Flash Fiction: Distant City

a footprint in white sand

Which burned worse: Sun or sand. A thousand pinpricks, sunburn and scrapes, or unending thirst. We had no room in our pain to decide. So, we continued over the desolate waste.

Something would appear. A town. A village. A lone hut. We had to believe.

By day, we huddled together in the cloth-shaded sled. Sleep was less a thing of rest than escape, and dreams were broken between moments of being fitfully half-awake.

By night, we traded at leaving footprints in the sand. The heat lingered, but it was cool by contrast. Sweat still slithered down my skin.

“Water,” gasped Lilou. She tugged the rope wrapped around my chest. “You, water.”

Stopping was more torturous than the heat, but she was right. I had ignored my turn for water, and she had been too delirious to remind me. It was easier to walk, to lean forward and ignore pain. Movement, every breath, was driven by my will. Stopping threatened to break me.

“Nuette, sit.”

I didn’t sit. I collapsed into the covered sled. “Lilou, we have to move.”

“We will. I will.” She handed me our canteen. It was nearly empty, but she struggled as if it were filled with rock. “You rest. My turn.” Lilou took the timer from my belt, flipped it over, and hung it from hers. Its black sands renewed their constant journey. A mirror of ours. Unending and seemingly without a true destination.

“But-“

“You. Need. Rest.”

Every word took effort. Her wheezing breath carried the dry pain. The skin on her knuckles was cracked as if she’d grown impossibly old. Like mine, her clothes were baked with sand and painfully stiff. Unlike me, she was smaller overall and had always been little more than skin and bone. Nevertheless, she crawled onto the searing sand.

I tried the canteen. My arms wouldn’t work. Circulation tingled where the rope had pressed. Weariness dragged at me, but I managed a sip. All that we could spare. Hardly more than a drop.

It took twice as long to screw the cap tight. To ensure that it was tight. To protect that last gulp.

Sleep drugged me with its release. I dreamt of home. The home I struggled to remember. Across oceans of distance and time.

Later, a timeless moment later, we were stopped. The change made me wake. I peered into the moonless night with groggy worry. “Lilou?”

Outside, her body was a shadowy lump on the ground.

I braced myself. As agreed, my first step was to take another sip of water. It felt like every drop melted into my cracked lips. I took a breath.

I crawled back onto the burning grit. “Foolish,” I murmured in breathless words. Speaking hurt my jaw. My throat.

Pulling her back to the sled was draining. I shook her. “Water.”

Three nudges, two slaps, and she woke. “Sorry.” Her face was covered in sand where she’d fallen. Gently as possible, I brushed the grains from her skin. I tipped the canteen to her mouth. Held my thumb between her lips to make sure water made the important journey.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, nearly unintelligible.

“Gonna pull now,” I whispered. I took the timer and found the end of the rope. Wrapped it around my waist. Looked ahead. Something glowed in the distance.

A city dimmed by the days between us and its gates. But it was progress. We were heading toward something.

For the first moment in weeks, my thoughts reached beyond survival. We might still find her. Wixie still had friends so long as we survived. With friends, she had hope too.

A want for speed tingled in my mind, but I kept a steady pace. Lilou slept, and when the timer ran out, I let her sleep. I did not collapse into the sled until dawn.

That next night, we could see a skyline. I memorized the jagged edges of shadows against a star-pricked canvas of blue-black. For the first time in weeks, the slimshine rose in the west. Glowing purples and shimmering greens painted our desert in treacherous beauty.

I watched from the sled with half-lidded drowsiness. Sleep was harder to find because of a rising expectation. Those ethereal lights were a sign of good luck. I chose to believe that meaning.

Our sled jerked to a stop. Lilou was motionless, arms limp. She was stuck, leaning forward, passed out but held like a puppet.

I opened the canteen and jiggled its contents. Enough to make noise, but not enough to feel the weight.

The city was still too far.

Purple-tinted shadows misted and melted under Lilou’s feet. Sand shifted under one of her feet. Her body tilted. She toppled to one side. Again, a lump on the dunes.

My glimmers of hope vanished in a breath.

Every limb seemed drawn to the earth like anchors. I had to roll from the sled, and even then, I stayed on my back for long enough to forget the passing time. The sky loomed over me and the swirling color drew me into a trance.

In that state, I forgot my reservations. I forgot my terror at the powers I’d lost. The ability I had forsaken. Spirit reached toward me and I remembered its grace.

Lilou’s presence touched me first. She was a faint outline of power that trembled on the edge of vision. She was a fading heartbeat of soul.

But the desert was afire with power. There were lifelines pulsing just below the surface. I shifted onto the mental plane and sank into the ground.

The pressing dark was pushed back by creatures too small to see. A million tunnels and miniscule chambers teemed with wriggling things. They were insects, vermin and barbed-predators, and there were larger animals with naked skin and blind eyes.

Spirit was in all things, and so the beasts added to the desert’s hidden light, but that did not account for the greater sense of power from further below.

Curiosity pulled me further into the depths of sand. I sank until the sand became stone. I sank until the stone grew warm.

A great cavern opened around me, and I floated above a ruined city. Toppled towers were strewn across the rubble of crumbling homes. A market square was sunken into a pool of water where a central well once stood.

Water.

I shot toward the pool without thinking. My thirst ravaged me with an intensity that I had forgotten. My spirit’s form ignored the water’s touch and I attempted to drink without feeling cool refreshment.

And then I remembered my physical body, far above on the desert surface, and suddenly I was staring at the stars.

I was reaching up, toward the undulating slimshine, and my wrist glowed from the tattooed band of the Severed. Sisters of the Cylnai were connected to me, but I had not reached out to them since leaving the sea.

‘Nuette?’ whispered some half-forgotten voice. It had hardly been a year, but the faces of that great ship were already nearly-faded.

‘Sotin?’ I had to strain to hear my old teacher, but I was sure it was her. The Embrahm sounded distant, and I did not know if that was a product of weakness or separation from the oceans. ‘I hope you are well.’

‘Nuette, what is wrong? Why does your soul feel so broken?’

It was foolish, but her words filled me with a fear beyond a death in the desert. Memories of a terrifying island and the loss of my parents strangled me with sudden grief. I snatched my mind away from the connection. I closed myself to the voices of Severed Sisters.

The twin golden bands ceased glowing around my wrist, and they were simple black tattoos once more.

But the connection had been a reminder of more than the failures in my past. I had remembered what I could do with enough spirit in my veins. True, those powers were once driven by the shard of a god, but perhaps I could reach beyond who I had been.

Still lying on my back, still staring up at the sky, I reached back into the ground’s wealth of old power. Some civilization had left its ghosts far below, and I knew enough of the dead to realize that they could be worthy allies.

The hollow of my right eye gave a twinge of pain. I hadn’t felt anything beneath my eyepatch for months, and the sudden renewed feeling did nothing to assure me that I was choosing a path toward safety.

I ignored the pain and dove into the sands. My spirit form sped through earth until I was back in the ruined city. Steeling myself against voices of the city’s forgotten, I pulled at the lingering spirit.

They flooded me with their eager return to the living.

Dozens of minds pressed against mine and I fought to keep my own voice. Theirs were mad and disjointed. They had no knowledge of their age or mine. I experienced the last flashes of their deaths. I saw great crowds of a purple-skinned people, and they fought with four arms, two legs, and a powerful tail. The Xanali, that long-extinct race, convulsed in their empire’s death.

Traps of lava were released into chambers of councilors. A king, crown askew, tore at his own tongue. A family, barricaded into their chambers, slashed their own throats until the mother stood weeping and alone.

I could feel my body convulsing like the buzz of a tiny insect. The annoying sensation of my physical form was nothing compared to the madness of those old souls. I did not think I would have the endurance to outlast their torment, but their spirit also filled me with power.

Their combined spirit was nothing compared to the wealth of a god, but the return was still a too-sweet promise. I’d hardly hoped for such a return, for such freedom as power could forge. I had thought myself severed from connections beyond myself, but the dead were bringing my spiritual plane back to life.

My focus steadied with the touch of those broken ghosts.

