QSFer John Inman has a new MM sci fi book out: Nightfall.
Joe Chase and Ned Bowden are damaged men. They each bear scars from surviving the world they were born in. Deep scars, both physical and emotional.
When fate offers its first kind act by bringing the two together, suddenly their scars don’t seem so bad, and their lives don’t feel so empty.
Yet that kindness comes at a price.
Just as Joe and Ned begin to experience true happiness for the very first time, the world turns on them again.
But this time it turns on everyone.
ON JUNE 24 at 1400 hours Greenwich Mean Time, all aircraft flying above 26,000 feet were diverted to lower elevations due to a sudden bombardment of high-energy charged particles into the uppermost tiers of the atmosphere. These high-energy charged particles, brought about by disruptions on the surface of the sun, created dangerous levels of cancer-inducing radiation that could penetrate the fuselage of a plane as easily as microwaves piercing a TV dinner.
This was not the first time a solar storm had caused commercial and military flights to be rerouted, nor the first time satellite reception worldwide was disrupted, consequently requiring extensive recalibration to correct the damage incurred by such an event. Little mention was made of this in the news or in scientific circles, since after all, while rare, a solar storm is not an unheard of occurrence. And who, after all, did it truly inconvenience other than several thousand airline passengers? A few pilots and air-traffic controllers perhaps, a handful of satellite maintenance personnel.
Consequently, this was not the first time scientists would blithely ignore the potential for destruction generated by such a storm in space.
It was, however, the first time they would come to regret that decision.
THE FULL moon hung low in the summer sky, bloated, pale, and somehow oddly tinged with pink. It shone through the shifting treetops like a watchful, bulging eye staring down the world below. It radiated evil intent, that damnable moon, and Ned Bowden, for one, was tired of it hanging over his head. It was like the red-rimmed eye of a hawk, that moon, poised to attack at the least sign of movement. And Ned was the poor, puny bunny rabbit trembling in the weeds, cowering among the shadows, waiting for the stab of talons and the first terrifying sensation of flight as those piercing claws dragged him skyward, kicking and screaming, toward a slow, devouring, blood-drenched death.
On the other hand, Ned was standing in a forested canyon, and the moon provided the only light by which to navigate, so he kept telling himself he should be thankful for its guidance. Otherwise he would be tripping over logs, banging his head on low-hanging branches, or tumbling down embankments as he followed a nearly invisible path through the trees—as he followed a path toward the only spark of happiness his miserable little life was offering at the moment.
That spark of happiness was named Joe. Joe Chase.
As the path began to climb again and Ned eventually crested a hill, he whirled toward a sound on the dusty trail behind him. Was it the echo of his own footsteps, or was it something else? Someone stalking him perhaps? A predator?
Shuddering, Ned pushed that thought away as quickly as he could.
He gazed around. From here he could see the shimmering San Diego skyline, winking at him through the pines. He stood motionless, a little breathless from the climb, the dead pine needles still crunching under his feet as he nervously shifted his weight. He leaned forward and tipped his head to the side, listening.
But for the distant hum of late-night traffic, Balboa Park was as still as death. Not a promising simile by any stretch of the imagination.
The screech of a howler monkey split the darkness, and Ned jumped. Then he laughed. Just past the trees and across the Cabrillo Freeway, which threaded a path through the valley below, sprawled the San Diego Zoo and its one hundred acres of imprisoned wildlife. On a night such as this, when the dew-moistened air lay still upon the earth, their cries could be heard for miles around. The screeching laughter of hyenas, the howl of dingoes, the piercing roar and wail of the big cats—all carnivorous beasts who would never see their homelands again, feel the spring of natural grass beneath their paws, or experience the joy of stalking their own twitching dinners. Poor things.
And again Ned laughed. He laughed because only moments before he had been thinking he might become some creature’s twitching dinner.
Joe was right when he teased Ned about being a city boy. Ned was a city boy, through and through. Even a late-night stroll across Balboa Park in the moonlight to meet his best friend was enough to leave him a quivering pile of jangled nerves. Bunny rabbit indeed.
