Concept Art Writing Prompt: Tales from the Roving City

Illustration for article titled Concept Art Writing Prompt: Tales from the Roving City

This week's Concept Art Writing Prompt is set on a moving city that makes deep groves in the earth as it rattles along. It's a place where endless stories could take place. What's yours?

This piece is by Christian Bravery, director of Leading Light Conceptual Design (via reddit). It's actually based on an existing story, Phillip Reeve's post-apocalyptic Mortal Engines series. But there are plenty of stories ready to be invented about these moving cities. If you can come up with one, please post it in the comments.

Here's my story:

Myra pulled an apple from her ration sack and laid it on the table. "Fresh fruit says he gets crushed beneath the wheels."

They'd been watching their would-be stowaway for the last hour. He was a scruffy, if not bad-looking fellow, who had been trailing their mobile factory, looking for a way up past the wheels and onto the safety of the platforms. So far, his approaches had been cautious, as if he was evaluating the best path upward.

Faerlie met Myra's apple with three chocolate protein bars. "When's the last time we picked up a hitcher?"

Myra shrugged. "We got Sonja 'bout a month back, but she picked up a contract."

Faerlie eyed the apple. "I say management picks him off before he gets too close."

"I don't get it." Jackie stretched against the railing, working out the soreness from her latest day on the line. "If I was a vagrant, I'd dress like a woman so the mobile factories would take me on."

Myra clucked her tongue. "Not ones like that. Too macho. Gotta get on board thanks to your own great big muscles."

"Plus, they never keep it their pants," said Penny-Lope. "My sister had a fella femme his way into a contract, then she woke one night with his tongue in her ear."

This elicits a mixture of groans and laughter from the women, but Jackie just shook her head. "That's just the ones you hear about. I'm sure plenty of fellas pass for women just fine."

Sasha whacked Myra in the crotch. "What, you saying Myra here might be stowing a little something extra?"

The larger woman shoved Sasha aside, grinning. "I hear no complaints from you, Sash."

A movement flashed from the ground and all of the women crowded up against the railing. "He's got a grappling hook!" Penny-Lope squealed. "This is going to be fun!"

The hook clanged against the lowest platform and caught on the railing. A cheer went up from the women as the man below stumbled to catch hold of his rope. He began to run, pulling his way forward on the rope, hand over hand, until he reached the segment that parted from the ground. With a little hop, he mounted the rope, his knees clenched about the thin column of hemp.

"He's gonna climb," Penny-Lope said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Myra walked over to the compost bin and pluck and apple core from the pile. "Alright, ladies, new game. First one to knock Romeo off wins a round's worth of snack rations. Who's in?" With that, she sent the core flying, straight for the man's head.


PV's story:

The Oil Corporations developed them... they go along, chewing the earth, consuming the organics to convert into biodiesel. Long dead, anyways, these trees it just chewed up in the grinders between their wheels.

Oh they process more than that. Strip the top soil, grind anything living up and turn it into oil or diesel. They harvest whatever refined materials sit on the surface. Old cars, abandoned buses, houses, soda cans, you name it. Anything that can be turned into product. We call them Hoovers.

I'd been trailing H-027 for a while now. I remember when all this used to be jungle and rain-forest. I haven't seen a drop of water in 10 years. At least not here in the interior. I remember the fish flappin' in the dried up beds and lakes. Took the hovering moisture drones three days to turn lush, verdant land into a dried up desert.

I could feel the drones seeping the water from the air, from the surface of my skin as they went along. I ran, of course. I knew the moment I felt the air get dryer what was coming. Dropped my protest sign and ran, got to a car, hot-wired it, and pushed the pedal to the floorboard.

Government had sold the water to one of the mega cities up north. They figured, "Well, with global warming, they'll take the stuff seeping in from the ocean." Nah. These corps, bloodthirsty lot they are. They went to the interior and killed off the lifeblood of the entire nation. Sort of fitting too, one of the drones had taken up residence over the Capital and sucked the water out of every inch of the city. Only thing left were dessicated corpses. Immediately after, ACOC bought the rest of the nation, and started bringing over their ground munchers. ACOC? Asian Chinese Oil Corporation.

