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Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Shady Dive: An In-Depth Analysis of The Bioshock Games

Hello hello!


Well, I'm definitely late to the party on this one--last Sunday involved far too much work and phuquerie. However, I'm here now, and ready to give you what you really want. That's right...it's time to bear it all, for...THE BIOSHOCK REVIEWS!


Andrey, the long-suffering and patient gamer and partner, lets me sit in when he plays an RPG. When he finally bought Bioshock 2 on sale, and mentioned that Bioshock Infinite will be coming out in a few months, I decided there was no time like the present to remind the internet why these games are amazing and worth a replay. Sure, they're well put-together, but you've already read the blogs about combat mechanics and design. Today, we're going to use brains.

Hey! Come back here! I promise it won't hurt. Put down the crucifix. That's better. Now, let's get cracking and figure out why we all love these damn games so very much. There's more to it than the gameplay, I assure you.

The review is loaded with spoilers, so if you haven't played it yet, look at the pictures and skim read. Play the games, and THEN get back here to enjoy the discussion. Good? Good.

One more round. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS! SPOOOOOOILERS! There.

So, why is Bioshock so interesting and so appealing? 

Most people, when asked, will shrug and cite a good storyline, or the gorgeous dieselpunk (not steampunk, thank you) setting, or the fact that you get to clomp about in a giant freaking tank suit. The design is admirable, and we'll get to it in a moment, but there's a lot more to the games than scary little girls and freaky, deformed monsters. Whether you've played these games or not, we're going to find out why they're good. By the end, you'll know why you need to either a) run back to your computer and replay them, or b) find a friend who likes to play, and sleep over at their house until they finish a marathon of both games and you dream of roaring bronze monsters and crave sushi constantly.

So, what's the big deal?

This.





Source. Welcome to Rapture. Population: who knows, but they all want to kill you.


First, it's too damn pretty to ignore. 


We'll start with the aesthetics, because they're easy. For those unfamiliar with dieselpunk, the descriptor is best applied to that between-wars look with lots of rivets and shiny bronze and brass. There's a decopunk element as well. Artistic elements in Bioshock all match the game's themes, taking the gloss and elegance of an earlier era and twisting and warping it. The leaks in Rapture represent the holes in any ideal paradise, and like a classic dystopia, the things that made it elegant soon become horrible. The grand city no-one walks in, the moulding wallpaper and grim-eyed fish swimming around the towers, call to mind Cthulu and Dagon as much as Atlantis. In this modern Atlantis, with its Greco-Roman themes, the effect is closer to Limbo than Heaven.

The ideals Rapture was founded on are just as leaky and imperfect as the city, and are, at their extremes, just as much of a deathtrap. They belong to an earlier era, and are preserved there, unchanging. We all love seeing beautiful buildings and settings, but seeing them destroyed is even more appealing. When you get into the head of a Little Sister in Bioshock 2, and you see the world through their indoctrinated eyes, everything is well-lit, luxurious, and elegant. Seeing the world without the girl's eyes in the way only heightens the effect of the nightmare, and I couldn't decide whether the falsely sweet image or the ruins were scarier. There's something compelling about gorgeous ruined buildings. It's a sort of poke at mortality, not just our own, but the eventual inevitable mortality of culture as well. We know it will all be over, and seeing it in an imaginary way is irresistible.

There's all that stuff about peering into the abyss and it looking back to you. In Rapture, those metaphors have a nasty tendency to get literal. It sits on a precipice both figuratively and literally, lost in its own conflict and ultimately doomed, rather than being the intended precipice of a new era. The only 'hope' is a lighthouse in the middle of the sea. Think about that. The middle of the phuquing sea. Who's going to find it? Rapture is a dead end, as any paradise is, and the long hallways that lead to corpse after corpse only confirm this. However, as with any near-death experience, Rapture also offers rebirth for both your character and a few other decent souls, like Tenenbaum. In this way, Rapture is also a womb, another symbol linked with the sea and death.

But wait, there's more! Act now!


