Sterling Jackson closed the door to his hotel room, yawning widely. It was still light outside, but jet lag and early days tag-teamed to drive down his batteries.
The ‘kitchen’, such as it was, of the modest suite was just inside the door, consisting of a sink, rehydration oven, coffee maker and mini-fridge. He took a bottle of cold water out of the fridge and pressed it to his neck to wake him up. Now that the part of the day he was paid to attend to was over, it was time to actually do some work.
Two steps bought him out of the ‘kitchen’ and into the main room. There was a bed there, plus a sofa, coffee table, writing desk, and a dresser with a flat screen perched on top. An elderly swivel chair was the only seating in the room besides the sofa and bed. Sterling had also taken folding room service table out of the closet and set it up beside the bed.
He had his palmtop with him, but scrounged in his bags for a black travel case. It contained his keyboard. Some people could get away with virtual or touch keyboards, but Sterling felt that the feel of typing with real keys was just more comfortable; he always felt silly typing in holographic keys, as in the back of his head, he knew his fingers were really just twiddling in empty air.
Also, he couldn’t balance a holo-keyboard on his knees, as he often did, especially when traveling.
A bog of chips and some repositioning of the pillows later, and Sterling was ready to write. He had a snack and a drink within arm’s reach, the room at just the right temperature, and his scripting program open and awaiting his latest outpouring of Art.
After five minutes of Art failing to flow from his finger tips, he decided it was too quiet and turned on the television.
Infomercial. Too loud.
Horror movie. Too gory.
Action series. Too distracting.
News. Alternating between too infuriating and too disturbing.
Malady Place rerun. Reminding him of work.
Ah. There: a nattering talk show doing superfluous makeovers for already attractive people who just didn’t have the money to buy designer. Perfect.
He positioned his keyboard, reached deep into his well of ideas… And sat there another ten minutes. He knew exactly what he wanted to write, but it was the start of a new three issue arc of Prelates of Mayfield and he didn’t know what to call it.
He had everything planned out in the big picture: the first three issues established the team, then the series would devote three issues each to a character arc for each of his chosen focus characters: Darkness, Alloy, Facsimile and Codex. Not really his choices though; the editor pushed Darkness and Facsimile on him because they polled as the most popular descendants in the general public. The fans demanded Alloy, but Sterling had no qualms with doing things for them; they were the ones that put him in that position in the first place; turning Taskforce: Earth into a hit.
If he had full creative freedom, more would be done with Ephemeral and Hope. They were the two the world knew the least about, which made them more compelling for him, not to mention giving him more room for artistic license. It was part of his plan to stealth in a storyline for those two; possibly a relationship.
The Descendants had given him an unprecedented amount of freedom with what he was allowed to do with their characters, provided each issue had a disclaimer making clear that nothing he wrote about their lives, identities and personalities had any basis in fact.
And even with such a bounty, the screen remained devoid of words.
Titles were his bane. He hated them; either they were too dull, or derivative, or they were trying too hard to be clever. Worst of all, he found that he couldn’t bring himself to pen anything until he knew the title of what he was writing. Working titles didn’t work; he needed something that at least felt permanent to get his words working.
Grumbling to himself, he set the keyboard aside. He needed something more for this. Something he reached for time and time again when it came time to unleash his write-beast: the twin weapons of distraction and procrastination.
He switched on voice commands on his tablet and tossed it lightly onto the bed. Laying back, he put the bag of chips atop the hump of his belly. “Call Friend: Lauren Zero-One.”
The tablet sent out a dial tone a moment before connecting the call. After three rings, Lauren Clay-Moore answered. “Hey, Sterling. How’s the writers’ retreat going?” There was a rhythmic rustle and thump in the background.
“Ugh.” He said. “Am I calling at a bad time? Is that chopping I hear?”
“Yup… I mean ‘no’ to the bad time, yes to the chopping.”
“What’s this week’s experiment?” Sterling teased. Lauren was learning to cook as her New Year’s resolution: one recipe a week.
She laughed. “French onion soup. I’m having friends over to try it and everything.”
“Glad I’m on the opposite coast.”
“You know you want some of this.”
Sterling took a chip out of the bag and crunched it. “Oh, you know it.”
Lauren snorted. “That sounded vaguely obscene.”
“Not wholly? I must be losing my touch.”
