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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Webcomics Wednesday: 3/14/2012

In today’s post I talk about Webcomics, Kickstarter projects, and serialized wuxia fiction. Hopefully next week I can recap my time at Wondercon, if my computer and internet connection are all working again after my move!

Webcomics

Jackie Rose by Josh Ulrich: This webcomic is a WWII-era action-adventure story along the lines of the Indiana Jones movies or The Adventures of the 19XX. The first story is the five-part Jackie Rose and the Legend of the Sixth Seal, and it is up for free online. In it we are introduced to the treasure-seeking Jackie, who when she isn’t living a life of adventure is a… waitress. Yes, seems she isn’t earning enough hunting treasure, so like the rest of us, she has a day job. Plus, her dad isn’t really keen on her risking her life on adventures. Not that they’re very risky, unless you count the Nazi robots that are attacking her. Oh wait, maybe dad has a point.

The characters in this story are fun nods to familiar archetypes, like the Frenchman, a blindfolded, beret-wearing man of mystery (I fully expect him to have awesome kung fu), The Black Fox (a Catwoman/Black Cat analogue), and Eddie Ripcord (ace pilot and wheel man, and love interest for Jackie). The story itself is a nod to Indiana Jones, with world travel, underground cities with hidden treasure, and Nazis trying to take over the world. Luckily, there are enough twists and the character interaction is genuine and fun, so the story doesn’t get bogged down in cliché.

If you enjoy the Legend of the Sixth Seal, I recommend that you download The Amazing Eddie Ripcord, which is a shorter, black and white  one-shot available to buy in PDF format for $1.50. (Note, after you purchase it through Paypal, click “Return to Josh Ulrich” and your download will start; somewhat non-intuitive.) It is the story of Eddie and Jackie’s first meeting, when they were kids, and it is actually really sweet and full of action. It makes Eddie’s abilities in the Legend of the Sixth Seal more believable, too.

The next multi-issue story arc for sale is going to be called Jackie Rose and the Treasure of Captain Read, and it will be in color (and have air pirates!) The current planned release date is March 19th.

Everblue by Michael Sexton: The story starts when Ten arrives in town on a flying sailboat and is promptly shot down by Seta, a city guard, who thinks the boat is an attacking sea-serpent. To make up for his mistake, Seta brings Ten to see Luna (his half-sister?), who repairs boats. Okay, the story actually starts earlier with Luna, but I would say the action starts with Ten’s arrival. As Luna and Ten work on a new boat, they form a friendship and maybe something more is budding. I have to admit, the looks they give each other are so darn cute and sweet. It evokes feelings of first love (aw, I’m an old softie). There are also abandoned underwater cities, an evil general, ancient technology, astral projection, and what looks to be a big honking monster.

The town in which the story starts is an island in the middle of ocean (the Everblue, I presume) with docks that point in the cardinal directions. My guess is this is a post-apocalyptic world where global warming has raised the ocean level, hence the island towns and ancient underwater ruins. Also, Luna mentions to Ten that his name means Heaven in one of the old languages, which makes me think this is our own world in the future (ten = heaven in Japanese, right?).

The beginning of this comic is in black and white, then the artwork switches to color starting in Chapter 2 (I think Chapter 1 may be redone and colored at some point). There are also three black and white vignettes planned between Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. The color pages look great, but the black and white/greyscale pages work well, too.

This comic is still in Volume 1 with a planned four volumes total, so I can’t wait for the continuation of this epic story.

Kickstarter Comics Projects

The Giant! A Mini-Graphic Novel Kickstarter, which I mentioned last week, ends tomorrow. Congrats to creator Chris Wharton for reaching his goal!

Five Ghosts is a comics project about a treasure hunter in the 1930s who ends up being able to channel the spirits of “five literary ghosts (Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Musashi, and Dracula) and is granted access to their unique abilities.” That sounds like a cool, fun concept and the sample art looks really good, so I’m in for this one.

The Gastrophobia Volume 2 Kickstarter should be ending successfully just as this post goes live, so congratulations are also in order for creator David McGuire!

Writing News

I am enjoying working on my own serialized story, The Only City Left, and I would like to recommend another serial I found, The Traitor and the Monk, by Atomic Robo writer Brian Clevinger. If you enjoy wuxia movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and are looking for some fiction reading in a similar vein, check out this story of a barbarian whose rebellion against the Jin emperor failed, a drunken master monk that he meets on the road, and the Jin investigator who is on their tail. The story is smart, funny, and has great action scenes.

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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Writing Research: Sword Fights

I enjoy fight scenes in movies, whether it is some gun-fu or a long martial arts battle or an awesome sword fight, which got me to thinking about how well I can pull off writing one of these scenes for a story. I would love to write a really cool sword fight, for instance, but I a) have never held a sword much less fought with one, and b) am not really familiar with sword terminology. Of course, as writers, we make stuff up all the time, but it is nice to at least sound like we know what we are talking about. So I turned to my pal Google for some help on the subject, and here is a round-up of what I found.

