The Descent

Briggs looked up from her holo display as the whole ship shuddered and Kane fought to keep them from losing control.  Kane could see her eyes burning, filled with fear.

“Sir, it’s the cable,” she said, her voice unnaturally steady.  “Sir, it’s snapped.”

Well, that explained it, noted the logical side of Kane’s mind, even as the rest of him focused on grappling with the barely responsive ship’s controls.  Their slow and calculated descent had just turned into a wild, out of control plunge down towards the surface, still far below.

They were still over a mile above the ground.  Plenty of time to brake, regain control of the descent – assuming that Kane remained calm and didn’t panic.

“Aerobrake,” he announced, making sure that there was no tremor of concern in his voice.  He had to keep the rest of his crew calm.  “We’ve got enough atmosphere for it.  We’ll burn off a fair amount of heat shielding, but that can be replenished later.”

Kane glanced around the cabin.  “Strap yourselves in,” he commanded, as his eyes briefly made contact with those of the rest of his crew.  “We’ll slow down, but it’s going to be bumpy.”

The faces gazing back at the captain looked concerned, but the panic hadn’t yet taken over anyone yet.  For now, his crew was still sane.  They met his gaze, nodding to show that they understood his command.

The altimeter was still shrieking its cry of terror as they plunged down towards the surface.  Kane shot a sidelong glance over at Briggs.  “Any chance you can kill that thing?  It’s giving me a hell of a headache,” he commented.

Briggs rolled her eyes back at him.  “Kind of the point of the alarm, isn’t it?” she quipped in wry tones.  But her long, nimble fingers flew over her controls, and the wail of the alarm cut off a moment later.

Taking a deep breath, Kane leaned forward and took the control assembly, slowly easing it back to bring up the rear fins.  The craft shuddered and shook in complaint, but the forward screens showed the nose slowly rising up from their plunge down towards the ground.

The altimeter alarm might be muted, but a whole new series of alarms started sounding their shrill cries as the landing craft shuddered and jerked its way through the atmosphere.  Aerobraking involved using the friction of the atmosphere to slow the craft.  Although effective, all of that downward energy had to go somewhere – and it instead manifested as burning, searing heat, shredding apart the carbon-ceramic tiles that lined the underside of the landing craft.

Even as Kane focused on trying to keep the landing craft from spiraling out of control, a part of his mind was still distracted, still adrift in paralyzing terror.  He fought to keep that emotion contained, but it was spilling over, threatening to shut the rest of his mind down.

The cable had snapped!  That shouldn’t be possible!  The shuttle had been descending down while attached to a Konstantin-Obayashi cable, nearly six inches of interwoven and trans-bonded parallel carbon nanotubes.  The cables were designed to handle the gravitational flux within a gas giant – a simple drop to a rocky planet like this shouldn’t have presented anywhere near the maximum tested level of strain!

In the back of Kane’s mind, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a sign of something bigger, of something truly going wrong.

But right now, the captain couldn’t focus on that issue.  He had to confront the more immediate and pressing problems.

The aerobraking was working, and he could see that their speed was dropping off.  He just had to hope that their damaged heat shielding would be able to endure the rest of the descent.

“Captain, we’re about to clear the lower cloud layer,” Briggs called out, her eyes on her screens.  “Let’s hope we can find someplace soft to set her down – we can’t exactly do too much steering.”

And a second later, the large forward screens were no longer obscured by the dense fog of the upper atmosphere.

A collective hush fell across the cabin.  For a moment, Kane forgot even his own concerns, as he stared out at the landscape in front of the landing craft.

Green and blue, lush and verdant, spread across the entire globe.  They were still high enough to see some of the curvature of the planet, but the beauty covered all.  For a moment, Kane even thought he caught movement down among the green – some sort of flying creature?  An illusion caused by some sort of geological activity?

Back behind Kane, the captain heard Salander scrambling for his comm.  The fiery little scientist usually kept his mouth shut, but he was the first of the crew to speak.

“Celeste, come in,” the short little man whispered into the comm unit, his normally confrontational voice reduced to a reverent whisper.  “Celeste, this is landing unit one.  Do you copy?”

“We copy,” came the terse reply a moment later.  Celeste still had radio contact with the ship, but the orbital dropship had been waiting to know if the crew survived the landing.