And as my focus steadied, I remembered my purpose. I remembered that pool of water and its promise of refreshment.

Reaching into my new well of spirit energy, I pulled at the hidden lake and drew strands of life back toward the surface.

It was slow going, and my mind ached with the effort, but I could feel the closing distance. My gambit was working.

A trickling well was bubbling toward a lifeless desert.

I did not have the control, by the end of it, to direct a steady flow of water. Had I been less dehydrated, less hungry, I might’ve made an oasis of that unknown spot in the dust. As it was, the most I could do was fill our canteen.

The water was warm, and it smelled like sulfur, but it quenched my thirst.

I pulled myself to Lilou’s side and propped her head in my lap. “Lilou, wake up.” My voice was rough, my throat was still sore, but I felt alive with the great gulps of water I had taken. It had taken all my will to keep from downing the canteen into sickness.

Lilou stirred, moaning with her aches, but she did not wake. I rested, doing little more than brushing away sand from her fall, until I could finally pull us back to the sled’s meager shelter. One drop at a time, I helped her drink away her stupor.

We dozed through the day, but Lilou continued a feverish sleep through the night. She had not been given the same breath of power as granted to me.

Reaching back through the earth, I drew what I could from the remaining souls. Some fled from my presence on that attempt, and I felt a growing unease at my abuse of their spirits. Death was supposed to send the living toward new chances, but a terrible end could bind souls to their place of death. I was freeing them from their chains, but I did not know enough to understand what became of them next. Was I lessening their torment, or increasing their pain?

Yet I justified my actions because I was alive and they were dead. I had to save my friend, and to do so I had to save myself. I took their lingering power and struck at the creatures beneath the desert surface.

I drew insects and rodents from the ground and killed them by the dozens. I broke parts from our wooden sled and tore strips of cloth from my clothes. Fire rushed through the dry shards, but it was enough to build a bed of meager coals.

Scraps of bugflesh made a glorious feast. I fed carefully-cut strips of desert shrew to Lilou as she shivered in the evening heat. We stayed there, in sight of that unknown city, until Lilou’s fever broke. Then, when she could open her eyes, when she wondered how we were still alive, we continued over the desolate waste.

Scraps of bugflesh made a glorious feast. I fed carefully-cut strips of desert shrew to Lilou as she shivered in the evening heat. We stayed there, in sight of that unknown city, until Lilou’s fever broke. Then, when she could open her eyes, when she wondered how we were still alive, we continued over the desolate waste.

And finally, after weeks of broken skin and parched throats, we stepped into the shadow of towering buildings.

Kuerati. Against all odds, we’d reached a destination that might be worth wandering across sun-baked sand. It was known as the City of Infinite Chances.

I helped Lilou from the sled. She was too light. Still too weak. But we stood together at the gates, and together we walked toward the hope of salvation.

Review: We Lost the Sky by M. Howalt

We Lost the Sky Title Image

“I think fixing the mess I made is the best remedy,” Luca mumbled.
“I’m afraid there will be none of that,” she retorted.

Luca and Nanny. We Lost the Sky, by Marie Howalt

Luca is a teenager from the futuristic past, before the sky fell, but being a young man out of time does nothing to dampen his spirits. Teo is a young woman that anticipates a future with good friends and technological advances, but first she must face her father and the city he controls. Renn wanders a wasteland that used to be the Italian countryside, and all he wants is to rejoin his traveling group. Mender, an artificial intelligence in an artificial body, wakes in a future that fears sentients like nem or doesn’t believe they exist.

Written by Marie Howalt, We Lost the Sky is a 2019 novel about the post-apocalyptic Earth left over after a meteor strikes the moon. The book is set around what used to be Florence, Italy, and follows the lives of these four protagonists as they fall into a mess of will and circumstance.

Clocking in at 295 pages, this is a full-length novel with plenty of time to explore its characters and setting. The pace is steady, never too fast or slow, and ‘natural’ is the word I think of when thinking about plot progression. Everything happens because it must, because everything chains together into an eventual outcome, and that makes the culminating events satisfying. I know where these characters came from, why they made their decisions, what they could’ve done instead, and how everyone came together for the climax.

“I say it’d be better for all of us if the flood made them leave,” commented the wife of one of the councilmen.
“Or drown,” added her husband. “Just kidding! Just kidding!”

Participants of the Dinner Party

Being a future-based post-apocalyptic society, We Lost the Sky presents people inhabiting a world that is largely unrecognizable. The story picks up decades after the cataclysm, and before that the world already had sentient artificial people and fanciful healing agents. The combination of future tech with a desolate landscape makes Earth seem more an alien world than our home. Though of course, the people are more than recognizable despite the strange surroundings.

Because Howalt does an excellent job at considering the line of consequences for a fallen moon. There are people that worship the moon’s fallen form, or think of her as a lost goddess, and there are signs of the (literal) impacts made by her disappearance. It’s also far enough past the disaster that people have forgotten the history of their downfall and who they even were. There are also clear divisions of those that were prepared versus those that survived. There are hidden caches of cryochambers, dome-covered cities stagnating under protective cover, and nomads purposefully avoiding attachments as they wander a broken world.

This is the setting of Howalt’s We Lost the Sky, and these are the locations that contain our four protagonists. Luca is the descendent of a wealthy family that had a safety chamber of cryo-storage, but he is the only one that survived. Teo is daughter to the man leading a stagnating domed Florence. Renn is the vagrant, and he meets up with the recently-wakened Mender seeking nir programmers for purpose in a lost world.

“Do you think it is always like that? That some people will go hungry while others have plenty?” Renn asked.
“I think it is a danger of any society, yes,” ne said.

Renn and Mender

All four begin the novel separate, alone in their own ways, and at a turning point in their lives. Luca is growing restless and fed up with the downfall of the cities he used to know. Teo is stretching the limits of her freedom. Renn loses track of his covey, the group he travels with for support and belonging. Mender is awakened after the loss of power for centuries.

And then, as events pull them along, the four meet and the knowing of one-another changes lives completely. When Renn meets Mender, he is shown a past that he never even considered. Luca meets these two and remembers loneliness and the promise of companionship. And Teo, though surrounded by the people of Florence, finds an understanding of greater possibility and responsibility with her introduction to the world beyond the city domes.

More than anything, this is a story that is about people finding people and making connections. About how we make judgments and resist change. The setting, with its wastelands and people afraid of the past and future, allow Howalt to highlight the absurdities of human nature. And the grace in our capability for kindness. The setting is used as a tool, though it’s also deep enough that the details feel like genuine byproducts of the broken planet. And it’s never used in a way that drags your face in some dismal reality or heavy-handed forewarning.

And I enjoy a story that has fun while taking itself seriously. We Lost the Sky does that in spades. The characters are living in their world and enjoying what they can, but they also respond properly to the threats and challenges they face. This is no cartoon world without consequences, but it isn’t joyless grimdark with overly-gruesome death and destruction. Luca cracks anachronistic jokes from his past while facing danger, and Teo flirts while toying with political intrigue.

Those interactions, both lighthearted and serious, do a pleasant job at revealing the characters and their ideas and ideals. It provides a discovery of the four lives separately, and all four are well established by the time they discover each other. Then, after the world jumbles them together, the group heads toward a new future with a hopeful message of peace and resolve. I knew them well enough to understand what they’ve lost, gained, and how they might change beyond the last page.

“Move it!” one of the guards behind them yelled. “Break it up!”
“What are you afraid of?” she shouted back.

Teo

I enjoyed We Lost the Sky for so many reasons that I can’t help but recommend giving it a read. On the forefront, Howalt’s book speaks on change, survival, and fear of the unknown. Behind that, this is a story about identity, family, standing up for your ideals, and accepting the wisdom of others. Then, there are sprinkled-in elements on the acceptance of gender, the strength of pacifism, and the values of traditionalism versus progressive ideas. All of these bits combine together into a fun book with fantastic aspects and well-written depth.

Full cover of We Lost the Sky

Get it at one of these locations, or read additional reviews:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43866656-we-lost-the-sky
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07NKFL483/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
https://www.adenng.com/2019/01/31/book-review-we-lost-the-sky/
https://readspaceboy.com/

Flash: Used to Think

A dark city below a jagged crack in the sky.

