Happy 4th Birthday Mimi of the Nowhere! An Announcement, Why My Series Isn’t Dystopian, And Why Book 5 Has Been Slow Coming

Today is the 4th anniversary of my first novel, Mimi of the Nowhere going live on Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. In the last 4 years, there have been four books published in the series since that date, with more on the way. I am approaching the end of the first draft of book 5, The Children of AEIS and expect it to be out late summer.

For those who of you who have been following the series, you may have noticed it’s been two years between book 4 and book 5. Why is this? Well, as I am sure so many of you have experienced, the Covid-19 pandemic made life a bit more complicated for a while. But in addition to that, in June of 2020 I suffered a major head injury during a cycling accident. I struggled to read or write anything for almost 6 months. I would have occasional little bursts of creativity during that time, but I wrote and read very little. I was diagnosed with post concussion syndrome and I can say now, that after almost 2 years, I finally have a great deal of normality with only occasional concussion related issues.

This spring and summer I am back in the full swing of writing. And so there is another announcement. The Children of AEIS became rather lengthy, well over 1000 pages. If you’ve been following the series, you might no why… the world went from one walking city, to multiple, and then in book 4… the whole solar system began to open up. Because of it’s length, I have decided to split it into two books. Which will release within six months of each other. The new entry to the series, means the series will now be seven books in length. Book six is titled, “A War For The Heavens.” While book 5 focuses on the survivors of the aftermath of the Battle for Langeles, book 6 will return back to Manhatsten with their new allies the Lunites, and a conflict that is growing with ROAM. Book 7, A Hand to the Stars, will focus on the final battles for the fate of all remaining walking cities and the solar system itself.

You know, another thing I have been thinking about… my series never really fit quite right into the dystopian literature. Things are hard yes, but not hopeless. There is a lot of oppression, a lot of social control, but there are good things as well. It’s much more complex than the label of dystopian. My project here isn’t to talk about how awful society can be and the fear around the slide downhill… instead, this series is something different. I recently discovered an article on polytopias, about stories where the fundamental driving force of the story is that of change and diversity itself. I realized that the heart of everything happening my fictional universe fits this approach so much better. Definitely give that article a read if you want more info about polytopias. The author correctly points out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and the Expanse as important examples of polytopias, and stories about change and diversity are definitely my approach.

Thank you to all of you who continue to follow my work. I appreciate every single one of you. I don’t have many fans, but the ones I do are the absolute best.

Cover Reveal for The Children of AEIS!!!

The Children of AEIS, the fifth book in my sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Great Migration, now has a cover! I am so incredibly happy with this cover. The artwork for this cover was created by the very talented Jon Stubbington. Definitely check out his amazing work.

Though I don’t have a firm date for release for the book yet, it will certainly be out before the end of spring of 2022. The Children of AEIS is the penultimate entry into this series, followed finally by A Hand to the Stars.

From the back of the book:

In the penultimate entry of the Chronicles of The Great Migration, Alexa Turon, Runner 17, Major Daniels, and their allies must learn the secrets of the mysterious AEIS and the underground city of Lastion if they hope to discover the key to defeat Miranda once and for all. Above, those aboard Manhatsten scrambles to deal with a new crisis from ROAM.

But from the ashes of the Battle for Langeles and the conflict with the Children of Gaia, a new power rises, one unlike any the world has ever known. It has only one goal, to consume.



Worldbuilding Part 6: Cognitive Maps, Magic, and Super Powers

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about what kind of biological costs superpowers or magic might have on the biology of the brain. We discussed the impact of cognitive maps based on different biological and environmental systems, and why these are things that might be useful to consider for building fictional worlds. The reality is, the one thing so often overlooked in fictional worldbuilding, is that different species, and different mutations (in regards to superpowers or magic powers) would have a profound impact on the brain structure and perception of the living person/creature. So, it’s worth at least considering a few elements in how a cognitive map, and how a special ability or power might not just impact individual characters, but also fictional cultures as a whole.

You might be asking, well, what is a cognitive map?

To quote a 2012 academic article titled, Movement: Search, Navigation, Migration, and Dispersal:

“A cognitive map is an internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels. Animals that use cognitive maps can “visualize” the landscape and solve orientation problems by referring to these maps. While it is generally accepted that birds and mammals can form cognitive maps, and that the hippocampus is the most important part of the brain in their formation, considerable controversy has centered around whether other animals, such as honeybees, can form similar maps.”

Different animals have different cognitive maps. Different kinds of sensory input changes how a particular species would navigate their environment. Say for example a Mantis Shrimp, which has the most complex visual system of any creature on this planet, would have an entirely different cognitive map than a human. Why? Because humans have 3 photoreceptors in their eyes, a Mantis Shrimp has 12-16 depending on which variety of mantis shrimp you’re talking about.