“Anyway.” said Lauren. “You didn’t answer my question. What’s going on in that magical word-nerd summer camp you disappear to every year?”
“One word: Tantalus.”
“They took away your minibar privileges and room service?” He could hear her scraping her cutting board.
“I love that you got that but…” He lifted his head and looked around the room. “Holy shit, I don’t have a minibar. I don’t think this room even had one. This is probably retribution for you convincing me to loot the one in my room when we were in LA for the Taskforce premier.”
“Heh. Good times.” Lauren’s Cheshire grin was almost audible. “So what got dangled in front of you that you couldn’t get?”
“Oh, get this: Sanctum is doing a new massively multiplayer crossover of their main universe. The production name Equilibrium. Rasheed said that this is going to set up the back story of the main universe for the rest of the decade.”
“That’s a juicy bone for a writer.”
“That’s a mouthwatering steak around a juicy bone, believe me. I would have punched out everyone in the room to get the lead on it. And not only was Julie Mearls there (and you know I love Julie like a sister), but Benjamin Joyce too.”
Lauren was chopping again, but at a slower, lazier pace. “Really? That must have been something for you.”
“It took every fiber of my being now to frighten him away with my girlish squeals, yes.” said Sterling.”But I would have socked him right in the mouth if Rasheed or Epps said I could get the lead on Equilibrium by doing it. But anyway, I’m more or less at the head of the table because Rasheed pulled me up there to read off the sales number for Prelates.”
“How’d we do, by the way?”
“Stellar. Sixty thousand last issue.”
“We are the best team.”
“That’s what I try to tell them. Hell, that’s what their message boards try to tell them. And yet… I’m sitting there. Right there between Rasheed and Epps. I am literally rubbing elbows with the editors. And do you know who they gave lead to? Jim Carny and Martin Baker.”
“Baker…” Lauren said, introspectively. “Oh wait, I know him. He’s the guy that sent Cupcakes the Clown to hell They can’t let him put his fingerprints in the SU: he turned Cupcakes into a demonic Nazi clown that summoned smaller, Nazi-er clowns.”
“Klown Karr. Yes, I remember.” groaned Sterling. “Twenty-four issues of a wacky throwback character suddenly turned into an antihero that drags his enemies to hell and makes them perform in a hell circus.”
“Has anyone even tried to bring Cupcakes back?” asked Lauren.
“Nope, the series is radioactive.” Sterling ate another chip. “But hell, that’s not the worst of it. Carny is depression poured out into the shape of a man. He’s literally told me that all art is a lie unless it ‘reveals the futility of life’. I mean, he literally hates superheroes because they save the day.”
“Lovely.” said Lauren. There was a chuff sound as she dumped the onions into a pan. “Why is he even on this again?”
Sterling grumbled to himself. “Because his non-superhero stuff is brilliant despite being bitter and depressing. The Last Petal of a Morning Rose hit the best seller lists for weeks when they were collected. Somehow, Epps thinks this will translate into a ‘new and exciting direction’ for the SU.”
“Oh god yes. You know Epps.”
“Glad I talked you out of signing with SC exclusively?”
“Absolutely. Did I tell you about the offer from Inquisitor Media Comics last time we talked?”
“Just that you were supposed to call them.” The sizzle of the onions in the pan almost drowned her out before she walked away from the stove.
“Oh. Well. IMC gave me my pick from their perspective ’77 line-up. Up to two of the, but I have to lock it in by the end of the week.”
Lauren made an interested noise over the sound of her faucet running. “Anything we can collaborate on?”
Sterling picked up the chip bag and frowned into its emptiness. “I wasn’t sure you’d be up for it. Between Prelates and the project with Lainey Maza, you’re putting in a lot of wrist mileage.”
The water stopped and Lauren grunted as she lifted something heavy, probably something filled with water. “Lainey’s art needs are super simplistic; you wouldn’t even recognize it as mine. So yeah, I’ve got time if you’ve got a good project.”
“They’re mostly adaptations, so fan rage warning.” Sterling said, bringing up his list. “Most of them I’ve never heard of: Girl Vs. World: the Silent Day?”
“Oh, my niece loves those books. They’re doing an adaptation? Sterling, even if you don’t do that one, give them my name.”
“Done and done. Let’s see, what else: Zombies vs. Cavemen, Chupacabra: Goats of Hell, The Malady Place adaptation…”
“Let’s do that one!” Lauren said, bubbling with excitement.
