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The Silence of Alium – Chapter 3

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

3 – Divergent Paths

          There had been no communication between Lacroix and the Galactic Coalition for over a year. No messages could be received nor transmitted by the research post. As such, Dr. Jiya Kapoor had not spoken with anyone off-base since her father had first communicated that her mother had contracted Huang Gao’s disease. By best estimates her mother maybe had a month left now, if she wasn’t already dead, and Jiya had no way to speak with her, let alone reach her.

          As such, Jiya had been in a miserable state for some time. She attempted to focus on her studies as best as she could, researching the biology of the bentari and other potentially related pseudo-fauna, but as time dragged on it became harder and harder for her to focus on the task at hand. Of course she’d be a liar if she didn’t admit that it wasn’t just the crisis with her family that had disrupted her focus. The state of the research colony had been in rapid disintegration for months even before communication had been lost.

          Something was amiss on Alium, and whether it was a natural migratory shift, or the sign of something far more catastrophic, Jiya could not say with any level of certainty. The Coalition’s research into the planet was too new, with barely a decade and a half of data collected and only by the marginal population of less than a hundred inhabitants, themselves a mix of researchers and necessary station crew with less scientific backgrounds. There just wasn’t enough historical or long-term studies to provide conclusive answers.

          Nonetheless, Jiya feared for the worst.

          Like many mornings over the preceding weeks, she found herself cresting over a hillock just south of Lacroix, well within the quarantine perimeter, and approaching upon Haruka Lake. She enjoyed the walk and it eased the tensions that usually plagued her. A few purple pinwheels twirled their helicopter-like wings and rose up over the thin layer of fog that drifted across the placid surface of the water. A garon mating call rasped from within a small patch of sapphire bentai, or fictusherba sapphyrus, a potential link between the evolutionary trees of the bentari, fictusherba primus, and the squid trees, fictus abora. This potential link was a major hypothesis of one of her three primary research projects, in which Jiya postulated a common ancestor between these three pseudo-fauna, and their own branch on the evolutionary tree above the split with, and separated from, the other primary pseudo-fauna of the Hiawatha savanna.

          This morning, however, she pushed her research aside to simply enjoy the moment at hand, and to take solace in the peace that Haruka Lake provided her. The reed-like bodies of the bentai swayed with a light wind, their blades still spooled tight shielding against the morning dew. The scene reminded her of the bamboo plants piercing the waters of Lake Armstrong by her childhood home, and of early spring mornings as her mother and she waded up to the ankles along the shore collecting Freyan freshwater sand crabs, giggling as the crabs’ legs tickled against their palms. Often, as they bent down to scoop up their prize from beneath the soil of the shore, they had braced themselves against the shoots of bamboo.

          Jiya ran the tips of her fingers up along the spooled blade of the closest bentai. The stalk-like appendage felt feathery to the touch, but also pulsing with life. The bentai jolted, then spooled its blade tighter to protect itself from any potential predators. The tighter it wound and the denser its blade became, the greater threat it posed, it’s reed-like blade honing to a deadly point.

          Jiya let her fingertips fall aside, then toed away a thick clump of Hiawatha moss. It was the closest life form to an earth plant on the planet, and one of the only photosynthesizing life-forms that had a permanent rooted structure, lacking any form of mobility. The soft, blue pseudo-fauna offered a comfortable cushion, but it was also highly toxic to humans, so the fewer spores she picked up on her clothes, the better. She set upon the loose dirt revealed beneath the moss, and stared out across the lake, thinking of home and of her mother.

          Only a moment passed as she sat level with the surface fog, condensation clinging to her hair, before a thunderclap sounded above. Another, and another, and another rung out in rapid succession. The precision of the sound was distinct; man-made. Multiple flying objects had broken the sound barrier. That could mean only one thing; the Coalition had sent a crew to investigate the silence of Alium.

          Jiya looked up. The camouflage of the holographic dome worked in both directions, so at first she saw nothing but a lightly clouded sky. Then the first descent capsule burst into existence, popping through the dome. Immediately, the largest swarm of pinwheels she had ever seen rose up from the northern campus and flocked to the capsule, drawn by its heat. The swarm pushed in upon it crowding into every potential entry, and as the pinwheels landed she knew they would be sinking in their tiny rhizora siphoning heat from the vehicle. With enough force, they would obliterate the capsule.

          A second capsule glided through the dome, and the scene repeated itself. Now smoke billowed from the first, and Jiya could see small fires breaking out as the pinwheels wound themselves between the aft heat shield and the capsule itself, piercing through the seal interface gap. As a third capsule broke through the dome, two smoke trails billowed up from the damaged landers that had preceded it. Only this time as the swarm approached a billow of ash, water vapor, and smoke released while the capsule jettisoned its heat shield. The burnt metal alloy arced away, crashing like a meteor onto a distant stretch of plain, and the retrorockets that had hidden beneath its shielding roared to life, slowing the trajectory of the capsule.

          The swarm had fled from the conglomerate cloud momentarily, not yet clasping to the outer shell of the capsule. Then as the fires flared to life from the rockets, the swarm had charged forward again, only this time drawn to the heat of the flames. Hundreds of burnt pinwheels fluttered and fell from the sky consumed by the heat they so desired. Yet a new problem threatened the third capsule. As its descent slowed its parachute slackened threatening to fall upon the capsule, likely catching itself on fire as the cloth tangled against the rockets. Before this could happen, the retrorockets ceased firing and the capsule dropped like a stone, until the parachute fully expanded again sending the whole configuration into a wild spin.

          The third capsule fought back to some semblance of equilibrium, steadying out, and Jiya watched it shift back into a gentle arc. It descended, its chute billowing above, and for a minute she thought it just might land safely. Just as she let out a sigh of relief, convinced the worst had been averted, an explosion sounded and the first of the capsules disintegrated into slivers of shrapnel scattering destruction across the grasslands. The force of the blast blew the remaining two capsules off course, propelling them in opposite directions, the second of the capsules arcing in giant ball of fire, a man-made meteor hurtling towards the surface of Alium.

          The remnants of the three swarms fluttered in the open skies, then merged into one massive swarm and descended upon a new target as the fourth capsule crashed through the camouflaged dome. The pinwheels were hungrier and in greater numbers than Jiya had ever observed, and the chances of any of the Coalition crews surviving were rapidly diminishing. Jiya had to get help.

          As she ran back to Lacroix in search of aid, Jiya just caught sight of a safety tether snapping on the third capsule’s parachute. Yes, they’re going to need help, she thought. If they survive the impact.

Back to Chapter 1

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 2

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

Author’s Note:

My schedule remains off and for that I apologize. In lieu of the finale to The Dark Beneath, I will be posting the second chapter of the Silence of Alium. This work has taken a lot of my focus lately as I plan out the long game for the novel / novelette (still up in the air)


2 – Trajectories

          Sergeant Robles held fast to the grip above his head. He’d tightened his safety harness as tight as he could manage, and though he couldn’t be certain, he felt fairly confident he’d cut the circulation to his left leg. Well, maybe not quite, but close enough. The strap bit in against his upper thigh like a tourniquet. It felt painful and numb at the same time, and though his rational mind begged him to loosen the strap, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

          He didn’t know how he’d ever made Sergeant. Born Rafael Roberto Robles, Rafael had always had an anxious temperament. He’d inherited it from his father, a relapsing alcoholic that had committed suicide when Rafael was only eleven. His mother always told Rafael that his father had been haunted by personal demons that he could not conquer and that he had died from an illness, no different than pneumonia or Huang Gao’s Disease. Rafael understood, but much like his current predicament with the straps, he’d been unable to reconcile his rational understanding with his emotional turmoil.