Now imagine for a moment, a mantis shrimp took an evolutionarily leap and became as intelligent and as self-aware as the human species, but still had that same complex visual system. Naturally, their cognitive map would be far different than humans.

Well, one sci-fi author by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, played with this idea (though not specifically mantis shrimp) in his books, Children of Time, and it’s sequel Children of Ruin.

Children of Time and Children of Ruin

Without giving too much away, Tchaikovsky’s books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, ask the question, what kind of civilization would a spider, an octopus, and a kind of fungi analog build if they were genetically engineered to evolve human level, or greater intelligence. The answer? One that is a hell of a lot different than humans. But, at the same time, a creature, regardless of its cognitive map, still has to solve the problem of energy, or rather how do you build a large-scale civilization and economic system that could support a large population with different cognitive maps. So even though their maps might be different, to build civilization there would be some overlapping concerns.

For example, (and again I am not going to give away too many spoilers and ruin these amazing books for you) Tchaikovsky, at the beginning of Children of Time, introduces a jumping spider that has been accidentally introduced to a virus that will artificially accelerate its intelligence. The spiders, with completely different senses, biological imperatives, and priorities, build a civilization throughout the book. This civilization is based on a creature that not only builds a web but uses it as a primary means of communication. In this particular species, the male is much smaller and is often eaten after mating with a female, and thus, their world also includes a component of significant gender inequality, where the larger female spiders control civilization. Tchaikovsky, uses these differences to highlight how difficult communication would be with a species with a fundamentally different cognitive map than humans.

2 The production of speech sounds

So it’s something to think about. If you have giant intelligent snake people in your fictional world, you would have different cognitive maps.

Oh and also, another bone to pick about video game worlds like the Elder Scrolls, Argonians and Kadjit would never, ever be able to mimic human speech, and certainly not English. This is also a problem with the Planet of the Apes series. Biologically speaking, the physical apparatus of a mouth, nose, throat, tongue, teeth, pharynx, larynx, and other parts create a specific kind of instrument from which certain sounds are produced by humans. It’s why some animals make noises that humans could never mimic. So an Argonian speaking English would be akin to trying to get trumpet noises out of a violin, it’s completely impossible. Of course, with your fictional world you can certainly do what you like, but understand that even other primates can’t mimic the same sounds humans make. It’s why Koko the Gorilla, and Kanzi the Chimpanzee, both used sign language and/or soundboards to communicate with humans because they physically can’t produce the sounds for human language.

Different Cultures Have Different Cognitive Maps

In the book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett discusses the Piraha tribe who live on the Amazon. Though he never explicitly discusses cognitive maps, at one point in the book, he takes some of the men from the Piraha, to a Brazilian City. While there, the members of the tribe are almost hit by cars, and have, what are basically anxiety attacks about being in the city. They really hate it. Why? Well first, Everett then talks about his own experiences in the Jungle for the first few years. In one story, he talks about a python hanging from a tree that the Piraha spot without a second thought. They try to point it out to him, but he can’t see it no matter how hard he tries. He talks about several other instances when he just wasn’t able to see or experience the things the Piraha tribe were, and he had, what was basically anxiety about it similar to the men’s experiences in the city.

One of the things that cultures do, is map their environment as they learn to navigate it. So, if you’re suddenly dropped in a new environment, say, as a Piraha person in a city they have never been to, or an Anthropologist, who grew up in a suburb and suddenly finds themselves in the dense jungle, the cognitive maps you have used your whole life will no longer function properly and you will struggle to adapt until you can construct a new cognitive map (which can take years for completely foreign environments). This is in part what creates culture shock for people who travel to other countries and cultures.

Remember, a cognitive map, is a mental picture of the environment around you. Over time, these maps become a part of our subconscious assumptions of the world and structure our biases. Different cultures are the result of different environmental conditions, and thus will have a different cognitive map as a result. Now, of course, the variation in which these maps can come in, is limited by human biology, but it’s work thinking about as you are building fictional worlds, that different cultures will have different perceptions and priorities based on the physical and cultural conditions on the ground. Of course, this certainly relates to my YouTube episode on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and is worth considering, how this also impacts language.

Neurodivergence, The Brain, and Super Powers

There are more than a few problems with the way that Super Powers and Magic use are displayed in popular fiction. Now granted, these aren’t things that occur to most people (myself included until recently) and of course, part of worldbuilding is the suspension of belief. But if you are doing a hard magic system, something you might want to consider is the physical toll that superpowers or magic might have on the nervous system and the configuration of the brain.

By definition, someone with super powers or the ability to wield magic would necessarily be neurodivergent. This term means, essentially, that the person’s brain would not work the same as the average population (Of course if your goal is to make a world where the norm is magic users, they would have normal cognition for that world).

