Thursday, October 30, 2014

Friday Flash Fiction: The Disease

This week's challenge from (author Chuck Wendig) was to write a horror story about a disease, just in time for Halloween. I think this one is horrible enough (no snide comments, you in the back!).


It took the old first, and people accepted that they were relieved as well as saddened. Food was in short supply, with little to spare for those who were past contributing. When the disease began to move among the children, the grief was greater. Some saw it as sparing them the slow death by starvation, mental and physical, that seemed the doom of the colony.

The disease itself was not so horrible, Marda thought. The old grew feverish, stopped eating, and wasted away in a few days. She didn’t say it aloud, because it sounded absurd, but she thought that they just lost the will to live. Maybe they had.

It looked more sinister in the children. They, too, grew mildly feverish, but with them it was not so much that they lost the will to live, as that they lost any kind of will at all. The first a parent might notice was a child who became silently obedient. The initial response of many was to rejoice at how well-behaved their child was. Then the parent would notice the child said nothing, did nothing unless directly commanded. They showed no initiative, not even enough to eat or drink. Within two days, the fever set in, and the next the child ceased to speak or move. Death by starvation followed. If they were medically fed, they only lived long enough to lose the will to breathe.

“For all that,” Marda told her partner, Erno, “death is better than life as an automaton.” She was thinking of the last stage before the fever.

Erno had seen what Marda was afraid to say. “The only ones who aren’t getting sick are the ones who are too dull to think for themselves anyway.”

“It kills any who show a will,” Marda whispered, horrified. “It’s as though the disease is selecting for a world of mindless drones.”

Marda returned to that thought in the following weeks. The disease spread among the children. It responded to no treatment, no containment strategy. If a child was dull-witted and docile, no exposure resulted in illness. And no efforts at quarantine could prevent a bright, quick and curious child from falling ill. A few recovered, after a fashion.

It was while treating these listless, obedient shells of children that Marda broke down. “We’re being culled!” she told Erno. “We’ll soon have no one left with the brains to do anything original.”

He nodded. “And have you noticed who’s getting pregnant and who’s not?”

She had told herself it was only that the smarter and wiser among them would not try to reproduce while this disease ravaged the colony. Erno wouldn’t let her believe it. “Kim and Lee can’t get pregnant. Tom and Erika lost their baby.” He listed a dozen other couples, all leaders and scientists. “We started testing. They are all sterile. We are all sterile.”

“What kind of disease selects for stupidity and dull-wittedness?”

He shrugged. “One that prefers sheep to sheepdogs.”

They sat and stared together into a future that was no future.

The disease had spread over the whole planet, despite the complete separation of the two populations. The planet was not large, and there were only two habitable land masses, each colonized separately. As they had quickly reached their carrying capacity, the two populations had severed all ties; it was the only way to keep their uneasy peace.

Marda hoped that old enmity would have kept the other colony safe, but radio communications from the other continent crushed that hope. All their efforts to find a cure had failed as well.

Efforts to cure the disease were hampered by those who saw children recover and believed the crisis had passed. Marda saw only that no one among her friends had a living child, though a few acquaintances had been left with the hollow husk of a formerly sparkling son or daughter. Some of those whose children “recovered” were unable to bear life with the shell of a person. Others rejoiced that their child was spared, and some boasted of their well-behaved offspring.

Marda had to stop visiting such friends, after she had screamed at one proud mother, “Don’t you see? That’s not a child, it’s a machine! She’s not alive, she’s just breathing!” Erno had had to pull her off the weeping parent. After that, they stopped going out. Their whole group lived in the lab anyway, though with less and less hope. They were past the point where a vaccine could do any good, and they had little hope for an actual cure. Yet against all reason they held onto hope, or at least the habit of working.

That lasted until the day when Tom turned from his computer to ask a question, and saw Kim sitting, staring into space with a vacant smile. “Kim! What is it? Do you have an idea?” he asked in desperate hope.

She didn’t turn, or even blink, just sat. A question was not a command.

The next day Kim had a fever, and her partner, Lee, sat starting blankly, moving only as told. They set him to bathing Kim’s face, resorting in their desperation to ancient ways of reducing a fever, for whatever good it would do.

