The Only City Left: Part Seven

Read Part Six first if you need to. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Seven

We trudged through utility corridors for at least half an hour before I worked up the courage to ask my parents, “What did you mean earlier? About someone being on to us. Did you do something bad?”

Without stopping or looking back, Dad replied, “Never mind, Allin. It’s none of your concern.”

“I think it is,” I surprised myself by saying. It must have surprised Dad, too, because he stopped in his tracks and swung around to face me.

His face looked angrier than I had ever seen it before. Instinctively I flinched and stepped back, expecting to be hit even though Dad had never and would never do such a thing. Mom put a hand on his arm, lightly, and he seemed to deflate a little bit. I took that as an opening.

“I have friends back in Glin’s Rising,” I said. “If you stole something from them….”

I trailed off as Dad’s face changed from angry to weary. He looked to Mom, they shared some of that telepathic adult-speak that was all glances and subtle nods, and he turned back to me.

“Let’s sit down, we’ll talk about it.”

We loosened our packs and sat uncomfortably against the assorted pipes that ran along both walls.

“First, we didn’t do anything to the folks back at Glin’s Rising, okay? That’s not who your mother and I are concerned about.”

I nodded, already relieved, but eager to hear where this was going.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered why we keep moving, why we can’t settle down someplace like Glin’s and just live out our days farming. Fact is, even though there’s not a lot of people left in the city, there’s still people out there who just want to destroy life when they find it. We, we got on the bad side of some of those people and now they won’t leave us alone.”

“So why can’t we fight them, pick a place, set up some traps, and take ’em down?” I asked.

“It’s not that easy, Allin,” Mom cut in. “They’re dangerous. Very. And there’s more of them than there are of us. Your father and I know what we’re doing. Trust us.”

“Dangerous?” I squeaked. “So you’re saying these very dangerous people are following us, and we’re leading them through town after town? What happens after we leave? Did you even warn the Glinites?”

My voice rose higher and higher as realization set in. In my mind’s eye I saw Tyena running toward me, waving. Was she running toward me, or away from someone else? I jumped up and slung my backpack over my shoulders, and Mom and Dad stood up, too.

“Allin, we have to focus on our family. Everyone else is on their own.”

His words were like an icy knife in my heart. This was a side to Dad I had never seen before, and instead of refuting him, Mom stood at his side in silent agreement.

“Tyena’s back there. She’s in danger. I’m going back to help her.”

“Allin, you can’t. Our family—”

“Screw our family!” I yelled, and in the shocked quiet after that, the only sound that could be heard was my hurried footfalls as I ran back the way we had come. Back to Glin’s Rising. Back to Tyena. Back, back.

* * *

I came back to consciousness with a coughing sputter and found that I was slipping off the ladder back into the water-filled tunnel below. As I struggled to get my bearings I slipped under and swallowed a mouthful of that cold, foul brew before I shot back up and latched on to the ladder again.

Needless to say, I spent the next minute coughing and retching, trying uselessly to get every bit of the water out of my system. As it was, if I made it out of these ducts alive, I would need some Restorit if I didn’t want to catch some nasty disease.

Satisfied that I had done as much as I could, I let out a huge sigh and forced my tired muscles to pull my sodden mass up the ladder. It was only a couple of stories later that I hit the top of the circular shaft, which was closed with a hatch secured by a wheel lock. By the light of my coil, I could see writing on the hatch, “HAB-221-X” something or other. The rest was obscured, but it didn’t matter. HAB would hopefully mean habitat, and somewhere I could rest and dry off.

Then I heard something that sent a new shiver up my already shaking spine. Deep, booming sounds coming from below, and getting closer.

I looked down and although I couldn’t see him yet, the water below was lit by big and ghosty’s blue glow.

“Doesn’t this guy ever give up?” I asked through shivering lips, and then turned my attention to the hatch above me.

Keeping my legs on the ladder, I grabbed on to the wheel lock and tried to turn it. I could barely feel my hands after my swim through the icy water, and the lock probably hadn’t been turned in ages, so I wasn’t surprised when it refused to budge. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t start to panic. A lot.

I could hear the thum-thum-thum of the monstrous ghost bashing his way through too-tight ducts, and the circle of water below me started to brighten noticeably. All I could think to do was try harder. I knew I had to open that hatch or say goodbye.

I held on to the wheel and walked my feet up the ladder to the second-from-top rung, so I was scrunched up nearly sideways at the top of the shaft. With all my might, I pulled on the wheel and pushed against the ladder with my feet.

Nothing happened.

The light grew brighter.

I gave it one last try.

The wheel spun suddenly and my legs slipped, leaving me hanging from the wheel over a two-story drop to a few feet of water. As I kicked my legs to grab at the ladder, I saw the ghost rise out of the water below me and squeeze himself into the shaft.

* * *

Go straight to Part Eight (or read my comments below first if you can stand the suspense).

