The Only City Left: Part Eight

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

The Only City Left: Part Eight

I locked eyes with the ghost for a moment. This was the best look I had gotten of him since my flight began. He was humanoid but not human. In fact he looked like nothing less than a giant dog, his snout full of wicked-looking teeth that snapped at me in frustration as he fought to force himself into the shaft. He had one arm raised above his head and I could see the claws at the ends of his fingers dripping spectral blood. His other arm was pinned to his body as he struggled to push himself further up.

Great. Giant monstrous corporeal ghosts chasing me around aren’t bad enough, mine had to be a werewolf, too. I kicked out again and my foot caught the ladder, so I shifted my weight to my feet and let go of the wheel lock.

The sound of straining metal filled the air and I looked down to see the spectral werewolf pulling himself up the shaft on the ladder, one-handed, each rung bending downward under the pressure. Time to go.

I reached up and turned the now-loose wheel lock until it clunked to a stop again and then pushed on the hatch. It resisted at first but then the seal broke and I was able to push it open. One hand on the hatch, the other on the lip, I climbed out of the shaft and tumbled onto a dust-covered floor, inside of some sort of shelf-lined maintenance room that was lit only by the glow of my lantern coil.

I lay there panting and shaking for a few seconds before I could convince my body to move again. Something was wrong, it was too quiet. Rolling over onto my stomach, I got my knees under me and leaned over the open hatch to check the progress of my pursuer.

“I smell your father on you, boy,” said the now-human ghost who was looking up at me from only a few rungs down.

My heart slammed against my rib cage like it was trying to break free and my vision darkened for a moment. The translucent blue hand rising up over the lip of the open hatchway brought me back to myself.

“What’s your name, cub? We’ve never been properly introduced?”

I stood up and looked down at the ghost who was now poised just inside the open hatch, one arm over the edge, pulling himself up.

“Go to hell,” I stuttered as I slammed the weighty hatch down.

As the hatch fell, the ghost transformed, one second a man, the next a ravening beast. The hatch door was unimpressed. It nestled into place with a ringing gong, neatly slicing through the fur and muscle of the ghost’s extended arm.

I threw myself onto the hatch and turned the wheel lock until it jammed to a stop. Beside me, the ghost arm fizzled away into wisps of smoke which flowed, not up, but around the hatch itself, trying to find an opening to reunite with the rest of its body.

Even through the thick hatch I could hear the roar of the ghost beast, and the hatch started to buck below me. I knew I couldn’t stay here forever holding the wheel, so I jumped up and ran to the nearest set of shelves. They were metal and free-standing, and with some effort, I was able to pull them down onto the top of the hatch. One after the other I collapsed the shelves onto the floor, creating a jumbled pile of heavy debris above and around the hatch.

Satisfied that I had done all I could, I found the door out of the maintenance room, opened it, and ran for my life. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, I just knew I needed to get as far away as possible. I barely saw my surroundings. Instead, the same picture kept replaying in my mind. The ghost’s face as I slammed the hatch shut. His anger, his transformation into werewolf form. And how, as a human, he looked uncannily like my own father.

* * *

Some time later, I was well and truly lost, which was fine by me. Lost is my normal state of affairs. Lost means I have never been somewhere before. If I recognized my surroundings, it might have meant that I had doubled back, and since I hadn’t heard from the big bad wolf-ghost in a while, doubling back toward the site of our last encounter would not be good. Maybe my attempts to cover up the hatch had kept him at bay, maybe not. For now I just needed to stay ahead, stay alive.

So this is how Mom and Dad must have felt. Dangerous people, dangerous things, always on their tail. Maybe the same one who was pursuing me, since he seemed to know Dad. Hell, he looked like Dad. What was that about?

So many questions but no one around to answer them. Welcome to my life.

With the adrenaline of my flight leeched out of my system, I realized that I was in just as much danger from freezing as from the ghost, maybe more. My wet clothes had not warmed up in the cool, stale air of the complex I ended up in. Where had I ended up, anyway? Another residential block, from the looks of it, but not as packed in as the one I had started out in, some unknown number of stories further up. Up. That reminded me of my failure once again to ascend through the city. Sometimes it seemed like there was a barrier between the lower and upper portions of the city, like maybe the undercity was buried and forgotten at some point, and I could try for a hundred years and never find a crack in the armor between the two. Maybe I should have a new goal instead: head down. At least that way I’d be succeeding.

