You mean a lower status.”

“As you wish. The specific terminology is unimportant. Just remember to be respectful at all times.”

Marc knew that his next question might offend Anton, but he didn’t care. This was a matter of life and death, after all.

“This Kelphi lord of yours is not going to eat me, is it?”

To Marc’s surprise, Anton showed no sign of being offended. Nor did he appear shocked. He had probably anticipated the question.

Anton burst out laughing, in fact. To Marc, the laughter seemed forced and entirely mirthless.

“No, no. Lord Satu is not going to eat you. Although Kelphi are biologically capable of consuming human and quasi-human life forms, they do not go around with an insatiable desire to eat any of us.”

“Well, that’s good to hear.”

“Moreover, this volcano problem has alarmed the Kelphi. They need your company’s cooperation to resolve it. And they want to expand their ties with the economies of the Leonis system.”

“In other words,” Marc said. “Even if Lord Satu is struck by the urge to eat me, he will be restrained by his greater need of saving his mine, and his desire to sell the people of Leonis more minerals.” 

Anton gave Marc another artificial laugh. “Don’t be so cynical. I know you won’t believe this; but the Kelphi are sentient, rational beings.”

No I don’t believe it, Marc thought. But the more important question is: What are you, Anton, after a lifetime of serving those things? What are you?

Part 6

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 4

The accommodations were rough, to say the least—primitive even by the standards of what Marc had known in the Leonis Defense Forces. Because of its dark history and sanguinary political status quo, Kelphi attracted few human visitors. There was no tourism here.

Anton had arranged for a room in the only inn within the capital city. The walls were bare stone, and the human attendants moved silently and unsmilingly about their duties. 

What human would willingly visit a planet where humans are occasionally on the menu? Marc thought. He lay back upon the prickly rush mattress of his bed. Overhead, a ceiling fan stirred the damp, moldy air. 

Feeling restless, Marc withdrew a hand-held electronic device from his baggage. He checked his messages from Leonis III. There were two from Dozier, which he skimmed through briefly. There was also one from Beth: “I love you and cannot wait for your return.”

After replying first to Beth and then to Dozier, Marc pushed a series of buttons on the little device and accessed a digital information pack about the history of Kelphi:

“….After the peace of 3723 (by the Kelphi calendar), the human population and the Kelphi agreed to the establishment of a two-tiered social structure, commonly known as the Postwar System. The Postwar System effectively designated the Kelphi as overlords. Human rights under the Postwar System are severely curtailed. 

Kelphi consumption of humans (commonplace before the peace treaty) now occurs much less frequently. However, the planet’s constitution technically permits the practice…..”

What a beautiful world I’ve landed on, Marc thought. And what a way to earn my living. He tried to comfort himself with thoughts of Beth; but his sleep was filled with dreams of beasts that devoured human flesh.  

Part 5

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 3

The surface of Kelphi became visible as the shuttlecraft that belonged to the Rapid GeoWorks Company cleared the planet’s lowest layer of clouds. Kelphi looked more like a moon than a planet—a mostly barren landscape of waterless rivers, asteroid craters, and ancient volcanoes.

Marc’s pilot was a fellow veteran of the Leonis Defense Forces, and the two men had exchanged war stories throughout the long journey.  

“Maybe I’ll like it better when I see it by day,” Marc said.

“This is the day.”

Marc sighed inside his flight helmet. The shuttlecraft rocked back and forth as the pilot applied the rearward thrusters and the ship encountered a band of turbulence. 

Volcano number 1683 appeared far below, on the starboard side of the shuttle. This volcano was the reason for Marc’s presence here. A recent series of eruptions had released a huge amount of lava, and severely destabilized the southern slope of the volcano. This threatened a Kelphi mining operation. 

If the volcano collapsed, the mines near its base would be flooded with lava. This would kill the thousands of humans who toiled in the mines. Marc knew that the Kelphi weren’t concerned about the potential human deaths; but the loss of the mine would mean a huge blow to their economy. 

The shuttlecraft touched down in the spaceport of the Kelphi capital. It was a vast, cavernous facility without the slightest touch of ornamentation. The lighting was so insignificant that Marc nearly tripped as he exited the ship. 

A pale, hooded figure approached from the murky semidarkness. A tall man with an aquiline nose and a bushy beard. 

Mark knew immediately that this was Anton Cherney, his assigned human intermediary.

“Welcome to Kelphi,” Anton said, grasping Mark’s hand with a clammy grip. “Please come with me. All is prepared for your visit.”  

Part 4

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 2

Marc sped home through the streets of the city. He set his hovercraft to autopilot so he could allow his thoughts to drift. 

His experiences from the recent war were still fresh, reddish bright memories. Flames and screaming. Men and aliens being torn asunder. The smell of scorched bodies and the smoke of a destroyed civilization. 

The people of the four Leonis planets had been locked in a war for their survival, and at length they had won. Although their economies still suffered and the dead were too many to fully count, a collective sense of relief followed the war. People could begin to think about the future again.

