Flash Fiction: “Desert Queens”

Fun fact: the following story is based on a novel that I’m currently working on (working title being The Phoenix Relic). These characters and their setting feature in the story, though their story in Relic is vastly different. So consider this a taste of stories to come.


Desert Queens, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 826

It wasn’t even sunrise when the girls set out for another expedition across the Outlands. On Kairos, the skies were always a dark shade of red. Their four-wheeled off-roader blazed a trail through the desolate terrain. Hours passed without either of the girls seeing a single soul or picking up a clear signal.

But what they did care? They had each other.


Morgan sat in the driver’s seat, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on her gearshift. She never cleaned up as much as her partner did, but Julia could put up with a few smudges and some flat hair if it meant they were closer to finding the next piece of salvage. Watching Morgan sit at the wheel was like staring at a cat, languid and poised as it stalked prey, motionless right up until the moment it struck with effortless precision.

Julia, however, was more like a dog. Well, a fancy dog, given her taste for cosmetics and hair products. But she was loyal and hardworking, and no mistake. Morgan could drive without a care so long as her partner was rooting around the back of the caravan, cataloging every knickknack they’d bartered for at the Reclaimer’s Market, every scrap of tin and titanium they’d dug up in the wastelands outside Colina and south of the Armstrong Trail.

Whenever they showed up at the market, they let Julia do all the talking. The merchants and inspectors found her “approachable,” as they would say.


However, it was during a trip to the Scraper’s Bazaar at Gagarin’s Rock that they made their first mistake.

Morgan had only offered an innocent question when presented with an antique TyroCorp SN-11 comm beacon. She’d glanced askew at the retailer and asked, “And whose side of the war did this beauty come from?”

This was why Julia was better at haggling. The merchant was, it turned out, a patriot who’d fought on the side of the Free Kairos Brigades. Any implication that this beacon was, in fact, made to serve the money hounds in New Columbia was beyond outrageous. More like sacrilege. So it didn’t surprise Julia—when she had time to reflect on it later—that he’d summoned a small band of rough-and-tumble mercenaries to surround the two ladies.

“It’ll be all your silvers or half your bones broken,” the merchant growled. “I’m gettin’ compensated either way.”

Julia sighed when she saw the twinkle in Morgan’s eye. As sweet as her girlfriend could be in private, she just could not resist a challenge.

What had started out as a quiet morning exploring the Bazaar ended up with the two women hightailing it in the caravan, leaving behind one slighted merchant and a heap of bruised and battered mercs in the billowing dust cloud.


“We can’t keep this up,” Julia insisted. She’d stared at the back of the driver’s seat, trying to gauge Morgan’s reaction. “We’ll be arrested, sanctioned, and thrashed six ways to Sunday.”

“Mother Mary will provide,” was all Morgan would say.


Sure enough, Mother Mary did provide in her own peculiar way.

A call from the Order of Saint Buriana in the town of Augustine brought the two scavengers off their usual path. Sitting in an air conditioned tavern, Morgan listened with rapt attention to the old nun who promised them a generous sum in exchange for their aid in finding a precious relic somewhere deep in the Outlands.

“And may God go with you both,” she’d warned. “You’ll face bandits and worse that way.”

“Ain’t nothing to fear, Sister,” Morgan replied with an easy grin.

Julia said nothing, but she was afraid enough for the both of them.


Onward they rode, braving whatever the heart of the Outlands had to throw their way. Dust storms that blocked out the red skies. Bandit incursions and ambushes. Thunderbirds flocking across the entrance of Quicksilver Pass. And there was never enough time, not nearly enough time, to pause and catch their breath.

But they found the relic all the same. Bandaged and crusted with dry blood, unwashed and exhausted, Morgan leaned into Julia as they stumbled their way into the half-cracked vault deep inside the ruins of the Shirazi Citadel. Morgan only had the strength to offer one last cry of joy as she held the illuminated, gilded Bible aloft from the rubble—a rare import from distant Earth, preserved far below ground from light and heat.