“I used to think that everyone was unique, and then I used to think that we were all the same.” Fin chuckles. “And then I grew up, and went out, and saw everything die, and so I stopped thinking.”

He meanders as he climbs the wall. His hands grab at brick while his mind picks out new topics with a foothold. Sometimes he eases to one side. Sometimes he reaches and doubles his height. A few times, he hesitates, edges down a foot, and then springs to another handhold.

It’s an old bank, I think, the place we’ve chosen for tonight’s break. For a place to get some sleep. Someone added fortifications, the extra height to an already high wall. Blocking in the drive-thru until it became a perimeter.

“Just get over the damned wall. We gotta get inside before the water rises.”

That makes him laugh, of all things. He hoists himself to the edge, climbs out of view, and then leans out. Looks down at me. “But ain’t it such a shit show? How the whole world has turned into Venice?”

I roll my eyes and toss our pack of food. “Catch!” He plucks it out of the air as I start clambering after him. I’m much more direct, more quiet, as I scramble from broken mortar to broken mortar. My fingers hurt, from the cold, from malnutrition, but I wedge them into each crack. I do not want to be outside when the boatmen begin to roam.

“I guess so much has changed, not much of what I used to think matters. So now I don’t think at all. Just moving forward, following you.”

“I’m following you right now.”

“Yeah, but what would I do without you? Wander to some treehouse and starve. The sunsets would be pretty. The trees are nice, but I wouldn’t be surviving. Not like you make happen.”

I stop at near the edge of the rooftop, foot wedged comfortably beneath me. “You sure do talk a lot for someone that doesn’t think.”

“Hm, but you’re making the common mistake. That speaking has thought behind it. Especially when we’re talking about me. About me talking. Trust me, it’s easier not to think, and it’s easier to let everything wash away. Let it be the high waters or rain or let it be alcohol, washing away thoughts is easier than gathering them.”

I shake my head and climb the last bit onto the roof. It is in decent condition, though a decent roof doesn’t keep you dry anymore. Not when the water comes from below.

And the walls don’t look like they can hold back all the water. They’ve got too many cracks. They look like they were shoddy work. Built to the tempo of terror.

“You see,” says Fin, and he’s staring off toward the rising mist. “Mist used to be prettier. When it wasn’t telling me something I didn’t want to know. And that’s why thoughts aren’t worth keeping. Because, letting them gather, they start clinging and combining into something new. And that new is not always good. Most of the time it’s like the stuff that clings together in your trash can when it’s smelling ripe with sweet rot.”

“Fin, there’s a skylight.” I stoop by his side and pull on his arm. “Exit plan one, alright?”

He gets to his feet, but I don’t have his attention. Not quite. “Just like that trash, you wrinkle your nose when you pass by those bits of sticking gunk. The gunk is not inspiring. Nobody’s gonna dig through that gunk.”

“Come on, get back up.” I haul him to his feet and we head toward the other side of the building. The structure is better, tighter, as we reach its original walls. It was a bank. I can see the ruins of an ATM on the other side of the shoddy barrier. It used to be in the middle of one of those roundabout islands to the side of the main parking lot.

The ATM is an island, now. The tides spill over sometimes, as if they got an extra urgent beckoning from the moon. Even torn apart, I can feel the curiosity in me. That slight interest of wondering if there’s still money inside. Useless as it would be.

Fin follows me. He’s rubbing his chin. “You know, some people dig through the trash, and it’s not even always about finding treasure. Some people aren’t looking for treasure. Some are looking for trash.” He smiles, and it’s so bright and gorgeous. Like he’s never changed. “Like me. I’m the trash.”

I want to hit him. I want to punch him. Bust my knuckles on his face. I kiss his cheek instead. “No, honey. You aren’t trash. You’re anything but.” I scrub tears away and give him a soft grin. “Now let’s find a door to this place. Climb down there, see the ladder? Someone must’ve pulled guard.”

He accepts my hand to help him onto the ladder. It’s rusted and rickety, but what isn’t these days? What wasn’t years ago, at this point? I feel my mood spiraling. Everything feels like it was too long ago. What am I heading toward?

“When it comes down to it,” rattles Fin, back on the same tangent. That’s a good sign. A single tangent is better than eight. “It’s not that someone’s trash is another’s treasure, it’s that sometimes we don’t want a treasure. Sometimes we want something beat up and broken and halfway complete. Sometimes we want something that doesn’t have the right colored panels or perfectly polished teeth.”

He smirks up at me. “That must be the truth, because it feels like truth.”

There’s a hope in his eyes that I wish I felt, but it does help. Even with all his ranting, all his random turns of phrase, I still feel better because he’s near.

The ladder drops us in a narrow hallway made from the same shoddy brickwork. Fin runs his hands over the walls, humming, as I pull out a flashlight. I wind it while watching the cracks in the brick. There’s enough structure there to hold back the water, and I half-hope for a dry floor. A dry table. Maybe tonight will give me proper sleep.

Fin kisses my forehead while I’m distracted. He rubs his hand on the side of my cheek, fingers scraping through the stubble of my beard. I still try to shave, when I can, but there are usually long breaks between.

“What is it, baby?”

He smiles. “I don’t even care about all this. About all this.” He nods. “Why would I care, when I’ve got you?”

I sigh and return his smile. “You’re sweet.” I flick the switch for the flashlight and turn to examine the door. It was glass, once, but now it’s plated with steel. Someone left it, who knows how long ago, so that it’s still ajar.

“I can’t wait till we get to the hills. Tomorrow, you think? Except when you think about it, isn’t it always tomorrow? Because really, the day only ends because we say it does. So, we’re always in today.”

I lead Fin into the fortified bank. “Sure, sounds good to me. I’d rather it’s always today though.”

He pauses at that, frowning. “But why?”

“Well,” I smile at the dark rooms around us. “Because then I can look forward to tomorrow. I can hope the next day brings us something better.” I walk across a floor that was stripped of carpet. Concrete echoes my footsteps. “This looks like we’ll be okay.”

Fin hugs me from behind. “You’re silly, Dean.” He leans into the embrace as he mumbles. “Nothing else to look forward to. I already found you.”

Flash: Shifting Priorities

Sometimes rain could feel good, could feel right, even during the wildest storms. Yet, that was when everything was at its best. When Jess was at her best. When there weren’t salty tears mixing on her cheek.

She wiped her face with the back of an arm to clear stray hair, rain, and tears. The rain wasn’t just unwelcome, it was a symbol of every obstruction in her life. Every drop was another flash of annoyance and discomfort. She hurried down the sidewalk wishing for an umbrella or an overhang or something to shield her from the deluge.

Cars splashed by with whirring engines and mirrored-in passengers. Overflowing gutters turned streets into rising rivers. Clouds were getting darker, and noon would be darker than dawn.

She glared at her phone as she walked. Her unanswered stream of messages stared back at her.

‘Has Gloria contacted you about my time off?
‘Did you tie up the boat?’
‘Is anyone going to check on the boat before the storm?’
‘Damien? What the hell. Answer your phone!’

She was halfway through a new message, ‘Do you know if-‘ when the phone went dead. The battery had been hanging on, but it finally gave up its battle. “Jesus. Fucking. Christ.” She growled each word while smacking the side of her phone. “One thing, and then everything.”

She stuffed her hands, phone too, in her jacket pockets and hunched against a sudden gust. The winds were picking up as she neared the bay. It probably wasn’t the best of times to head to the marina, but she had no choice. She had signed for the boat before taking time off, and she would be responsible if anything got damaged.

The water was ankle-deep as she jogged through the crosswalk. The cold wet soaked through her shoes and the bottoms of her jeans went soggy. A few cautious cars slid to a stop as she ran in front of their headlights. The AI systems beeped, or flashed warning lights, but she paid them no mind. She was too irritated to wait for permission from the intersection’s bright
green man.

Her feet thumped on the boardwalk as she continued at a slow jog. She slid on the slick wood several times, but managed to steady herself with the railing. A voice in her head urged caution, told her to be safe, but she ignored that too. It sounded too much like Emma to want to listen.

