AiA – White Shadow: Episode 17

Our story so far: Allison is a typical American High-school girl. Only now she’s in Japan, and it’s not the Japan she learned about in Social Studies, it’s the Japan created by the Japanese in their cartoons. Somehow, that Japan is suddenly real.

In that Japan, transfer students are always a source of untold chaos. They are rarely human, and even when they are they have hidden (and very destructive) abilities. Her classmates hope only to identify the nature of the destruction she brings, before it’s too late.

But Allison’s just a regular student, right?

Oh, except it seems that she’s a whiz with computers, and it just so happens that the world (“the world” means “Japan” at times like this) is threatened by a killer computer virus called White Shadow. White Shadow wants nothing more than to merge with Allison, the only one with the skills to make it whole.

Also, a bunch of other stuff has happened. Allison’s best friends are all prisoners of The Instute of Biological Computing, a mysterious organization that probably created White Shadow in the first place. Now, all she wants is to bust them out. To accomplish that, she has accepted White Shadow into her own consciousness. It makes her pretty kick-ass.

What’s with the kittens? Well, let’s just say that people are misinformed.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison clutched at her harness as the helicopter tilted, pointing its rotors at the institute. Her stomach rose up into her throat and she tasted yesterday’s lunch. Even breathing was difficult as she lost track of gravity. Closing her eyes just made it worse.

The helicopter lurched back the other way and Allison felt a soft impact against her foot, followed immediately byt the feeling of several needles being thrust into her ankle. She looked down to see a white kitten clinging to her foot. She couldn’t hear its cries over the roar of the aircraft. Allison tried to reach for it but she was strapped down too tight.

The woman sitting next to her seemed not to notice that they were about to die in a fiery crash. She was shouting orders into her comm unit in a rapid staccato that matched the thrum of the helicopter’s rotors. Allison couldn’t hear her words, yet she could feel the sense of what Lancia was saying as it passed through the electrical universe.

With Lancia’s words, people lived, and others died. Allison could feel them all, but they didn’t seem… human. They were abstractions. Statistics. Allison was the abacus, counting heartbeats.

Lancia spat a set of orders, and Allison followed the electronic signals of a squad of men rushing down a hallway. At the end lay death, a hellish crossfire of claymore mines, their electronic triggers waiting impassively for a reason to die.

“Bomb”, Allison said. “Corridor 12. It’s a trap.”

Lancia hesitated for perhaps half a second before she resumed shouting. “Squad seven! Squad seven! Abort advance!”

Allison reached through the electronic universe and touched the detonators. “I disarmed them,” she said.

Lancia hesitated longer this time. “Squad seven, proceed. Use extreme caution.” Lancia keyed off her mic. “Why did you do that?”

Why? Echoed White Shadow. She is the enemy!

“Those are people,” Allison said.

They’re trying to kill other people, White Shadow reminded her. Enemies of this woman, which makes them our friends.

“They’re all people,” Allison said aloud.

Lancia raised her eyebrow, watching Allison for another moment before returning to her battle.

The helicopter heaved again and Allison clung to her restraining straps and fought down a scream. The kitten skidded across the metal floor and banged against a bulkhead. In the cockpit buzzers sounded urgently from the control panel. Lights flashed red. The pilot threw the stick over and the helicopter was practically upside-down. As far as she could tell, anyway; “up” was an abstraction without much meaning in this place.

“Missile!” The pilot cried out. “It has lock!”

Allison felt the deadly rocket, knew its hunger for destruction. It was using radar to track them. Radio waves. She could work with that.

She quieted the animal part of her mind that wanted to do nothing but scream in fear. She closed her eyes and touched White Shadow, accessing the world through the new window it provided. She began whispering to the missile through its guidance system, deceiving it even as its hunger grew. Slowly she bent the perception of the rocket’s radar eye, convinced it that the helicopter was up and to the left. The rocket rushed past and detonated, shaking the helicopter and rattling fragments of metal off the hull.

The pilot righted the craft and resumed their headlong assault on the institute. Allison opened her eyes, convinced herself to take a breath.

White motion at the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned to see Lancia talking calmly on her comm, as if nothing had happened at all. In her other hand the white kitten lay, limp and dead. “Oh!” Allison said.

Lancia looked at Allison, at the kitten, then back to Allison. “So you could handle the missile,” Lancia said. She tossed the tiny carcass out the window.

Ruchia lay on the hard metal floor, dizzy from the blast. The only sound she could hear was a persistent ringing in her ears. She coughed and pushed her hair back from her eyes. Cautiously she raised her head and looked around.

She was alone again, back in the institute. She lay her head back and closed her eyes, concentrated for the moment on clearing the dust and grit out of her lungs. No one came to help her; no one came to investigate the explosion. She wondered if there was anyone else left on Earth.

“Hello?” she croaked. No one answered. This must be what hell is like, she thought.

She opened her eyes again, took better stock of her surroundings. Next to her on the floor lay stainless-steel table. The way it had toppled and dumped her on the floor had protected her from the worst of the blast. Kenzo’s arms protecting her had just been a dream.

Nearby was a hemispherical plastic helmet apparatus which had half a hundred metal probes sticking out of it. Each probe was connected to a colored wire; the wires gathered into a bundle and left through a hole in the wall.

One of the other cell walls was gone, leaving only a pile of debris.

She got on her hands and knees, then stood with the help of the upturned table. Her knees held her, if only barely. Gingerly she made her way over the treacherous floor and peeked out into the hall. It stretched in either direction, pale gray and featureless, curving gently out of sight. In the distance alarms sounded, and she thought she heard another explosion.

She hesitated. Was it safer in her cell or out there, lost in a hostile place?

Her captors would want her to stay put. “Here goes nothing,” she said. She stepped over the remains of the wall and headed down the hall.

She had taken only a few steps when she heard many heavy boots jogging down the hallway behind her. “Hey!” a voice called, an authoritative military voice. Ruchia broke into a run. “Stop or we’ll shoot!” the voice called out. Ruchia slowed to a stop and raised her hands. Not worth dying for. Not yet.

“Fire!” the voice behind her shouted. Ruchia threw herself to the floor, her hands over her head.

“I surrender!” Ruchia screamed.

In the distance, another explosion. The lights went out. The soldiers opened fire.

