No fear in a dream

I’m a dreamer. I don’t just mean in the figurative sense of being someone who daydreams, who possesses a vivid imagination. No, I have dreams when I sleep, and some of them are very intense, moving, and even profound. Some inspire me. Some change me. While I’m in my continued imprisonment due to the overwrought fears of a belligerent media, I’d like to consider a few of those that have made the most impact on my mind, my outlook, and my life.

Obviously, dreams are subjective to start, and the details aren’t exactly fixed. Here, I try to recall as much as I can; all the dreams I describe in this post are important enough to me that I remembered as much as I could.

The last battle

First is one that, to put it simply, became a book. I had this dream in 2017 (I think), and I didn’t remember much of it. What I could recall, however, stuck with me.

In the dream, I watched as a young woman picked her way through a blasted wasteland. A battlefield, littered with corpses, strewn with the wreckage of artillery. She walked along, looking into the dead eyes of men she might have known, men who could have been her friends, relatives, elders. What she was looking for, I knew immediately: a way to stop this carnage from ever happening again.

The scene she saw was the “last” battle. Not an apocalyptic showdown at the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world she knew. Or possibly the one her parents had known, a world whose death gave her life.

This dream was cinematic in the extreme, and I felt like I had watched the trailer for an epic movie or TV series. I hadn’t, though. This was all in my own head. But it wanted to come out, and so I kept it in the back of my mind for months, until I had the chance to write Shadows Before the Sun, a novel I’m still holding back in hopes of finding a “real” publisher.

The book (the first in what I’m calling the Occupation Trilogy) mostly centers on Lia Maratte, a 20-year-old woman living in a backwater village in a conquered nation. Her late father fought on the losing side a generation ago; her half-brother is of mixed blood. And her people, subjugated by their conquerors, are ripe for revolution.

All that from a single scene that couldn’t have lasted longer than a minute of real time.

The sacrifice

As anyone who has read my writing knows, my cousin passed away in 2014, at the age of 35. He died of complications from the flu, probably the main reason I feared for my life far more in December (when I had the flu) than during the current panic.

While my dreams of him after he was gone were intensely emotional, and they greatly aided me through the grieving process, the one I had the night before seems more appropriate.

Something was destroying civilization as we know it. Meteors, asteroids, or some sort of threat from outer space; I don’t remember the specifics. People were forced to shelter, to hide in bunkers—for a real reason, unlike certain lockdowns. But we found the key. My family, specifically myself, my brother, and two of my cousins…including the one who died the next day. We found a way to stop the threat.

A secret lunar base, built by who knows who, held a weapon capable of ending the calamity. Problem was, nobody knew how to make it work. So, with myself as the lead, we studied it until we could. But it wouldn’t be enough.

Or so we thought.

My cousin stepped in front of the barrel of this weapon, and I watched in horror as he was sucked inside. But then the thing activated destroying whatever it was that had threatened the world. I had to go back to Earth to help lead the recovery, another case where my dreams make me out to be more than I am, while my brother continued to study the weapon. I woke up soon after. Twelve hours later, we got that terrible call. He didn’t die sacrificing himself for the good of humanity, but to a virus we’re now being told is, compared to the one of today, mostly harmless .

Into the unknown

I’ve made no secret that I consider myself an agnostic humanist. Thus, my opinion on the afterlife is that I don’t have an opinion. I’d like to believe that there’s something waiting after the end, especially in times like these, where the end feels so much nearer. But I can’t prove it, and my rational mind wants proof before committing to anything.

Rationality doesn’t exactly exist in dreams. And you know that old saying? “If you die in a dream, you die in real life.” Uh-uh. I’m living proof. (Unless I’m already dead. That might explain why I sometimes feel like I’m trapped in an unending cycle of pain and punishment.)

The first time I died in a dream was…years ago. I can’t be more specific than that. I think it was after 2006. And it was not only a profound experience, but an utterly frightening one.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances of my dream death. They weren’t important in this one, because the focus was on what happened next. I had what can best be described as an out-of-body experience, watching my physical form recede as I rose. Up I went, into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, through space. I looked out as I ascended, and I saw two things: the moon and a space station.

With the certainty of a dream, I knew what would happen. If I could get to that station, the scientists there could put my mind (or spirit or soul or whatever) into a new body, and I’d live again. If I went to the moon instead…well, I didn’t know what waited for me there, just that it was whatever fate awaited anyone who died.

I pushed. I pushed and pushed with my mind, trying with every ounce of mental might to change my trajectory, to aim for the station. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t move an inch from the path I was on. It’s rare that I wake in a cold sweat, but this was one of those times.

Home is where the heart is

I wrote this one down with a date: December 17, 2019. Three months ago, give or take, and much of the memory remains fresh.

Again, I died. This time, I seem to have taken much of the world with me. Awfully selfish of me, I know, but it wasn’t like I was in control. (I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a lucid dream. The best I can do is noticing when I’m dreaming and jumping out.)

The last scenes played out like a movie, much as in “The Last Battle” above. This time, however, it was a better production. I had an orchestral score that waxed and waned following the mood. There was a narrator: me. And the whole thing moved me so much that even recalling it for this post almost brings me to tears.

A woman—possibly Lia, but probably not—walks along a beach that’s slowly drowning under a rising tide. Every few steps, she finds a note from me, like a journal I’ve left one paragraph at a time. She reads them silently, and I read them aloud. I say goodbye to my family. I apologize to all I’ve hurt. In the last, most bizarre, note, I recount receiving a letter from Donald Trump. He told me he was resigning as President, because “it’s all over now anyway.”

After that, the woman walks a little more, now skipping from sandbar to sandbar, because that’s all that left. The music rises to a crescendo of mournful strings, the waves lap at the last remnants of the shore, and I speak this heartbreaking narration:

I lived my life a week at a time, each passing in a blink. Everything around me faded away. My family, my friends, the woman I forgot how to love. My home. All my memories taken like land by rising waters…

I am home. Home is where the heart is.

The last two sentences echo, slowly fading as the scene does. Then comes a fast montage, as if my life flashed before my eyes, but in reverse. And I find myself in some kind of bar or club, jerking awake at a table. A couple of seconds later, I do the same thing in real life, but in my bed instead.

Together forever

I’ve made no secret that I’m in love with a woman. And she’s probably reading this. What never fails to surprise me is that the feeling is mutual, that she loves me in return. When I’m down, I don’t believe I’m worthy of it, or her. When I’m up, I curse the circumstances that keep us physically separated.

I’ve only rarely had dreams of her. I can’t say why; you would think, given how much of a positive influence she has had on my life, she would be more prominent in my subconscious. But apparently not. Still, there are quite a few oblique references I can recall. “The woman I forgot how to love” is one: that dream came at a time when I thought we’d broken up. And I treasure the few cases where we meet in the realm of slumber, none more so than a case from last week.

We got together, to put it simply. We met, hit it off, and realized that we were made for each other. (I’ve felt that way for months already, so that’s no big shock.) Then, the passage of time accelerates. We’re married, we have children, we live together—all the goals I feel coronavirus is taking away from me even as we speak. At some point in the distant future, she dies, and I spend a few years mourning. Ending my time in this world alone, the same as how I began. And then I die.

I don’t subscribe to the fanciful notion of heaven so popular in literature. The whole “we live on clouds and play harps all day” thing just doesn’t resonate with me. And that’s not what I got here. Instead, I was told my soul would be going to “the end of the universe.” A very nebulous term, to be sure, but that’s what happened. My soul appeared to my mind’s eye as a ball of light, glowing, pulsating. When I arrived at this place beyond places, I saw others just like that. Thousands of them. Some I knew, most I’d never met before.

And then I found her.

I intuitively knew it was my love, despite our lack of physical form. I went to her, and the lights that represented us merged. At that moment, I felt a surge of emotion, of pure love, unlike anything I’ve ever known. We had become one, in a way impossible on this mortal coil, and we would stay that way forever. It was beautiful, it was glorious, and it was…comforting. I described it to her as a spiritual experience, and I simply can’t think of a better term.

It didn’t give me faith in the divine. It didn’t restore my faith in humanity, which has taken a beating in the past month. But this dream did let me believe that, if I don’t give up, we can make it. As I write this, it’s one of the only things keeping me going. I want to make this dream come true more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.

I just wish the world would give me the chance.

Panic attack

(Yes, this is the token coronavirus post. Everybody else is doing it, so you can’t blame me.)

