Category Archives: Young Adult

Notes on “Undercity”

While I don’t remember when, exactly, I first conceived of the idea for the tale that would eventually become Undercity, I do remember the thought process more or less exactly.

I was driving in my car towards my house (I suppose that dates the memory to mid-to-late 2009, actually) sitting at a stoplight. For whatever reason, I was thinking about Twlight, about how vampires and werewolves had saturated the public consciousness and how a few years earlier, Lord of the Rings had legitimized elves and dwarves for mass-consumption. What, then, was left? What would be the perfect type of sci-fi or fantasy character to write about, one that would resonate with audiences of all kinds instead of having just niche appeal?

Robots.

No, not robots. That’s stupid.

Cyborgs.

Yes, there! Much better!

The idea went undeveloped beyond the barest concept: exceptional female protagonist, cyborg male protagonist, conspiracies, love triangle, etc. In fact, it would be almost another year before I touched it again.

In Spring of 2010, I was taking a class on long-form fiction at St. Mary’s College of California when we were challenged to write the first chapter of a novel utilizing the techniques we’d been discussing in class. At this point, I’d never attempted anything longer than a twenty or thirty page short story. I didn’t think that I had the patience for a novel. But hey, an assignment is an assignment, and danged if that didn’t seem like the time to get cracking on my novel about a futuristic love story between a human woman and a cyborg man.

Of course, I hadn’t fleshed it out beyond that basic premise, and it turns out that if you put me in a room full of other writers and tell me to get cracking on a novel, I turn into Frank Miller. The cyborg became an assassin, and the woman became a young prostitute with a heart of gold. I wrote what was required of me for the class, and then once again put the novel on the backburner.

2010 came and went and I didn’t touch the novel. 2011 brought my graduation from St. Mary’s, and with it slavish devotion to my thesis project, so the novel got no attention that year, either. What did happen, however, is that a few things occurred which would heavily influence the novel once I finally sat down to write the damn thing in 2012. The first is the Occupy movement.

In November of 2011, I was painfully unemployed, and had been for several months. Due to my status as a freelance bum, I was able to take BART from my home at the southern end of the route up to Berkeley for a coffee date with a wonderful girl I’d met at a Halloween party. She was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and we weren’t able to spend more than a few hours together before she had to get back to class. With nothing else to do, I hopped back on BART and rode it south. Rather than go all the way to the station nearest my house, however, I decided to stop in Oakland and check out what was going on with the Occupy movement. Through sheer dumb luck, I happened to run into a few friends from the MFA program, and the next thing I know, five hours have passed and I’m part of a mob 7,000 strong (or 20,000 or 30,000, depending on who you ask) that’s swarming the Port of Oakland. Setting aside personal politics, simply being part of that crowd was enough to bring the issue of class in America to the forefront of my mind. I was unemployed, I was young, I was angry, and I wanted to do something about it. But I also wanted a job and a ton of money and a life of comfort. At that moment, either would have been acceptable to me, revolution or becoming part of the system. Funny how that works out, no?

The second thing that happened near the end of 2011 was that I started seriously dating the aforementioned wonderful girl, which set me down the road to finding more work, starting this blog, and being optimistic enough to pull myself out of the gutter I’d opted to lie down in. We talked about anything and everything, including the experience of being a teen, about women in fiction, about good female role models. All of these discussions got filed away in the back of my head to serve as future references. The novel wasn’t in my mind at the time, though.

Flash-forward to August 2012. Two of my friends are I driving to go on a tour at St. George’s Distillery. One of them has been attending graduate school in New York and he mentions that when it comes to penthouses and such in Manhattan, people are required to buy not just the apartment or condo or whatever that they want to live in, but the space in front of and above the windows as well. That way, whoever lives above them can’t just decide they want to extend their home ten feet out and spoil the view of the people below them.