What really captivates in Bioshock, though, is the literary merit and moral struggles. An underwater war of morality with few clear rules is interesting enough, but the literary and cultural references really make the game. It's the ultimate showdown between Ayn Rand and hippie Communist neo-Buddhists. No, really. Both Bioshock games focus on societal theories and what happens when they're enforced as perfectly as possible. I'm not the first commentator to notice this, but I'm not going to jam the literary references down your throat the way most commentaries do. Good? It's okay. You can come out of the corner of the room now.


Freedom Will Kill You: Bioshock 1


In Bioshock 1, we're introduced to Rapture. Andrew Ryan, your standard mad/eccentric gajillionaire, decides that he's had enough of them damn government controlling types and those assholes who believe in ethics. He decides he'll build his own paradise, with blackjack. And hookers. The thing is, Ryan also believes in freedom of all kinds in all degrees. The repression of the self is ultimately at the cost of betterment of society, the social support system breeds mediocrity, and that science should be allowed to advance unhindered. I probably don't have to tell you that the logical extremes of anything tend to be really, really poor decisions.

Of course, Ryan's attempts to give people ALL the freedom result in having to go in the opposite direction to quell the inevitable chaos, and Rapture turns into a police state, complete with martial law and secret police. The lesson is that fascism isn't actually that far from semi-anarchic libertarianism, and arguably, is one of the only possible direct results. There's sort of a Nietzschain theme here, with the 'every man kills the thing he loves' idea being demonstrated in heartbreaking clarity. Ryan wants freedom for all intellectuals, but he refuses to understand his actions' results, and therefore loses it.

The experiment was doomed to failure, but throw in selfish applications of science, and you have the reason Rapture unravels. The ideology was 'leaky' enough. When combined with the discovery of plasmids and ADAM, the access to instant personal enhancement and superpowers of various kinds really makes the system fall apart. Not only do people become addicted to plasmids, scientists develop a weapon to control the insane and mutated addicts that is just as horrible as the addiction's effects on the Splicers. I'm referring, of course, to the Little Sisters.





Source.  While evil little girls are nothing new, Bioshock reminds you that it'snot actually okay to kill them.  



The Little Sisters are followed around by their protectors, the Big Daddies, who were conditioned to be their protectors in the most painful ways possible. They're living examples of science gone wrong, logical extremes of experimentation when the test and results outweigh the method. The 'evil scientist' stereotype here is softened by Tenenbaum's attempts to free the girls she experimented on. In the first Bioshock, you literally become one of the monsters you're trying to save, and in the second, an indoctrinated 'ubermensch' girl who bonds with you shows the humanity beneath the terrifying mask.

The really interesting thing in Bioshock one is that the society starts as a lovely, civilized world, and it's science, technology, and growth unrestrained by morality that result in a huge leap backwards. The game gives us a nice tour through the corruption in Rapture, but doesn't really preach a particular doctrine while it condemns Ryan's philosophy.

Perhaps that's not entirely true--it does preach that there are certain lines of morality that shouldn't  be crossed. It's not that ADAM itself is evil--though the slugs do represent the fruit of knowledge--but the way it's used, for vanity and cheap thrills, is condemned. Most importantly, though, the game wants us to know that hurting children is bad. Really. The kids are cute, and you have countless opportunities to save the girls rather than ripping the ADAM-loaded slugs out of their throats. Getting a happy ending requires sticking by moral principles based on human decency. You can harvest the little girls for ADAM and get the power you need to defeat Ryan, but if you do, you'll pay for it and Tenenbaum will condemn you.




Source. Stare at this for a while and try to sleep peacefully. Good luck. I didn't.

Confessions of a Former Neo-Buddhist Infatuation and Psuedoscience Junkie: Bioshock 2


Of course, as we all know, the best solution to going too far in one direction is becoming an extremist in the other direction. Sophia Lamb, a psychiatrist, is brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan in order to treat the population. Going against his doctrines and anti-religious, anti-compassion ideals, he imports the good doctor and she sets about going into full-bore psychobitch mode.

