Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, Is Now Live on Amazon!

I am so incredibly happy to announce that as of this morning, our new book, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers is now available for purchase on Amazon. Next week the first paperback copies will also come available.

This book is a product of a solid year of work with my amazing co-author Kyra Wellstrom. While my specialty is cultural anthropology, hers is biological anthropology giving the book a well rounded approach from both directions of the field. In many ways this book is an introduction to anthropology that you might take in a college course, but with a twist, it contains tips and ideas for building fictional world and lots of references to other pieces of fiction. We created this book to be a tool kit for creatives so that they can seriously consider real world cultural systems as they construct the world of their imagination.

In many ways this book was inspired by my several posts on Worldbuilding. This book is a much more expansive treatise on elements of real world and cultures. I hope those of you out there looking for a deep dive into cultures to improve your own work find this volume useful. Best of luck on all your projects!

Buy Build Better Worlds Here!!!

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

Build Better Worlds Cover Reveal!!!

Last week I posted a sample chapter from Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. The book is due out this fall and will cover a host of issues in worldbuilding from the perspective of Cultural Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology and Archaeology. By using the science to compare real life cultures and what core elements exist in them, the book talks about how better to create authentic fictional cultures.

Without further ado, here is the cover for the ebook version of Build Better Worlds. More info and the official release date coming soon!

Worldbuilding Part 5: Monsters, Aliens, and Evil Androids an Exploration of Fear and Anxiety

Fantasy, Spirit, Nightmare, Dream, Dreams, Haunt, Alien

Recently I have been wrapping up a book project with a fellow Anthropologist by the name of Kyra Wellstrom. The book is called, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. You can find it at that link. The purpose of the book is to use real anthropology to help people create better worlds and more authentic characters based on the actual science and data on culture. What follows here is one of the final chapters of the book (which is now in Beta Testing) and will be out this fall.

You can find the other blogs on worldbuilding here

Chapter 21

Monsters, Aliens, and Evil Androids an Exploration of Fear and Anxiety

What is a monster?

It has been stated by numerous philosophers and ethnographers that monsters are simply the embodiment of cultural fears; our anxieties made flesh and blood. We see these reflections and patterns across cultures and over again and for good reason. The monsters a culture believes in often shed light on the things they fear most, and monsters that emigrate to new cultures often change their form in their new surroundings. Monsters represent a fascinating blend of the familiar and the foreign; easily recognized but alien enough to terrify. Many monsters possess elements of humanity and exemplify the very worst elements of culture as a form of hyperbole. Their faces are what changes most easily. It is the bones, the marrow of the spirit of what a monster is, and the fears that they embody, that reflect the heart of what it means to be human.

Like our anxieties about death, monsters often follow patterns that reflect our collective fears as a species. Just like we see in every horror movie, monsters attack in lonely places, in the dark, and in our sleep. They reflect the anxieties we have about our natural environment and they come from the water or caves or the night sky. Demons and spirits come for us when we are weakened by illness, childbirth, or impending death. They target the isolated, the frail, and the young. They can often appear human to gain our trust, only to reveal their true forms when it’s too late to escape them. They can lure or entrap us through promises of food, or comfort, or money; playing upon our moral weakness and greed.

Think of how often a monster’s teeth are discussed. Monsters often feed off humans, either in a spiritual or a literal sense. Vampires suck blood, zombies eat brains, dragons and sea monsters devour virgins. Even in modern monster movies, monsters nearly always eat defenseless humans. Giant animals like sharks or snakes, aliens that feed us to their young, or giant kaiju that eat us like popcorn. They are discussed with terms like “fangs”, “razor-sharp teeth”, “drooling”, “sucking”, and “crunching”. Hell, even killer clowns from outer space cocoon us for later consumption.

When you consider our species, these fears appear logical. Imagine early humans, alone on the African plains, surrounded by frightening animals that lurked around every corner. These monsters were very much real, but this did nothing to lessen their terrors. We were small, between three and four feet tall, we had terrible night vision and no claws or fangs to help defend us. We were prey to birds and leopards that could drop from above. Snakes grabbed us from holes in the ground and lashed out with sharp poisonous fangs. Lions and hyenas slunk through the darkness just beyond the edge of vision, shadows out of the corner of our eyes, and crocodiles and hippos lurked in rivers and lakes making people disappear beneath the surface. Our only protection from the creatures that wanted to consume us lay in the light of day and our campfires, in our culture and its defenses, and in each other. The darkness, the water, and isolation became a natural reservoir for our terror.