Class warfare? What it’s like to be a disenfranchised teen girl? The wealthy buying the goddamn sky so they’ll have a nice, unbroken view of the world that’s literally beneath them? Suddenly it all clicked. The novel’s still a work in progress, unfortunately, but I’m pleased that it’s finally getting written.

And that it’s no longer about an assassin and a prostitue. Yeesh.


Undercity, Ch. 8 (Part 2)

And this is it for Undercity. For now, at least. Be here on Tuesday for a new story!

 

Through the front doors, there’s a small lobby, the kind common to a lot of apartment buildings. It’s almost as big as the entire first floor, stretching all the way to the back of the building and mostly empty. There are a few paintings on the walls, the non-descript cityscapes and idyllic countrysides that don’t exist in Undercity. There is a single plant, a tall green stalk in a pot that looks healthy if not thriving. One of the walls is dominated by small mailboxes. There are a few rooms branching off the lobby, but the single biggest feature is a staircase leading up to the second story.

“Office?” I say aloud.

“Well. Business is done here, at any rate.” Bryant nods his head in the direction of the stairs. “Come along. Up we go.”

We go up to the second floor and step into the hallway. We walk down, numbered doors on either side of us, before us, behind us, and I wonder about the lives of the people that live in this building. Do they know what kind of secrets are harbored here? Do they know that three strangers have stepped into their homes to do who knows what? Continue reading


Undercity, Ch. 8 (Part 1)

Yep, another two-parter. Expect the second half tomorrow, same time, same channel. Tuesday will bring with it something entirely new. Enjoy!

 

I follow Bryant out of his office, off the grounds of the academy, into a nearby parking lot. I’m getting kidnapped, I think. I could very well be getting kidnapped right now, and here I am, just walking right into it. What’s wrong with me?

I’m smarter than this, I think. I’m smarter than this, and I’m just going to turn around and walk away and that will be the end of it. I don’t need the promise of money or excitement or anything like that. I need to go home and not have my organs harvested and sold in the alleys of Undercity instead. I don’t need this. I don’t need this. But I put one foot in front of the other, and my hands ball into fists, and I follow Bryant. Continue reading


Undercity, Ch. 7

Well, it’s a bit late and there’s no Chapter 8, but here’s Chapter 7! Expect Chapter 8 on Saturday, even if it’s not technically November. Thanks for bearing with my schedule these past few weeks.

Dad and I don’t talk much more. He goes back to working on his papers and I go into my room to work on a few assignments. He skips dinner, and I heat a precooked in the oven and eat it under the watchful eyes of my Penumbra digiframe. Lots of bands sell posters and music and other merch at their shows, but the members of Penumbra tend to subscribe to the Edd Davis school of thought when it comes to being a second-class citizen, and they give out little slips of paper with download codes on them. If you were wired up at birth with a device that lets you communicate with raw data being exchanged through the Network, why not use it to interact with your similarly wired up fans? That’s how you know they’re sincere. How many artists out there are willing to risk pissing off the State just to let their fans know that they’re not alone?

A few hours pass. Dad comes into my room with a stack of books and notebooks, loose pages poking out the sides. His face is deadly serious, and all I can think is, Oh, great, another lecture. Continue reading


Undercity, Ch. 6 (Part 2)

Inside our apartment, Dad’s sitting at the table with a couple of pieces of paper spread out before him, a pencil in his hand, and a frustrated look on his face. He taps the pencil against the table, runs a hand through his hair. He hasn’t even heard me come in.

“Hey, Dad. How’s it going?”

He jumps in his seat and wheels around in his chair. When he see that it’s just me, he exhales sharply, his shoulders slumping. “Wow, sorry about that. You startled me.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” I set down my bag and go into the kitchen to get some water. “What are you working on over there?”

He looks down at the papers in front of him and frowns. “Oh, just bills and stuff. You know how it goes.” He scoops the various sheets into a pile and put hits his pencil atop them, folds his hands over the whole mess. “Nothing that can’t wait. So, tell me about your day.”