Ned stood on the shadowy path, barely able to see his hand in front of his face. Behind him, through the trees, still shone the diamond sparks of the city skyline. In the other direction hovered that beautiful, scaryass moon.
He froze, as off in the trees to his left, he heard the crunch of footsteps again. His heart did a somersault because this time they most certainly were not his own. Maybe it was some homeless person. Maybe it was some homicidal homeless person. Yikes.
“Joe?” Ned whispered—a tremulous hiss. “Is that you?”
No answer. Standing as stiff as a fence post, he waited a minute longer. Still no answer.
As silently as he could, Ned turned and resumed his walk, as much to continue his forward progress as to evade those encroaching footsteps. It wouldn’t be the first time Ned Bowden had found himself running from shadows. It wouldn’t be the first time he felt niggling fingers of fear creeping up his spine.
Something about the darkness had begun to bother Ned lately. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was. He hadn’t mentioned it to Joe, of course, or anyone else for that matter. Good grief, Ned was twenty-eight. The last thing he wanted Joe to think was that he was afraid of the dark.
Even if he was.
Ned had other things in his life bothering him too, but those were happier things. Astonishing things. Those were things he could barely tolerate to think about because they filled him with such a rush of joyous hope. It was an uphill battle keeping them tamped down enough to prevent himself from grinning like a sap and breaking into song every five minutes. Ned didn’t need that. People thought he was crazy enough.
Ned followed the hiking trail down another slope, this time toward the deep canyon that cut the park in half from one end to the other. Eventually, he burst through the trees and stepped out onto the footbridge spanning the canyon and the freeway below. A few scattered cars were whizzing by underneath, as if scurrying past with their tails tucked beneath their legs, knowing they would catch it when they got home for staying out so late.
Ned almost giggled at the thought.
The footbridge was walled and roofed with heavy mesh wiring, totally enclosing the structure to prevent sad people from jumping off. Every time Ned stepped out onto the bridge he cast a gentle prayer skyward, thanking the person who had decided to do that. Because frankly, before the astonishing, happier things began to dwell in Ned’s damaged little brain, he thought he might have been one of those sad people who would be tempted to take a swan dive into the traffic below.
Happily, his days of thinking such thoughts were now past. Ned touched the scar hidden among the waves of blond hair at the side of his head and gave it a squeamish prod. The scar had been there for years, but still he treated it as if it were new, as if it had only recently been carved there, as if he could still feel the scabs and stitches of his long recovery from it. Nowadays, of course, it was simply an old wound, one that had reluctantly released Ned from its pain long before. Why he treated the scar as if it still carried the potential to hurt him, Ned wasn’t quite sure. Respect, maybe. And a touch of trepidation, possibly, since who knew when the damaged nerve endings might decide to roar back to screaming life like a sleeping volcano shaking itself awake if Ned didn’t treat them with the proper humility.
Still, that was doubtful, wasn’t it? The injury had occurred so long ago. Back when he was sixteen. Back when he was still in high school, a dozen years ago.
The memory of his injury, like the scar itself, Ned also treated with respect and a touch of superstitious fear. And shame, of course. Always shame. He never talked about it. Even Joe didn’t know the story behind the scar. Not only did Ned never mention it, he tried never to think about it either.
Sometimes he even succeeded. For a while.
Ned glanced at his wristwatch and saw that he was early, so he dallied on the footbridge. He leaned his forehead against the cool wire mesh and stared down at the cars zooming past below. Standing there made him feel like one of the animals in the zoo, peering out through the bars of its cage. Longing to be a part of the world outside. The world it used to know. The world it used to own.
Ned had once felt caged in that world as well, although he had to admit he was enjoying his freedom more and more since he took the tiny ground-floor studio apartment on Kalmia Street and struck up a friendship with his next-door neighbor, Joe. Well, actually, he hadn’t struck up the friendship. Joe had. And that, Ned only recently decided, was the most astonishing item of all on that long list of wondrous things Ned found himself contemplating so much these days.