4/1/2012 News: Two things: I hope you don’t think I’m being too cruel, returning from the flashback without resolving what happened to Tyena and the rest of Glin’s Rising? Rest assured, I know what happens there and you will find out, but now is not the time. The second is, I feel a little bad about ending another post with Allin running from the big blue ghost. In the final version of this story, these posts will all be part of larger chapters, so instead of cliffhanger-cliffhanger-cliffhanger, Allin’s flight from the ghost will be one long chase scene with a flashback in the middle. I promise you that we are almost done with big, blue, and ghosty for the time being.

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Kickstarter Fiction: 3/30/12

It hasn’t worked out that way recently, but I’m trying to keep Friday as a sort of grab bag post between Webcomics Wednesdays and installments of The Only City Left on Sunday. So here is where you might read about webzines, e-books, philosophical ramblings, or whatever I happen to be researching at the moment. These are the posts that most feel like I am writing into the void, but every once in a while someone’s Google search brings them here, and hopefully one or two people enjoy what they find.

Today I want to share three Kickstarter fiction projects that I am backing. Why am I backing independent publishers instead of (or in addition to) buying the latest thriller from Amazon? As a writer, I am fascinated by the possibility of independent publishing. I see in it the possibility for a lot of new authors to make their name, and dare I hope, make a living, outside of the big publishing houses. Time will tell. In the meantime, it is fun to be a part of these ventures.

Spirit of the Century Presents: The Dinocalypse Trilogy: This Kickstarter is for a series of novels based on an RPG setting I am not familiar with, but it sounds like a blast. 1930s-era pulp adventure with psychic dinosaurs, talking apes, jetpacks, and heroes with names like Sally Slick and Jet Black? Yes, please. I am going in for the e-books, which at this point is up to four books with the possibility of more if the funding total rises high enough.

Tales of the Emerald Serpent: Shared World Mosaic Anthology: Thieves’ World is one of my favorite series, and I followed a lot of the authors from that anthology back to their own books and also to other anthologies like C.J. Cherryh’s Merovingen Nights. I am definitely a fan of a well-done shared-world anthology. Since this project references Thieves’ World and other anthologies I have dabbled in, like the Man-Kzin Wars, I have high hopes that it can be as fun to read as those anthologies of yore. The only writer on the book that I have read before is Julie Czerneda, whose books I have enjoyed, so this seems like a great way to find new authors.

As of the time I am writing this post (Tuesday! Look at me, building up that buffer again), the project is 43% funded with 22 days to go.

Singularity & Co. – Save the SciFi!: This project is a little different than the previous two as it is not for new works of fiction, but rather a way to save older works of science-fiction from obscurity and copyright limbo. Here’s their plan: “Each month we’ll choose one great classic, obscure or otherwise fascinating sci-fi book that’s no longer in print and not available online, track down the copyright holder and/or author (if they’re still around), acquire or otherwise clear the copyright, and publish the title both online and as an e-book, for little or no cost.”

I have run into so many books that I cannot find as e-books, so I really appreciate the premise of this Kickstarter. While there is no guarantee the books I have looked for will show up here, I still think it is a great idea and a worthy project.

Are there any Kickstarter fiction/comics/video game projects you think I should check out? Let me know.

Update: More Kickstarter fiction projects and/or updates here.

The Only City Left: Part Six

Welcome back to The Only City Left. Return to Part Five if you need to catch up first. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Six

I left Glin’s Rising with my head hung low, uttering monosyllables to any questions that my parents asked. I saw them exchanging knowing glances over my behavior and I’m sure they chalked it up to typical teenage angst, but really it was because I’m not a good liar and I didn’t trust myself not to give away my secret in a facial expression or my tone of voice.

Tyena and I had come up with a hasty plan to allow her to find me. After a last, frenzied embrace, she went off to fetch some supplies and I returned to my parents.

Now, as we trudged through abandoned city streets on our way out of Glin’s Rising, I put the plan in motion. Whenever I could do so without being seen, I let a drop of red paint from one of Tyena’s tubes fall to the pavement behind me. The paint was dark against the faded black asphalt, barely noticeable, but Tyena would know what to look for and could use the marks to keep a safe distance from us while staying on our tail. Once we were far enough away, Tyena could show herself, we’d profess our love, and my parents would have to let her come along. It was the perfect plan.

Some hours later, we were approaching one edge of the city-section, marked by a steel wall that towered above us up to the ceiling. Set in the wall at ground level was a massive steel door that at one time had allowed passage between sections. Now it was rusted so badly you could hardly make out where the seams were.

“I don’t think we’ll be getting through here,” Mom said, scraping rust flakes off the door with her foot.

“Perhaps, perhaps,” Dad replied absentmindedly.

When confronted with a problem, Dad tended to go into his head a bit to work on the solution. There’s not much you can do to hurry him up at that point, as Mom and I were all too aware. She took the opportunity to rearrange her cocoon pack, while I shifted nervously, glancing over my shoulder to make sure Tyena wasn’t going to stumble upon us while we were stopped.

“Everything all right, hon?” Mom ventured, her voice wary.