“Celeste, we’re coming in for final descent to the surface,” Salander said, his voice sounding a little detached as he stared out the viewscreens.  “And Celeste?”

“There’s life.”

Advertisements

Danni California, Part 14

Continued from Part 13, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

With my gun in my hand, turned slightly at an angle to present less of a target, I stepped into the luxury car of the train.

I had seen the flash of red hair through the window before I entered, and my senses were on high alert.  The high seats here obstructed my view, making it impossible to see where Danni had gone, but I knew that she had to be here somewhere.  My instincts were screaming at me, warning me to be ready.

Beneath my feet, I could feel the rhythmic rattle of the train as it rolled over the tracks, the whole car shaking slightly side to side.  I had to be aware of that motion, of how it could potentially throw off my aim.  I needed to sense it, to let the motion into me so that I could compensate for it when I took the shot.

I slowly moved up the aisle, my eyes darting back and forth between the slowly revealed seating areas on either side of me.  I made sure that the gun in my hand was hidden inside my open jacket.  I didn’t want to cause any more chaos than was necessary.

My eyes rolled over the people sitting in these seats.  The luxury car was sparsely populated, but there were a few wealthy guests on board, most of them gazing blankly out the windows or down at newspapers.  Few of them spared even a glimpse up at the man skulking past their seating areas.

And then, as I advanced to the next compartment, I saw her.

I first saw the flash of red, nothing else.  It was enough to set me off, however, and I started to bring the gun up, pointing it into the compartment.  Both my hands clamped down on the grips of my gun, and I clicked the hammer back on the revolver.

Danni glanced up at me, her eyes flashing with amusement.  “Hello, Priest,” she said, her voice absent of any concern.  “Put the gun away for now, would you?  Take a seat.”

And so I did.

*

The man in black paused his story, leaning back in his seat and surveying the faces of his audience.  Old Hillpaw’s wrinkled, grizzled face didn’t reveal any of his thoughts, but Jenny’s mouth was hanging open in an O of surprise.

“Wait a minute – I thought you were going to shoot her!” the young waitress exclaimed.  “You had your gun out and everything!”

The man in black nodded.  “I thought that I was going to, as well,” he said, glancing down at his lap for a moment.  “But when she saw me, when her eyes met mine, I just felt myself go, well, blank.  She gave me a command, and I couldn’t even think.  I just did it because I didn’t know what other choice to make.”

The young waitress was still shaking her head, clearly not understanding.  In Old Hillpaw’s eyes, however, the man in black saw a look of understanding.  The older man didn’t speak, but it was clear that he knew exactly how the man in black had felt.

“I still had my gun,” the man in black said to Jenny, trying to justify his mystifying actions.  “I could have shot her at any time.  I knew that here, on the train, she couldn’t get away.

“So why not wait and see what she had to say?”

To be continued . . . 

Book 20 of 52: "Twilight of the Elites – America after Meritocracy" by Christopher Hayes

A meritocracy is a society in which an individual advances based on his or her achievements, accomplishments, and overall successes.  In a meritocracy, it doesn’t matter who your parents are, or what you inherit – it’s your achievements that determine your success.  In essence, it’s the American Dream.

In this novel, Christopher Hayes argues that America used to be a meritocracy – but that it’s quickly fading.  Why?
Well, a lot of reasons – but the big one is that, thanks to a whole new group of ways to give yourself and your future descendants a leg up, the deck often turns out to be heavily stacked.  Instead of everyone starting off on the same step, a couple individuals manage to start out several feet in front of the rest – or sometimes even almost at the finish line.

There are many examples of this at an individual level – and most of them benefit the rich.  If you’re rich, you can pay accountants to manage your money in trusts, so that it dodges taxes and is passed on to your heirs.  You can pay for elite kindergarten and elementary schools, so your kids get the best education.  You can pay your way into colleges and the workplace – if you need to work at all.  And, of course, you can pay to dodge taxes through a million little loopholes.

But why are all these avenues available in the first place?  Hayes argues that the real core reason is linked more to the decline of the social contract in America.  Instead of “all of us are in this together,” we have now become a selfish nation, one where it is perfectly acceptable to knock down your fellow man in order to get ahead yourself.  And this “us versus them” mentality appears everywhere – Wall Street, Major League Baseball, and even in the Catholic Church.

