Access to a Forbidden Place – Draft 1


Essential Features:

  • The protagonist’s trek to the forbidden place sparks reflection on their relationship to the context.
  • This reflection is told through specific events that highlight both the risks of the context from the protagonist’s perspective as well as the protagonist’s fish-out-of-water-ness.
  • The protagonist assesses the current context in light of past experiences and current expectations.
  • The protagonist takes steps to offset their sense of outsider status.

The pilot cut the engine on the airboat and the flat bottomed craft slowed and then drifted in the dark. The warehouse was yet a hundred yards off. Ethan could barely make out the harsh glow of halogen lamps against the rusted metal walls. He felt his ribcage grow half a size too small for his anxious heart.

“You get off here,” muttered the pilot over his shoulder.

“How am I supposed to get all the way over there?”

“You walk. See, walkway’s right here.” The boat thumped against something hard that shifted disconcertingly, sending ripples of moonlight into the murky water. Other things shifted there too, splashing into the tall grass of the flooded bayou.

“The water goes right up to the place, you can’t take me all the way?”

“Listen, kid, this here’s an imaginary line that I do not cross. On this side of the line, I’m just a guy on a boat doing a little night fishing. On that side of the line, I’m a smuggler or a human trafficker, or, to your friends over there, I’m a spy, and I don’t want to catch a bullet from either side of it. You can get out here, or I can take you back the way we came.”

“But I can’t see anything.”

The pilot grumbled and dug around beside his seat. “Here, take my kit. It’s got a flashlight and a flare-gun and some other things. I’ll be out here fishing for another two hours and then I’m heading in.” The pilot pointed at the rickety walkway. “You need a pickup from this spot, fire a flare and I’ll get you. From here, not over there. If I see anything bright and shiny fly up over there, I’m-a skedaddle, got it?”

Ethan nodded, took the bright orange case by the handle and stepped onto the flood walkway. He clutched the kit to his chest as he watched the pilot fire up the propeller on the airboat and pull out.

“I’m adding a hundred scrips to your invoice for that kit, by the way.” He shouted before revving up the engine and skimming out into the dark.

“Bullshit.” Ethan muttered to himself as he shook off the chill eating at his stomach and tested the wood planking with a cautious step forward. Each plank bowed under his weight, but it wasn’t the wood that worried him as much as the pocked and rusted steel that was holding it up out of the water. The supports here and there looked as if bites had been taken out of them, exposing their brittle emptiness.

He took one final glance back where the airboat had disappeared. The warehouse was twenty miles southeast of downtown Houston, but the light dome of the city still defined skyscrapers on the horizon. Towering over these was Three-Pole plaza, where the corporate buildings of the Big Three touched the clouds. The main building loomed over two thousand feet and from there, across the miles, the red Reuleaux triangle of the Triumvirate logo  glared  through the cloud cover like an evil eye. Somewhere amidst all that architecture was the Farm. Effy was there too.

Blue, Red, Orange, Black. Effy had won again. Four guesses that time. Four guesses every time. They were nine and it was Ethan’s turn. He got it in five. He could beat anyone in school at Mastermind in the library, where those kinds of games were encouraged, where they first started watching kids to see how far they could leap. Back then they lived in boxes on stilts on the flood plains, but he remembered those days fondly, when they would play together and walk the planks to school to stay out of the muck, when Effy would chatter his ear off about the most random things. But then Effy didn’t go to school anymore, not since sixth grade, when adolescence aggravated her condition and made each day harder, made the anxiety unbearable. Ethan felt it too, but it was different for him. Effy cared too much and Ethan just grew a harder shell, impenetrable — except for Effy. Effy always was more sensitive in a way that opened him up but also left him behind. Effy always guessed the code in four turns. They caught her leaping online, a virtual reality game where she was at the top of the leaderboards. Tricky what they can do with games. Effy was good at all the games, but also Effy couldn’t lie and then the social workers came knocking and Effy went away.

The smell of the rotting bayou crept up from the muck and the grasses and surrounded Ethan as he walked. Floating fish, algae, garbage and the seeping effluence of pre-flood industry flared his nostrils. The waters were higher now in the summer, after the storms, but they never quite went away and places like this were long abandoned.

He covered his nose with the hand holding the kit while he slashed the beam of the flashlight from left to right, more worried about what was beside the walkway than on it. Strong smells bothered Ethan almost as much as the drone of the surrounding crickets and he played with patterns in his head to distract himself.  Number sequences, code sequences, Fibonacci and Lucas, he even optimized a recursive function for calculating leap years by centuries and missed a dip in the walkway where it dove into the water in front of him. He stumbled, splashing dark water onto his shiny new white kicks and soaking the bottom of his jeans. 

