ALLYBOT pt5: the City 2

forest in fog
Meeting attic
taken from the Texas Monitor, originally from shutterstock

ALLYBOT

The City pt.2 – the meeting

            “Kenneth!…”, the slender woman stood from the table, looking aghast.  Kenneth was smiling at them with an expression like an aristocrat that just had legal charges against him dropped.  Leah noticed that the woman was trembling slightly.  She raised a hand to her throat as she spoke. “…but you got mitted… by the Patrician authorities.”

            “And here. I. Stand”, Kenneth didn’t miss a beat.  He was still standing there, smiling with his hands out as if he were waiting for a group hug.  The teenaged boy and Juliette glanced at each other briefly before suddenly starting away from the table; heading for opposite sides of the room.  Leah pivoted sharply and headed back for the stairwell she came through.  As she darted, she honed her senses to detect movement near the exits. 

            Each of the people in this room was an accomplished thief.  As far as each of them knew, they had never fallen under suspicion of the common authorities.  The Patrician Force, however, was a more dangerous matter entirely.  The Patties were an elite network of taskforce investigators employed by the very wealthiest citizens of the New Democracy.  They were notorious for their brutal policies and sting operations.  If someone were arrested (or “mitted” as it was commonly called because of the glove-like clamps used during arrests) by the Patties, there was a good chance they would never be seen again. 

The fact that Kenneth was standing here, seemingly unharmed, strongly suggested that he had betrayed the group and that there was a Pat force outside even now, ready to bust the whole group.  Besides the bustling market overhead, Leah couldn’t detect any indication of people waiting in ambush.  If there is a task force up there, she thought, they must be remarkably well hidden.  No one else in this room knew about Leah’s augments; by her reckoning, a group sent to ambush a handful of thieves in the poorest district of Koster shouldn’t be prepared for what she could do.

            “Wait!”, Kenneth called out, raising his hands, “They don’t know I’m gone.” 

            Reggie was standing now, “It’s true Lads.  Let’s hear him out.”  Reggie seemed to address any group of people as “Lads”.  Why he did that was beyond anybody.  His family had been in Koster for several generations, and he’d spent his entire life here.  He was well known, and had family all over the city, deeply entrenched in Koster’s social ecosystem.  Addressing the long-haired woman, “I checked the place good.  I got here two hours early and I got guys watching the place.”  Over time, Leah had realized that Reggie had a penchant for hyperbole.  She guessed that “guys watching the place” meant a couple of cousins outside only barely inconspicuous. 

            “How did you know I’d be here?”  Kenneth had dropped his hands and was glaring at Reggie, “Are you always so cautious?”

            “Please!, I knew you were missing before you did.”  Reggie was tossing his cane back and forth between his hands, almost mindlessly, as he chuckled lightly.

            “Kenneth frowned comically, not even the guards know I’m missing…”  The rest of the room had remained frozen, but after glancing at Leah (who had turned back to the group), Juliette returned to her chair.  Lajuana turned back toward the table but didn’t sit.

            The woman eyed the two men cautiously, “You were mitted by the Patties…”

            Reggie’s expression turned to real concern, but Kenneth said, “Easy Zinf…  It’s not like they were after me.  I got pegged on someone else’s scene.  You were there!”  Rumor had gotten around that Kenneth had gotten picked up a few days ago for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Some crew of thugs had conspired to steal a rare jewel coming into Carver by ship.  Apparently, they had planned an elaborate ambush at the East dock, but it had been foiled by Pat Force agents who’d been waiting in an ambush of their own. 

Local constables, part of the operation but not in the inner loop, had picked up Kenneth for “looking suspicious”.  It wasn’t uncommon for the Patties to order anyone mitted this way to be held until they were satisfied with their related investigations, regardless of how innocent or even relevant to the case they were.  Such people were often forgotten about, and many had been held for weeks or even years. 

      Kenneth’s story checked out in the minds of all who were present (the local jailers were in no way a brilliant security force), but that didn’t explain how Reggie was able to get out.  After a moment’s thought, Leah addressed Zinf, “Were you two together when he got grabbed?”

She nodded once, “We were scoping out something else… didn’t pan out…  We were making our way out of the area when six Patties walked in with a flood of Badges.”  Local constables were commonly referred to as “Badges” because of the forest green and sapphire metals they wore on their chests.

“How did Kenneth get mitted?” continued Leah.

“We hadn’t gotten far from where we were…  We were waiting for a small caravan to go by.  Turns out the caravan was the sting.  Some of the guys working the score got into scuffles with the Badges, so we tried to shuffle away with the crowd…”

“…But one of those baby amateurs! Pushed a Badge into me and we both hit the ground.  They mitted me for looking suspicious!”  It was clear that Kenneth was highly annoyed by the entire affair. 

“Why?” Juliette spoke in a voice with high resonance.  She tended to blend her words together in such a way that it often seemed she was imitating song when she spoke.  Leah had included that in her report.  “Why’d they even bother to look at you?”

“I barely had time to hit the ground before the locals were all over me.  They helped the Badge up and started wailing on me.  You know how those animals are.”  Kenneth grunted in derision. Lajuana looked at Leah and they both glanced at Zinf, who was nodding mildly at Juliette. 

