The Dreams of Ruin: The Review

Truthfully, this will be more of an “overview” of The Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski than a review. Being friends with Geoof and having written for him, plus being a huge fan of the out there weird fiction science fantasy that populates the spaces in Geoff’s head between gardening and economics (no, really) I am not really qualified to give you an unbiased review of the book. That said, my goal isn’t to simply sell you the book either, except by telling you what it is, for real, and if that’s a thing you want to experience (and it should be) then go out there and get it. Or, well, click here.

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 The Dreams of Ruin (DoR) is a 261 page supplement for Labyrinth Lord and Mutant future, so called Old School Renaissance games published via the Open Games License by Goblinoid Games. As such, the book is compatible with most other old school rules systems, from Swords and Wizardry to OSRIC and, with a little more work, the likes of  Basic Fantasy and Castles and Crusades. It is not a complete game, but is also more than simply a setting book or an adventure. Aimed at high level (15th or higher) play it is designed to give epic heroes a run for their money.

 

Setting and Tone

The title refers to a setting element that can best be described as an inter-dimensional infestation or infection — a world ending seepage across realities that takes the form of a terrible, primeval dark forest haunted by corrupted beats, faceless puppets and hate filled unseelie Fair Folk. It is at once the villain of the piece as well as the location in which adventures take place, and due to its pan-dimensional existence it can contain elements from worlds of fantasy, science fiction and every permutation of the two together. this is the key component of the DoR from a genre standpoint: it hearkens back to the weird fiction roots of D&D, where elephant headed alien gods entertained Cimmerian barbarians and fantastic city states of the dead sat on the ruins of a billion year old Earth. In an era of fantasy dominated by Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire on botht eh page and the screen, it can be easily forgotten that what we call the fantasy genre started out much more diverse and stranger than it appears today.

 

If you are familiar with Geoff Grabowski’s work as line devloper of White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted RPG the fusion of epic struggle and science-fantastical elements that dominated that game are here as well, though in a much more focused manner.

 

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The art of DoR is evocative of that same weird fantasy vibe. It ranges in both polish and quality but never wavers in tone. Whether it is a horned devil encased in power armor or a Puppet of Ruin (seen in the image above) massacre, the art remind the reader that this fantasy is different than the endless stream of heroic quests that have come before it.

 

In tone, the writing of DoR is generally conversational. The author addresses readers’ (presumably Game Masters) concerns directly, anticipating questions and alternating between readable prose and bullet points. He wants you to be able to understand this stuff so that you can use it in your game, which is often forgotten by game designers and authors. This book is full of strange ideas and non-standard fantastic elements and the author endeavors to get you to understand and accept those elements before moving on to the next bit. That said, it is not “simplistic” and the book does not appear to be written for the Game Master new to the craft or new to Old School games. it is safe to say that the author expects that your campaign reached the suggested high levels through actual play and therefore the GM knows how to run the game and incorporate new ideas.

 

Nuts and Bolts

The Dreams of Ruin is more than a descriptive book. The author develops a numbner of subsystems that provide concrete guidelines on how to implement the DoR into a campaign. The two most important are the rules governing how the “dark forest” manifestation of the Dreams works in play, and the rules for actually overcoming the threat of the dreams.

 

As stated above, the DoR are an infection in the world. Not surprisingly, that means it starts out small and grows in both size and virulence. In the parlance of DoR, the Dreams go through a series of Blossomings before they consume the whole world. The author lays out in meticulous detail how each blossing occurs, including tables for the size of the Dreams as they spread. In addition, each stage of the Dreams is given its own encounter tables and associated rules. It is possible using these rules to divorce the Dreams from its world ending aspects and simply use it as a very dangerous zone in the campaign world.

 

In addition to encounter tables, there are rules for the effects the Dreams have on those that travel through the forest (hint: it isn’t good) and the various sorts of entities and hazards that fill the Dreams. These are more than quick stat blocks. there is an ecosystem of terror here, with warring factions and dangerous interlopers — because of the inter-dimensional nature of the DoR, almost any sort of terror or treasure can be found within. Make no mistake, this is a truly high level threat zone and low level characters attempting to pass through, even briefly, will very likely meet a grotesquely cruel end.

 

The other major rules component covers how the player characters can actually cleanse their world of the infection that are the DoR. This is not simple task of killing a boss monster or casting a high level spell. Instead, a detailed process of research and experimentation is laid out. There are the usual assortment of new spells and magic items, but in order to “win” the player characters will have to understand the threat their world faces and then develop a method by which to counter it. It is a long process that engages players as well as their characters and gives the GM a built in system for motivating investigation and adventure. Most of all, the process is as spectacular as one would expect to be undertaken by PCs that amount to godlings themselves.  For example, one of the prescribed methods to stem the tide of the Dreams is referred to in the book as “Massive Geomancy.”

