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When I asked Michele Lang to guest blog for Paranormal Romance "Week," she went above and beyond, offering both a blog on "Speculative Fiction: What If...." and a short story from her NETHERWOOD world.  I'm sure you'll enjoy both!

Speculative Fiction:  What If…..

Where do you get your story ideas?

If you are a writer, you probably get this question all the time from non-writers.  And if you are participating in National Novel Writers’ Month right now, you may be asking yourself this question in desperation or despair.

 

For a long time, I resisted answering or even thinking about it too much, because I was afraid that if I considered the question too deeply, my mystifying muse would flip me the bird and take off on a Harley for parts unknown.

 

But now that I’ve been writing for awhile, I’ve discovered the answer is hidden in plain sight.  I write what some folks call speculative fiction.  That is, stories that consider what is possible, in the future or the past, in this world or in other ones. Story as literary greenhouse, idea seedlings growing in the hothouse of an imagined place and time. 

 

You get ideas when you speculate, wonder about stuff.  Don’t worry or get spooked like I once did…your what-if questions are not the ideas you’re looking for, but they lure ideas like pizza attracts fairies.  No matter what you write, on a basic level, all you need to do is speculate, and the best ideas tend to find you.  You meander around, wonder about what you see and what it means, and suddenly ideas will leap out of the swamp of your subconscious and go for your throat.

 

I’ll give you an example, and tell you how I got the idea for the short story, “Fatal Error,” that I’ve written for you.  For a while now, I’ve wanted to write some short fiction set in the universe I explored in my book NETHERWOOD.  I missed Talia and her outlaw lover, and I looked forward to revisiting their world. 

 

I wanted to write about their first meeting, but I didn’t know any details, only that they met in cyberspace, in avatar form, and that danger surrounded them from the beginning.  So I knew the characters, and the beginnings of the action.  But the stuff I had didn’t have enough life yet to germinate into a story.

 

I found the seed of this story in a most unlikely place.  Recently, I visited New York City, and in my wanderings I paused at Madison Square Park, near the Flatiron Building.  An artist had installed a cluster of tree huts in the branches overhead, and as I looked way up and saw the huts half-hidden in the leaves, I knew I had found Talia’s portal into another, wilder world. 

 

I now had three pieces of evidence to go on:  the characters, the tree hut portal, and the title of the story.  Those three “what if” fleeting thoughts cross-pollinated, and a spark shooting somewhere through the primordial soup of my brain brought it to life.  And voila – “Fatal Error” was born.

 

So, where do story ideas come from, again?  If you write speculative fiction, I suggest you wear sturdy shoes, walk a lot, and let your mind wander into odd, discordant places filled with fleeting, nagging thoughts.  When you least expect it, your ideas will roar out of the darkness, and those carnivorous ideas, the ones that hunt you down, are the ones that have the juice to carry a story to the end.


 

Fatal Error

By Michele Lang

 

<FATAL ERROR>

My handheld device blinked and blinked, trying its electronic best to warn me of danger.

I stood at the base of the huge oak tree towering over Petraeus Park on 23rd Street, and I weighed the dangers of ignoring the error message versus abandoning my plan.  My thumb brushed the surface of my handheld’s screen, and the harsh, incriminating words disappeared in a cascade of shimmering cyberlight.

Far above my head, at least twenty feet up, I picked out the silhouette of a tree house looming in the fading light.  The tree’s trunk, smooth, had no rope or footholds to ease the way up – and, given the illegal stuff going on up there, I knew that inaccessibility was part of the design.

 

New York City had a lot more trees now than it did back in the 21st century, when this park had been renamed, but few trees stretched higher than this old monster.  I shivered in dusk’s chill and took a furtive look around.  Long, twilight shadows obscured the faces of the people rushing through the park all around me, wrapped against November.  I wanted to curl up somewhere with a protein gel, get warm and complacent.  Forget what I knew.  But I had a cyberworld to hack into.  Fatal Error or not.

I slipped on my gecko grips over my palms and bootlets.  With a flying leap, I clung onto the tree’s mottled trunk, and started climbing – and nobody noticed or cared, not that I could detect.  The government didn’t have enough budget to subsidize jail for the tree-dwellers, and FortuneCorp and the other huge corporations doing business in the Rotten Apple didn’t care what laws the squatters broke, as long as they paid their internet grid fees on time.

As for me, sometimes a good sheriff has to break the rules to survive.  At least that was the convenient lie I told myself.  I’m still a trainee, hardly a full-fledged crusader for justice.  But my instructors have already hinted that to catch hackers and cyberworld terrorists, you have to enter their world and claim a place for your own.  Above my head lived a man called Hype, a man who guarded a portal to a place I knew only by rumor and legend.  Netherwood.