Reggie tapped his cane twice on the floor, “He’s here because he bribed a few guards.”  He said this while glancing from Juliette to Leah, then pausing a moment on Zinf before continuing, “Apparently no one thinks he’s worth anything to the investigation, and they don’t think any Patties will want to see him.  Just thought I’d throw that out before anyone asked…”  Juliette was about to speak, but Reggie held up a hand as he continued, and the green-clad teen frowned in annoyance, “But I think he and Zinf would disagree on how the job panned out.”

“No!”, Kenneth extended a hand in a gesture of warning, “I came here to make sure you didn’t go after it.”, he was looking at Zinf now, “Knowing you, you were gonna get this whole group after it.”

“Actually, we were about to discuss something else…”, Juliette said, suggesting that this discussion be closed.

“Fine, fine…  I need to get back to my cell before I become an actual suspect.”

Kenneth began to turn and leave when Lajuana asked, “What were they after?”  Kenneth paused and turned back to glare at Lajuana, but the young man pressed on, “What was the score they were after?  I mean, to get the Patties involved, it must-“

“They were after some jewel.  A brown crystal or something.  …not that you should worry yourself about it.”  It took everything in Leah not to visibly quicken at the mention of the stone.  “It wasn’t there anyway…”

“What?!”, Zinf almost hummed in surprised dismay, and everyone turned to look at her.  Leah thought she had never seen the woman look so surprised.  She looked more shocked at that moment than when Kenneth had first walked in.

Kenneth turned to Zinf, his face softening but taking on an expression of resignation, “The Patties replaced the thing with a fake.  The real one is supposed to be on its way here some other way.”

“If you know that,” Lajuana chimed in, glancing at Juliette, “then others know it too.  It might be that…”

“Best not worry about it, boy.”, Kenneth’s face now took on a strange, fatherly expression of disapproval.  Having been interrupted for the second time, it was Lajuana’s turn to frown in annoyance.  Kenneth went on anyway, “The Pats are all over that score, and they’re not gaming a bit.  I doubt those amateurs will see a trial.”  Lajuana said no more, and Kenneth waved the room goodbye, glancing once at Zinf before he left the room.

Leah let her senses follow Kenneth down the hall before he left through a stairwell that opened onto another alley.  “I came here to make sure you didn’t go after it.” His words stayed with her as she waited silently for Juliette to resume her proposal. 

The two teens who were not Leah outlined a job that would have them working in the upper-middle-class district.  An old shed on an empty residence was used to smuggle stolen goods into the market, where a wealthy merchant sold them to high-class clientele (at a heavily discounted price, of course).  The plan was to hit the shed just after a delivery when the score was the greatest.  The way it was planned, it should be a simple “smash and grab”, and Zinf had agreed to help Juliette with a preemptive recon. 

Leah was characteristically quiet during the meeting but agreed to help if Zinf and Juliette’s recon confirmed that it would be a worthwhile job.  Of course, she’d be watching the other thieves for their intel anyway. Learning who this “wealthy merchant” was would likely be more useful information to Leah than the score itself.

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 4 < > chapter 6

Special Author’s Note

Feeling more confident about Leah’s role in the story, I began dropping hints about her treachery in this chapter. She’s already established as a cautious and secretive loner; Leah’s dubious nature is beginning to be revealed.

I mentioned in the last post that this meeting would help to establish the stone as a possible McGuffin. While the dialogue suggests that it may be an object of incredible importance, it also presents a case where what people are chasing isn’t what they think it is. Clever readers may notice the signs of parallelism.

The last major purpose of this chapter is to continue the mystery around Leah by raising the stakes a bit. The group is talking about other jobs, while every conversation just makes Leah more interested in the stone. Also, who is Leah reporting to? Is Leah a thief or a spy?

I’m especially interested in criticisms of chapters like this one, since they kind of dance on that edge of being interesting or asanine. Let me know what you think of this chapter in the comments below.

ALLYBOT pt4: the City 1

forest in fog
reddit

ALLYBOT

The City part 1:  the inner city

     Leah had just entered Koster’s west entrance.  The stone slab doors opened onto the West Courtyard, which was busy with shops, cafes, and official buildings.  Most of the structures within the city were combinations of mud-brick and wood. Three main roads broke off from the entrance path, divided in part by the many buildings that lined them. 

     The north road on Leah’s left traced the inner north side of the city and inclined steadily until it connected to the East gate.  The city’s main road was the center path and took its name from the city.  It wound its way from the west gate into the city’s heart before breaking off into three more roads, further dividing the city’s districts.  On her right, Southern Lane led into Carver: Koster’s private district reserved for the higher aristocracy.  Southern Lane was slightly narrower than the north road and gated off at the courtyard. 

     Leah took Koster road as it led her past Zephyrs, the district home of most of Koster’s upper-middle class.  Since owning a private business in Koster required a battery of special permissions and privileges, most of the merchants and tradesmen fell into this category.  Few people waved at her as she moved through this area, and into downtown proper.