 

Final Word

The Dreams of Ruin is unlike anything currently on the market for Old School Renaissance games. It considerably expands the horizon of that particular subgenre of adventure game fantasy, inviting the audience into a world where slaying the dragon and saving the princess are barely more  interesting than doing the dishes. It embraces the weird fiction influence of the past while being wholly original. And while I will not give it a grade due to my personal relationship with its creator, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who enjoys OSR gaming and wants to try something out of this world.

 

For a few more days as of this writing you can back the Dreams of Ruin Kickstarter here. You can even get a copy of the game here beforehand and then decide that Geoff deserves your support. If you want more information, read my interview with Geoff here.

 

Happy gaming.

Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

Comic Books and Genre Freedom

I recently purchased a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, a Netflix like service from Marvel Comics that lets you read tens of thousands of older (from the earliest days to just six months old) Marvel Comics. I dove right into The Mighty Thor series from the 1960s, specifically Walt Simonson’s run. Those stories always seem to top “Best of” lists not only for Thor but for Silver Age Marvel Comics in general, and since I am not nearly as well versed in Marvel lore as I am DC, I thought it would be worth my time.

 

And boy has it been so far. The most surprising aspect of the run is how modern it feels, relatively speaking. Both the art and the writing would have me place the book much closer to the 1980s, when I started reading DC Comics. The other thing that struck was just how Out There the stories are, not only steeped in Norse mythology but also science fiction and cosmic horror and, of course, super-heroic derring do. If you have never read the saga of Beta Ray Bill, alien champion who wins the mantle of Thunder God, I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience.

 

The “Out There” quality is what inspired this post, as recognizing it helped me coalesce a thought that has been swirling about in my head will-o-the-wisp like for ages: in comic books, it seems to me, one has license to break the rules of genre as nowhere else. That is, in comic books, be they superhero tales or science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, there is an implicit freedom to go a little gonzo and let your imagination run wild. Sure, there are many slice of life, realistic and even “hard” sci-fi and “low” fantasy comics out there, but by and large, comics are a place where creators are keen to indulge their most extreme flights of fantasy, often to the benefit of their readers.

 

Allow me to present a personal example: I have had, for some time, this idea about a “reverse Superman” of sorts — a human character from Earth who, when he travels to another planet, he gains super-human powers. In this tale, the “planet” is actually a system of moons around a super-Jupiter, and it is the strange radiation from that world that gives the protagonist his powers. The hero is the fiance of an alien princess who was “slumming” on Earth before her pre-arranged marriage but fell in love with our hero. When she was forcibly escorted back by the agents of her father and husband-to-be, he stowed away and only upon their arrival did he learn of his powers. The moon worlds are all pulp sci-fi environment worlds — and ice planet and a desert planet and an ocean planet, etc… — and his adventures are equally operatic.

 

It used to be that this sort of non- or wrong-science adventure was the province of the pulp magazines. Over the years, though, prose science fiction and fantasy has gained a certain level of respectability, or at least there is a level of expectation from fandom that works will be either “realistic” or, at the very least, quite serious in their treatment of fantastic elements. But in comics, that unwritten rule has never taken hold. In comics, John Carter can still adventure on Mars and Thor, God of Thunder, can team up with a genetically engineered cyborg hero to fight demons from a dimension beyond space and time.

 

Why is that? When Simonson was writing, at least, one could point to comics as a medium aimed at children, so adherence to any sort of scientific or internally-consistent standard was unnecessary, even unwelcome. My response is: Perhaps, but that does not explain why comics continue to be that way now. We still accept an alien from Krypton who can fly under the power of our yellow sun’s radiation and who fights cyborgs powered by pieces of his dead homeworld. Ridiculousness, to be sure, but both acceptable and preferred, even. Comics readership has gotten older with each passing decade, and more and more speculative fiction media, including the newest in the form of video games, tries to enter the field with solid grounding and “realistic” speculative elements.

 

I think it because strange ideas, the kind of things present in the pulps of yore, are more easily conveyed through the juxtaposition of image and art and that we, as a community of readers of speculative fiction, still need a little gozo to go with our hard sci-fi, low fantasy and psychological horror. In a few strokes of an artists pen and a few captions of a writer’s words, whole worlds can be created. Moreover, because most of us do come to comics when we are children or adolescents, we retain a childlike wonder in engaging comics and are more accepting of the wondrous in panels and thought balloons.

 

Sometimes I worry that I am simply being “lazy” wanting to write comics instead of prose, but the reality is that often what I am looking for is not ease of creation — it is said Allan Moore’s scripts are longer than most novels, and he is perhaps the greatest of all writers who embrace the gonzo aspect of comics storytelling — but the freedom to use ideas I fear are not “acceptable” for prose, like humans made interplanetary superheroes by way of gas-giant radiation belts.

 

Off the Rails…

This is one of those pieces that started strong and just sort of slowly drifted off the rails — a silent train wreck, if you will. I often wonder how these things happen, and the most likely answer is a combination of not knowing where I want to end the piece and being unwilling to stop and reassess  Too often, I am determined to “finish” no matter what and that can lead my writing down rugged trail full of pitfalls and switchbacks. As usual, I think there’s a seed of an idea here, something worth keeping for a future story or work, even if this particular expression of it came undone.