She wished she could kill that voice, wished she could forget its tone and subtle moments of gravel. Jess hated that there was a grieving period. She hated that relationships lingered, even if it had hardly been hours since saying goodbye.

Beneath her, the water sloshed and frothed at the edges of the boardwalk. It was higher than ever, had been rising for years, and it wouldn’t be long before the marina’s locks failed to control that rise.

Or, as they had before, they would drive away more property owners to accept more of the sea’s expansion. Even now, there were shadowy ghosts of buildings from ten years prior. They sat, preserved bits of old lives, right below the waves.

Some still glowed with light, tourist-trap underwater hotels or dive destinations that used to be dive bars. It seemed that the past always lingered after all.

Jess rushed overhead that sunken past, glad of the grip of her sturdy boots. It was hard enough to stay upright in the wet and weariness, even with good shoes. But then she arrived at the marina entrance and pulled on the gate. Its handle didn’t budge.

“Fuck!” Her frustration vented out in the vulgar screech. Locked. She hadn’t been scheduled to work today, hadn’t been at work the whole week past, so she didn’t have the key. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

This is exactly what Emma had warned would happen. Emma hadn’t wanted her to leave, even after the fight. She cared, despite everything. Despite everything Jess had done.

The cold steel of the gate seemed to stick to Jess’ fingertips. She shivered. Her clothes were getting more soaked with every moment of hesitation. Looking up, she eyed barbed-wire lining the top of the fence. She wedged a foot in the gap between hinge and post and hiked herself onto the handle.

Worry of getting caught was non-existent. The docks were empty. Marina workers were gone. Security was gone. Everyone else had gone home after the first surge warnings. They were smart, not like her. She clenched her eyes shut as her fingers slipped on the gate’s ironwork. She felt stupid for so many things, and her mistake with the boat was just more proof.

She inched her way up the gate. Her feet, wedged just so, held enough to push her way to the top. Getting over the barbed wire was another problem. She hooked her hands over the top of the gate and glanced at the rows of rusted deterrent. There were three rows of the wire, angled out to prevent climbers like her, but the barbs weren’t perfectly offset.

Trusting her jacket for protection, she reached up and wrapped an arm over a bare patch of the steel wire. Rocking her hips back, she kicked one leg up and swung the lower-half of her body toward the top. Her foot cleared the wire, and then she managed to hook on with her heel.

A pinch of pain buried into her ankle. Her sock, and her jeans, were keeping anything from breaking skin so far, but it still hurt. Cursing everything under her breath, she strained her way to the top of the gate. Her whole body felt like it was shaking at the end, but she managed to claw her way to the other side.

Then Jess scraped her wrist on one of the barbs. She yelped, lost her grip, and tumbled the last way over the gate.

She landed on the slick wooden dock with a thump.

The rain hadn’t paused for a moment in its deluge, and lying in a heap chased away Jess’ last reserves of dry clothing. Her chest heaved as she fought back the panicked adrenaline surge from her fall. Her joints hurt. She’d fallen on her shoulder, and it was terribly sore. Blood trickled from the shallow gash on her wrist. “Fuck,” she grumbled.

Despite the weather, despite the twisted heap she’d landed in, lying there for hours momentarily felt like a viable decision. She considered the idea while closing her eyes. She felt the gradual dampness along her back seep toward being completely soaked.

Someone banged on the gate with a rapid urgency. “Jess!? Jess, is that you!? Are you okay!?”

She rolled onto her back and raised her head with a raised brow. “Ugh?” She blinked several times. “Emma, what?”

Her girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, clenched a fist around one of the gate’s bars. “Oh, thank goodness! Holy shit, Jess, what are you doing out here?”

Jess sat up with a wince. She really hoped she hadn’t dislocated her shoulder. “Uh, trying to secure the boat.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, really? This whole marina is gonna get washed out to sea!”

“Did you-” Jess guffawed at the absurdity of the moment. “Did you drive all the way down? For that? To scold me about this stupid boat?”

“Really, that’s what you think? Do you-” Emma tried the gate’s handle before shaking it with frustration. “Damnit, would you just open this thing? I’ll help you with the fucking boat.”

Jess bit her lip. “Shit,” she whispered. She pushed herself off the ground. Walking to the gate, she pushed it open with a hiss of pain. Yeah, her shoulder felt wrong. Maybe it was dislocated. “You were that worried about me?”

“Oh, fuck you, Jess.” Emma pulled the gate the rest of the way open and slammed into a hug with Jess. “Fucking hell, fuck you.”

They kissed, but only for a moment, because Jess’ knees started to give. “Shoulder,” she murmured. “Maybe dislocated.” She fought for consciousness. “Ugh, fuck the stupid boat.”

She wasn’t sure if it was the pain, Emma’s presence, or the rain, but maybe she could be okay with some shifting priorities.

Flash: Caution: Storm Warning

Caution: Storm Warning

You Can’t Just Storm In Here, Storm Out There

The face of Golfball. A haggard-looking man with a limp Mohawk.

There’s a definite scent to the air that spells rain. A breeze in the air holds a hint of the weather. Dark purpled clouds are building to giants. A soft distant rumble echoes through the streets from afar.

Nobody looks, nobody watches, as the clouds slowly part as if ignoring the wind. The break in their darkness, a quick sliver of light, pierces through dust and etches a trail. The streaming band of light settles on a plant. A tiny little sapling, still mostly green, perks up at the touch. It noticeably rises.

A young woman’s fingertips brush at the fledgling tree’s leaves. She crouches and settles to sit on her heels. She smiles, showing missing teeth, as she hums a slow tune.

“Funny that. How you stop for every bit of green.” A haggardly man, hands shoved in his pockets, stops walking to lean and rest on a lightpost. He closes his eyes and shifts to find comfort. He reaches up with a yawn and brushes aside blue strands of a limp Mohawk. Twin tattoos, on either side of his head, display a smiley-face with an expression that is largely ambivalent.

The woman glances up while continuing her wordless song. She shrugs, smiles wider, and looks back to the plant. Callused fingers snap away bits of unwanted growth and pull off dead leaves from the tender branches.

“I mean, not that I mind, really. It’s pleasant, watching you do what you enjoy. And shit, better than some hobbies out there. At least you do it cause you care.” The man keeps his eyes closed. He seems nearly-liquid against the post. Melting against the pole as if trying to become a part of its surface.

The two remain in their chosen positions as if momentarily frozen in place. Minutes pass. Five. Ten. Both are engrossed by each and every moment. They are not feverishly busy. They are the opposite. They are lost in calm focus. They’re not the stillness of statues but the peace of calm sleep.

The young woman stirs and pets the tree and reaches into her purse. She pulls out a bottle of water and unscrews its cap. She waters the little plant. “What’s for dinner, Golfball?”

“Hmm.” The gaunt man rubs his face. His hands, even bonier than the rest of him, pop at the knuckles as he rubs the back of his neck. “Pizza, maybe?”

She nods, capping the water bottle, and stands with a breathy yawn. “Okay.” Her purse clicks as the clasp closes. “Where to?”

Above them, far above, the clouds shift and swirl. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the shaft of light disappears. The gap in the overcast shrinks like a healing wound. A uniform gray covers them once more. The day returns to its early partial-twilight.

Golfball gestures with a wobbling jut of his chin. “Down this way. A good enough place just round the corner.”

They walk together without looking companionable. The young woman keeps her arms crossed. She’s leaning, ever-so-slightly, away from her acquaintance’s jutting elbows. Her eyelids drift shut, occasionally, for longer than a blink. Dark circles carve extra shadow beneath her eyes and her shoulders droop. “I really need to eat.”

“Stay calm, Erin. We’re almost there.” Golfball walks like a praying mantis might. If it were on two legs and learned to swagger. His knees are skewed outward and his gait is a lazy lope of rocking from heel to toe. He looks like he should fall with every step, but somehow his next step manages to catch his fall.

Erin’s skin has gone pale. Paler than before. It takes on a bluish tint. “Better be good pizza.”

