“The Dance”: A Short Story

In honor of Halloween, I’m posting the first ever short story I had accepted for publication. This appeared in 2004 in the genre magazine “Black Petals”. Hope you enjoy it! Happy Halloween!

The Dance

by Scott Lyerly

© 2004

OLD JACOB SAT in a hard-backed chair in his living room. His hands were clasped before him and his bent frame hung over them. In the crook of his arms rested an old violin. It was well used with peeling varnish and worn strings. Between the thumb and the index finger of Jacob’s right hand dangled a fraying bow. Horsehairs drooped down upon the floor in whispy strands. Jacob was caught in a motionless state, staring at a fixed point that was no longer there. He had been so animated, so alive with every fiber of his being a few minutes ago, but that was all gone now. His aging body sat in its hunched position as he stared at a spot close to the floor where nothing existed but air. He was caught in the stares and didn’t have the strength of character to break free from them.

Unlike his body, Jacob’s mind was unfettered. He thought back through the many things that had brought him to this point in his life. He remembered when it had all started with a wish and a dream. Many great people had started off with nothing more than a wish and a dream, a fairy-tale way of getting ahead. Many of those with dreams see them come true. But few ever foresee the extent of their wishing. This is much like Jacob. He wanted only talent. Talent enough to play violin for his ailing father. And that desire led him to seek talent in dark corners where talent didn’t really exist, except in illusion.

He thought back to the story of the guitar player at the crossroads. In many ways, Jacob’s acquisition of talent had come the same way: with a bargain. He had uttered words found in a dusty leather clad book in his father’s basement. It was meant to grant wishes. What it actually did was summon a strange thin man with a puff of smoke and the burning acrid smell of brimstone. The thin man said strange things and danced in a slow spinning way that rather hypnotized an eleven year old Jacob. But he became deadly serious when it came time to deal. And so Jacob bargained and sealed it with a vow and a pinprick of blood. And then he played for his father. He played like no one had ever played before. Rounds of melodic harmonies, ancient reels of prehistoric origin, and haunting dirges with deeply woven memories. He played and played until at last, his father, with a sad smile on his lips closed his eyes for the last time, his voice, already nothing more than a rasp of wind on stone, never to be heard again.

With the death of his father came a new world for a now fifteen year old Jacob that he never knew could be so exotic. Turned out of his father’s house by unpitying tax collectors, he ventured down to the marketplace for the first time since infancy. The sellers were conducting business with gullible shoppers who were willing to buy more for things considered “fresh” or “local” or “unique”, which few if any of the items for sale were. The food stands emanated aromas of sweet smoky meat, heavy spiced drinks, and dry powdery breads. The soups and breads gave off a heat so strong in the cold fall air that Jacob was tempted to thrust his hands into them just for warmth. There were pick-pockets lifting wallets and con artists scamming the marketplace uninitiated and policemen in blue uniforms with dirty pant cuffs from walking in the mud all day, collecting graft from the undesirables who paid to avoid arrest. Jacob wandered through this mire of humanity until he grew tired and his eyes began to water from the smoke of barrel fires.

He sought shelter in an alcove under a brick building behind the main thoroughfare of the marketplace. It was in this nook that he met the young prostitute taking shelter from the wind. She was wrapped in dirty rags with a shimmering lace shawl that didn’t belong in her corrupted tableau. Her face was framed by wildly unkempt locks of raven dark hair and her porcelain skin glowed underneath the street grime that painted her. Jacob fell in love in an instant and the whore, moved by the sentiment of someone who wanted her for her, not for her wares, took him to bed. For Jacob, it was an experience he would never forget, one of intense emotional connection and utter surrender to another human being. He would never forget her comfort, her dirty cramped dwelling, lit by foul smelling patchouli candles, and the expert way she touched him. He would treasure it always in a dark place in his mind. Nine months later, when she dropped his daughter off on his doorstep, she forgot him entirely.