———-

John

Do not panic. It is absolutely imperative that you read this message all the way through. Do not go off half cocked halfway through it. I know you will want to, but don’t. Everything depends that you read it all and remember it before doing anything else.

First: this is true. Every word of it. It is real. Do not think Augie is pulling a prank on you or you’re going crazy or whatever else is going through your head right now. The thing you really think that you do not want to believe is the truth and you know it. You have to accept three simple facts: I am your twin brother, I died two and a half years ago in a motorcycle accident, and I am leaving you a note on your bedside table on the eve of the Apocalypse.

Honest, bro, I would have left it sooner if I could. I would have given you the heads up the day after I died if I could have, because I saw it. It was the first thing I saw. It’s the first thing everyone sees, I think, when you die. You see the end of the world, when everyone else dies, too. Then you wait, alone and unable to talk to anyone. It’s Hell, but not like you’re about to see. Anyway, I couldn’t let you know. I couldn’t leave a note like this or do anything else beyond opening a few cabinets and spelling my name in your Cheerios – which you did not even notice, by the way – until it happened. I can touch and do and move stuff now. It is kind of funny, though, since I am still invisible and the world is ending anyway and you’ll be dead soon, too.

Sorry about that. The fact that you are about to die is inevitable. It’s not just you. It’s everyone. Time has literally run out for the human race. Soon, everyone will be a corpse: you, Mom and Dad, Liv and Melanie, the nieces, that jerk Steve at the office. Everyone. I don’t mean to belabor the point but I just want to make sure you get it before we go on: you’re dead and so is everyone else and there is nothing you can do about it. This is not about surviving or saving the world , so get that out of your head.

I know that sounds bad and defeatists and makes you wonder why bother and all, but bear with me. Just because you are going to die doesn’t mean you can’t do some important stuff in the meantime.

Let me back up: the world is ending. I told you that. What I have not mentioned yet is that the world is ending because the Elder Horrors of the dawn of time have finally found Earth and are, right now, as you read this, devouring it and everyone on it. I know you can hear the sirens in the background and you think it is just normal city life stuff, but it isn’t.

I’ll prove it. Go over to your window and peak through the blinds. Be careful. Don’t let it see you.

See? I told you. Change your pants and get back to reading. Everything I write from now on is important. It won’t saver your life but it will save your soul if you do everything I say.

Soul. Right. I almost forgot. Okay, it is super complicated and I can hardly comprehend it myself, let alone write it down in a way that you will be able to understand, but the long and short of it is that souls exist and they can be eaten by horrible monsters from the dawn of time. At the moment of the Big Bang, in addition to every particle ever to exist in the universe, Evil was made. (No, Good was not made, too; Good is just the absence of Evil, like darkness is the absence of light.) The soul is the quantum fluctuations that define you and me and every other sentient being in the cosmos. Unfortunately, they are really tasty to the Elder Thing and its friends you just saw. These souls, though, they exist because sentience exists. All those neurons and smaller structures interacting creates them on the quantum scale. As long as the sentience that created it is alive, the soul is attached to the body. But when the body dis, the sentience continues to exist as an independent entity. And tasty snack for Elder Things from the Dawn of Time.

Usually, souls just float off into an other-where, where time is meaningless and existence persists forever-ish. The thing is, though, that the Elder Things sort of drag Eternity back down into the semi-physical realm – hence the writing with the pen and stuff. This is a side effect of its hunting strategy. When one of these monsters kills a sentient, that sentient’s soul is caught in that distortion and can be destroyed – forever annihilated out of its quantum existence. That’s real death, irrevocable and inescapable. Like I said, a tasty snack.

So there we are. That’s the situation. What I want to do now is get you away from the Elder Things before you die within one of their distortion fields so you don’t get annihilated and we can enjoy the afterlife together, haunting the dead husk of a planet those things will leave behind. Not, much, I know, but we play the hand we’re dealt.

One of the nice things about being dead is that time becomes kind of meaningless and you see and experience everything more or less simultaneously. That means you read what I am about to write and you do exactly as it says because I know what I am talking about. No deviations and no arguments, or you end up a completely destroyed with no chance to irritate me for the rest of eternity.

I thought that would pique your interest.

Now, you may notice that in the time it has taken you to read the previous few paragraphs, the unnameable colossus outside your window has moved on in its insatiable desire for quantum souls. You’re welcome. That’s why I wrote them. I told you it all became clear after you die. In a minute though, you are going to have to move fast, so read carefully and then do it exactly.

Leave your apartment and head toward the north stairwell. Do not try and use the elevator. Go up to the fourteenth floor and cut across the building to the south stairwell. Take that all the way down to the lobby. When you are safely in the alley across the street start reading again.

Sorry about that, those insect-snake-people things in the lobby. If I told you about them you would have not gone that way and you would have run into the spider squid things. Trust me, you got off easy. And I know you’re freaking out because that one talked a lot like Mrs. Bentley in 510C. Well, that’s because it was – “was” being the operative word. But it is done now. Pull yourself together, wipe the ichor off your hands and face, and keep reading.

