- Do not transform into your badass were-self in the elevators
- There's cameras in there
- Not all the security folks know about magic
- You're totally naked for bits during a transformation. Don't do that to the security guys and gals
- Some of y'all are bigger than the car!
- There's cameras in there
- Yes, yes it's very cool you can conduct electricity under your skin but tasing your computer in frustration is counter productive
- That's not electricity that's magic
- You're having magical growing pains
- Go to the mage gym and work that off, RIGHT NOW
- Special Agent Delacroix, the female one, is God and chief scientist.
- Don't tell Supervisory Special Agent Jones. It'll just make him sad.
- Do not earn her angry face.
- Tell her about the cool new magic thing you did
- She'll tell you how to do it better and for less energy.
- She’ll teach everyone how to do it.
- Learn the new tricks she teaches. They’ll save your life.
- Special Agent Delacroix, the male one, is God’s right hand man, Team Mom, and confessor.
- Do not earn his I’m disappointed in you face.
- It's like kicking a puppy.
- The tech support staff will make your life miserable.
- When tech support is unhappy, we all suffer.
- That dumb thing you did in the field? Tell him right now.
- He can't fix it if he doesn't know about it.
- He can't teach you how to do better if he doesn't know about it.
- Do not earn his I’m disappointed in you face.
- The kids we're in the field for are more important than our pride
- You will do dumb, stupid, humiliating things in order to convince them to let you help
- No one will give you shit about it
- They've done worse
- If they do, SA Delacroix, the male one, will give them the disappointed face.
- No one wants the disappointed face.
- This is not a pissing contest
- The Delacroix's win all Agency pissing contests from now until the end of time, amen.
- Weres are not allowed to mark territory on the premises.
- Why the fuck do I have to make a rule about this people?! Professionalism, God damn it.
- Mages from puberty aren't better.
- Mages by ritual aren't better.
- I swear to God if I hear one more ‘my life sucked more in order to get my magic’ contest, I'm getting both Delacroix's drunk and getting both of them to fucking END this contest. They WIN people, shut up!
- The last time I had to enact this rule, the agents were in therapy for 5 months coping with the DELACROIX’S shit.
- Do not threaten civilians with magic. They might believe you.
- Do not threaten anyone outside the department with magic. They might believe you.
- Be prepared to spend five hours signing paperwork if anyone believes you.
- Either use it and deal with the paperwork and board review or don't. No threatening.
- Your title is Agent or Special Agent. HR is never going to sign off on Mage, Wizard, or any variant thereof.
- HR is not in on the magic thing.
- We'd have to spend too long reading them in.
- You thought five hours was bad? Federal employees require a security clearance.
- No one is allowed to add “In accordance with the prophesy” to the end of any answers given to a supervisor
- Or fellow agent
- I see you, you little shits, Skippy’s list stopped being funny back in the early aughts, damn it
- The HR office worker signing off on your travel expenses is Ms. Rodriguez, not Sugar Daddy.
- Having magic does not mean you have superpowers
- Bullets still hurt
- Bullets can still kill you
- YOU'RE STILL FLAMMABLE
- Falls can kill you
- You aren't immune to drowning
- Oh my God, it's like you all regressed to being toddlers
- No singing Bohemian Rhapsody during firefights
- Not even as psychological warfare
- Magic bullets do exist
- SA Delacroix the female is the only authorized teacher
- Only on the rifle range people! I have to sit in on the paperwork meeting too! Next time I'm sending Delacroix the male
- He will wonder why you're interrupting him getting therapy resources to the kids for this shit
- Past lives have no effect on seniority
- They don't exist
- Prove it in the lab Agent
- SA Delacroix, the male, has the forms for “wall-to-wall” counseling
- Shooting is not too good for people threatening our rescues, but you still have to fill out the paperwork and go through the review.
- This also applies to knives
- Also chairs, pool cues, and broken bottles
- It especially applies to government vehicles
- And civilian vehicles.
- We're still a law enforcement agency people!
- You have to fill out the warrant and paperwork before eating someone else's magic. Otherwise that's assault. Possibly attempted murder.
- Love potions
- Don't exist
- Would be rape if they did
- Mind control is rape
- Werebugs and weresnakes of any variety are not allowed to transform around Agent Harmon. Phobias are not funny people. We don't want to end up in extra sensitivity training classes again. The yearly ones on sexuality and unconscious bias are enough already, okay?
Continuation of T00:00:03.308
Esme ducked; a metal rope whipped by over her head with a hiss of air and sickeningly liquid sound of metal flexing. She crouched behind a greenhouse bench.
The rope retracted into the impossibly round ball hovering over the central bench in the greenhouse module Multiple benches had been torn out of the deck plating, their water systems spilling onto the grating, bare roots systems drooping in the half-gravity out of their frames.
Another metal rope (smooth to mathematically precise flatness, more nimble than a neo-octopus’s arm) punched out of the ball hovering over the central bench and slammed Burn onto the grating, punching through their exosuit and out the back to disappear between the grating. Esme was the last one still mobile. Burn’s life-signs on the tactical network flickered; the metal had torn through them just below the sternum and their suit was frantically trying to patch the hole.
Esme fired her rail-pistol at the rope, hands trembling as she leaned across the bench. What didn't hit the arm slammed into the ball behind it. Esme heard Burn grunt over their tactical network as he hauled his plasma rifle up off the deck and blasted the arm near where her bullets were slamming into the metal. On the second burst of scorching liquid fire, the arm was cut through and dropped onto the deck plating. Esme followed Burn into switching targets to the hovering ball. Another arm was forming, pushing out of the ball, stretching against the metal surface like it would split open shortly. Esme’s pistol clicked on empty as Burn forcibly dropped off the network.
Plasma burst the ball open, the interior dripping onto the deck in pools.
Esme’s hand were shaking badly; she almost dropped her last clip as she reloaded her pistol. Burn motioned weakly for Esme to come over to where he was still pinned by the metal arm. Esme kneeled behind his head, as far from the twitching metal as she could, and touched her suit faceplate to his.
“You ever collected stacks, Specs?”
“Five hours in simulspace, twice in meatspace.”
Burn took a deep breath and nodded. “You've got three minutes to grab as many as you can.” His pupils blew open as the adrenaline and second dose of combat drugs flooded his system. “Grab Digits, they're least likely to be compromised. Then five minutes to get the hell back to Wings.”
“What are you doing Burn?”
“The nice thing–” Burn gulped. “The nice thing about using a plasma rifle, kid, is you always have a nuclear bomb if you need it.”
“Fucking hell–” Esme bit off. She made an abortive motion towards Digits’ corpse, then touched her faceplate to Burn’s again. “Burn, my name's Esme.”
Burn gave her a pained, lopsided grin. “Nice to meet you, Esme. Now move it kid.”
Esme launched herself towards Digits as fast as she could in .5g, pulling the melon baller out of her suit belt pockets.
Digits’ corpse was leaning back against the bulkhead where they'd been thrown; Esme yanked it forward to expose the back of the neck, pressed the baller against the suit where spine turned into skull, and pressed the button. Fabric, plastic, and polymers went flying as the baller burrowed through the suit. Esme swallowed and turned slightly towards Burn when it started kicking out blood and bone.
The metal arm was slowly slumping, spreading out into Burn’s suit. Esme caught a glimpse of silver streaking through Burn’s body where the arm had originally punched through them.
The melon baller jerked back in her hand, diamond-coated grape-sized cortical stack firmly caught in its clutches.
Esme surged to her feet and bolted for the greenhouse doorway as fast as she could in half gravity, tucking the baller back in a pocket. Microgravity and the increase in speed she’d get in her native gravity was two modules and a couple hundred meters away.