Jacob raised his daughter almost entirely by himself. His father dead, his mother drunk and in another man’s arms in another city in another part of the world completely, and he, an only child, was left to fend for himself and his new baby daughter. Mostly he scraped by on the kindness of strangers and their amazement that a common street urchin could play the violin with such grace and elegance, such depth of emotion that no child of fifteen should know. He played close to the market, his daughter bundled in every rag he could spare from his own body. She cooed quietly behind him as he sawed away on his father’s old fiddle. The music always soothed her in a way that his touch never could. With the pennies he garnered in an old felt hat he bought her milk and dribbled it into her open hungry mouth. His own food was often cast-offs from the middle class gluttons who never failed to buy more than they could consume. He had made several friends in the food stalls as well, vendors who sympathized with his station in life as a father, a street player, a vagrant. More often than Jacob would have preferred, the food vendors would slip him a bit of bread or a healthy chunk of meat. Jacob hated to take their charity, being a proud man at the age of seventeen, but he was often in no position to refuse, especially when his daughter was in need of real food.

Jacob’s street life changed when a passerby heard his music. She was so moved by the sound he coaxed from the old instrument, she paused mid-step and stood listening for a full twenty frigid minutes. When she had heard enough she continued walking but took a different route from the one she had planned. Two days later she returned with two men. They stood off to the side, absorbing the sweet melodies Jacob produced. He pretended not to see them as they appeared to want to be left unnoticed, but he always knew who was listening and who wasn’t. When they approached him, he was hardly surprised, having obviously enthralled them for nearly an hour during which time he ran a gamut of musical styles. Often people this absorbed would leave generous contribution to his daughter’s meal fund. But this time, Jacob was surprised, for they offered no money.

Jacob’s entrance into the music conservatory had touched off wild speculation. The rumor of a mythic street performer now living in their midst caused a wild buzz among the students, and some of the faculty as well. Adding to the buzz was the fact that this street urchin was plucked off the street by the dean of students who happened to be passing him at the time he was playing. A “discovery”, as it were, of a prodigy, right under the noses of the most learned group of musicians teaching in the world today. Lastly was the unsubstantiated rumor that he had come to the school penniless, with nothing but rags, an ancient violin, and a two-year-old daughter. Some had claimed to have already seen her, being in the right place at the right time as he entered the dormitories for the first time. An noxious mix of curiosity and jealousy spread like a dry fire amongst the high-nosed life at the university.

Jacob felt enveloped by grand brick facades and towering marble columns. He basked in the glow of the warmth of his little girl, for whom he no longer needed to play and beg. He had heat in his room and was able to dress her in fewer rags than ever before. It pleased him to see her growing plump throughout the year. His classes were amusing, if not boring. He knew so much already about the violin, how to play it, caress it, coax it to issue forth music that moved every eye in earshot to tears. All of this learning seemed to him a waste of time. He could no more be asked to refine his technique than Monet could be asked to take a course in brushstroke. He knew already, and aced every test, every recital without once cracking a book. He did not read musical notes so much as they simply lifted off the page and told him what to play. He was beyond such talents as sight-reading, bordering on a psychic understanding of the piece.

Within four years, he had graduated and his little girl had become the terror of the conservatory, running and playing in the tight places into which only children could fit. He had decided not to go farther than those first four years of formal study, for he simply saw no point. He learned during his studies that a larger world of concerts and money was out there to be discovered. He launched an impressive solo career with a stunning concert in the intimidating city of New York. Carnegie Hall was supposed to be a high point in his life, a moment when the jitters take firm hold and force focus as it had never been trained in school. But he felt no fear. He never did when he played. His entrance to the stage was as casual as any had ever seen and his style was so relaxed that many who had come to write critical essays on his debut marveled at the poise usually reserved for the more experienced. His little girl watched her father from the backstage, still hypnotized by his playing.

The years of his career were brilliant in many ways. He played sold out performances for dignitaries and kings, gave lectures about technique that he never needed, and quickly became a bored wealthy man. He aged more each day as his lust for life faded behind the obscene talent he was given. His fortune allowed him to live well, and he lavishly spent his money on his daughter. She grew into a beautiful woman who also played the violin. As naturally talented as she was, she was never her father’s equal, and she struggled to make her career noteworthy. She married and quickly divorced, an occurrence that sadden Jacob, but the granddaughter that resulted from the ill-fated union was more than compensation enough. Another little girl running wild around his house made him feel young as he hadn’t felt in years, and he played again with a liveliness that had been long absent in his music.