I snapped my head up and around.

“Yeah, sure. Just, if we’re gonna get going, I want to get going already, you know?”

“Well, see if Dad can use some help, okay?”

“Sure,” I agreed, forcing myself not to look back one last time.

Dad was on his knees next to the wall. Beside him an ancient-looking control panel was laid out on the ground, trailing thick cords to a hole in the wall through which Dad had his arm buried to his shoulder.

“I think I got, if I can just, there!” he declared triumphantly.

The ground shook and rust fell like rain as the great doors began to slide apart with a piercing shriek. There was a zazazap! of electric current, Dad swore and yanked his arm out of the wall, and the doors ground to a halt, barely open a few inches.

As I helped him to his feet, Mom shone a flashlight through the thin gap.

“I’m skinny but not that skinny, dear. I think we’re going to have to take the stairs.”

Dad and I both looked to where she was pointing, further down the wall, to a set of switch-backed metal stairs that ran up to a platform near the ceiling.

“Emergency exits tend to lead somewhere,” Mom suggested.

“Worth a shot,” Dad said, shaking off the lingering effects of the electric discharge.

As we headed toward the stairs, I smeared an arrow on the wall to guide Tyena, my parents none the wiser, and I managed to paint an up arrow at the base of the stairs, too. I was getting worried, however. Tyena would have to stay pretty far behind us to remain out of sight while we climbed. She couldn’t even really approach the wall until we were through that door up above. What if she couldn’t find me? What if she ended up lost?

I must have been inadvertently looking for her as I had those thoughts because Dad stopped on the stair above me and asked, “You keep looking behind us. Is there someone following us?”

He knows, I thought. How could  he know already?

“Trouble?” asked Mom, climbing back down to see why we had stopped.

“I don’t know. They can’t be on to us so soon, can they? Allin, did you see something?”

They can’t be on to us so soon? They who? Thoroughly confused now, I shook my head and fumbled out a lie.

“No, I just miss, I mean, I wanted to see Glin’s Rising one last time.”

They seemed to accept that and we continued climbing. I saved my glances for each time the stairs turned back around. If Tyena was following me, she was nowhere in sight. Maybe she had decided not to come. At the thought, my heart ached inside my chest. No, she would follow. I just knew it.

What I didn’t know was what Dad had been referring to. They can’t be on to us. Had my parents done something wrong while we stayed in Glin’s Rising? I’m sure I would have heard talk if something had been stolen or someone had been hurt. But what if it hadn’t been discovered yet? Could my parents be criminals and I didn’t even know it?

My thoughts were interrupted when we reached the top of the stairs. There was a human-sized door marked “Utility” set into the wall and it was more amenable to Dad’s hacks, so we were through it in a jiff. I was the last to enter and as I looked back I saw Tyena making a run for the wall, waving at me. Relieved, I waved back and made sure to ease the door closed so that it did not shut fully.

Things are going according to plan after all, I thought.

If only I had watched Tyena for a few more seconds.

Part Seven awaits.

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The Only City Left: Part Five

Welcome back to The Only City Left. Allin’s flashback continues, and some of the history of the planet-city Earth is shared herein. I have some more notes on the story but I’ll save them until the end of the post.

Head back to Part Four if you need to. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Five

Glin’s Rising was one small portion of what might have been a sprawling suburban town before the entire world was paved over. The ceiling was several stories above us, so it had to have been built during an era of relative luxury, when smaller cities were only surrounded by the metal mega-city that Earth was becoming, rather than being entombed on one small level with another city built right on top of them, and another on top of them, and so on.

You get the picture. Humans never escaped the planet, never colonized the galaxy, but they also didn’t stop breeding and they needed to live somewhere. The answer was to build up into the sky, down into the ground, and out over every square inch of the planet, whether there was solid ground underneath or not. And at its height, it was a bustling, planet-sized world. Then something happened. Nobody really knows what. But after that, there weren’t enough people around to fill up the city, or to run it. It began to break down, to cede itself to other inhabitants who sprung up to fill the void left by humanity.

At least, that’s the story that everyone who’s left agrees on. We weren’t around for all that history, so what do we know?

With the population curve not just bottomed out but flat-lined, many people sought out the more open areas of the city to live. It was a testament to how few people were left that, even then, the entire population of Glin’s Rising needed only a few square blocks to spread out in.

Even if it hadn’t been such a small area to search, I wouldn’t have had any trouble finding my mother in it.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I heard her cry, and I smiled despite my mood. Someone was in for it. “If there’s one foot of copper wire you haven’t already stripped out of here, I’ll willingly walk into a clinker’s den and let them have my brain. But you know and I know that’s not going to happen because you haven’t seen this much copper in years.”

I followed her voice to the intersection of two roads, where a makeshift swap meet had been set up. As travelers and traders, our arrival had caused quite a stir. Not many people risk heading out into the interstices of the city, but those who do usually bring items to trade and, more importantly, fresh news.

I approached Mom and the vendor she was haggling with just as she turned around to pull the walk-away. She saw me, smiled, and winked.