     Downtown was a queer arrangement of old buildings and skyscrapers, with all sorts of merchant tents and stands filling its alleyways.  An incredible range of smells filled the air from the myriad inks, fabrics, crafts, and cuisines found at all corners.

     Leah turned north just before the narrow lake that connected to the city’s port in the east.  Ivy Lane led through the Ivy Gardens: a community-driven mosh posh of gardens and farms.  This area was filled with hydroponic and aeroponic farms as well as greenhouses and public plots for community gardens.  Ivy Gardens was Leah’s favorite part of the city.  For her, it was reminiscent of the freedom she often felt when outside the city walls.  She came here regularly and selected this district for open meetings. 

     Ivy Lane eventually led into Zellwood, Koster’s poorest district.  Zellwood’s status on the social hierarchy was evident upon arrival.  People meandered aimlessly in ragged and unkempt clothes.  Barefoot children played in the streets as stray dogs speckled the scenery.  Most of the homes were weatherworn or incomplete.  Refuse littered the area as if debris had been scattered about like some kind of baroque décor. 

Mud-brick huts were organized in blocks, and between some of these blocks were alleys full of make-shift tents.  Leah and Gizmo approached the center of one such housing block where there was a gap between the buildings.  The beaten structures were nearly adjacent on the opposite side of the block from her, but here there was about a 3-meter-wide covered niche that extended halfway into the block.  The building was about 5 stories high, and in that niche was a small wooden deck on the third floor.

     Because it didn’t look too secure and didn’t connect across the gap, the deck was useful to almost no one.  Leah, however, found it extremely useful as it sat just outside her third-story apartment window.  She held on tight as Gizmo bounded between the building walls once and hopped onto the deck.  Gizmo’s “paws” were equipped with rubber polymer padding and each paw was equipped with retractable climbing claws.  Its hydraulic system enabled it to move almost exactly like a cat.  It could even right itself mid-fall to protect its rider. 

     Leah dismounted, and Gizmo curled itself into a sleeping position and powered down.  There was no doorway access from the shelf to the building, but Leah had rigged her window in such a way that she could easily enter and exit it.  She had completely replaced its locking mechanisms so that she could lock it and unlock it from the outside.  She took a second to use her heightened senses to evaluate her surroundings, making sure that she was truly alone, then entered her apartment.

     Little light came through the small studio’s only window.  Leah left the place intentionally cluttered.  A kitchen, sitting area, and simple bed seemed to fill the same space in such a tiny room.  The bed was furthest from the window and lay almost completely in shadow.  Leah crossed the apartment and knelt at the foot end of her bed.  The mat and frame were raised on four solid wood legs. 

The bed’s frame was old and heavy, but Leah easily raised one corner end to expose a key panel.  After selecting a small rectangular key from a secret pocket in her shoe she pressed it against the panel.  The bottom half of the leg slid down so that there was a hollow opening.  Leah dropped the sack with the brown stone into the leg opening and slid the leg back into place.  With a “whirr”, the locks fastened behind the surface, and the bed returned to its inconspicuous state. 

     Leah changed out of her black clothes into a thick, lime green blouse with short sleeves and gray trousers.  She secured her utility belt in a hidey-hole in the wall near her simple stove.  She was fortunate enough that her apartment’s bathroom had a privacy door.  She entered the bathroom and shut the door.  Removing one of the tile panels in the shower wall revealed another hidey-hole where Leah kept her coins.  She selected a few silver rings and put them in her trouser pockets. 

Taking a moment, she looked in the mirror to review her appearance.  She was dirty.  Her single simple braid held but was becoming disheveled.  There were holes in all of her clothes.  Perfect.  She left the bathroom and headed for the apartment door.  Before leaving, grabbed a small, shoulder strap purse from a rack hanging near the door, throwing it over her shoulder. 

     She locked the door, headed down the hall, and exited through the stairway onto the street.  Once outside, she headed back the way she came with Gizmo.  After a few blocks, she turned into an alley, covered at its entrance by several blankets to make a crude door.  The alley was shrouded in shadow but alive with orphaned or abandoned children trading simple wares. 

Those with food had the fanciest stations and were the only ones with actual booths.  There was almost always a larger teen posted near each of those to act as a guard.  Children trading clothes were huddled together in clumps at the far end of the alley and those with household wares occupied the stations at the fore-end.  Among the food carts, the middle center alley was speckled with sellers of miscellaneous items, and juvenile patrons perused the entire scene. 

     Leah was one of the older ones now and soon would find no place here unless she became a bodyguard to a food cart.  She moved to the Zellwood district at 14, just after graduating from the Ferretkata.  She made friends quickly and began working the streets as a pilferer and larcenist.  Before long, she was part of a small gang of crooks that mostly worked alone.  They shared intel with each other on jobs they pulled so that each of them could target booty from jobs that were conducive to each person’s skill.

     A pile of clothes lay in a sloppy stack in a cart that sold rags and wares.  Leah reached down near the edge of the pile and took hold of a hidden handle.  Bracing herself, she lifted until the entire pile of clothes shifted on the wooden panel covering a hole at the edge of a building.  Leah slid the panel to the side and stepped into the hole.  Her feet met a narrow stairwell that led down into the building’s basement.  Once inside, she slid the panel back over the hole and proceeded down the stairs.  At the bottom, Leah entered a dim room with a single hanging light over a round table.  Five chairs circled the table, while 3 others stood in random places around the room.  Three of the chairs at the table were occupied.  