I had a major anxiety attack over the weekend. Well, it actually started building as early as last Wednesday, only blossoming into full-on despair and nihilism Saturday evening. And that has nothing to do with being sick. As far as I know, I’m not infected. Even if I were, I doubt it would have that effect.

The truth is, I’m not afraid of catching this virus. No more than I would fear the flu or pneumonia or something similar, anyway. Yes, I worry about the possibility of infection, because I always do. I can’t afford to go to the hospital. I don’t have a primary care physician I can call on. So the prospect of suffering an untreated illness does, and should, concern me. That’s true whether the virus that caused it is the same seasonal flu strain that hit me in December or the (most likely man-made) SARS successor causing so much uproar around the world.

No, what triggered my anxiety to ludicrous levels a few days ago wasn’t the thought that I would get sick or even die. I’ve been through that one. Three months ago, while I lay in the bed, wracked alternately by aches or chills, I contemplated my own death, because I figured it was coming soon. My cousin died from the flu in 2014, at 35, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. (And anecdotes may not be a substitute for data, but my very real experience with flu-related death is enough to make me feel that the current panic is overblown.)

What drove me to the brink of insanity was the thought that I would lose a loved one due to this. And the irrationality of depression provided two potential avenues for that to happen. The first is obvious: someone in my family contracting the virus. I have a lot of family members who are old, who continue to smoke despite my fervent pleas to quit, and who simply aren’t in the best state of health. I’ve lost one uncle already in 2020, and…I’m tired of funerals. Especially the kind around here.

The second conjecture was, to me, far more likely. As I have stated in the past, there is a woman out there whom I love very dearly. She’s likely reading this; if so, I hope she forgives this frank exposition of my mental state.

Unfortunately, she lives almost 100 miles away. I’ve been trying for months to…well, to get my act together, to find steady work, get a vehicle of my own, and so on. Every step of the way has been fraught with peril, it seems, as though all the forces in the world stood ready to stop me. I’m not a superstitious man by any means, but it’s almost enough to make me believe in curses, because the law of averages says I should’ve succeeded at something by now.

With the panic gripping the world, however, I felt my chances had finally run out for good, that I had lost my last opportunity to claim the life we both believe we deserve. If the whole world is locked down in quarantine, how am I to get to her? Who’s going to hire me when nobody is allowed to work? We’re both in our 30s, so I’m acutely aware of the biological clock factors at play, too. Four weeks—or four months, as some are claiming might be “necessary”—is time I don’t feel I have, time I can’t waste sitting around. Not if I want to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a family man, of living a life worthy of the name.

All that came crashing down on me Wednesday and Thursday, and it hit hard. I tried writing on Thursday, and I just couldn’t find the will. My worlds are my escape, and I felt like there was no escape. Insomnia kept me awake, tossing and turning through each night, into each morning; what sleep I did get was light, troubled, not at all refreshing. On Friday, I made the mistake of pushing her away for the weekend. Some dark, disturbed part of me suggested I should do one better and break away for good. At least then I’d only be ruining one life, it argued. Saturday mostly involved lying in bed, listening to music, thinking, and trying not to cry in case the toilet paper scalping keeps going.

We talked on Sunday, and I vowed never to lose my mind like that again. I hope it’s a promise I can keep. For that matter, I hope I can keep all my promises to her. Especially the ones that lead to us living not just happily ever after, but together.

I’ve seen my life alone. It’s not pretty. It’s barely worth living, to put it bluntly. So now it’s time to fight. Fight the panic, fight the demons inside me, fight all those who stand in the way of the life, the love, I should have had all along. I know it’s not easy, but I’ve taken steps, following the mantra I have made my own, the opening lines of “Recreation Day” by Evergrey:

One step at a time.
Small progress seems futile,
but is as valuable as life.

Meet the family

Innocence Reborn is my newest novel, the first in the Orphans of the Stars sci-fi series, and it’s coming to Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats on June 9! Remember to check out the free prologue on my Patreon, and enjoy this look at the story’s characters.

The primary story of Orphans of the Stars as a whole, and particularly Innocence Reborn, centers on children. Some are fairly young, some are nearing adulthood, but all are underage. As the story progresses, they come to be one big family. Not always a happy family, thanks to the events of the novel, but they all know they’re stuck together, that their fates are intertwined. So let’s take a quick look at each of them.

Main characters

First up are the “main” characters, those whose perspectives we see. All told, of the 17 on the Innocence roster, ten of them get time on stage in the first novel, with a few others having their chance to shine later in the series.

  • Levi Maclin, age 15, is a space nut. Oldest of three children, he’s enamored with space, and he loves the idea of traveling through the starry void. Adding to that, he has those natural leadership qualities that make him take charge in a pinch. Levi can get stressed, and his decision-making abilities aren’t always the best, but he feels personally responsible for those placed in his care, in a way that, for example, a military captain wouldn’t.

  • Justin Maclin, age 11, is Levi’s younger brother. Your typical preteen, for the most part, Justin tries to play the tough guy. He’s not a bully by any means, but he does consider himself very masculine. He likes cars, space fighters, action movies, and things like that. Anything fast and furious, anything that explodes. He’s good at making friends, too, as long as they’re other boys.

  • Gabriel Cross, technically the oldest boy on the Innocence at age 16, doesn’t want to be a leader. He’s more of a thinker, a problem-solver. At home in Amarillo, he’s on the track team, which leaves him very put off by the idea of a place where you can’t run. So he sometimes complains about being in space, but when there’s work to be done, he’ll do it. Of the whole group, Gabriel’s also the most paternal and charitable, especially watching out for his siblings by birth, but ready to help anyone in need.

  • Hanna Laviola, also 16, earns the title of oldest overall by a few months over Gabriel. She’s a native and lifelong resident of Marshall Colony’s capital city of New Venezia, where she has a summer job wrangling the children of the elite visiting Outland Resort. But she likes that. She loves working with children, and her career plans revolve around daycares, preschools, and the like. Ending up in a situation where she has to become the counselor to sixteen scared kids, all while floating around in space, never crossed her mind.

  • Ed Tran, age 15, isn’t a prodigy. He doesn’t consider himself a genius, and he isn’t even sure he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. But his father is a doctor who talked his way into a paid vacation at Outland Resort, ostensibly to study the effects of its environment on visitors. Ed comes along for the ride, because it’s summer, he’s out of school, and maybe he can make a few friends among the upper crust. And he has picked up some medical knowledge, which is a good thing to have on a ship full of kids.

  • Lucas Joshi is only 13 years old, but his future is already planned. He’ll inherit the family fortune, and what a fortune it is: stock options, cash, property, and probably even mineral rights for a lunar crater or two. His mother is the bigwig in the family, and she taught her son well, showing him the ins and outs of business firsthand. As the proverbial rich kid, he doesn’t like interacting with other children without a reason, which leads some to see him as shy and withdrawn. But behind that quiet exterior lurks a growing intellect and a corporate-trained ruthlessness.

  • Mika Harriman is 14, and she’s a colonial girl through and through. She loves her home on Marshall Colony, and she can even stand Outland Resort. After all, her mom works there, so it obviously helps the colony. In most respects, Mika’s a typical teenage girl, and that makes her hard to describe in broad strokes. She has an intelligence and an analytical brain, which has led her to find interest in STEM fields, but her emotions sometimes get the better of her. At her age, that can lead to fireworks.

  • Tori McConnell, despite being 11 years of age, would boldly claim to have spent a decade in space. She really hasn’t, though. It’s more like five summers, a couple of winter breaks, and the occasional jaunt to an orbital station. All of that came in the company of her uncle, Glenn; her parents died when she was very young, and he took her in, adopting her and bringing her with him whenever possible. Tori considers herself a space expert, a model crewman, and someone twice as old as she really is.

  • Nic Cross, also 11, is Gabriel’s little brother. He just started middle school in the year before his big brother won a vacation to the stars, and he’s loving it. Strong for his age—he’s already the star of his school’s wrestling team—and loyal to his friends, he knows he’s not cut out to be the captain of a spaceship. Instead, he’d rather find other ways to help. All he wants is the chance to be in control of his own life, just like any middle child.

  • Derry Glass, age 12, is shy, slight, and smart. Although she’s very often timid and untalkative, she can get a bit…intense. Especially when she finds something she likes. On top of that, she’s good at reading a situation, at seeing the possibilities. While she saw quite a few of the other children at Outland Resort while her father was working on upgrading its computer network, she barely said a word to any of them, instead spending her days reading, watching movies, learning about the world around her.