I greatly enjoyed the presentation of the topics in this book, and I wholeheartedly agree with Hayes.  The issue is, of course, that while many books can accurately display the problem, there are few solutions available.  We’re left with rage, but no outlet to improve things.

Frustrating, to say the least.  Pitchforks, everyone!

Time to read: 4-5 hours.

"When humans fear the sky…"

I staggered through the ruined streets, my breath coming hard and fast as I panted.  My legs were alight with fire, my tired muscles protesting, but I forced myself onward.

I didn’t know how much longer the patchy cloud cover would protect me.

Even as I ran, my eyes in constant motion as I scanned for any shelter, I felt the rays of the sun growing stronger as they cut apart the defending clouds.  In mere minutes, I would be exposed – and then, then I wouldn’t have any time left at all.

There!  Up ahead, I saw a building, large and built of heavy concrete.  The windows and doors were long gone, the building little more than a hollow shell, but it was enough to shield the sight of me from eyes above.  I sucked in one last breath, forced my aching lead feet to pick up the pace, and sprinted towards my potential salvation.

Only a hundred feet or so ahead.  I could make it.

But then, as I sprinted through the shin-high weeds that grew up through the cracks in the asphalt, I felt warmth grace my face.

Up ahead of me, the clouds finally gave up the ghost.  Sunlight, pure and unfiltered, streamed down to light patches on the ground.

“Oh no,” I muttered, with breath that I could ill afford to spare.

I couldn’t hear anything, of course, except the puffing of the air in my lungs.  But then again, no one ever heard anything – at least, not until after the dust had cleared and the chunks of unidentifiable material raining down had ceased.

Dead before the poor bastard even knew it was coming.

In my mind’s eye, however, I could see it happening, could hear the click as the titanium rod detached, starting its long plunge down towards oblivion on the surface of the planet below.  Thrown by a divine spear-carrier, that long pole was aimed with inhuman precision, directly towards me.

But the building was just a few more feet ahead of me.  Maybe, just maybe I could make it.  I didn’t know of anyone who had outrun a rod, but it certainly had to be possible.

“Rods from God,” the program had been called.  At least, that was the name that I knew.  Designed to target enemy combatants anywhere on the globe, the whole thing had gone sideways due to some sort of computer error, leaving the system unable to differentiate between friend and foe.

Thank god that the active software was an imperfect version; it didn’t recognize vehicles, and the heat-sensing capabilities hadn’t yet been activated.

If I could just make it back to the Crawler, I would be safe.  I had spent too long searching the abandoned city for treasures, but even the huge, growling engine couldn’t move the vehicle we all called home at much more than a couple miles per hour.  I could easily catch up-

-if I survived the Rods.

The building was just a few more feet in front of me.  I was going to make it!  But as I put on one last burst of speed, forcing bone-tired muscles to put out one last push of energy, I heard the sound behind me.

It turns out that the victim can hear the Rod coming, if only for a tiny fraction of a second.  It’s a high-pitched shriek, inhuman, on the edge of perception.  It’s the kind of scream that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

And an instant later, a giant’s hand reached out from behind me and shoved me forward, sweeping me off of my feet and sending me flying through the air.

Burning, scorching heat hit me from behind, singing my hair and crisping my skin.  I threw up my hands, but they weren’t enough to break my fall as I came tumbling into the building’s shell ahead of me.  My ears were deafened, and little black flecks blinked in and out of existence at the corners of my vision.

But a minute later, as I laboriously lifted myself up from the dirt-covered floor, I realized that I was still alive.

A glance behind me revealed a smoldering inferno where the Rod had hit.  For a moment, in the heart of the still-burning flames, I thought I saw a thin black line, still standing upright for a moment where it had embedded itself in the earth.  But then, a second later, the sight was lost behind waves of blinking, charred smoke.

I cautiously checked myself over.  I had definitely lost some hair, and the burns would hurt for weeks.  But I was alive, and nothing seemed broken.

And here, shielded from the sky, I was safe.

For the moment.

In the corner of the building, a pile of rubble appeared climbable.  From the top, perhaps I could spot the Crawler.