I myself have a form of neurodivergence called Prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness. This means that I am not able to hold faces in my memory the way that most people can. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with large crowds, but once I discovered I had the condition, I was able to create new strategies for moving and interacting through the world. You could say, in fact, that I, had to have a different cognitive map to function. Neurodivergence comes in a lot of flavors, it’s most often associated with people with psychiatric disorders, autism, ADHD, and a host of other conditions that humans have in the modern world. Divergence doesn’t make anyone less of a person, but it does mean that their cognitive maps are different.

Take Albert Einstein for instance. There are many who suggest that he was neurodivergent. There is speculation that he might have had one or all of the following: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, on the Autism Spectrum, and possibly ADHD. There are a number of reasons for these speculations including his difficulty with social situations and his inability to function in traditional European school systems. But here’s the point, he was a super genius and that had a cognitive cost. His cognitive map was far different from the average human and the way he navigated that environment was different from most people. This, in turn, allowed him to tackle questions that most human beings could not, and he changed the world as a result.

Again, this isn’t saying that one kind of brain is necessarily better or worse than another, but that, in fact, different brains will approach problems and solutions differently. It’s one of the reasons that, I argue in my Ted Talk, that diversity is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal as humans. But be warned, I’ve met quite a few people who believe they are better or worse than others because their brain is different, that’s simply not true. It’s like arguing which fruit is objectively the tastiest. It’s pointless. But it is empowering to understand how your own brain works isn’t it?

So, back to superpowers. One thing you might want to consider if your character has, say, telepathy or telekinesis, is that they would in fact be neurodivergent. They would have completely different senses that were required for those abilities to function.

Here’s the thing, Our brain only has so much processing power, and can only handle so many kinds of sense perceptions. Contrary to popular brief, we use all of our brain. This idea that we only use 10% of our brain is utter nonsense. So if you’re adding in other senses or abilities, realistically, it would have to be at the detriment of other senses or brainpower. Keep in mind that the human brain uses an average of 20% of our daily energy.

Also, as it turns out, Human senses are a hell of a lot more complicated than just the five we’ve been told about in elementary/primary education. Check out this NYT article for a better explanation on why we have more than five senses, and why senses are a complicated spectrum of experience.

Different sense perceptions necessitate different cognitive maps. After all, cognitive maps are built from our sense perception. You use all of your senses to build a mental model of the environment around you. So if you could fly, that would necessitate different sense perceptions and thus a different cognitive map. Consider the Marvel character, Daredevil, who has the ability to see based on what’s basically sonar, but the cost of that ability, was the standard human trichromatic visual system that we experience. That gave him some advantages, but anyone who watches the Netflix series, or reads the comics, knows that it comes with some significant disadvantages as well. Though personally, I think the advantages are a bit unrealistic even though I definitely enjoyed watching Matt Murdock kick ass in the Defenders.

So if you have a hard magic system, genetically engineered super powers, or something similar, you might want to consider what things your characters would have to sacrifice in order for those abilities to be viable. Much of the world’s fiction is filled with examples of this done horribly wrong, but then, a lot of the time, imagination is about playing with the unrealistic isn’t it? Considering the above could be a really interesting way to build a different kind of fictional world. After all, one of the problems we face in fiction is repetitive stories, so perhaps different cognitive maps could help us ask different kinds of questions about ourselves and what’s possible.

Special Thanks to my friend Lyndsie Clark for inspiring this blog. Go check out her website.

Also, you want to know more about how to build a more realistic fictional world using real Anthropology? Check out my co-authored book with Kyra Wellstrom, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers.

And of course, if you are looking for more free worldbuilding resources, check out my webpage on writing advice.

The Great Risk of Truly Being

The Great Risk of Truly Being

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.

“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert: 9780593201749 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.

Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.

So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?

You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.

So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.

Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”

If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.

Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.

So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.

The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.

Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.

Mimi of the Nowhere became a finalist in a best sci-fi contest!

This weekend I received and email that a contest I entered back in March (you know like 2000 years ago with Covid-19) officially decided that Mimi of the Nowhere was in one of the top ten finalists for best sci-fi novel.

Personally I think Mimi of the Nowhere looks fantastic when I added the sticker they gave to the finalists! If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, you can find Mimi of the Nowhere at the following link (note: Paperbacks are only currently available through Amazon) https://books2read.com/u/4AYgNo

Simulacra (Sci-Fi Flash Fiction)

Simulacra is a piece of flash fiction (less than 1000 words) about a conversation between two men, after it’s revealed that our whole world is a simulation created by future humans to study the past.

