Thursday, October 07, 2010

Jobs: the Hunting

Facing a few job interviews over the next week, and I'm literally stressing out so much I'm making myself sick. So, writing is going on the back burner for a while once more. Hopefully I get some work and get started quickly, which will make for an easier time writing for me.

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 7, 409 words

Sitri crossed the campus as if she had been born there, others scurrying to get out of the way of her determined stride. She probably had soft-screen contact lenses or a wireless neural implant and could call up the campus map at will, leaving Sean feeling like a lumbering, archaic dinosaur with his AR glasses despite being the younger of the two.

Eyes followed Sitri, many male (and more than a few female) students staring openly. Her confident poise and the sharp lines of professional dress gave the impression of someone a solid decade older than her true age. Some students muttered to one another as they passed, Wonder what she teaches, and Too late to get into one of her classes? Sean grimaced as one stage-whispered Who's the runt?, doing nothing to hide a direct look.

He looked away and tried to refocus on his search results, but was far too distracted just imagining that others were regarding him, and with such contempt. Sean valued anonymity, something he got too little of. And which it seemed was about to fly out the window, now that he was one of the Goetia.

Doctor Halloran's office overlooked a small greensward frequented by others with more free time than they knew what to do with, an area between buildings that caught plenty of sun and had a few trees off to one side. Sean had enjoyed the relative peace and quiet, once, reading there between classes or idling around online while he lay back in the shade. But much like Halloran's office, Sean rarely saw the greensward anymore; her sole window was half-obscured by an overstuffed bookcase and a shelf full of knick-knacks, with a gauzy curtain that dimmed the fuzzed what little natural light made it into the room.

It was one of the most horribly stereotypical professor's offices that Sean had ever seen, but for the series of flatscreen monitors mounted on the one single wall. Several had screensavers with twisty fractals dancing across their expanses, while others were clearly busy modeling and compiling code. Halloran, squinting at the screens despite the glasses perched high on the bridge of her nose, flew across the very physical keyboard set before her at lightning speed with a loud clatter of plastic on plastic. A sensor and motion-capture rings rested on the desk nearby, ignored entirely. The doctor was a brilliant theoretician and programmer, but in many ways very behind the times.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 6, 407 words

Dropping into a more sedate pace, but with the occasional extra step to keep up, Sean considered the woman he'd been handed off to. A little icon blinked in the corner of his screen lenses, the results of his search waiting unobtrusively since before Asmoday had dismissed them. He flicked his eyes to them and the window expanded across half his field of vision, translucent so he didn't risk running into someone or something while he skimmed the results. The web browser styled window was horribly archaic, but Sean considered it far easier to keep an eye on the world with text rather than a direct feed.

Several hundred results popped up, even after a smart parsing to get rid of coincidental names and redundancy. Sitri wasn't some mere tech or manager, and despite her appearance was less than a year older than him. Sean ran a filter over the results to sort by age, with some of the earliest results only two years old.

The absolute earliest mention was from a school newspaper's online edition, with the lists of students on the honor roll. Several followed, until a final article about the 16 year old who was valedictorian of her graduating class. More results from a small-town news site about a messy emancipation suit shortly thereafter, culminating in a sudden disappearance and issuance of a missing person report. Legal emancipation obtained when she reappeared several months later in the employ of Stellar Dynamics, an aerospace start-up, which was gobbled up the next year by StarGen. No formal post-secondary education, but several papers and one monograph published already on psychological conditioning for long-term isolation in deep space missions, and the validity of weak and strong AIs for companionship in such circumstances.

One pointed entry on a blog called futureWatch (motto: “Making war on the past... for tomorrow!”) noted how the reader could readily tell how invested in the university and corporate-based research structure a reviewer of Miss Valentine's work was, by how vehemently they attacked her work without substantive arguments against its premises and results. The blog also highlighted a recent announcement from Miss Valentine and StarGen that she would be one of a dozen heading for the void within a year as part of a direct test of her hypotheses. Subsequent grumbling mostly came in the form of complaints against her ability to be objective as a test subject. On this, she was heretofore silent.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 5, 419 words

Asmoday's resembled a set of crosses tagged together at their bases in a symmetrical pattern, while the woman's lamen brought to Sean's mind a set of empty candelabra resting in a deep basin. Neither projected names; it was occasionally advantageous to let someone know nothing more than that you were one of the Goetia, not which one.

“Agares, this is...” Asmoday paused for a fraction of a second, so quick that most would have missed it, weighing how to introduce the woman. “Sitri the Prince, Master of 60 Legions, and one of the up-and-comers in StarGen Aerospace. She shall likely be looking down on the rest of us from a very great height within the next few years.”

“Ah. Um. Nice to meet you,” Sean said, offering her PAN a digital handshake. She took it, though only after a brief but noticeable hesitation as if a germaphobe confronted with an actual hand. Their computers exchanged basic contact information, and she nodded with a muttered acknowledgment.

Adeline Valentine. Well, that certainly sounded familiar, though Sean couldn't connect the name and face in his memory. He spun off a search process to dig out details on the name and StarGen, though wondered how famous a tech or middle manager at an aerospace company could be, no matter how bright she was.

“I understand you've got some business to attend while you're here,” Asmoday asked, addressing Sitri. “Take Agares with you, it's surprising how invaluable a native guide and go-fer can be. But I will expect him back in good condition.”

Sitri nodded. “Where do you suggest I start my inquiries?”

Asmoday was already turning back to his work, fingers flying through air. Distractedly, he said, “Try Doctor Halloran. She's the chair of the CS department and heads up the AI research project. If you can get anything out of her, pass it on to Purson.”

“Will do,” Sitri said before walking away, Sean apparently forgotten. He trotted after her, turning a quick glance to Asmoday, but the older man was wrapped up in his own little digital world, fingers dancing.

That he still used a pseudo-physical interface suggested Asmoday was either vastly behind on the technology curve by choice or circumstance – which Sean severely doubted – or, more likely, he already overwhelmed the other inputs with constant use and needed yet another. Asmoday casually shuffled an order of magnitude more data than most any other human could handle with dedication and focus.

Monday, October 04, 2010

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 4, 377 words

He stopped short when he noticed another person coming up the other side of the table, a tall woman with a purposeful stride and an expression of cold disinterest on her fair features. She, for one, didn't seem the least bit perturbed by Asmoday's off-putting aura, and without a moment's hesitation crossed the invisible border that held most back. Asmoday looked up at her approach, betraying no surprise, delight, nor any other emotion. If she was unexpected, he didn't show it.

They looked... good together, Sean realized with a momentary pang of jealousy. She was slender, tall, and very WASPy, with long blonde hair pulled back to accentuate sharp features and icy light-blue eyes. An image of sharp, lean professionalism complementing and complemented by the strong sense of presence and energy Asmoday wore like a cloak. If Sean didn't know better, he'd say the man was the face to the woman's managerial talents.

The two spoke quietly for a few moments before Asmoday's gaze started to drift sideways. So, not something he felt required his full attention. Asmoday's eyes lit upon Sean and he gestured for the younger man to come closer. The woman paused, looking over to see just for whom Asmoday thought it worth interrupting their discussion. She frowned.

“This is my assistant,” Asmoday said by way of introduction. “He has potential, though he still needs to be cut and polished. Call him Agares.” A file uploaded to Sean's PAN, from Asmoday, and opened to reveal a picture of something like a stylized shield with wings. A small text summary explained: it was the lamen of Agares, Duke and Governor of 31 Legions, the symbol by which the demon could be conjured – and the digital nametag that marked its bearer as one of the Goetia, visible only to others of the group via AR lenses like the glasses Sean wore, and to whomsoever they chose to display it.

Sean blinked. Asmoday had dumped a Goetic name on him as casually as he poured a cup of coffee. Sean had no sense up till that moment that he was to be marked as one of the elect. Now, with his own lamen, similar badges appeared over the hearts of Asmoday and the woman.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 3, 403 words

“We may be demons, but we shall be demons of our word. Noble demons. Treat fairly and wisely with us, and you shall get what you desire, but do not be surprised if we lash out at being handled harshly or foolishly. And just as Solomon built his Temple with the Goetia's aid and expertise, so shall ours be invaluable in building the future for our employers.”

Asmoday paused, looking off in the distance for a spare couple seconds to gather his thoughts. “Some of you, particularly within the founding core of our group, have heard some of this before. The rest of you have been invited to hear this for a reason. Each of you has an invaluable talent to lend the Goetia, as well as a personality and views that would mesh well into the group. Most of you are the rising stars in your fields, with knowledge and a certain daring to push your limits, a trait lacking in many others.

“What I am proposing is an economic alliance of the brightest talents in the Solar system, from psychology to quantum physics, marketing to computer science. Think of the Goetia as the most elite of talent agencies, and yourselves as the celebrity power to be managed and supported. Those few of us who have already self-incorporated have some of the highest stock values of any individuals of our generation, and I trust that the rest of you would join us on these lofty heights if you followed suit. I want to put that all that power to work together.

“Think about it.”

The Seal of Solomon faded away behind Asmoday, and the lights rose in the room. Asmoday sat down at the head of the room's only table and plunged immediately into work on his PAN, while the others present began talking quietly or getting up and leaving. He appeared to type on air, using a virtual keyboard which nobody else's systems had permissions to visualize properly. Even Sean had never gotten a look at how Asmoday set up his control scheme.

