Alif Negotiates (Another Hinterland Excerpt)

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Hi there friends… It’s been awhile again, but for good reason. I’ve actually been steadily and actively writing, although I haven’t updated the word count in the margin in awhile. I’ve been working on a short tentatively titled The Book about a girl named One. This tale addresses issues of censorship. It is very strongly influenced by 1984 by Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury. I love both of these books.

Alif’s first incarnation
by The Artist (http://theartist23.tumblr.com/)

 

In any case, I wrote Alif Negotiates quite awhile back as I was doing a little character exploration. Alif is a character that will show up later in the Hinterland Chronicles series. I have plans for him to be the eventual partner to Bilqis’s daughter. Of note, his character started here in Honor&Truth, my incomplete online serial novel. I stopped writing H&T because it had so many plot holes. I went back, rethought things, re-outlined, and it turned into The Hinterland Chronicles. I still go back from time to time and read it and despite how raw and unedited it is, I still like it a lot. Enjoy the excerpt and let me know what you think.

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“It’s bright out there,” said Mali.  The vendor waved Alif further into the tent so that he could stand beneath the canopy and out of the sun.  “Don’t think I’ve ever seen you this early in the day.  Something up?”

Alif wore an old straw hat with a wide brim that wobbled with each step he took.  Had anyone other than Alif been wearing the hat, Mali would have laughed.

“Gotta make a run later this evening and I wanted to catch you before you left.”

“I understand.”

Mali made his runs through the mid-Atlantic province on a strict schedule.  Each week he’d set up camp at a different settlement to sell and trade goods. His specialty was electronics.  He’d been doing business with Alif for nearly two years and he’d come to know the taciturn male quite well.  Alif always visited his tent on Fridays, Mali’s last day encamped, and always after sunset as Alif’s translucent skin was too sensitive for daylight rays.  

“I have a transceiver set I believe you’ll be interested in.”  The vendor reached beneath the table where he displayed his wares and pulled out a ragged cardboard box.  “They look like brand new, don’t they?”

“Nice.  They don’t make these anymore,” said Alif accepting the transceivers, weighing them in his hands.  “What’s wrong with them?”

Mali enjoyed haggling with Alif.  He was almost as shrewd as him.  There wasn’t an electronic gadget that Alif couldn’t dismantle and reassemble into something better than it had been when brand new.  In the past Mali had tried to convince Alif to leave Settlement #53 and travel with him and be his repairman.  He even offered thirty percent of the profits.  With Alif’s skill, Mali would be able to sell more goods and expand to include repair work.  And Alif’s cool demeanor would cause would-be bandits to think twice before targeting him.   

Alif refused each time sighting obligations to his settlement, but Mali couldn’t see what kept Alif so attached to the settlement where he lived practically as an outcast.  They called him Inuwa, ghost, behind his back and the more superstitious among them whispered that God had cursed Alif’s black mother with him, an albino, for refusing to identify his father when she grew large with her pregnancy.

“So you read minds now, is that it?” asked Mali chuckling.

“No man can read minds or divine by touch. That’s all superstitious nonsense. But we all have a sense of things, if we would just trust that sense.”

Alif handled the transceivers, turning them over in his hands and manipulating the buttons.   “You have batteries?”

Mali reached into his pocket and handed Alif two batteries he’d recharged that morning for just such a purpose.  Alif slipped the batteries into place and adjusted the dials, pushed the buttons, and speaking into one held the other up to his ear to hear his voice echo back.

Alif removed the dark shades he’d been wearing to protect his eyes from the sun and turned his attention back to Mali.  His eyes were red rimmed with irises the color of water.  “I don’t see anything wrong with them.  Like you said, they’re like new.  But of course,” he said probing Mali with those eyes, “there is something wrong with them.  Come clean, friend, if you want me to give you the money.”

Mali laughed again, but this time to disguise the chill that traveled down his spine when Alif pressed him with those colorless eyes.  Did he not know the effect he had on people?

“You’re right.  There is something wrong.”  Mali reached into the box and removed a monitor about half the size of the transceivers, and like the transceivers it was silver with yellow trim.  “There is a tracking device hidden in them.”  He pressed a button on the side of the tiny monitor and two green dots appeared and an irritating beeping sound emitted from the speaker.  He quickly turned the monitor off.

Alif handed the transceivers back to Mali and stepped back.  “You should know better.”

Of course Mali did.  Tracking technology had never done their people any good.  The city dwellers used it against his people time and again to find them, jail them, cheat them out of what was theirs, the little ragged bit of it that there was.  Those in the cities reveled in taking from his people and as such anyone among the Proselytes caught with anything resembling tracking tech was considered a traitor and a danger.  At worst, such a person might end up dead.  At best, such a person would be exiled from his settlement, which was worse than death.

“The thing is, brother,” said Mali leaning in close so that no one could hear them, “I couldn’t pass up such a beautiful set of transceivers.  When I saw them, I thought of you.  If anyone can deactivate the tracking tech, you can.”  Mali slipped the monitor into his pocket when a man approached his tent to inspect his goods.  He greeted the man with a smile and a nod, but he was too preoccupied with an old alarm clock radio to pay him any notice.  “Look at them,” he said dropping his voice further, “they’re too beautiful to pass up.  And you could put them to good use, or resell them yourself and for a pretty sum, I might add.”

