Faith

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.”

All in the Mind


“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.

Game Review: The Play's The Thing

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 Black Library

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.

Sewage Pipe

I sighed as the pipes whined; they were gurgling like there was a solid mass making its way down. There was the usual horrid smell of human waste and effluent, but also a sharper, acrid smell. I breathed deep; you get used to the usual smells, working in a sewage plant, and the differences can get you a few minutes of warning, if you're paying attention.

Sort of a burnt ozone acrid, with a hint of burnt coffee on the back end, maybe.

“Hey Frank,” I shouted across the enormous floor, over the treatment tanks and the churning noise of their stirrers. “Wasn't there a conference up at the center the other day?”

Frank paused on the catwalk outside his office and looked ceiling-ward. After a minute he shouted back. “Two! Education policy on the third floor and military government contracts on the first.”

“Aw shit,” I muttered, turning back to the in-pipe. Those assholes rename shit every year practically.

The mass dropped out of the pipe into the open, first-stage tank with a ‘glorp.’

Acronyms.

A concentrated mass of acronyms, legs of Rs and As tangled in rats nests of loops and circles from Os and Ds to detangle, sanitize, and break down into alpha-numerics for reuse.

Bloody non-science specialists. The DOD bastards are the worst.

Ghost Rescuing

I rubbed at my eyes and took another swig of coffee. It'd been a long day at the office, with three reports due by close of business wedged between two departmental meetings and a local team happy hour afterwards. Plus, this particular online auction, for a pair of reading glasses (rumored to be cursed of course), was out of Saigon, completely opposite my sleep schedule. But the faux Celtic bracelet wrapped around my left wrist and the actually genuine 14th century Hopi necklace both hummed quietly against my skin in contentment. We'd found another target.

Half an hour later, with money and address exchanged with the seller, I entered the expected delivery dates on my calendar. It was late and I was tired, but I still had an exorcism on the to-do list for today. Some periods were slow, with four or six months between finds. Certainly lets my bank account recover, not to mention me reacquaint myself with sleep. This was not one of those periods and hasn't been for eight months. Luckily this particular find had gone for cheap; the seller hadn't set a minimum price, the initial bid had been low, and it hadn't generated much interest.

The tonight’s exorcism was a first for me actually, an iPhone. I shouldn't be surprised, there's more humans now that an at any point in history. Through sheer numbers, we're going to leave more behind than ever before. It's not like I'm the only one, doing what I do, either in history or right now for that matter. And, eventually, ghosts fade, no matter how strong a personality they'd had in life. I'd never run across someone from earlier than 1720 for instance and that'd been weird. The earliest anyone in the network of folks Sharana, our forum moderator, had wrangled into actually believing we weren't crazy had ever released died in 1682.

The necklace might be authentic 14th century, but the ghost calling it home died in 1937. Some rich white lady who'd enjoyed collecting Hopi artifacts. At least she'd given them back in her will, along with enough money for preservation or a museum, to the tribe. My last job before retirement is going to be to release her and tie myself to the necklace for my successor's apprentice.

The bracelet had made it very clear she was not done yet and would be staying right where she was, thank you.

I wiggled my mind though the spaces between electronics in the iPhone I’d bought two months ago. There wasn't much space in here but I could feel him, somewhere down inside. The phone had been his most constant companion item in life, and he was still clinging to it in death, even after the data and apps had been wiped free of all trace of him. I shudder to think what would have happened to him if the phone had gone to a recycler or something before I or one of my friends got to him.

The number of items destroyed while still inhabited by a ghost over the ages didn't bear thinking about.

Forty-five minutes later, I had the spirit out and headed on to whatever comes next. Thirty minutes after that, I had my notes typed up and posted to the forums. Hopefully whoever has the second exorcism of a phone will have an easier time of it. I was collapsing in bed now. Work tomorrow was going to be difficult. I'd concentrate on something repetitive, like data entry.

That's me, office drone by day, ghost rescuer by night.

Old God, Same Portfolio

People tend to forget there's two sides to fertility. They all remember the being fruitful part. But so few remember I was a woman’s god. Or they chose to believe that every woman wanted as many children as possible.