At least ACOC uses these slow monstrosities. Had it been AmeriCO (American Corporate Oil) we'd have all been dead less than a month after the ink had dried on the forfeiture order - decimated and decomposed by a nano-cloud that would have converted everything of value into finished goods ready to be shipped to a mega-city.

In any case, I'm off to Colony 12 after this. Big bounty on this Hoover, it evidently took a little side trip into a "protected zone", one of those places owned by another country who was keeping it clean and green. Well... now it has a big swath of organics chewed out of it, can't say I cry too many tears for em, waste of water, you know? But they pay well... and with what I planted up ahead, once I push this button, ACOC will need a new Hoover.

turokman2000's story:

Mud. It was all Luminia had to answer for three hours of climbing, scavenging, slipping into deep crevices. She had nearly become stuck. The earth, compressed by the mountainous weight of the pilgrim city's treads had begun to release much of its tension. Shelves of dirt, moistened as they were compressed into the ground water, had now dried and cracked into a spider's web kilometers in scale.

Luminia had encountered one such uplift, with a chasm 30 yards across, 100 deep, filled with mud, water, debris, unstable ground, but also a mystery. A glint, a spark of light, briefly and brilliantly white, hinting at many other colors. A treasure left by the city?

Striders like Luminia could leap tens of meters in one bound, whether it be up, down, or across. It was something that astonished the people of the low valleys. Striders did indeed possess legs about one and half times the length of the low folk, though it always seemed that some other mystery lay behind the gift of leap. Not all Striders could leap. It wasn't innate, though no training could induce it. Instead, leap resulted from an inner peace, the possession of that spirit of longing, longing after that unknown purpose for which the Striders were created by the great Spirit of the world.

Luminia never bothered with enlightenment, and never once sought to leap. But her soul was never satisfied with village life. She would always play in crags and peaks of her mountain home. Her daily adventures took her farther and farther, as far as she could get away with. Her own father and brothers scolded her incessantly for what they considered a reckless and carefree attitude. It came to an ultimatum, obedience or exile.

Exile was never Luminia's plan, but she had to seek. After what she still didn't know, but the minute she made the final decision, never to turn back home, she began to leap.

And this trinket, glimmering in the mud far below, called out to her. Leap was powerful, but not altogether useful in deep mud. This was going to be dangerous. And so she lept, grabbed the trinket, and was stuck. It took a mighty effort, leap after leap after leap, but Luminia finally resurfaced from the fissure. She took a break.

What was this trinket? A large coin? Was it gold, or was its color changing? Perhaps it could be opened; there were lines on the side, were the decorations?

Luminia sighed. Striders didn't have any villages in the great valley. The people here reminded her of the low folk, only darker, and hairier. There were some free leapers who traded here, though. And their trade was relics. Relics of that awesome and terrible city.

The tracks crossed the land, some carving ancient hills and valleys, some newly moist, some where the trees had only just begun again to grow. The pilgrim city. The locals called it that. Nothing was known about it except its legacy: the tracks. And every so often, in horrifying splendor, the city itself would appear and roll over entire villages. The only thing the valley people had to say about it was: if the city is seen or heard, run to the mountains.

Some of the leapers felt differently. The city was old, they said, falling apart. Many had seen it on many occasions.

Pieces of the city would fall off, into the tracks. Useful pieces: devices to create water out of air. Weapons. Cutting tools. Others were relics. Mere scrap metal could trade for a few carrots in some of the outer villages. The city was feared, worshiped, and cursed.

Luminia had never seen the city herself, but what she had in her hands was a mere trinket. It's function wasn't even at all apparent. Still, being shiny, it might be worth a little bit more than the average piece of scrap. Having regained her breath, she leaped out of the valley-rut and up to a ridge of burnt cedars left in the wake of the smog and heat of the city's undercarriage. She could climb a dead trunk to spy out the nearest village.