Sean rose from his seat at the foot of the table and went to approach Asmoday. It had taken Sean nearly a month to learn to ignore that closed-off aura the older man wore like a shield while he worked, else nothing would get done – Asmoday didn't even seem aware he projected it.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 2, 368 words

So far as Sean knew, Asmoday had neither boyfriend nor girlfriend – nor, for that matter, any variety of significant other. During a working lunch at one of the little on-campus cafes, Sean had hesitantly commented on a sprightly young woman walking by, only for Asmoday to snap at him for getting distracted. Similar test results came back when using a delightfully muscled fellow in a tight shirt as subject. At this point, Sean was pretty sure that Asmoday just didn't do anything, at least not anything that belonged to the meat world.

Asmoday reached the end of his circuit and spun about to begin pacing across the meeting room once more. He gestured, and a signal pinged Sean's PAN, and that of everyone else watching. A hexagram appeared on Sean's screen lenses, imposed on the background behind Asmoday's pacing figure as if projected on the wall. It was bound in a circle, with Alpha and Omega, Tau, and the syllables of Tetragrammaton arrayed around and within the hexagram's borders. One of the systems on Sean's network helpfully tagged the hexagram as the Seal of Solomon, and offered links to various metaspace sites for further information. He blinked them away, concentrating on what Asmoday had to say.

“Most everyone these days knows this symbol, or something like it,” Asmoday went on. “A binding circle to hold demons and spirits in thrall, so that the mere mortal might command them and bend their expertise to his will. Ancient superstition and absurdity, of course. There's no Hell from which to conjure its denizens. But the symbol remains. The demons remain.” He stopped, looking over everyone with a calm, measured gaze, and tapped his temple. “They remain in here.”

He resumed pacing, hands clasped behind his back. “This is what it would mean for us, to become the Goetia. To assume the public persona of the demons that hide in the heads of others. This symbol,” and he gestured to the Seal, “shows how we may be chained to productive use, but the legends also warn that it is not absolute. The Seal must be handled with care lest the demons get hold of it themselves.

Friday, October 01, 2010

"Goetia," Symbolism, pt. 1, 361 words


“It's all semiotics,” Asmoday explained calmly to the others. “Direct use of symbols as communication.” Some were present before him physically, but only a mere handful – the vast majority watched remotely, whether his image captured by camera lens or the gestures of a digital avatar in their shared simspace, the virtual clubhouse nicknamed Pandaemonium.

“Some of us already use these names, drawn from the Lesser Key of Solomon and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonium, because they entertain us. There's at least one account of how Solomon used the demons for building the Temple, or at least exploited their knowledge. That's what we should mean to others, as the Goetia.”

Asmoday was a young man of Chinese descent, lanky and nearly two meters tall. Darkness defined his physical presence; black coat and pants, messy black hair, sharp dark eyes, all contrasted with ghostly-pale face and hands. He paced slowly back and forth in the cramped meeting room, borrowed with the permission of the student union manager for this purpose.

Sean was the only other attending student of their group there (surname: Alway; born 2037 CE in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; enrolled in MIT 2054 CE, Major: Computer Science, Minor: Intelligence Dynamics); , though he was a mere undergrad while Asmoday was working on a doctorate already. Everyone else present was older than Sean, though only one or two looked any older than Asmoday. Members of Asmoday's far-flung social group who had been close enough for a day trip, or had already been in the area for other reasons. Three dozen more watched through metaspace, via camera feed and motion capture input on Asmoday's PAN.

The two met because Asmoday was TA'ing a low-level programming class. Sean had picked up a quick crush on the intense but quiet older man. He still hadn't said anything to Asmoday about it, but worried it was pretty obvious. Asmoday had been more than willing to pull him in on the planning and plotting, though. Had a use for “a minion with more free time than they know what to do with,” and as an undergrad Sean automatically fit that category in Asmoday's view.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 11, 418 words

Legally, it's somewhere between a fifty-some-odd member group civil union and a limited-liability corporation, though some members are bound together through some form or another of religious marriage. They compose the Solar system's most far-flung economic commune, with members in every colonized gravity well and beyond. And if the drone lands safely, their collective wealth will jump through the roof, with the exploitable resources of an asteroid under their control. Sitri will take a ding to her personal stock value when she gets fired from StarGen once this gets out, but that's something she could not care less about if someone paid her to.

Sitri won't even be the one receiving the drone's confirmation signal once it lands, despite being closest to it. By the time it impacts, The Sanity Box will be well underway on the next leg of its search (and gone through more than a dozen new nicknames), with an unknown plotting vector. Andrealphus, meanwhile, will be on Phobos – a far better choice than any other member of the Goetia in terms of proximity, clear space, and known location for the drone to transmit its confirmation signal.

And best of all, out of this whole mess? The drone's seed AI, Morax the Great Earl and President, Governor of 30 Legions and with a waiting seat in the Goetia executive board, will be smart enough and have the means to expand to other asteroids. Add in some simple telepresence to get a “real-born” intelligence signing off on claims and discoveries (AI rights are still stalled for various political and philosophical reasons, not least of which is the question of whether they're truly intelligent yet or just very good simulations, and also because it's one of the most acceptable remaining bigotries reinforced by neophobic science fiction that fears a robot uprising), and the Goetia will be looking at a steep increase in wealth for a long while yet.

Trapped in a tiny ship now void of air, Sitri rigs the security and damage control logs to reflect a micrometeorite impact in the area of the railgun, an event that accidentally kicked off the black box drone and sent it mewling into the outer system. By the time a StarGen inspector will get a chance to look at the ship, in another one and a half years, the hole will have long since been repaired, new atmosphere synthesized from the alchemy tanks, and all damaged materials and the “micrometeorite” dumped into the tanks for processing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 10, 430 words

The railgun is exposed directly to hard vacuum, so when Sitri cuts open its tiny bay, everything goes crazy. Pressure loss results in a gale-force evacuation of atmosphere, and alarms start blaring shipwide until there's too little air for sound. Even then, red emergency lights flash incessantly. Purson's virus may keep the damage control bots from going to work just yet, but the alarms aren't slaved to the computer; they have their own sensors for when the pressure gets too low too fast.

There's one last trick the virus has, with its claws deep in the guts of the security and damage control systems. Once Sitri pulls out the black box probe and sticks her own drone inside, both more than half as long as she is tall, the virus just needs her to send the signal and the railgun will open fire. Impart some momentary drift and spin on the ship via maneuvering thrusters, put the bulkhead plates (complete with radiation and magnetic shielding) back in place with some welding putty, and make sure the railgun is pointed at the second asteroid receding in the distance, and push the big red button.

The railgun fires off with a ship-rattling pulse, felt through the boots and up the body of Sitri's pressure suit. If the plotting algorithm was correct and Andrealphus's (legal name: Ngare Kimunya; born 2029 CE; currently a citizen-shareholder of the Phobos Megafactory) estimates of the railgun's power were accurate, then the drone should be impacting with the asteroid in a week or three, at which point it will unfold and begin cannibalizing all non-essential components to feed mass into its own printer, and start the mining process.

The whole process – from chance sighting of an asteroid that must be skipped (but now, thanks to observation, has a known path that may be plotted) to trusting they can hit that target with a high-tech slingshot – is risky and full of room for error, but the potential payoff is boundless.

Sitri and the rest of the Goetia incorporated together several years ago. Most had already undergone personal incorporation, trading their potential future wealth and reputations on the stock market in a practice begun once corporate persons started getting more legal rights and tax benefits than born humans. At the behest of Asmoday the Great King, Governor of 72 Legions (legal name: Yuan Li; born 2032 CE; no further information available, would you like to make another query?), they each sold a significant percentage of their personal stock to themselves as the board of directors of Goetia, Ltd.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 9, 410 words

Once her drone is finished, Sitri pulls on a pressure suit and drops some extra instructions into her printer. She also uploads a self-destructing virus into the ship: it temporarily lobotomizes the security and damage control systems, disabling the ship's repair bots and cameras while leaving everything else intact. By the time The Sanity Box is ready to shove off, the virus will have looped a carefully-sampled video of Sitri's routine work during an asteroid survey, wiped its presence clean from the ship logs, and unwound itself into incoherent data no different from any other blank sector on the hard drive. The virus is a special job done up by Purson (legal name: Roza Zajac; born 2032 CE; arrest record sealed upon achieving age of majority), one of the Goetia and the best programmer Sitri has ever met. She has every confidence it will work as advertised.

Sitri doesn't much enjoy the numb, distant feeling of wearing the pressure suit, but for the next few hours it's a necessity. She has a few tools in her personal cargo, and pulls them out – with the printer and these tools, she's on record as enjoying a little hands-on artwork of the destructive sort. Everything went back into the alchemy tanks when she was done, the overall expense negligible enough that StarGen overlooks whatever she does with “their” matter.

They wouldn't overlook this, though, and for that she silently thanks Purson once more and takes the cutting torch to a bulkhead. On the other side of several vacuum-sealed layers rests a simple launch tube, a makeshift railgun composed of a set of magnetic coils and a battery charged with enough power for a single shot. A small probe sits nestled in the works, loaded every twenty hours with a back-up of ship data and an emergency beacon. A shielded outer shell keeps the magnetic pulse from scrambling the probe on launch, and is promptly discarded via explosive bolt once it clears half a klick.

In case the Joyeuse is disabled or severely damaged without being destroyed outright, the railgun spits the probe sunward, whence it begins blatting to StarGen about the loss of the ship. There's honestly no hope that anyone could get to the Joyeuse in time to rescue Sitri, but StarGen could sling an unmanned probe on an intercept close enough for the black box to securely squirt its data before falling into Sol or some other gravity well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 8, 396 words

And if they're left to their own devices, the nanites will continue to alchemize every bit of matter within reach. This is the reason it's still illegal to use them in a terrestrial gravity well, despite their value to manufacturing. One recursion in the supervisory software, or one night where the operator forgets to shut things down before going home, and you wake up to a runaway gray goo scenario. A massive nodule of pure palladium in the middle of the Antarctic, where a hot lab stood not twenty-four hours before, reminded everyone rather pointedly of this, at least until the international backers of the research project almost caused a major diplomatic incident over who owned the palladium nodule.

