Anatomy of a Disaster

This story is terrible. No, really, it is bad. The thing is, though, that not only did I not realize it was bad until I reread it, it shouldn’t be bad at all. During and after the writing process — which was one of my short bursts of writing after an idea prompted me — I thought I had a good handle on the idea, the narrative and the prose. I do believe I went 0 for 3 here.

The basic story is a viable one, I think, as is the general plot structure and the character sketches. But none of those things managed to come together in a coherent way. I also loaded it with too many “neat ideas” that aren’t bad in and of themselves, but really have no place in a short-short of this sort.

So, why am I sharing it anyway? My inclination was to bury it among all the other failed works on my hard drive (or in The Cloud, anyway) but then I read something by Neil Gaiman today:

I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you’re writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you’re writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you’re still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.

What follows isn’t quite Smeagol-Gollum slash fic, but it is putting one damn word after another.

The pirates floated a mile away from their target, their little fishing boat indistinguishable from any other save for the .50 caliber machine gun mounted at the prow. Kesi stood near the gun. Her bare toes tried to grip the deck as the ship listed with the gentle ocean waves. She could have reached out and used the weapon to steady herself, but she was afraid to touch it. The only time she had ever seen and heard it fired had been when it cut her father and older brothers down, when the pirates had taken her. She knew in her head the gun had no magic in it, but in her heart she could hear the warning tut of her grandmother not to touch so evil a thing.

Bahdoon peered through his binoculars, adjusting the dials and touching the buttons frequently. When he was satisfied with what he saw, he laughed out loud and said, “Get her ready!”

The other pirates, there were five of them on the little boat, set to work on Kesi. Two grabbed her narrow shoulders and forced her on to her knees. Another man called Cabaas pulled a heavy wooden box from beneath a bench and flipped it open with a clatter. He rummaged through for a minute, eventually recovering two object. One he tossed to Bahdoon and the other, a long cylinder, he brought over to Kesi. He leered at the girl as he pulled off her ragged shirt, leaving her almost naked.

Kesi did not struggle or even meet his eyes. When they had first captured her, she had resisted. They beat her often enough and bad enough that she learned not to do that any more. When Cabaas pulled the cylinder apart, revealing a long, wide needle, she did not flinch. That would have inspired only laughter and derision. When he stabbed in in the chest with it, she did not cry out, though she did bite her lower lip hard enough to cause it to bleed. She could not help but cough and sputter as he injected the liquid into her lung, but she tried not to cry out in terror at the feeling of drowning. She knew in her mind that she would not, but her thundering heart did not listen.

After a few moments, she had stopped wheezing, hacking and convulsing — and breathing.

“Let her go,” ordered Bahdoon and the two pirates who held her complied. “Come here,” he said to her and she complied, too. He pressed the binoculars to her eyes and turned her head roughly to point her in the right direction. “You see it?” he demanded.

“Yes,” she tried to say, forgetting that the strange gel in her lungs made her unable to talk. She nodded instead.

Through the binoculars, Kesi could see a long, low vessel, a barge. It was easily the size of a soccer field, stacked from top to bottom with bales of trach. The bales were huge, as large as he hovel in her village, and they glistened in the sun with their plastic and metal and screens. It was another recycling barge, carrying the cast off electronics of the Americans to the Chinese who would scrape the valuable minerals inside and then melt them down. There were no people aboard, she knew, but it was well protected by cameras and by eyes far above them, beyond the top of the sky.

Bahdoon took the binoculars back and hung them around his neck. He knelt down to Kesi’s eye level and shoved the item Cabaas had given him in her face. It metallic, black and rectangular, about the size of Bahdoon’s hand. A few lights and buttons could be seen on its surface, though on the one Bahdoon held the lights were not illuminated. “You remember?” he demanded and Kesi nodded. “Bring back as many as you can.” He slapped her hard across the face. “Bring back none and I give you to them.” He motioned his head in the direction of Cabaas and the other pirates. She averted her eyes and nodded her assent.