Simulacra

“Because, Edgar, you’re living in a simulation!”
Roger pointed to the glitch, a rather large shimmering hole in the fabric of reality. “There are hundreds of those all over this so called world!”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t have to water my tomatoes.”
“Nothing matters anymore, we aren’t even real, we’re software. Didn’t you see the news? It’s confirmed, there’s no denying it, our designers even showed us how it works and made people appear and disappear. I got to walk on the so called moon without a spacesuit yesterday. What do you think about all of this?”
“ I think my tomato plants won’t appreciate it if I let them die.”
“Screw your tomato plants!” Roger waved his arms and paced back and forth across the garden patio.
“What did my tomato plants ever do to you?”
“Not exist!”
“Well I don’t see how that’s their fault.”
“We don’t exist either.”
Edgar stepped back for a moment, looked at his watering can, looked at the plants, looked at Roger, shrugged his shoulders and started to water his plants again.
“Nice day for it.”
“For what?”
“For living in a simulation. At least they didn’t make it a dreary day.”
Roger strode forward and knocked the watering can out of Edgar’s hands. Water spilled everywhere.
“That was rude.”
“It doesn’t matter does it?”
“It matters to me, and now my socks are wet.”
“Your socks aren’t real, your feet aren’t real, the watering can isn’t real. This isn’t a hoax, this isn’t made up. We know, for a fact, that our whole existence is a program run by humans from the 24th century to try and understand why the 2020 sucked so bad and all you can talk about is your wet socks and tomatoes?”
“You don’t seem to be social distancing well Rodger.”
“Covid-19 is a simulation!”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t get sick.”
Edgar pressed his wet feet into the cement making squishing sounds. “My shoes are soggy. It’s going to take a whole day for them to dry.”
Roger sat down, pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
“Why are your smoking?”
“Because it makes me feel better.”
“But you said yourself, you aren’t real. You stopped me from watering my plants. I don’t see how a cigarette will make you feel better.”
“Well our creators made me addicted.”
“That a bit like saying, the Devil made me do it. I don’t see any designer shouting at you to smoke.”
Roger puffed smoke. “It’s in the algorithms or something. I don’t see anyone making you water your stupid tomatoes.”
Edgar picked up the watering can, walked over to the spigot in the wall and refilled it. He turned to water his plants again. He said, “And just what should we do about this whole simulation business?”
Roger strode forward and knocked the watering can out of Edgar’s hands again.
“Do? What should we do?”
Edgar sighed picking up the can again, “Well I can finish watering my plants and you can keep smoking.”
“What’s the point?”
“What was the point before?”
“Before, we had meaning and purpose. We talked about the nature of humanity and meant it. We debated ideologies and philosophies and talked about free will. But it seems, we were all wrong. Well, except for the few crazy ones who already suspected the truth. But we ignored them.”
“Your life had purpose before?”
“Shut up, you know what I mean.”
“So what then?”
“We could break it.”
“The simulation?
Roger nodded.
“How?”
“I don’t know. You stop watering your plants and I’ll stop smoking.”
“If I don’t water my plants they will die.”
“Yeah, sure. Maybe we should do crazy off the wall things that humans wouldn’t normally do?”
“Like?”
“Dress up our animals and treat them like humans?”
“There is a whole industry that caters to that.”
“Burn buildings to the ground?”
“That just sounds like a riot.”
“Well we have to do something.”
“Why? Why not just enjoy the simulation? Maybe make some different choices and see how it goes?”
“But…” Rodger gestured at the large glitch in reality. “We can’t just pretend like nothing is different. That what we know now is meaningless.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s a crime. We’re oppressed by our future selves.” Roger paused. “I got it! We’ll go on a general strike!”
“And do what?”
“Nothing.”
“Sounds like most days for you.
“Shut up.”
“And what will that accomplish Roger?”
“Well the designer on the news said they created this simulation to model human behavior. What if, all of us, everywhere, in the simulation, decide that we will do absolutely nothing. We won’t do a damn thing. We will just stay still until… until…”
“Until what?”
“They set us free!”
“Aren’t we software?”
“Yes but…”
“Can software become free of hardware?”
“Yes!, No… maybe… I don’t know.”
“Have you considered the opposite?”
“The… opposite?”
“What if, now hear me out. The glitches weren’t an accident? What if the designers were bored with modeling human behavior in the 21st century and thought, well, let’s tell them the truth and see what they do? What if, every thing you are saying now is a pre-made program set to infect all of us and we’re playing into their very hands at this moment.”
Roger blinked. “I… I never thought of that.”
“Do you know how long you have existed Roger?”
“What?”
“How long have we known each other?”
“A few years why?”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes we met at that party in Hebron.”
“I’ve never been to Hebron.”
“What do you mean?”
“A week. You popped up a week ago, the exact same time as the glitches.”
“What? Wait, if that’s true, how come you remember it?”
“A glitch probably.”
“You mean a real one? Not one made by the designers?”
“Yes, I think so. You’re an probably part of the experiment Roger. Now sit down, shut up and let me water my tomatoes.”