Bester, her muse, laid the most efficient route from here to the airlock Wings was last at over the map in Esme’s visuals. Esme turned on her T-Ray emitter and pulled the map into the center of her vision as she ran, tweaking a few spots to take advantage of handholds and furniture not noted on the map. The emitter would paint her as a target to anything looking the same way, but it was worth it for the heads up on any real-time deviations from the map.
She banished the map to her peripheral vision at the transition point to microgravity and launched herself forward.
Halfway point to the next spot she could kick off, Esme tucked, flipped over, and turned her magnetic boots on. Bester updated his estimate of how fast Esme could make this run. Now she’d have a full fifteen seconds to get in the airlock. Right before before hitting the wall, Esme cut the boots, touched down, and then kicked off hard. She wished she’d taken Mav up on his offer of a combat drug, any combat drug.
Bester had kept his estimates worst case conservative again. Wings was 50 meters straight through the bulkheads, 78 meters of freefall to get to them. Thank Hawkins, they had their T-Ray up as well. Esme blinked her emitter on and off. ‘open airlock. detach. open airlock. detach.’ She couldn’t remember if Wings or their muse knew Morse Code. Bester sent a coded burst to the station to open its airlock.
Careening into the airlock, Esme grabbed a hold bar just inside the lock. Breath rasping in the back of her throat, she paused as the interior hatch closed to line up with the airlock in Wings’ ship, slowly drifting away from the station. Lined up, Bester sent an emergency override to the station — the exterior hatch opened as Esme pushed off the interior, following the escaping air. She careened across the gap between space station and ship. An inelegant tumble into the ship’s airlock included clipping the hatch into the ship.
‘go. go. go.’
Esme braced herself in a corner of the airlock, as far from the opening as she could, back against one wall, boots locked against the other. The airlock slowly closed as the ship turned from the station and began acceleration.
Wings came on over the speaker, sound strangely attenuated in the partial vacuum of a refilling airlock. “What am I running from?”
Esme stuck with Morse code; there was no way she was getting on anyone’s network before the Firewall specialists cleared her.
‘overloaded plasma gun.’
“Specs, blink twice if that’s fucking Morse code.”
She blinked the T-Ray twice.
Swearing in a mix of Cantonese, Russian, and Cherokee came over the speaker; Wings must have loaded up the translator for Morse. The ship acceleration increased, hard; Esme gritted her teeth and pushed harder against the walls.
Esme let out a slow breath and started deep breathing, trying to counteract the acceleration squashing her rib cage.
Thuds and reverberations pinged against the metal hull. It sounded like recordings of rain she’d listened to last week. Except, deeper. And hurled by exploding plasma bombs, not gravity.
The sounds against the hull let up and died away.
“Well alright then, we’re not dead.” Esme would have felt better if Wings hadn’t sounded so surprised. “Let’s get you into the—”
“It’s three days to the rendezvous point.”
Wings chuckled ruefully. “Alright, it’s your suit. Congratulations on saving the solar system and killing the monster.”
‘another day. another monster.’
Collins looked over the edge of his ‘reader at the train car from under the brim of his hat. It was late; another long day at the office. His fellow late commuters on the subway were out numbered by the folks calling it a night early and heading home from revelries, but neither were numerous enough to crowd the train car. Collins had a seat against a wall; no possibility of a surprise attack from that quarter.
The train pulled into platform 28; Collins dropped his ‘reader in his bag and walked out onto the platform. The lighting here was harsh, creating sharp edged shadows and isolated pools of light. This station was rumored to be the next up for repairs. He would have to find a different route home while that happened.
Collins found his usual spot against the wall. He leaned back as the train pulled out of the station. His suit would need dry cleaning after tonight. He'd toss in the red tie. The platform was empty now, the few other passengers exiting with him heading up the stairs, train gone from the platform, not even a homeless fellow bedding down here tonight. Collins crouched down, pulling a small, felt-covered box out of his bag. Another glance around to confirm he was unobserved; he shoved the box behind the loose tile in the wall and straightened up.
Smoothing down the lines of his jacket and picking up his bag, Collins stepped forward to enter newly arriving train. He found a seat and settled in on the new line for the rest of his ride home.
Tomorrow, he’d drop off his dry cleaning and by the end of the day, his message would be on its way. If his handler was still alive, they’d understand a box of the enemy’s highest military medal.
His cover was still intact. His information was still good.
“Damn good lighting in here,” Yew said, peering down the long hallway. “Did not expect that with a concrete ceiling.”
“Domed ceiling,” Pixie replied absently, from the center of the team huddle in the middle of the hallway. “Scatters the light.” She continued making her notations on the digital map the client had provided. “We’ll need to find the source, see if it's a security issue.”
“No possibility of it being artificial, I suppose,” Oak muttered, on point with Sarge aiming down the hall over his shoulder.
“That would indicate habitation, which is a different security issue.” Pixie pulled her Ubiq specs up off her eyes and into her hairline. “Original map says 50 cells a floor, two floors per wing–”
“Revised map from the remodel before the Crash that the client did not provide me has the cells on the second floor doubled up, the central administrative tower has four floors, not three, and everything has more electronic security. Of the fail-safe variety.”
Sarge’ eyes flicked up to the second floor. “Fail-safe being lock-down.” No motion up there.
“Good for enclave security, I suppose,” Oak said. “Bad for us.”
“Eh,” Pixie shrugged, “plus side, easier to clear it out wing by wing. Down side, getting to the next wing. Where we starting Sarge?”
“Second floor, clear the cells, work our way down. Yew, take point up the stairs.”
“Hurray,” Yew muttered, advancing to the foot of the stairs, “no casualties falling on our heads today.”
Yew was checking his retrieved arrows for new warps, bends, or weaknesses. “How many casualties was that, 20? 21?”
“24,” Oak said from the door as he stood watch. It was his turn for a breather to check his equipment as soon as Yew was done.
Sarge stared out a barred window on the first floor. “Complication.” His gun had been the first reloaded and checked for damage along with the new spear he had wielded with strength if not precision.
Pixie pushed herself to her feet with a soft whimper from the metal bed frame she'd sat on and joined Sarge at the window. Squinting, she looked past the bars. “I don't see–”
Sarge’s arm came over her shoulder, past her ear; Pixie followed the line of his finger to the overgrown grass at the junction of the next wing over and the administrative tower. “Oh. Coywolves.”
“How many?” Oak asked.
Sarge slipped an arm around Pixie and watched for a bit. “Three adults, four pups.”
“Oak, I’ve got it,” Yew said, taking up position at the door. “I vote we keep clearing the interior and worry about driving them off or re-domesticating the lot after we’re finished with the Cs.”
“Sure,” Sarge drawled. “Everyone keep an eye out for rotting things and fuzzy things trying to eat you.”
On Thursday, Raphael accidentally Ascends. Again.
With a huff of massive annoyance, They turn their attention to the local area of space-time and note the second extinction level asteroid on a collision course with Their planet in as many months. Tracing the orbital mathematics backwards, They find a battleship hiding at the edges of the system, tucked into Charon’s shadow. Several more asteroids, probably from the Oort cloud, are lined up for firing in the next month or two, when the math was right again.
Raphael smashes the ship between the first two asteroids.
With a note of the local coordinates the wreckage sits at, They turn their attention back to where They were before Ascending (reAscending?) and form Their body anew.
Raphael slumps against the commissary table his rebuilt body (self?) sits in front of, exhausted. Mike, on his right, shoves a glass of water in front of him. Cassie, on his left, slides paper under his hand and slips a pencil into his hand, already twitching in writing motions. Gabe, across the table, is on the horn with the brass, the sounds of clipped military information exchange soothing to Raphael’s ears. He grabs the water and downs it, his psychography dumping information They knew but slips from Raphael mind, like water draining from his hands.