Modern monsters

Most of the world now lives apart from these real monsters. The megafauna that hunted us like any other prey are gone and the remaining large predators are dwindling in number and range. The vast majority of humanity has nothing to fear from large beasts. However, our fears remain. A tremendous number of monsters are described as being “prehistoric” or pre large scale human civilization.. We find these descriptions from as far back as we have writing. Many monsters that haunt religions are described as being from the time before their deities created peace and order in the world or before the world was civilized. Writers of weird fiction and cosmic horror like H.P. Lovecraft write of “antediluvian terrors” and “prehistoric nightmares”. It’s as though we as a species have some lingering genetic terror of the time when we were small and vulnerable. Coupled with our gifts as a species to spin tales and exaggerate for the purpose of entertainment, many of these creatures became larger than life when they filled our nightmares.

Many monsters also reflect the fears we still face in the modern world, despite our cultural advances in the last 3 million years. We can still all too easily be carried off by disease or poison, by other people, or, worst of all, by unknown causes. These very real and very human fears are interpreted through a cultural lens. Numerous cultures speak of spirits that will steal a woman’s life away during childbirth if attracted by her cries. This is particularly common in foraging cultures where the margins for survival are slim and medical care is an at-home affair. Cultures with a focus on purity (Catholicism and Malaysia are good examples of this) have demons that possess the body and cause their vessel to break the laws of the society, causing bouts of violence, sin, and general bad behavior. Industrialized nations tend to have human monsters, serial killers, zombies, or criminals, that reflect the unease we feel when surrounded by strangers, as well as anxiety about dark crowded spaces.

To die, to sleep…

Sleep is one of the reservoirs of fear for humans. Sleep makes us vulnerable as we lay unawares in darkness for hours on end. Sleep also exposes us to the world of dreams, which are as likely to be horrifying as they are to be pleasant. Many cultures have tales of beings that can drain the life from a person while they sleep, often while the person is awake but trapped in a horrifying state of sleep paralysis. People’s sleep paralysis nightmares almost always follow patterns; in the US, sleep paralysis monsters have passed through different phases. In the 1990s, when the cultural zeitgeist had become fascinated with aliens, sufferers often reported little gray men with giant eyes performing tests on them. In the early 2000s, when there was a spate of demon-child films, people began to report nightmarish children crawling on to their beds as they slept. Suffers from southeast Asia tell stories of a horrible old hag with white skin who sits on their chest and slowly chokes the life out of the sleeping person while they lie awake and unable to move or cry out.

This monster, the dab tsog in the Hmong language, became widely known in the 1970s and 80s when there was a rash of deaths attributed to it in the United States and Thailand. More than 100 Hmong refugees in the U.S., almost exclusively men in their 30s, died in their sleep from unknown causes. Some men reported nightmares about the dab tsog at the time. Men became terrified of sleep and would try desperately to stay awake. The story so intrigued director Wes Craven that he went on to write A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Instead of the white-skinned hag, however, Craven changed the face of the monster to that of a disfigured homeless man who had chased him as a child and changed him from an evil spirit to the ghost of a murderer.

Stories of night hags may be so common in southeast Asia because of a very real genetic condition. Brugada syndrome causes electrical abnormalities in the heart that can lead to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS)[1]. This syndrome is found most commonly in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos and Thailand, and predominantly affects men, with most deaths occurring between 30 and 40 years of age. A monster that kills men in their sleep is a much more palatable explanation, especially before the era of electrocardiograms, and no explanation at all. A night hag may be terrifying, but not nearly so terrifying as the unknown.

Sometimes monsters are used to explain myriad, nebulous fears; things we could hardly put into words. The wendigo is a perfect example of this. Territorially, the wendigo is one of the most widespread monsters in the world; it’s spoken of in the mythology of a collective of First Nations groups all across subarctic Canada, stretching from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and down into the northern United States[2]. While there are slight variations in the story between the various groups, the stories all agree on the main features of the monster. The wendigo is a fascinating monster because it is a curious mix of a physical creature, a possessing spirit, and a culture bound syndrome (see chapter 10). The physical body of the wendigo is towering and lanky, with enormous clawed hind feet and paw-like hands. Its breath starts off howling, icy winds that blow with such force that they can blow down trees and even start tornados. Its heart, and sometimes its other organs too, are made of solid ice. Its most distinctive feature is its insatiable desire for human flesh; so strong that it eats off its own lips in its hunger, baring its pointed teeth.