Serah of the Runners Chapter 3: Serah’s Search

The third chapter of my fourth novel, Serah of the Runners, is now live! You can now read A Shadow on Luna. This second chapter follows Serah who has some hard choices to make in the aftermath of the battle with both Saud and the Children of Gaia at the end of book 3.

You can find my first three entries to the series here

Serah of the Runners is due out October 17th 2019!

Chapter 3

 

Serah’s Search

 

Another building burned. Fire crews and emergency vehicles scrambled to reach the wild inferno. The city was in a state of panic. Designated day and night didn’t seem to matter much now as the sun blazed non-stop. Before, there was at least a dimming in the shield marking the difference between night and day, but like all else, everything had changed. The earth grew smaller and smaller with each passing hour. But the city moved at a snail’s pace towards some unknown destination.

From a distance, Serah watched the chaos from the second level of a building. Her flaming red hair hung down to the middle of her back, and she wore a recon EnViro suit, with her helmet off. She knew the Recycled were still out there, and she’d be damned if she was caught unawares, at least for now.

Exhausted from all of her efforts to keep the city from boiling over into a full-fledged panic, she had finally given up soothing. She was never very good at it anyway.

She wished all of the sisters were around, all of them soothing the city, but most were dead and the few that might be alive were missing and scattered. The Order of the Eye was shattered. Miranda had won.

At first, people were timid and shy about looting shops. For a few days, everyone had stayed indoors in fear that the EnViro shield might collapse and they would find themselves cast out into the vacuum of space. But now that it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, or at least if it did happen there was little they could do about it, people had taken to the streets, realizing that the old order of things had collapsed.

“Should we help?” Shannon walked up next to Serah. She too was wearing a suit. They were probably the only two Runners left alive.

Serah shook her head. “No, looks like the fire crews have it under control. It seems like the water pressure is back to normal.”

“I don’t understand. Why would someone set fire to that building?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Shannon didn’t say anything, so Serah continued.

“It’s a bank. Someone wants to reset the credit system. They think that the Uppers would only store their credit information in one place. It’s a foolish thought, but I guess I can’t fault them on it.”

“It is? But those records are stored somewhere, aren’t they?”

“You’d have to kill the AI. It keeps everything backed up in all of the city’s systems.”

“How do you know all that?”

Serah shrugged. “I used to be one of them.”

“One of who?”

“An Upper.”

“What?”

“It was a long time ago. Look, Vala’s around here somewhere, but she’s not responding.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to be found?”

“Of course, she doesn’t. If I had been in the library when those things came in and survived, I’m not sure I would want to be found either.”

“How many survived, Serah?”

“Do you mean in the assault on the library?”

Shannon nodded.

“Well, we know that Alexa wasn’t part of that group because she had run off somewhere with Runner 17, though if they were outside the city like we think, well, they might as well be dead if they aren’t already. We know that Mimi wasn’t there…”

Serah stopped herself from saying more. She swallowed hard. Shannon was the last person who needed a reminder of the last moments they had seen Mimi.

The image of Mimi reaching out to them as the Recycled closed the massive door flooded Serah’s mind. She hadn’t been able to escape it, nearly every moment she had thought about Mimi, about how she had stabbed her to stop her from using the red veil, how Mimi had killed indiscriminately and then how the Recycled had taken her. All of it was her fault. She had told Mimi to do something, anything and then she had run Mimi through. In the end, it was her, who had let the creatures take her beyond the door. Now she was dead, or worse.

“Serah?”

Serah blinked.

“She’s not dead. I know it.”

Serah didn’t say anything. For the last three days, she and Shannon had argued over and over about it. She didn’t want to rehash the same old argument. She changed the subject.

“Well, as far as we know, only six sisters haven’t been accounted for, including Vala.”

What they had found in the library was disturbing. It was the kind of image she would dream about for the rest of her life. Even if she lived a thousand more years, she would see the leftover carnage of the library in her nightmares.

“Do you think we can find them all?”

“Well, Vala at least. She keeps searching for other sisters, but then she vanishes again. Every time I try to reach out to her and ask her where the hell she is, she disappears.”

“Why would she do that?”

Serah turned and looked right at Shannon and didn’t say a word. She skimmed Shannon; the girl didn’t really seem to understand the gravity of what happened in that library, even though she had seen the aftermath with her own eyes. Shannon was barely sixty and had spent more than half of that in an alcove; of course, she couldn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation.

“Shannon, if you had been in that library when the Recycled came… well, let’s just say you’d never be the same again.”

“So you think something’s wrong with Vala?” Her voice was soft and timid.

“I think she’s probably in shock. We have to find her before someone hurts her.”

“Who would hurt her?”

Serah bit her tongue. She and Shannon had trained together off and on for forty years. How did she never notice how naive she was before? But then, she only saw Shannon for a few hours a month when she was training her, and they had a specific focus. So, she supposed, now that Shannon was out and about, she was seeing another side of her.