Landing uneasily on ground which was much more solid than she was expecting, Luminia looked back down into the valley.

"What sort of monstrous thing could so alter the very foundations of the earth?" she asked herself out loud.

On the wind, came an unexpected response, "Time my dear, time itself."

Luminia instinctively leaped backwards, onto a tree branch, her knees bent, slightly above her head. She looked towards the sound of the voice. It was an old woman, a Strider, resting on a log. Her long legs too were bent, knees above head.

"No need to be startled, I was just passing by," said the stranger.

Luminia dropped to the ground. She ran her hand through her disheveled hair to get it out of her way. Her hands rested on her hips.

Luminia said, "Time takes a lot longer to mold the Earth than what caused this," she opened her arms to the air, refering to all that was around them.

The old woman soflty smiled, "And what's to say that what caused this isn't a manifestation of time itself?"

Luminia tilted her hips to the side, her hands again resting on them in fists, she said, "What caused this was the pilgrim city, a loud, smoggy, moving mountain of metal full of mysterious strangers."

The woman raised her eyebrows, "So you've seen the city?"

Luminia shrugged, "Have I? No. But many have, it's hard to miss from what I hear."

"But you yourself haven't seen it."


"So how do you know for sure what the pilgrim city is?"

"Well I suppose I'll just have to wait until I do see it one of these days. Look, what's your point, I have things to do, trades to make, I can't stick around?"

The woman smirked, saying, "Oh trades to make? I suppose you mean that item you are carrying?"

Luminia looked down at her trinket in her right grip, then promptly put both hands behind her back.

"I have to go," she said, "enjoy the weather."

As Luminia turned, the woman called after her, "You know, that's quite a valuable piece there."

Luminia turned back, "What would you know about it?"

The woman said, "I know that the pilgrim city is a city that moves."


"But not only across the earth."


"It moves across time, through space, through dimensions far and near, from reality to unreality, between light and dark, between imagination and hopelessness."

Luminia began to turn away.

"It seeks after something, something unnamed, but which must be sought."

Luminia began to walk, the woman's voice grew louder.

"It has searched all and seen all, but it has not discovered what it seeks."

Luminia started to leap, she could only barely still hear the woman's voice.

"Because what it seeks has yet to search for it."

Luminia chuckled, what a crazy old lady, she thought.

"Because what it seeks is you LUMINIA!"

Luminia stopped, frozen. She turned around and slowly leaped back to the woman. How did she know her name. It was certainly possible she was being stalked, which was frightening enough as it was. Still, something else, deeper down, was speaking to her. It was as if the old woman hadn't spoken the name alone. It was as if a chorus of the wind had echoed the name: Luminia!

Luminia approached the woman and paused. She asked, "How do you know my name?"

The old lady replied, "I know much about you, I know how you are feeling right now, better than you could ever realize. I know you are frightened, but that you also sense something which is bigger than yourself. You want to know if I'm more than a creepy old lady with crazy ideas that has been stalking you for who knows how many days."

Luminia nodded.

The woman smiled, "I appeared here the moment you picked up that locket. I can't explain yet just how or why. I'll say this: read the locket, it is more than just a relic from the city of longing, it is very special."

Luminia laughed, "There's nothing written on the locket, I've already..."


The woman said, "They were always there, but you couldn't see them until you were ready to see them. Until it was your time to seek."

Luminia was astounded, "Seek what?"

"Your destiny."

A huge crash knocked Luminia to the ground as the Earth trembled. She rose to her feet only to see, a mere kilometer away, the monster of legend. She turned to the old woman, but the old woman was gone. She looked back towards the sound of thunder.

There it was, glorious, terrible, blowing clouds of smoke, rolling over mountains: the pilgrim city.

And, apparently, destiny.

Justin.K's story:

I walked away. What other choice did I have?

I turned back once, though, just to make sure I'd made the right decision. I cocked my head to the right and stared. I meditated on the ambulant prefecture as it spewed its steamy filth into the air, into my air... yeah, this is for the best. Nothing else for me in New Xanoia. Goodbye, fuel world.