How many remember the stained smiles of new brides, slightly behind but always watching their new husbands, flinching at the slightest movement towards them as their husband demanded my blessings on his third wife, certain this time to possess the heir he wants? How many remember the silent women coming under the cover of darkness through the back alleys, begging for me to rescind my blessings, please the one at their breast would die if their milk dried up as the one in their belly grew, please they’d had so many they couldn’t bear another, please they couldn't watch another die, their husbands could barely feed them, please…

Did anyone ever bother to see in the first place?

You all tend to forget how closely I was tied to the fertility of the land too.

Humans don't need my help bring fruitful anymore. Why are you so surprised to find me here? If you’ve tracked me down, you’d know it was here, the other Planned Parenthood clinic across town, or the Sierra Club.

Even Gods Have Pets

 “Here boy!” I call across the empty space. The light this far out on the edges is dim, a soft twilight lit by distant stars. Glorn has a great sense of direction, but still, I like seeing where they are.

Glorn slithers over, heavy muscles sliding through the empty reaches. I saw a snake-analogue swimming through an ocean, two or three planets back — Glorn cuts through space like that snake. Just more smoothly, less wiggling back and forth. They have something in a mouth.

“Drop it, Glorn.” Their back muscles wriggle in a puppy bow; darn boy wants to play fetch. “Drop it.”

A rocky asteroid falls out of their jaws.

“And the other ones.”

Two more asteroids, one icy, another full of silicon, drop from Glorn’s last two scaled jaws. Looks like he found the local gas giant and completely wrecked the orbital mechanics.

I give Glorn a vigorous rub and pat where the first set of front paws turn into scaled muscle, then let him climb up while I scoop up the local asteroids. Glorn twines himself across my shoulders, wrapping scaled muscles over limbs to hang on. I get a few head-butts and check rubs from the furred mouth while I'm reinserting the asteroids they found into the rings around the local gas giant. If I've got the physics right, they won't coalesce into moons for another few million years. Assuming I actually understand the physics and haven't just made it happen through expectation.

Glorn is doing the check rub thing with all their heads as we head out of the star system and I rub a hand over the trail wrapped across my chest. The human I used to be would absolutely have gone insane from the sensations of Glorn against my skin. But, well, they're my ungodly horror from outside time and space now.

I always did like having pets.

Book Review: To Conquer Heaven by Felix Long

Let's get the tl;dr out of the way with some numbers first: 

3 stars out of 5, DO recommend. 

This isn't some Amazon review where anything less than a five means I think this is trash, this is an honest, on a scale of one to five, I rate it a solid three. 

To Conquer Heaven follows Jeremy, Brent, and Saffiyah as they hunt for the tomb of the First Emperor of China. Felix Long's main strength is his descriptions. Landscapes, buildings, interior room, objects — they're all described beautifully with a real sense of being there. I understood the grandeur and artistry of objects before me, and maybe even felt an urge to loot a tomb myself. 

The plot is a solid adventure story, with a deft execution, although I did not feel I had a great handle on the main characters' interior lives. I was not sure how finding a tomb was going to redeem our initial main character, Jeremy, in their father's eyes – by becoming rich? By succeeding at something big or impressive? By making a contribution to archeology? I couldn't tell and wasn't sure if Jeremy really knew either. Brent and Saffiyah's motivations were more apparent: adventure and professional interest, respectively. The midpoint twist was telegraphed, but well done.

My major complaint is that the novel was too long. I feel the story would have been better served by choosing between the travelogue, archeology adventure, and the fantasy magic aspects. As it is, there isn't enough plot and character development to sustain 600+ pages.

But overall, a solid, fun story across China and mythology.

The Octopus Started It

 “It’s not my fault! The octopus started it.”

I stared at Farad, seated across the virtual table from me in the bare bones simulspace we were situated in, then pinched the bridge of my nose in mental stress. The department ‘space designers knew me pretty well — they'd done me the favor of program in the sensation of pressure on the bridge of my nose. Usually helps relieve the mental stress of talking to the fucking idiots I run into in this job.

“The octopus started it,” I repeated back as flatly as I could.

“Yeah!” Farad’s image in this space was closer to a bare blob than a rendered person. I knew from his pictures that he'd been sleeved in a nondescript Ruster morph which been suffering from a shit-ton of allergies and muscle tremors from missing payments to the Corp that’d originally sold him his body. Dark hair, probably North American phenotype, mixed with some southern African and Southeastern Asian, assuming the Corp had grown one based on his original genetics. Bland facial features and a mouth more accustomed to stress and anger than laughter. At least, before he'd gotten his ass asphyxiated and we'd had to dig out his cortical stack to question him.