You are going to head down 3rd street toward West Main. I can sense you arguing but just do it. Yes, it seems like you are getting closer to the Elder Thing, and you are. But trust me, it will stop and change direction. There are thousands of people hiding in the stadium right now and it is going to go at it like a fat man at China Buffet. You just take West Main toward the river and you will put some distance between it and you. Avoid other people, too. Some of them are just as scared as you are, but most of them are even more scared and when people get scared they get mean and stupid. If anyone tries to stop you, hit them. Hit them in the head until their brains pour out. If you don’t, they’ll do it to you first and if that happens when you’re still too close to the monsters, it’s over. I mean, Over over.

Go. Get to Riverside Park and then read more.

I would apologize again but I warned you. Those people didn’t deserve it, but it had to be done. None of them matter. It is just you and me, bro.

You should be feeling the first tremors about now. I should have mentioned them earlier but I wanted to make sure you were moving in the right direction first. When I wrote that everyone was going to die, I meant it. The Elder Things are tearing the Earth apart by its very gravity. When they manage to split it, it will because another asteroid field in the solar system. All we can hope for is that you are in a zone far away from one of the Things, so that you do not end up extinguished as your soul is devoured.

On pier twenty-six there is a boat in good working order. The owner is named David and his wife, Terese, and children Annie and Glen are on it. He is going to refuse to pull up anchor and leave the city. He is going to tell you it is suicide on the open sea. He is going to pull a gun on you and threaten to shoot you if you don’t get off his boat.

You have to kill him.

David has never even fired that gun. He bought it for “protection” three years ago and has never used it. He doesn’t even know how to clean it. So when he waves it at you, you can take it from him. He is going to fight you. He might be old, but he is strong and if you wrestle around with him he is going to end up with barrel pressed against your skull. You can’t let that happen. Win or lose, then, and it is too late. You won’t have time to get away.

Terese and the kids will leave, after you kill David.

Underground

I know you are expecting the post-Apocalyptic cannibal Soylent Green story, but this was something I started early on in the 100 Days, 100K process and wanted to finish. Like many stories I write, I asked for inspiration from among my friends on Facebook. In this case, i wanted to write some horror, so I asked them what scared them This is the melding of a few of those answers. In addition, it is definitely near future sci-fi as well as being horror, most because I try and keep a lot of stories in one particulr milieu that stretches from the present to the post-Post-Apocalypse.

———–

Laura hurried toward the underground station as fast as she dared in the tall, narrow heels she wore. Had she made a run for it, she might have made it to the crosswalk before the light changed. As it was she stopped at the curb and swore. She tried to stretch her short dress down and the top up up while she waited, refusing eye contact with any of the other waiting pedestrians.

The talkie wrapped around the back of her ear vibrated and she jumped involuntarily. She had forgotten to set it back to chime after she left the nightclub. “Answer,” she said. She ignored the snerks from the twenty-something girls behind her. It was a generational thing. No doubt they had implanted thinkies, like all the cool kids. Laura was neither cool nor a kid, even if for one night she decided to pretend she was.

“Mrs. Cooper?” Anita asked in her ear.

“I know. I’m sorry,” she said as quietly as she could. “My meeting ran late,” she lied, unless one considered a furtive liaison with a married coworker a “meeting.” “I’m just getting to the U now. I’ll double your rate for the extra hour, I promise.”

“No, it’s not that,” said Anita but Laura was not listening. The light had changed and the small herd of pedestrians that had gathered moved suddenly forward. She tried to weave around a pair of young men in business suits but they were oblivious to her or the way they took up the whole lane.

“Mrs. Cooper?” Anita repeated. “Something weird is happening.”

Laura’s throat tightened with fear and her gut twisted with guilt. “Is Andy alright?” she asked, no longer trying to be quiet. In her head, she railed, All I wanted was to go out and get drunk and get laid, have a little goddamn fun for once! Thoughts like that, unbidden and powerful and true, were the real reason she never transitioned to a thinkie.

“No, Andy’s fine. He’s playing with his puzzle thing.”

Finally across, Laura was able to swerve around the two men and leave the snickering debutantes behind. “So what’s the problem,” she asked, annoyed. As she stepped onto the escalator leading down into the station, she heard Anita’s answer drop out. A few seconds later, her talkie latched onto the U-Fi signal.

“–people. It’s really weird,” Anita was finishing.

“Okay,” said Laura. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be home soon. I’m just a few stops away.”

Anita paused and her voice shook when she said, “Okay, Mrs. Cooper, if you say so.”

Laura  said, “Bye,” sharply, more to the talkie than to Anita. She was a sweet girl and lived in the building, and Andy was very fond of her, but she exasperated Laura with her constant worrying. Laura supposed it was what made her such a good sitter for Andy, between his complicated medications and his stimulation issues. She made a mental note to give Anita an extra big tip tonight.