But when his daughter was killed in a car accident, his career came to an end. They had finally settled in a beautiful old country house in a littoral setting after such a nomadic existence. The countryside was vast and rolling and the land at the coast of the wide river drew him in a way that few things had since he first picked up his violin. The devastation over his only child’s death was soothed somewhat by the parental custody of his granddaughter, a spitfire copy of her mother. He never feared of hearing from the girl’s father, who was a common petty criminal and had disappeared some years back. His granddaughter, now four, bounced on his lap, not fully aware that her mother would not be coming home.

As many young women do, Jacob’s granddaughter grew too quickly. She sprouted up like a legendary beanstalk and her beauty deepened as she matured. Her hair became her most striking feature. Long and wavy, with a darkness like her long-forgotten grandmother’s, it framed her pale face, transforming her into a porcelain doll. Deep green eyes smiled upon the world and their very touch made Jacob’s heart light. She reminded him of a moment long ago when he was passionately out of his mind for someone from another world, as well as of his daughter, the candle in Jacob’s heart, snuffed too soon.

At the tender age of eighteen, she fell in love and became engaged. She was dating a nice young man whom Jacob had met and even approved of. She would be the first of his family since his grandfather to have fallen into a relationship more solid than ice in a spring thaw. Jacob threw a celebratory dinner for the two young lovers and their friends. He had few close friends of his own, so he simply enjoyed watching the younger crowd dance, eat, and forget their earthly worries for a time. He puttered around with the caterer and generally hovered over the kitchen, where, when alone, he was almost the culinary equal to his musical side.

He lit a long cigarette and stepped outside for a breath of air on this chilly spring night. He wandered through his garden absently, his feet simply taking him on a journey of their own on the carefully laid brickwork. He had paused to look at the moon and the deep blue glow of night when he appeared.

A tall slim man in a narrowing overcoat; he had grown much since Jacob first met him. He thought back to that day when he had been longing to ease his father’s pain with a method he had no skill for. He remembered the words, strange words that he had trouble pronouncing and the sudden appearance of this man. He was older and taller now, and his face seemed withered, like Jacob’s, but there could be no doubt about it: it was the same man. He smiled at Jacob and the old fiddler suddenly remembered the bargain he had struck. It had been a whim at the time, an off-the-cuff remark that the stranger took as consent. Jacob had shrugged at the time, never knowing that anything could come from it. But the thin man had returned and Jacob felt fear in a way he never had before.

He was not good at begging. He had little practice, since people used to throw him all kinds of fortune when he played on the street. But he fell to his knees and clung at the tall man’s coat, uttering pleas of every kind with not a single one affecting the tall man’s demeanor. Jacob begged, pleaded, cajoled, and when all else failed, offered another bargain. A competition. His talent against the tall man’s. The tall man found this a very interesting offer and countered.

A dance would be the bargain. His granddaughter’s dance, in fact. They would both play for the engagement party and whomever she favored would thus be deemed the winner. If Jacob won, the bargain they had struck so many years ago would be considered dissolved. If the tall man won, the bargain would hold and the fate would be sealed. It was the only chance Jacob had, so he took it.

He introduced the tall man to the party as a good acquaintance and fellow musician. He lied about a gentleman’s bet they had placed about whom was really the more talented violinist. The guests, they concluded, would be the judges. Whomever they favored more would win the bet. The audience applauded and the granddaughter moved the furniture out of the way for the festivities. There was no telling what might be played and some of the dances that her grandfather played could be frantic.

But this time was different. Jacob started with a slow melodic tune that requested the presence of dancers on the floor. It spun in lazy circles and drifted around them as they merrily waltzed their way among the furniture. As it progressed, it sped up slowly, increasing in rhythm, increasing in urgency, until, at the end, the dancers were whirling in colorful flashes of motion, spinning like tops on the hardwood surface of the floor.