With his forehead pressed to the cool mesh, and his gentle, prodding fingertip still idly stroking the scar at the side of his head, Ned closed his eyes and listened to the bombarding sounds of life flooding over him. The whoosh and roar of traffic. The keening wail of another dingo somewhere off in the distance. The hushed rush of his own blood sluicing through his veins. The lazy patter of his heartbeat thumping beneath his ribs. The rattle of the wire mesh surrounding him. The way it thrummed against his skin when a big truck zoomed past below. The sound of the night breeze merrily rustling pine boughs at either end of the bridge, like cheerleaders waving their pompoms high above their heads.
And oddly enough, the sound of the darkness. It was so deep, so profound, it could almost be heard as well. With that thought, Ned bit down hard on his fear and forced a smile. His smile widened when he remembered a short conversation uttered only hours before.
“Are you sure you want to meet me after work and walk me home?”
“Sure, Joe. Why not. I like our walks.”
“Well then, where shall we meet? On the little footbridge in the trees, in the spooky, monster-riddled darkness of the woods, or up above on Cabrillo Bridge, where the streetlights will keep you safe from all the boogeymen hoping to gobble you up because you’re just so damned tasty.”
Ned had rolled his eyes, hoping he looked brave. “There are no boogeymen, and I’m not that tasty. I’ll meet you on the path. Down by the little footbridge.”
Joe had given him a teasing wink with one of his beautiful hazel eyes. “Well, if you’re sure. Wouldn’t want you to be scared now.”
“Ass,” Ned had muttered, blushing, while Joe howled with laughter.
So here Ned was, waiting for his friend on the shadowy little footbridge like he said he would. And while he waited, he watched the cars slide past below like antelope fleeing a predator that was hot on their heels, coming to snatch them into oblivion.
Ned would have felt braver on the big bridge up above, in the safety of the streetlights and the traffic, but there were always people there. These moments when he met Joe after work on the silent paths meandering through the trees and hillsides in Balboa Park were more intimate. They had each other to themselves.
Here on the dusty trails in the darkness under the trees, Ned didn’t have to share Joe with anyone.
That thought filled Ned with such a rush of longing, he actually clutched at his heart and squeezed his eyes shut so he could savor the feeling.
Then, slowly, he opened his eyes again. Lifting his head, he studied that fat, creepy moon up above. It hung there like a big fat BOSU ball slathered with cream cheese. The Cabrillo Bridge loomed overhead too, massive, its masonry a century old, cracked in places, flooded with lights, dwarfing the shadowy little footbridge below. Dwarfing Ned as well.
Just as Ned felt dwarfed when he stood in Joe’s shadow. After all, Joe was six two. Ned was a squirt next to him, barely topping out at five seven. To see Joe’s smile, Ned always had to tilt his head back and look up. Not that he minded. Nope. He didn’t mind at all. And sometimes when they laughed together, Joe would reach out and stroke a warm hand through the hair on Ned’s arms or brush the nape of Ned’s neck with tickling fingertips. Ned didn’t mind that either.
He glanced at his watch again. Should he wait here for Joe, or should he climb the next hill toward the back fence that bordered the zoo, where Joe would slip through at the end of his shift?
San Diego’s Balboa Park was only a hundred acres smaller than the 1,300 acres of Central Park in New York City. Ned knew this because he had googled it with the computer at the public library. And like Central Park, Balboa Park was tucked neatly into the very heart of a great city. The apartment complex where Ned and Joe lived side by side stood at the western edge of the park. Back before Joe had entered his life, Ned had spent long hours standing at his apartment window on the first floor, observing the trees and the strolling passersby, feeling lonely, feeling as if he didn’t belong to the world he was forever gazing out upon.
But Joe had changed all that. Joe was his friend now. And Ned still couldn’t believe how much Joe’s friendship had changed his life.