“Oh good, you’re here, hon. You can help me find someone who’s serious about trading,” she dramatized.

“Fine, fine!” said the grizzled old man from behind his food-laden table. “Five pounds of nutri-bulbs for the lot!”

She ignored him and continued to walk away, drawing me along with her.

“Is your father ready, then?” she asked.

“Yes. But I don’t see why we have to leave so soon!”

“Six pounds!” yelled the man.

“I know this is hard on you, hon. You have to trust us that it’s for the best.”

“Seven pounds, final offer!”

“I like it here, Mom.”

We stopped walking and she put her hands on my shoulders, facing me.

“And someday, if you want, you can come back. But now we have to go, so you can spend your time complaining about it or you can go and tell her goodbye.”

I started to protest further, but instead of words I let out a big sigh. I wasn’t going to win this fight with both my parents in agreement, even if it wasn’t fair.

“How much time?”

“Meet us in an hour,” she said, and let me go.

She turned back around to the vendor and fell back into her routine: “Seven pounds, what do you take me for? Fifty feet of copper wire? I couldn’t part with it for less than fifteen pounds!”

I left the two of them to their duel (the vendor started to have a mock heart attack as I walked away) and went looking for Tyena. Ah, Tyena. The first time I set eyes on her, I swear I felt electricity all over my body, like static shocks popping against my skin. Turns out she felt the same. That has to mean something, right?

Sure, the less romantic would say that there are so few young people around that all we felt was a biological urge to reproduce. To that I say, maybe it was thinking like that which led us into this mess in the first place. My love for Tyena had nothing to do with my genes wanting to perpetuate themselves. It was her long red hair and alabaster skin, her blue eyes that you could swim in all day, and the silly, snorting laugh that she could not control when you tickled her just so. We had met two days ago, but those two days meant more to me than my entire life before then. And my parents insisted I give it up.

“Well, that’s just not happening, is it?” Tyena replied when I told her the bad news.

I had found her on the roof of an old, three-story retail store that overlooked the park that the Glinites use for their farming. She was in the middle of painting the park and city, except in her version, these great, tentacled monsters were erupting from the earth below and tearing the city apart. My kind of girl, Tyena.

“Well, it kind of is happening, because there’s no way they’ll let me stay.”

She set down her palette and stalked over to me.

“It’s simple then. I’m coming with you.”

“They’ll never go for that. They’re … weird about other people. I can’t explain it.”

She leaned in, raised one eyebrow, and gave me that wicked smile which made my hairs stand on end.

“Who says they have to know?”

* * *

Continue to Part Six.

3/17/2012 News: Maybe it goes without saying, but my idea for a planet-wide city is not an original one. Isaac Asimov’s Trantor is probably the most famous, and there’s Coruscant in the Star Wars universe. I wanted to write a story that included my love of buried/hidden cities, and what’s more buried than an entire planet where cities are layered on top of one another like pages in a book? As a setting, I think it is rich with possibilities, and I am enjoying exploring it along with Allin and my readers.

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The Only City Left: Part Four

Welcome back to The Only City Left. Head back to Part Three first if you missed it. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Four

I threw myself into the utility shaft and grabbed hold of the ladder. Above me, the shaft continued beyond the reach of my light, but the only way I could ascend would be to chimney-climb it, and big, blue, and ghosty was not going to give me the time to do that.

Snarhworgrowl!, came its howl as if in agreement. Time to go.

The nice thing about heading down-ladder, even though it was the opposite of the direction I wanted to be heading, is that it’s easier to climb down than up. I gripped the vertical poles of the metal ladder in my gloved hands and slid a few rungs at a time, keeping my descent controlled. As long as I was in the utility shaft, I was safe from the slavering ghost-beast above me, so I felt no need to rush. No need, that is, until the sound of howls and gnashing teeth from above me was joined by the sound of metal straining and tearing as the creature forced its bulk into the shaft. Just great.

I gave up on slowing my descent and just let myself slide down. I could feel my palms heating up through my gloves from the friction, but that was a small worry compared to what was coming after me. It continued to force its way down, buckling the metal walls of the utility shaft as it went. Meanwhile, I didn’t know at what point the shaft would dead-end, and I hadn’t seen any exits yet.

Splash! I hit water and was submerged before I knew what had happened. Air bubbles escaped my mouth as I gasped and clamped my mouth shut again. I twisted left and right to look around, trying to get my mind around the fact that the utility shaft was flooded. Water below, monster ghost above. My options were running out.

I pulled myself back up the ladder and out of the water to get some air and to see if ghosty was still coming after me. Sure enough, his glow was getting stronger, his growls and the sounds of the shaft being destroyed getting louder. Well, not much of a choice then. I took a few quick breaths and then one deep one, blew it out, and dropped into the water.

With no air in my lungs, I started to sink, but not quickly enough for my tastes, so I flipped over and started pulling myself down the ladder as fast as I could. Even with my coil illuminating the water around me, it was still a dim, murky, and above all, freezing hell in there. My pulse pounded in my ears ever louder, and I already yearned for fresh air.

