View Full Version : Born of Ash and Steel: Short Story

August 13th, 2014, 08:38 AM
Hello, so I've been trying to write a novel now for a while. I took a short story writing class, and the teacher let me write a chapter from the novel. I tried to condense an arc I wanted his input on into 3000 words, but had some substantial difficulty. It feels very rushed, and I'm just not sure what to do with this word cap. But I took this class mostly as a starting point to get me writing more. The novel would have a lot more room for me to work on that arc, but I wanted to share what I wrote for the class for the hopes of some input.

Thank you for reading.

Born of Ash and Steel

It was weird seeing the neon bustle of life crawling through the carcass of ruined buildings. It made Caleb nervous, having walked for hours through the dark and lifeless city surrounding this last neon ember of a sprawling metropolis. The lights fought hard to take over the sky from the fading twilight.

Josh stopped in front of him, dragging his fingers across a bulky tablet, carefully skirting around the cracks in the screen. He turned towards Caleb, but never took his eyes off the tablet.

“Alright, kid. I can not stress this enough. When we are at the checkpoint, and inside, you must remember to call me Daniel. I've set the V-chip in my wrist to some guy named Daniel Fawkes.”

Caleb just nodded, and looked at his own wrist, “But what about me?”

“You're like, what... Thirteen? You would have been too young to have a V-chip planted before the primary anomaly.” Josh could see Caleb still looked nervous, glancing down the remaining few hundred meters to the checkpoint and the high walls surrounding the last life of the city. Hordes of refugees were slowly filing through the checkpoint, a cacophony of confused and tired voices reaching out to them, even from such a distance.

Josh kneeled, looking into the eyes of a kid who never met them back. “Dude,” he sighed, “You're going to be fine. They're going to throw a fuss about it, but they won't do anything to you.” Rising up, Josh turned and started walking towards to the checkpoint, snapping the tablet's heavy padded case to the side of his backpack.

“Come on, dude,” he said eagerly.

A twenty meter metal wall erected around the whole of the city center, with many buildings towering above, both within and without. Neon holo-displays hovering in front of, and above, buildings lit up the grimy walls beyond. For reasons Caleb couldn't quite discern, the towering buildings still appeared lifeless and empty in their upper halves. Only the roots of these monolithic superstructures were crawling with bodies and lights.

There were several lanes of people filing through the checkpoint's five gates. The guards, both patrolling the top of the wall, and the squads at each gate, all wore the post-gov's black ballistics armor and helmets. Their heads reminded Caleb of those of an ant's, with smooth oval shapes of glossy black.

Despite his best efforts to appear calm, Josh's hands were starting to tremble as they progressed through the line. He would dart his attention between the guards with a tense mixture of uneasiness and contempt. He still held the calmest countenance present, the other refugees darting their attention with pure terror; shuffling along, conspicuously trying to avoid the gaze of the guards on the wall.

Caleb was knocked forward by a spasm of bodies in the crowd. Not a single face looked towards him in apology, only Josh with a hand guiding him to his side. The mass only pressed harder towards the gate.

Two armed guards motioned Josh through to a channel in the wall, with Caleb trailing right behind.

“Stay calm. You're doing great, dude.” Josh encouraged as he squeezed his shoulder, and strode up to the checkpoint. Caleb didn't realize how cold it had gotten until he left the huddled mass of warm bodies.

Josh stepped onto a small platform of a scanning system in the center of the lane. Two guards stood on the other side of a wide glass pane on their right where the results of the scan were projected to. A third guard, standing in the lane, approached Josh and slid up Josh's sleeve to scan his V-chip. Caleb saw the guard pause as he noticed the track of linear scars cut across Josh's forearm.

“Daniel Fawkes is granted a three-day merchant's visa,” the processed voice spoke from behind the helmet as the v-chip confirmed a false identity. A guard wearily swiped the results from the pane to the right, clearing it for the next scan, “Proceed.”

Caleb stepped through the scanner, and watched a colorful display of his body evolve on the pane in layers. A neutral display of color, hiding characteristics of the person, but displaying clothes, the skin beneath, and the organs inside. A hand roughly grabbing his arm brought his attention back, with a brief glance towards Josh who stood not three meters away.

