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The Union of Stars: The Thraad

And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.

Physiology

Thraador

We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.

By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.

Culture

We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.

Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.

This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.

We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.

There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.

History

Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.

We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.

Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.

We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.

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Read “When It Comes Around” on Perihelion SF!

Hi, folks!

Got another story published and released for public consumption. It’s free, too! Shuffle your internet consciousness over to this month’s Perihelion SF and read “When It Comes Around” – my dark and gritty tale of the hard life of a space pirate. Let me tease you with the first line, if I may:

You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-g.

This voice partially owes this old Battletech: Mercenaries image for inspiration.

This voice partially owes this old Battletech: Mercenaries image for inspiration.

Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, yes?

I’m pretty proud of this one. It *just* missed some of the bigger markets (the narrator’s patois just didn’t do it for some editors), so I’m very glad it found a home. I have been in love with this voice I came up with for some years now (my first publication, “The Spacer and the Cabbages,” used it, as well, and that was about seven years ago now). With any luck, I’ll be able to do more with it in the future. Anyway, I hope you like it.

Go! Read! If nothing else, it ought to discourage you from a life of space piracy.

Our Interdimensional Gateway: Rules and Regulations

gate3Hello, and welcome to the Sudden Valley Interdimensional Gateway Facility. Assuming you made it through security, you are reading this document while under the watchful eye of our armed guards. Please don’t be alarmed – they will only kill you if you show any signs of being an alien. So just remember to act totally normal. Easy, right?

Now, here are the basic rules:

  • No animal or plant matter (beside yourselves) is to pass through the portal in either direction. No matter how human they look, we will shoot any people you rescue from alien overlords, so don’t even bother.
  • Always send a robot through first. If you can’t get a good picture from a robot, spend some time building a better robot before sending through a person. Yes, even Gary.
  • The scientist who designed the portal is never, ever, ever allowed to go through it, no matter how much she wants to. Do not give Marcia the access codes no matter how much she begs you. We’re serious.
  • Do not operate the portal while drunk. We would say that you could be shot for attempting this, but no drunken lush has ever lived long enough for us to do so, so…
  • If you dream about the portal “calling you,” please report to the nearest armed guard and say “Code Purple.” They know what to do next. We promise you’ll be fine. Honest.
  • If something comes through the portal on its own, it has to die. We don’t care if it looks like your grandmother or dead girlfriend or long-lost father or whatever. Shoot first, questions later.
  • After returning through the portal, please report to “Proccessing.” Remember to act totally normal.
  • If the portal throws you forwards or backwards in time, remember not to cause any paradoxes. Assuming such paradoxes are possible, which they might not be, since they’ve never happened. Or maybe they did and we don’t know. Anyway, be careful. Remember: if confronted by security, remember to act totally normal.
  • In the case of a time loop, we have a chess set set up in the break room at all times to help you signal to yourself that you’re in a time loop. Always remember to act totally normal.
  • The alien species you may or may not encounter might end up being really cool. One of them might even be a seven foot tall blue cat chick who introduces you to her people’s ways. We do not care at all–keep her world’s problems on her world, dammit. We’ve got enough crazy shit going down on Earth. Stay out of it.
  • In case of emergency, we have this facility rigged to the warhead of a hydrogen bomb. It is wired to the Big Red Button. Do not push the Big Red Button unless absolutely necessary.
  • If you return under mind control, we will kill you. Sorry, but it clearly violates the totally normal statute.
  • If you return with super-powers, but are in all other ways Totally Normal, we reserve the right to rent your services to the government so we can pay for our facility. We know, we know – that sounds dystopian and mean, but you get to be a superhero now, so shut up.

Good rule of thumb: expanding the knowledge of the human race is good and all, but let’s try to do that without blowing up the Earth.

Have fun, and happy adventuring!

A Genie’s Free Advice

maagic Aladdin genie lamp with genie arising from blue smoke

Got a story for you. It’s an old one; maybe you’ve heard it.