The doctor's techniques, of course, end up resulting in the development of a religious cult and Lamb deposes Ryan once he's passed away. Her followers are somewhat protected, but her package of love and self-understanding is still candy-coated poison. She's sort of communist, but her society's underlying morals are meaningless in effect; she ends up running a world too similar to Ryan's for comfort.

In addition to that, her attempts to create an 'ubermensch' daughter to 'redeem' the splicers, and the constant use of her blue butterfly symbol in-game feed into more themes. She refers to love as a 'chemical' process and continues the Evil Heartless Scientist schtick from the first game. Of course, Eleanor has developed a conscience, free will, and is not interested in Mommy's ideas about forcing people to be saved. She comes to you for help, invading your thoughts, and with the help of Tenenbaum and August Sinclair, justice is served and lives are saved. Oh, and Rapture finally falls into the abyss, taking the few Splicers you haven't killed with it.

We interrupt this examination of idealism to bring you...Daddy and Mommy Issues! 


I haven't really addressed the fact that the Little Sisters' protectors are known as Big Daddies. In the first game, your nameless chain-tattooed character becomes a Big Daddy with Tenenbaum's help, and after he kills his own father, Andrew Ryan, becomes a father to the Little Sisters he saved, raising them in the normal world and giving them normal lives. At the end, he dies of old age and happiness. The second game explores a mother's attempt to mould her daughter into something perfect, and their competition, as well as the way your character 'fathers' Eleanor the saviour. There's a bit of a negative portrayal of mothers in both games; at best, they're ambiguous characters with huge flaws. Father figures--Ryan excepted--are the heroes.
The fact that the game manages to dodge the 'creepy predator' or Lolita dynamic so well is testament to very careful writing, but even with the Big Sisters added to the roster in the second game, it's still a 'dads as heroes' bias. I'm not saying that's wrong, but I do think it's interesting that fathers in video games tend to be traitors, ambiguous characters, or absent. In a way, Bioshock returns us to a fairy-tale style morality system. Eleanor is even shown asleep in a glass chamber, with her 'wicked witch' mother standing guard and ready to strangle her. Not cool, game.

I'd like to see a lot more heroic mothers in gaming, period, but it's sort of nice to see the paternal side of the dynamic portrayed in a healthy, pleasant way. I do have mixed feelings about some of the heavy-handed applications of morals, though, and it still bothers me that the Splicers can be killed pretty indiscriminately while you save the girls. Ultimately, the hellish 'family life' of Rapture is something that can be overcome for a normal life, and even if you've done evil things, you're worth saving and redeeming (since you can keep Sophia Lamb alive). Still, there are some elements there that make me twitch, such as the 'little girls are perfect and innocent' theme. Hopefully, Bioshock Infinite will go in a different direction, though I'm fine with the 'killing children is bad' motif sticking around, personally.




Source.  More kick-ass armour is okay, though, in the next games. My only regret with the Big Sisters is insufficient playtime to try them out


So, why do we love it? 


In a world of RPGs that force you to come to your own conclusions and actually reward dickish behaviour, the non-judgement of Bioshock and its hardline 'don't hurt people' morality is really refreshing. There are lots of rewards for being a good person and lots of symbols and ideas to think about while you romp around, fighting Splicers. Even the most horrifying characters are granted a degree of humanity and have good reasons (sort of) for their actions. It's impressive, moving, and likely to make you tear up.

Furthermore, as I've explained, it's a game that will stay with you. I wouldn't have analysed all this--and neither would the other thousand or so bloggers--if it hadn't resonated with us, moved us. The replays are worthwhile just for the sake of enjoying the nuances. The antagonists and protagonists have layers. The voice acting is damned good. And ultimately, no matter how awful things get, redemption is there. There is a happy ending, where love triumphs and idealism doesn't matter a damn bit. The idea that common humanity can overtake all the crap we put each other through, that's something everyone across the political spectrum can enjoy.


*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. I've got a few reviews to catch up on, more news coming, and even some fantastic interviews with fellow authors. Stay tuned and please share. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Breaking News: Over 250 Fans, A New Baby, And More!

Hello hello!