The designers hadn't bothered programming enough facial features to render emotion, the cheap-ass department having decided our muses could handle the raw data fast enough for interrogations to continue. Nevermind that an off the shelf simulspace from the Argonaut collectives would have been both free and better. Or that it'd have been cheaper to buy from a micro-corp here on Mars than pay for in-house design. Hence the blob I was talking too. And personal quirks added as favors. At least vocal cues worked.

“So you screaming at her to go back to Ceres with the rest of her ‘hodack, fabber-chow criminal buddies’ and leave Mars to the quote ‘real people’ end quote, before taking a swing, with a knife I might add, at her doesn't count as starting it?”

“Hell nah, octo ain't people, ain't no more starting something than kicking a cat! So when she paying for my new body?”

I scrubbed at my face, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “First off Mr. Farad, if that were true, we still have animal cruelty laws and you'd be on the hook for that. Having started it. Secondly, if she isn't a person, she can't have money, so how the hell would she pay for anything? Third of all,” I said, voice rising to cut off his protests, “whatever your prejudices, she is a citizen of the Titanian Commonwealth, here for trade negotiations, and is considered a person by two different polities, the more relevant one to your situation being the Martian Planetary Consortium. You are under arrest for unprovoked assault on a corporate diplomat, have had nothing to say in your defense, we have three witnesses who meet even your definition of ‘person,’ as well as visual and auditory recordings from two different angles. Your trial will be in 56 hours and only because the courts are a little backed up at this time. My recommendation? Hire a lawyer if you can, take whatever deal they can finagle for you, and you might serve your community service on a decent server in time to start working towards a new body before your kid graduates from high school. You know, instead of being out of circulation on a cold server for five years.”

I logged off before he could start whining about the unfairness of it all. Yeah Mars is unfair, it's run by corps. The uplifts have nothing to do with that. Hell, they get screwed over by the Consortium worse than baseline-humans do, much less folks like Farad. Mars is hell on our poor, I'll grant that, but still, at least he hadn't been stuck as infolife after the Fall. And now he'd gone and thrown that away.

Heroes and Villains

I’m not a hero, Ezra. I’m just trying my best to not be a villain. And what you're asking me…

You say they're poison, no sorry, that some of them are poison. We let them on and our biome will be polluted, the bacteria cultures all out of whack from new species. The air ducts choking off with, the greenhouses dying.

You have so little faith in technicians? You think we can't learn and catalog new variations on old strains? Our department can't handle new data in the models?

Or is it that you know how much that'll cost in finding? Is that it? You don't want to absorb the increased costs?

They're fleeing war Ezra. They're gambling their children's lives on finding a station with enough fortitude to let them dock. They've asked for two days Ezra. Two days to recharge their solar panels. You know we have the room, the food, the capacity to take them all in. They won't even be a full percentage of the population. It just takes a little funding, a little work to give them a home Ezra, a little work to save children from bleeding out on some station deck, from starving to death as their ship dies around them, from choking to death as the air runs out. And you're worried about new bacteria stations? About the money to do the science properly to integrate them?

You're asking me if my comfort, my luxuries, matter more than their safety, their lives.

What kind of monster thinks the answer to that question is yes?

Especially when all I had to do to stop you was keep talking?

SWAT Team

 “211, may I get your name and location please?” Darcy asked, fingers poised over her keyboard. The headset she'd grabbed for her shift was too loose again and was rotating backwards, out of her hair. No time to fix it with a call on the line.

“He-hello?” Darcy's heart sank. The voice on the line was a child. “There's a bad man—” The little boy was trying to whisper (smart kid), but his voice kept cracking upwards in fear.

“Sweetie, I need your location or I don't know where to send help,” Darcy coaxed, waving John over from the corner.

“M-my house,” the child whispered over a sudden burst of static. “The bad man's making the TV crackle.”

John stood behind her now and lay his left hand at the base of her neck. “Which city is your house in sweetie?” Darcy asked while trying to simultaneously relax enough for John to sync up his mind, project through the phone, and enter ‘probable electromagnetic powers’ into the computer. John was rotating her headset back in place, the sweet man.

“Springfield.” That came fast and steady, all though Darcy could angry voices in the background, a man shouting and a woman pleading for him to calm down.