Despite the little voice in my head telling me not to get too deep into what happened, I tell him pretty much everything. I guess that talking to Bryant actually was good for me. I feel better about everything now that I’ve talked to someone who listened to me. Even if he had to because it was his job. Even so, I’m expecting Dad to tell me not to pick fights with the Magister, to stay out of trouble in school, or something like that.

Instead, his face darkens and he asks, his voice a dull monotone, “When did you start programming?”

I blink. This was not the response I was expecting. “What?”

“When did this start? How long have you been programming for?”

I don’t say anything. I don’t know what to say.

“This is serious, Seph. There are a lot of reasons to get into programming, a lot of reasons not to, and damn near no good reasons to tell anyone if you have. So I’m going to ask you again: how long have you been doing this, and who else have you told?”

Disbelief gives way to angers. My hands ball into fists and I can feel my muscles tense up. “Shouldn’t you be talking to me like this when I tell you that I’m doing drugs or having sex with strangers or something, and not when I tell you, ‘Oh, guess what, I’ve taken an extra-curricular interest in something I used to hate, isn’t that interesting?’”

Dad’s expression softens somewhat. He sighs. But he’s still talking to me like I’m a child. “Look, it’s… it can be dangerous being a programmer. It’s a valuable skill, and there are a lot of people who want to use someone with that skill set. Some of them will pay you, some of them will try and take advantage of you, and…” He pauses. He looks down at the table, wrings his hands. “And some of them will try to control you. And I will not see that happen to my daughter.” He looks up at me. His eyes are wet and tired-looking, but his jaw is set with a determination that makes my own anger feel stupid and childish. “I will die before I let that happen to you.”

My muscles relax, and I start to feel embarrassed about my behavior. I walk over and hug him. “Dad, it was just some graphical stuff. Altering my node to look differently, that’s all. It was nothing.”

He hugs me back, takes a deep breath, and takes a step back to look at me. He smiles weakly. “I know. You’re absolutely right. It was nothing. It was child’s play. And that was enough, don’t you see? That was all it took for the Magister to decide that you had to be dealt with. All you wanted was for your world to look different, and he couldn’t let it happen.”

I have nothing to say to this. We are both silent and finally Dad says, “Your mother used to program, you know.”

I blink in surprise. Dad doesn’t talk about Mom often, and I’ve never heard this before. “She did?”

He nods. “She had a real talent for it. She was very good at imagining the way things interacted with each other. When you’re working within a node, that’s all it is. Seeing how everything interacts.” He taps me on the forehead. “The Interface gives us all the same tools, but it’s up to us to use them. Some people just crunch numbers, some people use the tools in new ways, and some people make newer and better tools.”

“Is that what Mom did? Did she make tools?”

Dad shakes his head and smiles. His eyes drift down again, and I see that he’s looking at the papers he was working on earlier. They’re covered in numbers, equations, drawings, doodles. Some of it’s circled, some of it’s underlined, and some of it has been furiously crossed out.

“No,” he finally says. “She made worlds.”


Undercity, Ch. 6 (Part 1)

Sigh. So much for a normal post. Once again, this is about half of the chapter. Come back tomorrow morning for the rest, and be ready to boo me if I do this again on Saturday!

A little while later, the Magister comes to tell us that Self-Expression is over with and that we’re free to go. As I’m heading for the door, he hands me a sheet of paper and says, “I’ve prepared a copy of the questions I posed in class today. I expect you to look them over and bring written responses to each of tomorrow.” I frown. I’m just about to express my displeasure when I remember that Bryant’s in the room and that it probably wouldn’t reflect well on either of us if I started fighting with the Magister immediately after our first session. So instead I just stick out my hand to take the paper. All of a sudden, Bryant says, “Magister, not to tell you how to guide your proteges, but Persephone and I have just had a long and draining talk. I’m sure that she has no shortage of things to think about on top of her other assignments. Perhaps the responses could wait another day.”