          He’d joined the army still battling both anger and grief over his father. Anger, because his father had been too afraid to face living, and grief in that his father had been compelled by his anxieties and depression to believe that death was his only option. When he’d signed on, Rafael determined that he would face down death, and that he would not be defined by his father. Now, sweating as the descent capsule Cerebus tugged against its primary parachute and clutching the safety handle for dear life, he could only speculate that his promotions came down to nothing more than attrition. He’d survived his engagements where others had not, even if by blind luck. Courage had nothing to do with it.

          “Sergeant Robles!”

          Staff Sergeant Simmons, jaw set, locked eyes with Rafael. This was his third engagement with Simmons, but he still couldn’t look the man in the eye without freezing like a deer in headlights.

          “Yes, sir.”

          “I need you focused.”

          Great, focused. That’s nice. We’re in a free fall, our fate in the hands of 100 yards of fabric and a tiny web of rope, and not a damn piloted system to control, but I better stay focused. You know, in case there’s an emergency for me to gape at. All of this ran through his head, but Rafael didn’t dare speak it out loud. Simmons scared the Holy Bejesus out of him. It was his eyes. They were black as midnight, and he swore they didn’t shine with even a hint of life. Never had such a man existed with eyes deader than those of Staff Sergeant Simmons. He was a devil made flesh.

          “Yes, sir. I’m focused, sir.”

          “Good. Stay sharp.”

          Sharp. Yeah, I can do that. Rafael lessened his grip on the safety handle relaxing into the soft comfort of the crash couch. That’s when the good doctor burst in from the peanut gallery.

          “Was that the chute?”

          Sergeant Lance daned to open her eyes. “Relax, doctor. It’s nothing.”

          Nothing? Why was the man asking about the parachute? That didn’t sound like nothing.

          Rafael managed a glimpse up through one of the three upper portholes. He didn’t want to look. The very thought of what he might find petrified him. At the same time, he knew that he had to look. If death was coming today, he’d face it, scared shitless, but knowing its inevitability. Directly above the porthole he saw it – a rip in the primary shoot.

          “Well, hell, looks like today’s the day,” he muttered – just barely audible. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud. It just slipped out.

          “Don’t be such a fatalist, Tre.” Private Second Class Walcott. Walcott and Rafael had come up in basic together. She had called him Tre ever since she had spotted his triple R initials embroidered on one of his kerchiefs. Some of the others in basic had taken to calling him Snotrag due to that same kerchief, so Rafael had always felt it best to leave well enough alone and give Walcott Tre. If Rafael was honest with himself, she deserved the command more than he did, but bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and the politics of the moment placed him in charge of team Baker.

          “Don’t be a fatalist? The f’ing chute just ripped.”

          “Keep yourself in check, Sergeant Robles. You have a team to command.” Simmons again.

          “Yes, sir.”

          Rafael held his tongue on any further commentary. The chute had ripped and the winds and the descent sent Cerebus twisting and turning in an awful spin, even as the pull of gravity tugged ever harder, but he’d keep calm for his unit. Shit ton of good it’ll do them, he thought, when we crash into Alium and flatten like a pancake.

          Walcott continued, ignoring Staff Sergeant Simmons. “Today’s not the day. Don’t forget the backup.” Walcott may have been the only one that knew about Rafael’s obsession with death; he’d made the mistake of opening up after one too many drinks on the eve of his promotion to Sergeant. Ever since she had been there to walk him down.

          As if on queue, the backup chute deployed and the entire capsule snapped back yanked upwards from its rapid descent. Cerebus rocked and twisted, rolling in all directions from the abrupt deployment.

          Across the way, Dr. Offredi clung to his armrests for dear life. Private Park had closed his book and sat calmly through the whole affair. Lance, Ruegger, and Simmons did likewise. Karzai smirked, enjoying a private joke, or at least that is what it looked like to Rafael. That left Bills, Varma, and Walcott.

          To his left, Walcott, having succeeded in calming him, now grinned from ear to ear hooting and hollering with each swing of the capsule. Varma, that tank of a man, hollered right back, laughing and swearing and having the time of his life. Varma and Walcott always took an insane level of pleasure from atmospheric entry.

          Bills on the other hand, Bills was new. He had his face plastered into his barf bag, and appeared to be hyperventilating. Lance cocked him a one-eyed glance, muttered under her breath, then stirred to deal with it. Bills was part of Alpha team, and thus her responsibility.

          Rafael didn’t bother listening to their conversation. He closed his eyes and prayed. The backup chute had opened, but if it ripped as well, there were no further lifelines.

          He lowered his head, closed his eyes, and gestured the sign of the cross, as he began his prayer, soft and just barely audible.

          “In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” He finished the gesture, but remained bowed in prayer.

          “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”

          Finished, Rafael signed the cross again, then eased against his crash couch, a calm slowly warming through him. The insane rocking of the capsule had eased and the rocky entry had at last abated, beginning the slow and gentle descent, buoyed by the backup chute.

          Walcott, no longer competing with Varma to out macho the other in riding out the frantic bucking of Cerebus, cast Rafael a concerned glance. She was up to something.

          “I’m fine. Really.”

          “Uh-huh.” Walcott didn’t buy it. She glanced about, grasping at the beginning of an idea. As she did, a gentle whir sounded, and two large sections of wall shifted, retracting on a track to reveal two curved windows running along the top of the crash couches, each opening upon an outstanding panoramic view of Alium.

          “I spy.”

          “Really, Walcott,” said Rafael. “I spy? We’re not twelve you know.”

          “It’s a long way down. Just shut up and humor me.” Walcott turned her attention towards the view outside the window. As she did, so to did Rafael.

          Below the Hiawatha Savannah stretched out from horizon to horizon, a sea of purples, dotted with copses of electric blue, all beneath thin wisps of cloud. Rafael knew it wasn’t really a savannah – not a grassland at all. There was no grass on Alium. Evolution had taken a different path here. Yet, the purple mass of the bentari swayed below in a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Earth broken in clusters by groves of aboras, known to most as squid trees or squidders. Much like the bentari were not actually grasses, the squid trees were not trees. Instead they existed somewhere between animal and plant, slow, massive beasts with tentacle-like trunks that rooted and uprooted at will, and blue, scale-like hairs that acted like leaves, generating energy from sunlight.

          Yet in the infinite stretch of falsehoods below, Rafael knew that even this image was in itself a lie, a camouflage of the world as it should be. Alium’s Lacroix outpost existed somewhere beneath that veil, named in honor of the first colonist to discover extraterrestrial life, the famous architect of Enhet Basen at the beginning of man’s conquest of the stars. Considering the troubled history of Enhet Basen, Rafael could not discern if the honorarium bode well or for ill, but his gut assured him that nothing good could come of it.

          Walcott pushed forward with her distraction. “I spy something blue.”

          “A fucking grove of squidders,” said Varma. “Come on, Walcott.”

          “Fine, you go.”

          “Nah, let’s give the new blood a try. Bills?”

          Bills wiped at his mouth securing his vomit bag. “What?”

          “Your turn.”

          “My turn for what?”

          Varma shook his head. “I can’t work with this.”

          Walcott nodded at Private Bills. “Just a game of I spy. It keeps your mind off the descent. What do you see?”

          “Fine, fine,” said Bills. “I spy with my little eye something white and fluffy.”

          Karzai jumped in, unable to sit by while a private on her team disgraced himself. “A cloud? That’s the best you got? You’re descending on an alien planet, an inhabited planet with one of the most unique ecosystems in the galaxy and you pick a damn cloud? You’ve got to give it more than that, Bills.”