I want to thank all of you lovely people on Twitter and Facebook for your likes and follows. Over 1000 followers on Twitter and 250 Facebook fans! I feel pretty damn special. Accordingly, I am rewarding you with OH MY GAWD ALL THE UPDATES! Make sure you get out your calendars, planners, diaries, or stone tablets to mark down all this info.

Of course, when I say "a new baby" I mean my new book, The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming. Based partly on nightmares I had in my childhood, it will be Book 1 of The Nightmare Cycle, with stories related to the main novel coming in a year or so. Normally I don't let this kind of thing slip in advance, but I just know you'll all be wanting more as soon as you get a taste. The beta readers are attacking it as we speak and it is going through the final edits stage. More info about this, of course, will be coming closer to the release! You're in for even more surprises.

Speaking of which, The Stolen: Two Short Stories has a new cover as well. I miss the old one, but OH MY GAWD LOOK AT THE SHINY:



Andrey helped with the formatting and the amazing Travis Luedke hunted down the haunting image render of a sunset on Io. 

 FREE BOOK ALERT!

Of course, the important thing is that The Stolen: TSS will be FREE on Friday and Saturday, so you should grab a copy! Here's the link to 'favourite'. Of course, you can still buy it now for a mere $0.99. This story and AtSWS will also be getting some sequel and connecting stories. That collection will be called The Meaning Wars and will continue where those two leave off.

Now that I've overwhelmed you all with teasers, I'm going to sign off. Remember--free book this weekend, Friday January 11th and Saturday January 12th! New book out this month, including feature-length novel!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. I've got a few reviews to catch up on, more news coming, and even some fantastic interviews with fellow authors. Stay tuned and please share. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Top Ten Indie Books of 2012

Hello hello!

Well, 'tis a new year and time for lots of lovely new books to read. There will be a Bioshock series review within the next week to explain why I'm currently aglow with admiration, but I couldn't pass up the chance to share the stage with more indie buddies.

I love books. I read like a demon and I love to talk about them, share opinions on them, and learn new things. In my driven efforts to improve as an author, I came across some really wonderful books last year. I could tell you about the classics I've read--such as Jules Verne's canon (read in English, not French), Les Liasons Dangereuses by de Laclos (ditto, and it was still gorgeous and erotic), or Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but they are books known and well-loved. They don't need the extra press (though I urge you to go to the cheap classics section of Kobo or Kindle and load it up. You'll love me for it.) but I will probably do a short monograph on classics I love anyway. However, today belongs to the independent authors.

In addition to my own two new babies, And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories, I'd like to list my top ten indie books of 2012. These are books that changed my perception of their genres. I laughed and cried and shivered in fear. Do not miss these. If you ignore every other list, you have to read these books.

In addition to generally good prose, they are also mould-breakers--characters are realistic, plots are good, and social justice issues are addressed in a readable way. This is the future of indie writing--katooey girls treated normally, fantasy novels that turn cliches on their head on purpose, new magic systems, and genre-bending style and panache. I can't wait for more from these authors, so get your credit cards and browse the list. You won't regret it. Oh, and don't forget to leave a review after you've fallen in love--they'll thank you for it, and you might inspire someone else to check out this awesomeness.

More information can be found on the reviews I left for the books--under 'SciFiMagpie' of course--but here's a quick rundown of why I loved these.


image credit goes to the Amazon page, obviously. Believe me, this book is so much more than an urban fantasy with a hint of romance. So very much more.



The Top Ten Independent Novels of 2012 


 1. Chris Shields' Fae Journals series. http://www.amazon.com/The-Steward-Weald-Fae-Journals/dp/0615691560/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

I loved this because of the protagonist, Maggie O'Shea. I won't lie--I picked it up and expected a crappy warmed-over urban fantasy novel where Downtrodden Girl gets the boy, the friends, and the magical powers. NOPE NOPE NOPE. Real character development, faults, a bit of humour, and (sigh of relief) a mythology system that was logical and didn't make me want to punch babies make this series a sure-fire winner. I predict that it'll be a modern classic eventually and urge you to read both The Steward and its even-better sequel, The Changeling. Maggie is a great role model and--I say this rarely--a person that I would really love to meet and hang out with outside her book.