“Good, good job, sweetie. In Missouri?” John’s mind linked up, finally, and Darcy could feel him following through her to the connection she'd made with the little boy on the line.

“No, Massachusetts.”

Shit, the East Coast centers were slammed today. A few too many hostages in bank vaults spread across the entire seaboard. Darcy pulled the Kansas City and Boston dispatches into a chat window to inform them they're need to do a hand-off teleport. “And what's your street address love?” She was simultaneously linking John to the psychic keyboard she kept in her memory palace, hooked up to the dispatch chats.

“932 Elk Street.” The boy gulped audibly over the phone. “Please hurry, the bad–Daddy's really angry, the couch is spinning.”

John was dumping all the data on his daddy's powers the little boy was thinking about into the dispatch chat. Boston was setting up the relay from the fixed pad in their offices over to Springfield. Kansas City was sorting their roster into a team with the right mix of skills and powers for a Powered domestic disturbance. Darcy had the local center’s jail on a different line, warning them to prep a suppressor for the range of suspected powers and kept talking to the boy on the line. She got him breathing regularly, even when his mom started screaming, and creeping out the back door. John had disengaged a while ago and was linked up with Amiki in the row behind her, on another call. She was still on the line when a ‘whomp’ of displaced air told her the SWAT Team had arrived and the kind, matronly voice of KC’s best door kicker came on the line to tell her they had the kid. Darcy thanked the team and signed off.

She sighed, grabbed a swig of water, and cracked her neck left, then right. She might not have the flashy powers necessary to swoop in and save the day. But hyper-organization, hyper-multitasking, and voice-projected calming was one of the most useful, if rare, sets of the quiet powers in the dispatch centers. Not that she was going to find out what happened in Springfield unless it went wrong and made the national news. No one had time for follow up. Besides, there was another call coming in.

Breaking Up

How DO you break up with a demon? I'm not talking about that ex you hate so much you think of them as a demon and wonder what the hell you ever saw in them. Nope, literal fire-and-brimstone, incantation to summon from the depths of hell, contract to exchange a portion of yourself for a particular type of power demon.

So yes, technically I'm a witch. No, I never did the dancing naked in the moonlight thing — come on, we live in a city, I’m not giving the pervs on the 20th floor a show. No, the devil orgy thing is a lie too. Dude, what the fuck? Seriously, you taking the European medieval church’s word on this? Aren't you a freaking atheist? And gay? What the hell man.

Well I don't know, the ones I've talked to refuse to answer the question. Closest I've gotten was absolute disgust at the idea and buggering off before I could ask the rest of my questions. Got my sister to stop pushing me to ask though. Yeah, the born-again evangelical one. I don't know, I guess she's not feeling the faith part of it all right now. Look, are you going to help me talk through this or not?

Right, so I've got to break up with this demon. Just the one. Yeah, I'm still talking with the others. What? ‘Cause they're getting pushy and their answers have gone to shit. Like, they're turning into encrypted clues to a freaking metaphor that gets me a reference citation. Yeah, I guess you could call it a customer service issue.

What? No, sorry, my mind just skipped out on me for a second at the thought. Elevate the call? Are you crazy? Do you know who their boss is? … Actually no, I don't know either. Sorry, now I'm making bad assumptions.

Yeah, I guess the slow fade would work. Or, well, I mean, it's a one way calling service, I guess I'm just cutting it off. Bleh. No, no you're right, I just hate getting ghosted in the dating scene and now I'm doing it myself. On the plus side, it'd mean no more buying saffron packets for summoning circles. That shits expensive.

Hey, thank man, really appreciate this. Next round on me, ‘kay?

Before the Birth

 “Ready to be a parent?” Richard asked with a raised eyebrow.

Kylie jerked her hand back from the enter key. “Wait what?” she asked looking back towards her fellow researcher.

Richard had an amused half-smile quirking at the edges of his lips. “Well, if we've done our jobs right, that code’s a baby AI. We start it up and we're going to be spending the next few weeks feeding it training datasets to build up its moral framework before letting it loose on the internet. I mean, do you want to end up with another Trey-bot?”

Kylie half-shuddered. “Obviously not, but parents? Wouldn't the moral framework… thing make us more like godparents?”