A wealthy merchant is walking through the streets of Baghdad when he sees the Angel of Death. Death recognizes him and seems very interested in him. The man concludes that Death is in Baghdad to take him and, unwilling to die, he expends all his vast wealth in one day to secure the service of a genie. “Genie,” says the man, “I’ve no wish to die. Transport me to Damascus in one night, so that I might evade Death’s embrace.”

And so the genie did as was asked of him and worked great magic to transport the man, along with all his family and home and livestock and servants, far away to Damascus in the space of a single night. The merchant slept easily, knowing he had fooled Death.

The next morning, however, the man went into the streets of Damascus to find Death waiting for him. The man was aghast. “What? How did you find me?!”

Death shrugged and said, “That is why I was so interested to see you in Baghdad. You see, I had an appointment to meet you today in Damascus.”

Heard that one? Well, it’s true, let me tell you. I was the genie.

You would imagine, as an immortal being whose task it is to grant wishes, I would have seen more than my fair share of happiness over the millennia. Not so, though. I have some thoughts on the subject.

You people – you mortals – you can never figure out what you actually want. I mean that, too – you cannot, as in you are not capable. A man wishes for wealth and dies alone. A woman wishes for beauty only to drown the next week. A boy wishes for power only to pine for his mother. On and on and on it goes. You don’t know what tomorrow brings and, so terrified that Death might have penciled you in for Friday, you pick the absolute worst thing for you at the time and think it solves all your problems. It is so consistent as to be actively tragic.

Had a guy once – sometime in Ancient Babylon – wish to be an invulnerable warrior. Easy enough, right? How can a guy go wrong with that? Simple: his tribe, the people he wanted to protect, drove him out of their lands claiming he was a demon. So he was the world’s biggest badass with nothing to fight for. He died of old age as a hermit. Blamed me, too.

I don’t trick people, okay? Not my thing. I’m a servant of the lamp and that’s it – you rub, I appear, and we do business. I am not “imprisoned” in the lamp – it’s just a convenient hole in space-time for me to zip through. I’ve got a life outside of this one. I mean, not one you’d easily understand, but it’s there. Had one lady wish to have me explain it to her once. She went insane.

So, yeah, I’m not upset when somebody rubs the lamp and pops me out. Not a big deal – less than an eye-blink in the breadth and depth of the cosmos, understand? You really cannot waste my time, since I have as much of it as I want. When you wish for something, I give it to you – no judgment, no tricks. Do I sometimes screw up the details? Yeah, sure – some of you guys are damned unclear. I mean, how am I supposed to interpret “I wish for the world?” Go on – I dare you to figure out, in concrete terms, what that means exactly. That guy’s name was Atlas and man, was he pissed. Not my problem though – if you can’t be bothered to read the fine print on the lamp itself, don’t come crying to me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right – wishes. Let’s get this out of the way: You can’t wish for true happiness, okay? You can’t have it like that. I cannot give it to you, much as I might want to. You mortals are always thinking in external terms – give me gold, give me power, give me land, give me love – and that’s missing the entire point. Happiness comes from within.

Oh sure, the occasional wise-acre wishes for internal happiness, but it doesn’t work. I just have to turn them into different people. Is that success? You want to know what really happened to Attila the Hun? They say he died of a brain hemorrhage while doing the wild thing after deciding not to sack Rome. What he did instead was take the lamp, given him by Pope Leo I (who had used it to become pope), in exchange for sparing the city. So he did. And then he wished to be truly, permanently happy. I turned him into a friendly dog – best I could do. His followers did the rest.

Happiness is something that people who seek me out are never going to find. Happiness is contentment, understand?  To be content with your lot, no matter what your lot is. That is true, contemplative happiness. If you got it, what do you need me for? What can I possibly give you to get you there? No, all wishes – all rewards and triumphs – are things you need to have grow out of yourself, not have dumped on you from on high. Give a fish shoes and it’ll have no idea what to do until it grows some feet.

The best wish ever? Oh, that’s easy: fella name of Lao-Tzu, ancient China. Summoned me up and chatted with me for a little while on a road in the middle of nowhere. When I asked him what he wanted, he said, “Only to talk. Thank you.”