* * *

Achieve your own success by reading Part Nine (or stick around and read my commentary below first.)

4/8/2012 News: This week I wrote more words of notes and backstory than words for this post, which is due to the fact that now that I have put some pieces in place, I am starting to see connections I had no idea about when I started writing the story. I know some writers have intricate world-building and plotting done before they write one word of their story, and I think that is great, but it can get boring for me as a writer to do that. I like discovering the world as I write. The flip side is the danger that I could write myself into a corner. I think writing the story and the backstory in parallel from now on will help me prevent that from happening.

On another note, as you may have noticed, some fantasy seems to have fallen into my science fiction. There are ghosts, werewolves, and more to come. This was the plan from the start. I want a big, jumbled-up, throw-in-everything fantasy adventure story set in a sci-fi, planet-sized, run-down city. (Whew, I’m almost out of hyphens now.) I may be able to “explain” the fantasy elements in a pseudo-scientific manner (that’s my last hyphen, I promise), but I’m not sure if it really matters to me so long as it is fun.

If you enjoyed this post, please click the image below to give The Only City Left a vote on Top Web Fiction. (One vote allowed per week.)

Click here to vote for The Only City Left on Top Web Fiction!

Dreams: 4/6/12

I have seen dreams used a lot in the webcomics I have been reading lately, as prophecy and insight into past events in LeyLines, as the setting for Xander, as a vision of another world in Shadowbinders, and as a vision of the past in The Bean. All those dream references made me want to write a bit about dreams myself, since it is one of my favorite subjects. (4/8/12 Edit: I forgot to mention Power Nap, another great dream-oriented webcomic!)

I am fascinated by the dreaming world and the use of dreams in stories (can’t wait for my copy of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath graphic novel to arrive!), and I have spent a lot of time recording my dreams and trying to explore them more fully. For one, they are a great source of story ideas. And for another, I cannot help the nagging suspicion that, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest or in Xander, the land of dreams is a place, like the waking world, that persists over time.

That may sound fantastical and it is not something I would necessarily go to the mat for, but it is a fun idea. At the minimum, I think that perhaps our own personal dreamscapes persist over time, because of the number of locations I have visited in my dreams that I return to again and again. Nor are these locations frozen sets that are unaffected by the passage of time. Frequently when I visit them, there is a sense or outright confirmation that time has passed.

For instance, I mentioned on Wednesday that this house on a green hill in the webcomic Xander reminded me of a setting from my dreams. It is one I have not visited since childhood, but at the time it was a bakery or sweets shop of some sort. The last time I visited it in a dream, however, it was boarded up, disused, dusty. (I know, how’s that for some heavy, end-of-childhood symbolism.)

Another location I have visited numerous times is a mashup of an amusement park and a bazaar. I have been here so many times and from various entrances that I have literally drawn a map of the place. The parking structure, front entrance, business office, carnival games, bazaar, and rides remain in the same place, although the contents of the bazaar and the nature of the rides can change. The rides themselves are often gargantuan roller-coasters and water rides, while the bazaar has an inordinate amount of used book stores. (Actually, browsing imaginary books and comics in used book stores is a common, and favorite, dream for me.) So, is this all wish fulfillment for a kid who has never really grown up? Does the amusement park exist in my mind in some permanent way or am I making it up each time from my memories of previous dreams? Or is it truly a shared realm that other dreamers can visit?

Well, I suppose if anyone reads this and has been there, you show me your map and I’ll show you mine and we’ll go from there.

Leaving the question aside of whether or not dreams are a gateway to another actual place, my other fascination with dreams is how it is possible to “wake up” inside a dream. This is known as lucid dreaming and is the premise of the aforementioned Xander and the movie Inception (and now that I think of it, even an episode of Fraggle Rock, although I doubt they called it lucid dreaming). As I mentioned earlier this week, I once spent an inordinate amount of time exploring the practice of lucid dreaming. If you are interested in trying it or just reading about it, I recommend the books Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge and Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield.

The quick description of lucid dreaming is that you regain consciousness and control of your actions while you are still asleep and in a dream world rather than the waking world. It seems impossible at first and I remember thinking people were just making this up, but I eventually mastered the art of lucid dreaming, for a time, and I can say there is not quite any other experience like it and probably won’t be until we have some sort of virtual reality.

