Chipping away at the wall

I wanted to start this with some clever parallel between the storm raging outside and my want to really dive into a new project, but nope. Not happening.

I’ve officially, with a necessary nudge from my wife’s wisdom, put Joshua Harkin’s Return to Nightmares on the backburner. I’m at this point where the lack of progress has become an overall headache with regards to getting *any* writing done at all. Not helpful.

So I thought it would be neat to maybe revisit a project from before, starting it fresh. I dug up the file, transferred from a previous laptop, only to discover two curious things.

Curious thing one – the last time I had worked on it was exactly two years ago to the day. Curious thing two – I actually really like how the draft started off, so I can’t bring myself to just scrap it and start fresh. However! I now feel less interested in working on it because there is so much groundwork in place.


That all constitutes more progress than I’ve made in the past three months combined (because I’m still getting the hang of being a father to two wee beasties).

I’ll chalk that up as an overall win and try to use it to propel me forward.

Another ‘Ready Player One’ Review

Once upon a time, I had a subscription to Loot Crate. One of the many goodies I got over the course of that time happened to be a copy of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I did what any effective, smart writer would do with a book written in a genre I hope to one day have published books in, which is to say that I put it on a bookshelf and failed to read it. I continued failing to read Ready Player One for a few years, methodically boxing it up and unboxing it over the course of several moves. It’s a little beaten up because of that.

The movie adaptation was approaching, and I had decided I needed to make it a priority to rad the book if I intend to see the movie. The reviews I had seen weren’t exactly favorable, but I’m big on forming my own opinion (which, sometimes thanks to the magic of the internet, I occasionally share).

There may be some spoilers ahead (because this is something of an on-the-spot, post-reading collection of thoughts).

Ready Player One offers readers yet another take on the dystopian future. The fuel shortage and economic collapse have driven many Americans to live in Stacks–towering structures comprised of trailers, RVs, and similar vehicles. Much of the world finds escape in a virtual reality paradise known as OASIS. OASIS is a lifelike simulation and the crowning achievement of James Halliday, who crammed his creation with as many references to 80s pop culture as possible. Wade Watts, the main character and point-of-view for the narrative, is a seventeen-year-old on the verge of graduating from high school. He’s a gunter as well–the term used to describe the many people who are searching to Halliday’s Easter Egg.

Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS, is not the easiest character to cheer on. His goal of discovering Halliday’s Easter Egg is largely motivated by his desire to not let it fall into the hands of the nefarious Innovative Online Industries (which, throughout the novel, proves to be appropriately evil by futuristic super-company standards). He gets along well with his sole avatar friend Aech, a well-known entrant in PvP tournaments who is also on the Hunt. He’s also a fan of the well-known gunter/blogger Art3mis, with his fandom rapidly becoming an unhealthy infatuation over the course of the novel. I’ll get back to that.

The obvious ending occurs in that Wade/Parzival finds Halliday’s Easter Egg, earning him Halliday’s vast fortune and control of the OASIS. Nolan Sorrento and I.O.I. are thwarted. The winnings are shared between Parzival, Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto (another gunter who, over time, became Parzival’s friend).

My chief complaints are as follows, though they are nothing terribly new with regards to the book.

The world-building feels a little sluggish, trudging through the backstory of how the Hunt for Halliday’s Egg began and Wade’s less-than-favorable life with his aunt and her boyfriend. Wade’s narration makes him difficult to sympathize with at time to the point where it’s easy to sympathize with Sorrento for failing to off him. His behavior towards Art3mis, beginning with his obsession brought on by her blog posts and the version of her he builds up in his mind and ending with advances that can kindly be referred to as stalker-like behavior acts as a stomach-souring validation of an all-too-common exchange between self-proclaimed nice guys and women. Wade responds to rejection by only redoubling his efforts, resorting to the tactics pop culture has lead far too many people to believe are romantic gestures instead of, well, just plain creepy. (Seriously, squash that shit, don’t encourage it.) There are times when Wade comes across as the Standard Entitled White Dude, and those are times that made it very easy to take a break from reading.

The toxic nature of gamers and their interactions feels elevated as well, with plenty of profanity-laden exchanges and a strong lean towards what can generously be described as toxic masculinity on parade. Unfortunately, life imitates art (or art imitates life, really) in this particular case, as most gamers I know (and I can speak from personal experience as well) have been on the receiving end of people who take their virtual endeavors a little too seriously.

Wade is also improbably smart. His ability to rattle off a ridiculous volume of 80s trivia is one thing. His plotting to evade I.O.I. by gaining entry into the government’s registry of all citizens to change his identity stretches disbelief, but hey–it’s a dystopian sci-fi future so it could happen. I guess. Then he deliberately tanks his alias’s credit so he becomes indentured by I.O.I. so he can hack into their systems, steal critical data, and then escape all before changing back to his true identity as Wade Watts. As far as being relatable goes, Wade starts off as a mirror image of some of us nerdy kids before equipping a +10 Armor Set of Deus Ex Machina that comes with a +5 armor set bonus of Conveniently Knowing Everything. Because of all of this, it can be easy at times to want Wade to fail.