A disappointed beep from the wrist scanner the man held seemed to erase the fatigue from all the guards present who now stared at Caleb.

With a disgruntled tone tainting the voice from the helmet, “Why don't you have –“

“He was pre-age before the primary event. He never had a v-chip planted.” Josh spoke slowly with no movements to startle the guards into any pre-emptive measures. The guard gripping Caleb's arm turned back from Josh.

“How old are you?” He demanded, but in a cautious tone.

“Th-thirteen.” Caleb managed in a whisper, his eyes looking at everything but the mask of the guard. For a brief moment he made eye contact with Josh, willing him to get the guard off him. Caleb could tell it was taking all Josh's resolve to bury the contempt he saw earlier, his body rigid with the effort to maintain an outward calm.

The guard loosened his grip, glancing back at Josh. “Name?” It was more a statement than a question.

Caleb tried to speak, his voice barely audible, “Caleb Trainer.”

The guard retrieved a rusted metal bracelet from a set of bins lining the wall to their left. Placing it under the hand scanner, he programmed something into it.

“Caleb Trainer is granted a three-day visitor's visa.” His locked the bracelet on Caleb's wrist. The two guards behind the glass had returned to their tired stances, swiping the data from the pane. Yet a third guard had entered, and his attention was locked entirely on Joshua.

“Proceed.” Caleb quickly stepped to Josh's side, as they exited the channel into the city beyond. Josh's strong grip on Caleb's shoulder was the only thing keeping him from shaking.

There was a heavy presence at the checkpoint, but the inside truly felt like a prison. Trios of armed guards waded through the crowded streets, pitch black visors concealing each one's face. Pairs could be spotted at high points; perched on shattered ledges or deserted rooftops. If one passed close enough you could just barely see a faint tracking display projected on the lower right of the inside of the visor.

Josh let out a sigh, “See? What did I tell you?” Caleb glanced back towards the checkpoint as Josh led him down the street. One of the guards watched them disappear into the crowd.

They approached one of the many vast towers of the city far from all the activity. Once more Caleb could see lights and life crawling on the first thirty floors, but the top sixty were dark. There were men standing at an entrance to a lobby that used to have glass windows surrounding it. They were unarmed, but stood with a lethal purpose watching the two approach.

“Dr. Caldwell!” called a woman in the white lab clothing of the long dead corporation, RyTech. The name put the guards at ease instantly. Caleb noticed their eyes were wrong; dark purple iris's. Both the guards and the woman shared this, but Josh seemed completely unfazed. Caleb felt like he knew the name she called him, but couldn't quite place it.

“Elizabeth,” Josh whispered with relief as he moved to embrace her for a moment. She glanced at Caleb, to which Josh quickly added, “I've brought a friend. His name is Caleb.” He paused, “He was caught in the middle of a tertiary anomaly.”

Elizabeth's eyes widened, and Caleb could feel the astonished gaze of the guards on him as well. He stepped closer to Josh.

“Alright, dude, I'm going to need you stay with her for just a moment while I meet with an old colleague of mine.” Caleb tensed, but nodded his head, keeping his gaze on the ground behind Elizabeth.

They were led up several floors, nearly to the top of the inhabited ones before Josh finally broke off with several assurances that he'll be just down the hall, leaving Caleb standing alone with Elizabeth. A young man, no older than twenty, rushed up from the stairwell to the pair of them. His eyes shared the same purple iris as Elizabeth.

“Was that really Dr. Caldwell?” he asked excitedly, clutching an abused notebook flooded with loose leafs of paper. With the smiling nod from Elizabeth, he turned to Caleb, “And you were the boy traveling with him?”

Caleb nodded, but stepped back at the enthusiasm of the question.

“Please, Kyle, the kid's tired.” Elizabeth chided as she stepped between them. Unperturbed, the boy stepped around her, kneeling to look at Caleb's eyes, from which Caleb again backed away, pressing against the wall of the hallway.

“You're not even modded,” he half whispered. He added with excited confusion, “Why would someone like you be traveling with the father of wormhole technology?”