The Magister stares at Bryant, his expression unreadable. I can’t decide if I think he’s going to fire Bryant on the spot or if he’s in shock because he can’t believe that a lowly member of the faculty at the academy would dare talk back to him. Instead he gives a curt nod and says, “Very well.” He turns to me and clears his throat. “Take some time tonight to reflect on ‘Notes from the Singularity’ and be prepared to share your thoughts on it in two days’ time.” His eyes narrow and he sniffs. “I’ll be expecting an extra impressive set of insights, given that you have extra time to consider the work.” With that he turns and exits, leaving the door open behind him. Bryant and I stand there in silence, listening to the Magister’s footsteps echo down the hallway and up the stairs leading into the Administration Building proper.

“Charming, isn’t he?” Bryant asks.

“All Magisters are charming,” I mutter. “They get it as an implant when they leave the Magisterium, right after the stick.”

Bryant chuckles at that, then excuses himself to go to his office.

Jaclyn’s waiting for me at the entrance to the Administration Building. On days when we have Self-Expression, she usually waits for me, since everything ends at the same time anyway.

“So, what was that about?” she asks as soon as I’m close enough to hear her.

“What was what about?”

She punches me in the arm. “Don’t play dumb. Becquerel told me that the Magister sent you off with some head shrinker because of something you did in class yesterday. What’d you do? How’d it go?” She jabs in the ribs with her finger and grins. “Tell me everything. Omit nothing.”

I stick my tongue out at her. “He gave us an in-class assignment that was rigged so we couldn’t complete it. I did something he didn’t expect to try and complete it, and he flipped out.”

Jaclyn arches one of her eyebrows and waves her hand, gesturing for me to go on. I sigh and continue.

“I tried running a simple little program I’d come up with to identify files foreign to my node. No big deal.”

Jaclyn stops dead in her tracks and looks at me.

“You wrote a program.”

“Yeah.”

“And you ran it in the middle of class, where you had to know the Magister would catch you.”

I shrug. “Evidently.”

Jaclyn smirks. “Well. Look at you, you rebel!”

Despite myself, I smile. Jaclyn’s never called me a rebel. And to be fair, I’m not one. Not really.

I turn and we start along our walk again, Jaclyn peppering me with questions for our entire trip through the city. Did you get in trouble? What was the psycho like? Did he get you in trouble? Did you cry? Are they going to lobotomize you? Why’d you start writing programs anyway? Where’d you learn? Finally, we reach her apartment and we part ways. She gives me a hug and says, “I fully expect every electronic system in the school to be dancing on your strings by the end of the year, you know.”

I roll my eyes. “Come on, Princess. Give me a break. You know I’m just starting out.” I wink and grin at her. “Give me until the start of next year instead.”

 


Undercity, Ch. 5 (Part 2)

This is the second half of Chapter 5. Chapter 6 will post on Tuesday night as normal. Enjoy!

We’re sitting in one of the other archives, a small one, just me and Bryant. He’s seated at an old desk, a pen and a notebook before him, his hands folded on top of the clean white pages. I’m sitting in an uncomfortable chair pushed back from the desk, my arms folded across my chest, my body set at an angle to him.

I haven’t said anything yet, but I think he knows that I’m not happy I’m here.

“This must have been something of an unpleasant surprise for you, Persephone. I have to admit, I was surprised to see you in the classroom. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, though. Obviously this was the academy you’d attend, living where you do, and when I was asked to speak with a class of Interfaced, well… I suppose it was inevitable.”

I shrug.

“I can tell you don’t want to be here, but we’re stuck until your class lets out. Magister’s orders. So, if you like, we can sit here in silence for the next seventy minutes, or we can talk about something. Anything. We don’t have to discuss your class yesterday.”

I shrug. He sighs.

“I’m not your enemy, Persephone.”

I grunt. “Maybe not, but this feels like a punishment. All I did was pass the Magister’s stupid test in a way he didn’t expect, and all of a sudden I need to talk to a psychologist?”

