Arlene's shrill voice rose over Dillon's shoulder. "If you spent half the time doing yard work you did in colonizing Mars, we'd have a lawn right now, not crabgrass."
He willed himself not to react, staring at the loaded computer screen instead. The Dellatars were doing just fine in holding their own against the Keltoids, without this additional alien interference.
"For the forty-millionth time, Arlene, this is Zordack, not Mars," he said, the words escaping as a hiss between his teeth. He didn't have to turn to see her indignant scrunched up jowls, or the fire of disdain brimming in her blue-ice eyes. That characterization, he had to a tee. Most days, it was hard to believe this embittered woman of fifty-five was the stunning young brunette who'd captured his imagination twenty-six years ago. But at night, in the popsicle prison of his bed, the metamorphosis was impossible to deny.
"Zordack, Schmordak," she said, dropping a heap on his desk. "See if you can fantasize your way out of this."
Dillon measured his breathing against the sound of her departing footsteps, then cast his eyes to the stack of bills she had laid before him. He didn't need to open an envelope to discern its mystery. Each one, he knew, was at least two months past due.
And damn it, it wasn't like it was his fault. His Zordack series had been doing quite well. Spectacular, according to the then-president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, who'd been generous enough to donate a quote for the jacket of his debut work. The second novel had commanded comparable kudos.
It was this third book that Dillon couldn't seem to get off the ground.
Didn't help that his editor had grown wishy-washy on the whole idea...
"Zordack was fine when you started," Josh said. "Now, try surprising me with something different."
"Something different?" Dillon queried into the receiver. "But this is a book series! Just how different can it get?"
Josh's silence spoke volumes. In that sixty second lapse, Dillon heard his career aspirations plunking down a well.
"Dillon," Josh began, in a slow, deliberate tone, "don't get me wrong, now. I believe you are a truly gifted writer..."
Dillon clung feverishly to the receiver, his temple throbbing just above the ear piece.
"But Zordack, I'm afraid, is dead."
"Dead?" Dillon asked, after taking a moment to catch his breath. "But how? The reviews of Book II were—"
"Splendid," Josh said. "I'll concede they were excellent. But we've been doing the accounting and your numbers were, well..."
"What?" he pressed, needing to know.
"Let's just say your sell-throughs left something to be desired."
Dillon felt the sweat beading on his brow. "Are you telling me you don't want the third book?"
Josh surprised him with a laugh. "Not at all. Naturally, we'll take a look-see. I'm merely putting you on notice, mate. Book I was spectacular, something entirely new. Book II was, well...forgive me in saying this..somewhat of a repeat. I contracted it, hoping for your follow-on audience. But somehow that readership simply didn't develop. Your challenge now is in finding a way to draw in a whole new group of fans. I'm leaving it up to you to find out how."
Dillon swallowed hard past the burn in his throat.
"Whether that lands you in Zordack," Josh continued, "or, in another realm entirely, is clearly up to you. All I'm saying is, it best be different and it best be good. The competition is growing keener every day. I hope you'll understand it's nothing personal."
Right, Dillon thought, picking up and fanning through the bills. Nothing personal, my ass. What ever happened to literature for literature's sake? And what about the value of a really great story that simply needed telling?
Unless it could sell through to the point it made a rather handsome sum for the publisher, it wasn't great enough, apparently.
Dillon heaved a breath, dropping the unopened mail, piece by piece, into the circular waste bin.
The only positive news was that there were no outstanding tuition notices among them. Thanks to Arlene's stable job as an accountant, they'd been able to pay off the bulk of both daughters' university costs in advance, through investment in their state's higher education plan.
Yes, Arlene was the one with the brains and the money. And she'd never let Dillon forget it. She'd become especially confrontational lately. Saying she was sick of his "obsession," as she'd increasingly referred to his writing. Insisting that he, for Chrissakes, needed to face the fact he was never going to sell again, needed to go out and get a real job. In an effort to force his hand, she'd even had a number of their home accounts, utilities and others, converted to his name only and had refused to contribute toward their rectification in any way.
He suspected she was on the brink of leaving him, and the sad truth was Dillon didn't particularly care.
Significantly more depressing was the thought she'd perhaps been right about genre fiction. There was so much new that was "young" and "hot" out there. How was a middle-aged, snow-hatched man to keep up? Zordack had been an original idea. So original, in fact, the premise had been quite legally copied by several other writers, most of them making far more money than him. One lucky bastard had even sold film rights. Predictably he'd gone ahead and changed the names. But the fantasy realm was Dillon's no doubt, straight from the double- mooned horizon to the red-tinged Sea of Death, composed of enemy Keltoid blood. ‘Course, ideas weren't copyrightable, and—as his editor, and so many others, maintained—paltry few of them were truly original. So if someone else wanted to make a fortune off of Dillon's thoughts, bugger to him for not presenting his own ideas in the best light first.
Dillon took a sip from the mug beside his monitor and grimaced, noting his coffee had gone stone cold. Par for the course in this house, where even the hewn rock hearth took on a chill these days. But in Zordack, everything was different.
His touch connected with the keyboard, his fingers eagerly seeking out the rest of this scene. He'd read a plethora of romance novels in preparation, and fairly well felt he'd gotten the basics down pat. Yes, Book III was prepared to offer up considerably more steam than what had been panned by certain critics as the "strict mechanics" of his earlier novels' love scenes...
