family stories [non-fiction excerpt]

In 1943, my maternal grandfather almost blew up.

He was in the Navy, during WWII, and flew in planes for maintenance when they moved from island to island. The Pacific was a chasm of unpredictable violence, but in his memoir, he wrote that he enjoyed the adventure.

Grandpop switched out shifts with his friend one day. The man needed more service hours in order to get transferred back to the mainland. Grandpop agreed to help out and his friend took his spot on the plane.

The plane, which happened to be carrying all of his friends, exploded that afternoon. It was an accident.

Mom tells me that day haunted grandpop for the rest of his life. I can’t say I blame him, though the idea of guilt over what could have been has never affected me personally. It’s always what has been that haunts me.

It’s almost exhilarating to think about that close call now, because it’s almost like I’m spectating on the events I had no direct connection to, that happened two generations ago. The unpredictability and impossibility of that coincidence and, subsequently my very existence, fascinates me in the most uncomfortable of ways.

I try to speculate the possibility of not existing because of it and I really can’t, because I’m already here.

*

I almost failed to exist again in 1944, when my paternal grandparents were flying in their tiny plane down to Georgia for their honeymoon. How they could afford a plane during World War II has remained a mystery to my dad and his brothers, since they never thought to ask their parents while they were still alive.

Grandma Washburn is a legend to me, because everyone swears I would have liked her. She beat a copperhead to death with a frying pan in her fireplace once, down in Tennessee. She was a skilled, awarded marksman; her rifle’s still upstairs in the attic. She couldn’t navigate well, but she could fly an airplane when I can’t even drive a car.

While flying down in their plane, they stopped in a valley in Tennessee for the night before trying to leave the next day. The air was so heavy, dad told me, grandma couldn’t get over the ridge. Grandpa was navigating for her and knew they had to get over before they reached a restricted zone he spotted on the map.

They made it just in time, a few minutes before getting to the restricted zone, and went on their way.

A couple years later, grandpa looked it up and realized they had almost flown over Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Atomic City. The birthplace of the Manhattan Project, where they built the Bomb.

“They would have been blown out of the sky,” dad told me and I believe it.

It’s easy to think about the what-ifs, when we know just a few minutes separated the possibility and impossibility of my future birth. I find some sort of comfort in the idea that this story connects our family to something larger, even if it was just a speck in the grander story of Oak Ridge or the war.

I wonder if, had they gone over the line, if anyone would have known it happened at all.

freedom was relative [novel excerpt]

Freedom was relative, I had learned. Freedom that was given to us was always confining, always with strings attached.

Freedom without those strings meant an immoral lifestyle, I had always believed. But now—how was something immoral if you did not define immoral the same way as the rest of the world did? What was moral? What was immoral?

Everything is relative, I realized, reveling in a heartbreak I could not fathom.

“There are few people like us, and I make sure they know it, who don’t need the helping hand of government,” Nicodemus said. He held up both of his hands and smiled. “Because our grip is just as strong, but entirely our own.”

I looked down slowly, my heart slowing in cold rhythm, when I realized my left hand was naked and alone clasping the ledge.

For a long second, I was mesmerized by the terror.

“Do you understand?” Nicodemus asked.

“No,” I said, fear and elation fighting for dominance in my chest. I couldn’t—I didn’t understand anything.

“If every person in this world, in this country alone, held on by themselves, they would consume each other or fall to their deaths. They are not our equals, not in our ability to be free of all control by our own skill and luck. We are the smartest, the wisest, the ones who can control our senses and desires into rational logic,” he said, words tearing holes into the very foundations of my being. “We do what we must because we must, do you understand? No death is for nothing, no heist is done in vain. Governments fear us not because we operate by different rules. They fear us because we don’t need their rules.”

Every breath hurt, but not worse than his words. “Make our own rules?” I asked, teeth chattering.

That was it? Was that all it took—to achieve freedom? Not sacrificing our true selves, our own morals—but by simply making them our own, no matter what the government thought?

We just took the blocks from their walls to build our own paradise on Earth.

“You make your own life,” Nicodemus said, fondness tender in his voice. He nodded his head toward the world beyond me. “Tell me that’s not beautiful.”

He meant for me to look, back at the dizzying heights I was currently at. Insane, illogical—I was compelled to comply.

My throat numb in the frigid air, I slowly bent back as far as I could go. My arm shook violently and almost instantly I wanted to cling back to the wall as I felt the openness of the air truly envelope my body.

But I took one more moment to stare out past my fear and I was faced with New Oxford’s night.

In that single moment, I forgot my hand. I forgot the strain on my body. I forgot the fear of falling. All I saw was the city, but beyond that, I saw…

I saw everything.

The lights of the cityscape were my stars, the blanket of darkness between them was my universe, but my sun—I was the sun. I was the glorious center of the entirety of my vision. I had no need for gravity or laws of nature. I was the sum, the total, the beginning, and the end.

I was the center of it all, because I was the one who was leaning out into oblivion. It was my hand that stopped my death. It was my strength, and mine alone, that kept me aloft. I was godless. I was a god. I was more powerful in that single, breathless moment that any man alive could ever hope to be.