The near-religious approach to 80s pop culture, especially when presented in long-form word vomit (whether by way of Wade’s narration or another character boasting their knowledge) is a bit much to handle at times, and it’s easy to grow bored during those passages. The appeal of nostalgia is universal, but like anything there is too much of a good thing. No shade of rose-colored glasses is potent enough to take away the unfortunate, near-radioactive glow of a dozen too many nods to the 80s, and at times it seems as though Cline delights in strolling up to the reader, decked out in a Space Invaders t-shirt, and clubbing them over the head with Anorak’s Almanac in all of its remembrance-of-the-good-ol-days glory. Yes, having encyclopedic knowledge of the 80s was essential for anyone who hoped to have even a fraction of a chance at obtaining Halliday’s Easter Egg, but Cline turns it up to eleven so often that I could go the rest of my life without seeing another arcade game and feel perfectly content.

Halliday is nearly impossible to sympathize with or relate to, being such a severe caricature of the stereotypical nerd that it borders onto painful, although that could arguably be because I was once that awkward, gawky, socially inept kid. That’s a cold, hard look at my past I’m not quite willing to take for the sake of a book review, folks.

Much of the story seems to surround the idea that Wade had to win because he is so similar to Halliday, which is all right but ends up leaving some of the other characters feeling like set pieces instead of active players in the scene.

The pros? Overall, the plot was enjoyable. Once the events of the Hunt are in full swing, Ready Player One frequently leaps in intensity. The Sixers and Sorrento are an omni-present threat and the fact they are willing to kill to get to the Egg lends well to wanting them to fail miserably. Wade’s character developments, though they start with baby steps, make for a satisfying ending when he determines that perhaps there’s more to reality than living in a fantasy world. The themes of finding balance between reality and virtual reality, being able to unplug from technology, and the need for real connections beyond the want of artificial ones are universal and lend themselves well to Cline’s story. Aech’s story within the overall novel (one I will not spoil) is one I was particularly happy with because it illuminates a very real set of modern problems.

Overall, I think Ready Player One is easy-reading and provides an enjoyable bit of fictional escapism while still reminding readers to not let themselves give in too much to said escapism. It has plenty of flaws–though, really, who am I to be judging when I have yet to succeed as an author–and enough strong points to make it worth recommending. Once the story gets rolling after Parzival clears the first gate, it’s easy to lose sizable chunks of time reading. The ending may be predictable enough, though its finer details aren’t all as in-your-face, but the journey to get their proves to be enjoyable enough despite Wade’s narration often leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

If it were to ever see a sequel or prequel, my hope would be that Cline builds off of the existing work he has put out and spends less time belaboring the obsessive nature of this iteration of the world. Ultimately, Ready Player One is enough to make readers think about exactly how they are spending their time and just how much living they are really doing (and, I hope, it also acts as a reminder that some behaviors aren’t romantic, just really creepy).

I’m barely curious enough to see the film adaptation, but to those of you who do I hope it’s enjoyable. Despite its flaws (let’s all take a moment to remember the paragraph-long manifesto glorifying masturbation), I did enjoy this book. It’s not the pillar of pop culture its made out to be except in the sense that it is propped up by so many references that Ernest Cline could be accused of traveling back in time and stealing an entire decade worth of stuff. All things considered, Ready Player One is worth a read.

Follow The Ashes: Put on a Happy Face…

“Put on a Happy Face, Part One: No Frowns in This Town”

The door swung open with only a gentle shove, giving way to a long, gunmetal hallway lined with windows. It offered nowhere to hide, which Cas considered both a blessing and a curse. No one could sneak up on her, but she would be spotted easily by anyone near the windows. She looked back to the artificial lake. The shore she had climbed onto was the only land she could see. Sheer metal walls flanked the water, and there were no visible doors.

Cas stepped across the threshold and into the hallway. The door at the opposite end was translucent gray, betraying nothing of what stood beyond it. Cas crouched down and made her way to the first set of windows. Slowly, with calculated speed and caution, she stood up and glanced out the window. The grass was sparse and patchy, islands of dull green amidst a sea of dry, cracked soil. The occasional tree slumped sadly. Their trunks were a uniform gray, giving them more the look of stone than wood.

It was the first slice of nature Cas felt certain wasn’t a trick of technology.

Cas saw no other signs of life outside and decided to continue. She crossed the hallway at a brisk pace, still wary someone could be watching her. The translucent gray door revealed little detail of what was beyond it. There was a row of doors visible on the opposite wall, each one with a light set at the top of its frame.

