Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Last Laugh

For a long time now, I've wanted to write a short prequel from the perspective of Penny, one of the main characters in my new novel, Earthbound. Things finally clicked into place recently and I got it down on paper. Well, the electronic equivalent. This story takes place before the events of my new book. You shouldn't have to have read anything else to enjoy this prequel.

Without further ado, here it is.

The Last Laugh

Laughter is my weapon. 

Laughter is my freedom, for if I can laugh who can call me a slave? Would you dare to a call a woman beaten when she can look you in the eye with a triumphant smile on her face? Born on the orphan world, I have seen little reason to laugh. My people are a wreck. We live in ruins, dressed in rags and shivering against our fires, hoping to eek out another day in the cold and the hunger and the misery. The mines claim new victims every day, and the children are uneducated and confused. 

Laughter is my weapon. It’s how I fight the oppression we live in. It’s how I have tried to enact a change. I have done my best with the kids. I have taught them how to read, and I have tried to make them laugh. Those are the only gifts I have to give. They were gifts given to me by an old woman, a thirty-year old who had suffered through over a decade in the mines before finally succumbing to black lung. In her last days, she had taught me how to read spacer, the language of the stars. She wanted to leave behind a greater legacy than years of service to our masked rulers the warts. 

I still remember her last words to me. “If you can laugh, they don’t own you.” 

“No, Janice, you need to finish your breakfast,” I called, a toddler on my hip. I didn’t know where the boy—Nick— had come from, I just did my best with him. Janice was four years old, and becoming willful. It was warm out today and she wanted to play, but I couldn’t have another child stealing her food. The kid was skinny enough as it was. 

“No Pennappy,” she replied. She couldn’t pronounce Penelope— my full name— yet. “‘M going to play.” I didn’t know why she tried to call me Penelope. Most everyone called me Penny. 

“Oh, are you?” I replied, rising from the rickety table to regard her. The hovel of a room where we lowly humans ate was its usual drafty disaster area. I could see shafts of sunlight shining through the ceiling, and we weren’t even on the top floor. 

“Yes Pennappy,” she said. “You can come too,” the little girl added generously.

“What about the dinosaurs?” I asked, putting Nick down on the floor.

“Dinosaurs?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

“Mmhmm, the ones that will come and eat your food if you don’t finish it. Remember dinosaurs from the book?” I asked. I’d used a few ratty old books to teach the kids about animals. 

“Long neck dinosaur or sharp tooth dinosaur?” she asked. 

I considered. I didn’t want to scare her. Much. “Long neck.” I raised one my arms in an imitation of a brontosaurus and made my hand flap like a mouth. “He’ll just swoop in”—at this I darted the brontosaurus’s mouth toward her bowl of gruel and pretended he was eating it— “and gobble up your food! Nom nom nom!”

“Ok,” she said flatly, and turned to leave. 

You leave me no choice. Still keeping my brontosaurus arm up, I darted toward her. “Brontosaurus is going to get you!” I cried, picking her up and carrying her back toward the table. She giggled and squealed as I hefted her in the air, carrying her back toward her food. 

“Finish your food, then you can play outside, sweetie.”

“Ok, Pennappy,” she said. She put a little hand on my arm. “I’m glad you’re my mommy,” she said before picking up her battered steel spoon. 

“Oh honey, I’m not-” I began. But I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sentence. For some reason I felt like the illusion should stay. I couldn’t tell if it was for her sake or mine. 

Nick was getting fussy. He was just standing where I’d put him, looking like he was about to cry, though I had no idea what for. I was about to go to him when I heard loud footsteps shaking the mouldering wooden floorboards. 

No, I thought. Please no. It had only been a week or so since our last summons. I glanced around at the few other orphans in the room. There was Jonah, a nervous kid who had a crush on me, and Dante, an older boy due to be sent to the factories or mines any day now. If anyone was likely to be summoned, it was Dante. I didn’t think about the other likely possibility. That at fifteen I was only a year younger…

A wart stepped into the room and glanced around, examining us through the lenses of its gas mask. Somehow they always knew exactly how to find us when the time came for a summoning. Every few weeks a wart would come to the building and hand one of us an envelope, an envelope that contained a very simple message. A note that simply said “Come.” It was a summons that could not be ignored. A few had tried, and they just got dragged off anyway. No one ever came back from a summons. That was the kicker. It was impossible not to consider that little piece of paper a death warrant. 