Around the corner, they stop. The sidewalk is blocked by a squat older man. He’s in overalls and a red shirt and a pair of combat boots. He has a handlebar mustache that’s as wide as his face. “Erin.”

“Shit.” Golfball grunts. “This that asshole you talked about?”

“Ethan, now is not great.”

“Never seems to be great, eh? Now, does it ever? Now will do as ever.” The squat man’s face is too-red and his hair is too-orange. “But if you’d just come along we wouldn’t have this arguing. Get away with you, punk. We need to be going.”

“She needs some food,” says Golfball. He scowls. His pointed-chin juts forward. His wrinkling nose waggles a septum piercing. “I’m doubting you’d want any of the shit I got stored up for hapless idiots.”

“Oh please, boy-o. You’re a spot of loose skin, aren’t you? Get away and quit you’re playing at protector. This here is between me an Erin.”

She slips a trembling hand around Golfball’s wrist. She grips as hard as she can, and the bit of red still left presses from her fingers. “Don’t. You’ve been so good. We’ve done so good.”

“Well you ain’t going with him,” grumbles the punk. He pulls out of Erin’s grip. He whips his hair back. The Mohawk keeps drifting into his eyes. Strands of blue get caught in his piercings, little silver rings in his brows, and he brushes them back yet again. “You hear? She’s not going with you. Not now. Not ever.” He leans forward. His shoulders draw up. His posture arcs into a grotesque hunch. “And she needs. To eat.”

Ethan studies the two with a sudden questioning raise of his brows. He makes a small, “Ah!” And then he begins to tut. “So that’s what’s going on here. Bit of symbiosis, is it? You two. She heals…” He waves his hand sloppily. “Whatever it is that ails you, and you act a bit as the bodyguard? Cute.” He snaps his fingers over one shoulder. “Jasper. Danny.”

There’s the sound of doors opening. A nearby car, deep blue, sits at the throat of an alleyway.

“Ethan, this is more than just me and him.” Erin hugs herself. She glances down the street. Toward the pizza place just a few buildings away. “If you don’t let me eat, I can’t hold him anymore.”

“Hold him? Girly. He don’t deserve you’re attentions. Let him rot and come home. We’ve missed you.”

Two toughs walk from the parked car. They’re big bulky men with waists as wide as their shoulders and necks that try to match. “Ethe, there’s a few eyes on us, just to say.” One of the two thumbs toward a second-story window. Blinds close in a rush.

“Well, fuck it all,” says the red-head. He raises his chin. Looks down his crooked-nose at Golfball. “But that ain’t gonna stop us from making this difficult. You don’t play nice, well I suppose you’ll have witnesses to your failure.”

Erin moans, soft and restrained, before falling forward.

Golfball catches her, helps her to her knees. “You okay? Fuck, but you and your plants.”

The young woman smiles despite her moment of weakness. “It will grow so well. So big.”

“Well I can feel the bones again now. I take it you’re done then?”

She nods. “For now.” Sighs. “I’m sorry.”

Ethan gestures toward Golfball. “Alright gents, take this skinny bother out and away will you? Just give him a quick little nap. Erin’s not feeling well so we’ll be needing a fast exit.”

“Fuck,” grumbles the punk. His hunched form begins to hunch more. His head droops, wobbles, and then drops forward. “Hate this shit.”

“Giving up already?” One of the toughs walks up to Golfball with a laugh. He clicks his tongue. “Jasp, maybe it’ll be we just have to carry some dead weight.”

Golfball’s legs straighten. And their knees pop. And then they bend backwards with a wet slurping sound.

The closest henchman, Danny, jumps backward. “Oh! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”

“What the fuck?” asks Jasper. He’s stopped in his tracks.

“This shit?” says Ethan. “You found some crazy like this?” He glares at Erin. “What the fuck did you do?”

Erin, still resting on her knees, struggles to raise her head. “Some wounds don’t heal. You know that.” She glances at Golfball. “Some infections can only be held at bay.”

The punk falls completely forward. His hands slap against the pavement, but his wrists rotate too far around. A full one-eighty and yet the fingers splay out with more sickening crackling joints. He’s become some kind of insect with his abdomen held low to the ground and elbows and knees pointed at the sky. His head hangs loosely with the Mohawk dragging on the pavement.

Golfball’s back arches. His shoulders are horrendously distended beneath a patchwork jacket of green. They’re like wide plates pointed at the two men. As if that’s the eyes of this creature. He, it, whatever, has a full-body spasm. A twitch. It jerks to the right. Toward Jasper.

“Shoot the fucker!” yells Ethan.

Jasper pulls out some generic semi-automatic pistol. He untucks it from its shoulder-holster, flicks the safety off, and squeezes the trigger in one fluid draw.

The gunshot rings as the twisted-version of Golfball skitters forward. Skitters with the slick fluidity of water across a hot pan. It moves as if its merely gliding at its foe.

Blood spatters as one, two, and then three bullets hit the strange punk-form’s body.

It does nothing to slow its attack.

Jasper goes down in a crunch of broken bone and ripping flesh. Something, something deep down within the tough’s chest, makes a loud crack and blood spurts out into the street.

“Where’s you’re fucking gun?” asks Ethan.

Danny’s hands are trembling to open a knife. “Couldn’t. Fucking. Buy one!”

And then his scream rises as Golfball leaps ten feet from one dead body to the next.

Ethan runs. He turns without another word. He heads for the alleyway with the dark-blue car and he even gets in the seat.

Then the hood of the car crumples. Bone-tipped fingers pierce the metal skin. The front window shatters. A not-quite hand rips Ethan from his seat.

He arcs across the road and smacks wetly against the side of an old brick building. Bits of paint fleck off. A few bricks crack. And then the body unsticks and drops down below.

Erin sobs. She clenches her fists. She doesn’t look up to see what’s happened.

Golfball’s bent and twisted form gallops down the road.

Gritting her teeth, summoning her strength, Erin pushes to her feet. She stumbles to grab the side of the closest building. She uses it’s aid to get her down the sidewalk.

Step by slow-shuddering step, she makes her way for pizza.

The owners are outside. They’ve all run to see. They’re calling for help from ambulances and the police.

A little bell tinkles as she pushes through the door. Erin sighs with relief at the sight of displays with ready-made slices. She leans over the counter, grabs one and devours it in just a few bites.

She takes a little more time with the second piece. By the third, she’s taken a seat.

Again, the little bell tinkles as someone pushes through the door.

Click. Click. Click. “Hello.” Click. A woman’s bootheels click. “There have been reports of a strange creature here.” Her words are like the dryness at the back of a nervous throat. Every syllable is clear and crisp.

She takes a seat at Erin’s booth.

“Who are you?” asks the young-woman.

The other smiles without showing her teeth. “My name is Valerie Knox. I need you to tell me where he is.”

“You aren’t getting him either.” Erin shakes her head. “There’s a storm coming, and none of you have earned that right. Don’t you know? He’s got no power. He’s just a victim of chance.”

“Tell me, creature. How do you feel about Florida?”

“What?”

Valerie chuckles. “He will find you again. I am sure of that.”

Erin, suddenly wide-eyed, pushes up from the table. She turns to run with a muttered curse.

She’s stopped in her tracks at a touch. Something like the buzz of electricity fills the small pizza-shop’s room. Erin’s eyes close and she grits her teeth. All she seems to do is strain.

Valerie’s hand settles on Erin’s shoulder. Tattoos of bright blue glow to life. They’re in the shape of some stick-figure people. The delicate lines begin to blur. “You will be a help.”

Erin collapses to the floor.

Flash: The Rising Cost of Automatons

Taendragor Ends Trade Negotiations with Galania

Nosson's skyline.

Business leaders pressured government trade representatives to halt crucial talks.

Breysa Eyon introduced an international petition against discussions aimed at new international treaties. The Eyon Industries CEO and Taendragonian powerhouse of netwabi production brought all talks to a standstill. A delegation of company leaders met in secret over several months to organize the movement. Their message focuses on spirit use and sustained interaction with the gods. Supporters implore resistance toward government intervention and spirit-directed treaties.