Wendigos were once human. Once the wendigo gets hold of you it changes you into a monster like itself. This is where the wendigo begins to shift its mythological form. I can get hold of you in a number of ways: through dreams, visions, possession, physical force, or even through your own thoughts. If it catches you physically, it does so while you’re out hunting. Those who venture off into the forests in winter and never return are thought to have been taken by the creature. It captures you and transforms you into a monster like itself. If it catches you though your thoughts or dreams, it has worked its way into your head through your hunger and cold. When a person dreams of a wendigo, they begin to have cannibalistic desires towards their own family. Most cultures believe that a person in the early stages of wendigo madness can be stopped and cured, although often the cures are horrifying enough, but if the person actually consumes any part of another human being, they are done for. There’s no hope for a person who has gone wendigo and the only course of action is to kill them for the safety of the group. There are numerous recorded cases of wendigo killings in tribal and legal records throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The diagnosis of “wendigo madness” is found in psychological papers throughout this time as well as a way to explain a temporary psychosis with a focus on cannibalism.

Look at the main features of the wendigo story: a monster of cold that lives in the wild spaces and feeds off hunger. It drives people to cannibalize their family and turns them into cold-hearted monsters. It will ultimately separate you forever from the people and civilization you love and strip you of your humanity, leaving you to wander alone in the freezing wilderness. These fears are easy enough to imagine in subarctic Canada, where temperatures that go well below freezing and isolation caused by snow and weather can lead to starvation and madness over the long winters. It’s the same set of vague fears that drive Stephen King’s The Shining or John W. Campbell Jr.s Who Goes There?. The wendigo is a single, corporeal manifestation of these fears. It groups them all into one grotesque form and gives them shape.

Fears of domination, experimentation, and colonization

In the pantheon of monsters, aliens are relatively new. In some ways, they are just a new face on the same stories people have been telling for millennia. Space, after all, is just a combination of those things we fear. It’s cold, dark, isolated, far older than our little planet, and almost completely unexplored. Aliens are often just monsters from this final frontier rather than our own backyard. Many aliens fit the mold of grotesque, slobbering, man-eaters, or shape-shifting deceivers. Even stories of alien abductions, lost time, and mysterious lights are nearly identical to stories that people have been telling for centuries about fairies, will-o-the-wisps, and the little people of the hills, all of which can lead you away and trap you in another world.

But aliens can embody fears that other monsters cannot. These fears, like all others, are reflections of the time and culture in which people live. Aliens as colonizers, as invaders, and as dispassionate scientists are all reflections of the fears that stalk people in the industrial age. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1895-97) was written after the author and his brother discussed the terrible disaster the Tasmanians suffered after their invasion by the British[3]. Wells was musing about what would happen if someone did to the British what they had done to the Tasmanians. In fact, there were many “invasion” stories written at that time, although Wells was the only one to use aliens as his aggressors. Britons were worried that their military might was waning and the increasing armament of Germany and France stoked anxieties that the British would face the same treatment they had given their colonies.

Throughout the Cold War, science fiction featured alien invaders, either working secretly or in open displays of aggression, trying to take over the Western World. Endless troupes of aliens landing on the White House lawn fill the fiction of the 1950s and 60s. Change “aliens” to “Russians” and you have a nearly exact mirror of what Americans feared happening at the time. Many aliens are often a gestalt consciousness, a shared mind, or can manifest as a kind of extreme conformity and the end of the individual as seen in the famous Star Trek villains, The Borg. We can also look at the protagonists in these films and see the kinds of qualities they embody and how they reflect the morals and values of our society like a modern myth or morality play.

Many science fiction stories from that time also reveal an uneasiness about the level of violence and aggression the world was experiencing. In the 1950s the 20th century was only half over and had already seen two world wars, half a dozen genocides, and the invention of weapons that could unleash destruction on a level we had never dreamt of. Many films in the 1940s and 50’s, perhaps most recognizably exemplified by The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), feature aliens as advanced beings, capable of great destruction but also of nearly miraculous feats of science and medicine, who come to Earth to warn us away from a path of violence. Klaatu, the alien emissary, warns all of Earth’s leaders that  “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” People around the world, after decades of violence, nationalism, and xenophobia, were afraid. They feared that the ever-mounting aggression would eventually lead to a conflict that no nation could win.  

“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen…”

The famous words of HAL 9000, the evil artificial intelligence that coldly murders it’s crew in the sci-fi book and film 2001, demonstrate another one of our fears made manifest, our fear of the dangers of technology.

On August 6th, 1945 the world entered a new age, an atomic age. After the first atomic bomb was used on a population in Hiroshima, our relationship with technology changed forever, and with it, came the rise of a new kind of monster, one of our own making. To be sure, humans have always had anxieties about new technology, and with the industrial revolution came literature about automatons (what we now call robots) and other technological wonders that sometimes turned against their masters. One of the earliest examples of modern science fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, explored the potential and dangers, as well as the deep philosophical questions surrounding electricity. Shelly set off a wave of stories, that even to this day still discuss the idea of our technological creations getting the best of us.