The stipend they got for Effy’s participation paid for a lot of things. It kept him in new if not name brand clothes, it paid for food and better housing for himself and his mom, and it kept them stocked on pharmaceutical grade cannabinoids for his mother’s anxiety. She was high when he’d left her that evening, but she still knew what he was up to. Ethan could lie, but he was bad at it.

“But it’s Effy, momma. She’s in trouble.”

“Damned right, and what are you gonna do? You’re gonna get us all in trouble then? She’s in a place that can help her better than I can, and if they find out you were involved, they’ll cut all this off and we’ll be back on stilts over the floodplain beating away mosquitoes with a tire iron. What I keep tellin’ you, baby? You don’t bite the hand that feeds. Everything will be fine, I’m sure Effy’s just having her anxiety that’s all.”

But there was no anxiety in Effy’s message, it was pure terror. Not the kind of fear you live in when you know that someday the door is going to bust in and your life will be over in the flash of a barrel, like their old life. No, Effy’s fear was for the human race. The message itself was calm, but Effy’s inability to emote only illuminated that terror all the more. They were twins, after all, and Ethan knew his sister better than anyone.

Ethan wiped at the muck on his shoes and just glimpsed the rolling flashlight as it dove over the edge of the walk and plopped into the water, dragging a green aura along with it to the bottom. Shit. The warehouse was just ahead, and he could see the walkway well enough, but still he pulled his smartphone out of his front pocket and turned on its tiny flashlight. If he dropped this, then he was more or less stranded. While the boatman would come for a flare, he had no way of hailing an auto-drive from the main road.

As he shone the light around him he realized he’d stumbled onto a square intersection of two flood walks anchored to a tree stump. The firm serrated metal was a significant and comforting departure from the rotting planks behind him. Water rushed around this spot and splashed in hollow echoes below him. He figured this was here before the flood walks were installed, and, well, before the floods. The leftmost path appeared to lead directly to the warehouse and so he followed it the rest of the way.

The halogen light he’d seen from the boat was now above him and across from him was a stair tower to a door two stories up, but there was also a four-foot gap between the bottommost landing and the walkway.

Between the buzzing of insects he heard a splash in the water beside him, in the dark where his light couldn’t penetrate, and then the tell-tale hiss of an unsettled gator.

These were the coordinates Athena had given him, but he felt like he was in the wrong place like an itch behind the eyes. A dim yellow light leaked out of the boarded window next to the door above and there was a tiny red light on a panel by the door. It was the only way in that he could see, so he pocketed his phone, clutched the flare-kit to his chest, and jumped as far as he could.

He landed squarely, encouraging another hiss from the gator behind. He set the kit on the platform at his feet and pulled the round chip from his back pocket. This was his invitation. When he had sent Athena a direct relay chat about Effy’s message, Athena responded right away, telling him to wait for a package. When the package came the next day, inside was this chip wrapped in a slip of paper with these coordinates and a note that read, “The chip will get you inside. BURN THIS!” That’s what had triggered the argument with his mother, him burning a secret note in the porch ash tray. That’s how he ended up here.

Ethan tugged his shirt straight and then walked up the stairs.


Essential Features:

  • The protagonist attempts to gain access to the forbidden place through the antagonist/Threshold Guardian.
  • The protagonist appeals to their role, responsibility, or right within the context.
  • The antagonist/Threshold Guardian undermines the protagonist’s appeals through strict adherence to their own role/position (pits the protagonist’s role against the antagonist’s role).

The landing at the top was about three feet square and sturdy. From here, Ethan looked back over the horizon and the red eye of the Triumvirate stared back at him. Here and there the dark carapace of a corporate drone reflected the moonlight dimly, each one surveilling the whole of Houston, keeping the streets safe. All except here in the flood lands where it wasn’t worth living and the cartels or gangs took control.

Ethan turned to the door. He didn’t see any place to put the chip that Athena sent him. The chip itself didn’t have any visible interface, and looked like a poker chip, blue, ridged, smooth in the center but unmarked. It could be symbolic, a token representing the high esteem of Athena. She’d helped him in the past, given him praise on his work and more than a few tips. But this was Mongoose, an organization as infamous as it was anonymous. Ethan felt little more than an imposter here, entreating entrance to their secret hideout. But Athena had done more than relayed his message, she’d invited him into the fold. That had to count for something.

The door looked plain, but sturdy. The lock was double bolted with an RFID reader to the right and a call button over a speaker and under a camera. Ethan passed the chip over the RFID and it buzzed red. So the chip is definitely tech.