Electra molded herself to Uroff's body, pushing, prodding at the depth of his masculinity. "Let me show you how it's done on Zordack," she told him in a throaty whisper that sent current ricocheting to his spine...
Dillon pulled a tissue from the box on the window sill and wiped his brow. For as long as he'd known her, Electra had always been sizzling. Forceful and brainy, to boot. As the second in command of Zordack's fleet force, she was one kick-ass female, with a tight ass of her own.
Dillon leered at his PC, trying hard to conceptualize the press of her sweet flesh to his. Not that he was a dirty SOB or anything such. It was simply that—as a writer—he'd learned the value of putting himself right there with his characters. And as Arlene certainly hadn't been providing him with inspiration, this bit was going to take all the creative energy he had.
He chucked the tissue and got back to work.
Electra reached behind her and artfully undid her zipper, tugging her body suit below her ample chest, her long sleek belly, and down to her well-toned thighs... White skin glistened, like mother of pearl, in the dim light of the cabin, as Uroff felt the proof of his response pressing the front of his trousers.
Dillon looked up in a sweat to find Arlene standing beside him, and instinctively hit the Page Up button.
"My God, it's like you don't even hear me anymore."
No, he apparently wasn't that lucky. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?"
"Yeah, well, not any more so than you've been for the past twenty-two months. Maybe before you go running off to other planets you ought to think of saving this one first. The trash men are waiting. Recycle bag's in the kitchen."
Dillon grumbled, getting to his feet. Was it any wonder he spent so much time on Zordack? At least in that world, women treated their men with respect.
He slung the sack of clanking cans over his shoulder and headed down the steep slope of his drive to the curb.
A sharp wind nipped at his chin, teasing the prickles of his sprouting beard. Just one more thing about him Arlene had recently come to hate. Well, fine. In Zordack, beards were not only commonplace, they were mandatory—at least among the males of the Higher Command. Dillon smiled inwardly, envisioning himself in charge of such a fine force. The commanders of Zordack were intelligent humanitarians, but—as his scene with Electra was about to demonstrate—they hadn't become so evolved they'd lost appreciation for good-old-fashioned fun.
Dillon handed over his booty and the trash truck pulled away, leaving him with a clear view of the nearby mountains. Yesterday evening the first hint of winter had come, dusting the higher elevations with a smattering of white, dotted by the forest green of towering pines.
Dillon took in the majesty of his surroundings, his breath jack-knifing the morning air. One day, he decided, he was going to run away. Up and go. Nothing but the clothes on his back. And head straight over those mountains. Forge west to Tennessee, keep pressing on till he met St. Louis. Hell, might even shoot for Nevada, or make it all the way to California. It wouldn't be Zordack, but, in so many ways, it would beat the reality of living here.
Dillon turned back toward the small wood frame house, then headed back up the hill with a heavy heart. If he could have planned out his life the way he'd so carefully plotted his novels, it would have never wound up like this.
The girls, thank God, had turned out great. Better than expected actually, considering their real mother had died while they were both babies and Arlene had later stepped in to pick up the slack as best she could.
Even though she'd been easy on the eyes when he'd met her, he'd sensed from the beginning Arlene wasn't the woman for him. She was far too judgmental, far too perfectionistic. And yet some of those qualities he disdained had aided in her maintaining a job and a healthy income, providing the stability and measure of financial of support he and his girls had needed.
She had been good to the children, it was true. Had worked hard to see they'd never be without. And yet, Dillon couldn't help but notice how little his daughters had called home since they'd left and struck out on their own. And they'd visited even less.
Dillon headed back into the house and walked to his office, relieved his daughters had at least been able to make their own way. While he didn't see them often, he had seen enough to know each had moved on and was happy with her life. Both of them settled in promising careers, the oldest one married, with her little sister already engaged.
Dillon dropped down into his chair as the stunning clarity hit him.
Nobody really needed him anymore.
Not his daughters, certainly. They were building lives of their own.
And Arlene... Well, she'd been making plans to leave for quite some time now, he was sure of it. That was part of her message in the bills' maneuver. Little by little, she'd been removing her name from things concerning their joint assets. Soon, it would all be left to him, and Arlene would be out the door, taking her nagging along with her.
Dillon wouldn't have to escape to the mountains. The loneliness and destitution would come to him.
He knew he should be overjoyed at his impending freedom. But something pinged inside, telling him he was a failure. A disaster in his relationships and a disappointment in his career. He'd been working on "Book III" for almost two years now, and it still wasn't coming together. In fact, the only character who seemed to come alive for him at all anymore was Electra.
Electra was not even a character his editor had ever cared for. "Too much like a saloon girl," Josh had said, which only proved how very much he'd failed to "get it."
Of all his characters, Dillon truthfully saw Electra as being the most greatly misunderstood. Of course, her carnal hungers sometimes stood in the way of her ambition. But Dillon recognized that weakness for what it was—a desire for something deeper.
Electra wasn't really so different from him, he decided. All she really wanted to do was connect, on so many levels, with another being who understood her multidimensional needs. But for Electra, no such person had thus far existed on Zordack. Just as no such "Electra" had existed for Dillon on earth.
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