Officials granted the industry giant a visit to the trade conference after weeks of delay. Attendants within the meetings cited a concern about bribery and corruption. However, it seems that curiosity won out as the conference leaders allowed the visit.

As usual, Ms. Eyon attended in the latest fashions and with her personal bodyguard. This time, her oft-seen party-crazed tabloid persona was noticeably absent. Instead the young woman presented herself with a stern grace more-reminiscent of her departed mother. Without more than a stilted curtsy, Ms. Eyon presented a signed statement with approximately 150000 signatures. The statement was co-signed by twelve partnering spirit-tech CEOs. Additional signatures were from community leaders across the Taendragor continent. An infodisc, reportedly containing an additional million signatures, was said to represent “additional peoples of Nalan that choose to resist unrepresented choices toward a dark future.”

Delegates from every kingdom, nation, and state-entity were at the negotiations. The visit initially garnered intense scrutiny for its interruption of international politics. However, Ms. Eyon’s position in the market has left an expectant caution toward her presence and the petition’s demands. Analysts discussed the possibility of shared technology agreements that could arise from forced alliances. The petition may be a perfect catalyst for the change long-desired by private-sector markets. However the results fall, industry experts warn that this power-play has begun a larger movement to negotiate directly with world governments. Eyon Industries may be positioning itself toward a takeover unseen in recent history.

From the Company to the World

The Automaton Doctrine, an Eyon Industries internal policy, provides much of the groundwork for Ms. Eyon’s petition. Many tenants are pulled straight from pages of company guidelines. Normally, the doctrine’s audience is intended for participants of high-level acquisition decisions. The Automaton Doctrine sets her political beliefs as a matter of company policy. Every employee attends mandatory training on Spirit Singing and its dangers. Weekly regional briefs include an overview of regional gods and cultural foci.

These company policies have been examined and ridiculed before. Opponents state that the training is useless and dangerously biased. Others feel as if the practice is understandable though a little heavy-handed. Ms. Eyon maintains that the training is crucial for a company environment so steeped in the use of Spirit power. For safety or not, Ms. Eyon is a well-known proponent for open-spirit laws. Her policies have been used to make notable progress against Taendragor’s restrictive practices.

Now, that policy has been rewritten into demands toward an international audience. The petition is outlined in a prioritized list with the following sections of argument:

  • A restriction of government interference in all matters of Spirit.
  • A call for the immediate and complete deconstruction of any wards and netwabi that trap, limit, or otherwise influence the gods.
  • Limit, or end entirely, any practice that knowingly redirects worship toward mortal deification.
  • Destroy any records of true-names, god-names, or Aldyati.
  • Consolidate idolized imagery into one of the four elder gods.

The Cost of Automatons

Outside of Eyon Industries, the largest contributors to the petition are well-known Automaton manufacturers. This has been identified as a key reason for the sudden intervention. Technological limitations have kept Automaton development stagnant for years, and the proclamation of true automation still seems ages away. Researchers have been complaining about restrictive legislation for years, even outside of Taendragonian borders. There is little public research that reveals how legislation has limited the Automaton developers, but recent polls show that popular support is on the rise for deregulation on Spirit Singing.

Advanced Automaton models seem more than capable to serve as household assistants and constant workhouse aides, but the cost of such devices has hardly diminished over time. Netwabi-borne machinery has been developed for the better part of a millennia in most developed state-entities. Despite this, critics argue that their functionality is mostly refined rather than improved. Miniaturization has led to advances in the number of functions available to customers, but these gains are incremental rather than transformational.

These claims, and topics, were discussed in earnest in a little-seen interview with Ms. Eyon several months prior to the meeting. She stated that “…transformation will only arrive when we let go of these power-hungry caches that we have developed. Everyone has them now. Has had them for ages, I suppose. They have to go.”

Ms. Eyon’s opinion on the matter seems to have grown more serious. She left the trade meeting after this brief speech: “I know that you think of me as something of a fluke. I take it, from your rather shocked expressions, that I have surprised you with this bit of seriousness. But let me be clear. We need to change. And I will no longer idle away my time waiting for government to reach the conclusions that we must all arrive upon. Nalan will die if we do not release our control on Spirit. The world needs the gods returned to their natural state. This petition guarantees that.”

Shock and Ambivalence

Galanian Counselor, Deffar Eyresia, disagreed with the intent of the petition and its source. “Breysa Eyon is well-respected for her company’s contributions to the world, but we are not beholden to her whims and beliefs. International law is no place for profit-minded decisions, and the spiritual nature of these demands is an affront to the multitude of religions we represent as an international consortium.”

Counselor Eyresia has been a long-time defender of religious freedoms and has rejected 90% of all bills brought before the Galanian Council on religion. Galania is also home to the world’s leading research institution on netwabi development. There seems little chance that the Galanian Union will capitulate to Ms. Eyon’s demands. It is, as of yet, uncertain as to how the young CEO plans to enact her proposal. Eyon devices are fashionable and well-loved by fans of the company, but Galania markets account for less than 5% of Eyon profits.

Taendragonian leaders were unavailable for a statement on this developing situation.

 

Reporting by Lefon Anterah
Nosson Journal

Flash: Twilight Spider

Talking to Shadows
Issue No. 25231

1 January 1923

Archivists Note:
This letter was published within the last known issue of the infamous “Talking to Shadows” semi-annual magazine. There are numerous accounts from newspaper editorials and, later, news reports themselves, that speak of the Delossi Process, but this has been identified as the earliest credible presentation that someone had identified a rising change of the status quo. Of particular interest is the mention of a group of elders, and their intent to perform some manner of negotiations, but the results of this meeting are so far left to our imaginations. It is, as of yet, unknown whether the writer had a personal acquaintanceship with Madame Delossi, but both were certainly prominent figures in the ensuing period of unrest. They demonstrably knew of each other, but it is inconclusive as to where they obtained such knowledge. Wherever they knew one another from, it is intriguing to discover the initiation of what later became a vicious rivalry that spanned throughout centuries.

Editor’s Letter

A happiest of New Years to the readership. Hopefully, you are waking with a rather minimized hangover. Hopefully, you recall a rather clever use of muffling mentioned in issue 1528. The world should be a tad more tolerable after proper application. Otherwise, let us look forward to these next weeks, these next months, as a time to strike boldly toward the goals that sustain us. Bring in those that deserve our knowledge, build the interconnections of our communication webs, and seek out new applications of those core abilities brought to us by the mastery of talking to shadows. And, most of all, use our capability to strengthen the world and its foundations.

Now, having made mention of the core abilities, it may indeed be time to reiterate those with an emphasis on usage and intent. Surely, the proper use of shadows never strays from our minds, but knowing recent events it is worth an additional moment of thought.

Firstly, it is well documented that some specialists are able to glean combined knowledge from what lingering dead populate all that is cast between light. Importantly, none do this without serious cross-referencing with both the Books of Shadowspeak and public resources. We must all be very aware of the responsibility weighing our shoulders at the possibility of illumination from the past. Even seemingly innocent drivel, from the furthest reaches of time, may have far-reaching affects that are not easily seen by those of us lost in the present.

Secondly, others among us hone that fine ability to pass whispers at the speed of light, or rather as is more apropos, shadow. This tremendous ability has been a most fine aid throughout the millennia. It is no idle boast to claim that our group has saved whole countries, whole continents with the lightning-quick spread of alerts and warning. However, we also spread such information with the care required to allow for misdirection and negate suspicions. It would hardly be of use if we ourselves were not kept safe by our own techniques. Gladly, the rise of radio, of that frightful electron, has made some requirements of this particular skill easier than ever.

Thirdly, though certainly not minimized by the ordering, there are also those upon us with success at visual illusion and misdirection. Notorious for its difficulty to perform, let alone master, it is nonetheless amazingly useful on levels personal, regional, and global. I myself have struggled to build relationships with our departed required for such tasks, but alas those dead to me seem rather reluctant to convince their fellows. Yet, such is the danger of shadow optics. It is beyond reprehensible to lie to those from the beyond in order to convince them of your importance or familial ties. Those bonds we form with the undying must be true and solidly based on reality. Let us never forget the complete loss caused by a simple lie in Rome. There is still little guarantee that the truth of Christianity will ever surface now that the rumors have spread into the hearts of those long passed. Of lesser gravity, but still terribly important, we must never use illusion for such folly as is attempted in mass-hypnotism expositions. Our talents are not those of simple tricks, and the misuse only lessens us and those who follow our creed.