A moment later, I was holding a dirty, tattered envelope. Nick was crying, and the stomping footsteps were receding. 


The summons was for me. 

I held the paper in my outstretched arm for a long time before I slowly let it drop to my side. I’m going to die, I thought, but immediately I clamped down on that kind of thinking. I had children to be brave for. Jonah and Dante were staring at me with concern, Nick was bawling. Janice gaped. Her spoon dangled from one hand, a bit of khaki-colored glop hanging off the edge. 

“Don’t go, Stomper.” I called after the wart. “Stay for tea and cookies.” I looked back at the other orphans. They were still staring at me. Say something clever, I told myself. 

“It must be my birthday,” I said with a forced chuckle, tearing open the envelope. We didn’t know our own birthdays. We couldn’t even keep track of the dates very well. The joke fell flat on its face. The kids kept staring. 

I wanted to say something funny, something that would make them laugh, but my eyes were glued to that word. That deadly word. 


I didn’t let myself react to the news. I wanted to rage, to scream and cry and toss tables over, but I didn’t do any of those things.

I plastered a big, fake smile on my face and picked up Nick, rocking him gently in my arms. He calmed down pretty quick. The warts weren’t too scary anymore. I’d made up stories about them for the younger kids. We called them silly names like Stomper and Trompy Boots. When your overlord was named Trompy Boots and he was looking for a special flower in a meadow, he wasn’t quite as frightening. 

“Finish your food, Janice! Last time I’m telling you!”

An hour later I was stamping my way through eight inches of snow, the weight of farewells heavy on my mind. Tears stung my eyes every time I thought about the kids. I hadn’t really told them goodbye, and I hadn’t said anything at all to the others. Most of the orphans didn’t even know I’d been summoned. I felt it was best to leave that way. No scene, no fuss. One day I was there watching out for the little ones, next one found me tramping a snowy wasteland toward an uncertain future. 

I could only hope Jonah or Dante or one of the others would step up. Jonah I knew had a fierce soul. He was timid and useless with children, but there was a lion in there waiting to be woken up. I had more hope for him than Dante, who had already given up. Most of us got cynical the closer we got to leaving for a short, brutal life in the mines or the factories.

Or a summons. 

Wart headquarters loomed ahead of me, a tall, rectangular building that could be seen from the orphans’ dwellings. The lobby was warm when I stepped inside, almost uncomfortably so after the long, cold walk. There were two elevators opposite the entrance. One of them opened with a loud “bing!” as I arrived.

I sat down against the glass wall next to the door. Through my thin sweater the surface was cold against my spine. I watched the elevator, wondering what would happen if I just stayed right here. No one had ever done that, not that I’d heard. Some tried to run away, and got caught. Some tried to stay in the tenements, and got dragged off. The rest just admitted defeat and went into the elevator. But, I suppose if they had tried to wait right here I never would have heard of it. And there was the matter of food… I was already hungry. 

With a sigh, I rose to my feet. “They better feed me,” I muttered. When I stepped into the elevator, one of the buttons was already lit. A sideways 8 was printed on the white surface. It glowed with blue light. I was going to the top. After a short, smooth ride, the doors slid open. 

The room beyond was misty. I stepped out of the elevator without hesitation. The doors slid closed behind me with a squeaky rumble. 

“Something wrong with your ventilation?” I called. Shapes emerged from the fog. Six warts stepped forward. One of them was an oddity. Instead of the usual black, his body armor was silver, and his helmet was red. 

“Subject 1-4-9-8 stretch out your arm,” a robotic voice commanded. I couldn’t tell which wart it had come from.

“Can I have a sandwich first? I’m quite famished.” 