He meant it, too. I still think about that sometimes.

Anyway, enough about me. Let’s whip you up that private island, okay? Did you have a hemisphere in mind, or am I just gonna get creative?

The Shopkeeper of Mad Mountain

a17a9a2d7a6bc69bd53b0ac0549c2182Hey there, stranger! Welcome to Mad Mountain! Sure, sure – take a look around. I gots everything a party of stu…stupendous heroes like yourselves need to go spelunking down the Black Mine.

What’s that? Oh, right – adventuring. Yeah, that’s what you kids call it. Nothing crazy sounding about that, no sir.

Eh? Oh, yes – that barrel there is full of pebbles. Lightweight, easy to toss, guaranteed to reveal deadfall traps or your money back. Just a silver piece a handful.

Why yes, that price does seem a might bit high, I suppose. But gravel here is pretty hard to come by. I got a mess of children, see, and they go out mornings and collect rocks for their dad. Go ahead and look – I can wait. You won’t find a pebble worth lobbing for six miles in any direction, gods as me witness.

Oh right – here we get to the part where you threaten me with beating and mutilation and such. Same old story. I tell you what, Thagg the Magnificent, if’n you wanna hack off my head, be my guest, but good damned luck finding a healer in this town hereafter. Father Paldrick is a business partner, see? You kill me, and any of your pals what get cursed by spider demons or have their entrails eaten by gorefinder worms or just wind up plain dead are going to stay that way. So, go on mister –  I’ll wait.

Thank you.

Today I’m having a special on used rope. Oh, yes – I’ve been gathering rope from the…err…less successful spelunk…errr…adventurers have left around. Damnest time untying it all sometimes. You wouldn’t believe the stupid nonsense these people try to make outta rope. Catapults, winches, belaying lines, boulder traps – you name it, I’ve hacked it down and respliced it to resell. What? It ain’t stealing, honest! Them folks ain’t needing it anymore.

Yes, nobody has come out the Black Mine alive as of yet. Oh, yes, I’m sure you’ll be the first ones. Why, the Black Mine has never had to face a bloodthirsty barbarian, a charming rogue, a secretive wizard, and a forthright cleric before. No sir. Most folks bring a paladin or a plain old fighter instead of Thagg over there. Sure he’ll make all the difference.

What’s that? Yessir – all those “craptastic rusty lamps,” as you put it, come with a lifetime warranty. You just come on back if it don’t work and I’ll either give you a new one or store credit, I swear. Never had nobody ask for it yet, gods as me witness.

Maps of the dungeon? Now how in the Nine Hells am I supposed to have that hanging around? You think anybody around here actually goes into the Black Mine? We had us a wizard in here to seal it up just so nobody would. But then some fool has to go about running his mouth about all the treasures down there and next thing you know, weird little groups of three to five people start showing up and marching past all them magic wards. Damnest thing, if you ask me. Fools, the lot of them.

Well, except you. You lot look exceptionally intelligent. Can I interest you in a selection of skeleton keys? I’ll give you a money back guarantee.

So, that will be the crowbar, sledgehammer, door wedges, one lamp, five torches, one-hundred and fifty feet of rope (new), four bags of pebbles, some of them ball bearings, and a wheelbarrow. That will be fifty-seven gold and five silver, please. Most generous of you.

You know, now that I think about it, might be there’s treasure to be had off this Black Mine after all.

Just Monologuing…

You are defeated! How foolish of you to dare challenge me, the Dark Lord of Evil, in my quest for ultimate power! Now you understand as you grovel before my might.

Well, perhaps not grovel, per se, as you still look rather defiant, but nevertheless, you are certainly taken aback and perhaps temporarily cowed by my display of unholy power, yes? Certainly that.

Soon, however, true despair will grip you when you realize how your friends are now dead and your puny rebel armies crushed beneath the heels of my zombie ogre legions! Granted, the rebels are not, strictly speaking, crushed as yet. However, even the most conservative projections place my victory somewhere north of a 75% likelihood, and that is surely enough to allow me a bit of a head start on gloating, my timetable being what it is. I mean, if I waited, I might have to forego gloating at all, and what fun would that be?