The composition of the asteroid confirmed (large quantities of silicon compounds, nickel, and iron), the ship printers fire up and spit out a mining package of several small drones with their own seed colony of nanites. One of the drones is a mobile printer with just enough sophistication to make an identical copy of itself, at which point they step up into exponential growth for a short period of time and then get down to the real work of coring the asteroid for anything remotely useful.

One of the last activities before shoving off is the shuttling of raw mass up to the ship from the asteroid to refill the alchemy tanks back to optimal load. Using mostly silicon, iron, and nickel, it takes a lot of matter to fill the tanks, but there's plenty to go around. While the ship fills up, the first priority in the unpacking mining suite is the construction of a communications array and processor hub. Just as the alchemy tanks are topped off, the Joyeuse squirts a hundred gigs of data down to the asteroid's new “brain” in a couple seconds, followed by the system linking up to the StarGen hub back at Earth's L4.

In comparison, Sitri's drone requires an upload of a few hundred terabytes and takes just over two hours to transfer through from her PAN. And that's with some very fancy compression and a mere AI seed, rather than a full-grown AI. It's designed to run solo, though, compared to the dumb StarGen systems which are in constant (if lagged) contact with the master network. Nobody will talk to Sitri's drone for the next couple years.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 7, 444 words

(The best protection against claim-jumping is that it's horribly impractical. Only megacorporations like StarGen can even make it out here to dump a mining package, never mind the additional investment of time, resources, and effort that would have to go into sending down bots designed to disable someone else's mining facility. By the same token, an entrenched mining platform has the nanoalchemy colonies on hand to feed as much of the asteroid's mass as necessary into powering easily-assembled defensive laser arrays. Any incoming assault drone would drain its power reserves and be destroyed well before the mining platform ran out of reaction mass, and if the assault was ever comprehensive enough to outlast the platform, every usable particle of the asteroid would already have been spent in its defense. Anything else effective would just fragment too much of the asteroid's mass, creating the same end result. Claim-jumping is a losing game, especially with so many other asteroids out there waiting to be grabbed and the Trojans in Jupiter's L4 and L5 as yet untouched.)

While The Sanity Box (nee Tin Can) works out the elemental composition of the asteroid, Sitri fires up her personal printer and begins tapping into what little remains of the alchemy tanks. Lightweight alloys, improbably pure elements, and high-tensile polymers feed into the printer's input and are shaved, shaped, spun, and sliced into a sophisticated piece of electronics that would put StarGen's “good-enough” mining package to shame. Sitri boots her PAN out of quiescence while the smooth black ovoid of her drone is spun out and packed with kilometers of wound microcircuitry and an elaborate suite of fabbing tools. Finally, a seed colony of alchemy nanites is decanted from the tanks and packed into Sitri's drone while she uploads a weak AI with very detailed instructions.

The nanites are a marvel of engineering, but by God they're dumb. They can perform atomic alchemy, changing one element to another at a great expense of energy. This energy is provided from direct cracking of the atoms involved, a certain percentage sacrificed for quanta of energy while others are reassembled into a new configuration. It's fission at the most intimate level. Large colonies with sufficient instruction could actually generate anti-matter out of the mess, and use that for a much more efficient “conversion” process, but this colony is not that big – yet. Nanoalchemy is most energy efficient when working in the realm of elements smaller than iron on the periodic table, with the energy requirements climbing faster the higher your target atomic number. It's why the optimal load for an alchemy tank is a large matter block of trans-ferrous elements.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 6, 361 words

Space is ridiculously vast, even within the Solar system. Mind-bogglingly so, to the point that even most upgraded human minds still can't grasp the utter emptiness. It's the biggest obstacle to interplanetary travel, never mind interstellar. Given the dimensions of the asteroid belt, and the actual mass involved (an estimated 3.6 x 10^21 kilograms, or only about four percent of the mass of Luna), an asteroid might go a very long time indeed without seeing a neighbor. The biggest exception comes in the form of asteroid families, which are formed when one strikes another and the shards go off in the same direction. These two rocks are merely a close pass, already getting farther and farther apart.

Asteroid sighted, the Joyeuse's automated systems leap into action. Despite herself, Sitri feels a quick thrill of adrenaline as ship operations steps up. Reaction mass burns at a fantastic rate as the ship orients into a matching vector on the nearest asteroid, the alchemy tanks coming dangerously close to bottoming out. This takes almost a full Earth day, and the maneuvers alternately press Sitri flat as a pancake or make her guts flipflop like a circus performer on meth.

Once in proximity, a set of tethered drones – little more than fancy drills – drift across the gap between ship and rock, and impact on protected undersides. Diamond-tipped spikes jam into the rock, then wind in tight to hold steady in the asteroid's microgravity. Core samples are drilled out over the next day or so, shipped up the tether back into the Joyeuse, and analyzed for mineral content while Sitri prepares the official claim report marking the asteroid as the property of StarGen Aerospace. All she needs to actually do is include a sample analysis and sign off as witness with her biometrics, a formality agreed-upon by all the major aerospace corporations and enforced down the chain. Otherwise, every corporation would have simultaneously filed claim on the basis of unprovable “unmanned probe” visits, turning the interplanetary gold rush into a corporate bloodbath. And despite the relative emptiness of the belt, 4% of the Moon's mass is still plenty to go around. So far.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 5, 395 words

The matter used in the printer comes from the ship's own stores. Strictly speaking, nanotech is a reality, but it's not a very useful reality just yet. No independent nanite colonies able to follow complicated programs or host AIs; data storage media and processing power haven't yet shrunk enough to be viable. Instead, a fist-sized colony of dumb nanites (which are so dumb that they're illegal to use for mass production inside a gravity well, out of fear for a gray goo “Sorcerer's Apprentice” scenario) chew through a dense block of metals to generate the raw materials for everything from ship fuel to spare parts in an act of nanoalchemy that would make Paracelsus green with envy. Shipboard printers handle turning those raw materials into finished product, and any waste matter gets dumped back into the alchemy tanks.

The only essentials that don't originate from the ship's matter block are Sitri's food, supplements, and medicine. It's bad enough that she has to subsist on flavored protein cakes and nutrient powders (mixed in water to the consistency of a thin milkshake), but the idea of eating tasteless nanoformulated bricks the texture of sand is enough to make her want to heave. Almost half of her remaining personal cargo mass after the printer has gone to a large box full of candy bars, gum, and other little indulgences.

Meanwhile, the Joyeuse drifts complacently through the void, hopping from rock to rock in the asteroid belt. Approximately once every Earth revolution, a set of low-power laser arrays spark to life and saturate local space with a burst of ultraviolet light. Days, sometimes weeks of absolutely nothing are punctuated by a harried half a megasecond or so whenever some of the laser light bounces back, pinging an asteroid's profile.

Today, for the first time since Sitri got out to the asteroid belt, two signatures ping back. Two asteroids, moving on notably divergent paths, are almost within visual distance of one another. Most often, multiple pings mean a close-knit asteroid family, which are far too risky to exploit.

Most people still think of the asteroid belt as something out of old science fiction movies and video games: a dense mass of rocks the size of small office buildings, spinning sedately in Solar orbit and constantly at risk of being struck by anyone who dares to venture within its bounds.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 4, 380 words

Like many of the past two and a half generations born in the West, she's used to omnipresent connectivity and the comforting knowledge that a friend can be reached in an instant by querying the IM programs in her PAN, or, for the particularly old-fashioned, by pulling out an honest-to-God physical phone. She finds physical presence somewhat discomfiting, unless it's one of a small group of close friends, with even most of the Goetia too unfamiliar to fit that subset of humanity. But to be so utterly disconnected, spending half an hour or more to send a message and get a response, is well beyond her normal tolerance. It makes her feel like she should be wearing hoop skirts and riding in a horse-drawn carriage, communicating through posted letters.

Her goal, the promise of the big payoff for her and the rest of the Goetia, is enough of a motivation to go through with it all, however. She's ready to tolerate a stint of two Earth orbits around Sol out here for the sake of material security forever after. All it takes is breaking contract, and keeping that contract-breaking secret until after she gets back home.

Part of her personal cargo includes a three-dimensional printer. She had to sacrifice more than half her allotted mass for the printer, which was so cutting-edge when the Goetia bought it that their collective stock took a noticeable dip to afford it. It can produce microprocessors to the latest commercial specs, stuff that's almost nano-scale in size.

In another twenty generations of processor miniaturization, they might finally have access to smart nanite clouds, but for now this is the best stuff available to the general populace. She's been tooling around with the printer to the best of her abilities, optimizing the performance to keep up with each new development reported in her regular data squirts, occasionally using the printer to build the tools necessary to upgrade it.

Someday printers like this will be smart enough to upgrade themselves, but – mercifully, for Sitri's current plan – not yet. She doesn't need it out-thinking her in a mad race to rampancy and delusions of godhood, she needs it to be a dumb drone that's only just smart enough to carry out some very complicated instructions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 3, 386 words

Meditation only reinforces the screaming silence in her head, where her wetware had once buzzed with the constant reassuring chatter and presence of the other members of the Goetia, and metaspace in general, that virtual universe grown over the bones of the Web. She tried when first on the way out, but her mind refused to settle down. A storm of primal urges demanding her attention; the need to feed, relieve herself, check her newsfeeds. But now that she's learned how to ignore all that, instead the dull hum of the Tin Can gets into her skull and overrides everything, making her feel slow and fuzzy as if drugged.