“Damn!” The technician held on as her console rocked with the force of the most recent explosion. “Subject Seiji Yamamoto is at risk!” The emergency lights came on, bathing the interrogation chamber on the other side of the bullet-proof glass in a pale orange light. The boy was still in there, chained to his chair, grinding his teeth with the futile effort to break free.

The technician stood. “Where is she?” There was no sign of the woman who had been interrogating the boy. The tech checked the door to the interrogation chamber. Still bolted from this side. There was no other way out. Yet, the woman was gone.

Kaneda was almost afraid to breathe. Mitsume Mountains rested her head against his chest, looking up into his eyes. Her hand idly brushed his shoulder. Her breasts were… right there. He took a deep breath, slowly, and tried not to think about what was going on in his swim trunks. Every time she moved, with every tingling contact of her skin against his, it got worse. Or better. Or…

In his mind there were only two thoughts, locked in a battle that could have only one survivor: 1) Whatever it takes, at any cost, have sex with Mitsume Mountains, and 2) Don’t be a jerk.

There were so many ways to be a jerk right now. Mitsume trusted him, enjoyed this quiet time away from her fans. Also, somewhere out there his friends were fighting for their lives. The needed him. He had seen White Shadow; he knew—

“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked.

Kaneda choked on his laugh. “You—you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he said.

She smiled. Her teeth were white and perfect. Her pale cheeks colored. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Kaneda swallowed. “Yeah. Of course.”

“You’ll think less of me.”

“That’s not possible,” he said. Then, realizing maybe he hadn’t said quite the right thing, he blurted “I mean—!”

Mitsume Mountains laughed. “I know what you mean, silly.” She slid herself up his body until she was almost on top of him, looking him in the eye. She smiled sweetly, her cheeks dimpling in perfect symmetry. “You’re such a gentleman. I thought…” she broke eye contact and looked down at his chest. She took a breath. “I thought maybe you might be the one.” Kaneda didn’t respond right away, so she looked and added, “The first one.”

“…” Anything Kaneda might have said was lost to his constricted throat.

“Once you’re first, you’re first forever,” Mitsume Mountains said.

“Forever,” Kaneda echoed.

“Will you do it, Kaneda?” She moved her thigh against his, but her round eyes betrayed her fear. “Will you be mine, forever?”

Forgive me, Allison. Forgive me, Seiji. “Yes! Yes. I will be yours. Forever.”

Mitsume Mountains smiled, her features painted with relief. She slid on top of him, straddling him. Kaneda thought his heart was going to leap straight through his ribs and leave him the happiest corpse ever.

“I’m glad,” she said. She bent forward and brushed her lips across his. “They can’t take you from me now. No matter what.”

In the distance, Kaneda thought he heard explosions.

They hit the rooftop hard. Allison’s head snapped forward, straining her neck and rattling her brains. Armed men gushed from the stairwells at the corners of the roof and formed a perimeter around the helicopter. The blast from the still-spinning rotors hit Allison in the face as the door next to her slid open.

“Come on,” Lancia said.

Allison struggled with her buckles until a soldier released her. As she stepped off the aircraft a man was waiting, holding an olive-drab vest covered with large pockets. In each pocket a protesting kitten squirmed.

“Put that on,” Lancia said.

Allison held the vest at arm’s length. “Why?”

Lancia laughed. “Don’t try to pretend. We know.”

“Well, perhaps you could enlighten me.”

Lancia’s eyes narrowed as she pushed her face into Allison’s. “You’re good,” she said. “Now put it on.”

Allison did as she was told.

“All right,” Lancia said. “Let’s go conquer the world.”

A Big Muddled Milestone Approaches

Down near the bottom of the sidebar over there, you’ll see a few stats about this blog. There is one stat of which I’m really rather proud, even though it’s not really my accomplishment. The credit goes to you guys out there.

Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas will soon have its 10,000th comment.

That’s a big deal. All those comments represent a huge amount of content and, well, intelligence that this little media empire would not have had otherwise. The comments are the second layer, the extra reward for those who choose to dig a little deeper.

How should we reward comment 10,000? Certainly it should not go unmarked. My first thought is to offer the same prize I did in a previous contest: the winner provides the opening sentence and I write a silly story based on that. It was a fun prize, especially since Bob (Bill Bob’s brother’s brother) came up with an excellent opening that resulted in Elephants of Doom.

Is there a better prize? Leave your ideas in the comments!

Note to Chrysler Marketing: Dictionary.com is Free

I was waiting at a traffic light today, thinking about the name of the car in front of me. Thinking about it more, perhaps, than the Chrysler marketing department did.

The car is a modern, sporty car, with aggressive and unique styling. It looks fun to drive. The name: Chrysler Crossfire.

Crossfire. As in: “If you get caught in the crossfire, you could be killed.” Crossfire. Military planning is filled with ways to get your enemy in crossfire.

Though maybe it’s a good name. Maybe the Chrysler Crossfire is a car that’s pretty exciting — unless you’re in it.

Lucky Picture

While we’re on the subject of photography, I’d like to share this bit o’ serendipity. I got this picture while testing some of my new flash gear:

My Sweetie running her eBay empire

It’s a little dark but if you click on it to see it larger it works.

“But Jerry,” you say, as your ever-vigilant eyes scan the above photo, “there’s no sign of any flash in that picture at all.” And right you are, Sparky! The strobe was set up out in the living room. “But if the flash is in a different room, how is the picture possibly a test of that flash?” you ask, unflagging in your quest for a more perfect understanding of the world around you. Good on you!

To make a short story long, recently I was doing a shoot with my sweetie and the strobes stopped popping, right in the middle of the shoot. The cable from the camera to the master strobe was bad, and if it weren’t for the fact I had another the shoot would have been a major pain (back to lighting with desk lamps). These cables fail pretty often, I understand, because as you move the camera around the connectors are constantly being loosened. Even the guys who preach not spending a single unnecessary penny on gear recommend getting good radio transmitters to fire the flash units.

So, this picture was taken the day the new transmitter and receiver arrived. I had a flash set up in the living room and I was seeing how far away I could get and still have the flash go off. (The answer to that: not very far. The radio worked fine, but it’s a very small apartment.) So I shot the above from my hip (quite literally), with no intention of keeping it.

But, when I looked at it, I liked it. If you look really closely you can see there’s some camera shake, but overall it looks pretty good, if you ask me. So, enjoy!