Nothing seems likely to go wrong at this stage, so let's not worry about it.

Nothing seems likely to go wrong at this stage, so let’s not worry about it.

All that being said, I have appreciated your capacity to resist my dark power for so long. Seriously, it’s been some good work by you and your team. Therefore, I offer you one last chance to spare your puny existence: join me! Together, we could rule the universe, side-by-side! Think of the power we could wield with our skills combined? All I ask is that you give up everything that currently makes you who you are and become the opposite thing.

Did I mention I’m offering a competitive benefits package? Quite generous of me, actually.

No?

Fool! Now, there will be no saving you! Let me just place my Amulet of Power on this card table next to the Pit of Oblivion, and we’ll get right down to blasting you into dust.

First, however, I feel it is only fair for me to explain to you why I’m doing all this. I feel I’ve been pretty consistent in my message, and my zombie ogres have done a capital job of dispersing my talking points to the local kingdoms, but in case it has been unclear thus far, my opinion is pretty simple: I am a superior form of life and you and your vermin are constantly bothering me. So, it only seems natural for my to eradicate you all or bend you to my will. On the plus side, I offer humanity an eternity of stability and as much blood-sport as they can stomach to watch. All I ask in return, really, is that you idiots leave me alone in my Palace of Despair and do exclusively what I say.

And then, of course, there is that benefits package I mentioned. The donation-matching on all retirement plans I feel is pretty…

What? What do you think you’re doing? Trying to fight back? Even now, when all is lost? I mean, I blasted you pretty good back there – right in the face and all. Granted, rather than it reducing you to bones and dust like it does everybody else, it didn’t even quite manage to mar your rugged good looks (and, seriously now, who is your stylist? How can a man traipse through the woods for months and still have such lustrous locks?), but even without the whole dust-and-bones routine, you’ve got to be hurting. Anyway, how about a taste of this!

Yes! Now you feel your irrelevance! These beams of doom, even weaker than that last one that didn’t even scratch up your nose overmuch, will now kill you slowly, so slowly that I might relish your screams from now until eternity. This is quite fun, I must say. I dare say it’s enough to make me belly laugh. Generally I wouldn’t find this so much comical as downright inefficient, but just at this moment I really feel a good, long guffaw coming on….

MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…HAHAHAH…Hahahahah…he…heh…

What? A puny rock? What do you think a puny rock will do against my immortal power?

Oh…you threw it at the card table. Well…shame on me then.

 

The Verse in Your Prose

116293Upon Reading Carl Sandburg…

I say to you, fiction writers, that you should read poetry. Of all genres and types of writing, poetry is its base medium. It is the ether through which the constructed orbs of our cosmos spin. Read it, I enjoin you.

But I Don’t Like Poetry!

Nonsense. You call yourself a writer? You claim to tell stories? How can you work in a medium you do not love? The carpenter knows wood – the grain and the shape of it, the taste of the dust on his lips, how it bends and how it cuts. So, too, does the writer know words – how they tumble from lips and collect in ears. How they take root.

I say to you: You already love poetry. You must. It is the purest form of words. There would be no engineers without Euclid and Pythagoras; there would be no writers without Homer.

Reading and Understanding Poetry is Difficult!

How is it a writer can fear challenge and yet still write? Where are the laurels for you to rest on, novelist? Few and far between, I say – a poor bed. You do not rest – you strive. You face rejection and heartache with every sunrise, yet still you go on. Can you tell me you quail at verse? Verse is as life is – a challenge, filled with rejection and heartache. Do not tell me that you fear it; I know that you do not. I have seen your grim resolve in the dark of night, pecking at a keyboard, singing in your head far away.

Poetry Doesn’t Do Anything For Me – I Like Things To Be Concrete!

Concrescence does not fall from the sky in lumps, God’s gift to writers. Stories congeal – a word here, a phrase there, a character’s face in a dream. How does this happen save in the subconscious? Are we not plumbers of dreams? I say this: in verse you will find your images unshakeable, defiant of story, for you to tame and shape. In verse we can be dreaming awake; we can note in the margins of nightmares.