Just lying there with nothing to do is about as bad. It's like meditation, but a lot less focused, her mind wandering off on any random path it feels like until a stray sound jolts her out of her reverie and into a low-level panic. Not that she could fix the ship even if she wanted to. She's a glorified caretaker and sometime pilot. Nothing's broken yet, though; every time it's been the engine adjusting, or an air filter stepping up, or a service drone performing routine maintenance.

Her PAN – personal area network – has barely seen activity since getting more than five light-minutes out from Earth. With data flow slowed to a crawl, she's been able to handle reality and metaspace completely unassisted. The last thing she bothered using it for was to write a religious text while still tethered into her bunk, a strange whim that came upon her after spending a month out amongst the rocks on near-perfect radio silence. She got five pages in before abandoning it as too derivative of I, Robot and The Ghost in the Shell, despite featuring neither robots nor cyborgs.

Last week, she spontaneously decided to blast all her music collection (and uploaded as much more as her daily bandwidth limit would allow) at all hours on shuffle. Now there's not a genre she isn't sick of.

Today, all that mind-numbing boredom is about to pay off.

***

There's a good reason Sitri took this job, or else she wouldn't be out here of her own volition. She's somewhat asocial, but not enough to get a sense of fulfillment out of such complete avoidance of all other people.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 2, 418 words

(That has a purely pragmatic excuse as well, of course. It's vastly cheaper to send out the same people who are already in space for successive missions, rather than train a green dirtsider and haul them up out of a terrestrial gravity well. Radiation shielding, vitamin D and calcium supplements, and high-bandwidth communications are a cheap price to pay in comparison to a FNG every mission.)

Time grinds out here. Sitri can barely stand it. The communications lag grew worse and worse on the way out, to the point that the lag became more annoying to Sitri's permanently-connected sensibilities than complete shutdown, so she killed all but the essential data feeds back to the L4 base. Now she flips them back on once every thirty hours or so for a burst from her readers and some old social networks that she still visits only on habit. Most of the time, she's gone through everything an hour after arrival and sent any outgoing responses, to wait another day for any links she's opened, videos requested, or webcomic archives to pore through. Condensing everything down like that in one burst has made her realize exactly how much time she wasted every day browsing through metaspace, looking for updates and poking around for anything of interest. Sitri could be a lot more productive like this, if there was anything to do most days. The irony doesn't escape her.

Reckoning gets real funny real fast. Years have no strict meaning when you're not in a regular orbit or subject to seasons, and months break down too. Days go out the window even faster, as people adjust to live independent of the sun's rise and fall (a trend begun more than a century before with the incandescent light bulb anyway, now cemented out in space). Hours hold on through habit, and with the artificially imposed schedule of check-ins at least once every sixty. Most people check in a lot more regularly than that, though Sitri has been slipping farther to the outer edge as time has gone by.

A lot of other people out here in the void have started reckoning by the second, as if that little slice of time is any less arbitrary than any other. Sitri tried it for a while, but gave up after the first million seconds. The numbers ticked up encouragingly at the rate of one second per second, but that did nothing to keep the minutes and hours from bearing down inexorably upon her stimulus-deprived psyche.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 1, 488 words


Being out in space requires re-discovering the fine art of patience. For Sitri the Prince, Master of Sixty Legions (legal name: Adeline Valentine; born 2036 CE at the bottom of Earth's gravity well; legally emancipated 2052 CE; began employment at StarGen Aerospace 2053 CE; further profile access DENIED), it means relearning sanity. It means being a good fourteen light-minutes from Earth at the best of times, and half a light-hour away at the worst (not to mention the huge burning ball of radiation that's directly between Sitri and Earth at those moments, fouling transmissions and forcing them to bounce the long way around).

Now, out amongst the rocks for several months – by dirtside reckoning – Sitri feels just about ready to step out the airlock. Or she would, if there was one. The Joyeuse (today's nickname: Tin Can; yesterday's: The Sit-and-Spin; tomorrow's: The Sanity Box) is sealed tight to prevent accidents.

There're a few pressure suits in case of hull breach, but the Joyeuse was built with a design philosophy geared toward minimizing human error, and that every point of articulation on a device is a point of weakness. Nothing is meant to be human-serviced, not out in vacuum; any problem is fixed with a swarm of repair bots that hide just under the outer hull and inside the bulkheads. In theory, Sitri can take control of them, but the swarm interface requires dividing her attention too many ways to be useful. Meanwhile, the entryway was sealed with a flash weld using a fast-burning electrically charged sealing putty, and can only be opened with a cutting torch.

In all, the ship violates a staggering number of safety regs, but OSHA and other safety agencies have no pull outside atmosphere. There's a waiver stored in no less than four different media, including a very secure paper copy with Sitri's signature (Adeline Valentine rendered in the shaky, angular script of someone who has used a pen maybe twice before in her life) and several digital versions all backed by her biometrics, that declares the undersigned, heretofore referred to as the Employee, understands and agrees that StarGen Aerospace, Incorporated can in no way be held responsible for injury or illness sustained by the Employee while serving the agreed upon contracted service period, et cetera, et cetera.

She's sure she's probably misremembering a lot of the precise phrasing, buried in legalese, but the gist of it is that she has no recourse if she comes out of the mission with three different kinds of cancer and no use of her legs, such rights signed away because she wouldn't be able to get away from near-Earth orbit otherwise. And StarGen is one of the more progressive of the system-exploration corporations that still uses live humans on their ships instead of weak-AI assisted telepresence. At least they make an effort to keep their crewpeople healthy and sane in case they want to re-up.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Possible Return

Started writing again finally. "Another Angel Down" is probably going on indefinite hiatus, along with most everything else. (Of projects already begun, the few most likely to see a return include "Never Special," "Sword Gods," "The Free," and "Remember Peace.")

At the moment, however, I've begun a new project called (tentatively) "Goetia," a near-future SF story following the hand a circle of associates has in the development of AI in the outer Solar system. If I'm lucky, it won't end up too horribly derivative of Charles Stross, John Scalzi, or Alastair Reynolds.

I'll begin posting again when I feel I've got a comfortable buffer of at least a week's worth of posts, because my creative energy is already on a pretty thin trickle at the moment.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Yes, Again

I hate saying this, but frankly? I am about ready to quit writing.

Except for the very rare bright spot, my life for the last year and a half has been pretty depressing. Lost a job at a toy store two days before Christmas, haven't been able to find another, forced to move away from the only place around here likely to have job opportunities, sudden extra complications in my lack-of-a love life... I may not be starving yet, but at best I'm a burden on others. And if you haven't experienced that, you have no godsdamn clue how depressing that is.

I'm usually pretty good at hiding it, but overall I feel like shit. And my ability to write is influenced quite strongly by my overall mood. If I feel like hell, then achieving a consistent quality and quantity is a major mental chore, and any progress in improving my writing quality slows to just about nil. I seriously do not feel like I've gotten any better in my writing over the past year.

I started this because I wanted to write. I wanted to make a living writing. I'm not so sure that's an achievable or even a desirable goal anymore. I just don't have the mental energy these days.

So, to keep myself from completely losing it and quitting outright, I am taking a break. Its absolute minimum will be a week. More likely, it will be Rather Longer. And if I never reappear, then you know why.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ann Onymous, pt. 5, 455 words

“Jesus Christ!” Ann yelled, snapped out of her shock by the figure's voice. Bad, a distant part of her mind chided. Shouldn't speak, now they've got your voiceprint. The scarf may have muffled it, but who knew what they could still extract despite that. She backpedaled, bumping her shoulder into the door and stumbling out.

The figure crouched and stepped forward, scraping the ceiling. The floorboards screamed under its feet, creaked as if they were ready to shatter. And they probably were. Despite the speed the figure had displayed chasing her, and what it must have had to get here ahead of Ann – and how did it know to come here, of all places? she wondered – it moved slowly, hesitantly.

Ann turned to bolt, but the figure's voice held her back a little longer. “Don't try running,” it said. It stumped out of the bathroom, into the faint light filtering in from the windows. Its body was covered in a matte black bodysuit, or perhaps the armored cloth had been fused on to replace its skin. “The place is surrounded with drones. You can't lose them if you run.”

A challenge. Ann couldn't help but grin despite the situation. The drones – the good drones – had thermal and light-amp imaging, and enough resolution to catch the shape and texture of a kid's nose-pickings.

Ann flipped a small metal cylinder out of her coat pocket. A small metal pin was threaded through a handle. She popped the pin out and lofted the firebomb gently towards the figure. It paused in apparent shock, and Ann dove for the window, hooking her hand on the wall and swinging around out to the downspout once more. On the ground, she pulled a second flashbang free and hucked it as high and hard as she could before turning to bolt.

The firebomb had a longer fuse than the flashbang. Both went off about the same time with a thunderous roar. By that time, Ann had torn the scarf loose and thrown the goggles aside. Her coat flipped inside-out to hide the camo layer, and velcro patches let the trailing skirt fold up to change its profile. The plastic hood followed the goggles, and Ann's gloves went last into a pocket. Only her feet remained unchanged, now that her boots were burning merrily in the old house.

The fire hid her thermal shadow while she slipped out. The flashbang fouled the drones' light-amplification long enough to give her time to change her visual profile. And while she doubted the firebomb had actually killed her stalker, the figure would have no clue what she actually looked like. Ann slipped out into the night, anonymous once more.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ann Onymous, pt. 4, 390 words

The stash was in an old, abandoned house nearby. The place had been condemned years ago, though nobody had bothered to take care of it. The property wasn't worth the cost to rebuild, probably not even to smash it down to an empty lot. Squatters didn't stay for long, either. The floor was rotting out in most places, and the stairs were even worse.