As Anthropologist Willie Lempert explains in his article, Navajo’s on Mars [4] humans have developed countless films, like The Matrix, 2001, and Terminator, to highlight our fear of technology. Even the new Star Trek Series: Picard features a plotline surrounding evil ‘synths’ and questions about the humanity of artificial intelligence and it’s compatibility with organic life. Part of this has to do with our religious worldview, the idea that in most of western European based culture, there is only one kind of intelligence, humans. As we talked about in the religion chapter, other cultures have multiple kinds of intelligence. Further, our fear of AI may stem from the idea that only the Judeo/Christian God has the true power of creation. Ultimately though, fear of AI stems from the fear of what we do, to what we consider to be inferior species.

As we entered the 1980s and 90s, aliens changed slightly. No longer were they brazen colonists landing on our shores, they were shadowy and subversive, often entwined with the murkier branches of government. Aliens and the government branches that studied them would abduct people and experiment on them. They would implant people with tracking devices, create alien/human hybrids, and mutilate cattle in their ruthless quest for data. They were cold, unfeeling scientists that existed outside of human empathy or compassion. The declassification of wartime documents about Nazi scientists, exposure of government experiments like MK-Ultra, and a number of dubious psychological research projects like the Stanford Prison Experiment were increasingly making people uneasy about science and scientists. The perpetrators of the experiments seemed, to regular people, just like the inhuman aliens from another planet. Add this to a growing dissatisfaction with the government nearly everywhere in the world and the X-Files style alien/government conspiracy became not just a popular element in fiction, but also an integral part of the mythology of the time period.

When you are creating memorable monsters or antagonists in your world, it’s important to consider the core values of your fictional culture. Remember the chapter on Imagined Past, Myth and Cultural Purity? The core lessons of that chapter are essential to creating a creature that challenges the core values of your characters, and readers, world view.

Chapter Exercises

Things to consider when creating monstrous beings in your world:

– What are the most significant fears and anxieties of the culture?

  • What are some memorable features of your creature? What keeps people up at night?
  • How does your creature tie into the myth structure of your world? Sense of purity?
  • Is your monster/creature sentient? How are it’s goals similar or different to your main character?
  • What arenas of your culture does the monster most impact?
  • What’s at stake if your protagonist fails to subdue the creature?

Works Cited


[1] Human Molecular Genetics, Volume 11, Issue 3, 1 February 2002, Pages 337–345, https://doi.org/10.1093/hmg/11.3.337

[2] Monsters David Gilmore – University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. – 2009

[3] What The War Of the Worlds Means Now Philip Ball – https://www.newstatesman.com/2018/07/war-of-the-worlds-2018-bbc-hg-wells

[4] Navajo’s On Mars William Lempert https://medium.com/space-anthropology/navajos-on-mars-4c336175d945





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 is Live on Amazon!!!

There was a bit of a glitch with preorders on Amazon… so what does that mean? It means preorder was cancelled now the book is live two days early! You can head over by clicking the image above or this link…
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B085X39V97/

You can also find sample chapters here

From the back of the book:

Manhatsten is in chaos, and the city AI has vanished.

The battle for Langeles is over, and it’s clear nothing will ever be the same. Security forces are scattered, the Runnercore is gone, and many are missing in the aftermath of the battle. In the streets, the Lowers are organizing, and rebellion is spreading. The city is on the verge of tearing itself apart.

It’s up to Serah, to find the few that remain of the Order of the Eye and discover a way to unite the city before Miranda and the Recycled return to finish what they started.

But from afar someone is watching Manhatsten, a force older than the city itself.

Serah of the Runners is now available for Preorder

I am happy to announce that Serah of the Runners (the fourth entry for the Chronicles of the Great Migration) is now available for preorder. You can find it on Amazon here and several other services here.

Book Blurb for Serah of the Runners:

Manhatsten is in chaos, and the city AI has vanished.

The battle for Langeles is over, and it’s clear nothing will ever be the same. Security forces are scattered, the Runnercore is gone, and many are missing in the aftermath of the battle. In the streets, the Lowers are organizing, and rebellion is spreading. The city is on the verge of tearing itself apart.

It’s up to Serah, to find the few that remain of the Order of the Eye and discover a way to unite the city before Miranda and the Recycled return to finish what they started.

But from afar someone is watching Manhatsten, a force older than the city itself.

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.