Supporting characters

Though the story of Innocence Reborn is told through the eyes of these ten adolescents (using the term very loosely in a couple of cases), they aren’t the only important characters. The other seven on the ship feature prominently. They’re always around, and some play big roles later in the series.

  • Malik Almadi, at 14, is on his way to into high school, and he dreams of being a pilot like his father. Lucky for him, the elder Almadi got assigned to the defense of Marshall Colony. So, while school’s out for the summer, he gets to watch some of the very boring patrol work that goes on in a system on the outskirts of human space. That’s enough to satisfy Malik, even as he dreams of a more exciting life.

  • Reza Vinter, 13 years old, belongs to a prestigious New England family. His brother Karim even has a job working for the State Department, giving him the opportunity for a vacation. A chance to make connections, except that Reza is an introvert in the extreme. Bookish, quiet, and altogether nerdy, he’d rather be anywhere than a resort, let alone one 70 light-years from home.

  • Alicia Cross, youngest of three at 10, looks up to her brothers Gabriel and Nic. But she’s also her own girl, with her own life. She likes to explore, loves being adored as the “baby” of the family, and lives in the moment in a way her siblings barely understand.

  • Rachel Shao is a mere 9 years old, and she’s lived with her grandparents in New Venezia since she was 4. They’re all she knows. Rachel hasn’t really had time to grow much as either a character or a person yet. She paid attention to all her grandmother’s traditional cooking lessons, but not all the math classes at school. And she sometimes has trouble making friends, mostly because she’s quick to cry when things go wrong.

  • Aron Alvarez, 10, is the last of the Marshall colonials. He’s a gamer, and another child of an Outland employee. But he’s never once been in space, and it shows. He gets sick. Even after he grows accustomed to a lack of gravity, he’s still not comfortable swimming through the air. Fortunately, two other boys about his age take him under their wing, but he’d just rather play games. He’s got a lot of them, and he sometimes feels like he’s the only one who knows how to keep them organized.

  • Sora Okada, another 9-year-old, doesn’t have much to show for those years. She’s a fairly average student, quick to startle or scare, hard to talk to. Just being on a new planet overwhelms her, and that’s before she ends up on a spaceship, separated from her family, with only a bunch of strange kids for company.

  • Holly Maclin, youngest of the lot at 7, is Levi’s little sister. It’s hard to talk about her without spoiling the novel, though. Here, I’ll just say that she’s fond of her brothers, and that she is young enough that wonder comes from more than space for her.

Celeste: my thoughts

I’ve never been a video game reviewer, and I’m certainly not going to start now, but I picked up Celeste this week, thanks to a Switch sale and my amazing Tetris prowess. I finished the main story portion of the game last night, so I’d like to offer my thoughts on what’s considered by some to be one of the top indie releases of the past few years. Bear with me, because this does connect to the rest of PPC. Eventually.

The gameplay

Celeste is a 2D pixel-art platformer where you’re expected to die. A lot. The difficulty is, in parts, brutal. Deaths are easy to come by, successes are rare and relieving, and the game pushed me to my limit in multiple spots.

You play as Madeline, a young woman who wants (for reasons we’re never truly told) to climb the fabled Celeste Mountain. Along the way, she has to solve a ton of jumping puzzles, most involving numerous spikes. You can jump, you can dash, and…that’s about it. Oh, and you can grab on to walls for a few seconds. No weapons, no enemies other than bosses at the end of each chapter, just you and whatever the mountain throws at you.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fun, and it reminds me of a lot of retro games, just with better music. And while it is a hard game by any measure, it’s not a sadistically hard game like, say, Super Meat Boy or the Kaizo mods of Mario games. This is a challenging game most of all. As I’m not a platforming guru, Celeste tested me sorely. The game tracks your total deaths, and those rose fairly steadily with each chapter: about 50 for the first, climbing to 425 for the climactic “Summit” level.

Basically, the gist of it is this: if you want a challenging, yet rewarding, platformer, this one’s worth your time. But there’s also a story buried in there, and it’s that story which made me want to write.

The story

Madeline is troubled. She’s determined to climb this mountain, for whatever reason, and that’s laudable. I know I’ve doggedly pursued some questionable goals in my life. I’ve faced trials, and I’ve kept going through some tough times in pursuit of what I truly want. On the other hand, I know what it’s like to give up when the going gets too tough, too. So once the story of Celeste started developing from “I want to climb” into something more, I paid attention.

The mountain has magical powers, it seems. A kind of magic mirror in a ruined town near its base separates a part of Madeline’s personality, or psyche, or something. The character is literally called Part of You, and it’s kind of a palette-swapped version of our protagonist. Rather than the red hair and healthy skin of Madeline, her “dark” part is a purple-haired vampire.

This part is, as far as I can tell, supposed to represent her fears, misgivings, and so on. It’s always telling her that she should give up. Go home, because there’s no point in continuing. Okay, I’ve got one of those, too. Thing is, it’s called all of me.

In a talk with the stereotypical “bro” NPC Theo, Madeline talks about depression and anxiety, and I get that this is intended to be central to the plot, but…it just doesn’t work for me. As someone who really does suffer from both of those, the depiction rings so false that I was cringing at points. It’s not a mater of “Just try harder, and you’ll make it through.” That’s not how it works. No amount of platforming is going to solve the problem of the deck being stacked against you. “If you don’t stop, you won’t fail,” is the moral of the story, and…that’s not true. If it were, I’d have a job that pays enough to live on, not just the occasional freelance gig. I’d be living with my partner (and I’d call her my wife) instead of desperately scrambling to rearrange my life so I can meet her in person just one time before she finally gets tired of waiting.

In other words, the story of Celeste simplifies a complex, very personal topic in a manner that rubs me the wrong way. It’s good that games are trying to discuss such subjects, and I’m glad it doesn’t go too far into political rambling. (The worst sin here, in my opinion, would be the forced “diversity”: there are no white male characters at all, but that’s unfortunately the norm for the games industry these days.) And maybe its depiction of depression and anxiety work better for other people. I’m sure some do feel like they’re at the bottom of a dark ocean. But I don’t.

The verdict

As I stated above, I’m not a reviewer. This is, to my knowledge, only the second time I’ve gone into such detail about any media I’ve enjoyed. But maybe I’ll do it more from here on out.

Anyway, if I had to put a number on Celeste, I’d give it probably a 7 out of 10. I’d call it too hard for “casual” players, and the pixel art style might put some off. I like that style, however, so I find the aesthetic truly beautiful in places. The music is excellent, although a couple of the tracks are a little repetitive. And the story, although it isn’t front and center, has the problems I mentioned above.

Despite those flaws, it’s well worth the seven virtual dollars and six real hours I spent on it. Just don’t look to it for serious advice on overcoming your mental obstacles, and you’ll find a fun, challenging throwback to the days of yore.

End of all hope

I went to the optometrist yesterday. Yes, I’m aware that this makes for a very incongruous opening statement, given the title of this post, but there’s a point. I just have to get to it.

The last time I had a professional eye exam was…many years ago. I didn’t like the experience. Not only because I felt it left my vision worse than when I began (long story), but for the simple reason of vanity. This was the first time in a long time that someone in a position of knowledge told me just how imperfect I was. The first time my imperfection could be quantified. In truth, my back had been a problem for years by this point, my knees over a decade, yet there was something different this time. Those injuries and conditions weren’t a barrier to my future in the same way that vision problems are.

Thus, I never felt bad after a visit to the specialist regarding the three bulging discs in my lower back, but the same cannot be said of that eye test and what followed. It affected my mental state. The appointment was on a Friday, as I recall; I cried for most of the weekend.

This time, I was older, more mature, but those weren’t the big changes. Let me put it plainly: now, I have no vanity. Nor pride, nor self-esteem. The only reason I can stand to hear a doctor talk about “20/70” and “moderate astigmatism” and “amblyopia” is because…those words can’t hurt me any more than I’ve already hurt myself. I went in with no expectations other than to be humiliated. Anything else, then, was a small victory.

Maybe it’s the wrong way to look at things. I know I’ve been told so before. But…that’s the nature of the beast. Time and time again, my hopes have been dashed, so at some point I just stopped bothering with hope. I’ll assume I’m going to fail, if for no other reason than the simple fact that I haven’t truly tasted success in so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like.