My eyes shifted to the right; I spotted two shadowy figures. Looked like Catriona and Boab. They held each other close near a cliff on section of The Barrier... the lechers. No more of that posturing shite for me. No more of that New Xanoia. Goodbye, fuel world.

I lived for 16 years on those 16 wheels. I sucked in its fumes every day. Coal fumes, pig fumes, "chicken" fumes, piss fumes. Pseudo-intellectual fumes. Fumes of hate, pure hate. Can't believe people still think of it as mobile Arcadia. It's a brig.

Nothing else for me in New Xanoia. Goodbye, fuel world.

ShirtBloke's story:

"Hey, you can't do that. You can't tow my town."

"Sorry miss, it's the law."

"But it's my home town."

"Well you shouldn't have parked your home town on a handicapped spot."

"I didn't know this was Los Angeles. There's no signs or anything."

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Just take the ticket."

"But how am I supposed to get home if you've taken my town?"

"Not my problem lady, just take the ticket."

cloudofbees's story:

ENGINEER NEEDED (Gert's Sunrise)

We're headed west.

Required experience with Barten-style magnetics and mechanical systems.

Electrical transfer and wiring knowledge a plus.

Housing, stipend, 2800 calories/day.

No dependents. No dust allergies. Haley virus screening required.

Job begins at Stuyves' Corner Valet on January 19.

Must be willing to relocate. Repeatedly.

Location: (N/A)
it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

-westin lee-

djtjj / Sam Wagner's story:

"So... You sure about this. I mean... No one's EVER done a job like this!"

"When I took you on for this job, I never expected you to chicken out like this, we're making history!"

I kissed her.

Ands thats how we decided to steal a city. Boy did that end up being an adventure!


And Gryphoneer gives us a great opening line:

"It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea."


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Corpore Metal

(Thinks I got another good one this time.)

Arturo saw the squatters running out from hiding among the buildings to scream and shoot at him as he approached. He heaved a sigh and shot off capture drones, knowing immediately and exactly how long it would take to cover the costs of this riot containment.

He didn't want any loss of life. It always generated so much fucking paperwork and all kinds of externalities, like lobbyists and PR campaigns to contain the bad press. His boss was going to be pissed. It was going to completely throw off the whole schedule and, damn it, didn't these people know there was a war on?! Hundreds of solar systems worth of materials were being atomized near the G97 gate outlets every standard year. Fleets had to be replaced. Radiactives had to be mined. This was war and shit had to happen.

Also, Arturo didn't want think of himself as heartless. After all, this was just his day job. He did care about the wide issues of life. He had dreams of his own, just like these people.

He took a close look at them, running around, trying to evade his grasping hands. The weapons they carried, some ribbon guns, smart bullets, rocket launchers, the usual black market stuff, weren't sufficient to threaten him seriously, at least not in comparison to the cave-ins, avalanches and vulcanism he usually had to contend with.

He didn't hope for much but decided to try reasoning with them.

His voice boomed, godlike, over the PA, "Look, you guys have an illegal colony here. This is what happens when you don't file the right paperwork with Union Protectorate and Colony Ministry. This world was marked toxic to class N, class T and class D biological roots. You guys are clearly class D. Didn't you notice the puking, hair loss, immunological problems and still births?!

"Surrender and I'll ship you to orbit so you can deal with the police. But don't think you have any choice in the matter. I'm just giving you a chance to avoid any rough business."

Of course, this only infuriated them. Renewed bursts of gun fire managed to wing one of his hands. He told that drone to return immediately for repairs. Meanwhile his other drones were making painfully slow progress in capturing the squatters. When he gathered them all he'd shoot 'em to orbit and hand them over to the Patrol.

Arturo was an industrial management mind, currently doing duty managing a fleet of Mark 12 surface mining combines for Draj Metals, Salvage and Recycling, Inc.

But he had ambitions for being a painter one day.