There Are No Words

May 1st, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

As promised, I have posted the story that I mentioned yesterday: “There Are No Words“. Sometimes when writers get asked which of their stories is their favorite, they say something like, “Stories are like children, you love them all equally.” Not me. I have definite favorites, and although I would be hard pressed to pick one that represents the absolute best of my work to date, there are some that I just flat-out like more than others. “There Are No Words” is one of these.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. The story takes place in a near-future version of Olympia, which is where I live now, which was incredibly fun to write. Writing a post-literate society that was neither utopian nor dystopian was a very rewarding challenge (that I think I pulled off pretty well, as most of the people who have read the story only noticed that something was “different” without really being able to put their finger on it). I didn’t plan it, but the story ended up being about two teen girls’ friendship, which is something that I don’t come across a whole lot in my reading. Finally, I got to deal with one of my pet peeves, which is that writers seem to find it easier to write stories with zombies or spaceships or magic than to write a story without some sort of automobile analog (seriously, if you are writing in a post-peak-oil setting, don’t have people driving around in cars, also, horses for riding are and have been incredibly expensive).

So why am I posting this story here rather than selling it? First off, it is about 9,000 words, which is about 3,000 words too many for most markets. Second, I tried to sell it to YA markets and the very first word in the story was “Shit!”, probably not the best idea (I have since revised it to “Ostras!” which is more profane but obscure enough to not raise many red flags; it also fits the setting better). Third, the story opens with the characters in an Augmented Reality game that involves ghouls (originally zombies) and I suspect that some slush readers never made it far enough in to find out that the story has just about nothing to do with zombies. Finally, this story has a lot of ideas and leaves some of them unexplored, deliberately (one piece of feedback I got from an editor was that they loved the story but that it was both too long and too short, which is to say that they felt it needed to decide whether it was the first chapter of a novel or just a short story; I agree with this analysis, but have decided to go another route, and plan on writing more stories in this setting that link in and explore some of the concepts).

Without further ado, here is the first bit of the story. Enjoy!

“Ostras!” Emma yelled, and then started to run. “Cat, the ghouls saw me!”

Catalina echoed the sentiment under her breath, and followed her friend as she sprinted through the crowd of undead. The ghouls must have recently fed, because they barely noticed two of them as they ran. She yelled at a ghoul on a bicycle that almost ran her down but immediately regretted it when the nearest ghouls looked at her with expressions of anger. But of course they weren’t angry, ghouls didn’t get angry, they were probably just starting to get hungry again. She needed to get out of there.

“That was a close one,” Emma said when Catalina caught up to her in an alleyway.

“Way to throw your best friend in front of the train, Em,” Catalina said, panting from the mad dash that had been required to catch up to her friend.

Emma threw up her hands. “You were surrounded. If you weren’t able to get out of there on your own, there wasn’t anything that I could have done to help you.”

Catalina punched her friend in the shoulder. “And honor, did you forget about that?”

“Honor is just what boys call stupidity. I’m not going to get eaten over that,” Emma said.

“Whatever. We need to get moving before they find us,” Catalina said.

They started to move again, walking through the deserted alleyway, but with less urgency than in the street. Catalina and Emma relaxed as they made their way deeper into the maze of alleys that ran through Olympia’s Downtown Island. In different circumstances, they could have taken one of the water taxis that clogged the canals, but with the ghouls, that was out of the question. So they walked along their route, keeping just a block or two away from the street away from the deeper alleys that resounded with the sounds of drinking and gambling and other sounds, no less disturbing for their indistinguishable nature. They did see an occasional ghoul in the alleyways, but they just hid and waited and the threat passed.

Finally, they emerged into the brightness and heat of Percival Landing with its food carts and sleek fiberglass ferries. They had made it.

“This is getting too easy,” Catalina said.

“Agreed; we need to find a new game,” Emma said.

“See you tomorrow?” Catalina asked.

“Of course.”

The two friends parted ways, Emma heading towards the ferry that would take her up the Deschutes towards her home in Tumwater and Catalina heading towards the ferry that would take her to the Eastside.