Smudges of ashes at the door’s edges compelled Cas to press on. She placed a hand against the door’s cold, metal surface and gave a gentle push. It swung inwards slowly, its hinges groaning as rust flaked away. Save for one, the lights above the doors were off. The solitary bulb that was lit shined a soft green.

Without a second thought, Cas crossed the small room and prepared to open another door.

“Stop! What are you doing?” demanded a raspy voice from behind Cas. She spun around, fists raised and wishing she still had the knife she’d taken from Maeve. An old man stood there, an alarmed look in his eyes. He held his hands out as if to show he wasn’t a threat.

“You can’t go out there without protective gear on,” the old man continued. “You got some kind of death-wish, lady? Two breaths of the air out there will leave you deader than a doornail.”

Cas breathe a sigh of relief. “Excuse me,” she said.

The old man shook his head. “Been longer than I can remember since we had a new arrival,” he muttered. He eyed Cas for a moment. His gaze seemed to be free of judgment and apprehension. He turned and shuffled to the wall next to the door Cas had entered. Several lockers lined the wall, each marked with a numeric code. The old man considered each of them before selecting one. He tinkered with its combination lock, then stepped back as the door popped open. A dull gray uniform, much like the one Cas was wearing albeit much dryer, sat folded on a shelf in the locker. A gray spacesuit was held above the clothes by a hanger. It was slightly less plain, bearing a small insignia on its chest that looked like a flame. Bands of red fabric circled the elbow and knee joints, with two parallel rings around the suit’s midsection.

The old man picked up the clothes, shuffled back over to Cas, and handed them to her. He waved to the other side of the boxish room. “Privacy curtain over there,” he said. “You’ll catch your death if you stay in those soaked rags.”

“Thank you,” Cas said. She took the clothes from the old man and stepped behind the privacy curtain.

“I’m sorry,” Cas added. “I don’t believe I asked your name.” She changed out of her soaking clothes and into the ones she had been given, appreciating the warmth they held.

“Not to worry,” the old man said. “I’m a second-generation Epsilon colonist, so I was given a number. Long. Not easy to remember. The youngsters call me Old Grim when they think I’m not listening, so I think that will do just fine.”

“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Old Grim,” Cas said. “I go by Cas.” She stepped out from behind the curtain, pleased to have found the outfit fit her well.

Old Grim had returned to the locker and was shuffling back towards her with the spacesuit. “Cas, hm?” he said. “I knew a nice young lady named Jocasta. You look a little like her. She had some dense curls on her head, though, and I think you’re a little taller.” He considered Cas for a moment before shrugging the thought off.

Cas took the suit and stepped in. As she pulled it on, it seemed far too large for her. It seemed to adjust, however, as Cas zipped the suit up. She paused, glancing towards the doors. “Are you the only one here?” she asked. “Forgive my ignorance.”

Old Grim shrugged. “Best you see for yourself,” he said, frowning. “This used to be a state-of-the-art habitation unit, back when I first got here.” He returned to the lockers, opening another one. He shuffled back to Cas with a helmet in hand.

“This one’s outdated, no doubt,” Old Grim said. He held the helmet out to Cas, and she took it. It fit loosely on her. The visor, she noted, allowed no light through. She could see nothing.

“There’s a small power button situated around where the helmet covers your left ear,” Old Grim said. “Press it.”

Cas placed her hand against the helmet and slowly guider her fingers to the area Old Grim had mentioned. She found a small, round depression, and pressed at it gently. The inside of the helmet flashed to life, full of brilliant color. A progress bar appeared momentarily, sped to 100%, then disappeared. The helmet’s interior display then switched to showing the world around Cas. Faint outlines of icons were overlaid on the world. Cas shifted her focus to one—a smiley face—and it gained clarity.

Old Grim offered a thumbs-up. “Looks to be working well enough,” he said. “Try looking at another.” Cas complied, shifting her gaze from the smiley face. It dulled, again a faint impression against the helmet’s visualization of the world around Cas. She shifted her gaze to the right, stopping on another dulled icon that turned out to be a frown.

“Excellent,” Old Grim said. “I think that should do it. I should explain the point of this little exercise, I suspect.”

Cas nodded, suddenly aware the gesture didn’t necessarily register with the helmet and spacesuit on. She offered, instead, a thumbs-up.

“The habitat’s atmospheric cycling hasn’t been working right for years, but this habitation zone has been deemed a failure,” Old Grim explained. “No help from above, so to speak. These suits, previously a novelty item, became our only hope. You communicate by way of guiding your eyes to an icon. It presents on the helmet’s outer display.”

Cas nodded. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it so you can simply speak to one another?” she asked.

Old Grim shook his head. “You’ll want to be cautious with questions like that out there,” he said. “Nowhere to go but forward at this point, and I suspect you’ve got plenty of forward-moving to do.”