And then the Bible had crumbled in her hands. Julia didn’t need to check the debris to know that the holy order’s precious relic was, in fact, an immaculate forgery.

Morgan had lost it then and there. She couldn’t even bring herself to cry, throwing dry heaves into Julia’s chest and murmuring about how truly fucked they were. And all Julia could do was stroke her hair and promise that there’d be another salvage hunt, another Reclaimer’s Market.

“Besides,” Julia had added, squeezing her tight, “you’re the only treasure I need.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their contributions that make stories like this one possible. This story is dedicated to Links Drop.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.

Always Human: A Comic of Life and Love Without Mods

I’ve learned to devour webcomics in the same way that geeks of another generation would dig into comic books and graphic novels (honestly, the only comics I ever read religiously as a kid were Calvin and Hobbes). That means reading a lot of El Goonish Shive and Gunnerkrigg Court, as well as some shorter, lesser-known works like Always Human.

I found this comic entirely by accident while browsing through Tumblr, but the moment I read the first page, I knew I couldn’t turn away from all this colorful, soulful, high-tech goodness.

In the far future, Sunati is a girl of the modern world who changes her appearances through “mods” on a regular basis. But that trend comes to a halt when she notices the same girl who never changes her look, and who can’t, in fact, use mods herself. Sunati makes an effort to get to know this girl, Austen, and better understand her condition. This leads to them becoming more than just friends, and from there, the adventure really takes off.

Our main characters are a nice blend of dorky and confident. Sunati Raval is our blue-haired Everyman, our protagonist and audience surrogate trying to better understand the world in which her new girlfriend lives. Austen Carran Avila is her newfound friend-turned-love interest, born with Egan’s Syndrome and working hard to finish her studies as a coder. They come from different backgrounds, but the heart and soul of Always Human is their gentle, probing conversations and excited trips through virtual and physical space.

The webcomic is unique as a multimedia platform. Never before have I seen a comic come with its own soundtrack, which is nicely ethereal and sci-fi in tone. It’s great to see artists on the Web do more with the medium, taking advantage of the freedom they have to engage their audiences in a story.

While the music was the first thing to draw me in, the illustrations kept me engaged. I’m a sucker for anything related to transhumanism, so seeing Sunati talk about applying mods to her appearance every month was right up my alley. And that’s to say nothing of the minimalist, retro-futurist scenery in the background. But, of course, the high-tech angle gets balanced out with plenty of cute designs, like little Luna the cat-bot.

I also love the premise of the world that walkingnorth created. It’s one thing where everyone enhances themselves with a thousand different mods or built-in apps, but it’s something else when you get to delve into the split between people who use mods and those who can’t (a.k.a. Austen) or won’t (a.k.a. the Naturalists). Most sci-fi stories of this nature will either come down as suspicious of new technology or dismissive of anyone who chooses to be “left behind.” Here, we get a nuanced view of both worlds, with all their ups and downs.

Rather fitting that our two leads come from both worlds, isn’t it?

I seriously enjoyed this comic and I hope to see some new updates soon. It’s one of the most genuinely pleasant reads I’ve had in a long time, and I’m happy to see content featuring two non-white, non-straight leads interacting for once (and since one of them is Latina, I can totally follow her whenever she dips into Spanish). If you’re looking for something well-designed and short to try, then you’ve got to start reading (and listening) to this webcomic when you get the chance.

Always Human is available for reading and listening on Webtoons.comNew pages are added every Saturday. You can also see more designs on the creator’s Tumblr page.


Image Credit: walkingnorth (creator). Always Human (webcomic). http://www.webtoons.com/en/romance/always-human/list?title_no=557

Listen to My Interview in “Stories and Voice,” A Brand New Podcast

Hey, all! I’ve got some good news to share.

For the last 5 months, I’ve been attending a series of writer’s group sessions with Write Up! Burbank, which has been fantastic for killing my writer’s block. And it was here that I got to meet the lovely Laurie Weaver, a talented writer and voice actress in her own right.