Ann shimmied up an old downspout, which she had bolted back into place. Some extra dirt, scuffing, and a sprinkle of an oxidizer had made the bolts look as old as the rest of the house and ready to fall out. She gained the second floor and climbed into a window, ducking out of sight as quickly as possible. The floor up here was stronger, but not entirely secure.

Ann crept into a small bathroom, squinting against the dark. Something felt wrong. Some sense of presence in the air, though all was silent but for her own breath. Ann closed her eyes, listening carefully as she stepped forward into the dark.

The floor. She hesitated, and tested again. A board that all but screamed when stepped on barely squeaked. Ann stepped back quickly and fumbled a flashlight from her pocket. Its tiny cone of light illuminated the room.

The figure stood, stooped over, in the bathroom. It was a good two and a half meters tall, head bumping the ceiling. It leaned down into the light, glaring at Ann.

It was ugly. Hideously so. Not a kind of ugliness that a person could be born to, but one that had to have been manufactured. The echoes of human features remained in the figure's face, but any previous identity or sex had been obliterated. Scraps of skin stretched tight between smooth, hard plastic plates, the only sign in its face that it had even once been human. Its nose was gone, its mouth sealed over. Blank polarized caps covered its eye sockets. No hair, just a dark metallic cowling, and ears that had been trimmed back to the barest protrusion with some stiff fabric material stretched over the openings.

The figure had been as utterly dehumanized as possible while remaining recognizably human.

“Hello, Number Four.” The words were flat and monotone, the voice that of a corpse. Nothing moved on its blank face. Not a twitch.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ann Onymous, pt. 3, 407 words

“Shit!”

Something whirred close by overhead. Ann ducked in reflex as she ran – and drew to a hard stop as an entire landing from the fire escape crashed into the rooftop before her, the iron twisting and breaking with the impact. Ann threw another look over her shoulder, and saw the huge figure hauling more of the fire escape up and snapping off pieces of the old iron. A chunk of railing went flying, and Ann barely dove out of the way in time.

One hand ducked into a coat pocket, producing another little toy. Ann popped a switch and let fly before turning away and shielding her ears.

The flashbang went off with a piercing concussion, and the lenses of Ann's goggles polarized briefly against the sudden flare. She kept moving, and toy number three came out of yet another pocket. At the roof's edge, she slapped a palm-sized metal disc against the rooftop. An explosive bolt went off. A thin cable unwound steadily as she took one end and slipped over the edge, rappelling down the side of the building.

Dropping the last ten feet, Ann landed at a run. Other pedestrians barely noticed her until she was past, bowling them over in her wake. More and rougher debris crunched underfoot here at ground level, but she ignored it. Her feet could hurt after she got away from the... the thing chasing her.

God damn it, it should have been a routine night. How did they even know where she was going to hit? But they had, and this thing had been lurking in the shadows, waiting for her. It had been well-armed with several firearms and a full dozen knives, but had spent its ammunition wastefully and flung the knives from an absurd distance before closing. As if it had wanted to get the distance out of the way and tear into Ann with its bare hands.

Ann chanced a look back, quickly scanning the rooftops. Nothing unusual, no strange shadows crouched overlooking the street. The figure was nowhere in sight. Right. Time to get lost.

One of her stashes of normal clothing was nearby. She could drop off the camo coat and contraband hardware, walk out in boots and a jacket like any normal person, with nothing on her to show that she was anything but another wage-slave out to pick up a late dinner on the way home from work.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ann Onymous, pt. 2, 382 words

They were a fake-out move, designed to scarecrow people into compliance when they saw one whistling by. They were thrown out on the cheap so the cops could look like they were watching places that hadn't yet been properly hooked into the surveillance society. Places like this neighborhood, which looked like the decaying ruins of the last century and were low on the priority list for proper surveillance. Nobody rich lived or worked here, after all, so who cared?

But there were other drones, in the same shells but with far better imaging equipment. Sent out on the rare occasions they actually needed to find someone in places like this. Rare occasions like right now.

And so Ann ran.

The rooftops were the worst place to hide from hovering drones, up top of everything and in clear view. But they were also the fastest way around. Ann needed to gain ground more than she needed to duck out of sight. Losing the drones was the easy part. It was amazing how well some of these old buildings could hide a thermal image, giving her a chance to change her clothes and then slip out and join the masses on the street. The real problem was coming up behind her.

Ann kipped up onto the next building with the aid of a battered air conditioning unit. At the same time, a loud crash came behind her, the fire escape screaming as it tore away from its anchors. Ann dared a glance back, wished she hadn't. The figure chasing her was huge, as if someone had slimmed down a gorilla just enough to force it into a black bodysuit that still looked ready to burst at the seams.

It was fast, too. On a level stretch, Ann could outpace it, but every obstacle turned into an advantage for it. It could jump higher and climb better, so that anything that slowed Ann even for a second let it get that much closer.

It should have been a routine night. Simple smash and grab, emphasis on the smash. And maybe a little boom too, for that matter. The firebomb still jostled in one of her coat pockets, one of a variety of little toys which made life easier for her and hard on someone else.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ann Onymous, pt. 1, 422 words

Don't stop. Don't think. Just run. You know this part of the city like the back of your hand, you know it better than anyone, just run.

Ann ran. Loose stones and stray bits of broken glass and plastic ground underfoot. Only a thin polymer mesh kept the debris from cutting her soles open, one that conformed to her feet like a second skin. Not that it wasn't uncomfortable to run over broken glass or old nails anyway, but the tactile sense and balance she'd never get out of boots or even just shoes more than made up for it.

Like right now...

She raced across rooftops, old buildings jammed together like sardines. Ahead, a street divided this building from the next. She didn't even think about it, placing her feet through instinct and feel, and pushed off. The old concrete scraped against her soles.

And she landed, foot touching down on the arching neck of a streetlamp. It shook and jerked under her weight, and she kicked off again from the head of the lamp. Cars whizzed by beneath, oblivious to Ann scrambling and leaping like some crazed monkey over their heads.

The streetlamp on the other side of the road shook harder but held, taking Ann's weight when she snagged the neck. She crabbed sideways, hand-over-hand, until she could haul herself up along the pole and, after a moment spent regaining her breath and balance, leaped again. An ancient fire escape creaked and groaned as she snagged an iron railing, then scrambled up the steps to the rooftop.

Anywhere else in the city, she would have had to worry about thermal imaging and closed-circuit cameras watching her every move. A broad scarf and goggles baffled facial recognition software, and a pattern-shifting knee-length camo coat messed with programs designed to pick out the human form and the contrast of moving objects against a static background. A translucent green plastic hood had been drawn tight over her head, keeping her hair down and blanking any color. One could barely even make out her skin tone.

Anywhere else in the city, the outfit would have immediately picked her out from the crowd, an extreme of Privacy Vogue that few cared to match. Everyone would have noticed, even as it anonymized her.

In this part of the city, it was noticeable because it was unnecessary. Sensor drones skimmed by overhead, but they were few and far between, and their optics sucked. Ann knew, from knocking one out of the sky and cracking it open.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Trigger Event: Graduation, pt. 2, 435 words

The first thing you saw clearly was the guy up in the tree, someone from your graduating class. He stood on a thick branch, one hand still holding to the trunk. Below, the rest of the class were gathered around the bonfire, watching him, and all of them were drumming. Some on the ground, or on their own thighs, or the backs of books. There were even some teachers there, and other adults you didn't recognize. And it wasn't some repetitive thud-thud-thud without variation,
but a complicated, cycling pattern. Something that had taken serious practice. None of them had noticed you yet.

The one up in the tree, one of three different Matts in your class, stepped off the branch – and into open air. His bare foot took his weight, supported on nothing, and then he took another step, and another, until he was walking in midair.

You almost ran out there to join them, ecstatic at the impossible sight. Instead? Just as you set one foot forward, so did he, and it went out from under him. He fell, with a short but sharp scream, and crunched to the ground. His head turned the wrong way. Very wrong.

The others barely noticed. One got up and started climbing the same tree, and the drumming adjusted to pick up his missing part. At the same branch, he stepped off into thin air... and fell to join the dead Matt on the ground below. One by one, each of the other students got up and took their turn. A handful made it to another tree and climbed back down, but many, many fell and joined the others.

By the time everyone had taken their turn, and the bodies disposed of in the bonfire – now grown huge and bloated with flesh and fresh wood – the night sky was starting to gray in the east. Remembering overheard stories of older siblings “gone away to college” and never coming back even during summer breaks, you bolted before anyone could spot you in the growing light.

Away at college, you worked to put the town firmly out of your mind. However, your sister frequently called you up, lonely because now she had nobody there but your parents to even talk to. Her calls gradually took on a different tone at the beginning of the spring semester, of growing acceptance amongst the others. You were still in the middle of exams when high school graduation came around, and you tried to warn her off from the after-party. Instead, she just laughed at your story and hung up

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Trigger Event: Graduation, pt. 1, 420 words

Your older brother was a real fuck-up. Drugs, petty theft, got a girl pregnant, the works. He finally went just a step too far and ended up dead one day, so your parents finally decided it was time to take you and your little sister out of the city. Your family ended up in a small town in the ass end of nowhere, chosen because the school was supposed to be pretty good.

Well, a little scandal with state exams being opened early and administered as “practice tests” put the lie to that, but your family couldn't afford to move again. The drug problem was about as bad as the city, too, only the harder stuff wasn't easy to find anymore – everyone was too poor for the area to be a good market, but there was plenty of weed grown in someone's unused field and people could still get high off cough medicine. And there were more than a few teenage pregnancies around, too.

Not that you were at much risk of getting caught up in that stuff. Most of the people were related in some way, mostly cousins and through marriage, but it boiled down to the simple fact that your family were outsiders. You knew the pot was around, but it's not like anyone told you about it. Nobody liked you enough for an opportunity to become a teenage parent. Parties? Right out. Hell, you and your sister were lucky to find a seat on the school bus most days. It got to the point where you insisted your parents help pay for a car in her name instead of yours so she didn't have to get stuck on the bus again once you graduated a year ahead of her.