Cas considered Old Grim’s words. “Thank you,” she said. “Why are you helping me?”

“I think you’ll end up helping us,” Old Grim replied. “First visitor shows up fifty years to the day from when this habitation zone was established? Maybe I’m just foolin’ myself. You stay safe out there, now. Not everyone you encounter is going to be so welcoming.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Cas said.

Old Grim gestured towards the solitary door with a green light above it. “Out that way,” he said. “Follow the dirt path along a ways and you’ll find yourself at the edge of town.”

Cas nodded. She placed a hand against the door and prepared to push, only to pause. “Will you be safe if I open this?” she asked. She turned her attention back to Old Grim. He had shuffled back to the lockers and was holding what looked to be a breathing mask to his face. He nodded to Cas, who nodded in return. She turned back to the door and pressed.

There was a soft popping sound as the seal broke, and the door swung open. The sunlight’s warmth, though artificial, made its way through the spacesuit. It was strong, but not unpleasantly so. Sickly flowers swayed, drooped over, in the few patches of surviving grass. Cas closed the door behind herself and stepped forward. The trail stood out, despite being a dirt path in a landscape dominated by dried earth.

Cas followed the path along its few small hills and valleys. She took in the scenery as she walked, finding herself wondering what this placed had looked like in its early years. How beautiful, she thought, it must have been.

Small cottages became visible in the distance. Cas walked faster, spurred on by her curiosity. As she reduced the distance between her and the buildings, she saw the paint on their exteriors was cracked and worn, stained by dust and soot. She could see people here and there in the distance, each wearing a spacesuit identical to hers. Something, however, seemed different. She noticed how they all looked down as they shuffled about, clearly avoiding meeting one another’s gaze. She continued along the road, careful to imitate the shuffling gait and downward gaze of the locals.

The path grew into a street, then a cobblestone road as it continued. Cas hazarded a glance upwards. The cottages were closer, forming a manmade wall circling what looked to be the town’s center. Fragmented remains of a marble fountain stood at odd angles. What was once a man and woman pouring water from ornate pottery had been reduced to a collection of shattered limbs and leaking pipes. To the statue’s left, off-center by comparison, was a small, circular stage. Stone steps, pristine compared to the statue and the surrounding cobblestones, wound around the stage from the ground to its plateau.

There was a loud, tinny sound, unpleasant and jarring. Cas took a moment to identify what it was—an old recording of a bell ringing.

The townsfolk appeared one or two at a time at first. Then groups of four or so. The town center filled quickly, Cas suddenly stuck amidst the crowd. She focused her gaze downwards still, hoping to continue to blend in until she had time to observe more. The crowd parted, but Cas couldn’t see why. Gradually, two large figures carried a platform, its handles straddled on their shoulders as one walked ahead of the other.

There was a smaller person atop the platform. Diminutive, Cas thought. Perhaps even withered. The person’s limbs seemed loose within the confines of the same suit that fit snugly on everyone else

Without a word, the two carried the figure to the top of the stage, set the platform down at its center, and stepped away. Even the slight breeze seemed to fall silent.

The screen on the small figure’s helmet lit up bright green, then was replaced by a banana-yellow smiley face. There was a soft clicking sound all around Cas. She looked around and saw images cycling on the other helmets until, one by one, they all mirrored the figure on the stage. Thinking quickly, Cas shifted her gaze to the corresponding symbol on her helmet’s internal screen. The smiley face came into view as internal processes caused her helmet to hum and chirp. There was a sudden snapping sound, and the internal display flickered. The world around Cas had become pixelated.

On the stage, the withered figure’s helmet switched to a look of puzzlement surrounded by question marks. Others in the crowd had shifted their focus to Cas, their helmets displaying a variety of expressions from quizzical to concerned to, to Cas’s dismay as she found herself surrounded, anger. She looked frantically for a way out as the crowd began to close in around her.

Good news, bad news

Hey, all.

Happy nearly-Thursday (or happy Thursday, depending on where you’re reading this from). Installment 4 of Follow the Ashes (spoilers: titled “Put on a Happy Face”) is coming along slowly but surely, and will likely be on time. If it isn’t, it’ll be up by Sunday. The goal is for it to be on time, obviously.

However! I have to say that this will be the last one for a bit. The reason? There is less than a month between now and the arrival of the baby known as Butterbean. I want to make sure I am doing everything I can to focus on preparing for that, which means taking a breather from Follow the Ashes. I do have some bonus material planned for when it returns to help take the edge off.

Meanwhile, expect the next installment soon. I hope it’s proving to be an enjoyable story.

Follow The Ashes: Forgotten Places, Lost Places

Cas stared at Raph, both urging and daring him to elaborate. Raph merely shook his head in response.

“We need to keep moving,” Raph said. “I am truly and deeply sorry, but there are things you cannot know for the time being. It’s for your own good.” He nodded to the catwalk behind Cas.