As she walked, she held her left hand out in front of her, palm down. A black rectangle was tattooed on the back of her hand, and she pushed her thumb in the middle of it. A moment later, her System had read her thumbprint through the interface pad that had been layered into her skin and verified it.

Immediately, the harsh sunlight dimmed, while the colors of the buildings and plants and everything else intensified. After an hour of staring at the fading colors of the city, it took her brain a few seconds to acclimate. Her System polled the network and information began to populate on the people that were walking around the park, until varicolored icons and numbers hovered over each of their heads. She knew that the same thing was happening with her, and suddenly the people who had been oblivious to her presence glanced in her direction before going about their business.

Catalina boarded a ferry bound for Ellis Cove. As soon as she stepped aboard, two icons appeared in the center of her field of vision, one showing a coin, another an icon of a stick figure rowing. She had the money to pay for passage, but there was no need to spend it, so she focused on the rowing figure, causing the coin to fade into the background. A moment later, the coin had faded entirely. The rowing icon blinked out of existence and a green line that only she could see appeared on the ground in front of her. She followed it and was guided to a vacant oar. It would be a few minutes before the ferry would be full enough to leave so she flipped through the news icons to see if anything interesting had come up while she had played ZomCom with Emma. Nothing had, but her school icon was blinking, indicating that she still needed to put in some school time for the day. She focused on the icon until it was activated.

A moment later a tutor avatar blinked into being on the bench next to her, a figment of her System. The tutor cleared her throat, and began to speak.

“By the end of the twentieth century, the world had–“

The tutor was a woman somewhere in her 30’s of indistinguishable ethnicity. In fact, everything about her was vague, forgettable, with the exception of her voice, full of excitement bounded by precision. The meta for the Academy said that they had scoured the globe to find the best lecturers on any given subject and contracted them to record the lectures. Catalina believed it, but even so, she wasn’t in the mood for history, and canceled the lecture. The tutor avatar vanished.

The rowing icon flashed to the middle of her vision, overlaid by green arrows chasing each other around in a tight circle. The arrows would rotate at various speeds to indicate the tempo, but she immediately banished it to the corner of her vision, opting instead for music that would modulate its rhythm to keep her on pace.

The academy software returned to the center of her vision, a menu of icons arrayed in front of her. Each icon was color coded to show how much time she needed to put into it. Catalina ignored these metrics, and instead chose the only icon that was already green, the branching network of dots that represented Abstract Concepts. Immediately, a Go board popped into view. She went first, placing the black stone by concentrating on an area of the board and then tapping her fingers to select the proper intersection, the fingers on her left hand moving the reticle up and down and the fingers on her right hand moving it from side to side. She knew that she wouldn’t have a lot of time, so she had set the game up on a 13×13 board rather than the standard 19×19. The game was over by the time the ferry reached Ellis Cove, with the System winning by 3 points. A moment later a notification blinked in the corner of her vision, the Abstract Concepts icon overlaid by a green +6, not that she needed the points.

When the ferry neared an image of hands releasing an oar popped into her field of vision, but she had already let go. A moment later, the oar was locked into the docking position, raked down almost parallel to the hull. The ferry’s small motors engaged, swinging it around and bringing it to rest against the dock. People queued up and filed off the boat. A coin notification blinked at her, with a green +3, the minimum payment for a shift at the oars.

There were only a few people waiting to board ferry for the trip back downtown, which meant that the people staying on the ferry to take it back downtown would make at least twenty or thirty credits. Rowing ferries didn’t pay enough to live on, but for someone still in school, it could make the difference between a fun summer and instant noodles.

From the dock, she walked uphill through the trees until she reached the road. The bicycle traffic was heavy, and she was torn between waiting for an opening and walking a hundred meters out of the way to use the overpass. Finally, a gap opened and she dashed across. Fifteen minutes of walking along a footpath that wound its way through moss-covered trees and she was home.

Read the rest of the story.

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