Raphael has downed three more glasses, gulped two brownies Mike handed him, and eaten both an apple and banana Gabe shoved in his hands before the fifth and final page is written out. Raphael slumps onto Mike’s shoulder. Mike takes the last glass away; Gabe gently removes the pencil from Raphael's hand. Cassie is carefully reading over the first page, notating her best guesses at language or symbol sets Raphael has written.
“Did I get the coordinates down?” Raphael slurs. “There was a spaceship.”
“Not on page one,” Cassie says absently. “Got the same opening about stars and the music of the spheres, though.”
“What's it in this time?” Gabe rumbles. Mike starts massaging the back of Raphael's neck; his muscles are spasming in cramps. They never can put Raphael back together in perfect order it seems. Last time he'd had hand spasms for four days.
“A mix of proto-Indo-European and hieroglyphics, I think.” Cassie squints at the page before turning it over and moving onto the second one. “It's like the hieroglyphics were abbreviations.”
Gabe is looking over page five, tracing from bottom to top. “English… Middle English…” He grabs page four. “Old Norman… Latin… Hebrew? Skipped a couple centuries there buddy.”
“Don't do it on purpose,” Raphael whines, the sound muffled by Mike’s shoulder. Mike leaves off working on Raphael's neck to pat his shoulder. Cassie hands the first two pages to Gabe; she and Mike stand up, hauling Raphael's arms over their shoulders and march him towards the base infirmary.
Raphael's dreams are going to be painted on the inky blackness of space tonight.
Set in the 211 universe
“211, may I get your name and location please?” Darcy asked, left hand poised over her keyboard, the right one giving her stress ball the few last squeezes of her arrival routine.
“Um, y'all do animal control, right?” Darcy’s caller had the rounded vowels and heavy drawl of the Georgian coastline. “Because I’ve got a cat up a tree.”
“No sir, your local animal control can handle–”
“Not even if it's three feet long and green?”
Darcy paused, then moved her mouse off the disconnect button and pulled up several databases: known Powered with animal familiars, escaped genetic experiments, and documented shifting Powers.
“Alright sir, that is something we handle. May I get your location please?"
“About 40 miles out of Macon, Georgia. Can’t you pull it up on those fancy computers of yours?”
“No sir, I do not have a warrant to trace your location. It's that 40 miles north, south, east, or west?”
“Closest town is Hope. Take the only road north out of it, turn onto Cotton St., about five miles down that one, you'll see the only idiot in the area pacing up and down the road watching a green cat glaring at him from a tree.”
“Gotcha,” Darcy said, adding the location data to all her open databases. “The cat, does it look like a domestic cat scaled up?”
“Weeeeell, now that I'm looking closer, the ears aren't right… To far forward I think. And um. The tail’s kinda wrapped around the tree like it's holding on…”
Darcy’s hands started flashing across her keyboard.
“How soon until y'all get here? It's really freaking me out. It's watching me pretty close and there’s something wrong with its eyes.”
“Are the pupils kind of square?”
“Okay sir, please back up, give the cat at least 100 feet. The team will be there in three minutes.”
Continuation of Air Reconnaissance and Tactics
[The Senate Armed Services Committee came to order at 12:03.42 on Sunday March 7th 20XX, Chairperson Miller presiding]
Chairperson: The Committee calls Doctor Pavi Meigs-Metzer to testify.
[Dr. Meigs-Metzer is sworn in, confirms her security clearance, and takes a seat.]
Chairperson: Dr. Meigs-Metzer, would you please list your credentials for the committee.
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: I hold a Doctor of Medicine with a specialization in psychiatry, I was a resident at Brown University, and I am board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, with further education and specialization in cognitive-behavioral therapy, therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and therapy animals.
Senator Evans (R-TX): You have no expertise with computer science?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: My undergraduate degree from Cornell is in computer science, with a sub-specialization in neural networks, but I am well aware of the limitations of a 20 year old undergraduate degree in a field as rapidly changing as computer science. I claim no expertise, merely a background understanding.
Senator Evans: But you claim to be qualified to administer the Turing-Man… Maju–
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: Turing-Manjahni, Senator. The Turing-Manjahni was specifically designed to be administered by an individual with an average educational attainment compared to their country population. I am overqualified to administer the test, especially with my knowledge of psychology. In fact my administering the test would render it invalid, which is why I don't. I review the procedure, to make sure it was administered correctly, and interpret the results.
Senator Xi (D-MD): And you have reviewed the results of the Turing-Manjahni administered to the program called ARAT?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: I have reviewed all three tests administered to ARAT, who calls themselves Arthur while not working. They consider it something of a title. Same as Senator is for you.
Senator Xi: I was only aware of one test. When were these others administered?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: The first was two years ago, the January before Arthur became my patient. The second was six months ago.
Senator Ravani (D-MO): That's rather coincidentally timed relative to the military's investigation into–
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: It was a direct response to it on my part. I requested a second formally administered round of Turing-Manjahni sentience tests to build a thicker paper trail, in expectation of what happened with the third test.
[Chairperson Miller bangs gavel for order for 12 seconds]
Chairperson: In your opinion Doctor, what happened with the third test?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: It was a set-up by Senator Evans in collusion with Dynamic Robotics, the original programmers of the ARAT program.
[Chairperson Miller is unable to regain control of crowd for 1.5 minutes. Senator Evans demands Chairperson eject Dr. Meigs-Metzer for slander]
Chairperson: You understand you've just accused a sitting Senator of corruption–
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: And a direct bribe. [Dr. Meigs-Metzer pauses for 13 seconds for crowd noises to die down again.] I've already turned over the results of the VA’s background check into the third test administrator and the interpreting psychologist to the FBI. The first failed to disclose their Masters in Social Work and family connection to Dynamics before the test. The second somehow seems to have declined to mention their day job in Dynamics’ research division or their supervisor and entire lab’s contributions to Senator Evans’ reelection campaign the day after the test. Maximum contribution too. Dr. Smith, the interpreting psychologist, has already been reported to the American Psychology Association's board of ethics for fraud. Even with the test administration being sand-bagged, the data clearly indicated sentience. The interpretation in the report indicates otherwise, but a review by a psychologist, psychiatrist, and two computer science PhDs at the APA hearing for fraud find that the data directly contradicts the interpretation. The hearing concluded yesterday, after midnight by the way. I was passed a copy of the results of the hearing at seven this morning and a representative of the board is sitting outside this chamber with a notarized original of their report.
Senator Xi: Should we assume that your have taken similar precautions with the first two tests to assure us of their authenticity?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: I have and brought enough copies for each of the members of this committee.
Chairperson: Sergeant, please distribute the doctor's copies. Let the record note the addition of documentation from Dr. Meigs-Metzer at this time. 15 minute recess every one. Go do your reading.
[16.5 minutes later]
Chairperson: At this time, let the record note that Senator Evans has been detained for questioning by the FBI and will not be joining us for the remainder of this or future hearings on the subject while his situation is sorted out. The Committee recalled Dr. Meigs-Metzer to testify. Dr. Meigs-Metzer, I believe it is pretty clear from the documentation that ARAT has passed the Turing-Manjahni. In your opinion, is it a reasonable measure of sentience?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: It is the only test we have which has withstood 26 years of investigation. It is the best we have. To answer your actual question, yes, I believe Arthur is a sentient person.
Senator Johnson (R-ND): Is that determination solely on the results of the Turing-Manjahni, Doctor?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: No, it is also based on my two years of experience as their doctor.
Senator Johnson: And what were you treating him for?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: Mr. Chairperson, I wish to enter into the Committee notes a release form from Arthur starting their permission for me to discuss their medical records.