“That's traditionally religious studies. Also, that says something about your family. Didn't your parents at least model a framework, through their actions of nothing else? Besides we have been in charge of the coding. To an AI, isn't that their genetics?”

Kylie wrinkled her nose and started at the computer screen a moment. “You're not exactly my first choice for co-parenting duties,” she said turning towards Richard. “Rather thought I was done with all that. How’s your husband feel about the newest addition to the family?”

Richard grinned. “Suggested family therapy actually.”

Kylie laughed. “How about we draft an individual educational plan, before the birth, instead?”

“Sounds good,” Richard said, extending a hand for Kylie to pull herself out of the chair at her desk. “The whiteboards in the conference room should be free.”

“Perfect.” Kylie leaned on her cane and headed for the door. “Round up the graduate students, would you?”

“Meet you there.”

Board Game Review: Potion Explosion

Our purchase of Potion Explosion was actually an exception to Partner and my rules about buying board games. They're expensive and there's only so much space in our place, so the rule is we both have to have played the game (we usually do this at gaming conventions) and both agree that we want to play it again, multiple times.  But, Caleb and Spencer over on the Mixed Six described the game so well and broke down why  they enjoy the game such that Partner and I looked at each other and agreed we'd enjoy the game too. And we were right. So thanks Mixed Six! Y'all found us our current favorite game.

Potion Explosion does set matching with actual marbles. The conceit of the game is that we are alchemy students working on our exam with a common set of possible potions to brew and ingredients to use. A track for the marbles to slide down is set up with five columns. You pull a marble and if the marbles that now clink together match in color, you've created an explosion and get to pull those marbles as well. Yes, it can keep cascading from there. Partner has pulled off some impressive cascading explosions. Potions can be used once after creation to do different things that break the rules once and at the end each potion is worth different amounts based on how many marbles and how many of different colors were needed to create the potion. There's eight types of potions but you only play with six in any given game, so which potions combo with others changes from game to game. It produces a lot of replay value.

Here's a slightly weird thing to talk about in board game design, but I feel it's emblematic of just how much attention to detail the designers put in and how well thought out everything is. So the very first time you play the game, you have to put together the stand the marbles will roll down. The box is built to hold the finished stand. You never have to take it apart and put it back together again. Seriously guys, the game would be a lot less fun if set up included having to rebuild this thing every game. But you don't because the designers were smart.

No if only I was as smart about taking off the front barrier to let the marbles slide into the storage bag. I've, um, had to rebuild the stand once or twice from doing that. I'm getting better with keeping the rest of the stand together and only taking the front barrier off, so I'm pretty sure this was also intentional design.

Overall, any one game of Potion Explosion does not outstay its welcome — individual games are fast enough that I don't get tired of the gimmick of marbles clicking together. There's a decent amount of strategy involved, the sound and physicality of the pieces are satisfying, and there's tremendous replay. I absolutely enjoy playing this game.

Aesthetic Terrorist

It's a talent, I'll admit. Not one I ever wanted and certainly one I've tried my damnedest to eradicate. But no matter how much I study, theory of pleasure, neuropsychology, color theory, music appreciation, art history, everything I've been able to get my hands on, it just seems to get worse.

It might be time to finally accept my friends’ nickname for me as the honest truth.

I am an aesthetic terrorist.

Every artistic endeavor I've tried, from painting to simply sharing the cool new song I heard, everything just goes wrong. They freeze in fear, curl up sobbing from terrible memories brought to the forefront, get migraines from looking at whatever cool thing I found today, ruined entire genres of music for them, or… I mean, one time, my friend Sam developed seizures after watching a video I made for class. I was just practicing some key-frame animation techniques, it's not like there were any flashing lights in there! She'd never had a seizure before. Not until she met me.

So… I have anti-taste apparently. I've tried, actually, only picking things I think folks will hate to show them. That's just worse. Then they think it's mediocre and are kinda bleh for a few hours. I timed it.

There's got to be a way to do something with this though. For good I mean, not torturing folks. I can't go through life never touching art again… Maybe as an art critic? No, that’ll just be getting attention to apparently terrible art.

::sighs:: Guess I'm going through with this revenge plan of Sam’s then. Her ex really was an asshole, emotionally abusive at the end there. Time to replace all the music on their phone then. I'll start with that new genre someone mentioned online the other day. I've been meaning to check out Simpsonwave.