          As the two continued to bicker, Rafael searched the skies for the other squads. The Hecate capsule should be somewhere above them, likely just opening its chute based upon the launch sequence, but Chimera and Ladon had to be well on their way.

          Meanwhile Private Bills, still barely holding to what remained of his lunch, gave in, waving off Karzai’s assault. “Fine,” he said. “I spy with my little eye something purple.”

          “The bentari? The f’ing bentari. This is just an embarrassment. You represent Able team, damn it. Hell, you represent Cerebus.”

There it was. Rafael caught site of Ladon, its orange and white parachute stretched out in its wake. “Gotcha,” he muttered just under his breath.

          As he watched it descend towards the vast sea of purple, the capsule blinked out of existence. It had vanished beneath Lacroix’s camouflaged dome, a holographic illusion generated along the perimeter of the base to hide its presence from the local fauna. The system functioned in an arc, requiring two points for each beam of the hologram, much like the old interlacing of televisions. A line of singular nodes ran in 180 degrees around Lacroix, before the second nodes began, each pairing with their opposite node 180 degrees away – the total effect of which was the complete concealment of the base, and anything passing within that barrier.

          Though Rafael could not find the Chimera capsule, he assumed that it too had already descended beyond visual confirmation. Still he searched, seeking any signs to the contrary, but before he could finish a complete scan, a raucous shout from Bills broke Rafael’s focus.

          “Well, I didn’t see one but I got a damn rhino right here.” Bills groped lewdly at himself, emphasizing his point. “But if you don’t want to see that, go ahead and take your own turn.”

          Karzai shook her head. “I spy with my little eye, something tiny struggling to compensate.”

          “Oooh, oooh!” Private Ruegger chimed in. “Private Bills. Am I right?”

          Rafael shook off the distraction and resumed his scan of the skies. The descent was routine, save for the reliance on the backup chute, but even so he was in charge of half of the squad. He owed it to them to be alert, for whatever good it might do. Death was not coming today. It had been forsworn.

          “Bingo.” Karzai waved in a mock display of showmanship. “Give the man a prize.”

          “Up yours, Ruegger.” Bills had decided the entire game was bullshit. “And you, too, Karzai.”

          “Not on your life.” Karzai smiled. She liked having the upper hand.

          Off to his right Rafael spotted it. Then again to his left just above where Ladon had vanished. Death was coming after all.

          “Everyone, shut up.”

          Simmons leaned in. “Sergeant Robles?”

          “My three and eight, sir.”

          Simmons scanned the horizon. Everyone did, and as they did a hush took over the capsule. Two pillars of smoke rose out of nothing, as if appearing in thin air. They billowed up from beneath the veil and that could mean only one thing – Ladon and Chimera were burning. With every passing second Cerebus sped closer to the holographic surface and closer to whatever fate had befallen the other squads.

          Simmons took command. “Sergeant Robles, call up Ladon and Chimera. Lance, Hecate.”

          “Yes, sir,” they responded in unison, Lance rousing into action for the first time.

          Rafael dialed in to Ladon’s frequency, even as he knew that he should be calling the platoon leader. Soon they would be within the camouflage boundary, suffering from whatever fate had befallen their comrades. Calling them was a waste. A warning needed to go through. Yet Simmons had never led them wrong, and the chain of command was the chain of command.

          “Ladon, this is Cerebus. Do you copy? Over.”

          Nothing. The line didn’t connect. Although he knew that if Ladon was gone, there was little chance of reaching Chimera, Rafael dialed over to their frequency.

          “Chimera, this is Cerebus. Do you copy? Over.”

          The same silence greeted him.

          Across the way Lance shouted directions to Hecate above, alerting them to the smoke trails.

          Simmons turned to Rafael.

          “Robles, platoon leader.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          He dialed in, but it was too late. Cerebus descended beneath the barrier and all communication lines went down. Rafael dropped the dialing mechanism and turned his attention out to the panorama below. Swarms of violet engulfed both Ladon and Chimera as flocks of pinwheels, distant cousins of the bentari, enveloped themselves around the capsules as tongues of flame and plumes of smoke trailed behind. Could that many pinwheels feed off the heat of one capsule? Was it even possible? Something unnatural was happening and there were only seconds to respond.

          As that thought flashed through Rafael’s mind, Chimera’s parachute shredded beneath another swarm.

          Simmons shouted at Robles in the background but his voice had muted. Rafael tuned out all distractions. He had a mission.

          “Well, hell,” he said as he unbuckled his safety harness. “Looks like today’s the day.”

          As the last buckle unclasped, he shot from the security of the crash couch and leapt towards the retro rocket panel, tucked between the two panoramic windows. He slammed his hand against the jettison button, just as a swarm of madly twirling pinwheels, part of Alium’s unique flora-fauna hybrids, crashed against the windows. On its own, a singular pinwheel was nothing to worry about – merely a leafy, bug-like flier no bigger than a dragon fly. In swarms pinwheels could wreak havoc on machinery, feeding off heat, clogging electrical systems, and if gathered in enough numbers they could tear a parachute to pieces. Of course until today, that had all been hypothetical. Pinwheels existed in the roots of the food chain, their population tightly limited by predators. Obviously those constraints had lifted.

          The heat shield ejected from Cerebus, plummeting to Alium, and sending forth a great cloud of steam and smoke. The pitter patter of the pinwheels leaf forms’ battering into the windows rose to a cacophonous din and Rafael could feel the seconds stretch for hours, every movement slow beyond measure. As the smoke of the jettison procedure wrapped around Cerebus he could see the pinwheels retreat, but soon that vapor would wisp away and the flock would return. Today Rafael would face death, but he would not join her.

          The shield gone, landing procedures could be initiated. Of course Cerebus was nowhere near ready to land, but one problem at a time. Rafael hit the ignition on the retro rockets, their engines sparking to life. A great upward force exerted on the capsule slowing Cerebus’ descent. More importantly, the pinwheels turned mid-flight shifting and reorienting – descending like moths to flame and burning in the fires of the rockets.

          So far, so good. Rafael signed the cross then looked above through the upper portholes as a great shadow descended upon the capsule. They hadn’t detached from the parachute and with the rockets going full blast, a collision was imminent. Rafael slammed a full stop on the rockets as the chute tangled with the capsule. With the sudden loss of upward momentum, the capsule dropped, yanking at the ropes of the parachute and sending Cerebus into an uncontrolled spin.

          With no belt securing him, Rafael continued along the trajectory of the previous upward momentum even as the capsule rapidly descended. He didn’t even have time to shield himself. He thought of his father and what it would be like to meet him, then Rafael crashed headfirst into the ceiling of Cerebus, his world exploded, and then there was nothing.

Back to Chapter 1

August 2017 Status Update

August has arrived and here is where I stand.

 

  • Horror Stories Underway: I began The Dark Beneath with the intent of keeping it to 2 parts. In fact the story is now looking to conclude in its fifth installment this Friday. My second story underway is looking to be 5 parts (~10,000 words) and has been delayed while I work on a few additional story ideas.
  • New Sci-Fi Story Underway: I began The Silence of Alium with a five-part short story in mind. Upon delving into a writing community and thinking about my sci-fi work I am considering changing course to a novel or at the very least a novelette. The second chapter is underway now.
  • Delving into Wattpad: Story submissions continue to Wattpad, where you can engage directly with my stories paragraph by paragraph.
  • Arcas nearing completion: Art is nearly done and I’m working on a few revisions, polishing the script.
  • Novelette by late 2017: Calling Mr. Nelson Pugh, still has final edits underway. My hope is to have it published by late 2017 and available as an e-book, though I will be soon submitting it to a new group of Beta readers for additional feedback.
  • Short Story Horror Anthology: I am still planning to publish an anthology of horror shorts. This would include material from this site (but having been vetted through additional edits), and previously unpublished material, with close to a 50/50 new to reprinted ratio. I have passed my 70,000 word minimum goal. Edits will likely take six months to a year depending on availability of editors, and some additional connective tissue is being drafted. With that being the case, I expect a late 2018 publication.
  • Horror Novel underway: I am about 35,000 words into my first full length horror novel. It is too early to predict a completion date, but I am considering posting chapters to this site as I get further along. I would love to know if there is interest in reading it chapter by chapter as I push through the first draft. Feel free to sound off in the comments.
  • Co-written Sci-fi Comic: Finally I am also collaborating as a co-writer and creator for an additional science-fiction comic. My writing partner and I are in the early stages of this project, but I hope to have more updates soon.