When Lee, too, began to run a fever and ceased moving, the remainder of their little group knew what the future held. The Disease—they had begun to think of it as the Farmer—had selected those to keep, and it was culling the others.

“Do we wait for it?” Marda asked the question in all their minds. “Do we wait to turn into mindless husks and die of starvation because we lack even the will to eat?”

“No.” Tom said, Erno’s echo only an instant behind.

Erika said nothing, but held out her hand. On her palm lay four capsules. No one spoke as each took and swallowed the only cure they had found. They would not stay to see the end.

The Farmer had won.

Copyright Rebecca M. Douglass 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hiking the High Sierra

October is getting old, and in many places fall is moving in on us. Frosty nights, rain (what's that?), and time for hot cocoa and fires (it's been ridiculously hot here. I can only dream about fires and cocoa. More like fans and iced tea).  So I figured it's time for a photo essay from my trip to the Sierra Nevada back in early September.

This was a novelty for me--I left my guys at home to fend for themselves and went off for a week backpacking with a couple of friends.  I began with the long drive to Bishop in the Owens Valley, and spent a night in the highest campground close to our meeting point.

A tent, a car, and a table full of stuff to put in my pack!
We started from North Lake, where the aspens were just beginning to turn color. The Sierra crest looked a long way up, so I focused on the small stuff.
Aspen shadows on the granite.

A late start and an easy hike, and we were lunching at Lower Lamarck Lake, and looking up to where we'd go the next day.

A lake, some sun, a lot of granite...another great day in the Sierra Nevada.

To my surprise, as we climbed toward Lamarck Col the second day, there were even a few flowers out. Most of them are done by the first week of September, but alpine plants don't waste any possible growing and spreading time.

Columbine at about 11,000'
It was a long climb to the Col, with a lot of false summits and a lot of snack breaks (that's my style of hiking!). Since the Col is nearly 13,000' not much grows up there!
Sacked out but not done.
Felt like total triumph when we topped out not long after lunch. Despite our best efforts, we didn't lose the trail on the way up--even though I didn't think there was even supposed to be a trail. What we didn't know was how long it would take to make our way down into Darwin Canyon and along the lakes. There was mostly a route down from the col (as advertised--the surprise was the constructed trial most of the way up the east side), and along the lakes trail alternated with boulder fields.

Notice how the color of the lakes darkens as you go down--the glacial silt settles out, leaving them less green and more blue.
By late afternoon we were happy to find a flat spot, with water and a place for Zeke to hang his hammock. One nice thing about September, there were no bugs to prevent us enjoying the evening light.
Day Three, and more sun and blue skies. We had to find our way down off the Darwin Bench and onto the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail, wending our way through meadows and past classic Sierra lakes before we started scrambling down dubious routes through cliffy areas.
There are so many beautiful little lakes up there that they don't all even have names.
After a harrowing descent we stopped beneath an amazing white bark pine for second breakfast. Yes, I eat like a hobbit when hiking: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon coffee break (no coffee, but food and rest), dinner (with soup, entrée and dessert).
White bark pine. Love the color of the trunk on these ancient trees.
Once we hit the JMT, hiking was much faster, except for the photo stops as we made our way along Evolution Lake. That has to be one of the most beautiful lakes I've seen. The photo doesn't do it justice. Next time, I'm going to spend a night there so I can get morning and evening photos.

Evolution Lake
After lunch and a nap (oh, did I forget to mention that part of Hobbit life?), we reached our destination at Wanda Lake by mid-afternoon. This was definitely in the alpine, and there was lots of wind. It took a while to find a somewhat sheltered camp with room for 3 people to spread out.

Wanda Lake camp, with my shelter in front, Zeke's back against the rocks. Zack was 'cowboy camping' up in the rocks.
The wind didn't die all night, but I was able to find some protected puddles for the evening photos.
Granite, anyone?
Morning at Wanda Lake
Our 4th day we left Wanda Lake and climbed just a few hundred feet to Muir Pass, where a hut, built in the 1930s, offers shelter for a summit break (and overnight shelter only for those caught in life-threatening storms). The wind seems to blow eternally through the pass, so that I suspect the men who built the hut were glad when the walls grew high enough to offer some shelter.
The inside of the beehive roof.