That’s not to say that I have no hope at all, despite the title. On the contrary, I have high hopes for everyone else. I wholeheartedly believe that good will triumph over evil (though my ideas of good and evil are far from the norm), and I hold the utmost faith in humanity, progress, and the future.

It’s only when I come into the picture that this innate pessimism rears its head. Tests in school, job interviews as an adult—I go in expecting to lose, not to win. Because it hurts too much the other way.

When the woman I love doesn’t talk to me for a couple of days, I figure I’ve done something wrong, and maybe she’s finally had enough of me. Why wouldn’t I? I screw up everything else I touch (outside of a computer, and even that’s not a given). At least I can feel elated when I get a simple text saying “Hi.” With my family, it’s a little different: I assume every conversation is going to become an argument or them ignoring me. And my health has become one of the worst cases. For a time, I truly believed I wouldn’t even be alive in 2020. Illness, depression, and the trauma of watching so many loved ones suffer made me feel my own end was approaching.

That last kind of thinking, fortunately, is a thing of the past. I still can’t believe I’ll have a long, happy, healthy life, though. At best, I count on getting two of those. And even that will be a struggle. Nothing good comes easy, not to me. All my bets are long shots, it sometimes seems. As someone who knows the odds, I can’t help but realize I’m not going to win it all.

But I don’t have to have it all. I don’t ask for much. Nothing more than what an average man has, anyway. Let me have stability in life, let me be loved, give me a place where I can be heard and heeded. I don’t need a billion dollars, a supermodel wife, and a TV deal.

Just something to hope for, that’s all.

Darkest of days

Thirteen is, of course, the unluckiest number. It’s the number to which we have assigned our fears of imperfection, of evil, and even of death. Because of that, I can only write this post today. Forgive me my catharsis.

The day was January 13, 2019. The thirteenth day of the month, of the year, and exactly thirteen months before today. And, it must be said, this particular Sunday was very nearly the last day of my life.

But let me back up before I dive right in. I have made no secret of my depression. Like any, it waxes and wanes, following mental and emotional tides I do not fully understand. This condition is never crippling, to the point where I, for instance, spend days in bed, not eating or even moving unless I have no choice. Rather, it’s more like…a cloud that hangs over me at all times. A cloud that sometimes lifts a little, that the sun may shine upon me, but more often descends upon me, blocking and coloring my vision like a fog.

The beginning of last year was one of the latter occurrences, and the factors that contributed to this are many. The first serious relationship of my life had just failed, following an aborted attempt at restarting it around Christmas. My uncle had begun the slow decline that would lead to his passing (more on this later), and my mother had wholly given herself over to caring for him, at the cost of her sanity and that of her sons. My brother, fresh off a visit to the ER, was coughing and miserable in the next room. I had no money, no car, no real prospects, in my opinion. Nothing in my life, I felt, was going right at all.

Depression, I have learned, is entirely irrational. It defies logic, which places it beyond my comprehension. In this case, the tipping point was comparatively trivial. Water. That’s what it came down to.

I know that sounds silly, but hear me out. I live with my mom and stepdad, and we’re in a very rural area. So rural, in fact, that there was no municipal water system when the house was built, a mere 25 years ago. Thus, we have a well, complete with a set of pumps, pipes, filters, and the like. All wonderful and natural and organic…when it works. But those filters have to be changed. The pump sometimes quits working. These are regular events, except that they had become too regular due to a miscalculation when the well was expanded in 2013.

In short, we came home from the hospital (I’d gone with my mom and my brother) to a house without running water, a problem that couldn’t be fixed until the next day, at the earliest, and something about that just sent me over the edge. I’ll be the first to admit that the top half of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been absent for most of my life, but the bottom layer rarely gets disturbed. In this case, it did, and…that just seemed to sum up everything that was wrong. It was the icing on the cake, the straw that broke my back. If I can’t even control this, if I can’t fix this, what hope do I have for anything else in life?

Like my depression, I’ve been very open about the way music affects me. Emotionally, mentally, psychologically, music has a profound effect on me. It moves me in a way that few other things in life can. When I’m at my lowest, listening to music is one of the few ways I can feel. When I’m feeling better, I want to enjoy the beats, the melodies, the lyrics that speak to my soul.

For a long time, I’ve been attracted to concept albums, because I love stories. I always have. And a concept album tells a story in a way that the more popular jumble of songs just can’t match. That longing for storytelling has taken me into many different genres and subgenres, and I’ve become especially fond of rock and metal operas. But the musical creation that impacts today’s tale was simpler, though no less profound, concept album.

The band is Borealis, a Canadian progressive/power metal act with heavy symphonic elements. In other words, exactly the kind of music that catches my ear. In fact, the Wikipedia page for the band used to have a quote from the frontman, who named as his inspirations Century Child by Nightwish and The Inner Circle by Evergrey. As those are two of my favorite metal albums of all time, I was predisposed to liking these guys from the start. And then I listened to their album Purgatory. Really listened to it.

It’s a concept album, and the concept is as dark as it is powerful. (I don’t know if I’m getting it completely right, so consider this my interpretation.) After the death of his mother, a child chooses to take his own life rather than live with the abusive father who blames him for the event. He justifies this by thinking that, well, at least he’ll be reunited with his mother in the end. But after the attempt, he finds himself in purgatory, a “place of darkness” where he is lost and beset by nightmares. His father, realizing what has happened, begs, even prays, for him to return, apologizing for the way he has treated him. The child, meanwhile, meets an apparition—his mother—who promises to guide him back to life, to always watch over him. With that newfound hope, he’s able to find his way, to return to the land of the living.

I can’t say that I’ve been through the same sort of trauma, but this is a story that strikes straight to my heart. It did the first time I listened to it, and I’ve probably given it about 30 replays since then. Every one still leaves me thinking, because it’s just so beautifully executed.

Thirteen months ago, as darkness gathered in both the sky and my heart, I listened to Purgatory and focused on the words. And I felt them speaking to me in a way I hadn’t before. I could sympathize with the boy, because I’ve been blamed by my father for things I couldn’t control. Although my mother remains alive, thankfully, I had lost her to the obsessive care she gave first to her own parents, then to her brother. On this day, I felt I was alone. Nobody was there for me. Nobody would be.

I have joked about suicide in the past. I have contemplated it. But that night was the first time I ever planned it. I knew where my brother had a gun. It wouldn’t take much to go in there, get it, and do what had to be done. It wasn’t about ending suffering or anything like that; no, my only justification was that I wasn’t helping anyone by being here, and thus (here is where the irrationality of depression came in) I was only hurting them, so why even bother?

“My Peace” was where I decided I would do it. The sixth track is the moment the protagonist makes his fatal choice, and the lyrics of the bridge section were an apt summary of my life at that moment:

Robbed of ambition,
I’m drowning in my life;
No stars tonight,
Broken destiny

An instrumental section follows that declaration, including a fairly good solo, but next is a spoken-word interlude, something I truly love in music like this. For this particular song, it’s a young boy giving a voice-over. (Nightwish’s “Dead Boy’s Poem” has something similar, and I can’t help but think “My Peace” is an homage.) The child is giving his reasons for taking his drastic final step, and they became, in my mind, the perfect last words.

“I can no longer see a reason to continue on this broken path,” he says. “I have taken from, day after day; it has left me with nothing left to give. I do not hate you. I feel sorry at what you have become, and what you have turned me into. I hope for you this place I go is forgiving, and we can be as we once were. This world has lost its light. I’m sorry.”

Everything I wanted to say, everything I felt needed to be said, summed up in twenty seconds by a boy less than half my age.

That track marks the halfway point of the album, and I spent the next five songs mindlessly playing a game on my phone while my rational side warred with the emotional part, fighting a vain struggle to remind me that this was the wrong way to go about it, that I still had something to live for. I know, and I knew, that there was. But in my depression, I just couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find a purpose, a path, a reason to keep on going.

Until the end.