“Subject 1-4-9-8 stretch out your arm!” Definitely the wart on the far right. I… didn’t want to. I was still trying to figure out how cooperative I actually had to be. I had come willingly to avoid getting stunned and dragged off in the night. The kids didn’t need to see that. Now that I was here, there was nothing left for them to hold over me, no threat that could scare me.

“Sandwich first.” I replied, folding my arms tight across my chest. 

“Do it,” the silver wart commanded. 

“Sir?” one of the others replied.

“Make her a sandwich.” 

“Really?” I asked in shock. At least two warts expressed their own surprise. 

One of the warts sighed and clomped off, muttering.

“Extra cheese, please!” I called to the being as it retreated into the mist. “And mustard!”

A few minutes later I was chomping on the most delicious sandwich I had ever eaten while a syringe was inserted into a vein on my left forearm. I held my food in my right hand, taking huge bites. The bread was soft and fragrant, and the meat was spiced perfectly. I couldn’t tell what kind of meat it was but that didn’t matter. It was so good! Best of all, I got the mustard and extra cheese. 

My head began to swim. I took another bite, determined to enjoy every morsel of that damn sandwich. 

“Wat you gonna do ta me?” I asked with my mouth full of food. 

“Come this way,” one of the warts commanded. They led me through the fog to a row of glass-walled chambers. Six little rooms with beds and different equipment in each. 

They led me into the chamber on the far left of the room. I was lowered into a bed. One of the warts started to reach for my sandwich, but I shoved its hand away and took one final bite. There was nothing but a crust left. I dropped it to the floor, amused at the prospect of one of the warts having to pick it up in that heavy and very inflexible-looking body armor. 

Another needle went into my arm. This one didn’t come out. I was about to go under. I could feel it, like an avalanche rumbling down a mountain. A bright lamp shone into my eyes as I lay back, pressed down by one of the warts. They surrounded me, glass eyes staring. My mouth suddenly had a metallic taste, like copper. 

I blinked against the light, and forced myself to laugh. It was a choked, pitiable sound, but I knew if I could find humor here, if I could laugh here, I could really win everything. I pictured the wart stomping off to make me a sandwich and let out a loud, clear laugh. 

“What is wrong with her?” one of the warts asked.

“You should see your faces,” I said, chuckling. I was still laughing when a third needle went in, this one into my neck. Then the avalanche claimed me, and everything that made me Penny was buried under a deluge of needles and the whir of a bone saw. 

I got the last laugh. 

This is not the end of Penny’s story… to find out what happens next, read Earthbound, coming soon!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Silence

Here's a little short story I wrote. Our culture has been pretty into zombies for the last several years, and I've wanted to throw my hat in the proverbial ring, but I have too many other projects on my plate. This short story came to me a few weeks ago... I enjoyed it so much I thought I better post it.

"The Silence" 

The silence would soon become eternal.

I sighed with relief as the fire at last took hold, burning away the kindling and grasping the logs with hands of flame. I’d settled between two dunes to block the wind, but even so my hands weren’t what they used to be, and lighting the blaze had taken time. I could hear the quiet, sliding whispers of the tides not ten yards off. In the distance, insect-song. Silence had already taken this part of the world. All that remained now were the old sounds, the sounds that had been here all along. 

Nearby, the hulking wreck of a ruined tanker leaned at a disconcerting angle. To see something so large from the wrong side, in the wrong position, it was dizzying. I didn’t like to look at the ship. I always avoided ruins, but there was something about the great ships that especially bothered me. A building that had fallen into disrepair could still be restored to use, but a beached boat with a ruined hull would never sail again. 

That was the greater ruin, a body that could never be used again. 

The world was full of ruins. 

Human ruins had once been everywhere. Humans that had once been alive with bright eyes and red blood had become monsters, living corpses that wandered urban wastelands, seeking easy prey. 

I poked the fire with a stick, staring at the flames until my eyes hurt. I didn’t want to look at the world. I just wanted to see the fire. The fire was my kin, in a way. I had wandered the wastelands of Earth for time out of mind, bringing an end to the shambling, skulking monstrosities that roamed, the zombies that had once been human. 