I’d have to brave the open sky once more to reach it, but I knew that to stay here was to wait for death.

Trapped between a slow, painful death and the sky, what choice did I have?

Danni California, Part 13

Continued from Part 12, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

I didn’t even bother to call this sighting of Danni in to the Organization.  I had too many other thoughts, too many other conflicting questions in my head to deal with first.

I couldn’t deny to myself that now I was obsessed.  There were others out there, after Danni, but I had to get to her first.  I was going to beat the rest of them out, no matter how much of me it took.

“But why?” asked the little voice in the back of my head, still slinking around at the periphery of my mind.  “Are you looking for her to kill her?  You’ve failed at that twice already.  And if you want her dead, why does it matter whether the bullet comes from your gun or from another’s?”

I didn’t have answers to those questions.  But I was still determined, driven despite not knowing why I was so motivated.

Now, although the girl was in the wind once again, I had a better idea of where she might be headed.  Since I had caught her, Danni had to know that the other hunters, ones who might just take a shot from afar, couldn’t be far behind.  She would be headed out of town as soon as possible.

Ordinarily, she’d probably take a car.  But that was how I had tracked her last time – and the girl was young enough, devious enough, to mix things up, to take a different approach.

Boulder City was the perfect place for her to do so.  The railroad, only recently completed, ran right through the city.

But which train would she be on?  I stared up at the list of departures at the station, trying to think like a young bank robber, high on life and living large while she still drew breath, knowing that any minute now her life could end from a bullet.  Where would she go?

I doubted that she’d head too far north.  Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas – they would be great places to hide, but that wasn’t what Danni was after.

She didn’t want to hide, I knew.  She wanted to keep on living, keep on chasing danger so that she would feel that rush.

She also wouldn’t be going back, back towards where she had already been.  I was fairly certain that I could discount most of the trains headed back east.  Why would she return, when she had already left that world behind?

There was one train, however, that fit all the criteria.  It was headed west, towards California through the mountains.  It had a luxury car attached, and I knew that Danni would want to ride in the highest class.  And most importantly, it was leaving in mere minutes.

I broke into a run, headed for that track.

I barely made the train, leaping up and on board just before, with a puff of smoke and the screech of many tons of metal grinding into motion, the machine began to move.  I ducked inside, not bothering to watch as we pulled out of the station.

Once on board the train, I began slowly moving up through the cars, my eyes peering into every corner and one hand tucked inside my coat, resting on the butt of my pistol.  I didn’t want to draw the weapon out into the open, where it could scare the other passengers – but as soon as I saw Danni, I would have my gun drawn on her.

The luxury carriage, an elegant cabin coupled to a drinks car, was up near the front of the train.  I made it through most of the other cars without any sign of Danni.  But when I stepped up to the window on the door leading into the luxury carriage, I caught a flash of bright red on the other side.

There she was.

I took a deep breath, drew my pistol out of its holster, and then, gun at my side, I threw open the door and stepped into the train car…

To be continued . . . 

Book 19 of 52: "Sham – How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless" by Steve Salerno

Last week, I was reading about the invisible poor in America.  This week, I’m reading about how the “self-help” movement has done terrible things to America.  C’mon, when does America get a break here?  And when do I get something upbeat to read?

Maybe I can find a way to help myself…
When Salerno addresses “self-help”, he’s referring to more than just those guidance books in the local Barnes & Noble.  The Self-Help movement includes everything from faith healers to get-rich-quick seminars to motivational speakers to Dr. Phil.  All of these different sources of information are full of advice on what you should or should not do in order to make every single problem in your life magically disappear.

We all know that they’re mostly full of crap.

But the origins and underpinnings of the Self-Help movement go deeper, Salerno insists.  He says that the origins of this corrupting influence rest with two philosophies, created back in the thirties and forties:

Victimization, where nothing is your fault.  Everything is a condition, a disease, out of your hands.  All bad things, that is.

Empowerment says that you can accomplish anything good that you set your mind to.  You can go out and conquer the world!

Of course, the real trouble comes when these two beliefs start mixing together.  “With our help, you can accomplish anything – and if you fail, it’s because you’re a victim of other forces conspiring against you!” claims the Self-Help movement, and you eagerly nod along as you hand over your credit card.