There is probably a little I missed, but that’s enough for now. If anything in there strikes your interest, chime in. I’d be happy to discuss. Bye for now.

Happy Writing, All!

The Dark Beneath – Part Four

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Sitting around pondering her next step wouldn’t do her any good. Maybe that thing had broken into her room, maybe it was still right outside that door. Either way, Lori had to be quick.

          She chewed at her lip, drumming up her courage and listening for any sound of that abomination. The room had fallen silent.

          Beverly? The thought struck Lori with a sudden wave of panic. Her eyes darted to the dark beneath the bed.

          Her fear slammed to a halt, her emotions shifting from one extreme to the next almost instantly. Lori could almost taste the adrenaline pulsing through her system, colliding with that heart-stopping relief as she saw Beverly staring up at her.

          Then Beverly began to bark once more.

          CRACK!

          That man-thing thrust itself back through the rupture in the door. It must have eased itself out when she was in the closet, but much of the splintered wood had also given away with its retreat. Now it managed to fit both arms and its head through. It would be able to climb right in.

          It gnashed its hideous, blood-stained teeth at her, the ripped flesh of its lips crusting over in another basaltic cooling, that ooze secreting, dripping, and steaming off of it. A thin stream of blood hung from the torn flesh, a drip of blood-spittle. As it bit the air, thrashing to reach her, that dog-like saliva sprayed across the wood paneling.

          Lori dashed for Beverly, thrusting her hand beneath the bed and gripping the Pomeranian by the scruff of her neck. She hauled her out and thrust her into the dog carrier, flung it over her shoulders and bolted for the window.

          Time slowed and the soft sounds of the room amplified, while the yowling of that man-thing fell away to a distorted muted scream in the background noise of Lori’s panic. Above all things, loudest of all, she heard a pin drop. No. A screw. As it bounced, another soft echo of metal against wood sounded. The sideplate. It seemed to clang against the floor for minutes that stretched into eons. Then came that final horror. The sound of the wood rending apart as the door collapsed in.

          Already swiveling her legs down to the ledge, Lori looked back to find that monstrosity bounding towards her, the door biting into its midsection, transformed from the widening maw to some hideous splintered tutu of jagged wood encircling burnt flesh. The image struck her as both hideous and absurd, and a laugh bubbled up unbidden.

          And it stopped.

          That man-thing stopped and it tilted its head at Lori as if considering her laughter. The thing’s eyes still hid away beneath the drooping flesh fusion of its forehead and cheeks, but just that askew tilt alone signaled its puzzlement with perfect clarity.

          Lori had no clue what to make of it, but she also had no time to stop to consider it. Beverly barked at the thing in the door waking Lori from her reverie. Instantly she flew into action, slipping the rest of the way out onto the ledge, nine stories up. She had planned to sidle over away from the window, but as she slipped into the cold night air outside her bedroom window she heard that thing snap back into action itself. She could feel the breeze on her back as it charged, and praying for luck, she pivoted on her right heel, swinging herself out over the nine-story gap, until she had turned a full 180 degrees, her face now pressed against the rough Art Deco exterior.

          Beverly slipped in the carrier, sliding into the side and dragging the bag off Lori’s shoulder with her weight. Quickly, Lori hooked her elbow, catching the bag and her dog before they fell to the pavement below. As she did, a blackened hand pounded into the concrete where her head had been. The exterior pebbled, spider-webbing from the impact.

          Her head knotted from the tension, Lori sidled three feet to the left, her arm still hooked around the carrier’s shoulder strap. That thing groped out with its sickening arm, searching for her, but as she lay still it could not find her. Next, it thrust its head through the opening and cast its gaze about in every which direction and still it was unable to spot her.

          Lori didn’t even dare sigh her relief. She pressed as tightly as possible to the wall and thanked everything that was holy, whether she believed in it or not, that the near drop of the carrier had startled Beverly into silence.

          Then it happened.

          That thing reached a hand to its face – a gray hand, so much char having flaked away that the skin had lightened – seized upon the melted flesh before it eyes, and yanked back tearing a bloody hunk away and casting it down towards the street. Blood oozed from the open wound in a heavy stream, but behind that crimson waterfall a cold eye stared out and spotted her.

          The thing’s motions slowed, taking on a more considered countenance. It gripped at the casing as if to to ease itself onto the ledge.

          Panic surged in a fresh wave through Lori. This had to end. She sidled as far away as she could, never removing her gaze from the intruder at the window, then stopped, unable to continue further with the carrier swinging from its tenuous grip in the crook of her elbow and pulling her off balance.

          She tried to right it, lifting her left arm, leveling it out, then raising it, all the while gripping as best she could to the concrete wall. As her arm passed level and the bag began to slide down to her shoulder, she felt her entire sense of balance spiraling.

          She lowered her arm, grabbing at a protruding lip of cement before an indented panel, and recovered her balance. She couldn’t shift the bag one-handed, and she couldn’t reach the bag with her right arm without pushing herself back from the wall, risking the nine-story drop.

          She froze.

          That blood-curtained eye remained locked on her, and the man-thing began to lift its leg out onto the ledge. This was it. Lori was dead.

          Below a siren blared to life, an emergency vehicle racing through the LA streets. Oh the music of Los Angeles. As the sirens wailed the man-thing watching her scrambled back into the apartment, its hands clawing at its ear nubs trying to rip out the loud sounds of the city.

          Lori let out a sigh of relief. Now she simply had to traverse an eight inch ledge around the bend and another twenty feet to her balcony. No problem.

          She sidled closer to the indented paneling, tightening her grip. Thank goodness for Art Deco. One hand clutching to the paneling, the other holding on precariously close to the window casing, she inched her left arm up, slowly sliding the carrier down towards her shoulder. Her legs quivered and she could feel the tremors rattling her knees as she desperately battled to maintain her footing. Bit by bit, the carrier slid down her arm, constantly shifting Lori’s center of balance. At last she could raise her arm no further without losing her grip. The carrier still had inches to go.

          Lori glanced to her right arm, still pressed so close to that open window. How long until that thing returned for her? She eased her hand closer and closer, until it tucked in right by her side. Now she just had to reach between herself and the wall so she could get a grip on the bag and right it. She slid her hand forward squeezing between her and the cement.

          As she crept her hand closer and closer to her shoulder, Lori had to press back, making room for her to gain leverage. She could sense the emptiness behind her – the open air and the long fall down. That void called for her, taunting her, and she froze. The tremors tore at her knees once more, her balance shifted, and Lori screamed. Her right foot gave, slipping into nothingness.

          She clung to the paneling with her left arm, and hurriedly reached back out with her right, pressing it back towards the casement. Her left leg struggled, the knee buckling as she threatened to fall. And with this sudden shift in weight the carrier strap slipped over her shoulder and slammed against her neck.

          Lori lost her balance.