2. JC Eggleton's Brookhaven. http://www.amazon.com/Brookhaven-Book-Fate-Series-ebook/dp/B0091DX32O/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

Those of you who follow the blog know that I interviewed the wonderfully creepy and clever JC Eggleton earlier in the year. Eggleton's eerie prose and cut-throat writing style offers new hope for the horror genre and I cannot wait for the next installment.


3. Clinton Boomer's The Hole Behind Midnight. http://www.amazon.com/The-Hole-Behind-Midnight-ebook/dp/B005Z8G08S/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

I really liked this one. It has an atypical but sympathetic protagonist who still manages to be a dick, some of the BEST exposition writing I have ever seen, and probably the best system of magic I saw last year. Delightful, and another book that will be getting a series, to my relief. Did I mention that until these writers, series of novels used to irritate me?


4. Richard Long's The Book of Paul. http://www.amazon.com/Book-Paul-Paranormal-Thriller-ebook/dp/B0088QYXGA/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

This one is another beacon of hope for the horror genre. I'd have to say Long's prose is some of the best I read in an indie book last year. Everything is slick and tight, and the gore has that special touch of just being under-described enough to really freak you out. It does get very dark and gritty, but it's so compelling. I really did hate myself a bit for liking the eponymous protagonist...but this will be, no kidding, a classic of horror in years to come.


5. J. Damask's Wolf at the Door series. http://www.amazon.com/Wolf-At-the-Door-ebook/dp/B004V51E0K/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

I generally hate urban fantasy that revolves around vampires and werewolves. This is one of two books on the list that has singlehandedly helped to redeem the genre and convince me to give it another shot. The dreamlike prose can be hard to follow, but the main character is realistic, sympathetic, and relatable--and again, I love this author's prose style. The sequel, Obsidian Moon, Obsidian Eye continues in the same vein and is even more badass. This gives feminist writers something real to aim for--not just crappy 'strong independent stereotypes'. Also, it's set in Singapore, and you will learn things about the country. How cool is that?


The pretty girl on the cover is only the tip of a dark and dirty iceburg. 


6. John Dolan's Everyone Burns. http://www.amazon.com/Everyone-Burns-ebook/dp/B008I6GXM2/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

The wicked humour in this dark noire novel is matched only by its twists and turns. Dolan is another writer with really tight prose, and his descriptions of a small island off the Thai coast will make you sweat. Filled with beautiful katooey bar girls and plot-relevant educational info about Buddhism, the motifs in this book make it a literary-quality read with the deliciousness that pulp books aspire to. I usually dislike mystery novels, but I am dying for more from this author.


7. Travis Luedke's Nightlife series. http://www.amazon.com/The-Nightlife-York-Series-ebook/dp/B0090P1MIU/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

I hate vampires most of the time. I enjoy erotic content, sure, but erotic vampire novels usually give me the vapors and make me start looking for my crucifix, stake, and garlic. Dirty sex, a hardboiled crime plot, and the ability to take cliches balls-on and make them work characterize all three of Travis' novels. Shockingly, the vampire stuff works well and he understands the predatory nature a vampire is supposed to have, needs to have. Add in the fact that he captures the spirit of his cities pretty well, and that he doesn't write watered down, 50 Shades style BDSM. Finally, how about some characters with actual development and realistic relationships? I thought so. Get down with your bad self and buy it.


8. Jim Wright's New Yesterdays. http://www.amazon.com/New-Yesterdays-ebook/dp/B008JV98IM/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

The prose on this one has a few wobbly moments, but the written style is just too charming to pass up. I loved the warm Southern style. This is one of the only two truly YA friendly novels on the list, and the topic this author wrote about is even more daring because of its audience. What if the genocides perpetrated on First Nations people had never happened? What if they had been warned? The ending was NOT what I expected, and I am looking forward to the sequel to see where it goes from here.


9. Robert Carter's Sheer Purgatory. http://www.amazon.com/The-Nightlife-York-Series-ebook/dp/B0090P1MIU/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

I love British humour and this is a glittering example of the style. I really got plenty of thinking-material out of the moral system here, and I won't spoil it by going into detail. I will say, though, that it had a delightful way of confirming my feelings about god, the great bloody trickster.