While I agree with most of what Salerno says, I don’t always agree with some of his conclusions.  Salerno tends to stray across the morality line a couple times, insinuating that moral beliefs should negatively reflect on a person’s skills or abilities.  While lack of morality might damage a person’s holistic image, an embezzler is not necessarily worse than his or her coworkers at an assigned task.

Overall, it’s a good – not great – read.  I would compare it to Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided”, calling them similar both in terms of the targets that they pick, and my overall feelings towards the books.

Time to read: 4 hours.  I read this one right before it was due back to the library, so I was under a deadline!

A mundane meal

I only noticed the man when he stood up to leave.

I didn’t see the green of any dollar bills on the man’s table, and I briefly wondered if he’d chosen to stiff me my tip.  Sure, I hadn’t provided great service, but it was a lazy Thursday, right in the middle of a mid-day lull.  I was just glad to be off my feet, knowing that the dinner rush was right around the corner.

A moment later, however, I remembered picking up the fake-leather check holder from the man’s table a few minutes earlier.  He had paid by credit card, hadn’t he?  One of those AmEx cards, the ones with the shiny blue square in the middle.

I remembered that the shiny sticker on the card had been worn nearly away.  Guy must keep it in his wallet next to something rough.  It had run through the little machine by our cash register with no problems, though.

I stood up, moving into the aisle to pass the man and clear his table.  Tommy was supposed to be bussing the dishes, but I knew that he was out back, taking his “smoke” break.  We all knew the truth about the kid, but no one said anything.  What would be the use?

The man didn’t look up as I passed him.  He had red hair, almost orange, a set of tight curls that covered his head.  He wore a suit, but the clothing looked worn and slightly ill-fitting.  Like his AmEx card, I thought.  Professional at one point, but ground down by the repetitive stress of life.

As I drew close to the table, I saw the man’s plate.  He’d enjoyed the meal, at least.  He had ordered a reuben, I remembered.  The dark brown crusts of the rye bread were still on the plate, along with a neat little pile of sauerkraut.  Guy must have scraped it off.

The fake leather billfold that held the check was lying open across the middle of the table.  I reached down for it, but my hand paused.

On the back of the receipt, using the blue Bic without a cap that I’d dropped off, the man had written a note.  His handwriting was messy, a loose scrawl, and I had to pick up the slip of paper and hold it up closer to my face.  My reading glasses were still back behind the counter.

“Out of diner number one hundred and four, this is the sixty-seventh where I’ve ordered this sandwich,” I read off, squinting.  “I’d call it mediocre, a little below the average.  For a better example, try Sampino’s out on the west coast.”

Beneath this strange note, there was a scrawl that was totally illegible – it looked like the man’s signature.  Sure enough, when i flipped the paper back over, it matched his signature on the line.

I don’t know what made me do it.  Maybe I had reached the breaking point, had snapped, lost it after too many years of food service.  I don’t know why.

But a moment later, I had spun around and was running towards the entrance of the restaurant, my lungs struggling to suck in air.  At least I was wearing flats, so I didn’t trip and fall on my face – but I must have looked a sight to behold, my apron strings flapping behind me.

I burst out the front door into the parking lot, spinning around.  The man, a few steps away, had paused beside his dark green, faded Toyota Camry, glancing up at me.  I locked eyes with him and hurried over.

“Why?” I asked him, the word coming out in a breathless pant.

“Why what?  I don’t understand,” the man said, finally looking up and at me.  His eyes were green.

“Why do you go to so many places, if you just order the same thing?” I asked, the words pouring out of my mouth without any conscious intervention from my brain.  “Why not try something new?  Why this, over and over?”

The man looked back at me.  Despite my heaving, heavy breathing, he didn’t seem bothered by this middle-aged waitress charging after him.  “Why do you do the same thing over and over?” he asked mildly, tilting his head slightly to one side.

I opened my mouth hotly, but I was out of words.  For several seconds, the two of us just looked at each other, one of us panting and out of breath from a reckless sprint, the other one curiously calm.

“When will you be back?”  I don’t know why I cared, but I suddenly needed to know.

The man shrugged.  “Perhaps tomorrow.”

“Meatball,” I told him.  “Try that sub.  It’s better.”