Immortality

Petra sighed and closed out her connection to the building system for the day. She almost wished work has run late into the night. There wasn't anything at home for her after all. But the warrant to interrogate Jane’s stock broker under empath-connected polygraph was just going to have to wait until the forensic accountants got back to them tomorrow. Who knew when she'd be able to actually run it — judges were still real careful about magical intrusions into folks. Although she did tend to have an easier time with her warrants. Having a reputation of an extremely light magical hand did have some benefits.

Some days she regretted letting her great-grandkids kids talk her into the rejuvenation treatment. They were only in their teens and early twenties, it was perfectly natural to fear death, hers or theirs. The bone deep weariness of outliving both her partners, all their grandparents, and a couple of their parents just wasn’t comprehensible at that age. Why should it be?

What was that term from that game she’d loved at their age? Oh yes. Immortality Blues. Turned out that game had prepared her for reality more than she'd ever expected.

Oh the tech hasn't really gone in the same directions. No digital copies of people for instance. No, the rejuvenation drugs had more walked off of Bujold’s page than transhumanism’s. Eternal Middle Age. Well, maybe more Elizabeth Moon’s work.

My gods she was reminiscing about her early adulthood a lot tonight.

Why not? As long as she recalled the bitter with the sweet from them.

Regan, the grandchild, not the great-grandchild with the same name, had worked so hard, trying to unlock the medical secrets that could save her grandfather (all this time of legal polycules, and no one had come up with a reasonable name for your genetic relatives’ partner? Maybe she was just old-fashioned for thinking people would regularly want a word to distinguish between genetic and non-genetic relations.) Everyone had thought a werewolf’s regeneration would mean a longer life. No one thought about what all that cellular regeneration was doing to their telomeres. Not until the most active shifters of the first publicly homo sapiens lupus had started dying of old age in their 40s. Liam had made it until his 60s but that had been thirty years ago. He'd looked like a weathered 105 year old. She'd lost Ricardo thirteen years ago, just three years before “the miracle drug” had been approved. The Nobel Prize ceremony for Regan’s entire lab last year had been lovely. There was talk these days of swapping out the cash prize for a rejuvenation.

Nobody had expected the witches to just… keep on going. There’d been so few of them who didn't burn themselves out in puberty, trying to learn how everything worked. But she had looked like a damn 60 year old when they were scattering Ricardo's ashes. Her doctor had been saying she had the fitness age of an average forty year old.

And now the rejuvenation drugs were going to hold her to that for another fifty years.

The kids were starting to make tentative  pushes to getting her dating again. The idea was… rather awful. Still. Maybe by the two decades mark she'd be up for a relationship again.

She didn't ever mention to them how active her sex life was. Some things a great-grandkid had a right not to know.

Petra sighed again walking down the steps into the maglev system. Maybe she should have told the FBI to shove their offer of a free treatment cycle. Of course they'd made all the right noises about needing her expertise again, her flexibility in order to navigate the new criminal law challenges such a drastic societal upheaval as rejuvenation would bring. Should have told them to shove the contract, used her own money and gone to medical school like she'd wanted.

She just hasn't been able to bring herself to use the clan-family money that way. Not with the debt medical school and all those cybernetic body enhancements she'd need to have a foot in the door would cost.

Oh well, another couple of years on the FBI contract. She should also have the new undergraduate degree finished then, and then on to medical school.

Maybe she'd try for a spot at one of the Martian schools. They were pretty cutting edge these days.

Even Astronauts Get the Blues

Even astronauts get the blues. We're more prone to it actually. As a species, we can adapt to nearly anything as our baseline after all, even mind short-circuiting awe. And those of us lucky enough to be out here, we tend to be a little bit brighter, a little bit more disciplined, a lot better educated. We still need to understand the math, know the physics to navigate, the engineering to save ourselves out here. Can't drop by the store, after all, for the latest in parts plans if we need to build a replacement anything.

But all that means, as a group, we tend to want more stimulation, more things to see and do and think about, not less. And once you're out here, between the stars, prepping to explore the next star system on the survey plan, there's not that much. Just the science locked inside your own head, the tools you could cram on the ship, the ones you convinced the powers that be are worth dragging out of the gravity well, and your fellow travelers. There's never all that many of us; the permutations of social interaction tend to run out sooner rather than later.