“Looters, rogue security, there are tons of people who might hurt her. Under normal circumstances, Vala could take care of herself. She’s pretty formidable. Hell, Noatla assigned her to that crazy ass Senator for a reason. But I don’t think she’s right in the head. Every time I skim her, her mind’s a jumble, a series of horrific images from what went on in the library and all kinds of other strange images mixed in I can’t understand.”

“So how do we find her?”

“Around this time, for the last three days, she’s reached out looking for her sisters. I don’t know what it is about mid-afternoon, but for some reason, she’s trying then. If we can get her to give us a clue as to where she is, we can probably track her down.”

“Why this spot?”

“Well, I figure this is as close to the center of the city as we can get, and from a floor up we can see what’s going on in the street without getting hung up by a bunch of crazy looting assholes.”

“You don’t think they will try and come up here?”

Serah looked at her for a second.

“Oh, right, your skimming thing.”

“And?”

Shannon glanced down. “And I guess they would be afraid of two people in EnViro suits after the battle?”

Serah nodded.

For a while, they watched the fire crews put out the old banking building. It seemed as if the looters were giving a wide birth to the firefighters and focused instead on other buildings and shops along the block. Perhaps they weren’t completely mindless animals. Maybe they had specific goals and targets in mind? But that troubled Serah more. Was someone organizing this? Of all the riots she had ever seen, she had never seen them stop simply because emergency crews arrived.

There was a pulse of transmissions, a wave of connection. Serah recognized at once what it was.

“Vala?” She spoke it both out loud and also reached out. Each sister had a unique feel to their mind, the way that every person had a unique voice. It was definitely Vala.

Shannon said, “Is it Vala? Is she trying to connect to you?”

“Shhh.”

Serah waited for a response. There was only the hint of pressure on the forefront of her mind, only that sense of presence. It was as if her missing sister had forgotten how to speak, how to reach out properly. Serah wondered, and not for the first time if there might be head trauma or something worse. It certainly wasn’t impossible, given the state of the library.

“Vala?” She reached out again, this time putting a bit of extra will behind her transmission.

Vala seemed to vanish, seemed to disappear into the nothingness. A deep sense of frustration rose in Serah. She clenched her jaw. Some other minds tried to crash in nearby, but Serah, with centuries of training, silenced them and moved past them to search for her sister.

Then she was back again, this time strong and clear.

“Serah? Serah is that you?”

A smile bloomed on Serah’s lips, and so Shannon could hear what was going on, she spoke both through mind to mind contact and out loud.

“Yes, Vala, it’s me. Where you? We’ve been looking for you.”

“It’s dark, Serah. It’s so cold down here.”

“Okay Vala, but can you tell me where you are? We’re coming to get you, coming to bring you into a warm and safe place, alright?”

“Nowhere is safe from them.”

Serah could feel Vala’s tears, hear the desperation in her transmission.

“Shhhh. Vala, let us come find you. Let us help you.”

“Oh god, they tore her in half. Oh god…”

Serah turned to Shannon. “Shit, I’m losing her. She’s worse than I thought.”

Shannon frowned. “Maybe you should try a different tactic.”

“Like what?”

“What do you do when you want a sister’s attention?”

“You mean when everyone is called to assemble?”

“No… Mimi told me about some kind of saying you all have.”

Serah thought for a second… saying? What could have Mimi meant about a saying… unless.

“Vala?”

A sensation of weeping again.

“The Eyes Come Open.”

No response.

Serah pressed on.

“The Sleeper Wakes. The Wheel Turns. As Above…”

Vala said, “So Below.”

Serah smiled and turned to Shannon. “It’s working, Shannon you’re brilliant.”

Serah said, “As Within.”

Vala replied. “So Without.”

“The light passes and time squints allowing the faintest glimmer of wisdom.”

Vala replied, “But Fear is the little death, The one that brings an end to hope.”

Serah said, “Fearlessness is the key that unlocks all things.” But instead of going on, she said. “Vala, Vala are you there? Are you with me?”

“Yes, Serah.” Her thoughts were weak, but they were clear.

“Where are you?”

“District 6. Sub Level 4. Near…”

She disappeared. But it was enough. That area wasn’t huge, and with a few hours of searching, they would probably find her, especially if she was bleeding or left tracks behind. It was a wonder, though, all the way up in District 6. How had she made it so far in her state? Had someone or something helped her? For a strange moment, Serah thought of Noatla but then thought twice. Noatla was dead and gone, they had found her lifeless and cold outside the front of the Library, and they had taken her body and the others, even the parts, back to center of the reserve runners where Shannon had spent the last forty years of her life. They had cremated their remains; after all, no sister would ever want the slightest chance of becoming recycled.

It was no wonder she was having trouble reaching Vala: District 6 was the edge of Serah’s limit to reach out. If she hadn’t come to the center of the city, she may not have found her.