     A long, slender woman with a pearly skin tone sat closest to Leah.  She wore a woolly, ankle-length gray dress and scrap-leather sandal flats.  Her long, brown hair fell loosely behind her but was well combed, and she wore round spectacles with the left lens missing.  Across the table from her, and on Leah’s right, sat an Asian teenaged boy in black shorts and vest.  He wore no shoes and no shirt but wore black biker’s gloves with the thumbs removed.  A riddled, black scarf was tied loosely around his neck, and he sat a little back from the table with his legs crossed. 

The third character sat next to the pearly-skinned woman, sipping from a traveling cup.  She was also a teenager, with her long hair dreaded and pulled back into a single long ponytail.  She exhibited strong African features and dark skin.  Her forest green blouse was lined with lime green trimmings and she wore the typical gray trousers you might see on almost anyone in Koster city.

     All of them regarded Leah as she descended the steps and watched as she approached the table.  Leah didn’t sit but nodded a greeting to each one in turn.  The outer edges of the room were hidden in shadow, so it was difficult to gauge how big the room was from its center.  Leah’s augments, however, allowed her to be fully aware of the room’s meager dimensions and of its two proper exits (one on Leah’s left, behind the two ladies, and one directly opposite her). 

She sensed Reggie before he opened the left door and strode casually into the room.  Despite being in his late sixties, he moved spryly and had a strong physique.  He had arrived in his usual gray vest and trousers, mute-blue shirt, and walking cane (which he didn’t need).  

     Reggie ignored the empty chairs at the table, instead of grabbing one near the door he came through.  Once he reached the table, he spun the chair backward and plopped down into it unceremoniously, sitting and resting his arms on the backrest.  His hair was mostly gray and, unlike most men of his age, he wore no facial hair.  Eyeing the four, he waved a curt greeting before, “I think this is everybody…,”.  

     The teenaged girl smiled humorlessly, “Let’s get started.  Lajuana,…”, she motioned to the young man.

     He motioned back agreeably and began, “Juliette and me found a mark north of the business district, but it may take everybody’s help.”  His hair was jet black and dropped straight down around his head.  In the murky light, his bangs seemed to totally obscure his eyes.  He had a surprisingly raspy voice for his youthful face.  “The cut’s not that big, but it’s worth the take.  We’re talking a few jewels and maybe some land rations…”  

     “Do you have a buyer?”, Reggie was looking back and forth between Juliette and Lajuana. 

    Juliette sat up in her chair, “We might have multiple bidders, but we can’t pull off the job alone.  We want to scope it out for any other takes, but even scoping it could be risky.  There’s no point in sticking our necks out if we can’t even get it done.”  

     Sensing someone approaching the far door, Leah lifted a warning hand.  She was met with bewildered glares before the far door opened and a middle-aged man in a brown shirt and black denim trousers strode in.  Shutting the door behind him, he strode forward and glanced at each of them, then opened his hands in a presentational welcome.

     “Kenneth!…”, the simply dressed woman rose from the table, looking aghast.  

…..

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 3 < > chapter 5

Special Author’s Note

I intentionally left Gizmo behind for a while to do some worldbuilding. We follow along with Leah as she ventures through the city that will be the backdrop for most of the story. Leah moves through the city pretty constantly, and I wanted to establish the basics for navigation as quickly and simply as I could.

The characters in this room are throw-away characters, but they’re being set up here with a potential plot forecast. Meanwhile, the stone is being set up as a possible McGuffin. The real purpose of this scene is to give more details about Leah so that the following events would have more relevance and context.

At this time in the writing, however, I still didn’t really know where the story would end up, but I was pretty sure that I wanted Leah to be the bad guy. I still liked Leah as a character but I didn’t have much sympathy for what happened to her at the end. So it’s in the next few chapters that I began to realize how things would end up for her.

ALLYBOT pt3: Gizmo

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

THE CITY (part 1: Gizmo)

THE sound of the river was louder than usual.  Leah awoke to a loud “crack!” as a floating plank splintered against a rock.  She sprang awake, alert!  Glancing around her, the nearby river was already obscured by the morning fog-dust as the sun began to rise.  Sunrise and sunset were usually the only times the sun could be seen throughout the day.  Leah remembered stories of the fogs that would rise many generations ago.  They were said to be colorless and easier to see through.  They wouldn’t rise so high to blot out the sky, and they weren’t swirling flakes in shades of orange and deep purple.

Very near her, she could just make out the bushes carved in a five feet radius from where she lay.  She let her head clear, took a deep breath, and honed her senses like she’d been trained to do.  Letting her breath out slowly, Leah opened her eyes.  Despite this “fog” actually being more like a dusting of flakes, she still experienced a significant increase in vision.   Even if the fog were the kind one could see through, she’d still have a notable advantage over non-augmented people. 