Like Xander, I had some fantastic “powers” I could wield when lucid, because I realized that “it was all a dream” and so I could effect changes on my environment. I could fly, I could walk through walls, and I could shake the dream up like an Etch-a-Sketch and remake it if it wasn’t going the way I liked it, like if it was getting too nightmarish.

I would try to program dreams by focusing on certain subjects before going to sleep, and I was able to have some very therapeutic encounters this way. It may seem trite or cliché, but in one dream I had gone to sleep with the intention to meet my younger self in the dream. I did, and he was being bullied, and I chased the bullies away and had a nice chat with myself about hanging in there. It felt very real and was quite cathartic.

Well, I could go on and on about my dreams, but I know that listening to other people’s dreams can be a tedious experience because it is so difficult to truly convey the emotions and knowledge that the dreamer feels while dreaming. Needless to say, I recommend trying to learn lucid dreaming if you have the time and the patience. (I haven’t had truly lucid dreams in a while. It is something that takes work and practice, and at this point in my life I don’t have the time to put into it.)

In the end, I remain fascinated by dreams and if you ever want to discuss them, feel free to comment here or you can find me on G+ or Facebook (you can find my links in the About section of this blog).

Webcomics Wednesday: 4/4/12

Today I review two webcomics and some indie physical comic books that I picked up at WonderCon. If you are looking for more great webcomics, check out my Links page for all the comics I have reviewed so far. And if you’re into science fiction, check out my serial SF adventure, The Only City Left. Thanks!

Planet Pantheon

Last week I covered Hunter Black and this week I am reviewing Planet Pantheon, both of which are written by Justin Peniston. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stalking him. Correction: I hope he doesn’t realize I’m stalking him. Kidding aside, I really enjoyed Planet Pantheon, which is as different from Hunter Black as can be. I have been actively seeking a science-fiction webcomic in the mold of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers and while Planet Pantheon is not a space opera per se, the art style is exactly what I was looking for, a sort of classic science-fiction comic look, in this case provided by Michael Turda (artwork), Jacob Bascle (lettering/SFX), and Rainer Petter (colorist).

Planet Pantheon is still in its early days, about 20 pages in, but here is what I get from it so far. Alaric is a rogue who stumbles back into his father’s life just as dear old dad, Dr. Argus Abernathy, finds the lost birthplace of humanity, planet Earth. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Earth turns out to be a tad more populated than expected and it looks like it will be up to Alaric to save his dad’s bacon when landfall does not go well.

I like the father-son antagonism present in the comic. Alaric and Argus may be related but it is clear that they are two individual adults separated by time, distance, and attitude. And I cannot say enough about the art and visual story-telling. There are two pages in a row that are my favorite so far: the first showcases the retro-SF look I am really enjoying, while the five panels on the bottom of the second page tell a great story with only one word of dialogue.

I also have to share this page; it carries more emotional heft than anything I have read in a webcomic. It’s horrible but not gratuitous, as it gives you insight into one of the cultures in the comic. Obviously I don’t recommend reading it out of context, spoiler-wise, so be sure to catch up on Planet Pantheon first, but I couldn’t review this comic without mentioning such a strong scene.

Finally, the comic is called Planet Pantheon, so it should come as no surprise that there will be gods involved in the story, or at least people who worship them, and I am really digging the first set of worshippers we run into. Dare I hope for a larger clash of cultures/religions on this retro-future Earth? I think it’s almost guaranteed and I can’t wait to read it. Jump on board now while the comic is still in its early days.

Xander

Xander is a fun adventure through dream-land, written by Taylor Machnick with art by Ian Gibson. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am fascinated by dreams and I love a well-done story involving dreams. I spent one summer about a decade ago recording my dreams, reading about them, and working on lucid dreaming, and while I don’t have the time to repeat that experiment, it was pretty awesome. So a webcomic about a boy who becomes stuck in a lucid dream? Yes please.

The art is light and playful and very well done; it fits perfectly with an action/adventure story set in a fantastical dream world. The story could be a typical hero’s quest, but the main character, Xander, is likeable and excited by the possibilities of adventuring through dreamland, and this is infectious. In one scene he says, “So you’re giving me a quest? I have to cross the dream world, facing all kinds of danger along the way? And if I don’t make it fast enough, my own life will be in peril? Awesome!” It is a kind of knowing nod that this story has of course been done before, but who cares as long as it is fun and exciting.