Purgatory closes out with “Revelation” and a glimmer of hope. It’s far more upbeat than most of the tracks preceding it, and you can hear from the start that it strikes a more positive tone. All is not lost, it says to both its young victim and the listener, and…that was precisely what I needed to hear. The refrain, like so many other parts of the album, spoke to me:

Take my hand, hold it forever,
Guide my soul to freedom
Give me hope, change my life
I’ve found my way home

Never in my 36 years have I heard more fitting words. Never have I known a time where I felt something so strongly. I’m not ashamed to say that I burst into tears as my rational side, with this timely aid, finally won out over depression. My mom found me like that a few minutes later. She listened, something she had done very rarely in the preceding months. As we were talking, the power went out—we soon learned that this was because of my stepdad’s attempts at fixing the well pump. But now thoughts of ending it all were gone. Though darkness had come to the whole house, it was receding from my mind, and I felt like living again.

My uncle officially passed away on the 13th of January this year, marking exactly one year since the day I almost did. I think I’m through the worst of the grieving from that, though my mom still refuses to let go as of this writing.

The darkness did come back around a few times. I know it’s not gone for good. Bad things happen, and they really do seem to outnumber the good in my life most of the time. I write to cope, as I’ve said before. I escape to the worlds I create because I get tired of the one I live in.

But some things have changed in the months since my darkest day. I’ve made a few friends, or at least I like to think that they consider me such. I’m a member of an online community where people are, by and large, willing to share and listen. And even some members of my family are beginning to accept that this is who I am, although too many of them still ask, “What do you have to be depressed about?”

Most importantly, I know now that I’m not alone, because I have someone who, as that song says, gave me hope and changed my life. Someone whose very existence proves that this world has not lost its light. I just hadn’t found it yet, that’s all.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a time for lovers to be together. It tears me up inside to know that circumstances prevent me from being with my light, my Muse, on such a special day. But this is the first February where I have the chance to even worry about that. This is the first year where I love and am loved, in the romantic way the holiday intends.

It’s a little thing, maybe, but those little things are what make life worth living.

Through the eyes of a child

My novel Innocence Reborn is coming to Amazon in paperback and ebook form on June 9! You can check out the prologue absolutely free over on my Patreon starting February 9. In the intervening months, I’ll use this space to talk about the setting, the characters, and the writing process for what has become one of my favorite stories.

I’ve said before that I enjoy writing child characters. There’s something to be said for the simple pleasure of seeing the world from the point of view of a boy or girl. Immature by our standards, innocent, sometimes bewildered by the world around them, they can yet see a wonder that we adults have lost. When written well, a child’s perspective can be beautiful, if for no other reason than it takes us, the readers, back to childhood ourselves.

In the past, I have written numerous stories revolving around children, and quite a few had teens or even preteens as the protagonists. Lair of the Wizards, for example, revolves around a group of teenagers (and, for one of them, his 8-year-old sister) finding a secret base full of advanced technology. Two of the short stories of The Linear Cycle are told from such a perspective, as well. “Either Side of Night” tells of 11-year-old Dusk’s journey from a scared boy in a world gone mad to a veteran soldier of a zombie apocalypse, while “The Final Sacrifice” is the heartbreaking story of Tod, the bullied teen who discovers the deadly secret of the power within his blood.

Those are all great stories. Even “Miracles” isn’t too bad, and it’ll be better once I finally edit it; that short, which I used to use as my introduction, concerns twins, Thomas and Mira, on their way across the Atlantic in the 1730s, and it was my first completed work centered on children.

It hooked me. When I finished “Miracles” back in 2015, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time I explored the perspective of youth. Lair came not longer after—well, it started around then, at least.

Let me admit right now that I am not a fan of anime. I don’t know what it is, but something about the Japanese style of animated entertainment, in all its various guises, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s from growing up on a steady diet of Hanna-Barbara and MGM cartoons. Maybe it comes from never really going in for JRPGs until I was in my 20s. Whatever the case, I just don’t “get” anime. Sometimes the animation itself bugs me. If not that, then the overwrought drama in the voice acting. And if I can get past both of those, the beats of an Asian story don’t align with the Western sort I know and write. No matter what, my mind will find some reason for rejection.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. And the premise sometimes catches my attention, even if I’m turned off by the presentation. That was the case for Sword Art Online, for instance. Watching the first two episodes of that (because my brother had it on while I was playing on his gaming PC) helped inspire my novel Before I Wake.

Inspiration struck again a few years ago. The circumstances were the same: I was playing, if I recall correctly, Civilization IV. Something that really doesn’t trigger my storyteller instincts, for sure. But my brother’s TV habits caused me to see the first episode of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans. Once again, I wasn’t hooked, but I was intrigued.

Many of my stories come about because I see a concept or topic and think, “What if I wrote that?” That’s how it was with The Linear Cycle: what if I wrote something like The Walking Dead? Heirs of Divinity (I will release that book one of these days, I promise!) was my attempt at crossing Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle with Harry Potter. And the Otherworld series, as I’ve stated in the past, came as a direct response to Stargate Universe‘s cancellation.

So here I am, watching a reasonably hard sci-fi story about a group of kids who have to grow up fast on a spaceship. Could I write that? What if I did? At the same time, I had started getting very heavily into The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, a somewhat different envisioning of a future involving interplanetary colonization.

Those two, then, were the ingredients for my special concoction. But I knew I would have to give it my own flavor.

The premise

I titled my series Orphans of the Stars. That’s a nod to the anime that provided the seed, obviously, but I feel it’s one of my best titles nonetheless. As a hook, it just sounds so right. The first book I named Innocence Reborn, a phrase derived from a line in the Nightwish song “Bless The Child”. And those two names were portentous in a way I didn’t expect at the start.

If you’ve read my articles on here, you know I’m a worldbuilding nut. And a space nut. This was my first attempt at space-based science fiction, and I wanted to do it right. So I set out to create a story, a universe, I would want to experience.

First off, I wanted something not too Star Trek. Not because I don’t like it, but it’s been done to death, and there are aspects of that universe I think are out of place. So this isn’t a utopian future, nor is it the capitalist dystopia of The Expanse. And I didn’t go for the ultra-hard style of sci-fi that the purists prefer, because the idea I had requires some bending of physics.

In the end, I made three main breaks with our world. First, in the Orphans setting, FTL travel is possible through something broadly similar to hyperspace or warp drives. Travel between star systems does take time, but not the ages we would need. This allows for colonization of terrestrial planets, which are common enough to make that worth the effort. (This isn’t so outlandish that it’s unbelievable. Current estimates place the number of potentially habitable worlds as high as 1.6 per star.)

Second, my setting has viable reactionless propulsion. This is technically a violation of Newton’s Third Law, yes, but 2016 brought out a number of possible loopholes in that law. Emdrives, the Mach Effect, and Q thrusters were all being talked about as the next big thing, and it still seems to me that something like the Unruh Effect can allow for a much more efficient conversion of energy to acceleration…if we can make it scale. The Orphans-verse can, though no one in it knows precisely how it works.

Finally, the humans in this story have developed a form of cryogenic stasis that can be used in a pinch. Best of all, it’s even reversible! This one was absolutely pivotal to the plot, so I don’t even care how unbelievable or unrealistic it is. Stasis, suspended animation, or whatever you call it, it’s in.

Other than those, the setting for Orphans is…humanity. Give us about 400 more years of development, a few superscience techs, and off we go. Maybe I’ve been conservative in my projections. I hope so, but time will tell.

So, the book has spaceships, including some specifically intended for defense. Humanity (I always use that term rather than “mankind” in the story itself) has expanded from our cradle of Earth into the stars. Colonies on the Moon and Mars, the former being more an Antarctic-style base than a place where people live, came first. Then, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, which may or may not be Proxima b. And we went on from there. By the time of the prologue, our most distant reach is about 70 light-years away, around a small star named Kiosa—the name was the result of an algorithm I developed.

Kiosa hosts an Earthlike planet, so of course people would try to live there. Now, a peculiarity of the setting is that essentially all off-world colonies are isolated, whether underground or in domes. Marshall Colony, sitting near a bay on Kiosa’s habitable world, is one of them, comprising three domed cities and an outlying resort. Outland Resort, rather, the place to go when you really, really want to get away from Earth.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from this setting that’s present in just about every other sci-fi story not intended to be excruciating in its realism. “Where are the aliens?” you might be asking. Well, that’s to come, but first, back to the children.

The crew

Levi Maclin is fifteen years old, and he’s essentially me at 15: enamored with space. As luck would have it, his family has saved up enough money to go to the greatest resort in the galaxy for their summer vacation. It’s through his eyes we look in the prologue, and that establishes what I feel is the series’ most important aspect: the wonder.