When a small cross-corridor showed up, I pushed off the ladder into it without a spare thought, even though the shaft also continued downward. If I didn’t get some air soon, I was going to open my mouth, gulp some water that my body only wished were air, and drown. The side corridor was the better bet to find a way out of the flood zone.

I seemed to kick and pull myself along that tighter corridor forever, in slow motion. The light of my coil dimmed until the world was only a thin tunnel in front of me, and I began to feel removed from the whole experience. The person being chased through the flooded ductwork by a monstrous ghost-beast was someone else. I watched him from a comfortable distance, pitying him.

I saw that person scrabbling against the ceiling of the duct and then falter when the space was unexpectedly empty. He looked up and saw a circular gap. With the last of his strength, he got his feet underneath him and pushed up into another vertical shaft. That shaft didn’t have any water in it, and there was a ladder heading up. He grabbed at it, sucking in great gasps of air, and I thought, Good for him. He made it. I closed my eyes and fell further back into the tunnel.

* * *

I remember when I was 15, that’s when I really started to question the life I was living with my parents. There were still a lot of communities around then, or at least there were in the parts of the city that we moved through, but my parents, my dad especially, refused to let us settle down with them.

“But Dad! It’s safe here,” I protested, upon hearing the news that we were moving on again. “They have light and food, heat, good air, clean water. They even have books!”

The encampment was called Glin’s Rising, for no reason that I could tell. It probably wasn’t as great as I was making it out to be to my father, but it was better than constantly tramping from community to community, never resting.

My father couldn’t look me in the eye, so he grabbed the lantern coil that hung on his chest and rolled it between his fingers.

“This is about a girl, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice sad.

“No!” Yes, of course it was about a girl.

“Look, Allin,” he said, letting the coil go and raising his head to look me in the eyes. “If we could stay, we would. I want you to be happy, but you know what’s even more important?”

I mumbled the answer, looking down. With a firm hand he grabbed my chin and forced me to look up at him.

“Louder.”

“Stay alive.” I spat the words at him. “Always. Stay. Alive.”

“That’s right. Now go find your mother and tell her we’re ready. If she still needs something, we’ll get it at the next town.”

I glared sullenly at my father for a moment and then turned to go find my mom.

“Yes, father. I’ll try to stay alive while I’m at it.”

If he heard my lip, he ignored it, and I’m pretty sure I heard a weary sigh as I stalked away.

Continue to Part Five.

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The Only City Left: Part Three

Welcome back to The Only City Left. You can find Part Two hereAnd here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Three

After I left the mall I chose a new route at random and set off. My one rule is that I try never to backtrack; if I can’t find a way up and out, at least I don’t have to look at the same old sights every day. The route I took led me to an area that must have been some densely packed residential quarters back in the day, some sort of co-op maybe, because there weren’t even hallways between apartments. Each apartment connected to the next by a door, but most of those had been destroyed at some point, so I just walked from one family’s pad to another.

Each one was deserted, decaying, and I tried to imagine it full of people, full of life. The smells of so many people smushed together, their foods, their body odor. Music playing, children shrieking as they played a game of hide and seek through the neighbors’ apartments. No privacy ever. You would never be alone.

It sounded kind of wonderful.

I wandered aimlessly for a while, lost in these thoughts, picturing the ghosts of the people who once filled this tiny part of the city with their light and life. I didn’t notice that some of the ghosts were still around until I hit a dead end in someone’s bedroom, turned around, and came face to face with three of them.

They were transparent and glowed a dim blue, as ghosts in the city are wont to do. They didn’t look frightening, just forlorn, and they kept their distance from me and the circle of light given off by the lantern coil hanging from my neck.

“What do you want?” I asked, leaning back against a wall.

One of them stepped forward, or maybe his compatriots stepped back. Ghosts can be tricky, even amongst themselves. The elected speaker looked back at each of his friends and then turned to me and said, “You do not belong here.”

Very original, I thought, and told him as much.

In reply, he took another step closer. My lantern coil, instead of thinning the ghost like it should have, dimmed in response to his presence. Not good.

“We bear you no ill will, but others will not be so lenient,” he said.

“Stop right there, all right?” I stammered, stepping to one side. “I haven’t done anything to you, and I’m only looking to pass through. Can you point me to a way Up or at least out of this sector?”

The ghost lunged forward and put one thin hand around my throat, pinning me to the wall. The light from my coil died out completely, to be replaced by the ghost’s pale blue glow, and though I struggled and kicked, he was entirely intangible except for where he gripped me.

Up close, I could see great gashes upon his neck and face where skin flapped loose, and a long jagged cut from his belly to his neck spilled ghostly viscera. My teeth chattered, from fear or his icy grip or both. I had never dealt with this kind of ghost before. Ghosts were around in many parts of the city, usually bemoaning their fates or begging you to help them find some closure to their lives, but one had never touched me before, much less pinned me to a wall.