Cas glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting someone to have caught up with them. She realized Raph was only indicating the path they would need to take. “What if I choose to wait here?” Cas challenged. “What if I refuse to press on? Or worse, what if I refuse to let you pass?”

Raph pursed his lips. “I can only speculate,” he said. “Nothing good.” He stepped forward. Cas grabbed at the railings on either side and stood her ground.

“I have no reason to trust you that I can think of,” Cas said. “Though you set me free, this could all be some elaborate ruse to lull me into false security.” She studied Raph’s face, hoping for answers that he refused to speak to manifest.

“You don’t,” Raph said. “Right now, you don’t. I let you out and guided you away from the more heavily-surveilled areas, but we can still be seen.” He gestured toward the wall. It was only then that Cas noticed the otherwise-sheer metal surface was interrupted at odd intervals by small, translucent domes.

“Like it or not, we still have a way to go before we can really talk,” Raph said. “Or we stop here and now. Gavin will find us. I’m sure my punishment will be far worse than yours.”

The scars. Cas found herself fixated on the scars that traversed Raph’s face. “Were you punished before?” she asked before she could stop herself. She clenched her jaw, not allowing herself to complete the line of questioning though it still lurked in her thoughts.

Raph frowned. “If I answer truthfully, can we please proceed?” he asked. Cas nodded silently.

“Yes,” Raph said simply. “These scars are a reminder of another time I disobeyed orders.”

Cas stepped back onto the landing, allowing Raph to pass her. The catwalks clinked quietly with each step they took. The dull echo of their progress proved to be the only conversation for some distance as Cas followed Raph deeper into the compound.

The Facility, Cas reminded herself.

“I’m sorry,” Cas said. “That was rude of me before.”

Raph chuckled. “No need for an apology,” he replied, rounding another bend. “There will be a time when everything can be made clear. When you can have answers. Until then, however, we must press onwards.”

A small opening in the wall was visible, blocked from being viewed overhead by a small outcropping. Raph turned around and smiled. “Besides, I know you meant no ill will,” he added before turning and continuing ahead. Cas was taken aback by the comment. Clearly, she reasoned, Raph was someone who knew her. Who seemed to trust her.

“Don’t linger too long,” Raph called back over his shoulder. He was now some distance ahead, Cas realized as she was snapped back to the present. She sped up, and as she reached the opening to the concealed room, she realized she wasn’t looking simply a door. A wall had once stood there, its remains clinging to where the ceiling met the other walls.

Raph tapped at a spot on his chest as they entered the room. A powerful light sprang to life inside a panel of armor on Raph’s chest, illuminating a room like the one she had been in earlier. This one, however, was in a state of great disrepair. A large, cracked glass panel blocked where the cells had been. Only a handful of the consoles remained, and of those only a few had monitors that were still in one piece.

“Keep your wits about you, Miss Cas,” Raph said. He approached the consoles. Cas followed close behind. There was something to the quality of the shadows in the room that put her on edge. Maybe it was paranoia, but she was certain something was moving at the edge of her vision.

“What is this place?” Cas asked as she looked around the room.

Raph tapped at the console. “Better to show than just tell,” he responded, his words shaped by a hint of a frown. He stepped back and clenched his fists. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Raph struck the side of the console. A dull whirring emitted from somewhere beneath its surface, and a few lights blinked to life.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” Raph said. He stepped closer to the console once again and resumed tapping away at its surface. Cas watched as small points of light followed Raph’s fingers, tracing lines along the dusty surface.

The floor shuddered as something shifted deep within the facility. One after another, panels of lights in the ceiling flickered to life. They were dull, Cas noted, and some of them remained off. Raph nodded to where the large pane of glass was, and Cas turned to face it.

Birds darted around a peaceful meadow. A family of deer appeared in the distance, only partially visible amidst the trees. A small stream bubbled along its path.

“It’s beautiful,” Cas said, drawn to the glass. A field mouse scurried up to the glass and stopped, eying Cas. The floor shuddered again, weaker this time. The lights flickered, and the animals briefly became transparent. The trees shifted and twisted unnaturally, branches briefly suspended by nothing. The grass and sky inverted colors. Cas felt her heart sink.

In an instant, the simulated environment returned to the way it initially had been.

Raph’s footsteps were quiet as he approached and placed a hand on Cas’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I should have explained first,” he said. “This is the prototype for what you saw upstairs, which in turn is a prototype for the functional version. Formulated Installations of Reality.”

Cas stared at Raph for a moment.

“It’s hard to explain, but I needed you to see this,” Raph said, the pace of his speech rigid as if he were reciting something. “It’s important that you question everything. Don’t let your guard down for a minute.” He paused, and something else blinked in the reflection on the glass. It was brief, but long enough to catch Cas’s attention. She spun around to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

One of the little spheres from the wall rested on the floor, a dull red light visibly blinking at its core, visible through its outer, translucent layers. Cas took a quick step towards it, landing hard on one foot as she swung the other towards the device. It was deceptively light, and once her boot made contact it shot out of the room and down into the vast expanse of catwalks.