Space is wonderful. I’ve thought that for decades. As a child, I eagerly read and watched anything to do with space, from accounts of the Apollo missions to planetary tours on PBS to that awful Space Camp movie. Which, come to think of it, might have been another inspiration.

With Orphans of the Stars, I wanted to recapture that feeling I had when I first imagined floating in zero gravity. I wanted to envision what an impressionable youth would feel upon leaving the entire solar system behind for the first time. In the prologue, a lot of that comes through. Levi floats. His sister Holly, a mere six years old, swims through the cabin of the shuttle transporting them to the cruise liner. The middle child, Justin, gets sick, because that’s a thing that happens, too. My books are real. My characters face real problems.

Those three are the most important characters for the prologue, but the rest of the book adds in quite a few more, none of them what we would consider adults. Gabriel Cross, a teenaged genius from Texas, meets Levi along the way, and they start to become friends. His siblings and Levi’s hang out together in the resort, and all of them recognize that they’re not the upper crust of its clientele.

Some of the others are. Lucas is the son of an important executive, Reza the younger brother of a State Department official. Derry’s father has money, but he’s there to do work for the colony, not to relax in a bungalow. Ed’s father pulled the old trick of getting a vacation in the form of a grant.

A few of the children, by contrast, grew up on the colony world. Hanna actually has a summer job at the resort as a kind of kid wrangler. Aron and Mika both have mothers employed by Outland. Rachel might not have been born there, but she lives with her grandparents and barely remembers the planet that was her first home.

The rest all find ways to get mixed up in all this, too, because the events at the prologue’s end bring them together, whether they realize it then or not. Once the meat of the story starts, all sixteen come onto the stage, and they find themselves in an untenable position: adrift and alone, lost in the void of space.

I’ve written disasters through a child’s eyes. That was “Either Side of Night”. With Innocence Reborn, I wanted something more. The children who become the ship’s crew have already survived the disaster. Now, they have to work out where to go from there. They’re not heroes, even if some of them wish they were. No, they’re just…kids.

As this is an ongoing series of full-length novels, I get to explore that dynamic. Everyone has to grow. Some are growing in a different way than others, and that makes this very much a coming-of-age series. But they all have to learn how to act mature, how to perform tasks intended for someone much older. And sometimes they fail, because they’re not perfect. They’re not larger than life.

But they’re still awed by the wonder of it all. That’s what I was going for, and I really think I got it.

On loss of love

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted in such quick succession without announcing a new book or short story, but I feel it’s warranted. Bear with me, because this is personal, the same as the other day.

Ending a relationship is, in a sense, little different from losing a loved one. In both cases, there’s a hole left in your heart, one that can never truly be filled again. It’s one more person you won’t get a chance to see, to talk to, to listen to. One more person you can’t share with. Your feelings, your experiences, your doubts and fears and hopes and dreams, they all have to remain unsaid, at least as far as that person is concerned.

To go through both sorts of loss in such a short span might be too much for one man to take. Especially if that man is me.

For the first time in my life, I could admit to a woman that I loved her. For the first time in many years, I felt happy, at peace, like the dark clouds that had shadowed my life for so long were lifting, letting the sun shine down upon me once again. And then the moment ended.

Oh, it lasted for a few glorious months, but the signs of strain started to show back in October. A mere two days after my birthday, in fact. From then until the week of Christmas, I feel we drifted apart, but I just wasn’t ready to state what was becoming increasingly obvious. And then I did, in the first letter (okay, it was an email, but you get the idea) I’d sent in a very long time. In it, I laid it all bare, or I tried to.

I…was in love. I think I still am. Over the last three weeks or so, we started talking again, but the strain was still there. “Confusion” was the word she used, and I was indeed confused. I knew what I wanted, and I thought I had a chance to get it, if only I tried hard enough, if only things worked out in just the right way.

For me, they never do.

I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or karma in the cosmic sense. With everything I’ve suffered throughout my life, I just can’t. All that pain, trauma, loneliness, and despair, if there were any justice in this world, should have been balanced out by something decent by now, something more than a few months of joy. As for the idea that all this was preordained, well, I don’t fancy the idea of being cast in a tragedy of unrequited love and a crippling depression that drives me to ever increasing lengths to find “the one” I’m meant to find. Save that for the stories.

I love Avantasia’s The Scarecrow. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. And I can’t help but feel sympathy for the main character of this metal opera. He’s been broken by the world; so have I. He wants nothing more than to find happiness; so do I. The opening line of the title track is such an apt description of me that it almost brings me to tears just to type it here: “I’m just a loser in a game of love.” That line rings so true it’s scary.

This time, I thought I had won something. And I guess you could say I did, in the sense that I won a reprieve, a temporary respite from the heartache. But now it’s back, because she’s gone.

I don’t blame her. I only blame myself. I couldn’t improve myself to the point I needed to reach in the time allotted to me. I couldn’t overcome all the obstacles in my path. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. My mother, for one, believes that I shouldn’t shoulder all the burden or blame. But…I can’t see any other logical explanation. True, things like love, romance, passion, and desire aren’t logical. They aren’t rational. But the man I am can only look at them through such a lens, and here I am lost.

I’m proud of a lot of moments in what I’m calling my second ever relationship. Thanks to her, I grew as a person, as a man, and even as a writer. I had someone to offer the emotional support I needed, and that improved my disposition greatly. I won’t say she cured my depression, but she certainly alleviated it to the point where I could feel something other than angst or emptiness. For that, I can only thank her, because her affection and attention may have even saved my life. (That may be an exaggeration. At my age, though, and in the mental state I’ve occupied for the past few years, I never know what, if anything, will finally tip me over the edge.)

So I have now loved and lost, as the saying goes. Right now, I can’t say that’s better than having never loved at all. The wound is still too fresh, too raw. In time, it will heal, I know. Tonight, I want nothing more than to send her a text or voice message or even a video full of apologies and pleas. Tomorrow, I may feel differently. But I’ll never forget. How can I? How can anyone forget their first love, even if it doesn’t come until the age of 36?

A long time ago, I calculated that I had, at most, three chances at finding a lasting relationship in my lifetime. I thought this based on a few factors. One, I don’t consider myself physically attractive; I’d rate myself a 3 or 4, and you can’t chalk all of that up to insecurity. Two, I’m a self-described geek, which I, thanks to years of bullying in school, would call another mark against me. Three, I’m not rich, and (barring an almost miraculous occurrence) I never will be. At my age, the pool of potential partners is already low. Who I am only drains it further. Add in the fact that I’m not interested in casual hookups, I don’t want to be a friend “with benefits”, and I would never (due to personal preference) enter into a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t biologically female, and there are only so many possibilities.

Well, I feel I’ve racked up two strikes thus far. Maybe the third time’s a charm. Maybe I’ll get a do-over on this one. Or maybe fate really is a thing, and I’m destined to be alone forever. I can’t say for sure. All I can do is keep working, keep trying to make myself the best I can be, and hope I’m good enough.

No hard feelings, because it’s not her fault. No, I must instead thank her, if only because so many songs now make so much sense. I’ll close with an appropriate lyric from one of them, Shinedown’s “Call Me”:

Call me a sinner, call me a saint
Tell me it’s over, I’ll still love you the same
Call me your favorite, call me the worst
Tell me it’s over, I don’t want you to hurt
It’s all that I can say
So I’ll be on my way

On love and loss

My uncle passed away earlier this week, a mere two days after his 68th birthday. Some knew him as a musical prodigy, a legend in the behind-the-scenes world of Nashville country. Others knew him as the guitarist sitting there after church, telling stories for hours. Or the friendly and helpful truck driver with the perfect safety record. Or something more notorious, which I’m not yet ready to discuss.

To me, however, he was just Uncle Eddy.

I knew him in a way few others did. I was his nephew, but he often treated me like his own son, as well as his friend and confidant. We lived in the same house (rather, mobile home) for three years. After that, I still saw him often, though my visits necessarily grew less frequent. As his health worsened, I would only see him about once a month, and that was for two reasons. First, a lack of transportation meant that I didn’t always have a way to get to him. Even if I wanted to see him, to talk to him in person, I didn’t have that opportunity as often as I would have liked.

The second (and more important, in my opinion) reason is that, well, I just couldn’t stand to see him that way. It was frustrating, because I share his generous spirit, his empathy for all. To see my uncle lying in a bed, unable to stand, to walk, and eventually to eat or speak, broke my heart. Combining with that were my repeated attempts to cajole him into action, recuperation, or even just to finish what was on his plate.