“Please let me go,” I whispered, my throat tight.

The ghost leaned in to whisper in my ear and I could see through his shoulder into his disemboweled insides.

“Your kind should take care,” he hissed. “There are more of us than there are of you. Some of us have grown strong on hate.”

He stopped and looked behind him at something I could not see, then turned back to me.

“Run,” he snapped, and let me go.

I fell to the floor but scrambled to my feet, and as the ghost stepped back away from me, the light of my coil returned.

“RUN!” the ghost screamed at me, and then he and his friends rose up into the air, turned to the wall to my right, and rammed into it. Where they passed through it, the wall cracked and peeled.

I stood still, caught between the urge to obey the ghost’s command and my body’s seeming inability to move. My paralyzation was cured by the repeated slamming sounds that started coming toward me from the direction I had come from. Something was coming my way, something big and fast by the sound of it. Slam slam slamSLAM SLAMSLAMSLAM! came the sound, and with it, a glow in the dark distance, getting brighter as it moved my way.

Time to take the ghost’s advice and get the hell out of there, but where to go? The bedroom was a dead end, the attached bathroom nothing more than a tiled cubicle with a drain and a faucet.

The slams were louder now, and worse, I could hear vicious growls amidst them. It sounded big and wild and like it had terrible claws, maybe the kind of claws that could tear the skin off a ghost. It sounded like the kind of creature that makes even ghosts run away.

That was it! I ran to the wall that the ghosts had phased through and I pushed against it. The wall was weakened, whether by their passage or by time, and I was able to punch and kick out chunks of drywall to reveal a cavity behind it. I leaned in and saw that it was a utility shaft with a ladder going down. Not the way I wanted to go!

I looked back down the way I had come and saw a hulking humanoid creature, covered with fur and with a mouthful of gnashing teeth, hurtling toward me. It glowed pale blue like a ghost but each step it took buckled the floor like it weighed a ton, and it punched out at furniture and walls as it passed, obliterating them.

Down suddenly looked real enticing.

Onward to Part Four.

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The Only City Left: Part Two

Welcome back to The Only City Left. You can find Part One here. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Two

I had been expecting to fall, but the sudden loss of light disoriented me for precious seconds. On top of that, a storm of fried tacmites was falling around me, some of them hitting against me like tiny punches before bouncing away. They didn’t really hurt, but they were a distraction I could ill afford as I struggled to get my bearings.

As I fell through the inky void, I felt the grip of my grapnel gun in my right hand; it was the other item I had retrieved from my cocoon before I stepped off the beam. I had planned to lasso the beam above me and swing gracefully onto one of the balcony levels, but now I couldn’t see what I was shooting at. It didn’t matter though. I could shoot and risk missing or just wait for the floor to pancake me if I did nothing.

So, turning my back toward the rapidly-approaching floor, and with the wind from my descent screaming in my ears, I gripped the gun with both hands, aimed where I hoped the beams above me were, and pulled the trigger. I heard the poppopop of the chemical projectiles propelling the hook upward, and the whizz of the cable following it.

Then for what seemed like forever, I heard nothing at all, and I waited to feel the impact that would end my admittedly precarious existence here in the city. Instead, I heard a distant buzzing sound as the cable coiled around a beam above me, followed by a clang that echoed through the cavernous cylinder of the pitch-black mall.

My grip almost slipped from that first jerk as the hook caught the beam, but the gun took over and slowed down the cable. I fell a couple of more stories at a slower pace and then stopped, hanging in mid-air at some indeterminate point above the floor. I hung from the grapnel gun, arms stretched above my head, and kicked around with my outstretched boots to feel below me, but there was nothing to feel. I can’t be that far from the floor, can I? I wondered, weighing the risk of a few stories’ fall versus the risk of hanging there in the dark, alone for the moment but not for long.

As I mentioned earlier, there are things, creatures, that live in the darkness. And right now I was like bait on a hook for them. Hang there too long and something would take a bite.

I began to thrash around, bile rising in my throat from encroaching panic, trying to get a swing going so I could reach one of the levels of the mall which I knew surrounded me, but to no avail. Breathing quickly through my nose, I tried to force myself to calm down, to clamp down the thoughts of something brushing against me, of jaws full of porcelain daggers. Breathe, get it together, you fool. Don’t do their job for them. Stay alive. Always, stay alive.

I nodded once and pulled hard on the grapnel gun’s trigger three times in quick succession. Somewhere above me, the hook separated from the cable in a tiny explosion that briefly lit up the ceiling. It seemed very far away and I had enough time to think, Well that’s a good sign, right? before I was falling again. Almost instantly I hit something that cracked underneath me, and then I was being assaulted by tiny scraping hands and then bigger limbs which punched against me and knocked me sideways. But this was no monster attacking me. I was falling through the branches of a tree! My trusty grapnel gun had stopped my descent right above the garden on the bottom floor of the mall.

I suffered another second or two of being abused by branches and bristles, and then I hit the ground in a roll and ended up head-first in some foul, brackish water.