Alif’s eyes narrowed as he considered Mali’s words.  “So, you couldn’t sell these to anyone else, could you?”

Mali chuckled.  The boy was quick as a spark before the fire.  As cold and controlled as Alif appeared, Mali had no doubts that there was a fire brewing beneath the surface.  He also knew that he never wanted to bear witness to it.

“Okay, I’ll take them,” he said, “but at a reduced price.  And I won’t negotiate.”

“I’m the one who is supposed to refuse negotiation.  Remember?  I’m the one with the prime goods here.”

“I’ll be doing you a favor.  If you get caught with these, you’ll be wishing you never saw them.”

“Seventy-five credits.”

“Twenty.”  Alif held up his hand before Mali could protest.  “And my promise not to tell anyone that you had tracking tech.”

Mali looked long and deep into those red rimmed eyes and knew that he wouldn’t be able to change to his mind.  Besides, he hadn’t expected to get even the twenty credits for the stolen property.  “Alright, brother.  Twenty it is.  Shall we shake on it?”

The Hinterlands Chronicles: Bilqis

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It’s been a while friends. I’ve been busy with work, and even more gratifying, I have been getting some consistent writing done. I’m not making the great big leaps that I’d like but consistency is more important in my estimation. I haven’t forgotten about my blog here, or my reading, but with a full time job, well, something has got to give, yeah? And some of my indie writer friends have had recent successes (Lindsay Buroker being one such person) that have inspired me to work even harder to complete this project. I believe in this story and it has been with me for several years. I’m still quite a way off but I am so very hopeful. So hopeful in fact, that I thought I would share a little snippet from Bilqis. Read and enjoy.

Look alike hanger

Some time had passed since Bilqis left Sector Five, but not enough to forget how being there used to make her feel, like both prey and predator, both afraid and empowered. What came over Bilqis as she stepped from the ground floor platform was an instinct born of the emotions that came rushing back to her. The abrupt and easy squaring of her already broad shoulders, the cool set of her jaw, bright eyes hooded yet keenly alert was so deeply intrinsic it was as if she had shed a costume to reveal her true self. She had after all spent her entire life behind the invisible sector boundaries and it was only natural that she would, as much as she hated to admit it, find a certain comfort in the familiar yet treacherous surroundings.  

The weak didn’t survive Sector Five and many of the strong didn’t either. Bilqis moved east toward Middleton, compelled by some deep need to revisit her old home, cutting through the humanity and the detritus like a scythe.  

Authority investigators were still no closer the finding the person responsible for instigating the riot and the destruction of Ajutine Aeronautics, although a sketch of the nameless suspect, in his mid twenties, with a broad deep brow, dark deep set eyes, and a sensually curved mouth that seemed somehow too petite to belong to a man, had been plastered across the city. Bilqis stopped to study one such flier printed on thin bright yellow plastic paper. The digital image of the suspect rotated ninety degrees to the left and then to the right. When the image stopped center, it closed its eyes. She didn’t recognize him.

Beside the sketch of the suspect hung a faded flyer encouraging residents to visit their local clinic for free vaccinations and health exams. People complained about Goodwill’s tough policies but Bilqis thought that the efforts he made to take care of Ajutine’s residents were commendable, and more than previous mayors had done.

A left at the next intersection and three blocks east took Bilqis to Middleton and Bright. She was stupidly mollified to find that her old apartment building, all of Middleton and the two scant blocks north of it, had been spared the blaze that ate up nearly an eighth of Sector Five, though she was unsure why. She’d never liked living there. The plumbing always backed up foul green muck and every intimacy and indignity could be heard through the paper thin walls. And it wasn’t as if Taha would ever return. Too much time had passed.

A set of crumbling stairs led from the brief courtyard to a grungy little foyer lined with broken mailboxes, according to memory. She didn’t go inside. It was enough to see ithat the building had survived unashamedly ugly amongst even uglier buildings and circumstances. The residents here, like in much of Sector Five, were steeped on the kind of poverty that was worn beneath the skin. Even now, three years out, when she had plenty, there was always a lingering hunger, like an itch that no scratch would ever relieve.

But her success wasn’t so singular. Not everyone who could wished to leave Sector Five. Some were determined to call the place forever home, thinking themselves noble and devout. According to them the price of leaving was too high. According to Bilqis they were fools. They refused to take the pledge to forego faith, unwilling to sign away their gods. Bilqis had been willing.

Mayor Goodwill sought only to enforce the laws that already existed, under which Sector Five would cease to be a safe haven for the faithful. Starting at the beginning of the coming year everyone would be forced to sign the pledge of faithlessness or take their life to the hinterlands, eke out a life there on the vast barren plains. Bilqis figured that when that time came, plenty of people would let go of their notions of pride and submit. No number of riots or fires was likely to stop Goodwill’s plans to cleanse Ajutine, to prevent another disaster like that of 2035, to allow another Bilqis Harban, sword of the people, to be created.