I Only Like Poetry That Rhymes!

Philistine. Luddite. Fool. Do you still read Beverly Cleary? Are you enamored always with Hungry Caterpillars? Do you mark your days with bars of Twinkle Twinkle? There was a time when you thought the people in the television were real, when monsters would chase you in the basement, when Santa Claus watched. As we grow, our vision broadens. We learn. We taste the variety of the world. You would deny this opportunity to poetry, and why?

Fear, I say. Cowardice. Ignorance. Expect more from yourself.

I Don’t Know Anything About Poetry!

Education is the seed of all things. Go forth and read. Let the poets sing to you, let them curse you, let them bore you and chide you. Grow. There is no storyteller that didn’t go exploring in spite of fear. Swallow it down, and let the verse crash upon you.

Read poetry.

 

Ten Gallon Advice for the Eleven Gallon Head

Part of writing successfully is learning to be self-directed and self-motivated. A substantial portion of the rest of it is being stubborn and having an iron-clad self-esteem. Writing is a solitary endeavor, ultimately, no matter which online writers’ groups or communities you ascribe to. The act itself is performed alone – you and the blank screen, mano a mano. You spend a lot of time there, just you and that screen. You spend maybe even more time sending your stuff out into the world and having it rejected, over and over again. If you cannot rely on yourself to gird your loins and do it, over and over, in the face of universal rejection, you will never be a writer.

You expected this. What you didn't expect is somebody to grab it.

You expected this. What you didn’t expect is somebody to grab it.

But let’s suppose, for a second, you do manage to pull it off. You get acceptances. Maybe you win an award or two. You score a book deal. You have editors sending you feedback. You’ve trusted your instincts and it got you this far.

How, then, do you take advice?

It’s a rather amazing problem, actually. You find yourself wondering where the heck was all this helpful advice when you were at rock-bottom and nobody would give you the time of day. Now everybody’s a critic, and you’re not sure what to do. You’ve spent a long time not listening to the peanut gallery since it was populated by peanuts at that point. Now there’s some fancy-pants pistachio nuts giving you a review, and you gotta wonder whether you listen or whether you stick with what you know: namely yourself.

Me, I want advice, but not just any advice. The two sentences of critique tossed off by an editorial assistant as they blaze through a slushpile certainly beats the advice you’re likely to get from your aunt, but that still doesn’t mean it’s gospel. So much of this business is opinion and taste anyway (once you get past a certain point). A metaphor about opinions and assholes comes to mind.

Then again, what kind of arrogant prick doesn’t take well-meaning advice and think about it, regardless of source? So maybe you don’t read those self-help guides and how-to books on how to write, but that doesn’t make their advice magically worthless. Maybe there’s wisdom to be had there. Maybe. Do you pass your story around for critique? Sure, I guess. Listen to what they have to say. But, then again, you have to be honest with yourself: if you don’t plan on listening to what other people think, isn’t it disingenuous to ask them for help?

For me, I usually only ask for help when I am genuinely unsure. Say I’ve written a thing and I know it can be better but I’m not sure what’s wrong – that’s when I ask for readers. If I read and am certain this is the story I wanted to write, I don’t always ask people to look it over. Perhaps this is bull-headed and foolish of me, but if there’s one thing I’ve seldom lacked in my life, it is self-confidence (for good or ill). Of course, I still need help – everybody does, after all – but where to get it and from whom to accept it isn’t always clear. When you’ve spent this long walking alone, it’s hard to evaluate new companions.

Ultimately, I come back to Aristotle, who once wrote:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Listen to those who are trying to help you – all of them. Ask for help when you need it, but always remember that you don’t need to listen to the advice you don’t need. The trick is being able to tell that stuff from the stuff that is absolutely essential.

Read This Month’s Analog to Read My Latest Story!

Look for the cover that looks like this!

Look for the cover that looks like this!

Hey, everybody! I’m back! Bad news first:  I didn’t finish everything I wanted to in the summer. Good News: I have a short story out in Analog‘s November 2014 issue, available now! Check it out here! 