Jacob finished and the tall man produced his instrument. Jacob had smiled at the end of his piece because he knew he had won. He had played more beautifully than he ever knew possible. The dancers applauded and clapped him on the back for his bravado and he turned to the tall man with a smile. Now, as the tall man played his own violin, the dancers started again. But they moved in a hypnotic way, entranced by the music the tall man played. The smile died from Jacob’s face when he realized just how talented this man really was and his heart started to beat faster, in time with the quickening music. The dancers spun in psychotic reels and finally when it seemed that the music itself would cause the earth to split her seams, it ended and the partyers panted and caught their collective breaths.

It was time to choose. Jacob was nervous. It came down to his granddaughter. She alone held the power to dissolve Jacob’s horrible pact. And Jacob thought he truly had a chance at winning. But his daughter was raised properly, and her manners dictated that she not embarrass her grandfather’s guest. She chose the tall thin man in the narrow overcoat and he smiled. Jacob caught a sob in his throat. The thin man turned to Jacob and bade him farewell. He took the granddaughter by the arm and led her away from Jacob, out of the country house and into the night shadows. The guests vanished in swirls of mist before Jacob’s very eyes, and his beautiful house decayed as he stood there. What was once beautiful disappeared and all that was left was Jacob, now sitting in a hard-backed chair, caught in the stares.

 

 

 

My Little Horror Writer

My younger daughter insists that she’s not scared of the things she’s scared of. This includes books, pictures, Scooby-Doo movies, and stories that other kids tell her. She denies it all, but come bedtime, it’s all lights blazing.

What’s interesting is that she seeks out the things that scare her. Like a lot of fans of the horror genre, be it book, movie, or campfire story, she’s drawn to the things that scare her.

I wasn’t all that different. I wasn’t a big reader growing up. When I finally did find an author I liked, it was Stephen King. He was the first adult author I actively read. I would put on a pair of giant old-fashioned headphones, put “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield on the turntable, and read about vampires and scary clowns and rabid dogs.

For my daughter, the fascination persists. She wants to look at the train wrecks even though she knows they would keep her up at night. More than once I’ve had to tell her “No, you can’t watch The Walking Dead with me, it’s not appropriate for someone your age, it’s very violent, and it will scare the bejesus out of you.” Yet despite her fears, my daughter keeps arguing with me that, no, she won’t be scared of The Walking Dead, that everything will be fine.

Last night, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

After I came in from a late evening appointment, I went upstairs to see how my girls were doing getting ready for bed. I found my younger daughter sitting in bed with my wife, pencil furiously scribbling words across paper.

“Daddy,” she says, “I’m writing a violent story!”

“I’m sorry, what?” I ask.

“I’m writing a violent story. It’ll be scary and violent and everything.”

She holds up the stapled collection of loose leaf paper. On the front is the cover she’s drawn for it. Before the story is even finished, she’s got a name for the book.

Coming soon, to a campfire near you: “The Blood of the Death!”

My little horror writer.

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Coming Next Week To Amazon…Me!

About two months ago I published part one, “The Evaluation”, of my serial novel How It Ends as an ebook for Kindle.

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If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can find it here.

Next week, part two “The Plan”, will available for purchase, also an ebook, also on Amazon.

If you haven’t purchased it yet, I’ll drop a little spoiler for you right now: part one is going on promo when part two becomes available, with an unbeatable price of $0.00. But it will only be on promo for 5 days, so set yourself a reminder!

Adapting “Bunnicula”

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I love this book. It’s just plain fun. I read it first when I was a kid. Last October, I read it out loud to my girls and they loved it. (Hint: It’s a great book at read out loud.)

Since then it’s become a favorite of my younger daughter. Her favorite scene is when Harold Chester discover, lying on the kitchen floor, the work of a certain vegetable juice loving, pointy fanged bunny–a white zucchini!

The other day, my wife and my daughter were talking about the book, which means my daughter was telling and re-telling (and re-telling) my wife about her favorite parts of the book. Somehow this led to a discussion about how it would be fun to see it as a play. Which led to the idea of someone adapting the book for the stage. Which led to finding a writer to adapt the book.

Which led to me.

[deep breath] Oh boy.

Now, I’m not going to get into a philosophical discussion about the copyright of the book and the rights to adopt it. This isn’t about that. The idea behind this adaptation is something for the neighborhood kids to read and put on a half hour play in somebody’s basement. Nobody, least of all me, is trying to make any money off this. Just to be clear.