Sterling forced himself up into a sitting position. “I don’t know… this has fan disaster written all over it. SC tried an adaptation/original story when the show was in season three. It bombed so bad that SC sold the comic rights.”
“You like the show though right?” she coaxed.
“Everyone like the show. That’s the problem. This is messing with a cultural phenomenon If you don’t do it right, everyone hates you.” He combed his fingers through his hair. “Pressure doesn’t even describe it. We would both need to be pitch perfect.”
“Pitch perfect enough to turn some editor’s moron idea into a Hugo award winning, best selling, franchise launching now-a-major-motion-picture funny-book?” Lauren asked and Sterling knew she was smirking.
“Ninety percent you.” He said.
“Yeah, well duh.” Lauren laughed. “But without your ten, what would I have drawn? Really, I think we can do this and do it better than any other team in the business.”
Sterling couldn’t help but smile. A few years ago, they hadn’t known anything about each other, but working on Taskforce had made them fast friends. Even when they were on separate projects, they bounced ideas off one another and, he had to admit, she often pushed him to take chances her normally wouldn’t. It almost always worked out for the best.
“Alright then.” She said with a faux warning tone. “I’ll tell IMC that we’re in as long as they let me bring you on with me.”
“Excellent.” There was a hiss as she did something with the onions. “By the way, what did they offer you in the crossover?”
Sterling grumbled, recalling sitting there in the meeting room, fuming at the injustice of Carny and Baker getting the lead on Equilibrium and the Joyce getting the Chronicles side story that attached to the arc. Like all big crossovers, there was a glut of other miniseries and tie-in comics that went along with it, but the main plot books and the side story were where all the meaningful decisions that made up canon would be made. Everything else was just there to make money.
“Rasheed put me on a book called Minions.” He finally said. “Basically, a lot of the D-list lackeys figure their bosses’ plan in Equilibrium is too evil even for them and go behind their backs to sabotage it. He even gave me a list of D-listers I can pull in. Even I haven’t heard of some of them: Hardhead, The Belligerence, Miasma Girl… And of course, Baker cheerfully tells me that I’ve got a ‘golden opportunity’ to kill the whole cast at the end.”
“What a wonderful man.” said Lauren, “Man, the main event’s going to suck, isn’t it?”
“Carny’s hits HP Lovecraft’s work like a viking horde hits a fishing village. It starts with Velvet Glove infecting Mr. Fortitude with some kind of alien corruption and rolls from there with half the SU’s A-list heroes getting transformed into enormously ill conceived corrupted versions of themselves and of course, this being Carny, the gore and terrible things happening to peoples eyes is on full display.”
“Also Nazis? He’s got a thing for Nazis.”
“Baron Strangg, of course plays a central role.” said Sterling. “So I’m talking to Julie; she’s doing the tie-ins for Mutation and Heiress, and we’re planning to rebel a little in our titles. We haven’t picked anything out concretely yet, but we’re definitely going to set up some outs for whatever status quo Equilibrium sets up for when the fans revolt over this.”
There was a clang as Lauren covered her onions. “I notice you said ‘when’, not ‘if’.”
“Oh, it’s when.” Sterling sat up and tossed the chip bag in the trash. “Remember that awful World at War thing that was supposed to be an allegory and a ‘What If’ for the war with Brazil?”
“Yeah, talk about too soon.”
“This is going that way. Carny was on that team too. He’s the one whose big idea it was to have Flare go crazy and burn Mexico City to the ground. He still thinks that was awesome.”
“Wonderful.” Lauren deadpanned. “I can never get enough drawing and coloring rotting flesh and innocent people burring alive.” She went silent for a moment as she rummaged through cabinets. “So, this little talk get your creativity working again?”
“Who says it wasn’t before?”
“Because I know you.” She chided. “I get these random calls when you need a distraction that jars you out of your writer’s block. So tel the truth? Did it help.”
He was quiet for a minute, but was forced to admit; “Yeah, it did. Thanks, Lauren.”
“Anytime. Now if you excuse me, I need to cut toast rounds.”
“Heh. Good luck with your dinner.”
They hung up and Sterling returned to his still empty scripting screen. Only now he got to work filling it.
As he typed, he mused at how nothing in the conversation actually inspired anything. It just made things easier. He couldn’t explain why, it just did.
End Acts of Creation.