Hair Haloes

Today’s exercise: separate the subject from a busy background by backlighting the hair. Fortunately I had a model handy with plenty of hair to backlight, and that model was willing to keep experimenting as long as I was. Me. Unfortunately, the challenge of getting a good shot when using a new technique takes a lot longer when you can’t look through the camera as you’re setting up the shot.

I’m sure there’s a more technical term for an accent light shot directly through the subject’s hair, but I don’t know it. I thought it was “hair light”, but it turns out that’s something else.

Self-Portrait, April 23, 2011

Self-Portrait, April 23, 2011, experiment with hair haloes.

Still, it was a pretty successful day. I took more than 100 shots and after a while I was confident enough in the setup that I could concentrate on taking self-portraits that were actually interesting to look at. Nineteen shots remain in my “keeper” bin, though I have no idea what I’ll do with them. Looking at the keepers, I can see that I have a weakness for the overly dramatic. I suppose it’s nice to even have a recognizable style at all. All these images are straight off the camera with no tweaking or even cropping. I swear they weren’t all this over-the-top. Really.

A slightly less overdramatic (and therefore less-liked by me) self-portrait.

These photos don’t necessarily represent the best (my opinion of which changes every moment anyway), but the most representative of the technique. There’s no rocket science here; I got the main lights as close to me as possible so I could turn them down pretty low. That meant less light hitting the busy wall behind me. Directly behind my head is a third light that backlights my hair. I probably should have played with different intensities of that light more.

Even though there's a lot of shadow on me, the hair halo really separates me from the background.

This is the last shot of the day, and the fill light didn’t fire at all. (It’s set to flash when it sees another light flash, but all the lights were turned down pretty far and the fill light was behind an umbrella.) That left my head very dark, but the back light really pops me out from the background. All these photos have reflections of the lights in the glass behind me. In the one above you get a particularly clear look at the spokes of the fill light’s umbrella. Reflections are a bitch, man.

One of my favorite self-portraits ever! I really like the composition, how much my face shows, and how the colors in the jersey came out on this one. By keeping things just a touch underexposed the colors get nice and saturated.

I don’t know how often I’ll actually need this technique, but it turned out to be pretty easy. Here’s the setup:

The setup for Self-Portrait Saturday

For the fill light I could have opened the curtains just off-camera to the right rather than setting up a strobe, but then I would have had to worry about shutter speed, and that was one more variable than I wanted to deal with when I couldn’t look at the result after every shot.

The setup picture itself was taken with our older camera. I propped on a footstool and set it for two-second exposure. When I heard it click, I took a picture with the main camera, which of course caused the strobes to pop and light the scene for both cameras.

2

Movie Time!

Last week the Blockbuster Video store in out neighborhood closed forever. On the last day of operation my sweetie and I took a walk over to see what gems they had on their shelves that we couldn’t possibly live without. At three bucks a pop it seemed like a good chance to grab up a few good flicks.

The most exciting acquisition from my point of view is Black Sheep, a light horror film from New Zealand that features… yes, it’s New Zealand so it has to have… zombie sheep. I saw this flick at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (The Cannes of the East!) with Fuego, at a midnight showing with a thousand other heavy drinkers. Fun was had by all. That disk is scratched up pretty badly and our DVD player is persnickety, so I won’t be able to inflict it on my sweetie until I burn a fresh copy.

Meanwhile, we’ve had some fun with some of the other movies. One night we watched Due Date with Iron Man and Zach Gallafanagashammalammadingdong, followed by Dinner for Schmucks with Steve Carrell and other people I’m told I’ve seen before. The two flicks are pretty much the same story (wacky interloper exposes then heals the vulnerabilities in the other guy’s relationship), but they’re told very differently and are both good date night options. Dinner for Schmucks I especially enjoyed, as Steve Carrell masters a moment of seeming contradiction and makes us believe it.

We also hauled in The Crazies (I think that was the title). Back in the day I’d seen previews for the film and I thought it looked promising. Still, those preview-makers are good at making shit look like caviar. Turns out in this case, while there were a fair number of WTF moments (Why aren’t they staying together?!) the film worked pretty well. The ending was… perfect.

That same night we watched a movie with John Travolta as a shaved-head kinda-wacko secret operative out to whack a bunch of bad guys in Paris. It’s a partner movie, and it’s the other character (played by what’s-his-name) who really grows. It was a fun movie, if you’re able to ignore: a) roughly 5,000 bullets are launched in the direction of the good guys, and only one hits flesh; and b) the writers had no clue at all about electronic countermeasures and routine security procedures. Near the beginning what’s-his-name does something that would be sure to cause a major international incident, but somehow it comes off as success.

So, the flick wasn’t perfect. It was still a fun ride. Audi might be the big winner here, as the car chase figured their logo prominently. My sweetie might have spoken their brand name out loud for the first time in several years.

We still have a big pile of movies to go, from that ridiculous movie with that chick in it to the one where all the people do intense stuff. I can’t wait!

Securing Dropbox

As I mentioned recently, Dropbox is awesome. When using it, however, it’s important to think about security. The dropbox guys lock up your data nice and tight – but they hold the keys.

Think of it this way: You’re on a cruise ship, and you have a priceless diamond tiara (don’t we all?). You know it’ll be much safer in the ship’s vault than in your cabin. The ship’s purser is only too happy to watch over your valuables in their very strong safe. Now you can rest easy.

Except… there’s someone besides you who can open the vault. What if the government serves the purser with a warrant (or some other constitutionally-questionable writ) and takes your tiara? What if someone fools the purser into handing over your tiara? For most things, trusting the purser is fine, but that tiara is really something special. What you need, then, is a special box with a really strong lock. You give the purser the box and neither he nor anyone else can even see what’s inside, and you can make it a really strong box, so even if the purser hands over the keys to his vault, your stuff is still safe.

The same principle applies with Dropbox. It’s really convenient and pretty darn secure, but someone else is holding the keys. For most things, like my writing, no further security is necessary. Yet I have a few files that I don’t want to leave to someone else to protect, but I still want the convenience and data backup Dropbox provides. On my mac I’ve set up a very simple system that allows me to see my most secret files whenever I need to on any of my machines, but protects them from prying eyes. It’s actually pretty simple, and there’s almost certainly a direct analog on Windows.

