Well, my dears, I've broken the 1000 followers mark on Twitter, which means I can now start to follow people back again, AND, that I can give you all the reward I promised for either 250 fans or 1000 followers!
Have you been feeling neglected? Wondering why I didn't publish much of a damn thing in December and barely much at all in November? Well, you're about to learn the reason. The Underlighters, a FULL LENGTH NOVEL, will be coming out soon as part of The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming! That's right! Not only will I have a dozen new stories for you, I'll have a full-length novel!
Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, please don your cyberpunk gear and prepare to get down with your nightmares. This is...a preview of The Underlighters.
9—June 8, 0048 P.D.
So. Like I said, I’m back. Having to cram this in at lunch time—I never take my journal to work!—feels so awkward, but I need as much personal space as I can get, away from people. Back to my...adventures.
The elevator opened on the old apartment lobby. It was a tall building, and one of the first to be salvaged. I know the building well—it’s one of the main training grounds—but it’s still creepy as hell. Being able to sense that you’re far above the ground—above! Not below!—without being able to see the distance, is terrifying. Some of the rooms are full of Dust, and very dark; others were pretty well-sealed, and it’s mostly confined to the outside.
Chloe was already hanging back uneasily. The ambient level of Dust in here was low, but it was still there—dimming our senses, deepening shadows, fading colours. Ian, a brave soul, was sitting at a desk.
All of our masks were set to the open channel automatically, rather than being dialed down to ‘local’ or ‘intimate’ range.
“Welcome,” Ian said, his voice friendly. “Ready for your expedition?" I don’t think I’ve seen him more than once or twice without his suit; he’s one of the most avid Crows, living close to the surface.
“You bet they are,” said May. “I’m going to head back down. Kids, sign your names on the form and stay out of trouble. How long will you be?”
“No more than a couple of hours,” I guessed. “Let’s say three.”
“With Una on rounds, you can bet someone will be coming to check on you if you’re not back by then,” Ian reminded us.
In spite of my standard-issue protective gloves, skin-tight and slightly nobbly on the fingertips, the pen slipped in my hand, left a shaking line in the middle of my name. The others followed me, signed their names on the lines. Our names on the paper seemed so tenuous and frail, considering what they represented. A line on a page in thick, gritty ink--the only thing tying me visibly to the world below, proving that this was the last place I’d been seen. I decided not to think about what would happen if I went missing, if the suit was ripped, if I ended up stumbling around Up here...
“Good luck!” said May, returning to the elevator.
Ian nodded us forward. There was nothing to do but go into the world, and see what we could find. Aiden moved ahead of me, leading the charge forward.
As we opened the apartment doors, we found ourselves in a grey world. The light was somewhat visible, here, in one of the thinnest areas. It wasn’t entirely unlike the diffuse light during the evening cycle, but below, the light doesn’t change like this. Patches of darkness swirled across the sky, across buildings. Even without Dust crawling in my system, the world was full of a moving, liquid blackness. Artificial light and the light of the sun could shimmer through, faintly, but barely enough to see by. I couldn’t see their faces through the masks, but the way my friends straightened and slipped their hands to their holster belts told me everything I needed to know about their feelings.
The weird light and the interfering Dust were thinner in higher places, matching the air. As a level 1 zone, it was still relatively safe.
We dialed down to the ‘local’ frequency. The strangeness of the old world surrounded me. The big, angular box houses were all empty, sinister-looking, and many were covered in greenery. The wide streets covered in pavement—not walls, but streets and roads! It always amazes me—were broken and covered in plants and potholes. Thick grasses in front of the houses and the enormous trees dominated. A few of the clumsy, boxy cars they used to drive were still lining the streets, but they’d more or less rusted into place.
Half lost kingdom, half forest primeval. We followed the road. Its signs had rusted and been replaced by our own. All of us knew “Elton Street” reasonably well, but the marvel of the big, open world still hadn’t worn off.
“Let’s take Mercer to the Old Uptown though 18th, and then we can ease our way towards Sunnyside,” said Jay, interrupting my musings. “I mean, 18th ave goes right into Sunnyside.”
“Sure,” I said. “You’re the navigator.”
We all walked close together, in a diamond-shaped formation. There were wild dog packs howling in the distance, and the forest-neighbourhood was alive with birdsong and insects. Their lives had continued uninterrupted—it was just ours that had been stopped.
There was no sense in picking through the houses around here—in spite of their rather decrepit condition, they’d been combed finely. Not even a stray marble remained, for the most part; even bones had been interred.
As we walked further down the grassy road, things changed. The darkness was lower, the Dust, thicker—there was less diffuse light, and our lanterns seemed to throw off less illumination. Down below, in our homes, the dark was never absolute—there’s always a candle or a light burning somewhere, even if it’s only in the paintings of windows. With a painted moon and LED studded stars to watch us, we could sleep easily. Here, even awake, it was a different matter. The darkness was alive.
It moved like water through the streets, thick strands and pools of near-opaque blackness swirling around us. Most of it was thick, greyish, foglike, but with a life of its own. Shapes blurred and shimmered in the distance and in shadowed-corners. There was still some sunlight in the sense that the world had a faint glow, but not much. Dad and old movies have given me an idea of ‘dusk’ and ‘twilight’, but this isn’t like it—no stripey colours in the sky. Just murkiness, and shadows, and strange angles where the lingering light and Dust play on shapes.