I had inherited their curse. The same disease that had brought down humanity had also made me indestructible. Pulling a chipped and well-used whetstone out of my bag, I began to sharpen my sword. The blade must be kept sharp and ready, lest it catch in the vertebrate of the living dead. 

I did not sleep. I no longer needed sleep. I just rested next to the campfire and I sharpened my weapon. A broadsword with a long, two-handed grip. 

I rose early, the sun casting vivid bands of color across the blues of sea and sky, and made my way North. In the distance, I could see ruins. The dark towers of fallen man skulked in the shadows, overgrown and unruly. My final destination.

Every one of the animated corpses on the planet has an extra sense, a prey-sense that tells when a truly living human is near, a beating heart that can be ripped out and devoured. This too had gone wrong in me. I couldn’t sense humans. I sensed only the roaming monsters. I had been using that ability for decades now. 

The signal was weak. There were almost none of them left. The world would be reclaimed by silence soon enough. I marched on across the beach. Ravaged beach houses lay to my left, all of them like giant tombstones, testaments to a long-gone past. 

I came into the city at dusk. I was weary again, but I was too close now. I had to finish. 

The streets were green. Weeds and creeping vines grew with wild abandon, snidely reclaiming their lost lands from human civilization. The signal was stronger now, but I could tell even more clearly that it was almost over. There was only one of them. 

Not the last. The next to last.

Every one of the skyscrapers rearing above me looked like it was ready to fall. Their shadows made me nervous. Finding it prudent to hurry, I stepped up my pace. I expected to find the last of the living dead in one of the buildings, maybe a basement or a closet, somehow missed the first time I’d been through. But no, the odd sense in my brain led me to Central Park, which now looked for all the world like a forest. 

The vegetation was so thick at the edge of the pavement that I had to slash my way in. I cut a path and found myself in a narrow green tunnel. Displaced stones lay on the ground like a miniature mountain range, rising and falling in peaks and valleys. After a careful walk, I stumbled upon a ruined brick plaza that was slowly being reclaimed by trees. A vine-choked fountain lay not far off. The creature was there. It had fallen into the fountain. 

I walked closer, sword held at the ready. The thing had no legs, and could not seem to find the coordination to haul itself out. Dingy water lay at the bottom of bowl, thick with grit and rotting leaves. The monster itself gave off a powerful stench. Its skin was green with rot, peeling away in thick swatches. This one had once been a woman. I could not tell what she might have looked like. Her face was little more than a grimacing skull. She snarled when she saw me, reaching out with fingers that were missing most of their knuckles. The nubs oozed pus and black blood.

It had come to this. I had killed every zombie in the world. Every zombie save this one, and myself.

I brought my sword down. 

The creature gurgled once, then went still. The battle was over. 

I turned my sword around. I would fall upon it, and the silence would descend. There were no people left, but there also no zombies. The world would be empty. I would have liked to have been able to save the world for humanity, but they had been gone too fast, and most of the immune like myself had worn out over time, their bodies unable to handle the strain of living forever. 

“Wait!” a voice called. I stumbled in shock and nearly fell on my sword regardless. I looked up and saw a young girl with startlingly blond hair was staring at me, one arm held out in supplication. “Wait,” she said again. Her hair was clean and bright like sunlight. Her clothes were rough, knitted by hand and ill-fitting, but they too were clean. She was whole, she was human. She was not a zombie.

“Are you the Wanderer?” she asked. The one who travels the world killing the zombies?” 

“I am,” I said. My voice was rough. I hadn’t spoken in years. I had almost thought I might never speak again. I had been so certain there was no one left to speak to. “There are… more, like you?” I asked.

“Yes, many! We hid in the subway tunnels. We hid for years, but we heard about you…” I saw you walking and I thought… I thought I’d talk to you.” 

"Where are these multitudes?” I asked. 

“Still underground. The old folks are afraid of the upper world.” 