The disk utility that comes with Macs can create an encrypted disk image using pretty dang strong encryption. If you put that image file in your dropbox, then any files you add to that virtual disk will encrypted and saved to your Dropbox when you unmount the disk. Here are the steps:

  1. Fire up Disk Utility (it’s in the Utilities folder).
  2. Click New Image
  3. Decisions, decisions….
    • Name your new disk. If you name it “secret stuff” that will just make people curious.
    • Size: For reasons I’ll go into shortly, I’d advise not making this any bigger than you really need. If you’re protecting text files, it can be pretty small. The 100MB setting is probably more than enough for most people.
    • Format: Just use the default
    • Encryption: I say, what the heck. Go for the maximum unless you’ll be using a really old machine.
    • Partition: just use the default.
    • Image Format: sparse disk image – this will keep the size of the actual disk file down. UPDATE – As of MacOS X 10.5, there’s a new option called “sparse bundle disk image”. DON’T USE THAT! It seems perfect at first (see below) but things get mucked up if there’s a conflict.
  4. Save. You will be asked for a password. You’ll not need to remember it, so make it good and strong, nothing like any password you’ve used anywhere else. Keep the “save in keychain” option selected. (If you need it later, you can find it with Keychain Access.) – Remember: this is the secret that protects all your other secrets.
  5. Voila! Put the disk image in your Dropbox folder. When you open the image file, a new hard drive will appear in finder. Anything you put on the drive will be added to the .dmg file you created.
  6. “Eject” the drive on that machine and open the .dmg on any other machines you want to share the information. While you remember your crazy password, get it saved in the keychains of your various machines.

A couple of notes:

  • The .dmg file will only update when you “eject” the drive. So I advise you not keep it mounted most of the time. Open it, add/access the files inside, and close it again. If you open it on two machines at the same time, you will end up with two versions in your Dropbox folder.
  • I advised saving your password on your keychain, but remember that anyone who can access your computer can also access your secrets. So you might want to consider not putting the password in your laptop’s keychain, for instance, if you think it might fall into the wrong hands.
  • Since your secret files are saved as a single blob of data, you won’t have automatic backups of individual files. If you need to recover one, you’ll have to find the right version of the image file.
  • Since your information is saved as a big ol’ blob, if you make a huge .dmg file it will eat up space in your Dropbox and burn up unnecessary bandwidth each time your save. ‘Sparse’ images only grow to the maximum as you use the space (but never shrink unless you intervene with Disk Utility).
  • UPDATE – Apple has created a new format that saves the image file as a whole bunch of little blobs, rather than one big one. With that option, when you make changes, only the little blobs that changed need to get updated. This was to make Time Machine work better, and at first I thought it would be perfect for Dropbox. Then I spent a few minutes testing and discovered that the way Dropbox handles conflicts (two computers updating the file at the same time) gets royally hosed when you use this format. Bummer. So, don’t use it.
  • It’s possible to set things up to protect individual files, but it’s complicated. Hopefully it won’t always be.
  • Important! If you only store the password on one machine – Save it somewhere else also!. If you lose that password (if your hard drive crashes or your computer is stolen, for instance), you’re not getting into your strongbox. Ever. That was the whole point, after all.

The Hammer of God

It’s an interesting setup, one that’s been worked pretty hard in the years since Arthur C. Clarke first published The Hammer of God.
There’s an asteroid heading toward the Earth, and even though humanity has actually been preparing for this inevitability, diverting the thing is going to be a tough proposition. The strength of this story is that there are people on Earth who want the killer asteroid to hit, making the conflict a human one, rather than strictly man-vs-nature.

That’s when we also start to hit the problems with this novel. We get a rough sketch of where the bad guys are coming from, then Clarke just waves his hands and says essentially, “So anyway, they’re nuts. You get the idea.” His initial effort to humanize the crazies is abandoned and they’re just crazies.

Then there’s the radio signal from outer space. He begins to explore it, then just says, “and that made the crazies even crazier.” Not to mention that the circumstances surrounding this signal from space included humanity setting off a bomb of epic size. A tiny fraction of such a weapon would have been sufficient to solve the whole asteroid problem.

Instead, we have a plan to put a giant rocket on the planet and nudge it just enough to spare the Earth. There are problems, of course, and it’s up to the artificial intelligence of the story to come up with the completely obvious next thing to try.

The main story is interlaced with scenes that serve the same purpose as Disney’s Tomorrowland: Look how cool the future will be! It is indeed pretty awesome. Thanks for sharing.

Overall, it feels like Clarke wrote a draft to establish the story and the world it takes place in, then rather than writing the actual novel he published that. There are long, long passages of exposition. Ideas sprout but never bloom. Powerful events are described from a distance, if at all.

Mr. Clarke has done much better.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Dropbox Just Saved My Ass

I’ve been a big fan of Dropbox ever since my brother used them to share files with me for postproduction on some film or other. To summarize: Dropbox is totally sweet.

I keep all my writing in my Dropbox folder, so it’s automatically up-to-date no matter which keyboard I’m typing on at the moment. Save it on one computer, it’s updated on all the rest. Not too shabby.

This evening I opened up one of my stories, and it was not all there. In Jer’s Novel Writer, it’s possible to save just a part of your story. For Allison, I export each episode as XHTML for simple(r) transfer to the blog. It works pretty well.

One thing about the export feature: It’s possible to export a part of your story and replace the file with the entire story. I’ve made this really difficult to do, with messages that read something like “Are you totally high?” and the default response “No, I’m just confused. Don’t overwrite my master file.”

Yet, today, I opened the master Allison file and found just the last episode. The definitive versions of all previous episodes are here in the blog, but there were half a dozen episodes stretching far into the future that were gone. Lost in a puff of ones and zeroes. I hadn’t even intended to export the chapter in that format, let alone overwrite the master. Yet somehow I had.

I gaped at the file, thinking about the chapters I’d lost. Fencing club! Holy crap! Seiji’s torment turned up to eleven. The destruction of a city. A killer robot in the hot springs. Poof. Gone. How did I do that?

But then there’s the other part of Dropbox. The part that remembers all versions of all your files for the last 30 days. For free. I pointed my browser to my home base and moments later my spectacular brain fart was erased. My file is back, only it turns out I haven’t written the killer robot in the hot springs episode yet.

Time Flies

Tonight I’m being served beers by someone named after Disney’s Little Mermaid.

Yep.

The End of Signs

I’ve written a couple of episodes as I made my way through the first installment of a fantasy story called Legacy of the Stone Harp by James G. Anderson & Mark Sebanc. For closure, I thought I’d record my impressions now that I’ve completed the first volume.