He pushed the button and waited.

The speaker buzzed and a male voice crackled and hissed. “We don’t want any.”

Ethan cocked his head and opened his mouth. Shut it.

“You deaf? I said go away.”

“I’m… my name is Ethan Turner, Spitfire, Athena sent me.”

Ethan awkwardly showed the blue chip to the camera.

“That don’t mean shit to me kid. Isn’t it a school night? Does your momma know where you are?”

“But… Athena sent this to me and gave me these coordinates.”

“Athena does a lot of things I don’t like. Why are you here then, squib?”

“I’m here about the Farm. My sister’s there and she sent me a message. Athena said you could help.”

“Yeah, you and everyone else. How’s that a reason I should let you in here?”

“Come on, Athena knows me she invited me because she thinks I can help. I’m an ace cracker, I can get into just about anything.”

“Athena this, Athena that. She’s a good recruiter, don’t get me wrong, or at least she used to be. As I see it, I don’t have any use for you. Now you get along back to your momma and let the grown ups do our job.”

“Look, I came all the way out here because I know I can help, just let me prove myself, I’ll show you that I ain’t no squib.”

The speaker sighed like a hiss of static. 

“Turn around kid.”

Ethan turned. At eye level and inches away hovered three hexacopter drones that he hadn’t heard coming, that he still couldn’t hear now that they were staring him down. These weren’t simple surveillance drones either, they were military grade builds with small-caliber, coil-accelerated slug guns perched on either side.

“Now, I’m done askin’ you to buzz off.” The voice wasn’t coming from the speaker next to the door anymore, it was coming from the drones, in a menacing reverb of synchronized voices.

Ethan put up his hands, but frowned at the display of force. While Effy’s anxiety had pushed her inside of herself, Ethan had converted his into a mirror. And, though his stomach felt like ice on this warm June night, his face took on a glare of righteous indignation. “All right, all right. I get it, I’m walkin’.”


Essential Features:

  • The protagonist abides by the rules on the surface, but their strategy is driven by their outsider status (the protagonist operates in the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law).
  • The antagonist frames the situation in a way that reveals the shared identity (again, this could be between the protagonist and victimized parties or between the protagonist and the antagonist). This should give rise to the Crisis of whether the protagonist will do what it takes to access the forbidden place or if they will acquiesce to the Threshold Guardian.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll follow you out, make sure you make it to your boat nice and safe.”

“If you’ve got nothing better to do than point your guns at a guest, then by all means.”

“Hey, no hard feelings, but you don’t belong here, kid. You’ll get yourself killed, you’ll get us all killed. This is for your own good.”

“Oh yeah, and what about the kids at the Farm?”

“All the more reason for you to keep steppin’. That op is gonna be messy, and we don’t need any squibs getting in the way.”

“But what if I can help?”

“Kid, you couldn’t even get through the front door.”

At the bottom landing, Ethen bent over and picked up the flare kit he’d left behind.

“What’s that?”

“It’s my ticket out of here. Boatman won’t come unless I throw up a flare.”

“Good ‘ol Captain Steve, he probably charged you extra for that didn’t he.”

“A hundred scrips.”

“See, right there’s another reason you need to go. How many folks can afford 100 scrips for a flare kit, not to mention that nice new shirt, them shiny white shoes. Hell, I bet you even get your hair coiffed, do you pay someone to coif your hair… what was your name again?”


“Yeah, right. You got the money to coif your hair, real nice like, like a damned model. You gonna give that up to mess around playin’ squib to a bunch of hacktivists?”

“I would if it meant getting Effy out safely.”

“Right, we’ve all got someone at the Farm, kid. And ain’t none of us are going to jeopardize their safety by bringing on some trainee.”

“And what about Effy?”

“We get out who we can.”

“You mean you take care of your own first.”

“Wouldn’t you? But don’t you worry, we’re real good at this shit. Your Effy’ll probably be sitting in your nice arco-suite chatting all about what it was like livin’ at the farm. You might even take her to get coiffed.”

Ethan stopped at the square intersection he’d stumbled onto earlier. Standing here, listening to the hollow water sounds below him he noticed the tree stump where the flashlight fell. The floodlights from the drones gave it a new dimension and he realized he wasn’t looking at a tree stump at all, but a pillar overgrown with fuzzy-bean vines. Then he noticed something else — a button.


Essential Features:

  • The protagonist reflects on their duty within the context.
  • The protagonist places their own well-being (opportunity, resources, and/or potential for conflict) at risk to access the forbidden place (the protagonist chooses the transformative option, operating according to the Dynamic).
  • The protagonist succeeds in gaining access using a resource, skill, or connection associated with their role or identity in the context.
  • The protagonist is rewarded (based on External Genre; this could be with a connection, information that the protagonist needs, resources, or additional opportunities).