Her perception increased to more than 120ft around her. She perceived the colors more vividly; was more aware of depth and distance.  The subtleties of the dust’s swirling patterns revealed themselves to her more readily.  Reading them, she could easily perceive the locations of objects in her vicinity; especially moving ones.

Leah squinted her eyes and stilled her heartbeat.  The river seemed even louder now, and she could hear the collisions of myriad twigs and branches.  Somewhere upstream, a tree had been cut to pieces and fallen into the river.  A harvester was nearby; meaning there was also a crew of ill-tempered foresters operating it.  She couldn’t hear any sign of them now, and so she decided they were probably far enough away for her to make an unmolested escape.

She’d slept under a short blanket that resembled the forest floor.  She stood and gave it a few good shakes before folding it and checking her inventory.  There were no signs of creeping opportunists or curious night forest creatures; it seemed she’d made it through the night undisturbed.  Tucking the blanket under one arm, Leah took a quick inventory of the pouches and pockets on her person.

She resisted the urge to peer into the small sack attached to her utility belt.  Doing so would unleash a light so radiant, it would demolish any chance she’d have of getting back into the city undetected.  Leah would have to be satisfied fingering the sack for the jagged contours of the brown stone inside.

A person from her social order would have been fitted with various augments from youth.  She had some that enhanced her physical abilities in concentrated bursts, but Leah’s augments were focused on her senses and perception, making her a specialist of recon and surveillance.  That was very unusual for a person of her “social standing”.

She focused her optical receptors to detect infrared waves and began scanning the looming fog around her.  The river was on her left, and the rising sun at her back.  To her right, about 20 meters away, she saw the glow of two purple, cat-like eyes staring in her direction.  “Gizmo”, she whispered, and the eyes began to move directly toward her.

They seemed to be squinted, those eyes, like a predator, silently stalking prey.  As they approached, Leah enjoyed the momentary infrared streak that they left in their wake.  They bobbed and swayed as if attached to a saber-toothed tiger, creeping closer in preparation to pounce.  Leah took two steps towards them before they did. 

The eyes seemed to be drawn up suddenly by some unseen tractor beam before falling again only a few meters away and staring at her.  The swirling dust suggested that the thing had just evaded some ravine or chasm.  Leah leaped into the air.  Aided by her augments, she easily cleared a full meter and a half vertical.  The thing spun, its eyes now closer to her, but facing away.  She landed on Gizmo’s back and righted herself comfortably before whispering, “Koster”.

Gizmo lunged once before bounding over the unseen chasm and taking off with silent speed.  They cleared a few brushy patches before the thing began an ascent of a bushy hill.  The few trees here were incredibly massive with long thick branches.  Gizmo leaped further and further upward, bounding between high branches until Leah was able to see briefly over the fog.  The top layer of the dusty stuff was orange and warm. 

Peering over the top, Leah was met with the intense rays of Sun’s light.  She’d been concerned that she’d overslept but was now reassured.  The fog thickly blanketed the Earth, and she expected to reach the city while it was still high morning.  Leah had rarely approached the city from due west, but she could make out the tall spires in the distance and estimated that Gizmo’s speed would get her there inside of an hour.

They began their descent, coming down the other side of the hill, and Leah ducked close to Gizmo to avoid low-hanging branches.  They cleared the forest wall onto a wide clearing at the bottom of the hill, where the fog was higher now and Gizmo’s body was visible beneath it.  The thing’s chrome skeleton reflected the orange and purple hues refracted by the dust as Gizmo’s body contracted in a quadrupedal fashion.  A long, nearly prehensile tail oscillated vertically behind it and its massive head housed the HUD Leah had grown accustomed to.

Gizmo was a quattour: a vehicle designed to operate like a four-legged animal.  This particular model was equipped for exploration and excavation. It had 2 small-yield rocket launchers in its forelegs and two plasma cutters in its hind legs. The tip of the tail housed a revlight: an energy cannon that could be “tuned” to emit a laser beam at varying intensities.

“Plasma cutter” was a misnomer for an energy field used to slice through solid objects.  Gizmo’s had an impressive 3-meter reach and 160-degree spread. They could cut through just about anything, except Gizmo’s tail which was encased in latium (a metal developed specifically for working with plasma cutters. 

Leah knew none of this when she selected Gizmo’s model.  She chose it because she thought it was cute and because it was one of the last models available to her.  It was sitting in a corner, curled up and covered with lavender, brown, and gray fur designed to resemble the coat of a calico cat.  Because Leah spent most of her time in the streets and slums, she’d stripped the fur and most of the luxurious parts away until the quattour was little more than a skeletal shell of a vehicle.

The quattour wasn’t much to look at, but Leah knew Gizmo’s secret lay in its mind-core; or “cortex” as the crafters called it.  The mechanical portion was merely a shell, but the cortex gave it functionality and …personality?  Leah had been given the mind-core as a gift upon graduation from scout training.  She didn’t even have a shell for it at the time but was assured it was one of the very best mind-cores she could have received. 

Not being one for imaginative names, Leah named the quattour Gizmo, much to the ridicule of her contemptuous peers.  Together, Gizmo’s mind-core and shell made one of Leah’s most useful tools.  Because of it, she was able to make frequent trips out of town, including the occasional reconnaissance mission.  What she was coming back from now, however, was nothing like that and she deliberated over whether or not she would tell anyone what she had been up to.