The man nodded, and for just a moment, I thought I saw the slightest hint of a smile flicker across his face.  “I’ll do that,” he replied.

I stood there, watching him drive away, out of our parking lot.

Sometimes, it’s the little, most mundane moments that we remember above all others.

Danni California, Part 12

Continued from Part 11, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

I stared up at the fiery-haired girl on the floor above me.  Danni’s gun aimed right at my face, and I knew that my time had run out.

“Sorry, but it’s you or me,” the girl repeated – and before I could even open my mouth, her finger tightened.  She pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked.


For a good second, longer than I’d admit to anyone, we both held there, frozen.  The gun had clicked over on the round – a misfire.

If I had moved right then, I could have moved back, maybe dodged the next shot.

If Danni pulled the trigger a second time, the next round in her .45 would have gone through my skull.

But neither of us moved.  We just held still, staring at each other in mutual disbelief.

It seemed to go on forever, but finally, the spell was broken.  I let go of Danni’s ankle and scrambled back, at the same time as she kicked her foot free and clambered up to her feet.  We were both back up on our feet, but thinking more of defense than attack.

Now up and standing, but still close enough to each other that either of us could reach out and touch the other, we stared at each other once again.  I could maybe try and tackle her, knock the gun out of her hands before she could get off a shot, my tactical training told me.  I knew that I had about a fifty-fifty shot of managing to avoid a bullet in someplace lethal.

But before I could move, Danni did.  She darted forward, pushing the gun up against my ribs as she leaned into me.

And before I could react, I felt the lightest brush of her lips against my face.

Before I could grab her, the girl danced back, pushing off of me and kicking me off balance as she darted backwards.  “Better luck next time, Priest!” she called after me, as she disappeared out of the hotel’s front door.

I could have lunged for my own gun, still lying on the floor.  I can reload my pistol in seconds while at a dead run.  By the time I was through the doors of the hotel and outside, my own weapon would be fully loaded and ready to bring the girl down.  She couldn’t outrun a bullet.

Instead, I stayed frozen, standing there amid the wreckage of the lobby.  Ever so slowly, one of my hands lifted up to touch where her lips had brushed against the corner of my mouth.

Finally, a thought managed to work its way through the haze and mist in my mind, yelling and shouting to make itself clear.

The Organization isn’t going to be happy about this, it whispered to me darkly.

It was true.  I needed to send back a telegraph with my report.  The Organization had given me a pass last time I failed to bring down the girl, but they wouldn’t accept two failures in a row.  This meant an Organization-wide bounty on the girl – and every Priest in the area would perk up and think about going after her.

If I wanted to redeem myself, I’d have to beat them all out and find the girl myself, before they could do the same.

As I slowly labored over to pick up my gun from the floor, still feeling a twinge of pain pierce up from my abdomen with each step, I felt my resolve harden.  I knew my skills, and I knew that I could find Danni first.

But a dark thought in my head perked up, uncoiling in my mind like a snake.  “But why are you so set on finding her first?” it asked me in a soft hiss.

To prove myself, to redeem myself, I told that intruding thought.  If I didn’t find Danni, I was likely to be demoted, if not fired.  And the Organization had very strong views on how it terminated its employees when they were no longer capable.

“Is that truly why you want to find her?” that dark thought in my head pressed.  “When you catch up to her again, will you be able to kill her?”

Or what?

The black snake hissed impatiently.  “Do you truly want to kill her?  Or are you searching for her so you can protect her?”

Protect her?  As if this girl had somehow completely shaken my core, my sense of who I was?  I shook with outrage at the suggestion.

Yet somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to answer that dark thought in my head.  Instead, I remained mute as it, satisfied, crawled back into the depths beneath my consciousness.

To be continued . . . 

Book 18 of 52: "The Working Poor: Invisible in America" by David Shipler

Wow.

That’s what I had to say at several points in this book, physically putting the book down and staring up at the ceiling.  Wow.

Never before, in reading a book, have I been so grateful for my comfortable life – and scared for my fellow man – as I felt when reading David Shipler’s epic chronicle of the lives of America’s working poor.