Laurie and her husband Mark invited me to their home, where I had the privilege of conducting an interview for Laurie’s new podcast, Stories and Voice. Not only am I the first interview for the show, but one of her voice actor friends, Greg Sais, recording an amazing rendition of my first story that I ever wrote for Write Up! Burbank, titled “Find Your Fairy in Aisle 27.

Episode 1 of the podcast is available here. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Android.

3 Qualities I Look For in Any Great Story

Woman reading a few books on the floor

6 years ago today, I started this blog under the heading “The Rhapsodist,” and at the time, I knew my general interest lay in science fiction and fantasy stories, regardless of their medium. Now I find myself looking into stories beyond those genres, though of course I’ll always return to them again and again. So at this stage in my writing and reviewing career, I have to wonder what it is I’m looking for in a good story these days.

So here are 3 things that I enjoy writing and reading about in any given narrative.

1. A setting with atmosphere.

It’s one thing to talk about a story with a particular setting, like the generic alien planets seen in science fiction or the archetypal desert town found in your average Western. But what I’m talking about is a setting that comes alive to the audience, that feels like somewhere you could live and get to know the locals.

For me, this quality is what distinguishes places like the city Cloudbank in Transistor, the small town of Arcadia Bay in Life is Strange, or the hyper-urban, slightly dystopian vibes of The Sprawl in Neuromancer. The place where the story occurs stops being mere set dressing and becomes a character in its own right. It’s not just another run-of-the-mill backdrop created for an episodic show like Star Trek or your average police procedural. These are the settings that capture our imagination upon first glance and keep us coming back for me.

2. A plot about uncovering the truth.

It’s true that a lot of good stories are about concrete goals like Rescuing the Princess or Saving the World from Doomsday Scenario No. 392. For me, some of the best stories I’ve ever enjoyed have a common theme of seeking the truth. Now, this can be in a literal sense, like an intrepid reporter chasing down a story (e.g., Zoe and Lucas’s subplot in House of Cards), or a metaphorical sense, like a person trying to understand their own psyche (e.g., John Nash’s character arc in A Beautiful Mind).

I realized last year, for example, that this was why I’m a huge fan of the game Life is Strange, which I’ve reviewed and discussed many times on this blog. Not only does the game have a great small-town atmosphere in the form of Arcadia Bay, but its plot hinges on Max figuring out how to use her time powers and find the link between her best friend, the disappearance of a local beauty queen, and the strange occurrences at their school. Of course, Max also searches for a “higher” truth by reconnecting with her friend Chloe after not contacting her for 5 years, discovering more about herself in the process. That kind of blend in truth-seeking is done very well and is half the reason why I keep revisiting that game and its story.

3. An everlasting bond between characters.

Perhaps more than anything, this factor is what pulls me into a story. I used to think of this by asking myself, “Do the characters treat each other like family? And do I, the audience, feel included?”

You can see this between the Elric brothers in Fullmetal Alchemist as they fight to get their bodies back and make countless sacrifices for each other. It’s the bond between Red and her disembodied boyfriend that drives them through the game Transistor. And it’s the bond between the main heroes of the Star Wars saga that keeps their stories engaging, whether it’s Luke and his friends going to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt, or Finn and the Resistance going back for Rey at Starkiller Base.

Showing those kinds of relationships on the page or on-screen is what answers that age-old audience question: “Why should I care about these characters?” Giving them clues to chase down in search of the truth answers the question, “What’s so important about what they’re doing?” And putting those characters and that plot in a vibrant setting answers the question, “What kind of a world is this, anyway?”

So, readers, do you have favorite elements that make or break a story for you? Any recommendations for a story based on what I’ve written here? Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts or reactions in the comments below.


And let me also just add, to anyone reading this: Welcome, and thanks for being here! It’s your interest that keeps this blog alive and my spirits high year after year.