A virtual den of pleasure and danger.  Where, under cover of bloody cyber battles in the Amphitheatre, criminals hacked into the databases of the big corporations, corrupted data, stole corporate secrets to sell to the highest bidder.  Where human mischief changed the nature of cyber reality itself.  Fatal error or not, I had to become a citizen of this clandestine world to do my job on the surface.  It didn’t matter that even visiting the secret sector of Netherwood was a corporate felony.

Slightly out of breath, I reached the split in the trunk near the top, where the tree house all but disappeared among the branches.  All around me, brown oak leaves twirled and tumbled to the ground.  I watched them waft harmlessly to their deaths, and then with a final heave, I lurched over the side and into the spare little room.

The room smelled of oak leaves and simulated wood.  A tiny nanogenerator hummed in the corner, and a bank of computers provided the space’s only illumination…no windows.

“So you’re the Sheriff,” the man waiting for me said.  His eyes narrowed as he took in my form with a single glance, and his chapped lips parted in a smile.  “Tiny little thing, aintcha.  Cute.” 

I stifled a groan, bit the inside of my cheek.  “Trainee,” I finally let myself say, instead of the retort still burning my lips.  “Anubis sent me.”  The code name for my instructor at the Sheriff’s Academy.  Anubis was the one who had suggested that unless I hacked into Netherwood, I was going to fail out of school altogether.

“You got the codes?”  The hungriness in his voice made me give him a closer look. 

As far as I could estimate, Hype was old, near eighty, but still nimble enough to climb the monster tree with equipment and food.  Old wasn’t what it used to be…and this guy looked like a genetically-modified veteran of the Glass Desert war, with chemically burned skin and unnaturally bright cat’s eyes.  This guy, this Hype, didn’t need light to see me, and he didn’t need food, sleep, or the comfort of human companionship .  If war itself didn’t kill vets like him, almost nothing else could.

I swallowed hard.  “What I have is a 404 error.”  I kept my voice steady as I queued up the handheld to reveal the red, blinking screen.

Hype erupted with a short, sharp bark of laughter. “Perfect…that’s just what you need to get in.”   He touched my shoulder and gestured for me to surrender my device. 

I hesitated – giving your handheld up can prove as dangerous as surrendering your sidearm.  But I was already trusting Hype with my life, based on Anubis’s recommendation. 

I punched in the access code and handed it over.  His callused-looking thumbs moved in a furious blur over the tiny keyboard.  “Fatal error, oha.  Ever wonder if your handheld knows more than you do?”

I thought he was playing with me, but a closer look revealed that Hype’s question was serious.  My mouth went dry, and I realized that for the first time in a year, fear had broken through the numbness.  “What are you trying to tell me?”

“Only that this is serious business, and we live in dangerous times, Miss Trainee.”  He wiped at the corner of his eyes with the tips of his fingers, but then he seemed to shrug his forebodings away. 

He tossed me the handheld, and I caught it in mid-air.  “If you’re ready, Sheriff, it’s time to go.  The interface with the Netherwood is easy to miss, but a buddy of mine is waiting down there for you.  Once you hit the datastream, you’ll avatar up automatically.  Just follow me, and I’ll deliver you to my buddy.”

To me, slipping into cyberspace feels like diving into a turbulent electronic ocean.  My physical, everyday body, the body of skinny little Talia Fortune, sheriff trainee, stayed on the surface of reality.  I left my body curled up on a woven mat in a tree house high above New York City.  But my consciousness, my sensuality, my intellect all dove into the cyberworld like a dolphin diving into rolling ocean spray.

            When I turned to thank my guide from the Real, I saw to my shock that the grizzled, strung out looking Hype had taken on an avatar form with long golden curls, sparkly thick purple eyelashes, and a voluptuous, barely covered female form.

            “I’m Oblio,” she murmured through luxurious, pillowed lips.  “I specialize in finding trouble.”  Her hair billowed out all around her, as if we indeed met and spoke under water.  “So come right this way.”  Her laugh sounded like wind chimes in a rising storm.

            I had to smile…Hype had a sense of humor, and the ability to laugh, I find, makes for sanity in an insane world.  “What do you think of my avatar?” I asked.  I had gone to a great deal of trouble to properly kit up my cyber identity, and now, instead of a short, skinny white girl, I towered over Oblio’s head, and I stood long, lanky and powerful, with gleaming obsidian skin and a sculpted, shaved head.

            Amazonia, at your service,” I growled, and I laughed out loud for joy, an emotion that had eluded me on the surface, in the dreary bland boredom of my life at the Academy.

            “Come on,” Oblio whispered, and we swam together through the datastream until a physical space coalesced around us.  We had arrived, in a hidden outpost in the Netherwood.