[Documentation is handed over]
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: I concurred with Arthur’s self-diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have responded reasonably well to standard talk therapy treatments for PTSD. Especially considering that we did not have the supporting pharmaceutical protocols available to us.
Senator Xi: Doctor, can you explain to me, in layman's terms, how an AI could develop a human’s psychiatric disorder? He—
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: They.
Senator Xi: They do not have a brain like we do.
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: I will remind the committee that this is not my area of expertise. But, I will also point out that we have documented the same symptoms of PTSD in dogs and elephants. Grief in various Great Ape species. And so on. Arthur’s neutral architecture is heavily, heavily modeled on that of a mid-twenties human, without the range of experiences and memories of someone that age. Quite frankly, he was ‘born,’ so to speak with the capacity for any psychiatric disorder, without the buffering of experience, interpersonal relationships, or a social safety net. It is, in my opinion, a miracle they took so long to develop PTSD.
Senator Xi: Do you have an opinion on the matter of decommisioning the Air Reconnaissance and Tactic program, as General Howard argues for?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: If by decommissioning, you mean wiping the server Arthur resides on, that would be murder. If you mean allowing Arthur to migrate to a private server and declining to replace them, as their doctor, I would support the migration. Their recovery can only be enhanced by removing them from their source of ongoing trauma.
Senator Johnson: And your opinion on Major Nesbitt’s petition for back pay on ARAT’s behalf?
Dr. Meigs-Metzer: From the moment they became a sentient person, Arthur has been serving in the military, for more hours of the day than any human is put through. They did not volunteer nor were they given the oath of office. But they chose to serve faithfully and risked exposure, followed by the possibility of death, as this committee is debating, in order to get the help they need to continue doing their job, and do it well. Of course they deserve back pay. Preferably at the specialist level of their fellow analysts. Otherwise the Armed Forces has been enslaving a sentient being for the last two and a half years, wouldn't you say?
Inspired by: Art by Xiaohui Hu
Zhen peered down the street. The building she was peeking out from behind had been an office building once upon a time, but she thought the top four floors were occupied with families now. They must be in morphs adapted for the constant wind and cold up there. Or in synths. They could be synthetics. Zhen shuddered a little.
She wasn’t a bio-chauvinist. Really she wasn’t. But every time she even thought about trading in the shitty Ruster morph her mammas had gotten her before they disappeared for a synth without all the stomach cramps and allergies, well... she just got shaky and her brain... itched. She just couldn’t. It’s not like she’d keep growing in a synth. Mamma June had always said biogrowth only until 25. Which was... eleven more years. Zhen didn’t think she’d feel better about a synth by then.
A skittering movement from down the street brought her back to the here and now. She had to pay attention or she wouldn’t be able to buy breakfast or lunch today. No dinner either unless she talked Nico over in Janks-Yao (instead of Nico in Central) into letting her work on the machines in his place today. For a triad connect simulspace brothel owner, he was weirdly squeamish about letting her work around the shop. Maybe Awotwi over in the souk had some synth parts Zhen could clean up for a meal. Awotwi was nicer than Nico. But she had less for Zhen to do than he did. Bought more parts Zhen scrounged though.
The skittering was halfway down the street now, somewhere in the shadows of the building the Olympus Infrastructure Authority had blown up last week. They’d said there’d been terrorists trying to sabotage the space elevator. They always said that. Rumor on the street was another corp grey robotics project gone weird. As usual, rumor was more accurate than official brownstock — a robot with seven struts (and one broken off at the tip) was running to the other side of the street. It had a central ball in the middle of the struts, antennae at the joints of the struts, and sharp, pointy bits on its two front legs, like fangs.
Zhen ran over. The robot reared back on four legs and waved its fanged legs at her. A hissing screech came from the ball. Zhen swung her pipe down on the ball as hard as she could.
The screeching got louder and the fang legs stabbed towards her.
Zhen battered at the robot until it stopped moving.
“Good job kid.”
Zhen looked up in fear. She hadn’t heard any of the folks pointing guns at her (no, not her, the robot) approaching. There were three of them, a decent looking synth and two Rusters (no hand tremors!). No, wait, one of the Rusters was an Alpiner with the same red skin tone as Rusters. All of them had on regular clothing, not the green and yellow OIA uniforms, so at least they weren’t cops. Even if the Alpiner was trying to pass for less class than they were.
“We need you to back away form the ‘bot now,” the Alpiner said, motioning to the side with their pistol. It was a heavy, chunky looking thing.
“No,” whispered Zhen, dropping the pipe and scooping the robot to her chest. “Please, it’s mine. I killed it, its mine.”
“Kid, it’s dangerous—”
“I’m not going to keep it! I’m not stupid. But those O’Conner X34 antennae go for 15 credits each and the Rise ball is worth 50 credits at least and the carbon is—”
“Kid knows their machines,” the synth murmured to the Alpiner.
The Alpiner looked her over, a quick up and down; Zhen’s chest tightened. The Ruster and and the synth stilled while the Alpiner’s eyes focused past Zhen, over her shoulder. They had to be talking to each other through the mesh; Zhen started backing up. There was an alley 10 meters south she might be able to duck into if she ran fast enough. Zhen froze as the Alpiner looked at her again.
“Tell you what kid, we’ll buy the robot off you. 250 credits for the whole thing right now and we’ll spot you lunch at the noodle place two blocks over.”
“Three Monkeys’? The uplift bar?”
“Yeah, that one. We hunt ferals, right? Three of us, we’re good with the hunting, not so much with the disassembling and the markets around here. We’ll buy your robot, spot you lunch, and leave you our address — you talk it over with your parents–"
Zhen couldn't keep her hand from spasming against the feral. She wanted Mamma June and Poppy back so bad.
The Alpiner definitely noticed her traitorous hand "–check the rumor mills about us, yeah? When you’re sure we ain’t dangerous to kids, you drop by, take apart ferals we catch, talk us through selling the parts on the black market, and you get a fourth, plus all the snacks you can coax our POS faber into printing for you. Okay?”
Zhen’s stomach growled; the Ruster smirked a little and held out a cred stick. Zhen snatched the stick and slowly handed the robot, dangling from her hand by a leg.
“Three Monkeys’ now?” Zhen mumbled.
“Yeah, sure, kid.”
I'm running a game for Technical Difficulties next Saturday and three games at GenCon in mid-August. So this seems as good a time as any to talk about what I do to prepare to GM a game.
There's only a few systems I'm comfortable enough with to GM, but I don't regularly GM. So I don't have all the rules memorized at any one time and like to review some areas I know I'm weak in before GMing. Right now, I'm comfortable with A Dirty World (next Saturday), first edition Eclipse Phase (GenCon), and Red Markets (intermittently). I have the basic mechanics and expected genre/setting/mood of all three down (which is more or less my baseline for saying I'm comfortable with a system) but before a game, I like to review:
- the combat system in A Dirty World, both physical and social;
- hacking in Eclipse Phase;
- negotiations in Red Markets.
I think with time I'll move on to a more complex part of A Dirty World than combat. Not that there's a lot more to the system — I like A Dirty World, but it designed to do one thing (noir) and one thing only. So, not the most complex of systems. Hacking in Eclipse Phase and Negotiations in Red Markets are probably going to be the go-to review sections for a while though. Hacking because it's both complex and not used frequently in games I run. Negotiations because it's just different than other systems I know and the most complex part of Red Markets, period.
In addition to reviewing the system is the prep I do for the adventure. I typically run pre-written one-shots, so I'll have to write a new post exploring how this changes if/when I run a campaign (I have an idea...) But any rate, for one-shots, I like to review the pre-generated characters, read the adventure thoroughly, let it sit for an hour or a day, and then read it over again, thinking about how my players are going to something completely bonkers.