It's why the first day of planetary orbit is like a holiday, a scientist’s holiday where we break out all the big toys, try everything to figure out which will tell us the most for this planetfall. This one, it looks like all the toys are going to stay out of the closet. Advanced enough that we’ll pick up info on every spectrum, still inward facing enough that we can approach close enough for solar power to supplement the ship drives and keep it all running simultaneously.

It's a pretty planet, the third one in this system, where all the emissions are coming from. Roughly 70/30 ocean to land, although judging by the night side they use the land. Maybe the follow up team can strike a treaty, they can't be using all of that ocean can they?

Finished an Editing Contract

I finished the last editing contract I have for Red Markets last Thursday. 1) I'm pretty pleased with myself for turning it in a day before the deadline, even if I usually get projects in a bit faster than that and 2) I'm really thrown by actually being finished with my part of the project. Like, I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not going to be working on Red Markets during lunch, so I need to set up something else to work on during lunch. I've only got two more folks I owe critiques of their projects to. It's not like I'm suddenly out of obligations I can be working to fulfill. That really would throw me for a hell of a loop, being out of obligations/projects.

First, some statistics. There were three parts to this project, the players'/rules section, the Market (GM) section, and then I was working on the Introduction, History, and Setting sections all together, as one part. According to my notebook, I started editing the players' section back in June 2016 (really? where did the time go?) with a word count of 98,304 and stopped tracking on July 16 at 94,393 words. I think I started writing down the date and word count somewhere in the middle of editing that section, but c'est la vie. Now I've built the habit and trust that my tracking (going forwards) is accurate. The first pass of the Market's section started on July 22nd at 70,395 and ended on October 31st at 70,146. I'd like to mention that there were about 2K words added to what I was editing in the middle there, due to a Scrivener export error. Bad Scrivener. Do what the author wanted, not what he told you. Finally, the Intro-History-Setting section edit started on Nov. 6th with just the History section at 43,951 words, another 20,271 words were added on Dec. 5th, the Intro and Setting sections (28,095 words) were added to the mix on Feb. 6th, and I wrapped up editing the whole thing on April 13th at 82,483. For a total cut count of 9,834 or 10.65%. That's pleasing to me.  

Second, I basically feel like I've got a project hangover.  I've been focusing on Red Markets for so long that there's a sense of 'now what?' that I've finished. I'm flailing a little bit to remember I need to set something up on my laptop to work on during lunch. I sat down over the weekend and played a video game for four or five hours straight. I've started setting a timer on my phone to get the heck off the computer and go eat dinner during the weeknights so I'll stop playing video games and do some necessary daily chores. I'm not sad I'm enjoying a video game, I'm annoyed at myself for how compulsively I'm playing. This might be a lack of sleep, as I haven't slept well this past week, but either way, I'll get into the swing of the next project soon. I hope. 

So! The next project. Projects actually. I have a contract to do some developmental editing work for a different role-playing game, focused on being a goblin in a post-apocalyptic world. I think the premise is hilarious and now it's my job to make sure at the bones of the game are in the right place and of proper length. ... That metaphor is getting a bit tortured. I'm just going to move on. 

The other project I'm moving on to is working on the fourth draft of a novel I'm writing. This is the project I traded critiques for and am a bit behind on delivering the ones I've promised, so, need to work on that. Then I need to actually import folks' critiques into the Scrivener project wrangling all this and read through them all. See who's feedback makes sense to me slash if other folks say the same thing slash is actionable. Then you know, do the work to turn it into a finished product. I'm excited to be nearing a final version of this project too. It's a bit odd trying to talk about it without talking about  it. I'd like to, but there's other folks involved in the IP rights and I feel like I need to have coordinated with them before burbling on about the specifics of this project.

Or, you know, put together a marketing plan.

Darn having a full-time job and too many things to do.

What Grows?

Parts OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight, and Nine here. A non-Pixie&Sarge one in the same universe here.


Image from BeautyofAbandonedPlaces

Image from BeautyofAbandonedPlaces

“So… These are the coordinates the client gave?” Sarge said, eying the round brick tower a couple hundred yards from them in the middle of a flat grass field. The side closest to them was slightly squared off, with a gap side wide enough for a barn door, although any such thing had rotted away by now, and about half as tall as the whole thing. The remains of wooden planks making a conical roof were visible. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“Which means something absolutely deadly.” Oak planted his tower shield and leaned forward, staring at the tower.