Struck by the question, Caleb glanced in disbelief at their two faces, both awaiting his answer. Wormhole technology? The realization seeped into his soul, and tears began to well as the cold numb of shock seized his heart and spread down his arms. He quickly turned, and darted down the hall to the first door opening to a room on the edge of the building. He slowly stepped forward along the dusty ground towards the gaping wound in the building opening out into the night. The room lit only by light from the hall and the prismatic colors of the city below, Caleb fell to his knees. His muscles couldn't be stilled, and he trembled. His fists clenched in his lap, he choked as he tried to stay silent and avoid sobbing, interrupted with sharp gasps of breath as he stared out at the city.

This was him.

Everything was because of him.

The father of wormhole technology.

The man who scarred the Earth.

The concrete skeleton of a vast city fading into dark, ribs of rebar and overhangs of cement silhouetted by the last lights of a dying city. A whole planet nearly uninhabitable due to the violent wormhole anomalies proliferating across the globe.


He slumped over, touching his forehead to the ground as he thought of Lucas. The cold shock coiled fresh around his heart, numbing his limbs as he let out a sob. It was like watching a silent, invisible meteor strike. Craters simply appearing in the Earth, their contents thrown through space. He could remember his best friend always smiling at him, regardless of their circumstance. The memory felt blurry, and the pang was the strongest emanation of grief he'd felt as he realized he might forget that smile. Might forget what he looked like.

“Caleb, dear.” Elizabeth spoke softly, standing in the doorway. She approached and knelt, gingerly placing her hand on Caleb's back. “You didn't know,” she sighed, heavy with pity. He sat back up on his knees looking out upon ruin. He sucked down some air in a shivering breath.

“Why would he even bring me with him?” he asked, enmity leaking into his words. “What could I possibly mean to the man who ravaged a world?” he gasped, sorrow overtaking contempt. She only watched him. He couldn't think of a single course of action. He needed Josh to help him. “What do I do?” he softly whimpered, feeling another numbing wave constrict through his body.

She started to speak, but stopped, searching for the right words. “I really can't answer that for you,” she resigned. “But...” she hesitated again, “I will tell you that Josh has spent these last six years trying to help people rebuild.” She looked outside, “This was not his intention,” she breathed. “He is tortured every day by what he sees around him. I think you mean much more to him than you could possibly imagine.” A conflicted pang caused Caleb to shiver. “He sees in you this broken world, and he will fight desperately to pick up all the pieces.”

Several moments of silence passed. Thinking back to what Kyle had said, suddenly hurt by the implication of his lack of worth, “What did he mean by modded? Why did he sound so... disgusted?” He pleaded, looking straight at Elizabeth.

“It's just,” she shook her head, “you're a reminder of the past, Caleb. A time when the many are led through the dark by the few with a torch. A time when the towering intellect that leaps civilization forward were few and far between. Genetic modification had the potential to give every man a torch. We are fast approaching a critical turning point in our specie's evolution where non-modded are becoming vestigial.” She glanced out towards the city, and then lifted her gaze towards the sky. “Maybe not here, but outside the quarantine, in the rest of the Solar system.”

“Is Josh modded?” Caleb asked, his breathing finally under control. She turned her head to look at the wall to their right, as if looking straight through to where Josh was, extreme pity troubling her perfectly purple eyes.

“No. But that is a man whose torch burned so bright it burned the whole of humanity.” With nostalgic pride she added, “He was going to lead us striding across the void; an interstellar manifest destiny.” She looked down at her own hands, and spoke with defeat, “Now they're cautious of those with the light. There are some who wish to return to the numbing cold of darkness, abandoning our potential.”

She paused for several moments before she stood, and softly asked, “Could I take you to where you'll be sleeping tonight?”

Caleb wiped his face before nodding, and rose to follow her. She led him up a few floors, and to the other side of the building.

“Why aren't there any people in the upper parts of the buildings?” Caleb asked.

With a pained look she replied, “There's always the risk of an anomaly happening, which could potentially destroy or damage a building. The lower parts are simply safer.”

She paused before the entrance to the room, which had no door.

“I thought you might like to see something special,” she smiled weakly, and led him through. The hall was dimly lit with a few battery lamps on the floor, and the room was dark. But Caleb could quickly see what Elizabeth wanted him to.

This room, like the last, was missing a large chunk, with the far side open to the night. But there were no tall buildings for a wide stretch. The wall extended only slightly beyond the rear of the building, and the metropolis itself seemed to end on this side. A large expanse of grassy fields populated with a few small buildings stretched out a triangular shape, saddled by the edges of the city's tall buildings. Caleb could tell right away he was seeing an active anomaly below.