          Still gripping the paneling, her right knee came down hard on the ledge, and her right hand slipped from the casing, down beside her knee. Pain burst in another flare clouding her vision. Her other leg shifted to the left, compensating for the quick drop and change in balance. Only her left arm remained in place, still gripping for dear life.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. The words rang out like an internal mantra, repeating on an infinite loop. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

          Her breath came in panicked gasps, and her lungs hurt. She wasn’t getting enough air; she was hyperventilating.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit – calm!

          Lori had to calm down. She had to calm down now. That thing was still inside, still waiting for her, but she couldn’t even worry about that now. One death-defying panic at a time. First she had to make sure she didn’t plummet to the street.

          Calm, calm, calm. A new mantra. A better mantra, offering sage advice rather than blind panic.

          Calm, calm, calm, she repeated, willing herself to regain control. Slowly, her breathing returned to normalcy. Her heart pounded and skipped. Skipped? Did it really skip? Calm, calm, calm.

          The racing in her breast eased. It didn’t go away – that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon – but yes it did ease. Lori let out a long, slow, exhale. She could do this.


          “Come on, Lori! You got this!”

          She could hear her softball team cheering her on as she stepped to bat. This was the moment of truth for the Badgers. She had to bring Joy home. No outs remained. She looked to Joy, and Joy waved and smiled with that perfect homecoming queen smile.

          “Go Lori! You got this!”

          But Joy had never cheered her on. None of them had. They had shunned her. They had called her a bitch and a slut and they had swooned after boys that all called her a feminazi, like wanting equality was some fascist, insane desire.

          This wasn’t how it had happened. This was how she had wished that it had happened, that they had liked her or more importantly respected and accepted her. That they had rooted for her rather than spat at her. This time she had to hit the ball home.


          Lori let out one final deep exhale and pulled herself to her feet. Her left knee strained as it took on her full weight, the veins on her wrist protruding with the effort of gripping the paneling. Her right arm scrambled for purchase, at last finding a slight crack in the cement. Her landlord would need to be notified about that. She chuckled at the thought, letting the tension wash away ever so slightly.

          A little higher now, a little more weight in that left foot… she could feel her knee threatening to pop. Just a little further. Sweat greased her palms, threatening her handhold on the indention. Just a little more.

          And…

          She was up. Her right foot found solid ground and she finally let out a sigh of relief. Beverly was properly shouldered after nearly dragging her down, Lori had her footing, and now she could begin the trek around the corner of the building. Things were looking up already.

          One step. Two steps. Three steps. Four steps.

          Not so bad. The window to her bedroom receded every so slowly, the distance between her and that thing widening.

          Six steps. Seven steps. Eight steps.

          The cool concrete felt rough against her cheek and the palms of her hands, but Lori didn’t dare push back. She had reached a relative calm, but that was the calm of someone pressed to a wall nine stories up – not a reassuring or strong calm. Definitely not one that instilled confidence.

          Ten steps. Eleven steps.

          The sweat poured from her palms. As Lori reached for another indented panel, her lead hand slipped rather than gripped. She could feel it fall into the empty space, and her heart didn’t so much sink as plummet. She slapped it back to the wall, the concrete scraping against her skin and the friction finally outweighing the sweatiness of her palms. Lori regained her handhold.

          Sweet Jesus, Lori.

          She caught her breath and chanted her internal mantra once more. Calm, calm, calm.

          Better. She only had a couple more steps to the corner. She could do this.

          Thirteen steps.

          She heard it before she saw it. The sound of the window being thrust up above the warp in the stile. It must have fallen when that thing had retreated inside. Suddenly, Beverly began to yap once more.

          “Damn it, girl, shut up!” That’d tell her.

          Her throat constricted and Lori could feel the imminent paralysis of fear threatening to take over. With deliberate and very careful attention, she turned her head.

          That burnt thing had lifted up the window and now sat there, perched just over the opening watching her. The aloe-like coating over its skin seemed to have vanished, and splotches of the dark burnt layer had flaked away revealing more gray skin beneath, this too seeming to crack like parched earth, but smoother than the previous char layer. The only large protrusions of char that remained still bubbling clung to a lump above its eyes, still drooping just down from the forehead, a scabbing around its lips, and a few tumorous protrusions encircling its waist.

          Fifteen steps.

          Lori made it to the corner, the ledge widening to accommodate a small statuary embellishment – a carving of a gargoyle. It wasn’t a full on landing, but at least here Lori could rest for a moment, resituate Beverly, and ease the tension in her shoulders and knees before traversing another twenty feet or so to her balcony.

          Standing there on the relative security of the widened corner ledge, Lori rolled her shoulders relishing with each stretch as her tension eased. All the while she stared at that man-thing. As it stared back, any release Lori had gained from the comfort of her increased footspace vanished. The shift in its appearance alone would have been enough to unnerve her, those bubbling char-scabs crusting over its most recent wounds – healing? – but her anxiety rooted less in the shift in its physical appearance and more in its change of demeanor.

          That thing hadn’t crashed through the glass of the window. It hadn’t clawed its way out to the ledge like a beast. It had opened the window. Opened it. More, as it stared at her, it didn’t thrash about hunting her with animalistic abandon. That thing watched. It was studying her, its eyes cold and calculating beneath that scabbed over brow.

          It was planning.

          Lori grabbed Beverly’s shoulder strap and lifted it from her left shoulder and over her neck to her right. Now she shouldn’t have to worry about her dog falling so easily. She leaned down and whispered to Beverly.

          “Shhh, girl. Shhh. It’s going to be okay.”

          She didn’t believe the words, but the calming tone was the trick. Beverly yapped a few more times as Lori continued to whisper in a smooth, dulcet tone. At last she cast Lori one confused glance, yapped a final time at the thing terrorizing them, then quieted in her carrier.

          Lori stood and readied herself for the final twenty feet. All the while, that thing had watched. As she took the first step around the bend she could see it still watching, its eyes locked on her – unwavering. A cold intelligence simmered in that gaze. As the char chipped away, so too did its animalistic inclinations. The rules of the hunt had changed.

Back to Part 1

Delay

          I won’t be pushing a traditional post today.

          Part Two of my Plodding, Perilous Quest for Readers blog will be updated soon. I have spent most of the past three weeks exploring a writing community, and have used my usual blogging time in delving deep into that platform. I hope to have strong enough an understanding of strategies within that service to soon add those details to the Periolous Quest blog post in a meaningful way. So, in what is a fairly long stretch now, I continue to delay this post to ensure it actually is drafted to my satisfaction. More soon.

          My Friday post, however, shall not be impacted. Part four of The Dark Beneath will post then.

          Happy Writing, All!

The Dark Beneath – Part Three

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          And she waited. The minutes passed, the hour changed, and no one came. No sirens approached, no knock at the door sounded, and no key turned the locks. No rescue arrived and neither did Dean.

          Lori glanced to the door. Was that thing still there? Had it left? She doubted she’d be that lucky, but she needed to know for sure. Waiting for help that might not come seemed just as likely to end horribly as any other option, and Lori would rather face whatever was coming with action than inaction. She would not die waiting for a white knight.

          Once more she tiptoed across the room, her slippers struggling for traction against the slick wood paneling. She tottered her arms out from her sides for balance, and assured of her footing continued towards the door.

          Wooden splinters pierced out from a crack down the center of the bottom panel, jutting out as if a grotesque underbite of some monstrous maw of needled teeth. Yet, fractured as it was that splintered door provided no glimpse into the hall beyond.

          Lori noted the bent sideplate at the top of the door with great trepidation. Her eyes flitting between that sideplate and the cracked maw of the wood, she lowered herself to the floor. Averting her gaze for as long as she dared, she stole a glance through the gap beneath the door.