That said, my daughter now wants me to write this play. (I blame my wife for this one.)

Thing is, I’m giving it serious consideration. After all, why not? It’s not going anywhere, so it will be more of a writing exercise than something I’m doing for publication. It will be good practice in case I need to adapt a novel or story for real in the future.

The question in front of me now is, how do I go about this? Given the finite amount of time (not sure where the idea that it needed to be no longer than thirty minutes came from, but has apparently stuck), how do I take this story, with seven characters, ten different scenes, and a ton of really great first person point of view internal monologue, and translate it into a thirty minute at my daughter and her two other besties can turn into a “show”?

I’m open to approaches and suggestions here. Feel free to drop a comment at the bottom of this post. I’ll keep updating with progress as I work on it.

How Was Your Weekend?

Mine was good. Busy as always.

Saturday, in addition to the usual ballet lessons for the girls and running around doing errands, my older daughter had a Girl Scout “field trip” to a local glacier-caused crack in the earth called Purgatory Chasm.

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There was climbing and hiking and learning about trail maps and blazes. All the girls had a good time, but I in particular enjoyed myself because I got to go hiking (something I love) with my daughter (something I love). We’d never been hiking together before. Might be the start of a new activity we can do together.

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Sunday we got the pumpkins. We’re probably a little late, but I like getting them later so they’re not all droopy and caving in on themselves by the time Halloween rolls around.

We’ve even got one of them carved.

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Designs courtesy of my younger daughter, implementation courtesy of me.

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Arrrg, matey!

Like most weekends, it flew by, always over too quick. And sometimes I don’t always enjoy them because I don’t feel like I really get to relax. But this was a good one.

Is Software Versioning Relevant Anymore

Before we get started, let’s lay down this first really big disclaimer: I do not have any formal software development training. What I’ve learned I’ve learned largely from Googling it, and applying some of that to my own development stuff in Excel and Access.

That out of the way, here’s my question of the day: is software versioning relevant anymore?

A little background on where this question came from: app updates in my iPhone. That’s right. I thought about this while scrolling through the app updates available on my iPhone.

(I don’t get out much.)

Like most everybody with a smartphone, I have a crapload of apps I’ve downloaded. Some I use all the time, some I use some of the time, some I downloaded with good intentions and have yet to go back to them, and some I deleted ten minutes after trying them out.

A couple I use pretty regularly are Cozi and Zillow. Cozi is a type of family organizer that shares data across members of the same family. My family uses it for grocery lists primarily. Zillow is a real estate listing app that’s been useful as we think about buying a new house in the next year or two.

One that I occasionally use is Spotify. I’m not a subscriber, so I’m not on it hardcore all the time.

All three came up recently for update in the App Store.

What does this have to do with versioning? Well, I’m one of those people that, when they see a new version of an app has been released, I actually expand the section to see just what has been done. Do I want to waste my bandwidth updating an app that hasn’t added anything I find valuable?

I was looking at these the other day, I noticed that the updates to Cozi and Zillow were very very minor. If you look up software versioning in Wikipedia, then what you’ll find is that Cozi and Zillow appear to be following your average everyday sequence-based identifier. The updates to both were in the revision number, which means not a major release (version 1), not a minor release (version 1.1), but a revision release (version 1.1.1).

Based on the Wikipedia article, a major version is for a major change or jump in functionality, a minor version is for a minor features or significant bug fixes, while a revision number release is generally used for really minor bugs.

What stuck me about the revision number of both. They were ridiculously high. The Zillow revision number is 602, while the 2611.

2611! Does that mean that the developers of Cozi have found, since the last minor version release, two thousand six hundred eleven bugs?? If so, it would appear to me that they have a HUGE problem with their QA department. Same with Zillow.

Now take Spotify. The Spotify mobile app has been around since April 2013. They are on version 0.8. The regular desktop app was launched in 2008. Currently (again, according to Wikipedia), the last stable release was 0.9.4.numbernumbernumber.