All combined, these are valid and trusted methods of shadowmancy that have been carried forward through generations upon generations. These are the foundations of work that we carry out from day to day. These are the tenants that we nail to doors and uphold with both hands. These are the pillars that build our church.

However, recently it has come to my attention that an elder among our group has claimed a new technique. Please, disregard this dangerous work if you find yourself in possession of Madame Delossi’s essay. Her theories on transportation through shadow have only ever been but wishful glimmers of fancy. Even if possible, though it has been stubbornly disproved time and time again, it is a horrid menacing desire. Entrusting one’s mind and body to such danger, liaising with netherfolk so that life wanders among death, would be calamitous at best. Souls must not breach from one plane to the next, and no protective companionship with the dead will prevent this from attracting the attention of every wraith ever clinging to the edges of Earth’s veils.

Already, I have heard and read of reports from those that have acted on this spurious knowledge. Lives are being lost, friends. A concussive force of darkness obliterated the light in Dallas just last month. Dawn finally broke through just yesterday, but a gloom has set upon the city. Dust storms were engineered to account for such an oddity, but losses of productivity and peace have been unaccountable. Earlier this year, two boys, brothers attending the illustrious Shadow Sept in Eugene, barely escaped with their lives after a nigh-hour attempt that collapsed a butte on itself. Specialists have managed a fine reenactment of mudslides to diminish the abruptness, but several projects have been set aside for months to prevent chaos.

Please, I beg of you, refrain from attending to Madame Delossi’s claims. The rest of the elders are discussing matters of publication standards with her as we speak, and we will surely find a happy medium to settle the unease caused by this tumultuous miscommunication.

As an extra precaution, this issue will have a focus with topics on defensive shadowplay and muffling techniques. As always, take every chance to develop a prowess of mind that does wonders at refining the separation between shadow and light.

Until next issue, may the whispers find you.
– T.S. Canthry

Review: Grimbargo by Laura Morrison

The text Grimbargo and Laura Morrison
Grimbargo by Laura Morrison, cover cropped

‘Jackie’s theory was that a lot of deep thought was the result of pondering death and the meaning of life, and that post-Greywash there was just no urgency anymore to explore those topics, so people just shoved those musings to the back of their brains to rot.’ – Jackie (Laura Morrison, Grimbargo)

Grimbargo is a sci-fi thriller murder-mystery in a world without death. I mean, mostly without death. You see, there’s been one of those: A death. For the first time in over a decade.

Weird, right? Could you imagine what would happen if nobody could die? For years? Years upon years? Well, Laura Morrison does just that. In fact, it’s the core premise that drives this book and many of its characters’ actions. The Greywash, a worldwide nanotech event, has rendered everyone immortal.

As Jackie points out above, the lack of mortality changes things in a world that no longer fears time. Injuries, even death, are just healed away. However, Grimbargo focuses on the aftermath rather than the event itself. Throughout society, people have fallen into a stagnant philosophical pond of meaninglessness. It’s only been a decade, but culture is already starting to get weird. Groups form to test different methods of suicide. The religious struggle to figure out which apocalypse happened to who. Killing a bad driver is almost acceptable. Eating, breathing, and sleeping become frivolous luxury.

Yet this is just background. The world is set, described, and put in motion within the first dozen pages. Plot gallops forward after that friendly hello with world building. One thing is clear from the start, this book will not be boring. Setting, characters, and plot weave together in a frantic rush toward secret plans and frantic escapes. The wild-ride of Saturday-Morning doomsdays pays enough attention to reality to toy with fantastical ideas, but the story lets fun triumph over hard-science. After enough twists, turns, and deaths to paint a maze red with blood, Laura Morrison leads readers to a satisfying ending of farce sprinkled with depth.

Characters

Jackie Savage, on a reporting job, is doing a fluff piece on how people feel about the anniversary of the Greywash. She’s a sarcastic sort, and starts with a glib air toward her fellow undying. Jackie shows herself to be sarcastic, stubborn, brave, and impulsive with a core of distrust and fear of losing control. Most of her actions seem driven by rejecting greater responsibility, and throughout the story she seems to struggle with sincerity to avoid self-reflection. Jackie’s arc consists of accepting a place in larger schemes and surrendering to events outside of her control.

The face of a woman in a nun's outfit.
Grimbargo Cover Art

Docent Jamie Nguyen is introduced giving a tour inside the Women’s Institute of Sciences and Technology (WIST). Risk-averse and rules-minded, Jamie develops as a strong opposite to Jackie’s flippancy while maintaining strength in self-confidence and logic. She lived with WIST her entire life and indoctrination shows in her actions and mannerisms. Pleasantly, Jamie gets a breath of freedom as the story progresses which leads to entertaining fish-out-water moments along with lovely long-term growth. There’s a solid arc leading from timidity toward authority figures to the sensible questioning of even the most well-regarded leaders.

Readers meet most of the cast within a few dozen pages at a more-than-manageable pace. Each of the characters stand-out without having to wonder who they were. The important individuals certainly stick in the mind. Morrison crafts voices that are comfortably distinct per person. However, only the main villain, Lady Airth, is truly unique in tone. She felt like the strongest presence throughout the book. Others, such as suicide-club leader Trigger or WIST conspirator Lady Morse, seem diminished by unfulfilled potential. A reoccurring element of the characters is that they are nearly entirely defined by their actions. Though a strong element of character development, it leads to well-defined individuals only if they have time on-page. The less-seen characters might have benefited from an extra jolt of additional sensory elements.

Plot

The recipe for Grimbargo is not going to take anyone by surprise. Two ordinary folks are caught in a murder mystery that reveals a worldwide conspiracy. However, the roads that lead from start to finish are fun and the scenery is pleasant. The driver, Morrison, enjoys taking both shortcuts and the scenic route. She routinely throws characters into awkward absurdity at their expense but lets that absurdity lead to a splendid cold-storage location for medical samples. Many similar moments were happy detours into silliness and lighthearted philosophical ranting.

Yes, sometimes the plot took a break and got a drink in a bar down in some back-alley locals’ place. At one point, this results in a hilarious discussion about cold-blooded animals that does little to progress the story. But, as stated before, the author seems more intent on having fun and enjoying the journey. It’s refreshing to see characters that are almost stupidly human. Some might find frustration in some of the roundabout developments, but the very nature of the characters being “average” is that they were unlikely to take the most direct route. The result is a surprisingly relatable series of decisions in an insane world.

A ready suspension-of-disbelief is going to be helpful for this story, but there isn’t anything that stands out as an egregious error in the chain-of-events. Some of the character motivations, such as Jackie’s willingness to overcome painful risks, could be strengthened. Still, there’s enough in her characterization to suppose the reasons why. Key conflicts, like a certain plane ride and the departure of the scene’s antagonists, would also have been helped with some tweaking of the deus ex machinery. However, the rationale and understanding are comfortably available without straining through mental gymnastics. The plot is solid and follows genre-honored rules of action and overcoming danger. Morrison’s execution of many moments, such as the main antagonist’s final departure, are grin-inducingly amusing twists of fate.

Overall

Grimbargo is an entertaining action-adventure-mystery that’s hilarious and bright despite some rather dark elements. The characters are either likable or understandable enough to empathize with their plight whether supposedly evil or not. The plot is quick and clear without being boring or predictable. Everything fits in this world, and there are hints of depth behind the sarcastic banter and witty snark. The core ideas, that of death and bodily-autonomy, are great foundational ideas to ponder and work well within a vehicle of immortality through nanobots. There’s scenes and ideas and imagery that are sure to be entertaining for conversations. All-in-all, Morrison provides a delightful escapist sci-fi story of colorful characters that’s easy to read.

Four Stars!