She looked up into nowhere and her display appeared. She blinked and rolled her eyes, bringing up the time and the train schedule. It was already sitting at the platform. Dammit. Laura pushed her way down the escalator, ignoring the dirty looks of the people she jostled aside. Her head was swimming a little as both the cosmopolitans and the post coital endorphins wore off. Get to the train, she thought. You can rest easy then.

She made it, but just barely. If an old man with a follow-along had not had trouble getting the little robot suitcase onto the train, the doors would have closed before she got there. She thanked the powers that be for stupid machines and slumped down into an empty, backward facing seat. The car was near the back, since she jumped in one of the first she had gotten to, and sparsely populated. Most of the sensible folks had gone home hours ago.

Half a moment later, the doors hissed closed and her talkie came alive of its own accord with the spiel from the train: rules, safety procedures and stop information. Her display, also unbidden, highlighted the emergency exists before flashing an advertisement for an online dating service and then disappearing again.

The train hummed quietly as it moved and rocked ever so gently. Laura let herself sink deeper into the seat, putting a foot up on the seat in front of her and sliding down so her bare cheeks touched the cool plastic. That’s right, she recalled. He had kept her panties. Tomorrow was going to be awkward. She put her purse on her lap to ensure some semblance of modesty in case she fell asleep and slid further down.

Sleep almost nabbed her but her talkie buzzed again. She bolted up, causing her skin to rub uncomfortably against the chair. She adjusted herself, getting the thin skirt between her and the chair again, before growling, “Answer.”

Anita was crying. “Mrs. Cooper?” she sobbed. There were strange noises in the distance and, closer, the unmistakable sound of Andy whimpering. Laura could see him in her mind’s eye, sitting on the floor, knees pulled to his chest, hands cupped over his ears, rocking. She thought she heard him say, “Get away from the window.”

“Anita!” barked Laura in the Sales Manager tone she used with underperforming interns and over-friendly colleagues. “Calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”

“Something is happening,” Anita said. “There’s people in the street and I think they have guns.”

“What? Anita, that’s impossible. There are no guns allowed in our–”

She was interrupted by a strange sound from the talkie. There was a whoosh and a gurgle and a clunk and then something like a muffled scream from Andy. “Anita!” Laura said, then again, yelling. She looked around and she knew something was wrong. Other passengers were talking rapidly or scanning their displays or thinking at other parties. “Anita! Are you–”

“Mommy?”

Laura’s breath caught in her throat. “Andy?” she asked as calmly as she could manage. “Are you okay? Where’s Anita, baby?”

“She fell down,” Andy said in his usual distant tone. “She is bleeding. I told her to get away from the window.”

Oh, God, thought Laura. What the hell is going on?

“Andy, I need you to call the police. Do you remember how to call the police?”

“Yes, Mommy, but I don’t think–”

The train stopped. It did not screech to a halt or lose power and coast, it just stopped. Everything went dark and the hum of the magnets below turned suddenly to the sound of metal screaming against metal and the train stopped. The passengers did not. Most of them were flung forward, bounding off the hand bars and poles or careening into chairs or windows or one another. Laura was thrown against the seat she was in and the breath was knocked out of her and starbursts filled her vision.

It was over in an instant but she did not know how long she sat motionless, afraid that if she tried to move she would discover that her back was broken or that she had been impaled on something. There was no light at all except for the false light of her display. It read, “No signal.” She checked the talkie. It was functioning but in the Underground without the U-Fi network, it was useless.

In the darkness, someone moaned in agony. Farther away, screams of pain and calls for help. Laura set her jaw and refused to cry out. If she started now, she wouldn’t stop. She waited, taking one deep, ragged breath after another and letting it in a slow, controlled exhale. She watched the clock in her display. Ten minutes went by. Some voices in the darkness silenced while other intensified. She thought there should be emergency lights in the tunnel, but if there were, they did not turn on. The pungent darkness, stinking of insides let out, human and mechanical, seemed to grow darker and heavier with each passing moment.

“Go”, she said to herself but did not move. Inside, she responded, Rescuers will come. “Andy needs you now,” she hissed through a set jaw. Andy needs me.

Laura groped in the unfathomable pitch until her hand found the cool metal of the bar on the back of her seat. Unsteadily, she pulled herself to her feet. Her back and ribs ached, but nothing seemed broken. Ridiculously, she pulled down her skirt as she stood. She had never experienced darkness like it before, she realized. Even on the blackest night, some light somewhere slipped in, especially in the city. This was the literal absence of all light and she suddenly felt very uncertain. Her first step was tiny, her knees wobbling and her body shaking uncontrollable. She groped forward with the other hand in search of the next seat-back hand bar and refusing to let go of the one she held until she had found it. When she did, she took another step forward, shaking still but more certain.

Five steps later, the thundering in her chest subsided and her body stopped shaking. She adjusted to the distance between the seats and she moved with confidence. Reach. Step. Reach. Step. Reach. Nothing. She stumbled suddenly. Goddamn door, she thought too late as she tried to catch her balance, waving her arms like antennae before her. She might have caught the bar before she fell if her foot had not landed on a soft, slick mass. She panicked and her weight shifted and she felt her heel sink in. Her ankle twisted with a pop and she cried out. As she went down, her fingers caressed a hand bar slick with blood and her head caught the corner of a seat back. She landed in a heap, spinning in the darkness, on top of a motionless body. She tried to roll off the body buy just found her face pressed against his — she could feel the stubble on his chin. She started to scream but it turned into a heave and vomit spewed onto the dead man.