In that single moment, I understood what Nicodemus was telling me. I understood the meaning of the Manigoldo. We were lawless not for the sense of doing what I wanted, when I wanted. I understood while hanging off the side of that building that it was gravity that was my only threat. It was nature. Not a man holding my hand to hold or release me.

We stole, we cheated, we harmed, we killed; we did all sorts of things made evil by man’s law.

But we were free. We were free from any and all limits imposed by that human hand. We were as free as the wind, as the very air, because we were above all the rest. We were without government, because no government, no law, could ever hope to hold us as securely as we held ourselves.

Unable to breathe, I choked back the rush of adrenaline, the rush of heartbreak that was born from the realization that after that moment, there was no going back. I had found what my empty heart had always wanted. I had found what was missing from my soul.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, tears streaking down my face and free-falling upwards to the ground below.

AIs don’t know how to love [romance, m/m]

Close calls are reinforcing moments, in so many ways. There is no one to patch him up. There is only a literal voice in his head that bitterly curses him for every bullet scrape or narrow escape from Recovery agents, because Alex wouldn’t goddamn listen half the time. Alex calls him paranoid for the fifth time and only then does Zeta hear the insult and respond.

He responds in ways that Alex would not have understood years ago. But drowning in his head comes in two flavors: madness and something he wanted to call boiling hunger.

Zeta consumes him. Mind, body and what’s left of his soul.

During those moments, there is no line between them. There are no boundaries. Alex is granted clarity and vision into what constitutes AI thought and feeling. They don’t feel with bodies—gasping bursts of anger, headaches born from tears, fear that stops breath—but they feel in ways that go beyond a single moment or words to define them.

There are no words for what Zeta feels. Alex merely knows. He knows everything in those moments and tries to hold onto that knowledge, before it slips away, along with Zeta in retreat.

But what Alex feels is real. Or as real as anything gets for him anymore.

Hot fingers drag over his thighs, sinking into his pelvic bone, crushing and real—but it’s not real. But there are nails on his arms, his shoulder blades, digging deep into his muscles and he’s left on the brink of belief in impossibilities.

He comes on the breath of someone else’s name—always someone else. Sometimes Carrie, sometimes Allison, sometimes Zeta himself.

Zeta wants to feel that—what Alex feels, what Alex is. That’s clear enough. It makes sense. Zeta is a creature literally born from loss. His madness is partially brought on by a perpetual sense of being incomplete.

When he feels Alex—digs in deep, feeling straight through Alex, through every nerve, feels Alex dig just as deeply into Zeta—he feels whole, Zeta tells him. Just for a brief moment, they are whole.

It’s the only thing Alex can offer the AI, and for whatever dangers Zeta brought into his life, Alex owes him.

Zeta had been made for him, like a weapon or tool or another addition to his armor. It was because of Alex that he had been carved and shaped and born, even if Alex hadn’t been the one holding the knife.

If that had not broken them, it certainly had bound them together.

Alex allows Zeta to consume him, because in some ways, he needs this, too.

AIs don’t know how to love.

Alex figures that, sometimes, people don’t either.

Possession is nine-tenths of passion, he decides.

that first time [romance, m/f]

She smelled like sweat and the rough matting of the training room floor.

“That your first kiss, Len-nerd?” she whispered, breath hot on his face, which was already burning.

“N-ngh—no-o—,” he stammered. Holy shit.

Tal kissed him again, but didn’t linger that long, her lips drawing out his with lazy intent.

“I saw you watching me practice,” she said, still speaking lowly, like sharing a secret.

Leo’s brain was literally about to explode.

“I wasn’t—” he began, voice hitting a rather embarrassing pitch.

Tal was practically pinning him to the wall. Leo gulped when her felt her hand slide under his shirt.

“I’m in a good mood,” she said, clearly and infuriatingly amused. She braced her arms near his head, draping her head towards his, speaking into the curve of his ear. “It’s up to you if you wanna share it. I could always go find somebody else. That blondie with the cat t-shirt who just came in last week looked like he could use the chance to unwind.”

Leo felt like he was burning up. He stared at her and tried to find something coherent to say. “I…”

“You what?” Tal asked, taunting.

For whatever reason, that made him angry.

And for whatever reason, the best response his brain came up with was to grab her face and slam it into his.

He had no experience with kissing or making out or whatever it was called. He had seen maybe three love making scenes in films he had seen with the other soldiers, who had all cheered or made lewd comments that never really made sense to him.

Thankfully, he was beginning to realize that it wasn’t like a detailed process Daniel might have liked. Leo was moving in a way that he wasn’t objectively planning; his body did its own thing. His lips moved on their own, with his teeth clacking into Tal’s until she drowned him out.

She pulled back suddenly, both of them breathing heavily.

“You call that a kiss?” she asked, eyes bright like stars.

“Shut up,” Leo hissed, grabbing the back of her head, digging his fingers into her scalp. She only grinned against his lips.

It wasn’t in his hands for long. She was the one who pushed them back towards the bed. Leo grunted when she was suddenly straddling him, pressing down into his hips in a way that made the fire in his face spread all over. Tal pulled away from the kiss, which Leo was grateful for; he fought to catch his breath.