Martin Turner of martinturner.org.uk had two interesting posts, the first about the difficulties of writing a sword fight and how other writers have handled them, and the second a more hands-on how-to. The difficulties of writing a sword fight, per Mr. Turner, are that fights take much less time to occur than they do to describe, most readers don’t know the vocabulary of sword-fighting (so at least they’re in the same boat as I am), the fights are repetitive, and there must be real danger for the characters involved for the fight to be believable. Mr. Turner is a fencer, and in his second post he explains a lot of fencing terminology, but I like that he does not recommend using it. Instead he focuses on what can make a fight interesting to read, such as accidents and reversals, cheating, and crowd interactions. He also discusses the conditions that can lead to a fighter winning and losing. All in all, this is a great article with many inspirational tips.

This interview with R.A. Salvatore also has some helpful tips. He says that fight scenes are about the dance between the characters and also having an interesting environment for them to fight in. Like many others, he references the Inigo Montoya/Man in Black sword fight from The Princess Bride as an inspiration. His final piece of advice in the interview is “And most of all, make sure that the first fatality in any fight scene is the verb ‘to be.’ If you’re using ‘was’ and ‘were’ and ‘had been,’ well, the first fatality will be your reader’s interest.” Duly noted!

Over on kimkouski.com, I found an interview with Darrin Zielinski titled “How to Write Sword Fighting Scenes.” I liked his ideas about how weapon types can be used to define a character. (Mr. Salvatore also discusses his different characters and matching their weapons and fighting styles to the characters. I liked his description of the dwarf with spiked armor who charges into battle head-first: “How can you not love a furious dwarf hopping around with a dead goblin flopping around dead on his helmet spike?”)

I found this list of the parts of a sword and types of swords at the My Literary Quest blog. While I might not go into detail on all this in a story, it is handy to know and a nice, quick reference.

Now I want to write a cool sword fight scene more than ever, and I got some great ideas from these sites. I hope this post points one or two other people toward some helpful advice as well, and if you want to recommend any other sites or books, feel free!

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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Webzines: One in a Series

So far on Lithicbee I have been reviewing webcomics, searching for e-books from some of my favorite authors, waxing philosophical, and sharing pieces of a rough draft end-of-the-world story. With today’s post I am going to add another topic I am interested in finding more information about: webzine/e-zines. Specifically, science-fiction/fantasy/horror webzines. For all the posts in this series, click here.

As an aspiring writer, I really need to see what other writers are doing to get their name and stories out there, so I am going to make a concerted effort to find new (to me) markets and start reading a lot more short fiction. I have to admit, I am not always fond of short fiction. Perhaps as Stephen King speculates, I have fallen out of love with the short story. Well, this is me trying to rekindle the romance. Just as I search for and talk about webcomics on this blog, I am going to do the same with SF/F/Horror (aka speculative fiction) webzines/e-zines. I will add them to my Links page as I go along, in case anyone else might find a list of genre markets useful as well.

I’ll start with OG’s Speculative Fiction. According to the site, “Our goal is to eventually be considered a professional market by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which means we need a circulation of at least 1,000 and we need to pay 5 cents a word. In the future we might look to add an editorial, book reviews, and author interviews every month. We want to grow!”

I picked up Issue 34 on Amazon for 99 cents. (I guess I could have gotten it for free as a Prime member, but, c’mon, 99 cents!) It included two stories, an Editor’s Letter, and a poem. While the goal might be to pay 5 cents a word, right now they pay $35 per story for one-time and some reprint rights. Stories should be less than 8,000 words, preferably less than 5,000 words. It looks like they have a new issue every two months.

Schlock! Webzine is a weekly zine that just put out its 46th edition. According to the site, “Schlock! is an exciting new weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!”

Shlock! publishes weekly and include several stories in each issue. Payment is publication of your work. You retain all rights to your work and they are currently accepting submissions. There is also a very comprehensive Webzine Links page that I am sure I will be making use of in the coming months.

The Were-Traveler has four volumes a year on a specific theme. From the site: “The Were-Traveler is an online webzine dedicated to really short fiction. When I say really short fiction, I mean REALLY short. Drabbles and micro-fic mostly, with the occasional flash piece or short story (up to 2000 words) thrown in whenever I have time to read longer pieces. What I’m looking for here is speculative fiction. It’s what I write, it’s what I enjoy reading. Fantasy, science fiction, horror and any combination of the three have a good chance of getting published here.” Drabbles are 100-word stories, for those who don’t know. (I didn’t.)

The next call for submissions is for innovative vampire revenge stories, due by April 30th. Payment is publication of your work.