Presumably, at some point there will be hard copies for sale somewhere (at least I *think* so), or maybe you need to buy a subscription, but whatever. If you have a Kindle or similar e-reader (which at this point includes everybody except my mom) go and read my story “Mercy, Killer” in there! You’ll like it, I promise (oh, and being one of the top scifi markets in the business, the other stories are pretty good, too).

Stay tuned for more actual content on this blog in the coming weeks. For now, you’ll have to settle for going out into the world and reading my fiction. Life is hard sometimes.

 

The Last Revenge of One-Eyed Willie

The common image of the famed pirate Wilfredo Guzman, or “One-Eyed Willie”, is that of a ruthless and cunning buccaneer, defying the English fleet and amassing a grand fortune only to be discovered centuries later in the caves near Astoria, Oregon. What history tells us about the man, however, paints a significantly different picture. As Willy’s ship, Inferno, flees up the California coast in 1632, pursued by a Spanish (not English) fleet sent to capture him, we come to understand that this fearsome pirate was a desperate man on the run and just barely in control of his crew. The acts that resulted in his death, made so famous by their sheer perversity, merely underscore this fact.

Eyepatch_goonies20To understand Wilfredo Guzman, one also has to understand the Spain of the early 17th century. Despite the wealth of silver and gold crossing the Atlantic into royal coffers, Spain was a nation in significant debt, having taken on significant loans to pursue wars against both the English and Dutch. Though the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) bolstered Spanish confidence in their armies, the Castilian economy essentially collapsed under the weight of its debt in 1627. Many portions of the army (and navy) were forced to pay themselves, as tax collection was fruitless and the Spanish armies too far flung.

Here, we can see where Guzman fits. A Spanish naval officer by diction and evident training, he likely found himself without the means to maintain his ship or pay for his crew. Accordingly, driven by a bitterness that we can only speculate upon, he and his ship went rogue, turned to piracy, and began to raid Spain’s own treasure fleets. As has been extracted from Guzman’s own log, he was “taking his due” – payment for service that he had given the crown, but that the crown had refused to pay for.

Spanish captains in the 17th century possessed top secret knowledge, very much akin to naval captains of today. In the 17th century, before the development of longitude and good maps, crossing the Pacific Ocean could be a suicidal venture. The Spanish had discovered the ideal latitude for crossing the ocean without starving to death, and this latitude was a state secret entrusted only to its naval captains. This, along with working knowledge of how Spanish treasure fleets operated, their common routes, and the rest of it, was the primary factor in “One-Eyed Willy’s” success. He was a threat to the Spanish crown unlike any other – one of their own, turned against them – so it is hardly surprising that Phillip IV commissioned a fleet of five ships of the line to hunt Guzman down.

Guzman’s own log records how they finally caught him. Taking on stores in California prior to heading west to raid in the Philippines, the five Spanish vessels found Guzman and Inferno unprepared for a fight. That they escaped prior to being caught and destroyed at anchor is a testament to Guzman’s crew, but without sufficient stores to cross the Pacific and the Spanish approaching from the south, his direction of flight was clear – north, along the coast. He had to know where it would all end, as did his crew.

Any study of piracy during its heyday in the 17th and early 18th centuries shows how precarious it was to be a captain of a vessel of cutthroats and thieves. While Guzman may have begun his pirate adventures with a crew of loyal Spanish sailors, by 1632 the dynamic had changed. Loyal, God-fearing Spanish subjects had been largely replaced with the kind of mercenaries and reavers suited to this lifestyle. If Guzman set sail with a crew of loyal subjects, he now found himself the master of a crew of jackals. What’s more, Guzman was notoriously stingy with Spanish gold and silver, stating in his log that “I cannot bear to see this coin spent by so lowly an example of men as God has seen fit to inflict upon the Earth.” It may be that Guzman was hording the wealth scored from Spanish galleons for some grander purpose – perhaps even as a means of buying his way back into the good graces of the King – but his crew knew he was holding out on them, and they weren’t happy about it. At the prospect of facing a hopeless flight north, one can imagine their enthusiasm for Guzman and his leadership waned even further.