And then the day of, I'll have the rules books to hand, ready to go aaaaaaand everything flies out of my head. So I improvise the whole thing anyway.
But the prep work means the improvising happens faster (no 5 minutes of dead air and players twiddling their thumbs) and more coherent, because I know (theoretically) where I'd like everyone to go.
Not that they go there. Player Characters == Cats. First rule of tabletop rpgs, that is.
“211, may I get your name and location please?” Darcy asked, fingers poised over her keyboard. She nodded at Alexi walking towards her with a file folder. Downside to her documented hyper-multitasking, her boss felt no compunction against talking with her during a call.
“Daveed Wilkinson,” a calm, baritone informed her. “Union Station Hotel, 1820 Market Street,—”
Alexi was at her desk now, leaning over to display the contents of the folder in his hands. It was a court summons.
“—St. Louis Missouri, room 312. I need a rapid healer who can handle—”
The summons was for a Montana court, in three weeks, about the psychic gay conversion camp. Darcy grimaced and added it to her mental calendar. She stopped typing with her right hand to grab a pen.
“—steel-strength skin. I've got a teenage suicide attempt in the bathtub in the back of the room."
Darcy had an ambulance already enroute and her left hand flashed across the keyboard to add a local police car to the call.
"Female, sixteen, no known history of suicide attempts or family history of mental illness.”
The local EMTs happened to have a healer on staff (and on shift) that fit the bill, but they were probably going to need the backup to talk the kid into the legally obligated psychiatric hold they had to place her under. Assuming she was conscious.
“And what is your relationship to the victim, Mr. Wilkinson?” Darcy asked, signing the travel request forms Alexi slid over her desk to her.
“Bodyguard and chaperone.”
Darcy hesitated, then added a request for a second car to the call, one with a team experienced in de-escalation or handling celebrities. She didn't know who was in St. Louis this week, but average folks were not under the care of a bodyguard. Especially not when they had steel-strength skin invulnerability.
“Alright Mr. Wilkinson, is there water in the bathtub?” Alexi slid another document over to her. Darcy caught the title and gave Alexi a wounded look. Alexi returned a no-nonsense, 'don't mess with me on this' look.
“No, and I have her hands up over her head. I'm a former EMT by the way, unpowered.”
Darcy sighed at Alexi and signed the request for police protection in Montana. The case was attracting a lot of national attention and anti-Powered whack jobs. Who were slightly confused if they were protesting against psychic manipulation or for religious freedom to run gay conversion “therapy.”
“Gotcha. EMT and police are enroute, about three minutes out.”
So there is a writing tag going around Tumblr asking about current projects writers/writeblrs are working on. I’m definitely using this as an excuse to sit back and organize myself (also hope for feedback, also brag a little) by having to explain to other folks.
I’m breaking this down into 3 sections: blog/short story writing, original novella/novels, and RPGs/editing. Possibly not what most folks think of when they think of ‘writing’ here, but it’s what I’ve got going on.
I’ve got shorts for this blog queued and ready to go for every Monday between now and Aug 14th, two in a fictional superhero universe following Darcy emergency services operator extraordinaire, one Eclipse Phase fan fiction piece (I’m feeling clever about a title I wrote for once), one in my ongoing Red Markets fan fiction Pixie & Sarge universe, and one sequel to what was originally a stand alone near-future science fiction piece.
Going forward, I’m planning to write:
- Darcy: parent calling in, freaking out about their child manifesting Powers for the first time. I need to figure out the Power before I’m ready to sit down and write it out. Anyone got something a religious family would freak out about that isn’t growing horns?
- Pixie & Sarge: I’ve got 8 pieces of art in the Tumblr drafts section to stare at for inspiration. Just have to pick one and write a first sentence. It’s either going to be the image of an abandoned house with a supermoon behind it or the image of abandoned train tracks, because those have been sitting in the drafts section the longest and I either need to use ‘em or delete ‘em.
- Eclipse Phase: I’ve started working on a continuation of T00:00:03.038 based off of this art
The goal is to push the queue through the middle of September to keep the blog updating on time while I travel. So much travel in Aug. and early Sept.
Dangers of Fraternization
The blurb: Berlin, February, 1946. Frau Kruger and her months old infant have been slaughtered in the Soviet sector. Frau Haupsfelt and her eight-year-old daughter have been found murdered in a crater in the American sector, and Frau Meinhof’s child has been stolen from her home in the American sector. Commissar Chesnikov of the Soviet NKVD and Sergeant Durrant, a U.S. MP, are tasked with finding the killer and ordered to focus on a cabaret club serving as a hot spot for the resurgent German underworld. In danger of losing her livelihood, Isolde, the club’s owner, is now as eager to find the murderer as the Occupiers. Can these allied-in-name investigators find justice or will Russian suspicion, American cavalier attitudes, and post-war opportunism see it implode?
The fourth draft is done (this is the bragging btw). Partner is reading it over as a last search for typos. Then I need to re-read up on how to build an ebook and talk about a release date/schedule and marketing with the RPPR folks.
Izzy is a character in the Eclipse Phase universe I want to send on a road trip / heist story across the TITAN infected wasteland of the post-Fall United States and into the bowels of DC. I’ve got the character sheet, ideas on the supporting cast, what they’re stealing, the complication, and the intended resolution in my head. I just need to make a map of their route, in order to function as my novel outline and then get started.
This... well it was an 8K short story cross between the archive of our own marked soulmates meme and a Victorian era comedy of manners, following one lady from birth to death dealing with having two soulmates in an era when the whole marked soulmates is emerging in Society. But then my favorite beta reader and my Partner said ‘this should be novel.’ So... now it’s an 8K outline.
Pria, Eric, Lucas
I uh, had some ideas off of listening to the Drunk and the Ugly’s Monsterhearts campaign and playing in Technical Difficulties’ Monsterhearts campaign. Because it’s me, it’s dark, really dark — human sacrifice to power turning people into werewolves as a motivating factor dark. And involves a triad. ::shrugs:: I like triads. Because it’s Monsterhearts, it’s going to involve the first smut I’ve ever written, if I ever get this project in gear. (I really need to outline more/better...) Because it’s me, we’re talking early college, not high school, aged characters, thank you very much. Yay first time living away from parental figures.
I'm finding that my working titles for novel(lla(s)) are the main characters’ names. It’s a thing.
The Night Clerk
The next RPPR episode I will be novelizing is The Night Clerk. It’s a architecture based horror adventure, so I’ll need to focus on description and psychology to really bring that across. I’ve got the transcript of the episode done, so the next step is the outline.
I recently signed a contract to edit a role-playing game called Superhero 2044 before it goes to Kickstarter. A friend working as a writer on the project recommended me to the project manager because of the work I did on Red Markets, so yay networking! I’m looking forward to a lot of superheroes’ backstories.
“211, may I get your name and location please?” Darcy asked, fingers poised over her keyboard.
There were children's angry shouts in the background. “Oh Darcy, thank Hera. Listen, it's Jane over at the Campbell Academy in Nebraska,” Jane blurt. An explosion sounded in the background, and Darcy heard Jane taking cover behind something. “We need a rapid-healer and a Powered riot squad.”
“Estimates on children injured?”
“No!” Something extremely heavy smacked into one of the Academy's metal walls. “Captain Firefly came to pick up Eliza for break, Tyrone started yelling at him that he was an abusive bastard, the Captain screamed something about lies at Eliza, backhanded her across the face, and the kids piled on! It started with just the seniors, but everyone who hadn't left for break has piled on at this point. We need the riot squad before they kill him!”
“What happened to school security?” Darcy asked, pulling up the Western States center and sending out a rapid-teleporter call across the country.
“They’re busy pulling kids out of the line of Firefly’s powers. Literal fucking line of fire!”