The lower gates of the city were coming into view as Gizmo approached with incredible speed.  The gates were 2 huge slabs of dingy gray stone affixed to hinges and pulleys.  As Leah drew nearer, the stone slabs began to swing open.  She was a frequent enough traveler that the gate guards knew her well.  Two of them were standing just inside the entrance with the rifles, and when she was near enough, they stepped to either side of the entrance to make way for her.  Gizmo slowed to a trot as she entered, and as the gate behind her began to close, she made a slow circle, waving at a cordial greeting to all those manning the city portico.

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 2 < > chapter 4

Special Author’s Note

This is where I started to get excited about this story. Lukas and David’s chapter was a prelude to the real misdirection in this story. This is the chapter where I introduce the real hero of the story but the whole chapter is from Leah’s perspective. I knew Leah would likely be the story’s main antagonist, and that her POV would be looking at other menacing characters as the “greater” antagonists.

The revelation of Leah as the bad guy would happen gradually while David’s story would set him up as Gizmo’s secondary protagonist. That didn’t pan out exactly as I’d predicted. While people came to accept Gizmo as a protagonist, I think most people still regarded Leah as the main protagonist at the end of the story. I think that’s mainly because the story is told mostly from her perspective. Most of David’s story is told from “the-watcher-in-the-sky’s” perspective and even Gizmo’s story develops through Leah’s eyes.

I attempted the tricky feat of having a primary hero described only through other character’s interactions while inhabiting a role that seems like a natural secondary/helper character at best. Having read through the whole story several times, I don’t think even Leah ever realizes that much of what’s happened has really been according to Gizmo’s wishes.

ALLYBOT pt2: 1 Year Ago

forest in fog
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

ALLEYBOT

ONE YEAR AGO

MOST of the buildings in New Dorf had been submerged decades ago. Those who lived here now were accustomed to what they called “swamp life”. Almost everybody had some sort of makeshift boat or raft. On the surface, the waters seemed harmless enough, but if you were more than shoulder deep in the water, you were taking your life into your own hands. There were eels, venomous snakes, and a dominant species of hammerhead to name a few dangers, but the terrifying threat was the great lizards that patrolled these waterways. They were a migrating breed, and one could turn up almost anywhere.

Lukas sat on the edge of what was once an 8-story building in the downtown district of a city that once was. His feet dangled in the murky water, and he kicked gently at his own ripples. He wiped the excess from the wood he was whittling on his dingy, gray trousers and wiped his face on the shoulder of his hole-ridden, green t-shirt. He almost dropped his knife in the water but caught it with his knees. David and Stever stepped out onto the “roof” (now a patio) from the stairway door.

Most of the people who lived in New Dorf built their homes on top of the buildings that once were. Before, there had been attempts at underwater construction, but the local fauna had proved to be too problematic. Construction now extended up to six stories above the roofs of the buildings that were not completely submerged. Bridges connected building to building until the entire community was a network of apartments, plazas, and bridges.

For whatever reason, the entire top floor of the building Lukas was sitting on had been immune to the flooding. Most of the building’s windows were broken leaving the bottom seven stories to be claimed by the swamp, but the eighth story remained as dry as when the floods first came. One could even peer into that murky deluge from the floor-to-ceiling windows that wrapped around the entire building. Lights had been submerged around the perimeter to help with this effect, and a thin, dark film had been put on the inside of the windows to discourage swimming creatures from crashing into them.

Stever’s family had built their apartments atop this building. They’d once been renegades from the Mid-west who’d traveled here to escape the New Democracy; now they were but a wing of one of the founding clans of New Dorf. Stone posts had been erected on each of the building’s four corners, supporting the mud-brick building.

Stever’s building was large, rising five stories above its abandoned foundation. Two bridges connected it to the nearest buildings: one from the third story on the south and the other from the fourth story on the east. Everything beneath the second story was a common area, and the north face was left open to create a covered patio. The largest neighboring buildings were on the east and west, leaving the patio in full shade for almost the entire day.

Stever had a way of yelling intensely at a person without really raising his voice. Upon finding one of his adolescent residents sitting alone and foolishly splashing his feet in the water, he said grimly, “What the hell are you doing?!”

Lukas quickly pulled his feet from the water and rolled into a kneel. He held up his tools, “I’m whittling”.

“Why were your feet in the water, Lukas?” David was just a boy himself. Muscular, energetic, and freshly fifteen. His short, unkempt golden brown hair curved toward his face and a single golden bang nearly covered his right eye. He stood next to Stever holding a spear like it was the staff that parted the sea for Moses.

“I’m leaving today,” Lukas hung his head, “this is the last time that you will see me.”

David’s expression changed, “Wha… What do you mean? Where would you go?”

Stever was a tall man in his late middle ages. Despite his salt and pepper head (mostly salt), his full, brown beard never gave in to any aging. As Lukas looked at him, he thought Stever had hard features that looked like they’d seen more than a few battles. His figure seemed shadowy and looming. His brown broad cloak concealing him in shadow. Even from this distance, it was hard to tell what clothes he wore.