I came up with a splutter, hands planted in water before me. Trying to spit as quietly as possible—who knew what bacteria was growing in this ancient pond?—I scooted backward, sat down on what squelched like a patch of mud, and whipped my backpack into my lap. By touch alone, I undid the seal, reached in, and felt around for my lantern coil. My fingers found the thumb-sized cylinder and I powered it on, holding my breath. I hadn’t fallen very far at the last, and the backpack was built to survive impacts, but what if the lantern was broken? I pulled the coil out and let out a gasp.

I had light again. I half-laughed, half-groaned, and dropped backward into the mud, relieved but battered. The coil was secured to a necklace, so I pulled it over my head and let the tiny cylinder of light rest on my heaving chest, my backpack snuggled up beside me.

I breathed in the smell of damp and decay and looked around at the garden which the coil illuminated. It was all twisted trees and thorny bushes, either some demented mall planner’s idea of an engaging garden environment, or more likely just a product of the lack of good light and nutrients over time. Only the bastard plants were still alive here, tenacious but ugly as sin, like everything else in the city. So what did that make me?

“A light in the dark,” I whispered the familiar refrain and sat up.

I was bruised, and scraped up, half-drenched from sitting in the mud, but I was alive, so that would have to be good enough. Anyway, what better place to find more clothes than the mall?

After an hour or two of scavenging, taking the more conventional ramps up and down the levels of the mall this time, I was dressed in clean, dry clothes and had cleaned the grime off my skin as best I could. Now it was time to set out to find a lighted area of the city again, and a way Up.

Onward to Part Three.

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The Only City Left: Part One

The Only City Left

Welcome to The Only City Left. In the far future, the Earth is one giant planet-sized city, and it is falling apart. The majority of the human inhabitants are gone and in their place other, darker creatures are moving in. Allin Arcady is a young man on his own deep in the depths of the city, his one goal to reach the Roof of the World and see the Sun once in his life. But his past, and that of his deceased parents, is coming back to haunt him, and the Sun has never seemed farther away.

TOCL is a first-draft work-in-progress. If you want to jump farther into the story, check out the Table of Contents, which also includes a link to the most current synopsis of the story so far.

The Only City Left: Part One

I was born into darkness, but one day I will find the light. Sunlight. Pure and yellow and hot against your skin like standing near to a furnace, but softer somehow. At least so I’ve heard, first in stories my parents told me, then in whispered rumors as I make my way through the endless levels of the City. The only city left. Earth.

My name is Allin. If I had a last name, I’ve forgotten it. Not much use for formality in the dim, dank, dying city of Earth. In fact, I can barely remember the last time I exchanged names with someone. Mostly us stragglers steer clear of each other unless we’re trading, and then it’s a quick deal and retreat. In a dangerous world, trust is a precious commodity and few of us are willing to share it.

Mostly I find everything I need, scavenging from rotting apartments, factories, shopping districts, gleaning what I can from the detritus of a once-great civilization. Lights, and the juice to power them, are the greatest finds for any straggler. While power plants still run somewhere in the city, connections are corroded and there are not enough plants to keep the entire city running at any given time. When you consider that the city is as big as a planet, it only makes sense that powering it would be a colossal feat. Least, that’s what my dad said. I was never clear on the whole “planet” concept, but I would always nod like I understood, and he would smile and tousle my hair. Bottom line: the city is a big place and there isn’t enough power to keep it all running anymore, so you never know as you make your way around whether or not the lighting will suddenly die out, leaving you stranded in an impenetrable black void, leaving you prey to the things that live in the darkness.

Happy thoughts like that plague my dreams, so I didn’t realize at first that my sense of wrongness was more than just my latest nightmare. I woke up with a start from my half-sleep, perched high in a web of girders twenty or so stories above the floor of what used to be a mega-mall. Something had jerked me out of my guarded slumber, so I lay still and took stock. I was still secure in my cocoon, which hugged the top of one great iron beam, and when I slowly unzipped it and peeked my head out, I saw that the dim off-hours lighting in the mall was still working. It probably helped that this mall didn’t have any on-hours anymore, so there was never a strain on the system.

Around me I could hear the usual creaks and groans of the city, which never seems at rest but is instead always settling into itself. The sounds used to scare me as a kid; they sounded like the moans of the dead, coming to get me. I got over that as my parents taught me what to really fear and how to avoid it. Anyway, the dead don’t usually announce themselves like that.

I listened beyond the usual sounds of the city, listened so hard I could almost picture in my mind’s eye what I was hearing. And what I heard/saw was: a cacophony of precise, metallic clacking. Tiny feet skittering on iron beams, close, too close. Tacmites, I decided. Damn. I had to act fast.

Tacmites are a sort of cleaning system gone wrong. Originally they were supposed to find and process waste, keeping the corridors and boulevards of the city clean and debris-free. But they had been hacked or just gone rogue a long time ago, and now anything was fair game. Like me. They “processed” waste by tearing it shreds, ingesting the pieces, and atomizing those smaller pieces inside themselves. Where they took the resultant dust I had no idea, but I had seen more than one poor jerk fall victim to tacmites; it was not a quick or painless process.