10. Gary Dolman's Eighth Circle of Hell. http://www.amazon.com/The-Nightlife-York-Series-ebook/dp/B0090P1MIU/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

This book is about child rapists and the dark side of Victorian society. You have been warned. It's another book with literary style and proper use of motifs, and it is a damn hard read. I haven't had so much trouble getting through something since Eli Wiesel's Night, which almost broke me in gr. 12 English. However, I really think that other steampunk enthusiasts and fellow Anglophiles need to be aware of this painful and hidden chapter of history. It's ugly and it's dark, but the ending will make you tear up. Considering how many children are victimized to this day, this is a definite must-read.

BONUS--I know I said 'top ten' but I couldn't bear to leave this off.


This book will not go where you're expecting it to. You have been warned. You're welcome!


11. Robert Eaton's The Hero Always Wins. http://www.amazon.com/The-Hero-Always-Wins-ebook/dp/B005CMGZAU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1357527689&sr=1-1&keywords=the+hero+always+wins

When I first started to read it I was very suspicious. I even rolled my eyes. Not another epic fantasy, I thought. When I hit the madness descriptions, I was intrigued enough not to drop it. Prepare for all the cliches to be ruthlessly turned inside out as well as embraced with the proper epic style. Don't miss this one--it deserves your attention and I guarantee you'll be surprised.


Well, that's the run-down...tune in next week for Bioshock analysis and more awesomeness!

****

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. Expect the usual hijinks--reviews, previews, some thinky-thinky bits where I get all societally analytical on your asses, and even some nerdgasm content. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Over 1000 Followers! Let's Celebrate with a Preview!

Hello Hello! 

Well, my dears, I've broken the 1000 followers mark on Twitter, which means I can now start to follow people back again, AND, that I can give you all the reward I promised for either 250 fans or 1000 followers! 
Have you been feeling neglected? Wondering why I didn't publish much of a damn thing in December and barely much at all in November? Well, you're about to learn the reason. The Underlighters, a FULL LENGTH NOVEL, will be coming out soon as part of The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming! That's right! Not only will I have a dozen new stories for you, I'll have a full-length novel! 
Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, please don your cyberpunk gear and prepare to get down with your nightmares. This is...a preview of The Underlighters. 

*****

9—June 8, 0048 P.D.

So. Like I said, I’m back. Having to cram this in at lunch time—I never take my journal to work!—feels so awkward, but I need as much personal space as I can get, away from people. Back to my...adventures.
The elevator opened on the old apartment lobby. It was a tall building, and one of the first to be salvaged. I know the building well—it’s one of the main training grounds—but it’s still creepy as hell. Being able to sense that you’re far above the ground—above! Not below!—without being able to see the distance, is terrifying. Some of the rooms are full of Dust, and very dark; others were pretty well-sealed, and it’s mostly confined to the outside.
Chloe was already hanging back uneasily. The ambient level of Dust in here was low, but it was still there—dimming our senses, deepening shadows, fading colours. Ian, a brave soul, was sitting at a desk.
All of our masks were set to the open channel automatically, rather than being dialed down to ‘local’ or ‘intimate’ range.
“Welcome,” Ian said, his voice friendly. “Ready for your expedition?" I don’t think I’ve seen him more than once or twice without his suit; he’s one of the most avid Crows, living close to the surface.
“You bet they are,” said May. “I’m going to head back down. Kids, sign your names on the form and stay out of trouble. How long will you be?”
“No more than a couple of hours,” I guessed. “Let’s say three.”
“With Una on rounds, you can bet someone will be coming to check on you if you’re not back by then,” Ian reminded us.
In spite of my standard-issue protective gloves, skin-tight and slightly nobbly on the fingertips, the pen slipped in my hand, left a shaking line in the middle of my name. The others followed me, signed their names on the lines. Our names on the paper seemed so tenuous and frail, considering what they represented. A line on a page in thick, gritty ink--the only thing tying me visibly to the world below, proving that this was the last place I’d been seen. I decided not to think about what would happen if I went missing, if the suit was ripped, if I ended up stumbling around Up here...
 “Good luck!” said May, returning to the elevator.
Ian nodded us forward. There was nothing to do but go into the world, and see what we could find. Aiden moved ahead of me, leading the charge forward.