“Are you afraid?” I asked. I stepped forward, and the girl gasped. Though I had taken care of myself, my body was worn. My fingers were smooth, and almost bone-like. My face was little better. The skin was dry and brittle like old leather. I was not meant for this. I didn’t belong in the new world. I was an in-between man. Not a relic of the past, not a piece of the future. I had served my purpose in ending the zombie menace. I had thought the silence was my goal, but I had been wrong. It was this girl. This girl with bright sunlight in her hair.

The girl had not answered my question. She was staring, her hands at her side, clenching and unclenching.

“My time is done,” I added. I waved with my sword. “You should go.” I was tired and ready to die.

“Wait,” the girl said a third time. “Come back with me. You’re a hero. You don’t have to…” Her eyes were averted. She couldn’t look at the sword in my withered hand. 

I shook my head. I couldn’t imagine being around… people again. It had been so long. So much time had passed in quiet solitude. 

The sun-girl reached out her hand. My whole body began to tremble. I looked down at my sword.

I dropped the weapon. 

I reached out, and I took the girl’s slender offering. We walked away together, out of the wilderness and out of humanity’s long dark night. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Earthbound Chapter One


Chapter One: The Blackout (1500 word version)

The short walk to paradise. 

That was what survivors called the road. The old ones, who had managed to make it to their twenties. I would never turn twenty, wouldn’t even make fourteen. I preferred to think of the walk as an end to misery, better than a decade in the mines. I trundled through nearly a quarter-meter of snow, only a ragged sweater keeping me warm. It was thick, but fraying at the hems. Strings were always hanging off, catching on things. Like I was leaving bits of myself behind everywhere I went. 

We call this place the orphan world. No one has any mother, father, brother or sister. I barely have a concept for grandparents because there are no elderly people here. Only the strongest, toughest and meanest can survive. It’s these that made it into their twenties. Sometimes the old ones helped you, taught you things, sometimes… most times, they didn't. Except for Penny, but she was different. 

There's three things you need to know about the orphan world. First, when you turn fourteen you're going to work in the mines, or the factories. Second, you will die in the mines, or the factories. And third, when they call you to the building with the red elevators, you are never coming back.

I'd been summoned yesterday morning. A being in a gas mask had delivered a crinkled, burned-around-the-edges envelope. He hadn't said a word, just handed me the packet and walked away. Inside was a piece of paper with four words. 

Your Day Has Come.

That was all that was needed. You knew what it meant. You can ignore the summons, yes, but someone's going to show up beside your bed when you're sleeping and pump you full of electricity till you can’t move. You’ll probably pee yourself when it happens. Then they carry you off anyway, twitching and senseless.

Being thirteen years old, I lived in the Lyran Commons with all the children. It wasn't a building meant for living in. The whole planet had been different once long ago, before the warts had taken over. There were ruins everywhere. I was walking in a canyon made by several toppled buildings, towards the one structure the warts had built, a massive building that towered over the land like a boxy mountain.

Wart headquarters.

“Wart” was the name the survivors had given to the rulers of the orphan world. No one knew what was behind the gas masks they always wore, but the story was they looked like toads, with skin covered in warts. As to what the warts called themselves... they seemed to want us to think of them as "the master race". They'd never given a real name to call them, which only added to their mysteriousness.

I wanted to drag out the long walk from Lyran Commons to the headquarters, but it was so cold I couldn't. After half an hour in the cold, I was shivering. Soon I was standing in a massive, echo-y atrium dripping snow onto tiles checkered gold and white. The walls were all windows, but tinted, making the room oppressively dark.

There was nothing in the room except for two elevators set opposite the door. All else was glass, tile, and silence. With a startling "bing!" one of the elevators opened, spilling light into the dimly lit entryway.

True to rumor it was as red as blood. 

Warmer now out of the cold, this was a walk I could make last. And I did. I took several minutes of pacing, hemming and hawing before I stepped inside the red elevator, feeling like I was entering a blood vessel. There was a massive array of buttons next to the doors, but touching them did nothing.