It was probably a demand of the crew, then, that Guzman attempt to take shelter in the cave near Astoria. It was a desperate tactic, to be sure – akin to backing oneself into an alley and pointing your lone gun at the entrance. Due to the comparatively shallow draft of Inferno, only it could negotiate the waters near the inlet, so any bombardment from the Spanish would have to be conducted over long range and Guzman’s crew, being the better gunners, might have stood a chance of outshooting them. There was an even better chance, of course, of the Spanish failing to see them at all and merely passing by. Again, Guzman’s log explains how it all came to pass:

August 9, 1632

No sooner have we dropped anchor than some portion of the men decide to abandon ship. Led by Marstrom and Diego. I will not permit the boats to be lowered, not in the face of the enemy who, even now, was less than a mile distant on the other side of the point. That fool Diego took a shot at me. Killed him and the rest, but it was too late. The report must have been heard by the Spanish. They came to finish us.

The Spanish, seeing Willie holed up in a cave on a distant and savage shore, saw a better solution than sinking the Inferno. They merely blew up the cave, collapsing it on top of him, and left him for dead.

Fate, though, had spared the ship actual damage. Guzman and his mutinous crew were simply trapped. This is where the legend really takes off. Long has it been supposed that One-Eyed Willy and his crew spent years thusly entombed, burrowing like moles in the earth. This, however, seems unlikely given the state of their provision and the onset of winter a few months after their capture. Likely, the actual story is more compact. The natural cave systems surrounding ‘Willie’s Inlet’ would have already been intact and escape would have been a mere matter of exploration and the occasional application of gunpowder (a substance they had no lack of). But even when gaining the surface, where to then? Orgeon was well beyond any European settlement or trading post. Guzman and his crew faced a wilderness full of savages and wild animals as well as a cold northwestern winter. They had no ship to escape with and very little likelihood of encountering any such ship in the near future. They were marooned, as surely as if they had been left on a desert island.

It was in the name of defense that Guzman convinced his crew to construct the elaborate series of booby traps that protected the way to his ship. Someone aboard – possibly Guzman, but more likely one of his more trustworthy officers – was an engineer by training, and so the great work began, probably taking some months and probably lasting through the winter. Exposure, disease, and starvation probably took its share of the crew, which likely suited Guzman just fine, as his plan was never survival. He writes in his log that he would rather die than be reduced to living ‘in a hut with savages’ and swears that he would ‘sail once more’. This, incidentally, was Guzman’s last entry in his log, dated in late March, 1633.

By this point, the map had been made, the key fashioned, and they had been allowed to escape from the tunnels of the pirates – and on purpose, mind you. Guzman wanted to be found, and nowhere is this more evident than in the quality of the map itself – a map drawn not in the scratchy hand of a buccaneer, but in the careful, meticulous detail of a naval officer. It included sounding depths of the surrounding waters, a near perfect representation of the Astoria coastline, and all the other indications that it was Guzman’s map to a treasure that he had no need to find himself, as he lived with it.

The winter must have made it clear to Guzman that he would never sail Inferno under his own direction again. Too many crew had either died or abandoned him and, very likely, the last few tried to make off with the treasure, and so Guzman and his inner circle killed them all. It is they that were found in the captain’s cabin, gathered around the table, piled with gold. These last vestiges of Spanish nobility, possibly his lieutenants from his naval days. Analysis of the cups on the table implies they may have drank poison together – one last drink. One wonders what they discussed. They must have been aware of Guzman’s plan at that point – his final laugh in the face of his royal Spanish enemies.

5fb7da56eff6e40f935274e4bcb42b65That final slap of defiance, however, seems to have come far later than Guzman probably suspected. It was not until 1985 that a few of my friends and I finally gave Willy that moment he wanted: the Inferno sailing out from its supposed tomb, proud and beautiful, in defiance of a Spanish king now several centuries dead.

~Professor Michael Walsh, PhD, Portland State University

Astoria, 2003