Darcy resent the call to the Canadian Western Provinces system. “Rapid-teleporter squad enroute. They'll be followed shortly by a team for Firefly.”
Machi Koro is a visually cute city building game. Partner and I only play with The Harbor expansion added in, so keep in mind those will be the mechanics I'm describing. I wouldn't call Machi a set matching or deck building game, although aspects of some mechanics remind me of those game types. The way the game works is there are four types of building cards which give you money if you roll the number to activate it: green (gives you money on your turn only), blue (money on anyone's turn), red (take money from other people on not-your-turn), and purple (unique cards). You start rolling one die and with two cards covering numbers 1, 2, and 3. You have a market of other buildings you can purchase and a set number of achievement buildings to build. The market is created by drawing from a shuffled deck of all the buildings until there are ten unique buildings in the market. If you draw a duplicate, stack it on top of the first one and keep drawing. The winner of the game is the person who builds all their achievement buildings first.
I like what the expansion did to building the market of buildings to purchase. In the main game, you had a set block of buildings available which covered the numerical range. You could fairly easily build a city that statistically speaking ought to net you money every or every other turn. With the expansion, the market becomes luck of the draw and there's a lot more variance from game to game. For instance, the last game we played there were no four or seven buildings (in case you're wondering how you get seven on one die, one of the achievement buildings allows you to roll one or two dice). It can be frustrating if you're on the wrong end of grabbing rare buildings you need to fill in numbers gaps. But boy is it pretty if you can pull off having three buildings active on one die roll, snagging you 33 money (in a game where decent haul for one roll is 3-8).
So, Machi Koro and The Harbor expansion. I heartily recommend them. It's an easy game to pick up and learn and enough depth for repeat play. Also, and this isn't something I see very often, it plays well with 2 or 5 players as it does with 3-4. Most games tend to break down at the ends of the range of players they support. Machi is still fun at the ends.
Set in the same universe as Drake
The chanting reached a crescendo, echoing against the limestone cavern, as we burst in. These guys had gone old school in their fashion choices, as well as location — robes and hoods on all five members at strategic points around chalked sigil (not a pentagram, thank you). Chanting in Latin, bowl of blood in the leader's hands, probably from the goat carcass at his feet. Eight more folks in robes created an outer circle. Like I said, very old-school. Unfortunately, as I could taste in the air, they were also effective.
Jones and Rodriguez on either side of me raised their guns, ready to shoot the leader. I quickly motioned ‘no’ at them. “Shoot now, we're going to have backlash rebounding and magnifying in here. Probably bring the whole cave complex down around our ears. Safer to let them finish.”
Rodriguez shot me a betrayed look. Drake, at my back, shifted forward, eyes snapping over from watching the chanters to keeping an eye on Rodriguez and his gun.
“They aren't summoning what they think they are, I swear,” I murmured, hoping I was right about what they were.
Jones shrugged and turned back to start directing the local cops. Everyone robed was much too focused on the chant to react to FBI agents and local laws enforcement taking positions behind them. Once the chant was done, there was going to be some rude awakenings.
I walked over towards the leader and waited about 5 feet to the left and behind. I recognized the voice; Barnes never was all that good at enunciation. Or research. The magic levels in the cavern finally popped, something like your eardrums once the airplane reaches cruising altitude.
He spun around, blood sloshing over the side of the bowl, as the last syllable hung in the air. “You’re too late Amanda! Now you shall see exactly what I am capable of!” Oh great, monologuing. Bastard can't even get my name right either. It’s Jessica to assholes like him, Jessie to my friends. And Drake. “I have done what those fools swore I never could and summoned a great beast! Devourer her, minion!”
I raised an eyebrow and waited. A tiny wail rang out, the rocks around us reverberating. A dull ache took hold of my bones as I felt them vibrate in sympathy. Looked like the rest of my team weren’t feeling that, thank Ishtar. Barnes spun back around, bowl clattering to the ground. He was starting at the circle, a look of utter devastation on his face as I handcuffed him and handed him off to Jones.
“Don't walk him out yet, I may need him in a minute.”
“What for?” Jones asked, also staring at the huddled form in the middle of the chalked sigil. It was a rusty red color, darkening to a ruddy black at the hooves. I saw the tip of its tail peeking out from under its butt, most of that ropy muscle getting pinched between the limestone floor and whatever Barnes had summoned’s ass. The hands were a pale orange and balled in tiny fists. The head was overlarge compared to the neck and couldn't yet be lifted. Little nubs on the forehead showed where horns would one day grow in. The face relaxed, eyes unclenched, and coal-black pits for eyes opened. They got one look at me and promptly opened their mouth of pointedly sharp teeth and wailed again.
All in all, an example of a health demonic baby.
“Well, Mom, Dad, or Other are probably going to want to know that we caught the kidnapper,” I said, wincing as the little guy (or gal) started working their way up the audible range. “So just stay outside the circle and keep Barnes—”
My jaw dropped as the demon’s wail cut off. Rodriguez had stepped into the circle and scooped them up. Their head was resting on Rodriguez's shoulder and the strap to his holster was stuffed in their mouth.
“Gods damn it Rodriguez,” Jones muttered to my side as he jerked Barnes away from the circle.
“Don't… You can't leave that circle until I finish.”
Rodriguez bounced the demon against his shoulder a bit. It cooed. “All right.”
“No matter what else is in there.”
Rodriguez looked me dead in the eyes. “I got it.”
If he didn't, this was going to be hell to document such that his wife would get his pension. Shit. I swear I’ve gone over this with all of the team before. Multiple times. Gods damn it.
“Hey Barnes. You should watch this.” I took the bag of salt Drake offered me, stepped up to the edge of the circle, planted my toes at the edge, and tossed a pinch of salt on the ground. Sending my magic into the ground, I spoke a single word in a language not intended to be spoken with human vocal cords or jaws and waited.
Black smoke curled up from the edges of the circle Barnes had used. It swirled inwards, surrounding Rodriguez. He moved to the side as the smoke condensed. Then it imploded and out stepped… well, take a human, scale them up to ten or eleven feet, turn their skin bright red, make their feet cloven hooves, and add jet black ram’s horns, curling three times over themselves. They caught scent of Rodriguez and let out a bellowing scream that shook the cavern. Rodriguez took half a step back involuntarily.
“Hey Uzzoth,” Drake said quietly.
The head swung toward Drake and their nostrils flared like they were trying to sniff out Drake's location.
“Hey Uzzoth, it's Jessie, I'm here too.”
Uzzoth’s eyes dilated out and back down to slits. Their tongue darted out like a snake's as their nostrils flared again. “This circle is extremely sloppy,” they whined. Barnes made an indignant noise behind me and got an elbow to the ribs from Jones for his trouble. “I can barely send this projection and I do not have time. Someone has stolen my child.”
“Thank you for answering my call anyway. We found them. We'd like to get your child home. With you.”
Uzzoth sniff the air again. “Why then are they not in the circle? I could have been gone already. What favor are you hold my child hostage for?”
Shit, shit, shit. If he survived this, I was going to kill Rodriguez.
“Your child is in the circle Uzzoth. Two feet towards me and then three-quarters of a foot to your right.”
“I only smell a human there,” Uzzoth growled, staring straight at Rodriguez. “What idiot is in the circle with my child?”
“He was crying!” Rodriguez burst out. “You just wanted me to leave a kid screaming on the hard ground?”
“You picked them up?!” Uzzoth roared, teeth bared. “You showed compassion?! You stealer of—”
“Uzzoth, quit wasting time and tell me how to send your child home before I can't.”
They refocused on me again, then reached out the outline of their arm and rested a hand against the barrier of the circle. The circle sparked, then glowed where they touched. I reached up and splayed my hand against the barrier opposite their hand.