I won’t be reading the second. Through the course of the first book I was sustained by intellectual curiosity: How many fantasy standards will they pack in? Will there ever be a meaningful female character? And most of all, How egregious a cliffhanger will the book end with? (For those new to these pages, I have a peeve about buying something that claims to have a story inside, yet actually only contains a fragment. I think most fantasy authors have completely lost the ability to create substories that fit within the larger arcs of their epics, and thus make the individual volumes of the series into enjoyable reads.)

Let’s look at how The Stoneholding: volume one of The Stone Harp performed on that last criterion.

In fact… not bad. There was actually a feeling at the end of the book that an important phase of the quest had been concluded, and a new phase would soon begin. The authors did a way better job of this than most fantasy writers do these days. So, credit where credit is due.

Except… actually the story reaches that point quite a bit before the book runs out of pages. We spend the last few tiresome chapters touring around the underground kingdom of the people of the hammer — a race of people who are shorter than surface-dwellers, renowned for their abilities as blacksmiths, and who are most decidedly not Tolkien’s dwarves. Really. How could anyone think that?

OK, everyone would think that. If you’re going to put Standard Fantasy Dwarves in your story, you may as well label them correctly. SFD’s are SFD’s, after all. Making them slender doesn’t change things. One temptation for me to carry on with the story: Who will they meet when they go into the forest in the next volume? I’m guessing SFE’s and the satisfaction of being right almost makes the toil worth it. But not quite.

Nearing the end of the book, having had more than enough of the guided tour of the dwarf kingdom, I found it difficult to finish out. On the last night I sat back in bed and sighed audibly before picking up the book. Only a few more pages to go. My sweetie chuckled. I picked up the book and dragged myself through the last pages, curiosity about the way it ended being my only fuel. If only the characters would stop being so stupid.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

As a very long addendum I’ll attach to this episode my take on the score this story has racked up (so far) in the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam. That there hasn’t been a significant female character yet means that many of the questions remain open. Still, it’s a pretty damn impressive showing, pushing the cliché-o-meter right through the red and into the magenta.

Note: Those who created this exam suggested that if you answer yes to any of these questions you pitch in the novel and start over. I think this story is hovering in the 15-18 range right now.

  1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
    Actually more happened in the first fifty pages than the following 200
  2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
    Yes, and his best friend is one, too!
  3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
    Yes
  4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
    I think it’s safe to assume that’s how this will play out
  5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
    The artifact is a sacred flame, but yes.
  6. How about one that will destroy it?
    Why, there’s another artifact that, in the wrong hands…
  7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
    Yep.
  8. Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
    I’m going to say ‘no’ on this one, until more characters actually show up
  9. Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
    No.
  10. Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
    Probably not. I suspect there’s a bad guy behind the obvious bad guy, though.
  11. Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?
    No. The guy that was duped was the son of the local ruler.
  12. Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?
    I think ‘incompetent’ is closer to the truth
  13. How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?
    Not yet.
  14. How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
    Oh, yes.
  15. Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?
    We’re still waiting for a significant female character.
  16. Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
    So far, no.
  17. Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?
    Absolutely not!
  18. Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?
    There are peripheral characters who are like this
  19. Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?
    There’s always hope for the next installment
  20. Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?
    For the most part the pseudo-dwarves are a cheerful bunch, to the point where this particular batch embidies a flawless society where everyone is happy.
  21. How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?
    I’d put money on pseudo-elves arriving later in the story (maybe they’re the ninjas!) but we haven’t seen them yet.
  22. Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?
    So many questions that would require reading the whole damn thing to find out.
  23. Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?
    No.
  24. Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?
    Landlocked so far, but there are oceans on the map.
  25. Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?
    I’m not sure, but I’d guess that this highland culture is a little more realistic than most.
  26. Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like “The Blasted Lands” or “The Forest of Fear” or “The Desert of Desolation” or absolutely anything “of Doom”?
    Three maps with silly names, no ‘of Doom’
  27. Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?
    We’ll see. Much is unexplained
  28. Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?
    At the rate they’re going, I’d be amazed if they wrapped this up in three volumes.
  29. How about a quintet or a decalogue?
    That’s more like it
  30. Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?
    It would be if it were bound in one volume
  31. Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you’re still many sequels away from finishing your “story”?
    I get that feeling, indeed.
  32. Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?
    Not that I’m aware of.
  33. Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?
    They aspire to that title, I guarantee.
  34. Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?
    I’m going to have to guess no. Otherwise they would have introduced more characters by now.
  35. Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
    Happily, no.
  36. Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?
    Not yet. We’ll see when they finally start their quest.
  37. Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?
    They do, but it’s an ethnic thing and they all go by nicknames, so it’s not obnoxious
  38. Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?
    The authors seem pretty consitent on this score.
  39. Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?
    The dwarves are renamed, and we’ve seen hints of ninjas.
  40. How about “orken” or “dwerrows”?
    No
  41. Do you have a race prefixed by “half-“?
    No
  42. At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?
    They’re mysterious forbidden caves, that lead to a dwarven city. So, yep.
  43. Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?
    Doesn’t feel like it. More would happen if they did.
  44. Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?
    I’m guessing no.
  45. Are you writing a work-for-hire for Wizards of the Coast?
    Wizads of the Coast would not want this.
  46. Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?
    So far the only tavern was for a kidnapping.
  47. Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?
    I have no problem with that aspect of the story.
  48. Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
    I suspect they will – they’ve taken long enough just to get started.
  49. Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won’t break the plot?
    Yes, absolutely.
  50. Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as “fireball” or “lightning bolt”?
    No. A lot of the magic centers around music, which is pretty cool.
  51. Do you ever use the term “mana” in your novel?
    No
  52. Do you ever use the term “plate mail” in your novel?
    I’ve seen references to armor, but not that phrase
  53. Heaven help you, do you ever use the term “hit points” in your novel?
    No
  54. Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?
    I wonder. Is the golden harp supposed to be solid gold? If so, it would weigh a ton.
  55. Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?
    I was not sorry to see Star Thistle exit the story; he seemed to exist solely so the authors could gush about how goddam wonderful he was. But at least he got winded.
  56. Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?
    Not yet.
  57. Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?
    There’s a magic sword that glows lurking in the plot somewhere – but the guy last known to have it hasn’t bothered mentioning it to anyone else. Odd. I doubt it would return if thrown, however.
  58. Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?
    No.
  59. Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?
    Not yet.
  60. Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more? [info]
    No.
  61. Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?
    I probably won’t read far enough to find out.
  62. Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?
    No.
  63. Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?
    Don’t know yet, but things seem to be setting up that way.
  64. Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?
    Only if the arrow is carefully aimed to be nonlethal – which our two boys can do.
  65. Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?
    We’ll see when they finally get on the road
  66. Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?
    No.
  67. Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer”?
    The dwarves make mead, and it’s actually mead.
  68. Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
    And one ethnically-endowed skill.
  69. Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves’ guild?
    No.
  70. Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?
    I’m thinking… yes.
  71. Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?
    The main character is a bard. He’s adequate in battle, however.
  72. Is “common” the official language of your world?
    No. One of the good guy’s advantages is understanding different languages.
  73. Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
    The jury’s still out on this one.
  74. Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?
    Pretty much.
  75. Read that question again and answer truthfully.
    It’s really not good enough for the comparison.