Bahdoon took a mesh bag from one of the pirates and tied it around her waist. “Now go!” he barked. Before she could even move to the edge of the boat, Cabass was on her. He lifted her, sure to slip his hand between her legs as he did so, and gleefully threw her overboard. “Hurry!” yelled Bahdoon. “Before your lungs need real air.”

Hiding her face from the pirates so they could not see her scowl, Kesi dover beneath the surface and swam for the barge.
Kesi was a good swimmer, very good. She was strong and fast and did not tire. That she could swim so well was what had saved her life. When Bahdoon and his men had attacked, as they sprayed death into her brothers and father, Kesi dove into the water and tried to escape. At first, the pirates did not shoot her because they were amused and they wanted to capture her alive to rape her. But as they drove their boat behind her and saw how fast and how far she could swim, Bahdoon saw another purpose for her.

They caught her, pulled her out of the water and beat her. Bahdoon stopped the others from raping her, though. That he reserved as a threat. If she did not behave, Bahdoon said, they would have her. It was enough to caw the terrified girl.

Bahdoon was smart and he had formed a plan. For better or worse, Kesi was part of it. She was safe, so far, from their violent lust, but she was a slave and was forced to help them steal.
“It is hardly stealing!” Bahdoon said the first time. “This is trash the Americans threw away! And if the Chinese are too lazy to guard it, then it is ours by right.”

Kesi was a simple fisherman’s daughter, but she was wise enough to see the lie in that. The Chinese had bought and paid for the contents of the barges and were willing to protect them. Some pirates decided to simply attack the barges, taking the most valuable electronics and then scuttling the barge. All this did was invite the ire of the Chinese and now they had ships, planes and sky-eyes everywhere. Bahdoon was more subtle, though. he knew the most valuable items on the barge, the superconductor cells, were worth their weight in far more than gold. To the Americans and Chinese, they were abundant. They could be thrown away or recycled for their materials. But to the Somalis, they were priceless. Bahdoon did not need a big ship and a lot of pirates to steal from the barges. He only needed a small girl who could swim like a dolphin.

That she could not breath like a dolphin was a problem, but Bahdoon was lucky. He knew the American special forces soldiers used a gel that they put in their lungs that freed them from needing to breath. he had witnessed it, when Navy SEALS attacked a boat on which he was crewed years before, swimming with little gear from impossibly far away. Acquiring some of the gel from corruptible American soldiers was easy.

Now, with the gel in her lungs, Kesi was truly a dolphin. She wondered if she might get far enough away to escape the pirates, but knew it was futile. In the vast open ocean, there was no place to go. She sometimes considered staying on the barge, as well, but had dismissed it after realizing that even if she survived without food and water all the way to the Chinese port where the barge would dock, she was no safer from abuse or rape among them than the pirates. No. She was resigned. In a way, she took pride in her importance to Bahdoon’s plan and she had no intention of giving him a reason to give her to Cabaas.
Kesi swam for just over twenty minutes. For the first few minutes, she remained on the surface. She could feel the machine gun pointed at her. If she dove to quickly, they would fire, assuming she was trying to escape. It was a senseless threat, but threats were all the pirates knew.

After a while she dove beneath the surface and swam a few meters below. She had no goggles so her vision was blurred, but even so she was awed by the life all around her. With the gel in her lungs, she did not have to reach the surface to breath. Only occasionally she would exhale tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. She was not afraid in the ocean, of sharks or rays or jellyfish. Death here and now would be a release and she would die in one of her rare moments of freedom.
As she approached the barge, she could see its barnacle covered hull. It moved slowly, its tireless engines pushing it day and night toward its destination and a pace so slow Kesi could keep up with it. She swam alongside it until she found one of the ladders bolted to its side. Before she climbed, she hung on to the ladder and let the barge pull her along while she rested. She would have liked to stay there for a long time, but the gel only lasted an hour or so, depending on how hard she worked swimming back and forth and searching. Also, if she took too long, Bahdoon would let Cabaas beat her.