The field below was shimmering with light. Bursts of brilliant radiation, and a strange lightning striking towards the sky were concentrated at a location behind a small collection of buildings far into the field. Rabid eddies of magnetic fields induced a borealis effect across the expanse, fractal fingers of blue scurrying through the field like broken glass.

Caleb scooted a bedroll that had been laid out to the far wall on his left, so he could sit and watch. Time melted away as he watched, and Elizabeth had long since left him. He was suddenly aware that Josh had entered the room and now stood watching the anomaly below. He turned to glance at him, fighting between hostility and a desire to share this experience.

Although the site was amazing to Caleb, he could see it meant something entirely different to Josh. He stood somber and quiet as he watched. Although he never flinched, ever burst of light seemed a lash upon his soul. Caleb said nothing, and lied down. He fell asleep watching the deadly radiation dance along random mag lines, sketching blue fractals amongst the grass.

Caleb awoke to a sharp intake of breath from Josh who was sitting at the ledge of the room. His back against what was left of a wall's edge, his right leg dangled over the edge, and his left arm resting on his knee. With his right hand he slid his knife across the floor under his left leg, his left fist clenched as blood dripped from his arm, looking purple as it caught the blue light. Wet eyes refracted the sight as he stared out at the field and fractured buildings around him, lit up like ghosts.

It was still night, and the anomaly had ended, but stray energy was still bouncing around, like the embers of a once roaring fire. Caleb could feel that cold coil around his heart again, but he could see an unfathomable longing in Josh's eyes as he stared at a shade of the destruction he unleashed. Caleb wormed his way out of the bedroll, and walked over to Josh. For the first time, when Josh looked up at him, he looked lost and afraid; his head a little lower, and his shoulders slightly hunched, as if attempting to weather a storm in full knowledge it would never end.

Caleb sat down next to Josh and leaned against him, resting his head on his chest. Josh sighed as he moved to put his left arm around Caleb and squeezed tight. He felt tense, but his heartbeat was slow and methodical, yet struggling to maintain control. Blood from Josh's arm stained on Caleb's jeans, but he didn't care. Josh rested his head on top of Caleb's as he turned his attention back to the spectacle below. Caleb once again drifted off to sleep, hypnotized by the dancing lights which seemed to time themselves to each pulse of Josh's heartbeat.

August 13th, 2014, 08:39 AM
Damn. I manually went through the post itself to get some tabs in there, but it just took them out anyway :(

August 14th, 2014, 04:42 PM
Very good and descriptive looking forward to more. Quick question though, with Caleb being thirteen how is he pre-age, which makes it sound like he was born before the primary anomaly happened, yet people in the story who are older than him have the v chip, seems a bit confusing. If you wouldn't mind clarifying that for me in case I'm interpreting it wrong.

August 15th, 2014, 04:54 AM
I meant pre-age as in he wasn't old enough to have been planted before the primary anomaly. The primary occurred 6 years ago, and you would be planted with a V-chip by 12 years old. The primary anomaly would have destroyed and destabalized, so there wouldn't be any agency still planting. I didn't articulate in the short story, but the post-gov would be a small faction operating off a set of contingencies; ones that really don't work. They just manage big refugee farms, and are the only ones who would ever care to use v-chips still. I think I could probably reword that pre-age part better.

August 15th, 2014, 08:22 AM
I meant pre-age as in he wasn't old enough to have been planted before the primary anomaly. The primary occurred 4 years ago, and you would be planted with a V-chip by 12 years old. The primary anomaly would have destroyed and destabalized, so there wouldn't be any agency still planting. I didn't articulate in the short story, but the post-gov would be a small faction operating off a set of contingencies; ones that really don't work. They just manage big refugee farms, and are the only ones who would ever care to use v-chips still. I think I could probably reword that pre-age part better.

Ok I get it now, all I needed was some context. Interested to see more, it seems you have the worlds dynamic pretty fleshed and Josh seems like a pretty well rounded protagonist that you can root for. I'm curious to see how the burden of what he caused to happen to the earth affects him through the story and how that internal conflict will eventually play out, good stuff. I liked it

August 23rd, 2014, 07:37 PM
For the most part, I felt I was playing catch-up; which isn't bad for an opening chapter. Plenty of hints but no real info-bombs or dragged out details- so good work on that score.
Much of it is written well and I can't complain at that, but other parts are a little off-putting for me. Perhaps it's a personal thing but I will explain anyway.