Weaving through vehicles jammed at the intersection Bilqis crossed to the opposite side of the street. Half a block up she stopped at the cart of a street vendor and bought a sandwich of dried meat and onions and cheese wrapped in soft yeastless bread. She took a bite of the sandwich, unaware until that moment just how hungry she had been..

“Not protein meal,” she stated and enquired at once. She hadn’t eaten real animal flesh since leaving Sector Five. Everywhere else such fare was considered parochial.

The vendor unabashedly took her in from head to foot as he spoke. “Course not. I only sell real meat.” He pointed to the faded writing on the umbrella over his cart.

“What kind of meat is it?” She took another great mouthful.

He held up a finger as if struck by sudden inspiration. “Now that’s the question, isn’t it?” He didn’t elaborate further but he did extend his hand. “You owe two bills for that sandwich. Four if you’d like another.”

Bilqis paid the old vendor and left. Three blocks east, Bilqis turned into an alley. It was dark and buffered the cloister of noises from the street. She found the door at the very end of the alley where it butted up against a brick wall.

Bilqis knocked three times, waited five seconds and then knocked twice. Seconds later the door inched open, but Bilqis could see little more than a single glassy eye as it looked out at her.

“Who?” demanded the disembodied voice.

“Bushrah.” Bilqis crossed her arms. “She here?”

The door eased open a bit more and a face, mid-teens and male, emerged from the darkness. “Show me,” he said nodding.

Bilqis unzipped her jacket and pulled down the collar of her shirt to expose the tiny black fist tattooed just beneath her collarbone. He flashed the beam of a hand torch onto her face and then lowered it to the mark on her chest. His hard angular face softened beneath the weight of naked respect. “Banded in red,” he said, awe choking the timber of his voice, further betraying his youth.

Her memory of that tattoo was strong. Her brother Taha had drawn it himself, the needle loaded with ink laced with the oil of the atarahu. “So that you’ll never forget the pain of our people,” he’d told her. The tattoo had burned beneath her skin for months after it had healed. The very memory revived the old tat with stabs of prickly heat.

The black fist was the symbol of The Walls the largest and most fierce of the Sector Five cabals. The black fist rimmed with red indicated a member of high rank. In the case of Bilqis, it was not she who had possessed a high rank, but her brother Taha. He had ensured more than her safety with that red line. He’d guaranteed her protection. She was practically royalty among The Walls, untouchable.

“Who wants Bushrah?” he asked, back to business.

“Billie,” she said reclaiming the nickname she hadn’t used since leaving Sector Five.

He pushed open the door and signaled for her to enter ahead of him. “Okay Billie,” he said eyes flicking back to the area below her left collarbone, “I’ll take you to her.”

I Have Done My Job

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Idealised workspace, 2011

A a writer there are very few things I want more than to have my writing read. That sounds simplistic, but it does touch on the general gist of what I mean. Certainly I want my readers to like what they’ve read, to write stunning reviews, tell all of their friends about me, thereby causing my sales to skyrocket, causing me to make lots (not insane amounts, just lots) of money, so that I can pay off my house, give in charity, give my children a great life and quit my day job so that I can create more tales that people want to read, BUT none of that is as important to me that my writing is actually read.

I would be a writer even if I never made a single penny doing it. (Which isn’t that far off the mark right now.)

Like most writers, I have something to say. As an introvert, since I rarely actually say these things out loud, writing is my mode of expression. I write the kinds of stories I would like to read, stories that resonate with me, and that hopefully have deeper meanings. I’m not trying to convert anyone to my way of thinking or teach anyone a lesson, (preachiness in fiction is a big no-no), but I do hope that when readers have completed my tales they walk away with lingering impressions about the characters and situations, that they continue to think about the story for days or even weeks in an effort to suss out the deeper meanings, or at the very least because they’ve grown attached to a character and they miss her.

Recently I received a very unexpected heart-warming email from a woman who had just completed my book. She’d downloaded it for free during one of my past Amazon KDP promotions. She said:

“I have subsequently told friends about An Unproductive Woman and what a wonderful insight into another part of the world and culture as well a message to all of that we are so very alike in so very many ways.”

and

“While not a Christian, I do believe in a power greater than myself.  The absolute everyday faith depicted in your book caused me to download the Qur’an too, I have my reading cut out for me for some time to come!”

The very fact that she took away the message of ultimate sameness across cultures and faiths from my novel despite the supposed divergences there appear to be and that are played up by our media absolutely took my breath away. Even more, in spite of the fact that An Unproductive Woman is not a religious read, the fact that she made the conscious decision to learn more about people (Muslims) who are often made to seem other and alien is the greatest validation and the greatest payment I could ever receive for my writing.

When I received her message I nearly cried. It let me know that I have done my job.

*****

Thank you for the email S.V. You made my year… probably my career as a writer.

Thank you Kindle Buffet for posting my book on your site so that people would know I exist.

Thank you to anyone who has ever honored me with the time it took to read my book and write a review… even if it wasn’t favorable.

Happy Ramadan to EVERYONE!