“We need to press onwards,” Raph said, a panicked look on his face. “I fear our time together is short, and there was still much I needed to cover. This is bad.” He motioned for Cas to follow, and Cas did so without question. The door at the opposite end of the room was tucked into the wall slightly, blocked by a honeycombed forcefield. Each portion of the forcefield was a distinct color.

Raph motioned for Cas to stop. “These old security features,” Raph muttered. “Keep an eye out. I’m certain we aren’t alone.”

As if on cue, a dull beep emanated from the space the highways of catwalks crisscrossed. It was followed by another, and yet more. The camera-orbs appeared, rolling into the room along the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Points of light traced along the floor, moving with slow deliberation towards Cas and Raph.

“We have company,” Cas said. She glanced over her shoulder. Raph was tapping at the panels one at a time. At some point in entering each combination, the honeycombs flickered bright red and Raph recoiled in pain.

Cas looked back at the entrance. There were significantly more orbs. They rolled over each other, their progress slow.

“They don’t seem terribly dangerous,” Cas said.

“They’re mapping the room,” Raph said without bothering to look. “Anything out of place will be encapsulated and incinerated.”

“A detail you could have lead with,” Cas said, backing up. She kept her eyes on the camera-orbs. She could hear Raph tapping away, cursing under his breath with each failure.

Something caught her eye beyond the glass wall. Raph tapped a green panel, and the simulated grass turned slate gray. The brown honeycomb drained color from the trees’ trunks, the red and orange claimed their leaves, and the blue drained the sky. He tapped a second brown honeycomb and recoiled. All color returned to the simulated environment. The thing Raph had called a Formulated Installation of Reality.

“Let me try,” Cas said absent-mindedly.

Raph met her gaze. “Getting it wrong is quite unpleasant, you know,” Raph cautioned.

“It seems that way,” Cas replied. “We’re running out of time. I have an idea. Let me try it, please.”

Raph stepped aside, allowing Cas to take his place. She tapped a blue panel and the sky faded. She tapped orange, red, and yellow honeycombs, and the leaves on the trees went gray. She tapped the brown and green, and the trees and grass went completely dark. A single, golden panel lit up in the center of the barrier. Cas took a deep breath, held it, and pressed her palm against the golden panel. A silver light flashed across the barrier, and it vanished. The world beyond the glass disappeared completely, replaced now by a plain room. Metal poles stood where trees had been, and small, simplistic robots slowed to a halt—they were all that was left of the animals.

The glass blinked, then broke down and slid across the floor.

“Very clever, Miss,” Raph said appreciatively. “Let’s make haste. There’s an old habitation unit not too far from here.” He walked towards where the glass had been, stepping over its powdered remains and into what had only moments ago looked to be a picturesque meadow. The beeping of the camera-orbs grew closer and louder, their number having increased significantly. Cas crouched down as she stepped across the threshold, scooping up some of the substance.

She sifted it through her hands as she walked, moving fast to match Raph’s pace and keep ahead of the camera-orbs.

“Sand,” she said quietly to herself as the last of it sifted between her fingers. Something dark was left behind on her palm. She closed her hand, dragging her fingers across it. It smeared gray and off-white against her skin.

“More ashes,” Cas said.

The beeping intensified. Cas glanced behind her and saw the camera-orbs had picked up speed, now rolling after her. Cas started to jog. The room turned out to be a long corridor, mercifully free of obstacles. Cas and Raph only had to change course slightly to avoid the occasional tree-posts. The camera-orbs seemed to be pursuing them with purpose now, rivers of glass and metal splitting into individual streams to track Raph or Cas speicifically.

“What’s at the end of this?” Cas asked. Her legs had started aching some distance back, and she saw Raph’s pace had started to slow as well.

“Another control room,” Raph panted.

As if in response to their plight, the floor seemed to angle towards their destination. Cas and Raph ran faster, aided by the shift in the room’s configuration. The sound of metal on metal grew closer as the camera-orbs reached the hill as well.

“They’ll overrun us soon if we’re not careful,” Raph said.

Cas shook her head. “I have no intention of dying here,” she replied, pushing herself to run faster.

“The strange thing,” Raph said. “I don’t recall any of the older environments being advanced enough to handle shifts in terrain. The programming hadn’t progressed that far yet.”

Cas faltered briefly, her stride broken for a split second. She glanced back and spotted a crack in the floor. The paneling was uneven, shifted downwards like the surrounding floor but at a more severe angle. Scanning the floor ahead, Cas spotted more cracks and damage to the floor.