          She made out no more than a dense patch within the darkness. If it was again that thing shadowed within the dark of the hall, or if it was nothing more than the normal black pitch of night, Lori could not say.

          She lay still and listened. The gentle whir of her central air buffeted her and she found a moment of comfort in the cool current raining down from the ceiling vent. Then the air abated and she heard it: a low rumbling, almost as if a deep and guttural snore. Was it sleeping out there, or was that merely the tembor of its breath?

          It didn’t matter. Her exit remained blocked.

          Or did it?

          She peered back over her shoulder to the window on which she had scrawled her message for help. Below that window ran a small ledge, no more than eight inches or so wide but running the length of the building. If she were careful, she should be able to make her way to her balcony, then into the living room and a straight shot to the front door. Or perhaps even all the way to the next apartment over, if the first option proved too risky.

          Dean was late, but he could arrive at any minute. Lori had to act quickly. Sure, if Dean stumbled in and that thing killed him, his death would not be her weight to bear, but her inaction would be. Would she be able to live with herself if she did not even try to do something?

          She really didn’t need to ask that question.

          Lori eased away from the door. Step after cautious step, she inched towards the window. The backwards muted rose letters confronted her, her haggard reflection mingling with the scrawled message. She stopped short upon seeing herself there, reflected against the cityscape. The knot on her head had grown, but it was the strain and the fear etched beneath her eyes that halted her. That thing out there had done this to her. It had changed her. It was trying trying to break her.

          It would fail.

          Carefully she closed the distance to the window and grasped the rail below the catch. It had been a long time since she opened her bedroom window, and it had never opened easily. The effort would likely be a loud one.

          Lori steeled herself, one solid breath in through the nose, gripped tight, then heaved. The window raised an inch, and with a great clamor as the warped stile caught against the casing.

          Immediately the thing behind her sounded. A loud din rose up and she could hear it frantically thrashing against the battered door. She spared a momentary glance over her shoulder.

          The door rattled in its frame, the upper sideplate bending and another screw working its way out. The hinge joint would not last. The splintered maw shook and stretched jutting further out into the room, now revealing a small gap through to the hall beyond. Flurried shadows danced as that thing flailed, its breathing now ragged and turbulent, the same guttural growl quaking beneath each roaring breath.

          Lori averted her gaze. She did not have time to watch fate approach; she needed to focus on making her own. She heaved once more upon the rail. The window stuck in the frame, resisting her. She strained, never slacking. Behind her the door cracked and she heard the soft clatter of metal tinging off the wood paneling. The damn sideplate. That would be the loosened crew, she supposed, but didn’t dare look to verify.

          She stopped, catching her breath, then stuck her fingers in the small opening beneath the bottom rail. A morbid thought struck unbidden and she envisioned the window snapping down crushing her fingers against the sill. Instinctually she wanted to withdraw her fingers from that gap, but she held back against the urge. The door would be coming down. She had to open that window.

          She bent her knees, locked her elbows at her side, and hauled up. Again the resistance of the warped stile mocked her, and she scrambled to come up with a new plan; then it gave. The window slammed up past the warp in the wood.

          Relief momentarily flooding in, she took a hurried look back to the door. The top sideplate held now by only one screw and the bottom plate had begun to give as well. A fresh pounding sounded as that thing struck against the wood, and the maw yawned open.

          A charred arm struck through, a blackened tongue scraping over the splinter-fangs. That aloe layer still clung to the cracked and blackened skin, but in places that basaltic black flaked away, like healed scabs ripping from raw skin.

          Lori pounded out the screen of the window, sending it falling. She hoped someone would notice, but as she heard it hit she heard no accompanied exclamations. The street below was empty. She swung one leg over scrambling for footing on the narrow ledge. It felt so soft and for a moment she blanked, puzzled by the unexpected sensation. Then she winced, furious with herself, but with no time to dwell on it. She kicked off her slippers and tried again.

          Eight inches wasn’t a lot of space, but her footing felt firm. She swung her second leg over and prepared for the ledge walk, her heart racing, and her her stomach lurching. Just as she gripped the bottom rail and prepared to duck all the way out, she heard it. Or her.

          Beverly began to bark.

          Fuck me!

          Lori cut her eyes to a bouncing Beverly yapping from beneath the bed. Why couldn’t she have just stayed asleep?

          At the door that thing had managed to squeeze a full arm and most of its head through the maw in the shattered wood, the door teetering as it pushed through the widening rupture. Lori could see that the thing appeared very much human, though so much stronger. Yet, there was no way it could actually be human. If so it would have to be dead.

          It’s skin, under all that pulsing aloe-like layer, flaked and peeled, crisp and burnt and raw. The thing’s lips seemed fused together, only parting slightly and just off center. And yet it snapped at her, showing glistening yellowed teeth hidden within that burnt carcass of its mouth. It’s breath whined through narrow slits in the equally fused nostrils of its nose, and its eyes…

          It looked for her, though a melted mass of charred flesh drooping down from its forehead and melding with its cheeks. Only its ears seemed unblocked, though it had only nubs rather than a full pair of ears, as if the rest had sloughed away.

          As it strained to force its way in, the wooden shards of the door raked into the burnt flesh, more ashen char flaking away, and tiny trails gouging through the raw skin beneath, leaving thin streams of blood. The thing paid the pain no mind. The trails bubbled, and darkened, more of that aloe coating seeping out from the thing’s pores and the wounds knitted together, solidifying into that burnt flesh layer, as if lava cooling upon colliding with the sea.

          Lori clenched her jaw and swallowed back a lump of bile. She felt certain she was going to retch, and not so much because of the grotesque nightmare playing out before her, but more from the putrid rot that clung to it. The smell choked her, a tangible filth, almost like a thin layer of soot that stubbornly blanketed the room. Her eyes watered from the smell.

          All the while, Beverly jumped and barked from beneath the bed, and that thing, that burnt man continued to strain, squeezing through the broken door. It seemed a man, too, didn’t it? If it bore some kin to humanity, Lori had no doubt it was male.

          She knew she needed to go before it forced its way in or broke down the door completely, yet, Beverly would not quiet. Lori glared at her, and motioned for her to sit and shush, but the dog was in no mood for tricks. If that thing made it in, would it kill her?

          Lori cursed herself then hauled her legs back from the ledge and into her bedroom. She had to move fast. As she landed, the burnt thing, the man at the door, snarled and stretched open its mouth, the tiny split widening and ripping, as the fused flesh parted in a spray of spittle and blood. The crimson stained its yellowed teeth, a blood wash that clung to the gums, as if some hideous image of decay you might see tacked up in a sadistic dentist’s office.

          Lori darted for her closet, sliding across the wood floor, and crashing into the hanging clothes. She brushed them aside, rummaging through the junk cluttering the back of the closet, and yanked out a small tote dog carrier. As she turned back, heart pounding, she heard a rending noise, then a clatter from her bedroom. She sped to shut the door, only as she slid out reaching out for the handle she found a puzzling scene.

          Broken wooden shards lay strewn about the entryway to her room, but the torn maw lay open and shattered, and the door held. The thing, the burnt man, was gone.

          Where the fuck is he?

          In a frenzied hurry she scanned the room, but she did not see him. Shit, shit, shit.

          Don’t panic, she thought, only it was the perfect time to panic. In the history of the whole damn universe, this was the time to panic. Henceforth, if one were to look up panic, this would be listed as the epitome of the appropriate moment to go bat shit crazy with it. There was no doubt in Lori’s mind.

          Only if she panicked, she died.

          She threw back her head, in a silent, frustrated laugh. She couldn’t see that thing, and that was so much worse than seeing it. Especially, as she could still smell it. Its rot still hung over the room. It hadn’t left.