Beer Blogging Thursday!

If you were to look back over my episodes for the last few weeks, you might notice a trend. Thursday seems to be a good day as far as productivity goes. Why is this?

Well, as you might guess by the title of this episode, there is a nascent tradition here at MR&HBI — Beer Blogging Thursday. Rather than go straight home from work, I take a detour for a couple of hours to a local sports bar and knock out a couple of episodes. I’m shooting for a new installment of serial fiction every other week, along with the usual blather.

At this very moment, I’m taking a little break from work and thinking about what I’ll be producing this evening. Two short book reviews, for sure (one a wrap-up of my thoughts on that damn epic I mentioned previously, the other a review of a novel by an undisputed master). I’ll take some time out after those to play with Allison a bit, but unless a miracle happens you won’t see the fruits of that labor until next week. Later tonight there might be some commentary on hockey, as well. Who knows?

I know there were several other things I had planned to tackle today, but at the moment I can’t think of them. I probably won’t publish all my output today, but instead spread it out over a few days.

A Few of My Favorite Spams

There’s a part of this blog that you, my dear readers, do not get to enjoy. Only about one tenth of one percent of the spam contents get through to the viewing public, and I try to be quick about getting rid of them. The other dozens of spam that get filtered out before they are posted are for my pleasure alone.

Hundreds of other spam comments don’t even make it to that list each day, but are filtered out and chucked unceremoniously into the void (Note to self: digital afterlife.). It’s quite possible that five thousand comments are blocked for each that gets through.

Sometimes I’m tempted to defang particularly choice slices of spam and let you folks enjoy them too. Often the spam comment is funny on its own, while others gain extra funny points from context. For instance, one that says “It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks” gives me a chuckle when it’s attached to the Suicide Squirrel Alert Broadcasting episode.

A few recent standalones:

  • Irony Department: I appreciate that you place excellent content out that is fine and good-written.
  • Another Sort of Irony: Great post however you should try and getrid of all this spam comments.
  • Gibberish Department: A person essentially help to make seriously posts I would state. This is the very first time I frequented your web page and thus far? I surprised with the research you made to create this particular publish incredible. Excellent job!
  • Odd Synonym Department: Suited post! this will midpoint sustain me.
  • Odd Synonym Department 2: Hey may I notification some of the word from this blog if I relation back to you?
  • Proof That Robots Don’t Have a Sense of Aesthetics Department: Amazing blog layout here. Was it hard creating a nice looking website like this?
  • Accidentally in the Spirit of the Blog Department: Man if i ever saw two racoons fighting over a blogs itd be this one, nicely done my friend. Keep it up.
  • Inscrutable Department: Unknown message
  • Robot Problems Department:I truly enjoyed %BLOGTITLE%. Unfortunately, trash is a major problem in the united kingdom today.

Sometimes, context is everything:

  • This really answered my problem, thank you! – on the episode titled All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku
  • This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article. – on the page titled Suicide Squirrel Alert Broadcast System
  • i came to dance dance dance, i hit the floor cause that’s my plans plans plans – on a review of In Cold Blood.
  • this is what it is all about man i would kiss you right now for posting this thanks! – on a post about very bad wine.

As a final note I have to say that some of the spam is actually informative. Did you know they were still making the Zune? I certainly wouldn’t have known that if it weren’t for spam.

1

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 16

Our story so far: Allison has never seen an anime in her life, but now she finds herself in that Japan. On top of that, she’s a transfer student. Had she ever seen anime, she’d know that transfer students always bring confusion, suffering, and destruction on an epic scale.

Her classmates are adjusting to the certainty that the school, and probably the entire town, will be destroyed. That’s how it is with transfer students. Is Allison a demon or an escaped lab experiment? A killer robot, perhaps? In the end it doesn’t matter. She’s a transfer student.

Meanwhile, there’s a deadly computer virus on the loose. By a remarkable coincidence (yeah, right), it seems that Allison is not merely good with computers, she is a talent without peer. It has fallen on her to stop White Shadow and rescue her friends from the Institute.

However, rather than stop White Shadow, Allison has taken control of it, and the incredible power it carries.

This episode may be even more confusing than most (which is saying something), as I’m trying to reconnect with a couple of characters. If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison reached out with her new her awareness. On the other side of the heavy front door stood a woman, alone.

You said you would not surrender to them if I gave myself to you! White Shadow’s voice in her head sounded like her own, now.

“No. I said I would not destroy you.”

This woman is dangerous.

“Yes.” Allison said. To her expanded perception there were many women out there, yet only one. Different possibilities played through time, making their mark on the present. The woman wore a t-shirt and jeans, then moments later she was in black leather, then a slinky evening gown with her black hair cascading over one eye. Always her eyes were hard as diamonds.

Allison opened the door to find the woman in a perfectly-pressed military uniform, complete with short, tight olive skirt and shiny black pumps. Time expanded and contracted, as if the universe were breathing, and Allison couldn’t shake the feeling that they had met before — though perhaps it had not happened yet. Allison touched the river of information that flowed around her and tried to sort through it all, flying at light-speed through countless databases, hoping to learn more about the woman standing in front of her. She found… nothing. A palpable nothing, a measurable hole in universe where the woman should have been.

“My name is Lancia,” the woman said, assessing Allison frankly. She didn’t look impressed with what she saw.

“I am Allison.”

“Yes. You will come with me.”

“To the Institute?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed as her smile widened. “Of course. There are some old fools there who are quite eager to make your acquaintance.”

“They want to kill me.”

The woman shrugged. “Not if they think they can use you.”

“And you? Do you want to kill me?”

“If I wanted you dead, you would be.”

“What do you want, then?”