“Watch your step!” Cas shouted to Raph. A doorway loomed ahead, large enough that an airplane could pass through. Raph came to an abrupt stop, having maintained a few paces’ distance ahead of Cas.

“Look out!” Raph shouted. Cas stopped with only inches of floor left. A significant portion of the floor between where they stood and the exit had broken away. Nothing was visible at the bottom of the chasm – only darkness.

The camera-orbs had nearly closed the distance and were still rapidly advancing.

“We need to jump,” Cas stated decisively.

Raph stared down into the pit, then looked back at the robots. “Certain death or possible death,” he mused. “I trust you. Tell me we can make this jump.”

Cas raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t the time for me to question why you trust me,” Cas replied. She turned on her heels and sprinted back the way they came. In a flash, Cas slid to a stop only inches away from the camera-orbs. She turned again and sprinted back towards the chasm. She leapt forward, gliding through the air like a seasoned ballerina executing a flawless grand jete. She landed on the other side, rolling forward to a kneeling position.

Raph offered brief applause. He ran back, forced to stop sooner than Cas as the oncoming wall of robots had moved closer still. He ran, huffing and puffing as he did, and leapt. Cas ran towards the gap, knelt down and grabbed Raph’s arms as he collided with the edge.

“Don’t you dare let go,” Cas demanded. “I still want answers, especially now.”

Raph nodded. Cas pulled at Raph while Raph carefully walked his way up the small portion of wall between him and safety. Raph fell forward, breathing heavily.

“I always knew you’d be the death of me, Miss,” Raph joked. “Thanks for that.”

The wall of camera-orbs continued to advance, nearly at the gap. “Don’t thank me just yet,” Cas said. The orbs rolled up to the chasm and stopped. They formed a neat, even line. Another orb rolled up onto the first layer, and then another.

“They’re forming a chain,” Cas observed. “They’ll be upon us before long.” She watched the chains of robots continue to grow. Something else caught her eye, however.

“Perhaps we should continue on, then,” Raph suggested.

“Hang on,” Cas said. “I’m curious. Something’s happening.” A dull, steady creaking sound was only barely audible over the din of beeping noises. The camera-orbs began to lean forward, high enough to reach. Raph leapt to his feet and started a slow but steady retreat when a loud crack filled the air. The camera-orbs heaved up and back, the floor falling away from beneath them. They disappeared from sight in an instant.

“That,” Raph said, pointing at Cas. “was luck.”

Cas offered a smile in response. “Shall we press onwards now?” she asked.

Raph nodded.

They arrived at a single door set in the wall, with a simple doorknob. Nothing elaborate. Raph grasped the doorknob and turned it, breathing a sigh of relieve.

“These old parts of The Facility have been decommissioned for so long,” Raph said. “Honestly, I’m grateful there are so few upgraded sections.”

“The disrepair certainly worked to our advantage,” Cas admitted.

Raph shook his head. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.

Cas chuckled. “Was that a joke?” she asked.

Raph considered his words and smiled. “I suppose it could pass for a moment of levity, yes,” he conceded. He stepped through the doorway, and Cas followed.

“More catwalks,” Cas said. One catwalk was held aloft from one end of the room to the other. Several smaller catwalks branched off to doors. The opposite end of the room looked like the room Cas had woken up in, imprisoned. Nothing beyond the end of the catwalk was visible, as the lighting ended just before that point.

Cas walked ahead, her hands on the railings. “At what point will you tell me more?” she called back to Raph. “I would certainly appreciate it.”

One of the orbs appeared ahead of Cas as she reached the center of the room. This one looked different, Cas noted. A lense shifted over its surface in a familiar way, and as it rolled away Cas realized what the odd apparatus had done.

It had winked at her.

“Show yourself!” Cas demanded. She heard Raph’s footsteps stop.

“Is something wrong, Miss Cas?” Raph asked.

“There’s nothing wrong at all, is there Cassandra?” Gavin said, stepping into the light. His cybernetic eye was back in its place.

Cas tensed, a searing pain shooting through her. Her knuckles went white from how tightly she gripped the railing.

“Little details hurt,” Gavin said. “Big ones could kill you, Cas, my dear. Come along. There’s no report of this little excursion, nor does there need to be.” He glanced past Cas to Raph and smiled.

“This will be a little less pleasant for you, I’m afraid,” Gavin continued. “That could have been avoided if you had just let Ismeria watch over her.”

Cas worked through the pain. “What are you going on about?” Cas demanded.

Gavin took a step forward.

“Cas!” Raph shouted. “Look here!”

Cas turned, facing outwards. The void below was dizzying, but Cas refused to allow Gavin a chance to catch her unaware.

“I’m sorry,” Raph said. “I didn’t think we would have enough time. It looks like I’ll have to take a raincheck on giving you those answers.” He produced a small disc from a pocked on his uniform and threw it onto the catwalk.