Back to Part 1

Quick Update

          Just a quick update today.

          I am currently out of town for a conference and unfortunately time is not on my side. I have most of Part Two of my Plodding, Perilous Quest for Readers blog finished, but I want to be sure to give the piece the time, research, and dedication that it deserves. With that being the case, rather than scramble together a subpar end to the post, I am dedicating myself to one more week of research and revisions to ensure my best quality work.

          I apologize for the delay, but I can discuss at least one recent finding from this research: a site called Wattpad. The site is the platform for a pretty amazing online writing community, with an easy interface, a mobile friendly app, and an engagement model that seems to be of the highest quality. I’ve only begun my exploration of it, but you can find me there at @ChristopherOpyr. Please check it out. If you like to write it seems to be a great place to build an audience. You can vote on other stories, comment directly paragraph by paragraph to other author’s work, enter competitions, etc. I’m already finding myself gravitating to a small set of authors and a spirit of collaboration seems to be building. It’s a thriving community and well worth at least a look to see if it is for you.

          More next week. In the meantime I’ll have the second part of The Dark Beneath live on Friday.

          Happy Writing, All!

July 2017 Status Update

Continuing the new format on this one. Short and sweet. Not much has changed from June to July, but here’s where I am.

 

  • Two New Horror Stories Underway: The first story is another true short story for once, per requests from my first poll. It will post in 2 parts. The second story is looking to be 5 parts (~10,000 words) and has been delayed to meet the poll requests. I will continue to work on it and post when you’re ready for a longer story.
  • New Sci-Fi Story Underway: I don’t know how long this one will be, but I have a more action-packed sci-fi short story in mind for once. Progress on part one is underway and I will determine posting based on results of engagement with you, my readers.
  • Joined Wattpad: I am now also submitting stories to Wattpad, where you can engage directly with them paragraph by paragraph.
  • Arcas nearing completion: Art is nearly done and I’m working on a few revisions, polishing the script.
  • Novelette by late 2017: I have a horror novelette, Calling Mr. Nelson Pugh, with final edits underway. My hope is to have it published by late 2017 and available as an e-book.
  • Short Story Horror Anthology: I am cementing plans for publishing an anthology of horror shorts. This would include material from this site (but having been vetted through additional edits), and previously unpublished material, with close to a 50/50 new to reprinted ratio. I am about 5,000 words shy of a 70,000 word minimum goal, which I foresee crossing soon. Edits will likely take six months to a year depending on availability of editors, and some additional connective tissue is being drafted. With that being the case, I expect a late 2018 publication.
  • Horror Novel underway: I am about 35,000 words into my first full length horror novel. It is too early to predict a completion date, but I am considering posting chapters to this site as I get further along. I would love to know if there is interest in reading it chapter by chapter as I push through the first draft. Feel free to sound off in the comments.
  • Co-written Sci-fi Comic: Finally I am also collaborating as a co-writer and creator for an additional science-fiction comic. My writing partner and I are in the early stages of this project, but I hope to have more updates soon.

There is probably a little I missed, but that’s enough for now. If anything in there strikes your interest, chime in. I’d be happy to discuss. Bye for now.

Happy Writing, All!

The Plodding, Perilous Quest For Readers: Part One

© Andreiuc88 | ID 64280096

By Chris Hutton


          The quest to be read is a path littered with disappointment. If you are a writer and you are reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you that. If, however, you are just beginning your trek into the world of professional writing, then perhaps this may be of some use to you. Take it as a cautionary tale if you will, not to dissuade you from venturing forth to conquer the written word, but rather to aid you in stepping out that door prepared for the path ahead. As Bilbo once told his nephew, “It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”


Hello, Is Anyone There?

          Back in the nineties when I was scouring the Internet teaching myself HTML (because how better to spend a Friday night in the prime of your high school years?) there was a common exercise used in teaching. The web tutorial would cover a few basic tags, then instruct the learner to type in the phrase ‘Hello, World!’ Sometimes if the Tutorial was really fancy it would teach you to make the text different colors and blink.

           For me this is a fun little anecdote, a nice stroll down the proverbial Memory Lane, but it is also very relevant. If you write, and you put yourself and your writing out there, you are daily going to feel as if you are shouting this phrase, this blinking ‘Hello, World’ out into the void of an Internet that does not know you exist.

          Sometimes you may get lucky, you may receive a reply, a voice in the darkness letting you know that you have been heard, but more often than not your efforts will meet, at least initially, with nothing more than crickets. Try not to despair. Most writers become acquainted with the deafening silence of the non-response. If you are going to succeed you have to keep moving forward, often not even knowing if anyone is reading at all.


So What Are The Numbers?

          Okay, you’re pretty sure that you are being read, but how many people are reading you? No problem. You’ve got a 1,000 Twitter followers, 100 fans on Facebook, 150 Instagram followers and ten subscribers. So what’s that, 1,260 readers, right?

           Yeah, I didn’t think so. Believe it or not I’ve been in many professional situations where organizations try to calculate their reach this way, but a simple addition just doesn’t account for overlapping followers.

          Oh you’ve already accounted for that and you have 1,174 unique followers so that’s your readership, right. Well, no, not really. How many of those followers are clicking through to your site? Well first off a large chunk isn’t even active that day. You have to sort through a lot of noise to find average stats regarding twitter followers, activity, impressions and engagement. I’ll save you the burden of sailing that sea. We’ll use the following blog as our base for metrics:
https://meetedgar.com/blog/201407this-is-why-nobody-sees-your-tweets-2/

          Assuming the post to be accurate only 46% of your twitter followers are active on a given day, so let’s drop your 1,000 followers to 460. Only 34% check multiple times a day and let’s face it, your tweet isn’t reaching all 340 followers that check multiple times a day. I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say your tweet received 200 impressions, or 20% of your audience. That’s a huge benefit of the doubt as I’ve read some analyses that estimate only a 6% average impression or 60 of your 1,000 followers on Twitter. Still, we will go with 200. Great, at least you have 200 readers.

          Wrong. Many of those twitter users saw your post and did nothing about it. Setting overall engagement aside, what is the click-through-rate (CTR) on that tweet? We’ll use the average 1.64% CTR on your full 1,000 followers. That would suggest 16 clicks per tweet. I’m dubious of that average. If we apply that percentage to your impression audience I would imagine that might be more realistic, giving you about three clicks per tweet. Your results may vary of course as the average CTR is actually higher for accounts with fewer followers, decreasing as follower count increases (https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/twitter-increase-clickthrough-rate).

          Blah, blah, blah. Who cares about Twitter click-through-rates and how does that reflect my readership at all? Great point. A click is one factor (of many) that indicates audience engagement. We could go into stats on that as well, but I think we’ll save that for another day (unless you just can’t wait – https://www.google.com/amp/s/sproutsocial.com/insights/twitter-engagement/amp/; warning: this link is from a org with a Twitter analytics service. Great info, but keep in mind they have a product to sell). The point is clicks indicate some engagement and reflect how many persons click through to your site where I am going to guess you have writing available to read. Still even these clicks might bounce right off your site. Let’s assume you have a bounce right of 50%, which is actually not bad. So you have 1.5-8 one time readers from that click on your tweet. I am assuming it is the 1.5 as the numbers are more realistic. Now you just need that one time reader to become a returning visitor and you have earned yourself a reader!

          Depressed yet? This whole conversion can drive a writer to the dumps pretty quickly. Hell, many of us writers are the cliche, anti-social hermits. We barely socialize let alone like to market and this is the return on our invested time. It can be enough to make you walk away and call it quits for your blog.