Bryant is silent for a few seconds, studies me, and then he says, “Why don’t you explain to me what happened?”

“The Magister gave us an assignment on the Network. He didn’t tell us, but it was meant to be impossible. We were supposed to get overwhelmed and give up. I didn’t give up. I tried something he didn’t expect, and he got mad.”

Bryant leans forward across the desk. “Something in the Network itself, you mean?”

I nod.

“What did you do?”

It’s my turn to study Bryant for a moment. He seems genuinely curious. I figured he’d just be going through the motions, that a psychologist like him would ask a lot of questions while maintaining professional distance. He’s either very good at looking interested or else he actually does want to know what I did. “I ran a program I wrote to try and identify the virus he’d put into the system.”

Bryant leans back in his seat. He folds his hands in front of his mouth, and his eyes stare holes into me. “You wrote a program.” It’s not a question, or a challenge. It’s an invitation to go on.

“Yeah, I write programs sometimes. Nothing, you know, nothing big.”

“Who taught you?”

I shrug. “No one, really. My dad’s supposed to have a knack for that kind of thing. My mom did too, supposedly, before she died. Maybe it’s just like a family gift or something.”

Bryant chuckles softly. “Come, now. Someone must have taught you.”

I frown. “No one taught me. I don’t even talk about this kind of stuff with my dad. I mean, there are some articles and guides floating around on the Network about programming, and I’ve taken a look at some of them, but no one’s taught me.”

Bryant grunts. We sit there in silence, me not knowing what to say or having any idea what he’s thinking.

“That’s very impressive, Persephone.” I shrug. I suppose that it is. A thought occurs to me, though, that maybe this guy is a techie. Wouldn’t that be perfect, if the school psychologist were a tech fetishist and he was hired specifically to work with at-risk umbras? He’s saying something. I shake the thought from my head and ask him to repeat himself.

“Why would you want to learn that kind of thing?” he asks. “Most Interfaced don’t. The State frowns upon Interfaced acquiring the skills on their own. Why bother?”

I shrug. “Why not? I mean, it’s something I can do. It’s something any umb– I mean, ‘Interfaced’ can do. It’d be like if you were told you couldn’t learn how to write because you couldn’t be trusted with your hands.”

Bryant nods and writes something down in his notebook. “Interesting analogy.”

“Are you saying you disagree with me?”

Bryant smiles and shakes his head. “This isn’t about what I think or feel, Persephone. This is about you.” He smiles a bit wider. “But for the record, no, I don’t.”

With that comment, our conversation opens up. I start telling him everything, about Robert Sherman and Jaclyn and my mom and my dad and everything. He listens intently, nodding at all the right times and asking gentle questions when I start to become quiet. I can tell that he’s very good at this, and I know I’m only here because the Magister thinks I’m some kind of threat to society, but in this moment, I don’t care. It’s nice being able to just talk and have someone sit there and just listen.

And then he asks me how I feel about living in the shadow of Sky City, and that sets me off all over again.

“It’s terrible, you know? I just want to get out. I just want to… I want things to change. It feels like everyone’s either happy where they are and they don’t care who gets hurt so they can stay there, or else they’ve given up and resigned themselves to a life of being crapped on from above.” I motion with my head towards the ceiling. “Literally, in this city.” I shrug and sink into my seat. I’m tired. It feels like I’ve been talking nonstop for an hour. “I know I’m repeating myself, but I just really mean. I wish things were different. Sometimes I just want to make them be different.”

Bryant sniffs. “Do you really mean that? That you want to be one to start making changes in the world?”

I blink. I think about it. I’ve never really thought about it like that before, not even to myself, but the words sound right in my head. I nod. “Yeah. I do.”

Bryant says nothing. Slowly, the corners of his mouth turn up, and he is smiling. Grinning, even. “Good,” he says. “I do, too.”


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