Zhen and the Art of Feral Decommissioning

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.”

Preparing to GM

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.

Multitasking


“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.”

Current Projects

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.

Short Stories

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.

Novella/Novels

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

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.

R. Lewis

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.

RPGs/Editing

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.

Superhero 2044

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.

School Response


“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.”

“Thanks Darcy.”

Board Game Review: Machi Koro

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.

We are sorry for the inconvenience

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.

“Rodriguez?”

“Hmm?”

“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!”

Collaborative World Building

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.

Misapplied Powers


“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.”

::Kylie?::

::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.

::Kylie!::

::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.::

::Thanks Darcy.::

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.

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?