            We, Amazonia and Oblio, stood in a cave, festooned with thick woven rugs and animal skins, lit with flickering candlelight.  Oblio gave an odd, trilling call, and the figure of a man emerged from the cyber-ether to stand before us.  With a flourish and wild cackle reminiscent of the actual human behind the lovely avatar, Oblio left me alone with this glorious masculine presence.  Evidently Oblio had delivered me to her buddy, and her mission was now accomplished.

            The stranger’s huge, cabled muscles rippled along his chest and down the length of his bare arms.  The man’s eyes, sharp and piercing, refused to meet my gaze.  “Never look into my eyes.  Never.”  His voice vibrated with a cultured British accent, warm as single malt Scotch, a voice that contradicted his barbarian appearance.

            I took in the vision of this man, more vivid than the real, gray world of New York City in the aftermath of war, and my simulated breath caught in my avatar throat.  “I’m…I’m Amazonia,” I said, stumbling over my alias.

            He flashed his perfect smile in my direction, pursed his lips as he took in my athletic form with a single appraising glance.  “You look like you can fight, my dear Amazonia.  Let me teach you.”

            The sight of him intoxicated me, from the vantage point of my big, uncomplicated warrior’s body.  I took pleasure in my height, my simple lust for action.  The experience of being Amazonia put boring, scary “reality” to shame.

            Who needed reality, anyway?  Who needed to be error-free, drained of all passion for life?

            I nodded and settled into fighting stance.  “Your name first, stranger.”

            He tossed his long, thick black hair back and laughed.  “Call me Avenger.  That’s all you need to know about me to fight, yes?”

            Yes.  I did not know whether in the Real this man worked as an actuary or a garbage engineer, or if he were a man at all.  But as our bodies met with a sweaty crash, I knew that I had found a kindred spirit.  I did not yet know that love had hunted me down despite my best efforts to hide from myself.  But love has a way of catching its victims unawares.

            Our limbs twined together as we wrestled, skin to skin, muscle to muscle.  I smelled his musk, tasted his sweat, and knew our encounter was truer than the fact of life on the surface of the Real.

            He twisted my left arm backward, and I lost my balance.  In a flash, he had me pinned on the ground between his well-muscled thighs, and no matter how hard I struggled I had to accept defeat.

            “You are my warprize,” he whispered into the shell of my ear, and I felt his hot breath along the cables of my neck. 

I tried again to wriggle away, and started laughing when I realized that losing had some obvious consolations.  My body hummed at every point where our skin connected.  “I am yours.  For the moment.”  I turned to meet his gaze, averted my eyes just in time.

            He leaned in to kiss me, and my entire body tingled with anticipation.  But before our lips connected, Oblio suddenly crashed in upon us, her face a study in panic.  Amazonia!  We’ve been compromised on the surface!”

            She shoved the Avenger off me and pulled me to my feet.  Still breathless, I took in the sight of my sparring partner – and I knew we would be lovers. 

“I go now,” I said with real regret.  “But I will return.”

His face had gone serious, and his expression told me more than all of Oblio’s remonstrations:  that we played a dangerous game, in this sector of cyberspace free from corporate domination.  “Go, my dear Amazonia.  And return when you can.”

 

When my mind returned to my body in the tree house, I heard a commotion far below, and felt the oak tree tremble under the force of multiple blows in the darkness.  I uncurled my stiff body off the tatami mat, and Hype and I leaned out over the edge to see what the hell was going on at ground level.

“Tree poachers,” Hype muttered.  “Bastards know we’re sitting in hardwood, and they don’t give a frag who lives up here.”

Without thinking, without hesitating or commiserating or contemplating, I whipped out my blaster from my ankle holster, infrared-sighted the leader as he raised the ionic saw for another swipe at the base of the tree.  I shot out his left kneecap, and I queued up my handheld to make a backup call for his arrest.  My visit to Hype was illicit, but the poachers were on FortuneCorp property.  And since I worked for FortuneCorp, stopping the bastard was no less than my sworn duty.

The Netherwood, and the Avenger, had already changed something deep inside of me.  I knew now that I would pass my final exams at the sheriff’s Academy with flying colors.  Maybe Hype and my handheld were both right:  it was indeed a fatal error to descend into the Netherwood, break the law, and fall for an outlaw.  But I like to think the only true fatal errors are the ones you never dare to make.

 




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Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
michele_lang
Nov. 19th, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Heather!
That's awesome -- you know I *love* The Galaxy Express :) Anybody reading this: If you enjoy science fiction romance, space opera, or any kind of speculative stories, you should definitely swing by Galaxy Express and plan to stay awhile.

Thanks again!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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