In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, growing up in small-town America sucked. And you were all too happy to get out. But you were still curious about what you missed out on, so when you caught wind of one last party being held after graduation, you decided to crash it.

The strange music was the first sign that something was wrong. Not something issuing from somebody's radio or boombox or any speakers at all, but a rhythmic drumming sound. You could see the faint glow of a bonfire in the distance as well. It was all on the other side of a hill, a small depression up against the edge of somebody's private property where the trees grew wild.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Diplomaths, 572 words

Near the border of the Kingdom of Wax, a small fiefdom has carved out a safe existence in the Nowheres. Treaties keep the smothering wax at bay for the lord of the land, Sir Pinski, has sworn fealty to the King. Sir Pinski has demonstrated the utility he offers the Wax King in his independence, as his soldiers and agents are more powerful and intelligent than they would be if smothered under a layer of wax.

Sir Pinski's greatest asset, however, is that he is actually one of the Awake. He was a mathematician and physicist in his slumbering life, and grew obsessed with esoteric maths designed to explore and explain higher-dimensional reality. Instead of string theory, however, what Pinski found was that his models kept leading to a much different interpretation of reality. One that bordered on the magical, even more so than the wildest dreams of quantum "spooky action" and nonlocalized phenomena. No matter how he checked and double-checked his models, no matter what he did, following the evidence led to the same conclusions. Pinski refrained from publishing his discoveries, but the stress and pressure of keeping such a secret destroyed him (and his career) as surely as revealing them would have, if in a less dramatic fashion.

He abandoned his own research and went to work with others, seeing if they ended up with the same discoveries. Not one of them did, and he jumped from project to project only to find the same results. Wrapped up in doubts about his own sanity, Sir Pinski finally Awakened and realized the magical world hiding around him all this time, heretofore caught only in his models. He tried to flee from the realization of his research, burning all the notes and evidence he'd built up on his model, but the Mad City still swallowed him up just as it has so many others.

Sir Pinski's power comes from Math. Or rather, it comes from the insane mathematics he constructed around the true shape of reality. He can bend and manipulate the mathematical laws underlying the Mad City, shifting space and writing new equations to serve his needs. One of his most valuable creations with this power has been the Diplomath, a living equation that he sends as emissary to other realms in the Nowheres. The Diplomaths have argued and negotiated many the beneficial arrangement and treaty for Sir Pinski, giving him great power in a short time.

The average Diplomath appears to be a complex arrangement of interconnected numbers and symbols, floating free a few inches above the ground. Each is two-dimensional, apparently the writing stripped off a page and expanded until it is almost half as tall as a human, and is suffused with a faint violet light. They can talk, though they have no visible mouths, and can see and hear without eyes or ears. They are sturdy to survive the journeys to foreign courts in the Nowheres, but their real power arises in debate and negotiation. Every one is a complete, solved equation that describes in intricate detail the utter mathematical certainty of their agenda, as they were written by their lord. They may not be swayed from their agenda, and surviving a debate with them with your own viewpoint intact is beyond most normal humans and more than a few Nightmares. The only surefire way of getting past them in an argument is not to have it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Malefactor, 610 words

Out in the far reaches of the Mad City, beyond District Thirteen and the patrol routes of Officer Tock's clockwork bobbies, beyond the reach of the Tacks Man, a wide swath of the City lies in ruins. Not the product of some earthquake or fire, some war or storm, the area has been decaying slowly for decades simply because nobody cares about it anymore. Even in the Mad City, urban decay can set in and reduce a formerly vibrant neighborhood to a pocket ghost town. Wild Nightmares and other, stranger monsters have taken up residence in the ruins of the Abandoned District, stalking and squabbling over the territory like feral cats. Over time, the District has been pushed steadily farther towards the edges of the City, and may someday sink into the Nowheres or disintegrate entirely. Though this may have recently changed.

Rumors spread of strange things coming out of the Abandoned District, the native Nightmares fleeing ahead of the expanding border of a new presence staking out its territory. Officer Tock has sent men to investigate, clockwork coppers and conscripted deputies both, but none have returned. The Tacks Man has refused to send his minions forth, though he claims to know nothing of what happens there. Not even the Paper Boys will investigate, having already lost several of their own in hunting down the story, to no avail. All that returns from the Abandoned District is rumor and a cold wind tinged with the scent of machine oil.

In the heart of the Abandoned District, a new power has taken root. Some strange Nightmare assuming the shape of a factory has begun to scavenge and smelt the very substance of the City, forging it into a new urban landscape. This area of the City is slowly being recast into a Streamline and Googie aesthetic, seen through a dark Gothic lens - an anachronistic unfuture seen by midnight. The architect of this change is the Malefactor.

Despite the zeerust futurism of the Malefactor's work, everything has an oppressive air of conformity and sameness. Every sweeping line, every glass panel and neon highlight is the same from building to building, devised by the same algorithms and cut by the same machinery. The novelty of the architecture wears off quickly, once one realizes that there is no end to this but that everything becomes as the Malefactor desires.

The stuff of the Mad City is not all that the Malefactor smelts and reforges. In its factory bowels, the Malefactor gathers up cast-off dreams and memories, captured Nightmares and locals, and especially the Awake. The more deviant, the more the Malefactor desires it. In the same facilities that somehow recast ruined brick and concrete into chrome and glass and stucco, these deviant memories and beings are smelted down and molded into a new form. These monochrome singlesuited unFuture Men are the servitors of the Malefactor, gathering its materials and enacting its will. Though they are individually unremarkable, the Malefactor has many to spare. A single Awakened can produce a small horde of unFuture Men from the smelted power of her madness, so the costs are usually returned amply.

And as its domain expands, so too does the Malefactor. The factory complex has subsumed more and more of the new buildings, and they produce faster and faster. Each of these buildings is a hazard in and of itself and a potential host for the Malefactor's consciousness should the core building be destroyed. Nothing short of razing its entire domain is likely to bring it to a complete halt. If its growth goes unchecked, it may well expand out to encompass the Mad City someday.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Shadow, pt. 3, 426 words

“That’s different,” he said. “Those are just…”

Animals? Flesh is flesh. Blood is blood. Life is life. You’re not destroying it, Andrew. You’re just moving it around.

“I… I can’t…”

You’re dying by inches, Andrew. You’ll die slowly and painfully, freezing from the inside out. You’ll waste all you did with your life, all you learned, for something that will probably never turn out to any good? Look at this world, Andrew. Your child will never be great. At best, he’ll just be another statistic. At worst… The shadow’s words trailed off, and it shrugged.

“So instead of me freezing, it’ll be Daniel?” Andrew’s voice had gone hollow, and his throat was dry.

No, he won’t. He’ll just die peacefully in his sleep. Painlessly. He’s just a baby, he won’t live through the shock. But it’ll be a mercy, to spare him from this cold world.

Andrew closed his stinging eyes. The battle was already lost, but he tried to rally one last time. “I can’t. I don’t know how to…”

The shadow grinned again, all teeth and points. I do. I can give you the knowledge, and I can give you the ability.

And Andrew knew. He knew how easy it would be to crack open his son’s shell and take what he wanted. A strange warmth passed through him. More important than just knowing, he had the strength.

Andrew reached down and touched his son’s forehead. The shadow mirrored his gesture. Do it.

“Good night, Daniel,” he whispered.

Something was boiling on the stove. Smelled like pasta. Andrew looked over at Michelle at the kitchen table, reading a book and waiting. “Shelly, hon?” he called quietly, his voice tinged with concern and fear.

She looked up from her book. “Andrew? Is something wrong?”

Andrew closed his eyes, looking pained. “Daniel… I think he stopped breathing. He’s cold.”

Before he had finished, Michelle had sprung from the chair, her book flapping and thudding to the floor. “Daniel!” she cried, rushing past Andrew to the child’s room. After a moment, she yelled out, “Andrew, call nine-one-one!”

Andrew was already slipping on his shoes and pulling on his coat. He patted his pocket, felt the reassuring weight of his wallet. He paused, then turned on the cordless and dialed the three numbers. He set it down on the table while it rang.

Nine-one-one. Hello? Hello…?

The screen door shut quietly, and Andrew began walking down the street. He did not stop for quite some time.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Shadow, pt. 2, 413 words

Before two weeks ago. He still did not know what she had done. Nor, really, who she even was. But she had cracked him open and took out what was inside, and now everything felt so cold. And his shadow was talking to him.

“She must’ve just drugged me,” he whispered. “I’m just feeling some of the side-effects still.” Even as he said it, he knew he was just lying to himself.

Poor little Andy, the shadow mocked. Got his spirit stolen and doesn’t know what to do. Are your fingers numb yet? How about your toes? Your heart certainly is. Never knew a chill could cut that deep, did you? It grinned, displaying countless pointed teeth.

Andrew reached out as if to grab at the shadow’s neck, but pulled his hands back after a moment when he realized what he was doing. He was trying to strangle a shadow, for Heaven’s sake.

The shadow laughed derisively, so loud that Andrew was sure Michelle must have heard. Instead, he just heard her close the tap in the kitchen. Daniel did not even twitch.

Go ahead and take it, Andrew. It’s right there waiting for you. You brought it into the world, why shouldn’t you use it?

Andrew leaned away from his shadow. The very idea reached through the apathy that had wrapped around him like a heavy blanket, and he felt the bile in the back of his throat. “It’s my son. I can’t just—”

Of course you can, the shadow cut him off. Its voice was thick with disdain. You just believe you don’t want to. You want to believe that this is bad, and that I am bad for suggesting it. I am you, Andrew. And the only thing bad about this is that you aren’t willing to ensure your own survival, since we both know that this problem of yours will end you if you don’t do something about it.