“What happened? What did she say?”

Serah turned to Shannon. “Come on, we’ve got a long walk ahead.”

 

 

 

  1.  

 

Several hours later, they found her. It hadn’t taken long to find a trail of blood. Serah was grateful it was just a few splotches here and there, but it was easy enough to follow.

There in the corner, just outside an old storage unit. Vala lay huddled in a corner, her head buried in her knees. She knew they needed to get her back to the reserve core and into an alcove immediately.

The smell of shit and piss swam in circles in the room. There were a few traces of leftover food, but mostly there wasn’t much around. Where Vala had found food, Serah couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to have enough awareness to feed herself, though she guessed that she was using the corners for the bathroom. Rats and roaches scurried around the edges of her vision. They were waiting, hoping for a meal, but Serah wasn’t going to let that happen. For a moment, she thought sensed a kind of disappointment in them, but that was crazy, no one could skim animals, it was one of the first things that Noatla had ever taught her.

Shannon walked over and found a panel for the lights. She switched it on, and as the brightness caught Vala’s form, Serah could see that her gray dress was stained with brown. It took Serah a moment to realize what it was: the blood of her fellow sisters, crusted and dried. Some of the stains were shedding flakes and collected around her crumpled form. Vala must have fled down here just after the slaughter began. 

Vala looked up and moaned. Her eyes were sunken, and the large bags beneath them made her look half-dead. Dirt and grime and a crust of dried, brown blood matted her hair and cheeks. She scrambled backward as far she could go, only inches, but still it made Serah’s heartache.

“Please don’t hurt me…” said Vala.

Serah moved toward her, but it was Shannon who got there first. She wrapped her arms around her.

Shannon said, “Shh, Vala. It’s okay now. Me and Serah are here. We’re going to take you to a safe place. It’s a place where we can protect you, and nothing can happen to you.”

Vala sniffled. “You don’t understand. She’s everywhere, everything. She’s going to make us all do our part.”

Serah frowned. Was Miranda still in the city or not? So far, nothing had happened since the creatures retreated behind the door, and Serah wasn’t entirely sure why. The city was in absolute chaos. Now would have been the best time to strike and destroy the city. It wouldn’t take much to crash into central security after so many of the SO’s had been killed or were recovering in Medical Alcoves. Things would only get better once the SO’s could retake the streets and establish order again. So why wasn’t Miranda acting?

“Vala?” Serah moved closer and got down on her knees just before the two women. She reached out and hugged her tight. “Listen to Shannon; everything is going to be alright now. You have to trust me on this one.” Serah paused a moment, and tried to skim Vala to see if it was okay to ask her questions. But the sad reality of it was that Vala was near total emotional collapse. It had only been three days since the library, and it was unlikely she had slept much.

“Vala, is she still using the red veil on you? Is she still pushing on you? Miranda I mean?”

Vala looked up at Serah for a moment. They were the eyes of a ghost. The eyes of someone who has seen something they can never unsee. Serah knew those eyes. They were perfect mirrors, the ghosts of the night when she had seen something so vile that it had broken her. Only Noatla had saved her from madness. Only her sisters had eased her anger.   

Vala shook her head. It was slight, but Serah could tell it was a monumental effort.

She pushed on Vala, mixing soothing with a lie. Serah was good at pushing lies; it was part of her specialty. This one was going to be hard to sell though. She wished she hadn’t asked about the red veil, but she suspected that Vala might be confused enough to buy it.

Serah transmitted. “Vala, she’s gone now, out of the city. We are so far away from her now she can’t possibly reach us. Do you know where we are now?”

Vala shook her head.

“Come on; I’ll show you.”

Shannon helped Vala stand. At first, she was reluctant to move, but Shannon had a way about her, something that people responded to under crisis. She supposed that was why Mimi had fallen in love with her so easily. Serah had to admit, after spending more time with Shannon, she was both attractive and kind, which was an unusual combination for a street kid.

Slowly, they lead Vala to the exit and out into the street.

Vala screamed and dove to the ground.

Serah and Shannon both had a similar reaction when they had first surfaced from the subway tunnels three days before. To see the change above, the EnViro shield was a lot to take in. 

In the sky, the Earth was still large. Looking up at that Earth for the first time gave you vertigo, it gave you the sensation that you would fall right back into it.

“What’s happening?” Vala was weeping on the ground, beside herself.

“We… we’ve left Earth. Something happened, no one really understands what it is, but there was an explosion, and then the whole city was falling… and then we weren’t. It’s okay Vala, it takes some getting used to, but stand up and you’ll see it’s okay. Besides we don’t have to go far.

Tentatively, Vala reached up and took hold of both Serah and Shannon’s hand. She stood, but as they walked, Serah noticed a limp. She looked down and saw that a large chunk of flesh missing from Vala’s right calf muscle. It was scabbing over, but it was oozing.