Flash Fiction: “One Last Chance”

This story comes courtesy of my latest meetup with Write Up! Burbank, with such prompts as “a trunk,” “Lucifer himself,” and “stuck in a tree.” Naturally, I have to make a story about the turning points we face in life.


One Last Chance, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 702

“Hold the camera higher!” Greg called out.

“Not so loud!” Samantha replied. She did comply, however, and raise her video camera two inches higher. Why she let herself get talked into these situations, she would never know.

They stood along a row of trees on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard. It was late in the evening and Sam’s college sweater wasn’t keeping her from freezing. But Greg had insisted by blowing up her phone with fifty-six consecutive text messages, so here she was to record the so-called “alien activity.”

“See, someone on Reddit spotted a burst of fire on this neighborhood,” Greg had told her, bouncing up and down like a hyperactive puppy. “So I said, ‘Cool!’ but that’s not the best part!”

“And what’s the best part?” Sam asked wearily.

Greg pointed at the nearest tree. “That!”

That was the real oddity. An ancient trunk, almost large enough to be a casket, was stuck in the tree’s top branches. Sam didn’t like the look of the artifact. For one thing, she was positive that there were too many iron-wrought skulls on the surface. And neither were trunks supposed to be smoking. From the inside.

The fact that no police or firefighters had shown up was also a huge concern to Sam. At this point, she would’ve gone home with any of them.

“I believe,” Greg declared, “that this is the aliens’ first foray into our world.”

“It’s too small to be a spaceship,” said Sam.

“Maybe they’re smaller than we expect!”

“Or, y’know, it’s just a trunk.”

“A trunk full of ancient alien technology!”

“Pretty sure I could buy this at Crate and Barrel.”

“Look,” Greg interrupted with a hand to his temples, “will you let me have this?”

“I will as soon as you get a real job.” Sam lowered her camera—her one memento from film school. “My mother, God rest her soul, was right about you. You just can’t be happy with a normal life, can you?”

“I—” Greg stopped and looked up at the trunk.

“Don’t even think about touching it,” Sam answered. She was already dialing a number on her phone. “I’ll call LAPD. They’ll sort this out—”

“Oh, will they?”

The voice that answered wasn’t Greg. It had come, to their horror, from inside the trunk.

And then, the trunk opened itself.

Sam could only stare open-mouthed at the creature that emerged from within. A tall, muscular gentleman descended gently onto the sidewalk. He towered over scrawny Greg, dressed in an immaculate crimson suit. He brushed a finger along his pointed beard, and when he smiled at Sam, she saw that his teeth were pointed, too.

“I believe introductions are in order,” said the impossible man. He bowed to Sam and offered her hand, which smelled of brimstone. “I am Lucifer, Angel of the Morning Star, Prince of Darkness, Commander of the Legions of the Damned, etcetera, etcetera.

“You’re… not…” Sam’s mouth could barely make the words come out.

“Oh, but I am. Watch this.” Lucifer snapped his fingers, and in a burst of hellfire, a bouquet of roses appeared in Sam’s hands. She screamed and dropped her camera.

Greg marched up to the Devil with fire reflected in his eyes. He lifted a tentative hand. “We, uh, welcome you to Earth in peace and—”

“I’m not here for you, sport,” Lucifer replied.

He snapped his fingers again, and Greg froze. Even his eyes went still.

“As for you…” Lucifer’s gaze came back to Sam’s face, and his lips curled into a grin. “I can offer you a fresh start if you like.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“That all depends. Where would you like to start? Weekend in Cancun? An Oscar for Best Director?” The Devil cast a significant glance at poor Greg. “Maybe a better love life?”

Sam turned to Greg. She thought back to all the times they’d shared ever since college. All their late-night talks. All their anniversary gifts. All the support Sam had given him, putting off her dreams to help him get one business after another off the ground.

Then she looked back to the man in the red suit, who waited with an expectant smile.

Sam said, “I’m listening.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their contributions that make stories like this one possible. This story is dedicated to Links Drop.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.