“It is bad! It is wrong!” Andrew was not yet shouting, but realized he was getting loud, and lowered his voice. “I can’t do that to my own child!”

Somehow, the shadow sneered. Then go, and pretend nothing’s wrong. Eat your dinner with her. Pen a pig or cow in one place for all its life, then knock it on the head and bleed it dry. Boil a lobster alive in its shell. Chop a chicken’s head off and let its body spasm, running all—

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shadow, pt. 1, 392 words

Andrew looked down at the sleeping infant. He leaned carefully against the side of the crib. His son had finally fallen asleep, and Andrew was grateful for the silence. It seemed like the child had been screaming nonstop since he was brought home several days before. Andrew shivered slightly despite the room’s warmth, and crossed his arms.

Michelle stepped into the room, watching her husband watch Daniel. She was glad he was finally taking an interest again. He had seemed so distant the past couple weeks, even when she had gone into labor. She cleared her throat, and Andrew turned around.

“Are you sure you don’t want any dinner,” she asked, concern edging into her voice.

Do it. Andrew shook his head. “I’m sure. Don’t make anything for me. I’m not hungry.” His voice was a flat monotone, much as it had been in the past weeks. He knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he should be offering to prepare the meal for her. Oh well.

“Okay,” she said, her tone lowering into doubt as she stepped back out into the hallway. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

Take it. Andrew nodded, already turning to look back at the infant as Michelle left. Kill it. “I’ll let you know,” he said, already trailing off and only really mumbling it to himself. Consume it.

He frowned, looking around to make sure Michelle was gone. He could already hear her in the kitchen. “Shut up,” he hissed.

Take it. Take it take it take it take it—

“Shut up,” he repeated, louder. Daniel stirred a little, but settled back into sleep. He stared down not at his child, but at the shadow he cast over the child. He swore he could make out distinct features in the shadow’s depths. Without light, fangs still gleamed.

You want it. You need it. Take it. Fill that hole.

“I’m going insane,” Andrew muttered. “You’re not real. Just because I’ve heard you for the last two weeks doesn’t mean you’re real.”

I’m as real as you are. The shadow grinned. Andrew did not move, but the shadow uncrossed its arms and reached out, as if stroking Daniel’s cheek. As real as he is. I’ve always been here, Andrew. You just couldn’t hear me before.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Songspinners, 417 words

In the farthest regions of the Nowheres, where the howling wind cuts like a knife, there are places where even the sound of the wind is overwhelmed. There, strange haunting melodies twist and weave amongst the rocky pillars in the abject darkness, confusing all sense of direction for anyone not born to these songs. There, creatures made of horrid song and razor edges tend the skeins of music that define their realm. There, the Songspinners live.

Left alone, Songspinners are some of the more passive denizens of the Nowheres. They tend to the well-being of their home, harvesting living song out of the air and using it to create silken webs of incredible complexity and beauty. The webs can be difficult for an outsider to comprehend, as they do not conform to the mere four dimensions of normal reality. The rare few visitors to their realm invariably come away with headaches, and the occasional waking hallucination as their minds attempt to come to grips with the unreal geometry of the spiders' webs. Navigation through these webs is all but impossible for a normal human mind, and difficult even for the unhinged.

Most Songspinners have a passing resemblance to humans, at least on first glance. They stand almost six feet tall and are skeletally thin, with humanoid legs and arms. However, they also possess two extra sets of segmented, chitinous arms that terminate in razor-sharp claws. When they travel beyond their homes, they tend to cover up and hide the extra limbs folded against their bodies. Their faces are a feral melding of the human skull with a spider's mandibles, though they can force the shape into that of a normal (if lean and angular) human face. They still have to hide their compound eyes behind sunglasses. When angered, their claws can tear through flesh like butter.

In place of a normal thorax, a Songspinner instead has a pair of harp-like arrangements mounted along a spinal column. Thick metallic strings pluck and play in a constant melody, though an individual's song is incomplete. Instead, each Songspinner is born in a small group called a clutch, composed of at least three hatched from the same batch of eggs. The clutch play their songs together in a complete piece, and it is also how they communicate with one another. Technically speaking, any given clutch is a single mind distributed in multiple bodies. The death of one is a harsh blow to the others, one from which they never quite recover.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Machinations, 492 words

Machinations are a strange new thing on the streets of the Mad City. Where so much of the City and its inhabitants seems outdated, echoes of the fears of bygone times, these creatures are an incursion as if from the future or an alternate past. The Machinations are Nightmares of technology, percolating and growing in the collective unconscious since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. Only recently have they begun to wander the Mad City, given new life by modern fears of science and technology.

No two Machinations look exactly alike. Each is a ramshackle construction of seemingly random parts that just barely holds itself together. Steam engines, car engines, and other power sources lie at the heart of each, though none have ever seen one take in any kind of fuel. Their bodies look to have been assembled from whatever was at hand in a junkyard, and they clatter around on uneven limbs. Some teeter on two legs, others stumble on three or four, and some skitter around on more legs than a spider. But all are festooned in ragged pieces of steel, with claws and spikes and armored ridges that have been hauled from the same junkyard and bolted onto their frames.

The smallest Machinations are by far the most common, about the size of a small pony. They are solitary creatures that stake out a territory and scavenge junk to augment themselves, and sometimes attack other Nightmares and locals. Many are dismembered after misjudging the strength of their prey, but not before more than a few weaker travelers are caught out on their own. They hide in dark alleys, sewer entrances, and other secretive lairs where they can spend the time fitting new parts to their frames. Larger Machinations are vastly more dangerous, with a more streamlined construction accomplished through constant experimentation. Inefficiency is slowly cut out as they rebuild themselves, and they can pack more power into their frames. They add extra equipment and grow larger to gain more raw power as well (increasing their Pain scores gradually as well). The largest known Machinations are the size of small tanks, but fight like giant armored cats.

What few know is that not all Machinations modify themselves for technical supremacy. Instead, they hunt and harvest locals and some Nightmares to study and co-opt organic structures. Most who follow this path modify their bodies into the humanoid form, acquiring smaller power sources that will fit into a human-sized chest cavity. Over time, they replace and cover various parts with living tissues, until they are a mechanical skeleton and machine "organs" surrounded by flesh. Some have to replace their flesh regularly, but others devise how to keep organic support systems running so they can blend into organic society perfectly. The true population of these Machinations is as yet unknown, and while some readily give themselves away with their rudimentary social skills, others have learned how to imitate normal human behavior.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Inkubus, 409 words

The Inkubus is a statuesque figure, reminiscent of the Classic male ideal in build and proportions. However, unlike the statues it resembles, its flesh is a perfect black - subtly glossy under direct light but otherwise apparently matte black. Despite this appearance, one can usually make out distinct features despite everything being rendered in black on black. They rarely seem to move, instead assuming poses of grace or power and remaining in that position for hours or even days at a time. Many frequently mistake them for statuary as a result. When they descend from their poses to travel amongst the people of the Mad City, however, they move with the fluid agility of a stalking cat. All but the most powerful Nightmares keep well clear when an Inkubus is on the hunt.

Though it looks to be carved of some kind of living black marble, an Inkubus is a creature of living liquid - as its name suggests, it is made of animate ink. When it wishes, it can abandon its solid form to pool and flow along the cobblestone streets of the City, where few will notice a smear of foul water flowing through the gutters. It takes advantage of its form in a fight, flowing around attacks that could harm it and allowing others to pass through. In such a case, even if its prey has escaped, the Inkubus has often stained its prey with some of its own body, and can follow that stain anywhere it wishes . It is tireless, and its fluid form allows it to slip past many barriers that would be otherwise impassable.

An Inkubus is also something of a social mimic. Much of their time spent imitating statues is used to observe others. As such, though the Nightmare is only barely more intelligent than a wolf or tiger, it can learn and imitate the patterns of social behavior. It is not an innovator, so if it has not observed how to behave in a particular situation, it cannot devise a way to behave. If caught out, it may attack or retreat depending on how hungry it actually is and how likely action is to bring about undesirable consequences (in its limited judgment). Unfortunately, several newcomers to the Mad City and more than a few locals have been taken in by the dreadfully handsome figure that offers assistance or a swift seduction, and have been drowned in ink as a result.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Sakura Blossom, 519 words

High on the Rooftop Jungle, in a small area well away from the worst runs of the Paper Boys and the Roof Rats, a small park is kept as a respite from the horrors of the Mad City. There, the keeper tends to her flowers and trees, welcoming wanderers with open arms and invitations to explore her Hanging Gardens.

The name is quite literal: the Hanging Gardens look as if someone had taken a small city park and inverted everything from the topsoil up to the tops of the trees. A thick layer of soil hangs in the air some twenty feet up, covered in lush grass and beautiful flowers, and out of which sprouts the inverted trees that grow towards the ground below them. The vast majority of these trees are Japanese cherry blossom trees, though other flowering trees are scattered around as well. The blossoms are in a constant state of growth and shedding, with petals falling all around — some to the "ground" of the Rooftop Jungle, some to the layer of soil above. There is even a faint glow that suffuses the area, as if the sun is just on the cusp of dawn.

The keeper is, like the Wax King, not obviously either Nightmare nor human. Her appearance strongly suggests it, but her manner is too polite and kindly for many to take her as a Nightmare. The name she gives is Sakura Blossom, though rumor maintains that it is not the only name to which she responds. She is a short, slender woman apparently made of wood, bark, leaves, and sakura petals, wearing a silk kimono that does not quite fit any of the common women's styles. In all ways she is polite, deferential, and calm right up to the point of stereotypical feminine passivity. Blossom never has a harsh thing to say to or about anyone, dedicating her life to the tranquility of the garden.