Chloe was already shivering, and I didn’t blame her. At this point, we were farther afield—out of the Level 2 area, which is partly but not fully explored, and heading towards the Level 3 zone. The murk was deepening, the houses and greenery even more shadowed and twisted by the imperfect light. The old people say our world above is one of endless night, but it’s more than that. Night doesn’t move on its own, and night doesn’t follow you around.
“I guess we should probably start looking for things,” said Aiden. His voice was a little wavery. This was supposed to be a Level 3 area, but the Dust levels were higher than expected—closer to 4. I widened the range of my ‘Local’ signal. Luckily, Jay stepped in.
“Keep your comms open, people. It’s better to say something you regret than getting Lost up here. It looks like the Dust is thicker than we expected. I say we keep this trip tight, and revert to proper protocol, over.”
“Agreed, over,” I said. Next to me, Chloe was starting to cling, brushing my arm constantly. It was annoying.
“Can we just go look at a house and get it over with? Over.”
“Remind me, what are we looking for exactly, Aiden? Over,” I added. I tried to keep my tone light, but I could feel my palms tingling, beginning to sweat.
“Well, to be honest, I was hoping for fancy artificial flowers, but anything nice—vases, whatever, will do. Over.”
“Okay, I guess we should hit them, over,” I replied.
“Which one should we do first? Can we do the nice one with the door that’s still standing? Over.”
“Chloe, we have to check it for hazards first. Unless you want the roof for a hat, over,” snapped Jay. It wasn’t like her to be sharp, not at all. A stealthy trickle of fear down my spine made me pause. If Jay was already nervous, this didn’t bode well.
Sunnyside had probably been well-named a long time ago, but now, with its decrepit streets and half-fallen-in houses, the name couldn’t have been more ironic.
Chloe mumbled something too quickly to understand.
“Chloe, please speak clearly when you’re on comm, over,” I said.
“I said watch out for the witch, over,” she said. A high-pitched note cracked in her voice.
“Um, sure. That house over there, the one Chloe picked out, over,” I said. If Chloe was panicking, it was best to indulge her. I couldn’t decide whether to worry or be annoyed. Feeling the reassuring, second-nature weight of my foldie on my back and the strap of the holster, I forced myself to calm down. I’d been out to these areas before, or close to them, anyway.
The house Chloe had chosen was more intact than the rest, with a big attached garage that had diamond-paned windows on top. It was older in style, according to what I remembered from school, but not ancient like some of the smaller places. Half of those, more than half, were in awful shape or had already been pillaged. That meant the walls would probably be in awful shape, but if the mold hadn’t completely taken over and if its original owners hadn’t returned to ransack it, it might be a gold mine. You could never tell until you took the door down. There were a few times in training for my Level 3 when we’d even found ancient bodies, still, preserved, and picked clean to the bone, lying peacefully in the houses.
Just then, Jay broke comm protocol. “Hey! Look!” I turned, and in the grime on the street, there was something glittering.
I knelt down and picked it up, examining it through the dark lenses of the mask. “Looks like a button. A nice one, too. Plastic. Not worth breaking protocol for, over.” I handed it back to her. “That’d be nice for a sweater or a brooch, over.”
Jay surveyed the ground closely as she took a step or two closer to the house. I wondered what had caught her attention this time.
“Sorry for breaking protocol, but I found another one! Over.”
“Cool! Over.” She held it up, a brassy thing this time, with a bit of plastic in its centre.
“Good start! How do you guys feel about the garage? Over.” Aiden sounded hopeful, and I didn’t blame him; it wasn’t every day you found things lying in the street, in good condition.
I cleared my throat nervously and decided, hell with it, I’d be honest with them. “I won’t lie, guys, I have a weird feeling that we should just head back. Over.”
I’d intended to make this Aiden’s show, since it was his shopping trip, but I will admit that being Up changes me. It’s the one place I’m willing to lead. Normally I’ll say my bit, but I won’t disrupt the order of things. When I’m Up, I feel calm.
Usually, anyway. Today, we were all jittery. I couldn’t help cranking my neck around, watching for hidden eyes.
“Neg, let’s stick around for a bit, since we came all this way—over,” said Aiden. It was a reasonable request, and I wondered if I was being silly.
“I know what you’re saying, Aiden, but I don’t like this either and I’m going to flip my lid if I have to stay out here much longer. Over,” said Chloe.
“Widen frequency range to open, guys. We’re pushing the boundaries and I don’t want any accidents, over,” I said decisively.
At this point, we’d been standing still, in our diamond shape, backs towards each other—there was a soft stirring in the grass, a faint breeze, but I thought I heard something rustling as well.
“We haven’t got all day, guys. We’ve been walking around for at least forty five minutes, over,” said Aiden.
Chloe stuffed her gun back in the holster and broke, running for the house.
“Chloe! What are you doing! Over!”
She didn’t answer, but her breathing sounded harsh and frightened.
She didn’t answer, but her breathing sounded harsh and frightened.
I shook my head in frustration, and did something stupid and logical—I ran after her.
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr. More reviews, a smokin' hot 'best of 2012' list for indie authors, and, yes, some backlogged reviews are all coming. In fact, there will may even be a 'Missed It' analysis of Bioshock 2! There will even be more interviews. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!