The woman paused before answering. “You have something that belongs to me.”

White Shadow is mine, now.

It didn’t feel as if she had spoken aloud, but Lancia laughed softy. “So I see. Think of me as… your mother-in-law. I only want what’s best for my progeny.”

“You created White Shadow?”

“As much as anyone did.” Lancia took a step back from the door. “Shall we?”

Allison touched the communications system of the soldiers outside the house, instantly knowing all they said, all they thought. “There’s a sharpshooter,” she said. “His orders come from someone else.”

“Takenawa?” Lancia asked. Allison nodded. Lancia brought a small walkie-talkie to her mouth and said, “Blue-26.” She didn’t wait for an answer.

Allison felt the shift in the configuration of the men outside. “Ok,” she said, “it’s clear.”

Lancia turned and Allison stepped to follow, only to be brought up short. Between the two women and the cordon at the perimeter of Seiji’s front garden stood three men, bald, dressed in draping orange robes, one very tall, one very short, and between them one of medium height. Allison blinked to confirm they were there. To her new senses, they were completely invisible.

The tall monk laughed, a withered, breathy sound that ended with a wheeze. “Numbers,” he said.

“Too damn many of them,” the middle monk said.

“More than you can count,” the short monk said. He pointed to the communication device that Lancia still held. “Is that an abacus?”

“No,” Lancia said. “This is a restricted area. You are ordered to leave.” She started walking again.

The monks laughed. “Restricted!” the tall one said.

“Area!” The short monk howled, redoubling his laughter.

“Yes it is,” the medium monk said, pointing to Lancia’s comm.

“Is what?” Lancia asked, stopping again.

“An abacus.”

“That’s right!” Allison said, excited to understand the metaphor for once. “It’s an abacus and a radio. A digital computing device and a wireless connection. That’s all.”

The monks abruptly lost all cheer and stared at Allison with hard faces. She swallowed and shied back a half-step. “I mean…”

The tall one spoke, his voice gruff. “That’s all, she says.”

“An abacus,” the short monk grumbled, rolling his eyes.

The medium monk closed his eyes and breathed in through his nose. He regained his good humor. “Abacus is power,” he said, winking at her.

“Abacus is life,” the short monk said.

“Abacus is death,” the tall monk intoned.

The monks laughed. “But you know that,” the short monk said. “You are abacus.”

“But she doesn’t count!” the tall monk said. His grin was missing several teeth.

Others count on her,” the short monk said.

“Let’s go,” Lancia said. “These idiots are giving me a headache.”

“It’s not the idiots,” the short monk said.

“It’s what they say!” the middle monk roared. The three laughed heartily and walked away, passing jokes between themselves that Allison could not make out.

“Come on,” Lancia said, snapping Allison’s attention back to the here and now. “Let’s get out of here before the world ends.”

Kaneda woke to the patient rush of waves. He opened his eyes and held up his hand to block the bright sun.

Hello, Kaneda.

“Wh–where am I?”

Where do you want to be?

The sun was warm on his skin. Somewhere nearby he heard the excited squeals of girls playing on the beach. They would be pretty, he was certain. “This is all right,” he said.

Who do you want to be?

“What do you mean? Who are you?”

A shadow fell across his face. He looked up at the girl who had eclipsed the sun. She looked like… “Misumi Mountains!” he exclaimed. He sat up abruptly and twisted to look at the pop star who was standing beside him. Her hands were clasped in front of her. Her tiny bikini did nothing to hide her remarkable, gravity-defying breasts.

“Yes,” she said. Was that a blush coloring her pale cheeks? “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“You are more beautiful in person than even on TV!” Kaneda blurted out. He struggled to gain control of his racing heart.

She smiled shyly. “You are too kind.”

Shit shit shit! Don’t blow this, you idiot! “I’m sorry! I was forward!”

She laughed. “You’re sweet. I wonder… may I ask you a favor?” Her eyes were huge and round.

“Anything,” Kaneda choked out, and he meant it.

She knelt in front of him and handed him a bottle of lotion. She turned her back and with a long, slow pull untied the lower string of her bikini top. “Can you put lotion on my back?”

Kaneda’s hands shook so badly he had difficulty opening the bottle of tanning oil. The bottle slipped from his fingers as he squeezed out a portion, landing in the sand with a soft thud, much quieter than the sounds his heart was making. His nose began to bleed. Her skin was soft and flawless, warm under his fingers.

“Your hands are so strong,” Misumi Mountains said as he began to rub the lotion into her skin. Kaneda reminded himself to breathe, wondered if his heart was about to explode. “I could stay like this forever,” she said.

“For… ever,” Kaneda echoed.

Tasuki exercised in the blackness of her cell, alternating between sets of push-ups and lunges. Her body knew the dimensions of her confinement exactly now; she could push off from one dank stone wall and stop herself perfectly on the opposite one.

She was gasping for air, her muscles burned, her heart hammered in her chest, but it was still not enough to stop the voices.

You were the fastest, before the transfer student came.

Kouta was beginning to notice you, before the transfer student came.

You are second. The transfer student will always be first.

Ruchia was your best friend, before the transfer student came.

The last was the most painful. But what can you do? That’s just how transfer students are. And she was never going to meet someone nicer than Allison.

She can afford to be nice. She has everything.

“No…” Tasuki ran circuits of the room as fast as she could, until her feet were pushing against the wall rather than the floor. She looped around the room, faster and faster, climbing higher and higher on the wall. “Allison… did… not… choose… to… be… that… way!” she said with ragged breath.

That doesn’t change anything. The transfer student has taken everything.

No!

You know it’s true.

There was no arguing with the voice. It was right. She ran harder.

Faster, higher, until her foot landed on… nothing. She cried out as her other leg buckled and she hit the wall hard, stars dancing in her eyes as her head glanced off the roughly-hewn stone — and skidded over the top.

Desperate fingers slipped over the sweating stone as she rolled over the top of the wall and fell into the nothingness beyond.

Then, there was nothing but wind.

“Please, Seiji, help us. Help me.”

With every passing moment the woman interrogating him looked more like the pictures he’d seen of his mother. Seiji swallowed and looked into her eyes, trying not to think about how she had pressed his hand to her chest. “I… I…”

“You are concerned for your friend. That’s very noble of you.”

“It’s not that she’s my friend…” Seiji struggled to find the words to express his relationship with Allison. “She’s a transfer student.”