Laura sobbed uncontrollably in the darkness. She had not made it half the length of this one car. She would never escape. She would die here. Andy would be left alone against whatever was happening out there.

Between sobs, she heard a sound. It was coming from ahead of her in the blackness. It was a voice, low and weak, but not an agonized moan like the others. It was a word, she was sure, but she could not make it out. The need to know was enough to stifle her hysteria and she picked herself up from the vomit covered corpse. Slowly, carefully, Laura stumbled and groped her way toward the sound.

As she approached, Laura determined the voice belonged to a young man. She followed the repeated word, this dying man’s mantra, until her hands found him in the darkness. First she found his knees, then his face, and finally the vertical hand bar. All were slick with blood and too close to one another.

“Light,” the young man repeated, each time a little weaker and more frightened than the time before.

Laura did not think he was asking for light. She groped the man’s broken form until she found his pockets. She rummaged through each one, listening to him say the word over and over, until in his front pocket — he was so bent by his collision with the hand pole she could not tell in the dark whether it was left or right — she felt a small, cool metal cylinder. She fumbled with it until she found a soft button on one end of the cylinder.

Laura pushed the button and immediately wished she had not.

The opposite end of the cylinder exploded with pale white LED light, so bright and powerful it initially blinded Laura. The man from which she had taken it was the first thing she saw. His body was bent impossibly around the pole, his legs akimbo and his torso twisted into a knot. He tried to smile, said, “Light,” again, and expired with a tortured shudder.

In her foolish desire to not watch a man die, Laura turned the light away from him. It’s bright, ghost glow revealed an abattoir, the most foul and uncompromising laws of physics on bloody display. She understood suddenly how lucky she had been when the train came to its instantaneous halt. The other passengers, those in side facing seats or standing, had been flung forward and crushed, rent and split by their inevitable impacts with the car, it’s furnishings and the other occupants.

Laura vomited again.

Soon she was empty — of alcohol, of food, of horror and of despair. All that was left inside her was a relentless ache, a need to get to Andy. She put the flashlight in her mouth, gripping it with her teeth, in order to free both hands so she could steady herself as she picked her way through the corpses on unsteady legs.

When the train had stopped, her car and the next had collided and, with nowhere else to go, skipped sideways. Though each door to the other was shattered and open, they were off center from one another. The opening between the cars was less than a foot wide. Laura made her way to the opening and between the twisted frames while shining the light. The next car looked much like her own, painted red and littered with crash dummies. At the far end, however, she could see the doors to the next car were open wider and beyond she made out a soft glow. A weak salve of hope comforted the ache inside and she tried to push through the gap to the next car.

Despite at he contortions and squeezing, only one bare, blood smeared leg fit though. The hope began to dissipate and the ache grew and she screamed and sobbed wretched filth at the universe. When her rage was spent she forced herself to breathe and think and finally the answer came. Laura pulled herself out of her cocktail dress. She knelt down and scopped up handfuls of cooling viscera and smeared it over her ever naked inch. Gripping the light again in her mouth, she pulled apart the doors as hard as she could and pushed.

Naked, bloody and bawling, Laura forced her way through the gap one part at a time: an arm, a leg, a breast, her head, the other breast, her hips, and finally the rest of her spilled out and she landed in a heap, gasping for breath. When she had regained some of her strength, she half heartedly reached through the gap to retrieve her dress. Laying as it was in the pool of blood and worse, the dress was unwearable. Instead, laura cast around until she found a jacket that had been shoved onto the overhead rack. It was relatively clean and dry and covered most of her. She put it on and once again clambered through a slaughterhouse killing floor to get to the next car.

When she arrived she saw that the car beyond this one was turned on its side. It looked as though she could climb through and up onto the side, not the roof, of the next car and travel that way, which seemed an easier path than navigating the seatbacks, especially littered as they were with bodies. Ahead, the glow brightened and was perhaps two or three cars beyond this one. Happy not to have to wade through blood and corpses, Laura clawed and scrambled her way on top of the next car and half crawled, half pulled herself along its length. The next car was oriented correctly and just as she began to slide her way down into it, since there was not so much room between her and the ceiling fixtures atop the next car, she saw one of the distant lights wink out of existence. It reappeared suddenly and she realized there had been movement just as she heard voices.

Laura’s first instinct was to cry out but with the flashlight in her mouth she could not. She reached to take it from her lips and call for help when she heard a distinct sound — she likened it to  when you take an air pump off an over-filled bicycle tire — followed by a brief, pained graon. She put her hand over the lit end of the flashlight and held her breath. She heard a muffled almost mechanical voice that sounded like a command and then heavy footsteps echoing in the tunnel. They grew louder.