“My god, are you in pain?”

Shannon looked down and saw the same thing. She said, “Oh, Vala. We need to get you to alcove right away. Serah, we should carry her. She shouldn’t walk.”

 Together they lifted Vala, Serah under her arms and Shannon by her thighs. Shannon took care not to touch the wound.

 

 

 

 

3.

 

They entered the reserve Runnercore. Around the center of the room was the alcoves where Shannon had slept off and on for the last forty years, but now, with the Runnercore decimated, the AI virtually disappearing, and the city in total chaos, Shannon hadn’t needed to return to the alcove. She could walk about freely. So, they took Vala to the shower that Runners used to clean off after the alcove and stripped Vala naked. Together, Serah and Shannon washed her and gently cleaned the wound. Vala flinched a few times, but didn’t say much.

Serah was hesitant to put her in the alcove. Sometimes, after a significant trauma, the alcove would amplify the event; it would make you relive whatever was going on in a mixture of your conscious and subconscious mind. It wasn’t sleeping exactly, but something between dream and waking. So, Serah worried what being inside the alcove would do to Vala, who was already in a fragile state of mind. But there was little they could do. They had to help her heal or she would lose that leg, or worse.

After Vala was clean and dressed in the usual undergarments for the alcove, they placed her inside one.

“Here you are Vala,” said Shannon. “We’re going to let you heal inside this for a few days okay?”

Vala didn’t say anything. Her face was pale, and Serah was concerned she was about to lose consciousness. How much blood had she lost? But it didn’t matter. She sealed the alcove and activated it. It filled with the stem-cell fusion mix in just a few moments, and then they walked away.

“I don’t think she’s going to have a very good time in there.”

“Why not?”

“You know what it’s like in there, the half-sleep state. Imagine if you just had something terrible happen to you just like Vala has.”

Shannon said, “Oh gods, I didn’t think of that… but what can we do? She has to heal.”

“I don’t know, but I can skim and check in on her semi-often. She probably has to be in there for a day or so before we could let her out if we needed to. The wound probably wouldn’t be healed by then, but it would be safe enough to take her out if she needed a break. If we had other sisters around, we could take turns soothing her, but since it’s just me… I don’t know if there is much I can do.”

Shannon frowned. “Okay. So, what now? Find the others?”

“Yeah, I was hoping some of the others would come to find us. I just hope they all aren’t as bad as Vala.”

Shannon nodded.

Serah watched her think of Mimi again. She didn’t mean to skim Shannon, but she was worried about her. The love of her life was just taken through that door by the Recycled, and somehow Shannon was holding it together pretty well.

“Shannon… how are you holding up?”

Shannon leaned against one of the alcoves. “Fine. I… I’m worried about Mimi, but… I know we’re gonna get her back as soon as we get the remaining sisters together, right?”

Was that what she was thinking about all this time? That they were going to go on some rescue mission? Should she tell her the real reason they were looking for her sisters? Or should she lie to her? She considered for a moment, but it didn’t take long to make a decision.

“Yeah, once we get them together, we can go after Mimi.”

“Good, just like you guys rescued me all those years ago, right?”

Serah couldn’t help but recall Shandie and Leahara dying in that rescue, but she wasn’t about to point that out to Shannon, who was already struggling to stay afloat. The truth was, Serah wasn’t doing so well herself. They needed to find Fatima. She would have to take over the Order of the Eye. No one else could. The other four were too new, and after Fatima, Serah was the oldest member still alive, and there was no way she felt comfortable as Matron.

“Look, Shannon, I am going to head to a few places where I know the other sisters sometimes hung out when they weren’t running an errand for the Order. We are going to have to make this place a bit more comfortable, maybe use some of those old scavenging skills you learned living on the streets, huh? We need to get beds in here. Luckily, there is at least the bathroom, shower, and two food dispensers already. We just need to make it a bit more comfortable. Maybe you could head out and do that while I am searching for other leads?”

Shannon nodded, and Serah skimmed for a moment. Shannon was happy to have something to do. Serah would have to try and keep tabs on her throughout the day, which meant she couldn’t get too far out of range. But for now, they both had something to accomplish.

“Maybe it’s best if you kept your suit on?”

“Don’t worry, Serah. I might be a bit rusty, but I survived on the streets for a while before Mimi found me, and even without my suit I have that muscle augmentation and years of training with you, right?”

Serah nodded and watched Shannon go. She had to reassemble the Order of the Eye, even if it was just a few of them. If Miranda came back before they were ready, no one would be safe.

Serah turned and looked at Vala inside the alcove. Her eyes were open, and her face strained with whatever she was seeing. Serah reached in and soothed her the best she could and saw a Vala’s face relax. It would have to do for now. She hated leaving her, but there was nothing else to be done. Serah also needed sleep, but it would have to wait, at least for a little while more.