His interrogator nodded, smiling sympathetically. “It’s never simple, with them.”

“It’s just that… that… there has to be someone. The one.”

She nodded. “There always is.”

Seiji raised his hand abruptly, but his gesture was cut short by the manacle that connected him to his cold metal chair. “Exactly!” Too late he realized he’d broken contact with the silk of his interrogator’s blouse.

“And you want to be that someone.”

“What? Are you stupid?! No!”

The interrogator cocked her head. “Really?”

“Oh, jeez, not you, too! Do you understand the special type of hell the Friend of the Transfer Student goes through? It’s not an ordinary hell of pain and suffering, though there’s plenty of that. It’s the humiliation.”

She smiled. “I see. You are a brash denier.”

WHAT? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! I’m not the one! Kaneda is! He’s seen her underwear!” Instantly Seiji felt sick. Good guys didn’t sell out their friends. Ever. “I mean, did I say Kaneda? I meant Kenzo. Kenzo is the one.”

His interrogator tried without success to hide her surprise. “Kenzo’s back?”

“Apparently. He picked up her books for her on the first day of school.”

“Interesting. And you think that makes him the one?”

“Obviously.”

“The One never chooses to be The One.”

“Yeah, well, I chose long ago not to be the one.”

The woman broke eye contact and looked modestly at the table top. “Your father is a great man.”

Seiji worked to follow the sudden turn in the conversation. “My… wha?”

“Your father. I admire him greatly. Sometimes…” she turned away, blushing. “Sometimes I imagine he is my father.” She turned back to him, her cheeks filled with color. “But then I would be your sister. That would be a awkward, wouldn’t it?”

“…” Seiji struggled for words.

“Your father says I remind him of your mother. That’s not a problem, is it? You wouldn’t feel weird if we… kissed?” Before Seiji could frame an answer she rose and leaned across the table. Her skin was cool and perfect as she brushed her lips against his. Her hand shook slightly as she brushed it across his cheek. “Seiji,” she sighed. In her breath he smelled heaven.

Seiji’s heart was playing his ribs like the xylophone. He was about to pass out but couldn’t inhale.

She bowed her head, her raven hair cascading over his cheeks in luminous waves to conceal her face. “Seiji.” Her voice was barely audible, even this close. “Choose me.”

The blood rushed from his head and went southward, leaving his vision blurred by desire. He wanted to choose her, wanted with all his heart. Or at least with all his dick. “I…” he said. She waited. “I choose…” He was almost there. Just one more word, and he would be free of the transfer student forever. “I choose y—”

An explosion rocked the building, and the lights went out.

In the confusion that followed he thought he heard her say, “Remember your choice, Seiji. My name is Lancia.”

Ruchia walked softly down the center of the deserted street. On either side of her buildings rose, gaping with empty, stupid eyes. Nothing moved; even the newspapers drifted up against the derelict walls lay limp and untouched by any breeze. The click of her heels on the pavement was the only sound.

“Hello?” she asked. “Is there anyone here?” Her timid voice did not carry far.

Motion in the corner of her eye. She wheeled and found a familiar face in an abandoned storefront. “K—”

Kenzo was in front of her now, his finger on her lips. He shook his head. She could drown in those deep violet eyes. He leaned closer. He smelled violet, a beguiling scent that almost made Ruchia forget her own name. “They don’t know I’m here,” he whispered.

“Why…?” Ruchia was having difficulty putting sentences together.

Kenzo laughed silently. “I like explosions,” he said.

The shock wave crashed over her and she took refuge in the tall boy’s arms. She felt the heat of the blast, felt fragments of glass cut into her skin, but she knew that Kenzo would protect her.

Allison hurried to keep up with Lancia as they walked to the waiting helicopter. Lancia faltered for a moment and then increased her pace. “There’s trouble,” she said.

“At the institute?” Allison could see the building on its hilltop at the center of town. It pulsed red with frantic communications.

“Of course. The four horsemen of the moronocalypse have decided to be decisive for once in their lives.” She jumped through the sliding door in the side of the helicopter and turned to grab Allison’s arm to help her aboard. The engine was already winding up and the skids were skittering across the ground as she hauled Allison into the belly of the helicopter. A uniformed soldier slammed the door closed as they rose from the pavement.

“Where’s the fire?” Lancia asked.

Allison realized the woman was looking at her, as if she would know the answer.

And she did. “Detention block C,” Allison said.

Lancia nodded and grabbed the headset off the copilot. She held it to her ear and began barking a string of orders.

I could change those orders, she realized. It was as if all the data in the world passed through her, as if it was her blood.

Wait, White Shadow counseled. She wants you to reveal yourself.

Lancia shot a glance over to Allison, her eyes narrowed, her lips tight. After a long second she returned her attention to her unseen minions at the institute.

The institute is divided, White Shadow said. Or was that her own thought? We shall destroy them.

1

Feedback for God’s Entry in the Hyperspace Open

Score:
Structure: 21
Life Forms: 16
Style: 21
Originality: 23
Total score: 81

A very interesting universe. Your concepts of ‘gravity’ and ‘light’ really added a fresh twist to the old Big Bang style of universe. Generally universes unfold better without direct intervention from the creator, but in this case the miracles are done with a delicate touch and seem to work. But to what purpose? To create a whole ‘planet’ full of beings that seem to serve no purpose other than to slaughter each other comes off as cruel. The ending feels anticlimatic, with the entire universe slowly dispersing into nothingness. Increasing the ‘gravitational constant’ so the universe collapses back into itself at the end would have provided a good feeling of closure.

Holy Hell what does it take to get a competent judge around here? Were they even looking at the same universe?

Cruel? I guarantee that no one else in this contest came up with a natural order that gave rise to an intelligence like that. Their struggle to overcome their animal instincts is the whole point. I don’t know how I could have made that any more obvious. How could the judges not get that?

And not everyone wants their universe to end with an explosion. I mean, come on, aren’t we tired of that by now? As the energy-people fade away one by one, until the last intelligence in the universe drifts into a dreamless sleep — that’s gold right there. Or maybe they thought that was cruel, too.

I’d like to see any of these so-called judges make a universe even half as good at this one. I guess I should have known what to expect, though; after all if they were as talented as I am they wouldn’t need a job judging a contest.

My universe is perfect! Flawless! I mean, for starters, just look at the way the physical laws work together. All my friends agree with me! Anyone who can’t see that is obviously not worthy to view my masterpiece in the first place.

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