Since anything can happen in dreams, the possibilities for story-telling are endless and could easily spiral off into the bizarre, but in this dream world, there are distinct locales each with their own story or theme, which keeps things under control. The different realms are populated with a number of interesting characters, from Sir Henry the knight, to the cyborg children of the City of the Future, to co-dreamer, goth girl Leila. And let’s not forget Xander’s unnamed dog, who is as cute as can be and also serves to point the way to the familiar First, Previous, Next, and Last comics.

This comic may resonate more with me due to my research into lucid dreams and love of dreams in general. I actually did a double-take because the small house on the hill on page 89 is very similar to a location I visited in my dreams more than once. Perhaps it is an archetypal dream location? (At any rate, the inside of the house was different.)

I am also curious to see if Xander’s lucid dreaming abilities come at any cost. I know that when I pulled off those sort of world-bending powers while lucid dreaming, it tended to wake me up, but Xander is stuck in the dream world, so can he work as much magic as he wants to? I think this may be discussed soon in the comic (as of this writing, it is up to page 92).

In the end, whether or not you have had these types of dreams, I think you’ll find Xander’s adventures fun and exciting, at turns light-hearted and foreboding, like any good night of dreaming.

WonderCon Comics

To wrap up my report of my day at WonderCon, I want to share some of the comics I picked up there. Once upon a time, I actually went to comic book conventions primarily for the comic books. Now that I am not as into collecting comics, I still like to stop by some tables and see what’s what in the world of independent comics.

One of the tables I approached was that of Committed Comics. The guys at the table were friendly and fun and did a good job of running down the comics they had on offer. I left with all three issues of a comic called Java!, which is a fun/silly action story about a future in which most of the world’s coffee supply has been tainted, causing the caffeine levels to be so high they are lethal. It falls upon the B.E.A.N. Force to protect the remaining, untainted supply of coffee. The heroine, Java, wears a caffeine patch to control her levels of caffeine, because if she has too much, she goes crazy with super-strength and fire-breathing. If it sounds ridiculous, it is, but that’s the fun of it. And as a coffee drinker who needs his cup in the morning to function, I appreciate the comic’s premise. The creative team is: Kensuke Okabayashi (creator/illustrator), Peter Palmiotti (inks), and Lee Stacy (digital colors).

Forever Freshman (and the Cunning Code Crackers of the Girl Network!) issue #1 is a black-and-white comic written by Ray Mendivil with art by Neil Segura. It is a comedic take on some clueless band geeks in high school who are look to the “girl network” for information on a new classmate, rather than talk to the girl herself. Think less “American Pie” and more “Li’l Archie” for this high school adventure.

I picked this one up because I can relate to being clueless about girls in high school and to support two guys who went the extra mile and made a comic book out of their (mis)adventures.

Wuvable Oaf #1 by Ed Luce… how can I describe this black-and-white comic? Let me just share the beginning of the book: Oaf is asleep in bed in all his hairy glory, surrounded by his cats. They proceed to give him a tongue bath and then a hairball assault. He wakes up, takes a shower, shaves off all his body hair and collects it in a box. With a grunt of effort, he regrows the hair in seconds. Then he uses the hair he collected as filling for little stuffed animals he has handmade, which he then sells to a store called “Debbie Does Dollies.”

It sounds crazy but it is a lot of fun. Wuvable Oaf, the man and the comic book, is weird, sweet, and funny. Of the comics I mentioned, I would have to say Wuvable Oaf is my favorite. I should note that it is probably for mature audiences only due to sexual situations, but there is nothing truly graphic in here.

One final note: The Five Ghosts Kickstarter is well over its goal, but I wanted to mention it again. The art looks great and the premise is pure awesome. Here is the synopsis: “Five Ghosts follows the story of Fabian Gray, an infamous 1930’s treasure hunter who makes a living seeking out rare items for private clients. After an encounter with a strange artifact known as “the dreamstone,” Fabian finds himself possessed by five literary ghosts (Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Musashi, and Dracula) and is granted access to their unique abilities.  These powers have come at a price, however: the dreamstone consumed the soul of Fabian’s closest ally, his twin sister, and has left her in a lifeless coma.  Fabian now tirelessly travels the globe searching for a “cure” for her condition while trying to control his own ghostly affliction.”

I recommend getting in on this Kickstarter while the getting is good!

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.

If you enjoyed this post, please click the image below to give The Only City Left a vote on Top Web Fiction. (One vote allowed per week.)

Click here to vote for The Only City Left on Top Web Fiction!