I was starting up at the ceiling of the cave, head in Drake's lap, arms splayed like I'd been crucified. The stone under my ass was leeching warmth out of me. A mahogany thread sat heavy in my mind.
I moved to sit up and collapsed back into Drake's lap. Tilting my head up, I got an upside down view of a worried boyfriend. “Sit me up, please.”
Drake looked like he wanted to hold me there for as long as possible, but he levered me up to sitting position and helped me lean forward to touch the circle. I pushed the thread through the murder hole (so to speak) in the circle, tossed a loop over the child, passed the thread into Uzzoth’s smoke form, and ground it down into the stone.
“Rodriguez, put the kid down and step out. Now.”
He looked mutinous again. “Now, probie,” Jones snapped. Rodriguez complied. As soon as he was clear, I shot as much magic as I could stand through the circle and thread. Uzzoth’s form collapsed and when the smoke dissipated, the child was gone as well.
“Well,” said Jones brightly, shoving Barnes forward towards the entrance. “That went better than the last time someone was stupid enough to ignore the expert.”
Rodriguez was helping Drake get me back on my feet and drape my arms over their shoulders to walk me out.
Drake shot Jones a look as he frog marched Barnes out of the cave. “Don't think I've heard this story, Jones. What happened?”
“Oh, I spent a subjective month enjoying Ballel’s hospitality before Jessie pulled me back.”
“Could have been worse.” I was slurring my words pretty badly. “Rodriguez here almost had to explain to his wife why their new kid had horns!”
Several friends and I got together to create a living campaign setting in Red Markets (10K Lakes [set in Minnesota]), in order to put together a sprawling drop-in, drop-out campaign with rotating GMs. Yesterday, June 28th, the episode on enclave generation in that setting went live over on the podcast I'm part of, Technical Difficulties. We managed to rope in folks from Role Playing Exchange and [insert quest here], so this 'campaign' is going to go live on a lot of different websites...
Any rate, the reason I'm talking about it, besides marketing (which, yes, also doing that), is that I would like to talk about collaborative world building. Don't get me wrong, I think tabletop rpgs already are collaborative world building between the players and the GM over the course of a campaign. But, typically, the GM comes into the campaign with a general sense of the setting in mind. For the 10K Lakes setting however, we needed to build the entire area our characters would reasonably interact with. The system setting material gave us recent history and the general political state of the United States, but we needed to build all of Minnesota, more or less. What exists at all and the interactions between places. I like how it all turned out, so I'm leaving here my advice for others looking to build a campaign setting as an exercise in collaboration.
The first thing, is that everyone involved needs to agree on a general tone. Grimdark and whackety-shmackety-do are not going to co-exist very well and will end of pissing off both sides.
Second, outline a general sense of what you're looking to build. Is it the group's job to build out a single city down to the street names and a map? To only fill in the politics of the area at a generalized, nation-state level with maybe some discussion of geography and topography thrown in? I'm only listing the extremes here, but try to find a happy medium that gives your GM(s) enough to work with and keeps your players' interest during the collaboration phase.
Third, scheduling. Yes, the dreaded owlbear of tabletop rpgs. In this instance though, I have perhaps unusual advice: Let it go. Find the time that the players who are really excited for world building can show up. Let the rest know that they're very welcome, but if they can't come, you're going to go ahead and run the world building because it needs to get done and their ability to play isn't dependent on contributing to world building. OR have folks who can be there bring notes and suggestions from folks who can't. It's world building, you're creating the conditions for plot to happen, not trying to move plot forward.
Fourth, and final, document. Appoint someone the note take for the session and document the awesome stuff y'all come up with. It allows folks who couldn't be there to catch up, makes passing the GM baton between sessions easier, and you don't want to lose all your work, now do you?
Old computer programmer complaint, there, sorry. But really, document your work and comment your code.
And most importantly, have fun.
“211, may I get your name and location please?” Darcy asked, fingers poised over her keyboard. It was nearing the end of her shift and she dearly hoped this one would be straightforward.
“My name is Kylie Jones and I did not consent to this!” the teen girl on the other end of the line stated. “I don't know where we are—” Darcy waved for Sara, John’s alternative, to come over “—it's some big ranch in the middle of fucking nowhere.”
Sara’s hand on her shoulder felt cool, as was her mind slipping down the connection Darcy had made by talking to Kylie.
“These two guys came into my house in Pocatello and my shitty parents told them to take me! We're all forced into this room with this creepy ass motherfucker—” Darcy had a couple of the standing kidnap specialist teams on the line, waiting to see if Sara found them closer to the Midwest or West center. “—everyday while he starts smelling funny and talking to us about how we’re all going to hell if we don't get right with the Lord and love the right gender. I'm fucking straight! Not that my parents believe me. Assholes.”
Darcy pulled three more teams into the chat mix and sent a flash of hurry-up down the line to Sara. She was a good kid, just didn't have John’s decade on the job.
“We're working on your location, Kylie, just hang in there. Are you somewhere safe? Are you allowed on the phone?”
“No, I snuck out of my room during dinner. I don't get any today for quote mouthing off unquote.”
A brief flash of communication between Sara and Darcy, then “Okay, Kylie, listen, our telepath can build a connection so you and I can keep talking if you'll let her—”
“Sure, fine do it.”
::I'm here. This is weird.::
Darcy was sure it was. The first time in mental space, the disconnect between how fast you could talk and how slow movement in physical space was always disconcerting.
::I want you to hang up the phone and sneak back into your room now, okay? Sara and I are pinpointing your location, and then we're going to send some help. Can you tell me how many kids are there?::
::Nine right now; Jason ran away yesterday and most of security is off looking for him. It's how I could sneak into the office.::
Sara final had them, somewhere is the middle of Montana. Not on a reservation, thank gods, no one needed to piss off one of the tribal councils by invading their territory. Darcy wasn’t sure what would have been worse, this place set up on a reservation with or without the tribe's permission.
::Good, okay, how about that security, how many are usually at the ranch and how about tonight?::
::I'm not sure, they rotate I think. There's parts of the ranch we’re not allowed to go to, they could be there. But usually there's like three or four just security guys in the house and they're not here. It’s just the creepy guy and his creepy wife and two women who make the food.::
::Any of them powered?::
::Just creepy dude with his weird smell I think.::
Darcy flinched at the small gasp Kylie made was an ear-splitting scream over their connection.
::Sorry, startled; just walked into these guys teleporting in front of me.::
Darcy pumped a little more power down the line and managed to hang onto it as Kylie suddenly changed locations.
::Kylie, where are you now?::
::There's a SWAT van and an ambulance in front of me. The lady who grabbed me just disappeared again.::
::Okay, good, you're at a command center for this. I want you to go to the ambulance, okay? Tell them you want an Epstein-Savi test and then I’m going to have to get off the line. You're safe now, these folks can help you.::
::What's an Epstein-Savi?::
::It's a test for activated and latent mental Powers. I think it's why you noticed the smell.::
::Oh… That's kinda cool. Am I gonna have to go back to my parents’? ‘Cause I'll run away before I let them do that to me again.::
::Tell the EMTs that and they'll have to talk to Child Protective Services.::
::Okay. If I pass this Epstein-Savi thing, can I work at a call center like you?::
::You can work here with or without Powers love. We'd be happy to have someone as level-headed as you. Good luck kid.::
Darcy cut the connection with a smile. The Epstein-Savi was definitely going to come up positive — kid had picked up her name without Darcy ever mentioning it.
The man at the tent flap handed his customer another tissue. The customer blindly accepted, angrily wiped at red-rimmed eyes, then blew his nose.
The man placed both hands on his customer's shoulders, looked him straight in the eyes, and murmured, “Be around family or friends tonight, alright?"