Zzzziiippp. I opened the cocoon the rest of the way and crouched down beside it, scanning to the left, right, and above me. The beams around me were swarming with the lethal janitors. Below me was empty space surrounded by the balconied levels of the mall, and almost invisible all the way down, an overrun garden on the unlit bottom floor. I didn’t worry about falling; my boots were made of the same cling-tight material as the cocoon, so it wasn’t a concern. Anyway, down was the only way to go at this point. Acting fast, I pulled out two items from the foot of my cocoon and then pressed three buttons along the seam. With a soft whirr the cocoon retracted into its backpack form and loosened its grip on the beam. As quietly as possible, I slipped it on, and then stood up.

The tacmites were nearly on me now, little mechanical creepy-crawlies about the size of my hand, bristling with tiny metal legs which propelled them along at speed. Beneath the clacking of their movement, I could also hear the sound of their tiny, blade-like teeth scissoring up and down against each other.

Determined not to end up as tacmite dust, I affixed an empod onto the girder before me. The empod was just one of the many devices I had cobbled together over the years from all the spare parts lying around the city. I have to say with a bit of pride that it was devices like these that kept me alive where others perished.

I pressed the empod, stood up, and stepped off the beam into empty air, just as the empod triggered above me. There was a loud crack and sizzle as the electro-magnetic pulse from the empod fried the circuits of all the tacmites that had been ready to devour me.

I hadn’t really thought how it would also fry all the lights in the area, too.

I plunged into darkness.

Click here for Part Two.

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Identity and Posthumanity

I just finished Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow and I wanted to riff on some of the ideas in there. Since the book has been out for a while, I hardly need to give it a full review, but let me at least say I enjoyed it in that way I enjoy a lot of posthuman novels. Which is to say, it was fun but thinking on it makes my head ache a bit. So let me think on it some more; I haven’t had met my headache quota yet today. Warning: if semi-philosophical rambles make you want to roll your eyes and walk away, you might want to do that now.

To briefly summarize the premise of the book first, it has been about 100 years since the death of scarcity for the human race, and the end of death itself, if you buy that. No one need starve or be homeless, everyone can lead the life they want to, and if you die, you can reload your latest backup into a clone of yourself and keep going. If all this is too much for you or you just get bored, you can “deadhead” until some point in the future, meaning you go to sleep and wake up in a new clone body 10, 100, 10,000 or x years in the future. The only currency is your reputation, or Whuffie score; have a low score and you are kind of a social pariah—you get food and maybe minimal lodging—while a high score means you can go and do whatever you want. This new world order is called the Bitchun Society.

The Magic Kingdom part of the title refers to Disney World, where groups of fans have taken over and are running the park, out-Disneying Disney itself. I enjoyed this part of the book, but it is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about my difficulty with wrapping my head around posthuman fiction, stories where humans readily deal with switching bodies, backing themselves up, running parallel versions of themselves, etc. Stories where humans aren’t really human anymore in the sense we experience it every day, because they don’t have the same worries as us (generally… these stories frequently deal with a posthuman facing the “death” of their current version, and they find themselves more attached to that version than they should be).

I have forgotten much of what I studied on the way to my undergrad degree in philosophy, but the areas that still interest me in philosophy are questions of identity and reality (for this reason, I enjoy most of Philip K. Dick’s novels). Posthuman books force me to focus on what identity means to me. Down and Out explicitly spells out what some books gloss over: to revert to a backed up copy of yourself, the current version has to die. This might happen by accident, but some people choose to wipe out their current version: in one example, it is done to erase memories of a bad relationship. I don’t know about you, but I viscerally balk at this idea. Let’s say I got into a car crash right after I backed up my mind or soul or whatever you want to call it. I lose all my limbs. The doctor tells me he can give me a little injection to “end” my current, damaged body and wake up in my nice new one. Of course, this is a lethal injection. Even in that scenario, I cannot imagine saying, “Yes, kill this me so another me can go on.”

What I can’t seem to wrap my mind around is: how can you so casually let go of yourself like that? If you die and a version of you is reborn, or if you can excise certain memories at will, or completely change the body you are in, is it still you coming out the other end? Most of the characters in these books take it for granted that this is so. Doctorow even points out that the people who refused to join the Bitchun society are dead anyways because they didn’t use the technology to back themselves up before they died. But do all these posthuman means of staying alive really keep you from dying or do they just allow you the polite fiction that the you that dies is the same as the next you to be loaded up? Maybe that polite fiction is the most we can hope for.

In the end, I think Doctorow makes the best point for why I should just stop worrying and learn to love the posthumanity: I can go along with it and risk that I’ll still be dead anyway (with some other version of me going on), or refuse it and know for certain that I’ll be dead. I guess if offered the choice, I’d go Bitchun all the way.