Tracking the Muse

By Elizabeth Hardage

For once the ocean view matched Stan's mood: a grayish-green mass of water that roared and pummeled the sand in its rage. Rain lashed at the windows in nearly horizontal lines; on the remaining dunes the sea oats lay flat, as if they'd been trampled.

A sugary, familiar voice pitched itself above the din of wind and water. "Stan, Melvin's just been upgraded to a Category 5. Shouldn't we evacuate now?"

"Quit your whining, Mel, you know I do my best writing during emergencies. And a storm this size is downright inspirational."

"I'm not inspirational enough?" Mel's voice, synthesized to what the manufacturers called 'a charming Southern drawl', stretched the first word to three syllables, sounding saccharine and petulant at the same time. Generic Southern, thought Stan, closer to Grand Old Opry than to the soft, measured speech of the Outer Banks. Voices that echoed rolling waves, a hint of iodine, the huskiness and tang of good tobacco, all underpinned by the speech of Elizabethan England: that was the accent he'd grown up with and never managed to lose, one of the many things he'd never hear from his so-called Muse.

"I never said that, Mel." The Net connection was still up, and Mel would flash any negative comments he made straight back to Washington. With a last look at the raging surf, Stan pulled himself to his feet, went to the front windows, and set them to Hurricane mode. Carbon-fiber-and-steel eyelids, two inches thick, blinked slowly down over the eyes of the beach house. "Besides, this house is about as storm-ready as you can get."

"This is no way to avoid a deadline, Stan."

"And I won't. Bet you I can finish the opening sequence before we lose our connection." He stood up and paced across the room, the myoelectric brace on his left leg whooshing slightly as he walked. "A Tribute to American Heroes, Part Ten: Into the Teeth of the Storm. As the first rounds of enemy fire, like the rain bands of a hurricane, fell upon the 41st Infantry, they paused only long enough to check their protective gear, then plunged forward, into the very heart of the storm. Though only a handful would come through this battle alive--"

"Stan." Mel's screen flashed warning yellow. "Nice storm imagery, but way too negative. HQ wants uplifting, not depressing. You've got to put what these soldiers accomplished ahead of the body count."

Stan took several deep breaths before his reply. He could feel his own storm build behind his eyes. The buddies he'd lost, from Azerbaijan to Yemen, the use of his left leg, the tributes he'd written to his fallen comrades (Part Ten? howled a voice inside him, Jesus, how many times do we need to fight this damn war?), all fed the hurricane within.

"Mel," he said, just to keep his lips moving, "you know, we used to get twenty, thirty years between the big hurricanes. Gave the barrier islands and the people who lived on 'em time to recover. Ocean's warmed up a hell of a lot to get these monsters every few years. Won't be any Outer Banks in thirty years, at this rate."

Mel's screen flickered from yellow to orange. Storm-related power failure, or a reaction to his implied criticism of national climate policy? Stan was betting on the latter. Even if she lost her feed she had a good twenty-four hours' worth of power.

Impatience seeped into her artificially modulated voice, vinegar dripping into the saccharine. "Stan, honey, let's put the heroic back into your tribute to our fallen heroes, and get at least the opener back to HQ, okay? I can only hold them off for so long, and if I can't support you..."

That was all she had to say, normally, to get a first draft out of Stan. He knew the rules: without a Muse he couldn't access the corporate networks, wouldn't be considered for the contracts he had, with their respectable paychecks and even better contacts. Leaving Mel, or pissing her off to the point where she left him, would finish his career. There were "independent" journalists, of course, pecking away on ancient, Museless computers, uploading their rants to the public boards and begging for contributions; but that was no way to make a living.

Static came into Mel's voice; the rain bands must be passing overhead, soon to be followed by the storm surge and the real winds. The beach house groaned above him.

The cluster of lights on Mel's left side blinked out; she'd lost contact with HQ.

"Stan," she pleaded. "Let's pump up your opener, make it just a teensy bit more positive, and get to the shelter. You do have a shelter, don't you?"

"I do, Mel." He paced back to the north wall and opened the long black pod, roughly man-sized, that rested against it. "Ever seen one of these, Mel?" He didn't wait for her answer. "Of course you haven't. They don't officially exist. Drop pods. Navy SEALs used 'em for night missions, until the bad guys got drill bombs. They'll stand up to just about everything else."

"I'm not going to ask where you got that from."

"Military surplus, Mel, nothing illegal about it. Just trying to help my fellow soldiers, buying the stuff they can't use any more to finance the never-ending war."

"Stan." There was no sugar in her voice now. Mel's screen pulsed a steady red. "Stop this line of reasoning right now. You'll only get us in trouble."

He pulled out the wetsuit, got his right leg in, and eased the myoelectric brace off of the left leg. Couldn't risk snagging the wetsuit. Without the brace his left leg was limp as spaghetti, but he wasn't going to be walking. Not now.

"Stan, your brace." Mel's voice sweetened ever so slightly. "You can hardly walk without aren't planning anything foolish, are you? You need to make it, Stan. Those young men and women, their families, they need you. You and your inspiration."

"Isn't the inspiration part your job?" If he sat down on the lip of the pod door he could balance long enough to wriggle into the sleeves of his wetsuit and zip it closed.

Her voice dipped into flirtation. "Stan, you big silly, it's your words. Your talent. I'm just here to help you along. Keep you motivated. Let your words find the right ears."

Boots. Gloves. Face mask. Oxygen tank. Stan ticked each item off of his internal checklist. The beach house now shook under the wind, howling louder than Mel could shout; but strangely enough, his internal storm had subsided. Out of the storm's path, or in its eye? He found he didn't care.

"Stan. The storm's ashore now, we're almost directly under it." Mel was screaming now, her voice straining with effort. "The winds--"

"Should be gusting at about one hundred and thirty miles per hour." Stan lowered himself into the pod, made a final check of its contents. "Not good news for the house, I'm afraid."

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

"No, Mel."

He closed the pod door. If the pod was strong enough to withstand the winds, and whatever debris they might carry...if he didn't drift out to sea...if he had enough oxygen, and the pod remained watertight...if Mel didn't survive the storm and report him for subversion, he might just come out of this a free man. A lot of ifs, but he'd been in dicier places than this.

Outside Mel and the winds shrieked; the water roared; but Stan found himself laughing.