Josh at one point was named Joshua. For consistency, I think you should change the Joshua instance to simply Josh. Otherwise always use Joshua and never Josh. The exceptions would be in speech, where people will use one or the other regardless. But in the actual story parts and not speech, always one of the other. Personally, if he is a Doctor (has a doctorate), then I would use Joshua. Even if it is a fake name, there is a certain proud factor that comes with scientific and intellectual achievements so a full name is more likely.

Second is Josh himself. The character doesn't feel fully developed to me. Truthfully, I would guess that there is more of the writers personality in the character than the characters personality. In other words, there is more of you in the character that is Josh than there is of Dr Caldwell. Seems this is a little post-apocalyptic to me and it's been more than a decade since it happened. (From what I can gather) ... In that time, I can't imagine a man like Dr Caldwell would still be using the word dude so often.

Josh kneeled, looking into the eyes of a kid who never met them back. “Dude,” he sighed, “You're going to be fine. They're going to throw a fuss about it, but they won't do anything to you.” Rising up, Josh turned and started walking towards to the checkpoint, snapping the tablet's heavy padded case to the side of his backpack.

“Come on, dude,” he said eagerly.

That was the moment I felt that Josh was not fully developed as his own person. But again, might just be me. There are exceptions to everything in life and maybe he is just that kind of person. Doesn't seem like it to me though. Humans by nature are social and pack animals. To put it another way, we find like-minded humans and then once in a clique, we mimic others of the group. The same way a dog will stop chasing squirrels if no other dog in the pack chases squirrels. Likewise, a man who always says dude will stop using it if no one else in the group uses the word dude. I can't imagine group of scientists building wormhole technology using the word dude all the time, can you?


“You're not even modded,” he half whispered. He added with excited confusion, “Why would someone like you be traveling with the father of wormhole technology?”

I'd reword that section. It was one of the few points where I felt your structuring could be touched up. Personally, the added part I would let someone else say.

"You're not even modded," he breathed excitedly in a half whisper.
"Yeah, makes you wonder why is traveling with the father of wormhole technology, doesn't it?" x replied with a gleam in his eye and sneer on his face.

(facial expressions are just there for my amusement but sure you get the picture) The "He added with excited confusion [...etc...]- part just seemed odd to me. I strongly recommend changing the wording and structuring - or the delivery.


He needed Josh to help him. “What do I do?” he softly whimpered, feeling another numbing wave constrict through his body.

I don't really remember how often I came across adverbs in this chapter, but when I read that part... I honestly felt like I had seen too many. Perhaps it was because it was completely unnecessary. A whimper by implication is soft and quiet, so it is just fine to say 'he whimpered'. Adverbs like softly, slowly, quietly, etc. are more often than not extra words that do nothing for the story. You don't need words that make your sentences sloppy, so as a single example and a thought to keep with you; lose the word softly and try not to use adverbs unless they have real purpose.

All in all, it seems to me you know what you're doing and your story has direction. Aside from a little polishing, you have a good base to run with and don't seem to really need any help. This isn't really my genre though, so I am limited in what I can help with and have offered pretty much everything I can at this time on the above piece.

I strongly recommend working on your dialogue and fixing Joshua's personality and speech. I have no complaints with a writer putting some of himself/herself into the characters... we all do it. But be careful which parts you put in. I honestly can't imagine a person like Dr Caldwell being the kind of man who acts and talks the way he has been doing in this chapter.

All the best,

hope it helps,


P.S. You have this titled as a short story... but as my response states, it read to me like a chapter. Chapter one specifically. For a short story, I felt there was too much of the characters and too little of the story. This piece doesn't feel close to finished for me so I read it as a chapter, not a short story.

August 24th, 2014, 07:05 PM
I really enjoyed reading this short story. It was well-written, descriptive and entertaining. Remember, you are your worst critic so listen to the reviews others have to say. There's nothing more I can add to their replies other than to say it doesn't need much work at all. Great job! :)