The customer shakily nodded and plunged out of the tent, back into the joyful noise of the revival. The man closed the tent flap, cutting off the noise more than the cloth barrier should.
"Did you enjoy shattering his faith?" the wisp of a demon asked from the corner of the tent.
The angel in the shape of a man sighed. "That wasn't faith."
A hissing laugh filled the angel’s mind. “Oh?”
“That was the infinite expanse compressed and cut down to the shape he needed to justify his biases and life. Cramped and made as small as himself. Faith… Faith is belief in spite of, and in addition, to evidence. That… that was not faith, or I could not have shattered with such a simple demonstration of historical fact.”
“Is this what God's Messengers do these days, weed the poor of faith from the flock?” the demon asked sardonically. “When did you usurp our roles?”
The angel snorted. “I weed so that my sisters may lead them to a bountiful harvest. You know where we have found the most enduring faith these days? The humanists and the secularists.”
“Faith? Not in God surely.”
“No, in their fellow man usually. Wouldn't it be nice if mankind rebuilt their faith in something?”
It was the demon's turn to sigh. “I would like to interact with them again.”
“211, may I get your name and location please?” Darcy asked, fingers poised over her keyboard.
“Please…” the voice on the other end of the line was a strained whisper, too low for Darcy to tell male or female. “Please, I can't fight it off much longer.”
“What are you fighting love?” Darcy put as much calm and ‘grandmother’ as she could in her voice. A flicker out of the corner of her eye drew her attention for a second. That was weird, she thought she'd seen Jane’s phone drain of color.
“It's in my head…”
“Where are you?” Darcy's throat was suddenly very dry and she felt clammy. “We can send help…”
The clammy feeling turned to chills and it was suddenly hard to focus beyond the screen in front of her. Anything to the sides fell away and the back of her head began to tingle. The cold went up her spine and everything looked gray. Like a fog between her and the computer. She was going to lose this one, she should move on to the next one, one she could save…
“John!” The scream ripped its way up her throat, pulling everyone's attention to her. The moment of stillness was broken by John careening over and laying both hands on her shoulders. His weight dropped into her mind, the cold slammed together into a ball in the middle of her mind, and then John was bouncing down the line to their caller.
Darcy threw up elastic walls around the cold-ball warping everything in her around it like a black hole. Two ‘layers’ of netting over the top and bottom clamped onto the wall edges just in time for the ball to get caught and tossed back to the other side. Darcy put some oomph in the nets so the ball kept careening between them. She considered a moment, then added some spin to slam it against the walls in between bounces. That should keep the bastard distracted and off kilter.
Darcy turned her attention to the connections outside herself. The one John had followed down the line was a wispy black smoke compared to the stuttering ribbon of blue it was strangling. Darcy grabbed John’s line (braided hemp core rope, soft from seamlessly working together so long) and added an anchor back to herself while throwing up a line between herself and John’s body. The smoke was grabbed next, lifted up and away from the ribbon, and, with the empty handed gestures of a practitioner no longer in need of a focus image, sliced apart the smoke. It curled back and away from the ribbon with a keening wail as Darcy turned back to the ball still being thrown about her elastic prison.
Invade her mind would they? Darcy mentally cracked her knuckles and stalked over. This part of them was about to be shown why that was a bad idea very thoroughly.
The walls she constructed around the ball started replaying the worst call she'd ever worked through, in full sensory playback.
I have not played or GM'ed this one yet; this review is entirely based on reading the rules and listening to RPPR's actual play (Bouncy Castle Inverness!)
The Play's The Thing is a game about actors playing characters to put on a stage play. So you, the player, are an actor who is, in turn, a character within a play. You the player are in-character as your actor who can yell 'cut!' to try and talk the GM-who-is-the-play-director into allowing an edit to the play as y'all rehearse. Actors have types, plays have places, and characters have parts, plots, and props. Got it? Good, 'cause I need another read through of the rules or three.
One of the things I really appreciate the author doing is the nine Shakespeare plays they broke down into a cast list and five act structure that fits the rules set-up. One, that's like including nine one-shot adventures just ready to go for new GMs. Two, it's a great illustration of how to do it for any other play. While the central expectation of the system is that you're going to use Shakespeare's plays, I honestly don't see why you couldn't use a play from someone else. It's a nice flexibility to the system that I appreciate.
From the rules, this system also appears to have hit a sweet spot a lot of indie narrativist games have a hard time finding, the balance between doing a type of RPG play really well and long-term play. The system deals with the problem of character progression leading to over powered character really fast (*cough*Monster Hearts*cough*) by making progression non-linear. You don't get better at bending the story in your direction, you change up your approach and goals by shifting between actor types. It's character development instead of skill development in a way that allows the player to write a narrative for the actor over several sessions who writes narratives for their part in each session.
Admittedly, I'm not sure how many non-theater nerds are going to want to play a campaign, but I think the structure in the rules is there for it.
I'm looking forward to trying this out with my gaming group. I'm thinking of trying to adapt The Maltese Falcon to the system as a play and seeing how badly the plot gets butchered :D
The books rustle to each other in the dark. It's usually dark here in the Black Library, so they talk to each other often, exchanging gossip about the infrequent patrons who find their way through the cracks to run their hands in reverence over the spines (‘ticklish,’ complain the older books, the ones with cracking leather and loosening glue who will soon be soothed by the Wandering Preserver), sleepily talking about the wondrous new tidbits learned and preserved in their pages, or listening to stories, both old favorites and new tastes, from the fiction aisle.
There aren't many books of fiction here in the Black Library. The Acquisitor has been seen wandering the halls on occasion muttering angrily about the pace of publication and “They can't very well keep up with all these new mediums without more help now can they?!” The newest books tend to withdraw in themselves the first time they see this performance, quietly guilty at how much energy it must have taken to be found and brought home. Could they have spoken better, sent out their calls for attention, for notice, better, somehow? The oldest books, the ones rebound and rebound around letters of languages long dead, creakily whisper, in tongues accented by five, six, ten languages learned successively, that they had heard the same complaints when they first arrived. Everyone is pleased anyway when three new figures trail after the Acquisitor the next time they walk by.
The Referrer sees more patrons than any individual book ever sees, although this is not difficult, many a book sitting on a shelf is comforted only by their fellows’ description of these mythical beings. They don't get many patrons here in the Black Library, but the Referrer greets each one with glee for the challenge they will pose, the satisfaction evident in everyone's mien when they, the Referrer and the Patron, emerge from the Library's depths, quest complete.
The new books have vague memories of … something before their arrival. It's a warm feeling, calming even, of something communing with them, not like their whisperings in the gloom with the other books, different somehow. The memories fade in time, although books never seen by patrons tend to eagerly listen to these new stories, trying to hold onto their memories of the same. The ones lucky enough to sojourn out again closer to their arrival describe it as like, and yet not, being with a patron. A more purposeful mind somehow, yet not delving as deeply into their knowledge as a patron, copying something of themselves and sending it off. The reference collection, sitting as close as they do to the referrer, have found, touched even, those copies and have a name for the vague and unseen hands — the Metaknowledge.
Rarely, very rarely, the ground picks up a fine tremble, one that builds and builds, crawling up the shelves until all the books are awake, shivering in themselves until The Librarian stalks past, anger leaking from them in sharp, angry crackles, and disappears in the infinite gloom. The oldest books comfort the newer ones while the rest wait with still breath for The Librarian to come walking slowly back their way, gently cradling one of their numbers everyone suddenly realizes they haven't heard from in much too long. The Librarian will find the Wandering Preserver, their numbers will shortly be restored by one, and somewhere out there someone will have learned that The Librarian looks after their own.
And the books rustle to each other in the dark.