All of those inevitably failed. He grew sicker, frailer, weaker, and…that took its toll on me, too. As I watched my uncle’s physical health decline, my mental health followed the same trajectory. How could it not? I gave advice; it was ignored. With my preexisting lack of self-esteem, I could only see it in one light: I failed him. And I won’t deny that I lashed out a few times. I did because I love my family, and I want only the best for all of them. But I sometimes feel as though they don’t understand that I’m only trying to help, which just makes me angry. You spend decades telling me that I’m the smartest person you’ve ever known, yet you won’t listen when I explain what’s wrong and give you a way to fix it? More than anything, I think that contributed to my deepening depression.

But it really wasn’t my uncle’s fault. I recognize that now. At many points during his decline, he was not in his right mind. At other times, those who cared for him, whether family and friends or professionals, interfered. Understanding that, making myself realize that I did the best I could, is part of the healing process.

That process has only just begun, and I can’t say how long it will take, where it will end. I cope by writing, so I’ll be doing that for a couple of weeks, at least. And maybe what comes out of it won’t be the best story I’ve ever created, but it will help. It will help me get over this loss that strikes so close to my heart. It will give me an outlet for my grief, so I won’t take it out on those I love. Because they don’t need any further pain. They’ve been through enough already.

Thank you for reading. Before I go, I want to share a couple of links with you.

As always, you can also support me (and, by extension, my family) by joining my Patreon or purchasing my books on Amazon. Again, I thank you.

A decade in review

Wow. We’re just hours away from the year 2020. In my childhood, that was always the future. I knew I’d see 2000 before I became an adult, so my eyes were set on a more distant goal. One that is now upon us.

Back then, I had a pretty good idea of how things would be in this coming decade, and…not one of them has come true. I don’t have a flying car, or a personal spacecraft, or a wife and kids. People don’t live on the moon, there hasn’t been a manned mission to Mars. There’s no cure for cancer or AIDS or even the common cold.

But the biggest change of all from how my younger self saw the future is that I’m an author. Thirty years ago, I wanted to be a doctor. Twenty, and I thought I could be a scientist. At the start of this decade, I assumed I could make a living off repairing computers. At no point did I ever expect that I would spend so much of my time writing fiction. It wasn’t until 2012 that I seriously considered it. Thanks to depression, a lack of drive, and far too many family problems, I’ve somehow become what I never thought possible, and…I’m content with that. Maybe not happy, but I’ve long since learned that true happiness is not something I’ll ever find. So this will have to do.

Ten years of writing…or more

Technically, my first piece of fiction came in 1992. It was nothing special, just some school assignment where I had to write a two-page story for some kind of Earth Day thing. I hated it, and still somehow got judged one of the best in the class. At the time, I just wanted it to be over.

Later, in high school, I wrote a bit of nonfiction. Again, I had an English assignment where I was singled out for having the highest grade, a situation I still, two decades later, can’t figure out for the life of me. In my free time, however, I actually did begin a couple of extended technical works. One involved teaching assembly language by way of creating a toy operating system, while the other was…something to do with Java, maybe? I was big into Java in the early 2000s, I remember that much.

At the end of the last decade, I started another “popular” technical book, this time on conlangs. Worlds Within Words is its name, and I’ve seriously considered going back and finishing it. Not many people have written a full book-length tutorial on creating a language, after all.

But the past ten years have been, for me, the decade of writing. I tried Nanowrimo for the first time in 2010, but I failed. The story wasn’t too bad, really. Set in 1876, it was a cross between a western and The Walking Dead. Nowadays, I would consider it a part of my paranormal universe, so…yeah, I could see myself returning to it one of these days. Maybe I’ll get more than 3 chapters done, right?

After that failure, I didn’t try my hand again at fiction for a couple of years. My grandfather’s stroke, and the complications that led to his death, stopped me from doing a second Nanowrimo in 2011. Instead, I had to wait another year. But that’s when things got real. For 2012, I had an idea, a plan, a story. The 50,000-word goal for the month went down with some difficulty—I distinctly remember staying in my room on Thanksgiving, struggling to get a chapter done.

The streak

The 16 chapters I wrote in November 2012 became the first quarter of Heirs of Divinity, which I still need to edit, revise, and release one of these days. It’s not exactly my best work (it was my first completed story, so of course it’s unpolished), but I truly believe the setting, plot, and characters all have potential. This one’s a kind of historical fantasy, my first attempt at the genre-bending I’ve made my trademark.

I placed this one in Europe, 1737. The very center of one of my favorite eras, because the Enlightenment, to me, is the most important time in human history. And that shows in the text. Heirs of Divinity is a struggle to understand the world, a fight between the nascent study of the sciences and the old forces of religion that seek to keep their hold on knowledge and power. And lying in the shadows is magic, mostly forgotten, if not repressed, but still lurking in the hearts and minds of some. All in all, this was an epic novel, in both length and scope, and I’ll freely admit that I bit off more than I could chew. But I did it. I wrote a 700-page doorstop over the course of some 9 months.

And that was only the beginning. Since then, I have not failed at either writing 50,000 words or completing a story (or even both!) in the month of November.

Fresh off my success with Heirs, I noticed on the calendar that Nanowrimo 2013 was coming up soon. What would I do for an encore?

My baby

In the summer of 2013, I created a setting. Originally, it was intended to be nothing more than a linguistic playground, a chance to make a set of interrelated conlangs and maybe dabble in some alternate history. “Hardcore” worldbuilding, as I’ve termed it. There just wasn’t a story in there, at least not in my original plans.

That changed as November neared. What if I did write a story in this fantasy-like world? So, as the days ticked down, I polished the setting, removing most of the fantasy elements (but keeping the idea of magic as a cultural aspect), and I searched for a way to make something out of it. Thus was born the Otherworld.

The impetus for the setting was, in fact, the cancellation of Stargate Universe in 2011, after only 2 seasons. I didn’t like the show at first (it was a poor replacement for SG-1 and Atlantis, in my opinion), but it grew on me when its second season became more serious. The episodes “Common Descent” and “Epilogue” profoundly affected me, and stayed in the back of my mind for over 2 years. When I started thinking about languages, and the possibility of a world inhabited by humans that hadn’t been in contact with Earth for centuries, if not millennia, I could only think back to a show killed before its time.

A lot of Otherworld has its origins in what I guess you could call my take on a Stargate setting. The inhabitants of Talac are descended from humans transported there some 10,000 years ago via a wormhole created by an unknown, yet highly advanced, civilization on Earth. But I went overboard. My creation is intended to be scientifically rigorous, from racial evolution to astronomy and even to food. Sure, the mechanism by which the humans arrived in the other world is a handwave, as are the conditions that made it habitable in the first place, but nothing else really is. In fact, I’ve spent years carefully scrutinizing archaeology papers relating to the first inhabitants of the Americas, because I want to know if something breaks my assumptions. As yet, nothing really has. Except for being totally impossible, Otherworld is possible.

The list goes on

I wrote the first Otherworld story for Nanowrimo 2013. It didn’t get a title until years later, when I named it Out of the Past. In early 2014, I even made sequels, because those were intended all along. The book was supposed to be the pilot of a series (another nod to my inspiration). The next two and a half are the only stories I’ve ever scrapped, because they were…bad. Slower than even my usual writing, and they just didn’t feel fun. I’ve always said that I want to write stories I’d like to read, and I didn’t like reading Episodes 2-4. So I threw them out.

Not much else happened until late in 2014. Again, November rolled around. Again, I had an idea. My cousin passed away in January of that year, one of the factors leading to my depression. I often dreamed of him, some of the most vivid dreams of my life, and that eventually gave me the idea of a story about experiencing and controlling dreams. I’ll also give credit to Sword Art Online for this one, because my brother watched it while I played games on his PC. (Mine just wasn’t good enough at the time.)

Before I Wake remains one of the most emotional novels I’ve written. And it was the first one I ever let other people read. Indeed, it was the first I uploaded to Amazon’s KDP service, which gave me the wonderful opportunity to hold a paperback version of a book I wrote. That was almost 3 years ago now, and it still warms my heart to remember the day I opened that box.