From immigrants to perennial members of the urban ghettos, Shipler paints little pictures of life below the poverty line.  From illegal immigrants who are treated basically as indentured servants on a farm, to stressed urban single mothers who work three jobs and are still falling behind, each chapter offers a new and heartbreaking look into the lives of the lower class.

Some of the statistics in this book are truly heartbreaking.  Shipler doesn’t do a lot of finger-pointing or chastising, and instead merely shows us what is present.  In a way, that seems almost worse – the man lets us draw our own conclusions about ourselves for letting our fellow humans suffer.  The conclusions are not good.

(David Shipler, by the way, has won a Pulitzer Prize, and it definitely shows in his writing.  Making this book especially hard-hitting is simply how well the book itself is written.)

In each chapter, Shipler begins by giving us an optimistic view – but just as we feel our hope begins to flutter, he brings it crashing back down to earth with the cold, hard, viciously cruel facts.

For anyone who claims that there is no depth of poverty that cannot be escaped through hard work and the “good ol’ American spirit,” this book will change their mind – and likely strip them of whatever optimism they once possessed.

I recommend it to everyone.

Time to read: Although only 300 pages, it is incredibly dense, and every chapter requires hours of thought to truly digest the horror within the pages.  This probably took me a full week to read.

The Hop Off of Earth

“There you are!” my roommate shouted out, making me jump halfway out of my chair as he burst into my room.  “Come on, mate, I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

Trying to force my heart to calm back down, I spun around to stare at him in confusion and frustration.  “What the hell, Lex?” I burst out, glad at least that there was nothing too offensive displayed on the screen of my computer.

Lex, however, didn’t even spare a glance at the computer as he dashed forward, reaching out to grab my hand.  “Come on, we don’t have time for squabbling!” he practically yelled in my ear as he bodily pulled me up out of the chair.  “We have to go!”

“What are you talking about?” I shouted back, trying to pull free of the man’s grip.  His fingers were like iron, however, and he resolutely tugged me towards the door of my room, even as I tried to sink in my heels.

The man didn’t reply out loud, but he thrust his wrist out at me, as if this would answer all my questions.  I looked down blankly at it.

Lex always wore a large, bulky, rubber-edged digital watch. I assumed that it was one of those fancy models that simultaneously tracked his motion, heart rate, bowel movements, and any other meaningful statistics.  I occasionally found the man sitting in our crappy little living room with the watch plugged into his computer, and I assumed that he was syncing it up or something.

Right now, however, the watch’s face displayed a series of flickering numbers, constantly shifting.  Half of them looked more like alien hieroglyphics than actual numbers, but some sort of activity was definitely happening.

“What?  I don’t know what that means,” I complained, as the man pulled me out into the hallway and down towards the stairs.

“It means that we’re in deep flarg, that’s what it means!” Lex snapped back at me.  He took a moment to look down at the watch himself.  “Now look, do you have your exit kit prepped?”

“Exit kit?  What?”

The man rolled his eyes.  “Yes, you know, the basics!  Toothbrush, seashells, chocolate, bowler hat?”

I just stared back at him.  “There’s, uh, some chocolate in the kitchen?” I suggested weakly.

“Well, go grab that!” Lex yelled at me, shoving me away in the general direction of the kitchen.  “And find a hat!”

Still confused, I stumbled into the kitchen.  Not quite sure why I was doing this, I rummaged through the pantry cupboard until I located a few sad Hershey’s bars that had managed to escape the post-Halloween feasting a couple months previously.  I shoved them into a tote bag, and then, on impulse, also pulled a baseball cap off of the hook by the back door.

As I stuffed the cap into the tote bag, Lex came bounding into the kitchen, triumphantly holding aloft something small and shiny.  “Good – we’re almost out of time!” he called to me, as he ran for the back door.

“Out of time before what?” I asked, still feeling bewildered.

“Before we miss our exit window!  Now come on!”  In front of the back door, the man shoved the small, glinting key in his hand into the knob, turning it as he twisted the door.

I opened my mouth to tell my roommate that the door was unlocked – I could see that from the deadbolt above the knob.  But as my roommate opened the door, the words died, unspoken, in my mouth.