Even when questioned with pointed, direct answers, she seems literally unable to conceive of the horrors that throng through the Mad City — or even through the City Slumbering, where mere humans commit no end of violence upon one another. The most horrifying facts and arguments are swiftly rationalized away, and if there are any holes in her logic, the peace and serenity of the Gardens is often enough to allow such to pass uncommented upon.

For some, the peace of the Gardens is overwhelming. Whether it is some power of Blossom's or the influence of the Gardens, those who wander too deeply amongst the trees run the risk of being ensnared by the soothing atmosphere. For at the heart of the Hanging Gardens, there one can find the ultimate peace. There, the saplings grow in the shape of nooses, hanging freely from the soil above. They each await a single weary soul, ready to set aside the burden of being Awake, trading a harsh life for a peaceful death. Once a sapling has snared someone, the tree grows down and through the person's body, encapsulating them for all time.

And the Gardens grow a little larger.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Blind Knights and Match Girls, 560 words

The Blind Knights are warriors in the service of the Wax King, who appear to be human but for the candles that burn blue in their empty eye sockets. The candles do not go out until the Blind Knight dies… but sometimes the Blind Knight dies because the candles go out. This is a rare circumstance, one that is more rumor than fact, for few have ever seen it and survived to tell the tale, for whatever reason.

Even more rarely, a Blind Knight survives his candles going out by fueling their flame with his own flesh. After a short time, they are burned from top to bottom, covered in a "shell" of crisped, blackened skin and subcutaneous fat. They wear midnight-black armor and hide their visages behind closed helms, but the stench of charred flesh never leaves their presence. Fire follows in their footsteps everywhere they go, with a trail of cinders and smoke at their heels. These rare few become Blackguards.

Blackguards are the most dangerous of the Wax King's minions, but also the rarest. He is loath to spend any needlessly, reserving them for the most important tasks. As the most important tasks are also the most deadly, the attrition rate is still high amongst their ranks.

Despite their heavy plate armor, they can move in near-perfect silence should they so wish, and very frequently their duties require it of them. However, their most potent power is not their silence, swords, or the word of the Wax King, but their power over shadows. When the fire burns out, all that is left is darkness. So to it is with the Blackguards, who may move through shadow as one might walk through a door. This power is not unlimited, but in the lightless depths of the Nowheres, they wax mighty.

***

The Match Girls are the Mad City's female counterparts to the Paper Boys. Outdated and anachronistic, they frequently inspire pity in the foolish and unwary. They look like little girls made out of bundles upon bundles of matches, tied together by fraying white string. Often, the actual match heads are hidden by the ends of the next bundle up, so they appear to be made out of simple wood. However, the faint smell of sulfur follows them wherever they go, just noticeable enough to be unnerving. They mostly manage to cover it up with the musty, moth-balls smell of the tattered old dresses they wear, in small-children fashions from mid-Victorian England, though not completely. They're most often found wandering the streets of the City, especially when the weather has turned cold, trying to find places to hide from the biting wind and sobbing quietly to themselves.

This act is just that. An act. They are Nightmares just as much as any other, and they seek to turn others into them. Alone, a Match Girl is little threat. But in groups, they can be deadly, and there's almost always another hiding somewhere nearby.

When they strike, Match Girls burn. They don't have to strike themselves on anything, they simply come alight and attack. Their flames are not real fire, however; they sear not flesh but the spirit, not skin but the soul. A Match Girl can burn away your memories and personality until you become like them, just another faceless urchin on the streets trying to escape the cold...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Gray Hound, 445 words

A Gray Hound resembles an old black-and-white cartoon of a dog. Most are larger breeds, never any smaller than a beagle. They are obviously two-dimensional and move jerkily, as if several frames of animation are missing from every motion. Gray Hounds are usually loners, though rarely packs of them form and rampage across their chosen territory in the Mad City until they anger a more powerful Nightmare, who breaks up the pack.

An individual Hound is terribly dangerous on its own, more than most Sleepers could hope to contend with. Their jerky, uneven movements hide a frightful turn of speed, and their teeth sink into a person's flesh just as well as a real dog's would. The worst part of a Gray Hound's attack, however, is that anyone bit is drawn into the same colorless, two-dimensional existence. As the Hound savages a person, their victim slowly loses all color and substance. If they escape, a victim can eventually heal the harm done, but it's not unheard of for someone to bear some mark of the experience forever after - hair turned solid black or white, a limb turning into a crudely-drawn monochrome outline, or the like.

Savage packs organize around the fiercest, most powerful Hound in a territory. Their presence draws the color out of everything, until the immediate neighborhood is a sea of uniform gray. They tend to patrol the territory in sets of two or three, and drag any kills back to the den for the pack to share - and for the alpha to get first dibs.

The alpha of a pack draws strength from its position, and is mightier than the other Hounds. As well, an alpha has far greater control over its two-dimensional form. While normal Gray Hounds still move and act as if they were three-dimensional creatures, the pack alpha can take advantage of its form to pass through hair-thin cracks and openings. Attempts to escape and hide from the alpha are therefore much more difficult than normal, as only the most perfect barriers can keep them out, and they can take shortcuts impossible to three-dimensional beings.

Rumor holds that the Tacks Man is always interested in acquiring captured Gray Hounds, especially alphas. Nobody's quite sure how to take him up on the offer, and it may not be wise to do so: rumor also holds that he knows how to turn them into new Needle Noses. But the rewards can be great, too - hefty bounties of wax coin, or perhaps a return of something taken in an earlier encounter with the Tacks Man. And what you get doesn't necessarily have to be something that you'd originally lost.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Cuckoo Flock, 377 words

The Cuckoo Flock looks like a swarm of tiny clocks of many designs, all flying on feathered wings. Individually, a given Cuckoo is a harmless pest, and will flee anything much larger than a house cat. It is when they gather together into a Flock that they become dangerous.

A Flock is a Cuckoo mating swarm, which gathers together on some arcane yet precisely-kept schedule. Much as salmon must swim upstream to their original spawning grounds, each Swarm keeps its parents' schedule. A small Flock in full mating frenzy is of little danger, while larger Flocks are a much greater threat to anyone in the surroundings. This is because of how they raise their young.

Which is to say, they don't. Cuckoo Flocks are psychic brood parasites, like their avian namesakes. Once the mating is complete, the Flock will lay their eggs in the minds of everyone in the immediate proximity, and then die off. A small Flock may use one or two people as a nest, while the largest Flocks can nest their eggs in the minds of dozens of people. Few know they've been compromised until the eggs shortly hatch. When the eggs hatch, the fledgling Cuckoos unseat the host's consciousness and take over the body, killing the original personality.

For a time that may last weeks or even months, the host becomes as a local in the Mad City, living only to fill its role. They transform into gray-suited, gray-faced businessmen that wander the City streets to and fro, going from place to place on precise schedules. If blocked, they walk around the obstacle. If constrained, they fight fiercely to get away and resume their schedules. They don't stop to talk, eat, or drink unless it's part of the schedule, and even then they'll do the exact same thing day after day — even if there's nobody to talk to or nothing to consume, they say what they have to or go through the motions of eating the same foods over and over again.

The cycle ends when the Cuckoos inside have finished their growth, having fed off such pure, dedicated precision in their host. They violently depart from their host's mind and scatter, to come together when next the mating cycle begins anew.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Superheroes, Peregrine, 484 words

Peregrine is one of any number of well-endowed but unremarkable "flying bricks," heroes with the extremely common powers of invulnerability and strength. She's also picked up a nickname, whispered behind her back, of "Black Widow," not to be confused with the spider-themed villainess of the same moniker.

Peregrine has had bad luck with boyfriends all her life. It started in high school, when a relationship ended in an acrimonious argument the day after they first had sex. Her ex-boyfriend shed his bland "good student" habits and turned into something of a delinquent shortly thereafter. Her track record didn't show much improvement at all as she found her relationships falling apart through college and afterwards, but it didn't really get bad until after she developed her powers in a car accident, when a tanker truck full of strange glowing chemicals overturned on the highway. Her boyfriend at the time, a bit of a narcissistic prat, was in the same accident, and came out of a two-week coma with his own powers and some fresh scars that marred his "all-American" (read: unthreatening white male) good looks. He freaked out on her for coming out of the accident clean, especially since she had been driving, and blamed her for their crash into the truck. They broke up there and then, while he was still in his hospital bed, and she only learned a couple months later that he'd started using his powers to enable a crime spree.

Since then, Peregrine has had a string of failed relationships, in her mid-30s now with no signs of this bad luck stopping. Two of her previous boyfriends have died, one in a freak accident within a week of proposing to her, and the other murdered and stuffed into a fridge by a villain who she had crossed paths with one too many times. After recovering from that second death, she's kept her relationships restricted to her secret identity, so nobody can pin boyfriends to Peregrine again and repeat the act.

Peregrine is an unassumingly pretty woman in her civilian life, who "dresses to repress" -- thick nerd-glasses, baggy t-shirts and jeans (or bulky sweaters in the winter) that hide her figure, and her long brown hair tied back in a simple ponytail. In costume, she looks and acts completely different, with her hair flying free and flaunting her ample figure in a skin-tight suit that leaves little to the imagination. Unfortunately for her reputation, she's hardly the first to go this route with her public persona, meaning she's easily mistaken for other heroines with regularity. Still, she has a small but intense group of fans who admire her from afar and spend far too much time in online groups dedicated to discussing her latest exploits (including, in one infamous case, a wardrobe malfunction during a fight that revealed once and for all she doesn't wear a bra underneath her costume).