There was one at the very top, a funny looking sideways 8, it was the only one lit. I was going all the way to the top. I gripped the red railing with a shaking hand, trying to steady myself. Every strange rumor, every wild possibility ran through my head in that long ride into the sky. 

A digital counter ticked off the levels in one corner. I stared, watching as the digit representing each floor was passed. I had to fight to stem off panic as my destination grew closer. I hummed the tune to a children's song. I couldn't remember the name or any of the words, just someone singing it to me while they swaddled me in a pale blue blanket. Maybe my mother, maybe not. Whenever I was scared, I had taken to humming it.  

When the doors opened with another "bing!" I couldn't bring myself to move. There was nothing to see beyond the elevators. A mist prevented me from making out even shadows. Little tendrils of fog began to curl towards me. Heat followed, driving out the last of the cold that I'd brought with me from outside.

Some paradise, I thought.

“Disembark!” A harsh, synthetic voice commanded. The voice of a wart inside its suit. Trembling, I stepped forward. If this was my last moment alive, it wouldn’t do much good to spend it quivering against the wall like a coward. 

The elevator closed, leaving me feeling vulnerable. "Remove your overshirt, subject 1-4-9-9 Jonah Griffin." a second, subtly deeper voice ordered. The request was odd, but I was roasting now anyways. I let the ragged thing drop, now wet with moisture.

Shapes emerged from the fog. Figures in bulky metal suits and insectoid masks. Beads of condensation clung to their shiny black goggles as they studied me. One of them had a syringe, the needle tiny in his padded glove.

"Stretch out your arm, subject 1-4-9-9,” he told me. Humming one last bit of my tune, I did so. My arm was still shaking. The wart gripped my elbow roughly in his free hand. I watched with dread as the syringe got close to my skin.

And then things got crazy.

The next I knew, I wasn't in that strange, misty room. I was in a hallway. Alarms were blaring, and my head was fuzzy, like when you wake up from a poor night's sleep, or an unrestful nap. 

And in my left hand, I was holding tight to someone’s hand. A girl named Penny. Everyone loved Penny. She had acted as a mother of sorts for the orphans, looking after us and comforting us when no one else would. I'd had a crush on Penny for years, but never had the courage to tell her. She'd taken little notice of me regardless, being two years older and busy tending younger children.

Mere weeks from being sent to the mines, she'd been summoned a few days before me. Could it be we had escaped? I couldn't make sense of where my memories had gone. It felt like I should be able to remember what happened. Maybe Penny knew. She had an odd expression on her face, a senseless sort of bliss. She  seemed content to stand there while I came to my senses.

"What's going on?" I asked. 

Penny looked at me with unfocused eyes, then giggled. "Johnny," she said, stroking my cheek. "They hurt my brain." She tapped at her forehead awkwardly, as if her motor skills were off. Her dark hair, once thick and beautiful, clung to her skin in lank strands. There were bald spots where they'd shaved patches away.

She attempted to relay her story to me, but it was too vague for me to understand much. She kept going back to needles, in her skin, through her bone. She was terrified of needles.

They'd lobotomized her. 

I looked around, trying to get a grip and figure out my surroundings. We had to escape, that was obvious. Even if we'd managed to evade the warts, I doubted we'd be free for much longer. My sweater was dangling from my right hand. The sweater was an anchor, helping me focus on reality. 

I led Penny towards the first door I found, a supply closet. The second led into an immense hanger. Beyond open doors, a starlit night awaited. The light of worlds beyond our own twinkled invitingly.

Standing before us, in this building, on this planet and within reach, was the most gorgeous, elegant ship I’d ever seen. It was a broad, electric-blue arch with a row of powerful-looking engines slung in a line along the back. I saw my means of escape here, my freedom. I didn't know what had occurred in the minutes since my ride in the Red Elevators, but I knew I'd been given a chance at finding something better, perhaps a real life. The thought of living free of oppression and fear almost seemed impossible, like a bird who has never been let out of its cage. I had to seize this while I could.

We had to steal that starship.