After his discharge from the Defense Forces, Marc had returned to his home planet, Leonis III. He had saved enough ducats from his military pay to make a down payment on a house just outside the city. And then he had married Beth. She had waited so patiently for him for three solar cycles, while had been away fighting.

They had been living as husband and wife for a complete solar cycle now; but he still felt a warm rush of affection (and truth be told, outright lust) whenever he thought of her. 

He had led a charmed life throughout the war; and it seemed that he would be pushing his luck if he took unnecessary risks now…

There was presently no war on Kelphi; but it was still a violent place in its own way. Marc knew the basics of the planet’s history. Kelphi had been colonized by humans centuries ago, in the wake of the first great migrations from Terra. The human colonizers of Kelphi had quickly learned that they were not alone. 

In the early days of the Kelphi War, entire communities of human settlers were devoured like so many ants. The dominant native life form of Kelphi was inferior to humans in some aspects, but superior in those that counted most. Marc had heard many times that the human settlers on that dark planet had never had a chance; the outcome of the conflict was a foregone conclusion. 

After their defeat, the human population of Kelphi found a way to live with their new masters. But what kind of life was that—to exist like cattle?

And then he saw the house that he and Beth shared—a modest domelike structure constructed upon a knoll that overlooked the Saris River valley. He forgot all about Kelphi and the devil’s pact under which those faraway humans lived. The war was behind him. Death was behind him. And soon the trip to Kelphi would be behind him, too. 

When he entered the house, she was waiting for him. He pressed his face into her hair and absorbed the scent of her. Then her arms were around him and their bodies were entangled in a familiar, almost furious embrace. She led him into their sleeping chamber, and in a little while, he felt fully alive again.

* * *

Part 3

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The Dreams of Lord Satu: Part 1

A sci-fi horror tale of a salesman and an arachnoid alien

Marc Jonas had been having a tolerable day until his boss told him about his upcoming trip to Kelphi. Marc said nothing when he received the news, and his boss immediately perceived his lack of enthusiasm. 

“I don’t understand,” Larry Dozier said. “I get the distinct impression that you don’t want to go to Kelphi.” Larry Dozier leaned back in his padded managerial chair and gave Marc an adderlike stare. The wall behind Dozier was dominated by a slowly rotating holographic display of the Leonis star system, complete with individual planets, orbiting moons, and even asteroid debris. From where Marc sat—on the visitor’s side of Dozier’s desk—the massive two-dimensional hologram did indeed appear to be a three-dimensional, panoramic view of space. 

The Rapid GeoWorks Company was the largest construction firm in the four habitable planets that orbited Leonis; and the vice president of sales had a correspondingly plush office. The holographic display alone had cost fourteen thousand Leonis ducats. Only the best for Larry Dozier, who had been employed at Rapid GeoWorks for more than twenty solar cycles. Dozier’s desk was crafted from the wood of a ten-thousand-year-old swamp tree. Marc would not have been able to cover the cost of the desk with his entire annual salary. 

“It’s not simply that I don’t want to go,” Marc began. “But there’s the matter of my contract.” 

“Your contract?” Dozier asked innocently. “Your contract states that you are the new accounts sales representative. Such a position involves travel.”  

Marc squirmed in the visitor’s chair. It was much smaller than the high-tech, biofeedback-controlled device that supported Dozier’s considerable derriere. The visitor’s chair was also lower off the floor. This gave the vice president of sales a certain psychological advantage over anyone who ventured into his inner sanctum. 

“I understand that my position involves interplanetary travel,” Marc began. “But my contract states that I only visit planets with dominant human cultures—or friendly alien ones. The Kelphi aren’t friendly. And the humans on Kelphi—when they aren’t being eaten that is—aren’t particularly friendly either, from what I hear.”

Dozier waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t fall for that nonsense. The Kelphi haven’t eaten humans in any significant numbers for a hundred years. You’re not afraid, are you, Marc?”

Marc felt his cheeks turn red. He was a veteran of the Leonis Defense Forces—and a combat veteran to boot. Who was this doughy corporate bureaucrat to challenge his courage? If it weren’t for Beth, he would have had no qualms about traveling to Kelphi or anywhere else. But he was a married man now. And married men couldn’t take the same risks that single men did.

Dozier seemed to recognize that he was skating on thin ice, questioning the valor of an LDF veteran. “Okay, okay, Marc. Strike that last comment. I know you’re no coward. But think about your career for a moment. If you refuse this trip on contractual grounds, the company’s directors will find a way to take it out on you. I imagine that you and Beth will want to start a family soon. And that means more household expenses. You’ve got to start climbing the company ladder, son.” 

Dozier had intended the word son as a gesture of camaraderie; Marc silently noted that Dozier was not half the man his father had been. But he had to keep this observation to himself.

“Very well,” he said. “I’ll go.”

“Good man,” Dozier said. “I knew we could count on you.”

Part 2

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