“You got protection?” she asked briskly, as if they were on a timed schedule.

His brain wasn’t exactly working on full thrusters at that point. “Uh—”

It didn’t do much good for his pride when she rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Naturally.” She set to work unbuckling her military fatigues. “Just don’t cum inside.”

“Inside—?” he asked, before being rudely interrupted when Tal shoved her hand down his pants. “Christ—!”

Tal was a beautiful woman. Even Leo knew that. He had seen plenty of guys gawking after her out of armor, at least, for the first few days. People got scared of her quick, but Leo knew that that wouldn’t keep most hot-blooded males away. Maybe she hadn’t hated her so badly, Rachel would have been gawking, too. He wasn’t going to deny having thought about her, oh, once or twice.

Leo knew that arguing at that point was stupid, for two reasons. The first was that Tal seemed pretty intent on getting what she wanted when she wanted it.

The second was that he would likely not get this sort of chance again.

So, he took it.

He was almost eighteen. He knew what sex was and what it should have felt like. It was hard to tell, then, if the intensity of it all was just because it was Tal—because Tal was intense. Tal was fire all over. Her touch made it difficult to breathe when she yanked his shirt off and he barely realized he was supposed to help her with hers. He was clumsy—fingers getting tangled in the clasp of her bra, fumbling to untangle his feet as she kicked off her boots and he barely kicked his sneakers off before she tugged his sweatpants down to his knees.

If it weren’t for the fact that it wasn’t Gamma’s style, Leo would have imagined it was some sort of mean mind game prank.

But it wasn’t.

It was real.

It was real enough that every bit of him was burning hot and electric flashes. It was different with another person. It was different and scarier and better in every capacity.

Tal dragged out his name over his bared neck and he could only answer a shuddered gasp.

Leo had no idea how long they fucked. It really wasn’t anything drawn out, like he had always seen in movies. He had never expected it to be like that; the sarcastic comments from Gavin or other agents in passing confirmed movies were all fake and fluff. Fucking was fucking, as Rachel had once eloquently told the entire mess hall while Carrie buried her face into her hand, embarrassed.

Still.

Lying there, on his own bed and thoroughly exhausted from something that had nothing to do with the Project for once, Leo felt like it been a lot longer than it had been. It was stranger to realize that it had actually happened. Getting laid, as Taylor would crudely put it, had certainly not been on his game plan for the evening. It did not match up to any expectations of reality that he had for himself at all, actually.

It hadn’t been making love, because Tal was anything but gentle and Leo was relatively certain love was a myth, but it still…

Turning his head to see Tal rolling over to the side, draping herself in a strange sort of modesty with his bed sheet, Leo found it difficult to say much.

Tal had ended up on her side, facing him with her head tucked into her arm. She was playing with the edge of the sheet that just barely hid most of her breasts. Leo stared at her face, unsure what came next.

“That was your first time, wasn’t it?” she eventually asked, at complete ease as she stared at him.

Leo scowled. “Shut up.”

That earned him an eyebrow arch. “It wasn’t terrible, if that’s any consolation.”

“Fuck off, bitch,” he muttered into the crook of his arm as he raised it over his eyes.

Despite that, Tal only snorted in amusement and stilled, apparently not in a hurry to get up. Leo enjoyed that moment of peace and quiet, still reeling from all angles.

Well, he thought, it could have been worse.

They had lain there for a few more minutes. Leo heard his own breathing even out, like he wasn’t really there doing the breathing himself. Tal barely made any sound when she didn’t want to, he realized. It was a little unnerving, but laying there next to her, both of them naked on his own bed, made it strangely easier to be that close to her. It sure made her seem more human than ever before to him.

“I remember when I first saw you, in the labs,” Tal said, breaking the silence. She sounded thoughtful. “I thought, what the fuck are they doing with a scrawny little shit like you? I thought the Director was all about winners.”

Leo turned his head to stare at her, unsure of what she was getting at. Tal stared back, blond hair hanging down in strands in front of her face. She stared at him with those expectant blue eyes.

“But I guess I was wrong,” she said, shrugging, looking away.

“What that fuck is that supposed to mean?” Leo asked, his own eyes narrowed.

“Nothing.” Tal suddenly sat up, displacing the blanket. “I got to go.”

Leo felt a twinge of something in his gut, but he forced himself to close his eyes again. “Whatever.”

People left. That’s what everyone did. Sometimes, they came back, but there were no constants. Daniel and Teddy had moved away and he barely saw them anymore. He never wanted to see Oliver or Samuel, but even Gary and the twins were kept at a distance. He never had the same handler twice in a row. Caroline sure as fuck never lingered.

Of course, Tal had to go.

He didn’t watch her grab her shirt and throw it on, not bothering with her bra. She shook the bed as she slipped back into her fatigues and Leo idly turned his head as she stood. He saw a flash of a tattoo at the base of her spine. He wasn’t sure what it had been. Maybe a star.

“Hey, Leonard,” Tal said, grabbing her left boot and shoving her foot into it.

“What?”

“Wanna date?”