          What about site analytics you say? Assuming they are functioning correctly you can get some measure of readership. I suggest looking at your monthly returning visitors. Still there is some measure of uncertainty. And that is the whole point even if you are being read, it can be extremely difficult to know if more than a few friends are reading your work. So, brace yourself for that.


Get Them Engaged!

          Yes, engaging your followers, building up a community can get you reads, but that is so much easier said than done. Moreover, everyone seems to have different ways to engage their audience, so what it means to engage can be somewhat unclear.

          Again, I’ll focus on twitter for now, but some of this will be relevant elsewhere. So first off, what does it mean to be engaged? What exactly is engagement? I like to use as many sources as possible, so let’s jump over to SEO Chat and Sprout Social on this one (http://www.seochat.com/c/a/social/twitter-engagement-measure/ & https://sproutsocial.com/insights/twitter-engagement/).

          Engagements on twitter include:

  • Retweets
  • @Mentions
  • Favorites / Likes
  • Follows
  • Replies
  • Profile Clicks
  • Permalink Clicks
  • Tweet Expansion Clicks
  • Link Clicks


          As a writer I’m thinking of the Follows (build an audience), Retweets (expand my reach), LIkes (pique interest), and link clicks (potential conversion to readers).

          Still to get those engagement metrics, I need to first engage the audience. There it gets trickier. There are a few tactics here: http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/twitter-tactics-to-increase-engagement/ and here: https://adespresso.com/academy/blog/23-strategies-increase-twitter-engagement/. I can’t vouch for all of them, but I’ll pull out a few that I’m currently exploring or actively using.

  • Tweet during daytime hours
  • Tweet on Saturday and Sunday
  • Use images in your tweets
  • Ask for retweets
  • Use hashtags
  • Include links
  • Calls to action
  • Engage with your followers and other users
  • Retweet others
  • Respond if someone tweets at you
  • Find out your peak hours
  • Twitter ads
  • Offer quality content
  • Space out your tweets
  • Ask questions


          Some additional ideas include:

  • Poll your audience
  • Know your audience / Target your content
  • Research your hashtags
  • Seek out the right audience


          We’re going to need more time to speak to that last point, because no matter how much you engage, if you aren’t targeting the right audience, you’re not going to convert a meaningful amount of readers. And that is the whole point of this, right? Finding readers. If you haven’t picked up on it, building a following isn’t enough. You have to create engaged followers that will read your writing, and that, that takes a lot more work than it would seem at first glance. Bear with me, because I’m still pushing through on this one.

          And now that I have completely dragged you down, I’ve gotta go. We’ll pick this up again in a couple weeks, after next week’s monthly status update, and I’ll see if I can’t pick you back up. More coming soon…

          Happy Writing, All!

Diving Into Polls

© Arbi Babakhanaians | ID 6533043

By Chris Hutton


          This week, we’re taking a break from my 7 Lessons Learned series to announce a new feature on the site… or, perhaps more appropriately, a new feature that I am exploring for my author’s platform. If you haven’t already noticed, I’ve created a polls section on the main navigation. Periodically I will be pushing new polls onto the page. My intention here is to provide the opportunity for my readers to more actively engage with the content creation for this site.


Topics:

          To that end, I will be asking about such topics as:


          Upcoming Story Types:

          My first poll provided the option to vote on one of my upcoming stories and whether it should be horror or science fiction and how long of a story you as a reader would like to see.


          Prompts:

          In the near future I intend to request story prompts, whether a line of dialogue, a title, or a phrase. After I collect a set number I shall post my favorites in a poll on which my readers can vote to choose the prompt for an upcoming story.


          Preferences:

          What genres do my readers prefer? What story lengths are most suited to their reading style? What content engages you in social media? Basically, I may poll about general preferences to better understand what my audience enjoys.


          Getting to Know You:

          Quick polls on topics such as preferred authors, favorite books, films, etc.


Why, Why, Why?

          Every time I think that I have begun to understand social media I slip just a littler further down the rabbit hole. That doesn’t quite answer the question, does it?

          I started looking into social media polling with one simple goal: engage my audience. I wanted to encourage a back and forth communication between myself and my readers and to help generate a sense of community. Polls seemed like a great way to do this. I could ask a reader what type of story they wanted to read next or if they enjoyed some types of content more than others. Essentially, I could allow my readers, you, to have a voice in what content I create.

          Sounds good, right?

          Well, it doesn’t work unless you can get your readers to take the survey. Or find your readers. I have a lot of followers, but that doesn’t mean I have a lot of readers. I wish it did. I’d be ecstatic to have some 3,000+ readers. Hell, I’d be ecstatic to have 100, or even 10 that I don’t know. I have plenty of followers, but very little evidence of how many people are actually reading my work.

          One kernel of advice that I came across recently suggested that it is better to have 100 engaged followers than 1,000 inactive followers – or something to that effect. I’ve seen this same sentiment in so many permutations in various blogs now that I’ve lost count. The point is that in building a community of actively engaged readers, you create a lifetime audience rather than a passive reader that maybe checks your site once or twice and then never again.

          Hell, I came across a whole article on how to get your first 500 engaged twitter followers (though coincidentally that had nothing to do with polls). Yet the point stands. Engagement is key. Polls are one way I am seeking to create that engagement.

          Is it working? Well, I just started so I can’t really say yet.I can, however, say that I am currently lost in a sea of polling apps and articles on online surveys and marketing. Personally I’d love some advice to cut through the noise. I barely know where to begin. So I guess, if you’re reading this, hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, and/or my progress depending on how this goes. Also, if you happen to know of a polling app that embeds polls directly in social media posts and websites across Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress, while sharing votes across all platforms, please let me know. That’s the current Holy Grail for which I quest.


Should I care?

          That’s all good and all, but why am I telling you this?

          That’s a fair question. I could have simply started a poll on my site and left it at that; but that doesn’t guarantee my interested readers would know about it. How often do you check a site’s main navigation to see if it has been updated? If you are like me, probably not too often. You look for changes on the front page (which I am still exploring), and you read the new content. So, dedicating a blog seemed like a good way to get readers aware that I had begun polling and why I was doing so.

          Plus, I tried to post it under the radar, but, well, it remained under the radar. I put out my first poll and received two votes (technically four, but two were me testing the polling system, so I don’t think that they count). The point is, my first week of polling did not go so well, and I thought that a blog post might at least raise some awareness.


Quick Resources on Social Media Polling

          That being said, if you’re interested in increasing your own social media engagement for your author platform, my primary advice is to do your own research. I’m just getting started, so what do I know? However, if that doesn’t sound so appealing, feel free to piggyback off of some of mine. Here are some articles for you. I’ll update this blog entry in the future as I explore the topic more.


4 Facebook Tools for Your Social Media Strategy

Focused specifically on Facebook, the article provides a brief argument in favor in polling then jumps into reviews on 4 different Facebook polling tools.


5 Reasons to Include Polling in Your Social Media Strategy

This one is more relevant to companies and brands, but most of its takeaways can still be applied to writers and bloggers.


11 Ways Marketers Use Twitter Polls

Quick callouts to different uses for polls and clear examples of each. I wasn’t convinced I’d find it useful when I clicked the link but after reading through it, I am already rethinking my polling strategy. I even just posted my first Twitter poll, so there we go. And in ten minutes I’ve had more engagement with the twitter poll than the one on my site had in an entire week. That’s something.


How to Use Twitter Polls to Engage Your Audience: 13 Examples from Real Brands

Another article on effectively using Twitter polls to engage your audience. Huh. There’s that keyword, again: engage.


How to Supercharge Your Social Media Presence with Online Surveys

An article reviewing the pros of engaging your social media audience with surveys.


          Anyway, I hope that this is useful to someone.

          Happy Writing (and Polling), All!