She pulled herself up the ladder, climbing out of the water. She hovered at the top of the ladder, scanning the deck. A few fish and crabs would be seen near the edge, likely dropped by seabirds or washed up by waves, but because the trash was all electronics, there was no great cloud of screaming gulls above. Satisfied no terrors awaited her just yet, Kesi pulled herself onto the deck of the barge and tiptoed carefully toward the canyons of stacked bales.

The barge was immense and the amount of garbage was staggering to Kesi. the idea that so much could be simply thrown away baffled her. Her village was made of shacks and lean-tos and huts, almost all built from the refuse of aid workers, corporate projects or rare second hand locally produced materials. her people had nothing to waste because it was all waste.

She began to search. This was the fifth time she had searched a barge for Bahdoon and she knew what to look for now. The devices he wanted her usually installed in other devices, providing essentially limitless power, at least insofar as a small appliance or gadget was concerned. Televisions, refrigerators and similar items were the most likely targets. But because the battery did not need to be changed, it was usually housed deep inside the appliance, so Kesi looked for ones that had been cracked and crushed in being baled for transport. He thin arms could reach into the gaps between the jagged metal and plastic and, if she was lucky and careful, she could retrieve the battery without too many cuts or scrapes.

Unfortunately, Kesi was having little luck. The few open appliances she found early on did not have batteries. Perhaps the Americans were realizing how foolish it had been to throw such things away. Just a handful of the things would power her entire village. Just one would work the waterpump the United Nations people brought forever. She put such thoughts out of her head. She would never escape to her home, certainly not with a superconductor.

While she searched, Kesi came across a toy. It was in the shape of an elephant, which made Kesi smile. Those strange and majestic creatures were gone forever, but the idea that little children in America wanted toys of them filled Kesi with a kind of child’s pride. She knew Bahdoon would not let her keep it, but she put it under one arm anyway. She would leave it in the water before he returned to the pirates’ boat, letting toy elephants go extinct, too.

A few moments later, Kesi found a strange black cube about two feet to a side. She was able to wiggle it free of the trash bale and when it clattered to the deck, she saw that one side was bent aside, exposing the innards. What it was, she could not begin to guess. Kesi set her elephant beside her and reached inside the machine, searching by feel for the prized cuboid.

At the same time her fingers found it, Kesi heard the popping sound. It was faint and distant, but unmistakable: the .50 caliber. Fear gripped her but still she groped inside the machine. Something sharp bit her wrist but she kept feeling until her fingers found the release screws. There was more popping, but different. It was faster and fainter. Then silence. She could not see the water from within the labyrinth of trash bales. She worked her fingers as fast as she could, but the blood from her wound made them slippery.

As she removed one screw after another, letting it fall inside the machine, she could hear a sound growing. It was like a rush of wind and the beating of hooves all at once. In her heart, she knew who — who — it was, and she knew there was no purpose in what she was doing, but nonetheless she fervently worked to free the battery. The sound became unbearable, amplified as it echoed off the deck and against the canyon walls. Then a shadow fell over her and she felt hot wind blast her and toss bits of free detritus at her.

Kesi did not look up. She could not force herself to do so. Instead, she released the last screw and caught the battery in her sticky-slick fingers. The shadow left her and the wind died down. She could hear the aircraft hover for a moment before descending to a clear part of the barge deck. She pulled her hand free and saw her prize, covered in her blood. But it was hers, for she knew there was no Bahdoon left to give it to, no Cabaas left to threaten her. The sound of the aircrafts engines quieted but did not stop and she could hear booted feet pounding the deck as men raced toward her. Quickly, she pulled open the back of the elephant and shoved the battery inside, then snapped the back shut again.

She hugged the elephant tightly as the men surrounded her. They were in armor and wore helmets and pointed rifles at her. On their uniforms was the symbol of the nation of China. She tried to speak, but the gel was still in her lungs and she could not. One soldier advanced on her and she bawled silently. He reached for her and she wished she could scream. He grabbed her and for just a brief moment, she wanted Bahdoon back, even Cabaas.

The soldier held her, pressing her against his armor. “Shh,” he whispered. “It’s okay,” he said in practiced but odd sounding Somali. “You are safe now.”

She hugged the Chinese soldier back, and hugged her elephant.


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