“Why you stopping?” Shouted the three drones. 

Ethan was leaping. Standing there, the hollow fall of water below him and the newly exposed button on the post beside him sprouted a new layout of the situation in his mind. The door at the top of the stairs was a decoy. And why wouldn’t it be? Hackers prefer back doors. There wasn’t anything they could do to that entrance with technology or structural reinforcement that would keep the corps out if they wanted in. There was another way inside and Ethan was standing on it. He didn’t know how it worked or what he needed to do but he knew where to aim, he just had the small problem of a grumpy doorman and his heavily armed drones.

So now Ethan was stuck. He’d figured out the right colors but he only had one guess left to crack the code. One way forward was easy, he could just keep walking, fire off the flare, get on the boat and go home where it was less smelly and noisy and dangerous. There was food there, there was sleep. But there was also shame in an empty apartment with an always high mother and nobody else in the world that understood him like Effy.

We get out who we can.

You mean you take care of your own first.

Wouldn’t you?

Wouldn’t he?

Ethan sighed and kneeled on the platform.

“What’re you doing, kid?”

“Calling my ride.”

“Captain Steve goin’ run away if you fire that off out here.”

“I know.” Time to disappear.

Ethan had realized as he was coming down the stairs that the drones weren’t actually silent. They were adjusting their rotor speed to mask the noise by blending into the ambient soundscape. Ethan could hear them now, babbling like water, chirping like crickets but they were all in the air and knowing they were there made them easy to triangulate. So he didn’t even have to look in order to aim the flare gun and fire it right at the middle drone at near point-blank range.

The flare careened off the drone harmlessly but the light itself had consequences. The zero-lux cameras on each drone suddenly absorbed over forty thousand lux of orange incendiary light, throwing off the flight stabilization systems and sending all three into a tail spin. Each aimed its guns at the flare at the same time and fired magnesium bullets which caught light and streaked across the sky like tiny comets, sizzling as they struck the water. Ethan ducked under the chaos and uncovered the button on the post beside him. The button pulsed with red light and did nothing when he pounded it in desperation until he saw the slit underneath. He pulled out the blue chip from Athena and slammed it inside turning the pulsing red to a hopeful green.

He pressed the button as a drone splashed into the water next to him and then he was falling.

Falling and the moon above winked out.

Falling and the rush of water surrounded him but he was still dry.

Falling but while his heart was in his throat his feet were still on the platform.

Falling and then a jolt where inertia carried him to his knees. 

Ethan couldn’t see, then realized his eyes were clenched shut. He opened them on a short tunnel lit by dim strip lights where arguing people rushed towards him. He stepped forward shakily, unsure what had actually happened or where he was.

“You shot at him with live rounds! Are you insane!”

“I didn’t shoot at anyone, that fucking flare set off the auto-defense.”

Ethan stepped beyond the tunnel and looked up at a cavernous cement cave. Great pillars, at least a dozen feet tall, marched in evenly spaced rows down the length of it and at the center was a well lit platform with equipment and monitors and tendrils of thick cables stretching every which way.

“Ethan, are you okay?” That was Athena. Ethan had never met her but she sounded the way she typed. She was tall, her hair was golden fading to green then blue and she covered up her tired eyes with dark makeup.

“Sure… yeah, all aces. What the hell is this place?”

“Underground reservoir, from the factory. It stored a million gallons of fresh clean water for makin’ computer chips while people upstream died of dysentery.” This voice was different, in charge, a gentle cantor of kreyol that echoed in silky waves through the damp reservoir. He emerged from behind a pillar, a tall man with deep mahogany skin and bright amber eyes wearing a simple white kurta over blue jeans with black snakeskin boots that scraped and clicked on the gritty concrete in staccato reverberations.

“And you’re damned lucky to be seeing it. God damnit child, you almost got yourself killed.” That was the doorman. He was shorter than Athena wearing a white shirt covered in bright red hibiscus flowers.

“Cerberus, that’s enough. I’m sure Spitfire here is plenty aware of the danger he narrowly avoided. Legba opened the gate for him tonight and he is here now, safe.” Said the man in the kurta.

“And now he should be going home. I still don’t like having green ears tripping us up here, Wizzer. There’s too much at stake.”

“Precisely, we are all so careful of doing harm that we get nowhere. We need an injection of chaos to push us into aporia. Tell me, Ethan, if it were up to you, how would we get into the Farm?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Perfect! Let’s begin.”

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