Lukas walked toward him. It had been a while since he’d taken any steps and he began to get dizzy. He pushed his flute into Stever’s hand, “I wasn’t quite finished with it, but this is to make up for the one I broke last week.”

“Lukas…thank you.” Stever’s expression went from one of annoyed surprise to… resignation, “You don’t have to leave Stone B. I was never that mad.”

“No!”, Lukas looked up seriously, “you were still nice to me, even though you were mad.” Tears were welling up in his eyes, “I couldn’t trouble you anymore… My mom would get super mad, and you know how she can be.”

“She’d be a lot madder if you run away…”, as Stever reached a hand toward the boy, he suddenly jumped away.

“I’m not running away!”, Lukas thrust his hand out at them. David and Stever both gasped as they recognized the marks between his thumb and forefinger. “There’s no more antidote left.” Lukas said.

David froze when he saw the marks most of this group were all too familiar with the brown and black water snake that plagued these regions. It likes to sit with its head bobbing on the water and is often mistaken for wood or debris. Its bite is highly venomous and can put a man down inside of twenty minutes. Upon seeing the marks, David suddenly had a flash of memories of childhood with the boy. He’d watched Lukas grow up as he himself had grown up. And now… Is this the end of Lukas?

Stever turned toward the stairway, “There’s at least two left…”

“I’m the stock kid, remember? I help keep inventory.”

Stever ignored him and began to open the door. Lukas dashed for Stever, and slide kicked at his feet. Stever deftly dodged the attack and began to open the door wider. Lukas righted himself into a crouching position, and came up with his two hands clenched together and held out in front of him to throw Stever off-balance. The tall man stumbled sideways, almost hopping on one foot before finally letting go of the door’s handle.

He turned on the boy, “Lukas! Calm down before you get yourself more hurt,” Stever was having trouble keeping the anger out of his voice, “calm yourself so you spread the venom!”

The young boy sprang at Stever, but ducked to the side and tried to dash past him. Stever hand-chopped Lukas on the shoulder and the boy’s momentum sent him crashing into David sideways. David immediately dropped his spear and caught Lukas, cradling him in his arms.

Stever spoke to David while pointing at Lukas, “Just hold him while I get someone to help.”, and turned back to the door. The blonde teen was still nodding his compliance when Lukas suddenly sprang to life, instantly wriggled out of his arms, and dashed toward the north edge of the building.

Reacting as quickly as he could, David made chase but couldn’t catch him before Lukas jumped onto the knee-high railing and nosedived into the waters. David shrieked in terror and leaped after him, but a firm arm took him by the waist and threw him to the dry stone floor. Lukas swam out into the waterway, took one look back at the horror-struck duo, and swam down… down… into the murky abyss.

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 1 < > chapter 3

Special Author’s Note

This was the first chapter that I previewed to various groups. At the time, I wanted to get a feel for how my writing came across as well as any interest people might have in the story. ALLYBOT was completely spontaneous at the time and I didn’t know where this story would go. It made me happy that people could connect with this short chapter so emotionally.

Lukas was designed to help build the story for David, and never had the merest shot at being a main character. I intentionally wrote this chapter starting from Lukas’ perspective and shifting to David’s perspective to create a feeling of a proverbial “baton” being passed. People’s hearts went out for Lukas to such a degree that people couldn’t accept Lukas’ demise. As more chapters came out, readers would often ask me when Lukas was coming back. I, of course, would be thinking, Lukas is dead.

This experience taught me a lot about how to use perspective to guide people on a journey and, and that people often identify most quickly with the character in the most pain. That gives me a lot to play with if I have a character I really don’t want people to like, but I can make them irresistible by showcasing their pain.

It also helped me to be more aware of my audience’s culture. Here in the West, people tend to want stories to have a happy resolution where the pains a character is feeling ultimately get resolved in some cathartic way. It was a sublime surprise for me that so many people had trouble with Lukas’ passing: a destiny I’d specifically designed him for.

ALLYBOT pt1: the Theft

forest in fog

ALLYBOT

1. THE THEFT

     LEAH crept across the room stealthily so she wouldn’t be heard.  The moon shined brightly through the only window, illuminating the center of the dusty room.  Old books lay everywhere, some hanging halfway from tables and shelves.  Sleepy, young street thugs lay amongst them, and the room was set to the soundtrack of several discordant snores.

     The boss slept sitting at the desk, with his head side-down on its surface.  Leah thought the jagged snore that came from him was like a low, murmuring, internal argument.  His visage was hard to make out since his arms surrounded his head and a gold tuft of hair fell over his face.  Even in the moon shadow, however, Leah could make out the chiseled muscles of his bare arms. 

He wore a red vest, starkly contrasting the dirty gray trousers around his bottom.  It was all too easy for Leah to make out the obnoxiously large keys hanging from his back pocket. Eyeing the keys, Leah got the feeling that she had been waiting for this moment for a long time. She couldn’t guess why, but she felt like she had come to some moment of providence: the moment of truth and action. She made a careful trip around the room, scanning the boys and corners for signs of her mark. There were about 13 boys in the room, all scattered about in every variety of positions.