As we opened the apartment doors, we found ourselves in a grey world. The light was somewhat visible, here, in one of the thinnest areas. It wasn’t entirely unlike the diffuse light during the evening cycle, but below, the light doesn’t change like this. Patches of darkness swirled across the sky, across buildings. Even without Dust crawling in my system, the world was full of a moving, liquid blackness. Artificial light and the light of the sun could shimmer through, faintly, but barely enough to see by. I couldn’t see their faces through the masks, but the way my friends straightened and slipped their hands to their holster belts told me everything I needed to know about their feelings.
The weird light and the interfering Dust were thinner in higher places, matching the air. As a level 1 zone, it was still relatively safe.
We dialed down to the ‘local’ frequency. The strangeness of the old world surrounded me. The big, angular box houses were all empty, sinister-looking, and many were covered in greenery. The wide streets covered in pavement—not walls, but streets and roads! It always amazes me—were broken and covered in plants and potholes. Thick grasses in front of the houses and the enormous trees dominated. A few of the clumsy, boxy cars they used to drive were still lining the streets, but they’d more or less rusted into place.
Half lost kingdom, half forest primeval. We followed the road. Its signs had rusted and been replaced by our own. All of us knew “Elton Street” reasonably well, but the marvel of the big, open world still hadn’t worn off.
“Let’s take Mercer to the Old Uptown though 18th, and then we can ease our way towards Sunnyside,” said Jay, interrupting my musings. “I mean, 18th ave goes right into Sunnyside.”
“Sure,” I said. “You’re the navigator.”
We all walked close together, in a diamond-shaped formation. There were wild dog packs howling in the distance, and the forest-neighbourhood was alive with birdsong and insects. Their lives had continued uninterrupted—it was just ours that had been stopped.
There was no sense in picking through the houses around here—in spite of their rather decrepit condition, they’d been combed finely. Not even a stray marble remained, for the most part; even bones had been interred.
As we walked further down the grassy road, things changed. The darkness was lower, the Dust, thicker—there was less diffuse light, and our lanterns seemed to throw off less illumination. Down below, in our homes, the dark was never absolute—there’s always a candle or a light burning somewhere, even if it’s only in the paintings of windows. With a painted moon and LED studded stars to watch us, we could sleep easily. Here, even awake, it was a different matter. The darkness was alive.
It moved like water through the streets, thick strands and pools of near-opaque blackness swirling around us. Most of it was thick, greyish, foglike, but with a life of its own. Shapes blurred and shimmered in the distance and in shadowed-corners. There was still some sunlight in the sense that the world had a faint glow, but not much. Dad and old movies have given me an idea of ‘dusk’ and ‘twilight’, but this isn’t like it—no stripey colours in the sky. Just murkiness, and shadows, and strange angles where the lingering light and Dust play on shapes.
Chloe was already shivering, and I didn’t blame her. At this point, we were farther afield—out of the Level 2 area, which is partly but not fully explored, and heading towards the Level 3 zone. The murk was deepening, the houses and greenery even more shadowed and twisted by the imperfect light. The old people say our world above is one of endless night, but it’s more than that. Night doesn’t move on its own, and night doesn’t follow you around.
“I guess we should probably start looking for things,” said Aiden. His voice was a little wavery. This was supposed to be a Level 3 area, but the Dust levels were higher than expected—closer to 4. I widened the range of my ‘Local’ signal. Luckily, Jay stepped in.
“Keep your comms open, people. It’s better to say something you regret than getting Lost up here. It looks like the Dust is thicker than we expected. I say we keep this trip tight, and revert to proper protocol, over.”
“Agreed, over,” I said. Next to me, Chloe was starting to cling, brushing my arm constantly. It was annoying.
“Can we just go look at a house and get it over with? Over.”