According to most software release cycles, this means that Spotify is still in the “beta” test stage, which means the developers have tested it, and it’s been distributed to a user community for additional testing and piloting. They have yet to button up a final released version.

Spotify has 20 million users.

“Beta”? Really??

Given these two observations led me to wonder to myself, and in this post, whether software versioning really matters anymore. This doesn’t even begin to tackle OS changes, Windows 8 versus 8.1, the odd dessert-based naming structure the Driod OS follows, or the big cat structure Mac OS was following.

Has software versioning become less about the quality control of releases and more about marketing? I think maybe it has…

Call for Sci-Fi Submissions

This was brought to my attention by a friend of mine yesterday.

If you’ve got a sci-fi or fantasy novel just hanging around waiting to be published (and who doesn’t?) then consider submitting it to Angry Robot Books.

(Click the header below for details, or copy/paste the link below the header into your browser if you need to go that route.)

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http://angryrobotbooks.com/2013/10/angry-robot-open-door-2013/

Now through the end of the year they are having their Open Door submission period. That means you can submit your best (or maybe, in some cases, your only) science fiction, fantasy, or WTF (yes, that WTF) novel to them without the need of an agent.

So get cracking. Finish that novel! Edit, edit, edit! Then submit!

The Maffetone Method – 1 Month In

Last week I posted about how and why I switched over to the Maffetone Method for training for endurance running. The big question is still whether or not it works.

(I’m sure it does, and I’m sure anyone who stumbles upon this blog and reads the Maffetone stuff will extol its virtues and chide me for ever doubting it wouldn’t. To which I can only say: chill. What works for you might not work for me. Until I see it work for me, than it’s just a theory I’ve read, not something I can talk to from experience.)

So, as of today, I’m one month (well, 29 days to be exact) into the training, having switched from my previous training program of strapping on my shoes and running as fast as my lungs would let me.

(Not much of a training program, was it?)

Okay, so how am I doing? Let’s take a look at some stats.

  • Days: 29
  • Total Miles: 36
  • Average Pace: 11:37
  • Average Pace with Highest and Lowest Paces thrown out: 11:39
  • Highest Pace: 12:16
  • Lowest Pace: 10:47
  • 30 Average Pace Change: -0:54 minutes

Admittedly I’m not a stats major. I was an English major. I probably shouldn’t tax my brain with too much math, lest I have a stroke.

That being said, here’s what I see:

I improved my pace by nearly a full minute in the last 29 days.

As you can see by the chart below, I’ve kept my average heart rate pretty steady in the 130s (but this is a little misleading, since I track my heart rate during a warm-up and cool-down, rather than isolating it to just to run). Upper limit of my hear rate is about 150, which is 10 beats too high for the range I’m shooting for. So I have to work on that. But there are hills and such on my route, so…

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By throwing out the highest and lowest pace I set, the average pace didn’t change much, only a 2 second difference. This tells me that the outliers in all my paces aren’t terribly large, certainly not large enough to be statistically significant.

My conclusion: I’m off to a great start. However, I don’t expect this level of improvement to continue month over month. The main reason is that, at the beginning of the training, I was still getting used to running so slowly. Now that I have the feel for it, I expect the improvement to continue, but be much slower.

My Lunchtime Walk Into Mid-World

My job moved offices about two months ago. Like at the old office, I try to go out walking every day at lunch.

We moved to a technology/office park that’s seen better days. Our buildings are beautiful, but a couple of buildings around here are empty and dilapidated:

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I think that someone is moving in eventually, because one of the buildings appears to be under renovation. But the fix-up must be going slowly, because more often than not, the heavy equipment outside the buildings is quiet.

Yesterday while walking, I noticed this sign on one of the walkways to the building:

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Something about this sign struck me as the kind of leftover stuff that Roland, et al, would find in Mid-World, a sign of the Old Ones from a time before the world had moved on. Especially when attached to an abandoned crumbling building.

Between this sign, half demo’d/reno’d buildings, and silent heavy machinery, I felt a little like I’d stepped into a section of Stephen King’s Dark Tower Mid-World. All it needs is some really strange creatures scurrying around and doing things like chomping off fingers to be complete.

(Kinda glad I didn’t see any of those…)