Ray Gun Revival focuses on space opera stories of no more than 4,000 words. It pays $0.01-$0.05 per word up to 4,000 words, to be paid via PayPal. It asks for “First Rights and specifically First Internet Publication, with an option on First Anthology Rights for 18 months.” It also recommends reading the contract that you agree to when you submit “very carefully.” At first this kind of scared me, but it is actually what one should be doing anyway, so at least they make an effort to point it out.

So, there you have it, the first in a series of my research into webzine SF/F/Horror markets. Just checking these zines out and reading the stories on them really gets me wanting to submit stories again. If you know of a zine you think I should check out, please feel free to drop me a line.

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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Future History: DreamTV

The year is 2034. Scripted television is a thing of the past. Reality TV has played itself out. The final niche documentary show—Ozark Raccoon Celebrity Matchmakers, which detailed the love lives of a small group of genetically engineered, intelligent raccoons—was canceled by Animal PlanE!t in 2031 after five strong seasons. Once that show went off the air, there were no further demographics left that had not already been documented by a reality TV show.

Reality competition shows had ended when the extended family of contestants from MTV’s Real World/Road Rules franchise had taken each other out in a true Last Man Standing event, with the final contestant dying of liver failure soon thereafter. The resulting lawsuits from family members and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Game Show Contestants had such a chilling effect on other competition shows that they all closed up shop en masse, stranding some contestants on deserted islands or in foreign countries.

Luckily, Dream TV stepped in to fill the gaping hole in the TV landscape left by the dissolution of every single other form of entertainment. Born out of technology that took its first crude steps into dreamland in the early 21st century, DreamTV allows viewers intimate access into the dreams of the rich, famous, imaginative, and depraved.

 Excerpt from a DreamTV advertisement: “Let’s face it, you don’t remember your dreams, do you? Or if you do, it’s that one where you’re walking around the office naked, or you’re taking a surprise math quiz even though it’s been years since you’ve been in school. Why suffer your own petty, shallow dreams and nightmares when you can watch the creation of professional dreamers, with fresh content provided daily on thousands of channels? With DreamTV, only the best dreamers are chosen to take you into exotic landscapes of the mind where action, adventure, exploration, romance, and a mixed bag of fascinating neuroses await! Each Dream Creator lives a life of luxury by day, and spends each night hooked up to a Quantum Imager that translates detailed scans of their brains into audio-visual extravaganzas for your viewing pleasure.”

 Excerpt from the paper ’zine Hide Your Dreams: “Is everything copacetic in Dreamland? There are rumors that the so-called Dream Creators are actually unwilling prisoners subjected to an endless regimen of bizarre stimuli, images, music, and hallucinogenic drugs in order to, in effect, program the dreams that DreamTV writers have written for them. So are you watching real dreams or has the Writer’s Guild of Earth simply found a new way to write and produce new fiction shows with a cast and crew of one? Are the supposedly spontaneous and free-form stories that each Dream Creator shares each night actually programmed in ahead of time?”

 Clip from 20/20/24/7 News:

DreamTV spokesman John Shale : “We strenuously deny these vile rumors that have no basis whatsoever in fact. Our dreams and nightmares are 100% created in the subconscious minds of our Dream Creators. Have you watched these dreams? To suggest that they are the purposeful work of a group of writers is ridiculous.”

20/20/24/7 Correspondent Alicia Wilde: “Still, the rumors persist, as do those that the United Nations Security Division is extracting information from dissidents not through torture, but simply by recording dreams and sifting through them for nuggets of fact. If our dreams are no longer our own, sacred playgrounds, a place where we can work out our imagination and explore our hopes, fears, and anxieties without worrying what someone else will think about us, if they can be visited by government spooks or by anyone who owns a TV set, what refuge is left to us, dear viewers?”

The year is 2036. DreamTV ended in scandal when it was revealed that the rumors had been true. Entire prison complexes of forced dreamers were found and most of the so-called Dream Creators were insane beyond the point of rehabilitation by the time their plight was confirmed. The head of the UNSD stepped down amidst the revelations that he was personally responsible for funding the program, which provided the “Dream Creators” to DreamTV after the UNSD was down strip-mining their dreams for intelligence.

Luckily, by the time DreamTV collapsed, the children of the original Real World/Road Rules contestants had come of age. As part of their winning lawsuit against MTV, they received the right to have a competition show of their own. The age of reality TV was born again.

[I was working on an unrelated short story all day Saturday and it wasn’t until the end of the night that I realized I had no Sunday blog post ready. I had been thinking of writing about current technologies that could one day lead to the ability to view one’s dreams, perhaps using some improved form of functional magnetic resonance imagining. The post I started to write was kind of dry and bland, so I figured, hey, only one or two people at the most (Hi Mom, Hi Jeff!) will read this anyway, so I might as well have fun with it. It is meant to be silly but contain some real questions about where such technology might be problematic.]