Laura fumbled with the flashlight. She managed to press the button and turn it off but as she did her blood-slick fingers lost hold of it and it fell. It rolled away and tipped off the end of the car, landing with a clatter. The footsteps stopped. A moment later, they resumed, louder and faster than before, getting closer.

Soon they were in the car on which Laura lay. At first she could make out nothing of them, only hearing their rough movements and oncomprehensible commands as they climbed over the seats of the turned car. Then a light appeared, some sort of flare thrown by one of them. The light was dim and orange, hardly enough to see by. She made out figures in black vinyl or leather wearing what looked like gas masks and goggles and carrying short barrelled, very heavy looking rifles. They could have been police or soldiers or aliens for all Laura could make out the details.

As they scanned the car, she held her breath. She was keenly aware of one naked breast pressed against the glass ceiling that had been a window, uncovered by the long jacket as she crawled. There was pained voice from below and the figures — she thought there was three of them — moved toward the sound. A heartbeat later, the air sound went off again and the voice silenced. The figures scanned the car, looked into the next, then left the way they had come. They never looked up.

Laura held her breath until her lungs burned and starbursts danced in front of her eyes. When she finally exhaled it was slowly and silently and she breathed in just as quietly. She did not move from her perch for a long time but eventually the ache of longing overcame her terror and she knew she had to move on.

It was dark save for the feeble orange glow of the flare. She let herself down clumsily but quietly and landed in the space between the flipped car and the next. She searched the darkness for her flashlight but her hands did not find it. Resigned to more darkness, she moved carefully forward, probing each step with her feet and keeping one hand always on a seat back. Soon she discovered that the lights she had seen were more flares, one or two every car for a half dozen cars. In their dim glow she made out a body or two in every car with a round, apparently cauterized hole in the head. She remembered the confusion in Anita’s description of what she saw and the terror in Andy’s voice. Her stomach churned and her heart pounded.

Three cars down the line Laura got her first whiff of cool, fresh air. She moved forward as fast as she dared. After two more train cars she could see a station. It was her station, mere blocks from her apartment building. It was illuminated by more of the flares but occasionally a brighter, white light would pour in from above like a searchlight shining down the escalator. Backlit by that light, she could make out three or four of the armed and armored figures standing guard on the platform. her blood froze and her resolve withered. She crouched down in the train car and sobbed silently. Part of her wanted to just walk up to the platform, just to end it. Let them shoot her. Andy was probably already dead, after all. And if not, he would be soon.

It was that thought, of her son huddled in a corner as the figures raised rifles at him, of Andy crying out for her in his last moments, of him being alone because she had let herself die before getting back to him, that galvanized her. Laura knew there had to be some way past the figures guarding the platform.

She crept forward as slowly and quietly as she could, peaking over the seats briefly every step to make sure the soldiers, if that was what they were, had not moved. In the station, the tracks tunnel widened and there was room on either side of the train. The train itself had sped past the station for at least a half dozen cars before colliding with whatever barrier had stopped it cold.

As she moved forward, Laura caught a glimpse of the sky through the escalator shaft. She thought she saw lights in building windows. She knew she saw flames and that sweeping white searchlight. Almost as soon as the sky became visible, her talky buzzed against the back of her ear, causing her to suppress a sharp cry, and her display popped up. “Searching.” She was getting a signal.

Ding-ding-dingding-diiiing chirped in one of the pockets of the jacket she wore. Loud. It occurred to her only then how old-school the jacket was. She searched the pockets swiftly until she found it: an honest to goodness pocket talkie, blinking and chirping as it acquired a signal and received messages and missed calls. Laura fumbled with the ting, unsure of how to turn it off, and looked up. The soldiers had left the platform.

Their heavy steps echoed in the pale orange glow. Their rifles cast long, strobing shadows whenever the search light passed. They moved silently, using hand signals, the four of them approaching the train car in methodical turns. A fist raised in the air by the lead soldier and they paused. Then the hand opened, fingers stiff and tight together, and waved sharply forward. They moved onto the train in a predatory pounce, perfectly executed. Their rifles puffed and cauterized holes appeared in three bodies. The lead soldier knelt and after a brief search withdrew the pocket talkie stuffed beneath a long dead passenger. “You have 19 messages,” it flashed.

Laura heard the rifles fire as she pulled herself onto the platform. She did not look back, but scrambled to her feet and sprinted. She was not going to make it. They were going to see her and shoot her in the back and she was going to die on the platform. When her feet hit the unmoving escalator, she heard the chirping of the pocket talkie stop. She dared to hope, just a little, and thrust herself forward up the escalator. Her sweat mixed with others blood on her naked flesh under the dead man’s jacket. Her breath came in fiery gasps. She cursed every skipped aerobics class, every time she took the elevator, every offer to watch a movie instead of go to the park with Andy.

Andy.