Cas saw the look of triumph fall from Gavin’s face, replaced by intense rage.

“You know there will be consequences,” Gavin said, taking another step forward.

“Cas, you need to run,” Raph said. “Help those who can’t help themselves, and accept help only if you are certain you can trust the person.”

“What are you going on about?” Cas demanded.

“Above all else, don’t forget,” Raph continued. “As a wise person once told me, never forget this. Follow the ashes!” He pressed a button on his gauntlet and the disk emitted a bright light. Cas watched as Gavin jumped backwards, off of the catwalk. The world heaved beneath her, then fell away as the metal of the catwalk was reduced to ash.

Cas tumbled downwards into the darkness. As she fell, she fought to focus so as to prepare herself for what might await at the bottom of her fall. Even if it was her death.

Something shone dimly below. Cas fought to stop turning over in the air and tried to focus. She saw spots glimmering along a moving surface.

Cas braced herself for impact, held her arms tightly at her sides, and shut her eyes. She hit the water feet-first, plunging deep beneath its surface The cold hit her hard, and she gasped before she could stop herself. She fought her way to the surface. Small waves moved along the water’s surface. Not far in the distance, Cas spotted a small stretch of beach. She swam to it as quickly as she could, throwing herself onto the ground.

Nothing was visible above.

“Now what do I do?” Cas asked herself. She stood up, brushing the sand off as she did. There was a rusted recess in the wall, just at the edge of the beach, and in that recess stood a door. I

“Restricted area,” Cas read on the door’s surface. “Sealed habitation zone. No outside influence permitted.” She considered the words.

“Sounds like an invitation,” Cas said. She stepped forward, placed a hand on the door’s surface, and pushed.

Update – Follow The Ashes

Just a quick, concise update (shocking, I know).

Going forward, I am forgoing the use of Read More in installments of “Follow The Ashes” as it tends to make it a bit difficult to read the installments in their entirety on smart phones and, if routed to Misadventures In Fiction instead of to the installment it can be confusing.

There should be some ashes to follow in the not-to-distant future, of course…

Busy by Choice

Happy Sunday, all (unless it’s been a shit day, in which case I’m sorry that tomorrow is Monday, a day of inevitable suffering).

Installment #3 of Follow the Ashes is drafted and now ready for editing. Still on schedule. Thank god for small miracles. Book 3 in the Dissonance trilogy, which I haven’t quite settled on a name for, is coming along nicely. This is in no small part thanks to my wife and her unyielding support of my writing, which is only matched by her patience with my bouts of writing-related moping.

Speaking of Dissonance in Harmony, some news on that front. It isn’t exactly some secret that I want to get another book published. That’s a rather crucial step towards my goal of writing for a living, which in turn is a step towards my masterful plan for global domination. Obviously. I’ve gotten good, over the years, at starting new stories. I’m improving at finishing first drafts, and I’m slowly getting better at editing and proofreading my work. An abundance of gratitude towards Lindsey Vath, my dear friend and beta reader, for all of the help she has provided with Dissonance in Harmony.

However, all of the above falls a bit flat if I don’t look into querying publishers. I could have the most well-polished, well-written story on the planet and it would be positively worthless without trying to find it a home. Spoilers: I don’t have that story, but Dissonance in Harmony is a fantastic story all the same. I finally took the plunge a few weeks ago and submitted it to a publisher. Then I submitted it to another recently. And two literary agencies. Because when it rains, it pours? Because good things happen in threes…er, fours?

I’m playing the waiting game, focusing on Follow the Ashes (share the installments to show your love, please – it’s a tremendously fun series to write). Wish me luck?

Oh, and I’m on Vero now. New social media sites mystify and confuse me, but feel free to follow me at Philip Wesley Gorski.

PS: When choosing categories, I never fail to cringe at my Hundred Days of Blogging self-inflicted challenges. I may take another crack at that some day, but those were rough.

Follow The Ashes – Into the Belly of the Beast

Cas sat on the slab of metal made up to look like a bed by way of paper-thin sheets and stared out into the space beyond the small room. A series of monitors jutted down from the ceiling, hanging just above their corresponding consoles.  The monitors were dark but didn’t appear to be off. Every few minutes, if Cas tilted her head just right, she could see bursts of text shift across the screen.

She stood up and approached the opening to the room, cautious to not step too close. She glanced out into the larger space, and still she saw no one. Continue reading

Follow The Ashes: It Begins…

It started in a plain, simple room.

Cas woke up, a dull thrumming pain behind her eyes her only companion. She lifted her head slowly from the cold metal surface, wincing against the soft white light emanating from the walls, floor, and ceiling. She blinked, and as her eyes adjusted she began to take in the room. It was a small space, and its only visible fixtures were the polished metal table she sat at and the polished metal chair she was seated on. A solitary streak of dried blood marred the table’s otherwise-immaculate surface. Continue reading