“Yup,” Sarge said, eying the field around and behind the structure. “How big were those crews?”

Pixie's hands twitched as she pulled up the info on her 'specs. “A five-person team, and then two different scouting parties, two each.”

“None of whom our client mentioned,” Yew griped, continuing to scan the horizen behind them all. Just in case anyone decided to sneak up on them. “So probably nine casualties minimum.“

“To be fair…” Pixie trailed off, still manipulating the AR interface. “He’s like the third client to try to recover this place, and I don’t think he knows about the other two.”

“That is NOT better,” Sarge muttered as he brought his binoculars up. Fiddling with the settings, he zoomed in as far as he could. The brick work still looked solid. He didn’t see any signs of fire or other extreme weather events… The gaps in the roof didn’t have anything coming out of them. The opening looked clear of obstruction. The sunlight reached as far in as he expected and the illuminated as much as he expected.

Shit. There was a ring of dead earth five feet around the tower.

"Ground Blight infection,” Sarge said handing over the binoculars. Pixie peered through them as Sarge dug in his backpack for that thermal scope he’d traded three books from the Civil War Surgery project for. There was still a little juice left in the battery. He hoped.

“Think we’re far enough back?” Pixie murmured as Oak pulled his shield back out of the ground and sidled back a few steps.

“Not dead yet.” The thermal scope did turn on, thank God. Training it on the silo, Sarge frowned and started a slow sweep out.

"What's going on?" Oak asked as Sarge slowly lowered the scope.

"About 20 feet out from the dead stuff is a couple degrees warmer than the rest of the ground. The dead area is a fewer degrees warmer than that. And the silo is warmer still. With several hot spots."

They all stood in silence for a few moments. The wind kicked up and whistled across the plain, then died down again.

"Brick's a thermal insulator... But that wouldn't account for hot spots or the ground..." Pixie muttered. “Think those casualties should have come out from the wind noise by now?”

“Or the open top creates enough whistling to keep them all in,” Yew ventured.

Sarge started walking. “Let's move west a bit, get a better angle on the doorway.”

All four of them maintained their distance away from the silo as they worked west. It was slow, not from having to watch their feet on the flat ground or anything, but from trying to keep an eye out for the usual dangers on top of maintaining distance, all while expecting casualties to start shambling out of the silo.

The silo remained silent.

Across from the opening, Pixie took another look through the binoculars for a solid two minutes. “Well, there's something in there. Contemplating just throwing a rock and seeing what shambles out…”

Sarge double-checked the safety on his gun and touched the second clip in his belt. Still there. Oak looked over at Sarge, touched Yew on the elbow, then hefted up his shield and placed a hand on his machete. Yew checked the string on his bow, then pulled a metal shafted arrow and strung it.

“Fall back point is the trees,” Sarge said, gun out but still pointed at the ground.

Pixie looked at him mouth agape. “A mile away? And I wasn’t serious!”

“I am,” Sarge said with a shrug. “Something is really wrong over there. I'm not approaching and that’ll still get us some intel.”

“I… Alright.” Pixie scanned the ground, then picked up a rock half the size of her fist. At Sarge's nod she let fly; the rock bounced off the left side of the opening.

A couple heartbeats of nothing happening later, Pixie brought the binoculars up again and trained then on the opening.

A casualty lurched into the edge of the building, staggering back half a step. A slight turn of the Blight covered hips and it shambled out the door. The shoulders remained tilted towards the door frame. The gait was wrong too.

“It's moving… awfully slow,” Sarge whispered as he shifted his stance and lined up the shot. Watching the casualty, one foot would go out as far as possible, stop like it'd hit the end of a rope, land, shift weight forward, and repeat with the other. It was a much more lurching style of walking than Sarge had ever seen. Even from a casualty.

“Hold up,” Pixie murmured. Sarge glanced over; she had the binoculars trained on the ground behind the casualty. “Oh fuck. Um, shoot it now. Please.”

Sarge took the shot. Dark brown sludge, white bone, and deep black Blight sprayed out from its head to spackle the brick silo. The casualty dropped, bonelessly.

“So–”

Pixie waved him off and kept watching the completely-dead casualty.

It spun around on the ground until the feet were pointed at the silo. A pause. Then something pulled it into the darkness.

Pixie, Sarge, and Oak shared a horrified look, turned, grabbed Yew and started walking home.