Laura growled like a mother bear and pulled herself up the escalator. The sound of boots and metallic, muffled voices speaking an unknown language followed her toward the street above. As she emerged into the open night air, she heard the distinct puff of one of their rifles and her left arm exploded in pain. She did not stop running. She emerged from the station access. Through the haze of pain and fatigue she saw an alley. It was comfortingly dark. Before this very moment, she would never have entered it walking alone at night. Now she ran for it with all her strength, turning the corner and clattering against the recyclotrons and composters. She pressed herself against the wall and held her breath and waited to die.

Minutes passed. Finally the adrenaline began to wear off and the pain in her arm became unbearable. She pulled the jacket off her shoulder to find a perfectly round, dime sized, black hole in her tricep. It had missed the bone and left a bloodless wound that ached like a long unattended dore tooth.

“Connection acquired,” appeared in her display. “Call home,” she started to say but a black-text-on-red crawled across her vision. “Emergency Broadcast Message!” it read. She still was not getting any sound in her talkie, just the unsettling buzz as it tried to connect to the city network.

Laura watched the scroll. Unprovoked attack. Stay indoors. Help is coming. Stay indoors. Do not attempt to engage the enemy. Stay indoors. Nothing of real value.

By then, the pain had subsided to a dull throb and the pounding in her ears of her own heart had lessened. She could hear distant sirens. She quieted herself and listened hard. There was the distant pop-pop-pop of gunfire and the thoombbbooow of explosions. Whatever was happening, it was big. A war? invasion? Whatever the case, there were good guys, too.

With her talkie still down, Laura rolled and shifted her eyes to navigate the menus until she brought up a map of the city. At least the GPS satellites were operating because she appeared as a blinking blue dot in an unnamed side street off 7th Avenue. “Directions home,” she said as loudly as she dared but the display did not change. The full network was still down, but Laura knew her way home from the station well enough to navigate with the map. She blinked twice and rolled her eyes and the map expanded by a half dozen blocks. Re dots appeared every few blocks on the map. She recognized them as emergency vehicles, usually used to help avoid traffic congestion. She found her street and building and saw a half dozen red dots surrounding it. There was no way to know what the dots represented: fire engines, police cruisers or Army tanks.

She knew she had to move. Sitting there, leaning against the wall, out of apparent immediate danger, her body had betrayed her. Her skin burned where she had scraped herself pushing through the doors. Her arm throbbed where she had been shot. Her legs were leaden with the sprint up the escalator. Her mouth was dry and her throat was parched and her eyelids were so very heavy. Then her mind joined the mutiny. No one had seen her. She was safe. She could hide for just a little while, just long enough to regain her strength. What did it matter anyway? She was just a forty something lady with all the sags and wrinkles to prove it and if she popped her head up it was likely to get blown off. Just like Anita.

Laura’s mind made the leap of its own accord: Anita to Andy, the pathway unarticulated but inherently understood, the way one remembers a childhood birthday party upon tasting cotton candy for the first time in years. She pushed against the wall until she was standing. She tied the jacket tight around her waist but kept it unbuttoned, not for modesty but for a feeling of cover and protection. Deliberately looking into her upper peripheral vision and lowly back to the center of her normal sight she dragged the city map into her regular field of view. Thinking a prayer to a God she had only ever heard her grandmother talk about, Laura pushed herself from off the wall and ran toward her building.

She kept to the side streets and alleyways, avoiding red dots whenever she could. The city was a battlefield. Police and what looked like the national guard battled the strangely clad soldiers while hoverers and flyers sparred in the sky with vehicles she had never seen before. Between her GPS display and luck she did not deserve, Laura arrived across the street from her building. Her heart sank. It was engulfed in flames. She bawled suddenly, uncontrollably and fell to her knees.

Strong hands grasped Laura by the shoulders and she shrieked. She tried to pull away but more hands grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet. She swore and spat and bit until someone gripped her face and turned her head sharply.She found herself staring into a fireman’s mask. “Calm down, lady, or I swear to god I’ll leave you here!” he screamed through his air filter.

The reality of it all struck her dumb and she went weak and compliant. As they walked her to a bus surrounded by city guardsmen, she saw an explosion tear through the lower levels of her building. It rumbled and coughed and then fell, collapsing vertically in a plume of ash, smoke and dust.

The firemen handed her off to a guardsman who asked her name. He stared at her when she mumbled it, obviously recording it, and then pushed her onto the bus. There were dozens of other people, covered in grime and blood, staring blankly ahead. Suddenly self conscious, Laura pulled the jacket closed and walked unsteadily down the aisle between the seats until she arrived at the back of the bus.

She was sitting, staring blankly out the large window at the burning city, before she realized there was a child next to her. He was sitting on the floor, almost under the seat in front of him, huddled with his knees in his chest and rocking.

“Oh, God,” sobbed Laura and reached out to him.

The bus lurched forward. The driver turned the wheel hard to make the sharp cut. He never saw the incoming missile, and even if he had, he could not have maneuvered the bus bus fast enough to avoid impact.

 ———-

Once again, I want to remind you if you enjoyed this story, please share it and this blog. My goal is to grow a readership. Also, feel free to comment. Almost everything that end up here is a first draft, so I look forward to constructive criticism.