Get it here: Purchase on Amazon
Published by SpaceBoy Books

The Author: Laura Morrison

Clarity and Readability – A star for rating stuff.
Originality and Interest – A star for rating stuff.
Cohesiveness and Setting – ratingStarHalf
Characters and Development – ratingStarHalf
Enjoyability – A star for rating stuff.

*Note: A digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) was provided to facilitate this review.

– J.A.

RSS Feeds, And You!

Keeping Peeps in the ‘Know’

Or How to Feed Audiences

Let’s say you want to tell someone you updated your website. Or your blog. Or that story thing you’re writing. Hey, maybe you came up with a cool new Thing they could experience!

How would they know?

Oh, I suppose you could let them know via social media or something. Tweet. Tumbl. Face…Book? And you should. Keeping in touch through those methods is pretty essential. Yet, there is another way. Potentially unobtrusive and allowing for a list of all your favorite things for readers to enjoy. How, you might ask? Or not, as the answer is in the title of this blog.

So, RSS Feeds can provide a kind of notification stream and content listing for your work. They are often used by offsite systems to build links and listings and tables of data. Search-bots and content algorithms sometimes use them too. Note, whether or not you want to provide all of your information for easy access like that is a conversation for another time. Right now, let’s consider how an RSS feed can be implemented and how it can be used.

Cut-and-dry-wise, good ol’ Wikipedia will give you an overview of what RSS Feeds are, but it’s not very applicable information. A quick summary on RSS Feeds is that they allow you to create a list, and then that list can be ‘subscribed’ to by a user or device. Browsers, for instance, can be used to subscribe to RSS Feeds. There are also mobile apps and applications that do nothing but monitor and aggregate RSS feeds. In fact, many podcasting networks are nothing more than a server-client system of RSS feeds pushing information back and forth.

But how do we use curious feeds? Well, you need three things: content hosted somewhere on the web, a place to host your RSS feed, and the XML file that is the RSS document itself.

Implementation

Let’s say you have a list of short stories that you occasionally update. Perhaps these short stories are hosted in a multitude of locations. Maybe these stories are updated sporadically throughout the year. Perfect. An RSS feed will allow users to be notified or updated only if something changes. They won’t even have to go to your website to check if nothing’s happened.

Now, let’s find a place to host that XML document. XML, by the way, is just a file format with specific document structuring required for its use. Instead of paragraphs and capitalized words and punctuation, an XML file uses tags to denote chunks of information. Instead of dividing a document up into paragraphs with shared ideas, the document is divided up into chunks of content outlined by tags written such as:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”ISO-8859-1″?>
<rss version=”2.0″ xmlns:blogChannel=”https://coolstories.list.bro”>

<channel>

<title>Cool Stories</title>
<link>https://coolstories.list.bro</link>
<description>Where you can go to find all my latest cool stories.</description>
<language>en-us</language>
<copyright>Me, bro.</copyright>
<pubDate>Sat, 13 Jul 2015 8:13:40 EST</pubDate>
<ttl>10</ttl>
<image>
<title>Cool Freaking Image</title>
<link>https://coolstories.list.bro</link>
<url>https://coolstories.list.bro/cool_image.png</url>
<width>200</width>
<height>75</height>
<description>Where you can go to find all my latest cool stories.</description>
</image>

<item>
  <title>Cool Story</title>
  <link>https://www.coolStory.bro</link>
  <description>A story about the coolest of things that ever happened.</description>
  <pubDate>Fri, 12 Jul 2015 13:54:18 EST</publicationDate>
</item>

</channel>
</rss>

As you can see, RSS XML uses words wrapped in less-than and greater-than symbols to denote the tags that make up the document’s outline or structure. First, there’s a whole section dedicated to what the feed itself is. That top part tells users where the feed is located, what the link to get to the feed is, and some information on when it was last updated. That’s the top <pubDate> tag, and the <image> up there is to allow you to include an image if some RSS Feed software will showcase your stuff with that image.

After the feed description, everything else is dedicated to feeding content for seeing. Generally, an RSS Feed uses the <item> tag to denote each story, article, or content item that you’ve published. The title is what that content is named, the link leads directly to the content you want subscribers to see, and the description tells viewers what they can expect at that link. The publication date is important too as it’ll tell the user how old the content is, but it can also be used to tell algorithms if there’s something fresh to pop in front of someone’s eyes.

The Using Part

So now you have your cool RSS document, how can it be used? Well, the most direct way is to share that feed with people. You can once again go to social media and share a link there. It’d make a great pinned tweet, for instance, or you could throw a link out every week or so to tell people, “This is where you can find all my stuff!” Alternatively, you just leave it on your website or Facebook page and let audiences find the link there.

When the link is made available, users can then subscribe through the software of their choice or just by using a browser extension that tracks RSS Feeds. Some users might even prefer to go directly to the feed itself so they can click on the links as they’re made available. To go even further, you can get onto sites like Feedburner that will track user statistics and allow users to subscribe for email updates. Other sites will add your RSS Feed to an aggregate based on the content or frequency of updates. Basically, once the feed exists you can find all sorts of ways to use it as a sharing tool.

Overall, RSS Feeds are pretty simple to setup and they can provide a lot of content visibility that goes beyond a static web site. This post only scratches the surface on RSS Feeds, but it’s definitely enough to get someone started in their use. If nothing else, think of them as another tool that can be used to get the word out that you create things and you’d like to share those things.

-J.A.

Foggy Mornings, Additional Musings

Foggy Mornings

And Additional Musings

When the day is young, still
When the fog rolls in
When the morning light is dim
When my mind is lost
In lingering dreams, my friends

When the forest is too overgrown
When the underbrush is thick
When the wooded trail is lost
When each footfall breaks wrists
And promises speak of death

There is the hopeless
Then is the moment lost
That is the breaking point
Before barriers are crossed

Then is the moment
Where solutions make sense
Whether or not
They can provide a defense

Why should we rely
On the infallible thought
That we can try
And figure it out

But in those gloomy places
With just the right lie
There’s still a torch to see
A pretty face
Or a project to be
A mental construction
A glimmer beckoning

And maybe, perhaps
It’s just an illusion
But believe in illusion
Until it must be

 

Avoidance

Something cold trickles down, drips, catches
Sits, waits, becomes a weight
Heavy, heavier, the heaviest thing
It’s bearing down
It’s listening

A thought that hammers repeatedly
It bothers, needles, breaks skin
Digs down and burrows in
Becomes the truth
Despite denial

Oh denial, oh its relief
The promise it offers of unchanging
How can I stop who I have been?
When it took so long to learn to be

Acceptance is good, isn’t it great?
You can be yourself
You can let the world in
You can alienate all of your friends

So patch the dam as it cracks
Bulges, creaks under that weight
Just ignore what might be
Take the comfort
Of not reckoning

Avoid the searching of who and why
The state of not, doing a thing
Stalling, stalled, a stall that breaks wings
Keep the secret
Down within

 

Caught

They caught me on the doorstep
One Saturday evening
We were arm-in-arm
Secret kissing

Some secrets are joyful
A happy surprise
A dramatic reveal
That pleases
Assures
And Complies

But those aren’t the best secrets
The best secrets draw blood
They drew blood
Because of a secret
They broke hearts
And you lie

Conformity breeds liars
You have to fit in
But if you don’t?
If you won’t?
Then you learn to fib.

Honesty is for the normal
Honestly for shapeshifters
They fit in a box
Because they were poured in

But what of the misshapen?
The ones that can’t melt
Or those that refuse
Because that’s not being yourself

Then? A choice.
A statement.
Of life:
A constant fight
Or a constant fib

 

Never

She took a step and stopped
Looked at me, quizzical
The question wasn’t why
It was not a question
An accusation

And I couldn’t take it
I couldn’t refuse
Love was easier
Than hate

But who wrote the rules?
And when do they break?
When did the moment pass
Where someone had been hurt?

I didn’t succumb
I overcame
But to an outside viewer
They were one and the same

The challenges are breathless
Wordless
Weeping
Choices

And those choices, daggers that cut different
Hurt self or someone else
Any choice is deafening
When an expression of self