Sometimes Ned wondered if maybe Joe was a little damaged himself. He didn’t have a scar on his head like Ned, but maybe Joe’s damage was deeper, hidden down inside where it couldn’t be seen. Why else would he have sought out a friendship with Ned? Joe was handsome and strong and tall and kind—brave too, since the darkness didn’t scare him at all—and Ned was forever puzzling over what Joe might have seen in Ned that made him want to be friends. Not that Ned was complaining. Apart from the day the scar was etched on his head, the day Joe reached out to Ned in friendship was the single most seminal event of Ned’s life. And Ned damn well knew it. There were days when he thought Joe knew it too, and that thought made Ned happy. He wanted Joe to know how much it meant to him they were friends. Even if Ned did live in terror that Joe would find out the other thoughts that had gradually burrowed into Ned’s brain. The more personal thoughts.
The sexy thoughts.
Ned stood with his forehead still pressed to the wire cage surrounding the footbridge. He squeezed his eyes shut to better allow the clean night air to cool his senses. After all, those sexy thoughts always brought heat with them. Heat that sometimes avalanched over Ned like a flurry of embers, drenching him from head to toe with searing splashes of fire. He could feel his ears burning even now as he stood in the darkness with his heart thundering in his chest and his fingers woven through the wire mesh—the mesh that kept the sad people safe.
With that thought, he stepped back and rubbed his forehead to erase the lines the brittle strands had left on his skin. The sudden infusion of heat through his body began to dissipate too as Ned tried as hard as he could to push those other thoughts—those sexy thoughts—away. He listened again to the night sounds around him. The cooing of a pigeon somewhere. Or was it an owl? The chitter of a squirrel, maybe chattering in its sleep. The gentle stirring of the treetops. The rustle and creak of pine branches shifting in the wind. The occasional patter of pinecones, jarred loose and tumbling to the ground with a teeny thud.
When the fear of darkness started to creep back in, Ned began to whistle a tuneless little song. Tuneless because since the day his scar was carved in the side of his head, his whistling had been atonal. As had his singing. Somehow he could no longer carry a tune to save his life. But Ned didn’t care. He whistled anyway.
And in the distance, he heard someone whistling back!
Suddenly he forgot the darkness completely. Along with his fears. In fact, those fears seemed pretty silly now. Silly and immature. Ned’s face twisted into a grin. He leaned his back into the wire mesh, letting it cradle him while he waited for the sound of familiar footsteps on the path ahead, leading down from the back of the zoo. While he waited for the whistling to approach even closer. The melody of it was far more pleasing to the ear than his own had been, because Joe managed to whistle on key.
Before Joe appeared through the darkness, Ned barked out a merry laugh that rolled off into the trees around him. It was joined by another laugh coming down the hill. A laugh and a familiar voice.
“Good Lord, Ned!” the voice bawled out. “Standing in the middle of the park laughing by yourself in the moonlight? People will say you’re nuts!”
“Maybe I am nuts!” Ned barked back. “So what?”
Any second now, that bodiless voice would burst from the shadows onto the moonlit trail ahead, and there he’d be. Smiling, happy, handsome. Joe. Ned’s favorite person in the whole wide world.
Even Ned’s fingers tingled with anticipation as he brushed at his clothes, trying to make himself presentable.
John Inman is a Lambda Literary Award finalist and the author of over thirty novels, everything from outrageous comedies to tales of ghosts and monsters and heart stopping romances. John Inman has been writing fiction since he was old enough to hold a pencil. He and his partner live in beautiful San Diego, California. Together, they share a passion for theater, books, hiking and biking along the trails and canyons of San Diego or, if the mood strikes, simply kicking back with a beer and a movie.
John’s advice for anyone who wishes to be a writer? “Set time aside to write every day and do it. Don’t be afraid to share what you’ve written. Feedback is important. When a rejection slip comes in, just tear it up and try again. Keep mailing stuff out. Keep writing and rewriting and then rewrite one more time. Every minute of the struggle is worth it in the end, so don’t give up. Ever. Remember that publishers are a lot like lovers. Sometimes you have to look a long time to find the one that’s right for you.”