The hut exterior. From only a short distance away the hut blends completely with the mountain.
The day's climb was short, but it was followed by nearly 3000' of downhill, which is no joke for old knees and feet.
Heading down into  LaConte Canyon
When the main descent was done, we were happy to take a break and soak the lower appendages in the icy water of the Kings River.

As is the way of mountains, our trail the next day led us on to regain the elevation we lost the previous day. The long climb from the Kings River to Dusy Basin took all day, and took us through a range of terrain.
Dusy Creek slides over the granite slab for several hundred feet, in the biggest waterslide ever, though not one I'd care to ride!
Sierra juniper, ancient trees that, like the bristlecone, live for centuries and take eons to grow in inhospitable places.

It had rained in the night, and clouds kept us cool all the way up the climb, twice moving in to shower heavily. We just deployed a tarp, hung out, and let the storms blow by while eating (of course) and telling tales of  adventures past.

Rain shafts moving across the canyon toward us.
It took all day, and we were getting cold and tired before we found camp, and rode out one last shower before the storm blew itself off and we were left with a beautiful evening.
Camped by an unnamed lake in Dusy Basin.

In the morning, the sky was completely clear, the air completely calm, and me near completely frozen. I got up early anyway for the photos.

A morning spent exploring the Dusy Basin yielded many treasures, like this lake, where we had intended to camp.
Lake 11,893
We were also greeted by a marmot, who posed for us for quite a while.

Portrait of the writer in her favored habitat.

After lunch, we packed up camp and headed on over Bishop Pass, a few miles closer to the cars. I had a meeting to be at the next day, so I enjoyed the evening light, and was up at dawn to hike out.

I always am happy to see the car at the end of a trip--nice to see it's still there, and in one piece! In this case, since I had started early and hiked fast, arriving at 8:45 a.m., the car was also covered with frost I had to scrape off before I could drive! A shower at the nearby pack station, a cup of good coffee from a cafe in Bishop, and I was ready to drive back home.

The last of my summer adventures, and a mountain fix to last me until spring!

©Rebecca M. Douglass

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mystery Monday: Dixie Divas


Title: Dixie Divas
Author: Virginia Brown. Read by Karen Commins
Publisher:  Belle Books, 2012 (audio). Original published Bell Bridge Books 2009, 308 pages.
Source: Free review copy given by the narrator

Publisher's Summary: 
Wine. Chocolate. Transvestite strippers. Just another good-time get-together for the Dixie Divas of historic Holly Springs, Mississippi, where moonlight and magnolias mingle with delicious smalltown scandal. But Eureka "Trinket" Truevine, the newest Diva, gets more than she bargained for when she finds her best Diva girlfriend Bitty Hollandale's ex-husband in Bitty's hall closet. He's dead. Very dead. Now Trinket and the Divas have to help Bitty finger the murderer and clear her name. 

If I live to be a thousand, I don't think I'll ever understand the Southern Belle.* Fortunately, that isn't necessary to enjoy this fast-moving and slightly absurd story. Trinket is an engaging narrator, just enough of an outsider after 25 years away from Holly Springs to allow her to comment on local customs. She is also not, as she wryly notes, a belle, possibly because she has too much common sense, though that deserts her at just about every crucial moment in the book. The writing is sharp, but I did have some issues with the story, which required just a little too much suspension of disbelief, not to mention annoyance at foolish if not downright stupid behavior (which of course isn't necessarily unrealistic). I nearly quit reading (listening) when the Divas started moving the corpse around, but was glad I stuck it out, as this violation of the law (if not of decency--I don't think the dead guy deserved any better) was dealt with at least somewhat realistically, and the mystery was resolved in an interesting and reasonably convincing way. The denouement wrapped things up well, without leaving any bad feelings.

This wasn't the best mystery I read this year by a long shot, but the story was engaging and was well-read by Ms. Commins, who managed a wider range of southern accents than this northwesterner knew existed and did a good job of keeping the characters distinct and consistent, though the secondary Divas blended together a bit, which didn't really matter.

For die-hard fans of the southern belle mystery, and are willing to deal with a bit of unreasonable behavior. There is a decent sense of place and history, which I found appealing.

*I in fact don't really understand most females, which can be a bit awkward at times, as I am one.

Full Disclosure: I was given a copy of  Dixie Divas by the narrator in exchange for my honest, not my favorable, review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."