“Remind me, what are we looking for exactly, Aiden? Over,” I added. I tried to keep my tone light, but I could feel my palms tingling, beginning to sweat.
“Well, to be honest, I was hoping for fancy artificial flowers, but anything nice—vases, whatever, will do. Over.”
“Okay, I guess we should hit them, over,” I replied.
“Which one should we do first? Can we do the nice one with the door that’s still standing? Over.”
“Chloe, we have to check it for hazards first. Unless you want the roof for a hat, over,” snapped Jay. It wasn’t like her to be sharp, not at all. A stealthy trickle of fear down my spine made me pause. If Jay was already nervous, this didn’t bode well.
Sunnyside had probably been well-named a long time ago, but now, with its decrepit streets and half-fallen-in houses, the name couldn’t have been more ironic.
Chloe mumbled something too quickly to understand.
“Chloe, please speak clearly when you’re on comm, over,” I said.
“I said watch out for the witch, over,” she said. A high-pitched note cracked in her voice.
“Um, sure. That house over there, the one Chloe picked out, over,” I said. If Chloe was panicking, it was best to indulge her. I couldn’t decide whether to worry or be annoyed. Feeling the reassuring, second-nature weight of my foldie on my back and the strap of the holster, I forced myself to calm down. I’d been out to these areas before, or close to them, anyway.
The house Chloe had chosen was more intact than the rest, with a big attached garage that had diamond-paned windows on top. It was older in style, according to what I remembered from school, but not ancient like some of the smaller places. Half of those, more than half, were in awful shape or had already been pillaged. That meant the walls would probably be in awful shape, but if the mold hadn’t completely taken over and if its original owners hadn’t returned to ransack it, it might be a gold mine. You could never tell until you took the door down. There were a few times in training for my Level 3 when we’d even found ancient bodies, still, preserved, and picked clean to the bone, lying peacefully in the houses.
Just then, Jay broke comm protocol. “Hey! Look!” I turned, and in the grime on the street, there was something glittering.
I knelt down and picked it up, examining it through the dark lenses of the mask. “Looks like a button. A nice one, too. Plastic. Not worth breaking protocol for, over.” I handed it back to her. “That’d be nice for a sweater or a brooch, over.”
Jay surveyed the ground closely as she took a step or two closer to the house. I wondered what had caught her attention this time.
“Sorry for breaking protocol, but I found another one! Over.”
“Cool! Over.” She held it up, a brassy thing this time, with a bit of plastic in its centre.  
“Good start! How do you guys feel about the garage? Over.” Aiden sounded hopeful, and I didn’t blame him; it wasn’t every day you found things lying in the street, in good condition.
I cleared my throat nervously and decided, hell with it, I’d be honest with them. “I won’t lie, guys, I have a weird feeling that we should just head back. Over.”
I’d intended to make this Aiden’s show, since it was his shopping trip, but I will admit that being Up changes me. It’s the one place I’m willing to lead. Normally I’ll say my bit, but I won’t disrupt the order of things. When I’m Up, I feel calm.
Usually, anyway. Today, we were all jittery. I couldn’t help cranking my neck around, watching for hidden eyes.
“Neg, let’s stick around for a bit, since we came all this way—over,” said Aiden. It was a reasonable request, and I wondered if I was being silly.
“I know what you’re saying, Aiden, but I don’t like this either and I’m going to flip my lid if I have to stay out here much longer. Over,” said Chloe.
“Widen frequency range to open, guys. We’re pushing the boundaries and I don’t want any accidents, over,” I said decisively.
At this point, we’d been standing still, in our diamond shape, backs towards each other—there was a soft stirring in the grass, a faint breeze, but I thought I heard something rustling as well.
“We haven’t got all day, guys. We’ve been walking around for at least forty five minutes, over,” said Aiden.
Chloe stuffed her gun back in the holster and broke, running for the house.
“Chloe! What are you doing! Over!”
She didn’t answer, but her breathing sounded harsh and frightened.
I shook my head in frustration, and did something stupid and logical—I ran after her. 

****

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