I knew our back yard quite well.  It was fairly small, mostly just dead grass.  Over in the corner was my attempt from last summer to try and start a vegetable plot; I hadn’t managed to grow anything except for a denser patch of weeds than the rest of the yard.  Now, there wasn’t much left except for some plastic stakes and a rusting shovel that I’d borrowed from someone and never returned.

When I opened the back door, I could always see down the couple of steps into that patch of dirt, bordered by the tall wooden fence that separated us from our neighbors next door.

But now, when Lex opened the back door, I did not see our back yard.

Instead, I was staring into a dark and dim expanse that looked like the inside of an industrial storehouse.  Large stacks of mysterious objects formed pillars stretching up towards a high ceiling, their contents shadowed and shrouded.

“Wha?” I choked out, wondering if I was going crazy.

But next to me, Lex looked overjoyed.  “Yes!  Now come on, the bridge will only hold a few seconds!” he shouted – and lunged forward, pulling me with him through the door!

I tried to protest, but I could either make a noise, or resist his pull, but not both.  A sad bleat slipped out of my mouth, but I was half-tugged, half-dragged in through the doorway, into this mysterious and alien scene on the other side.

A second after we had stepped across the doorway, I heard the door slam shut behind us.

Once on the other side, my legs suddenly felt incredibly odd, and I felt my ankles slip out from under me.  I tumbled down onto the floor, landing in a sprawled pile of limbs.

“Lex, what the hell is going-” I began, as I pulled myself up.

As I looked behind me, however, I once again lost my voice.

The door through which we had just passed, the door leading back to my rental house’s kitchen, was no longer there.  Instead, I found myself staring down a seemingly infinite hallway, flanked by hundreds more of these pillar piles of stacked boxes and other items I couldn’t name.

“Oh good, we made it,” Lex commented next to me, sounding relieved.  “Here, let’s get up and find a spot to stow away before one of the crew-“

“Hralgharh?”

The noise sounded like a sadly obese older man attempting to gargle a too-large swig of mouthwash.  I turned towards the direction of the sound, feeling ice-cold horror flood my veins.

From out behind one of the pillars, a massive… something had crawled.  My best description of the thing would be a giant knot of worms, if each of those worms had a single large eyeball and a beard of electric blue hair.  From somewhere inside the wriggling mass, the creature made the gargling noise again.

Next to me, Lex hopped up lightly to his feet.  “Just a moment, good sir!” he called out to the nightmare, pasting a wide smile across his face and reaching down to haul me up to my own feet beside him.

“Lex, I – what – how – who,” I stammered out, my mind desperately trying to cling to the last shreds of sanity.

“No worries, mate, no worries,” Lex whispered to me, the smile still spread wide across his face.  “By the way, did you happen to grab any chocolate?”

Chocolate.  Yes.  This was the first thought I could actually understood.  Mutely, I reached into the tote bag and pulled out one of the candy bars.

“Perfect.  He’ll probably scalp us on the exchange rate, but we’ll kick ourselves for that later,” Lex murmured back to me.  And then, before I could respond, he held the bar out to the giant worm-ball in front of us!

From the mass of tentacles, a smaller, slimmer appendage slid out and wrapped around the candy bar, pulling it from Lex’s hand.  The creature made another noise, this one sounding more like the same sad obese man as he tried to climb into an overly full bathtub.

“Great!  We’ll just head down to the mess hall, shall we?  My buddy here could use a few hits of Karnquatz juice,” Lex called cheerfully up to the worm-ball monstrosity as it turned and trundled away.  “Thanks for having us!”

After I was fairly confident that the worm-ball wasn’t about to lunge back and devour us somehow, I turned to Lex.  “What?” I asked him, doing my best to imbue that single word with all the incomprehension and confusion that filled my head.

“No worries, mate,” he replied, looping his hand through my arm and gently walking me down one of the corridors.  “Get some juice into you, and you’ll feel right as rain!”

“I don’t want to feel right as rain!”  I burst out, even as he walked me away.  “I want to go home!”

For a moment, a cloud passed across my roommate’s features.  “That, um, that might be a little tricky,” he said, a note of somberness in his voice.

“Why??”

“Well, it doesn’t exist,” Lex commented, looking a little uncomfortable.  But then, his expression perked up once again.  “But hey!  We made it off before the wipe, and this ship might have Karnquatz juice.  Things could be worse!”