After that, my writing became more serious, and much more prolific. “Satellites”, a frankly awful short story, came from a competition between myself and my brother. “Miracles” was a spin-off of Heirs of Divinity. “Either Side of Night” also started out as a kind of throwaway; it was my attempt at crossing fantasy with a zombie apocalypse, and I thought little of it at the time. Then I wrote the sequel, “The Last Captain”, as a personal dare. (Can I write a short story in a week? Apparently, the answer is yes.) Those gave way to four more, the Linear Anthology, which eventually became the Linear Cycle.

By November of 2015, my mind had drifted back to Otherworld. I wanted to try again, to go back and finish the 8-part series I had originally envisioned. Nothing in the Nanowrimo rules says you can’t write a sequel, and I really did start over. The City and the Hill was the result of that one, and the other 6 parts came in the following months: A Matter Settled, Written in Black and White, The Bonds Between Us, Situational Awareness, A Peace Shattered, Long Road’s End.

Around that time, when I needed a break from that setting, I began Lair of the Wizards. I’d originally intended that one as a series of shorter novellas that told the tale of a small group of teens in a Renaissance-era fantasy setting (I prefer these to the traditional High Middle Ages style) finding a secret bunker of an advanced civilization. In a way, it’s almost the reverse of Otherworld, which is probably why I got the idea in the first place.

Anyway, I wrote a few chapters, then realized this was not something that could be wrapped up in a novella or four. So Lair had the dubious distinction of being over 60,000 words long, yet still residing in my “short stories” folder. I never said I was infallible.


It was fun, but I put it on the shelf for a while, because upcoming events had given me a new idea. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 was coming up soon, and I started planning for it years in advance. As I’ve said before, I had the good fortune to live in the path of totality, so while some people traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to see the spectacle, I just stepped outside.

But the very notion of eclipses gave me an idea in the closing quarter of 2016. Why not a fantasy novel where magic revolves around the sun and moon? The “moon magic” people would be the bad guys, of course, because they’re the “dark” ones. October 2016 saw me coming up with that idea (in the shower, where all great ideas are born), then fleshing it out into something worthy of the eclipse.

Seven weeks. It took me seven weeks to write Nocturne. Less than fifty days for a novel that clocked in at around 400 pages. And I still consider it my best. It just clicked, in a way nothing else in my life ever has. I won’t call it perfect, but something about the book felt so…right. Words flowed freely. I would wake up each day with something to add. It was great, truly magical, quite possibly my peak as an author in terms of quality.

The year of the writer

But the peak in quantity was yet to come. 2017 sucked. Politics, family troubles, and my deepening depression made me want to do nothing at all. But then I didn’t want to do nothing at all, because that was, and is, anathema to me. So I wrote. And I kept on writing. And I didn’t stop writing in 2017 until 2018 arrived.

I finished Lair of the Wizards, which came in at a hefty 230,000 words. I wrote 10 new stories in the Otherworld setting, including 6 “bridge” novellas (“The Code Breaker”, “The Red Magician”, “The Control Variable”, “The Dark Continent”, “The Lessons Learned”, “The Candle’s Flame”) and the first four novels in the “second” season: The Second Crossing, Alignment Adjustment, Waters Rising, What We Leave Behind. The second half of the Linear Cycle came in this frantic period, including “Beneath the Surface”, which has one of the absolute saddest scenes I’ve ever written.

That did for the first 8 months of the year, but I wasn’t done yet. Three short stories set in the 1920s, revolving around psionic talents, which became the Modern Minds series. A teen space adventure, Innocence Reborn, which has become one of my favorite settings. Thanks to a pitch from my aunt, I wrote a paranormal detective novel, The Shape of Things, which has also spawned a series. In December 2017, I slipped in what I thought was going to be a theological dissertation disguised as a novella. Instead, I ended up with a paranormal romance involving a lonely nerd and a fallen angel. (I’m not above wish fulfillment.)

And then we have Nanowrimo for two years ago. Once again, I had come up with an idea. This time around, what if a gaming group got stuck in a world like that of their favorite RPG? Granted, it’s not the most original of premises, but I thought I could make it my own. Thus was born The Soulstone Sorcerer, and I very nearly died in childbirth. The final word count was somewhere around 150,000, and I wrote it in five weeks. I don’t know what possessed me, but I hope it’s been exorcised, because there were days where I came very close to a mental breakdown. And yet I couldn’t stop writing. There just wasn’t anything else for me to do. It was either write until I dropped, or just drop.

Change of pace

The final tally for 2017 was amazing, in my view. Twenty complete stories written, a 21st finished from its partial state. Over 1.2 million words. The numbers are mind-boggling no matter how you look at them. But I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace. It would kill me.

For 2018, I planned out a much less intensive schedule. Oh, I would finish the second season of Otherworld, and I did, with Falling Into Place, Whence We Came, Point of Origin, and Future in Sight. A sequel in space, Beyond the Horizon, and one for the monsters, The Beast Within. The massive Rise of the Wizards, a follow-on to Lair, which was now the first of the four-part Hidden Hills series (named after, no joke, the trailer park where my parents lived before I was born).

This year, strangely enough, my big inspiration came not in the fall, where I could use it for Nanowrimo, but much earlier. In fact, a dream I had in either late 2016 or early 2017 became a novel I wrote in 2018. In the dream, I saw a young woman walking across a blasted wasteland, the site of a massive battle involving both technological weapons and magic. The last battle, the dream called it, and you can’t tell me that’s not the perfect hook for a novel. So I took it and ran with it, and the end result is Shadows Before the Sun, which I’m holding in reserve on the off chance that a “real” publisher wants it. November paled in comparison, and the story I wrote then, Seasons Change, was nothing more than a kind of Otherworld prequel. (I’ve since released it for free, because I don’t think it’s worth paying for.)

Around this same time, something strange happened, something that had never happened to me before. I entered a relationship. An online relationship, to be fair, and it never advanced beyond that point, but it was new, and it took up much of the time I had previously devoted to writing. She didn’t like the idea of me being an author, so it fell apart after only a few months, but those months changed my whole outlook on life.

Or so I thought.

Darkness and light

At last we come to 2019, the year we’re ending very soon. I won’t lie. It started out bad from any perspective. Barely two weeks in, and I seriously considered ending my life. That wasn’t because of the breakup (or not only that), but because I genuinely felt I had no future, no prospects. I was never going to be anything, so what was the point of even living? Fortunately, my better sense prevailed, but it was close. As in “I know where my brother keeps his gun” close.

This year’s writing hasn’t been anything special. I finished 7 new Otherworld stories in total. Six of those were more bridges: “The Frozen North”, “Alone With Myself”, “Secrets Uncovered”, “A Life Complete”, “Destiny Fulfilled”, and “The Price of Freedom”, while the seventh is the Season 3 premiere: Winds of Change. Another pair of Modern Minds shorts, the two-part “Fortress of Steel”, but I postponed the sixth, “Memory Remains” because I wanted to work on other projects. And this year saw new entries in the Orphans of the Stars and Endless Forms series: Homeward From Afar and Change of Heart, respectively.

Probably the biggest change compared to every other year of the decade, however, is that I will end this one in a nebulous sort of “on again, off again” relationship status. It started in June, and has stayed online-only since, but it got very…intense for a time that was all too brief. In October (two days after my birthday!), it entered the off phase, but she won’t call it over. So I don’t know. Writing characters in this kind of situation did not prepare me for living it.

Looking to the future

So that’s where I stand on the precipice of 2020. In a mere decade, I’ve written close to 60 stories. About 4 million words of fiction, not counting editing and the like. Sometimes, I think I’m done, I feel like taking a break, but I just can’t. There’s still too much to write, too many stories to tell. My ultimate goal is 100 total before my 40th birthday, and I have just short of 4 years to reach that. I still believe I can.

For 2020, I have 11 planned, plus Nanowrimo, which I don’t start thinking about until October. These include 7 for Otherworld, three for Modern Minds, and the fourth Orphans adventure, tentatively titled Time in the Sun. Another few sit on the back burner, waiting for their chance: a sequel to Nocturne which I’ve codenamed Black Sun, Legacy of the Wizards, and new stories to follow up The Soulstone Sorcerer and even Heirs of Divinity. Plus, I want to edit and release some of my back catalog. The Occupation Trilogy, which started with Shadows Before the Sun, still has two more novels, but those will have to wait a bit longer.

And that’s not counting my “seed” list. I have plenty of ideas that have yet to see the light of day, but tomorrow is the start of a new decade. I hope that means I’ll have time to give them a chance.