This room was once an office in a small-town library, but now it was just another dusty room in a run-down building from a society Leah had rarely ever heard talked about. The office was almost entirely sealed off since its doors had been blocked by so much stone rubble and crumbling walls. The bandits must have thought that being on the hard-to-reach second story made them safe. …Well… Leah thought, ...maybe saf-er...

     One of the boys slept in a corner in an upright position and his arm hugging a medium-sized safe. Bingo! Leah crept back to the boss and drew a handkerchief from her back pocket. Under her snug, black pocketed vest, Leah wore a black tank top. Her noiseless tools filled the pockets of her knee-high cargo shorts, while anything that could clatter or clink she’d secured to the utility belt at her waist. It was from this that she produced a small bottle of sleeping chemical, and poured some on the handkerchief.  

     She got a hand in front of the boss’ face easily enough. She pressed the handkerchief into his nose, expecting him to wake suddenly. He was clearly exhausted, however, and put up almost no resistance. It was only a moment or two before his shoulders slumped like dead weight. Ever so carefully, she pulled the keys from his pocket, sure not to make a sound. She crept back over to the boy with his arm around the safe. Crouching over him, one foot on either side of his legs, she leaned in with the handkerchief and his eyes shot open!…  

     The boy was clearly astonished to see the green-eyed girl right in front of him, the bottom half of her face wrapped in a black bandana and long red hair pulled back in a braided ponytail. Leah pushed the handkerchief into his lower face, catching his first surprised gasp before it was audible. With her free hand, she reached around and grabbed the back of his head, so he couldn’t pull away for air.

Blinking rapidly, the boy pulled his arm from around the safe, producing a scimitar with a red blade. He meant to bring it down with a slashing strike, but she instinctively released his head, caught his wrist, and pushed even harder with the handkerchief. That last shove knocked his head against the shelf behind him, and an empty ale jar rattled and almost toppled over. Leah watched the boy’s bright, yellow eyes blink into unconsciousness as his body slumped.  

     She waited. Still. Listening for the merest warning that someone else had awakened. …That she’d been discovered… Nothing. Leah scanned the room before silently flipping through the keys, trying to guess which one would open the safe. The first three were broad rectangles, with what appeared to be stencils in the shape of animals in the center of them. The fourth key was some sort of data stick in blue and orange metallic colors.

The last key looked like one of the keys of old; the type that was probably intended for doors like the ones that were once portal to this office. It was perhaps too large, though; Leah assumed it must have been meant for an iron gate or something. On the side of the safe, was a panel with a fitting for a large rectangular key. O.K., so it’s one of the first 3.   

     The first key seemed to house the shape of a hippopotamus. The second held the shape of a bird, and the third… well that was an unfamiliar shape…maybe an octopus? She pressed the third key into the panel, and the safe made a brief hum followed by a click. A handle produced itself on the side of the safe facing away from its guardian. Leah pulled at the handle, and the door swung outward heavily.  

     That was too easy…   

     Peering inside she noticed three shelves. The moon’s light only revealed the items in front. On the first shelf were several heaps of ration credits; these were coins that, ideally, bought about half a day’s worth of food. Ration credits were data-chipped and easily traced. Leah wondered what the boys were planning to do with easily trackable goods in a safe they could not open. Not my problem, she considered.

      The bottom shelf held stacks of folded papers and an old, analog compass. It didn’t take much light for her to recognize the folded papers as maps of the surrounding areas. Leah felt at the seemingly empty middle shelf until she felt a small, cloth sack. She could feel the outline of the jagged, rocky structure within and she quickly snatched the sack from the safe and secured it to her utility belt.

A brief hand sweep proved there was nothing on the bottom shelf, so Leah quietly shoved the safe door shut. There was a low “whirr”, and “click!”, as the locks snapped back into place. Creeping across the room to the window, easily the brightest portion of the room, she scanned the boys for any sign of awakening. Feeling secure, she unhooked the rope she’d used to scale the building and leaped clean through the square opening …into the night.

. . . . .

This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.

chapter 2

Special Author’s Note

I’d like to say that this story holds a special place in my heart, but that might be a lie. I started this story around early 2019 and had no idea where it would really end up. That was part of the reason that I started this project. I usually spend a lot of time planning my stories. I’m a world-builder by passion and will often spend much of my time building systems and meta information that will play into the plot, character development, and …awesomeness? Alleybot was a way for me to publish something immediately while forcing myself to confront my own tendencies. Basically, to just get something out there!

As I neared its conclusion, I stopped writing it because I began to realize where these characters had to go. Not so suddenly, I began to realize that I didn’t like this story. I had no real bond with any of the characters and I didn’t care for the way that things would end up. Even though I had a whopping 15 subscribers to sign up as I published the chapters (and even fewer who actually read them), they convinced me to finish this story.

Thinking back over everything, I had to agree that I owed it to the characters to finish this story. I, as a writer, am really only a courier of information. I get the privilege of a snapshot into another reality and it’s my duty to convey what I’ve seen. So even though the only character I like in this story is a robotic cat, it is my privilege to present the updated web-uscript: ALLYBOT

— Juice