Posts Tagged ‘science-fiction’

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!

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

The Only City Left: Part Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Allin, you can’t. Our family—”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

The light grew brighter.

I gave it one last try.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have been researching SF/F/H webzines again, so today I have four more to share with you. I picked a recent short story from each one to read to get a feel for each webzine (I would of course read more stories before submitting one, to get a deeper sense of what the editors are looking for), and I will share my thoughts on those as well. Click here for my first post in this series, or check out my Links page for quick links to the webzines I have researched.

Abyss & Apex: Magazine of Speculative Fiction accepts a wide range of genres, but make sure to check out the Submissions page for the ones they are not looking for, such as horror. They are looking for short stories up to 10,000 words in length, and especially flash fiction up to 1,500 words. Payment is 5 cents a word up to 1,500 words or $75.00 for longer stories. As of the writing of this post, they are currently overstocked on stories, but their next reading period is open again starting 5/1/12, so now is a perfect time to read through the stories on the site and then have a story ready to submit on May 1st.

The story I read from Abyss & Apex was A Time to Weep by Daniel Huddleston. It is about humans doing business on an alien world, with human and aliens working together in the same office. One of the alien workers has a tragedy in his family that affects his work, and for good or ill, his human boss intervenes to try to help him out. Mr. Huddleston really gets across the future history in the story and the alien beliefs and behaviors in a remarkably short amount of time, so that even though I was dropped into the story with no reference points, I was able to appreciate the central conflict without needing a ton of exposition beforehand.

The Future Fire describes itself as publishing social, political and progressive speculative fiction, and you can see the site for more examples of what they mean by that. 10,000 words is the upper limit of what they are looking for and they pay a flat rate of $35 per story. The next Call for Submissions is for the theme of Outlaw Bodies: “stories about the future of human bodies that break boundaries—legal, societal, [and] biological…,” and the deadline is 5/1/12.
From The Future Fire, I read Bilaadi by S. Ali, which is about a river god who is forced to change with the times. It has environmental and socio-political themes to it, as one would expect given the focus of the webzine, but it was touching and personal at the same time. A snapshot of our modern world as seen through the eyes of an ancient being.

Quantum Muse is interesting in that to submit stories, you have to first sign up to critique stories that other writers have submitted. To cut down on their workload, the editors rely on this method of peer review to weed out stories, with only the top-ranked stories being forwarded to the editors for possible inclusion in the magazine. Interesting. Registration is free although they do ask for your address and phone number. I signed up and there are currently three SF, five fantasy, and six alternative stories to critique. You have to critique three stories for each one story you want to submit. I will have to try this out and let you know how it goes. Note: Flash fiction stories of 1,000 words or less can be submitted without going through the whole process described above. The word limit for longer stories is 8,000 words. Payment appears to be publication only plus the chance that a reader might “tip” you through PayPal. If Quantum Muse itself pays for the story, I am somehow not seeing that on the Submissions page.

From Quantum Muse, I read The Zitzing Man by Harris Tobias, which is a very short story about a great invention that would have worked if only the mundane world hadn’t intruded.

Electric Spec focuses on science fiction, fantasy, and the macabre and accepts stories from 250-7,000 words. Their next reading period ends April 15 for the end of May issue. Payment is a flat $20 per story. Check out the Submissions page for full details.

From Electric Spec, I read Seasonal Fruit by Kathryn Board. It was a fun short story about modern mortals interacting with divine beings. At first I thought it was going to be a clichéd horror story but it took an unexpected and pleasant turn and actually sent me to Wikipedia to look up some background information (the story is self-contained, so you don’t need to do this, but it caught my interest and made me want to research further).

So there you have it, four more cool science-fiction, fantasy, and/or horror webzines to check out, either as a reader, a writer or both. Every time I research these webzines my mind kicks into high gear about stories I can write. Hopefully once I recover from my recent move from Southern to Northern California, I will be able to carve out more writing time!

Final note: I am using a new-to-me website called Readability to help me read stories and articles from the web more easily. I am using it to send stories to my Kindle and Android tablet for easier reading in more comfortable environments. It looks like it works for the iPad and iPhone, too. It is free and I have no stake in it, but I wanted to share because every time I get to read a story on my Kindle in a comfy chair or in bed rather than sitting in front of the computer, I think, “This is so great!”

Until next time, thank you for reading and please let me know what you like about my blog, what you don’t like, what you want to see more of, sites/books/comics I should check out, etc. Thanks again!

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

The Only City Left: Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Louder.”

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

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

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

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

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

Continue to Part Five.

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

The Only City Left: Part Three

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

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

It sounded kind of wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Run,” he snapped, and let me go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down suddenly looked real enticing.

Onward to Part Four.

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

The Only City Left: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward to Part Three.

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