Original Art: Helix Is Unhappy

It’s been a while since the last Original Art section but hopefully this makes up for it! It’s a shot of Helix on his way to the high point of the Heat Wave storyline! Can’t say much more than that if I want to avoid spoilers for the new readers, so enjoy:

HelixDescends0001

He’s not happy, Bob. Not. Happy.

As always, click to enlarge. Cheers!

Shadow and Brightmoor (Part Two)

It was dark, and many of the streetlights were burnt out. That was just one of many basic services that Brightmoor had to learn to live without. The people in the part of the neighborhood that called itself the Farmway typically pestered the city enough to get them replaced in a reasonable timeframe, but out here the streets were poorly lit after night fell. On the other hand, even in the dark the cheery sounds of small farm animals, chickens and the occasional goat, could be heard bringing a little cheer to the night. Technically that was against some city ordinances, but with the loosened city presence had come a sort of tacit permission to ignore some city zoning laws, as well.

On his pass through the block earlier that afternoon, Marcus had taken note of the six houses that he guessed belonged to the man Xayvion called “old Freddie”. From the sound of things, Freddie was one of the people who had come to, or lived in, Detroit when the economy tanked and still had enough resources to grab up suddenly cheap real estate. Most of them had done creative things with it. The Farmway got it’s name because there was a lot of urban farming going on there. It wasn’t making a whole lot of money yet, but the people living there were in no danger of starving. More than a few people bought or “borrowed” abandoned lots for farm space. From the looks of things, Freddie had been one of the people who had caught the vision.

Poking around the property that afternoon he’d found a small pile of rotting lumber and signs that someone had started building a raised bed behind the house at one end of street. A look inside the house had shown that most of the furnishings and doors had been pulled out, either by the property owner or by scrappers it was impossible to tell.

He’s also seen signs that bothered him, and gotten the feeling he was being watched, which confirmed the suspicions he’d had when Xayvion had described Freddie’s behavior. That was what had taken him out to see Lord Caledonensis. And that was what led him to attempt something profoundly unwise that evening.

The string of houses Marcus had identified as of interest were a mess. Not just in the literal sense of being run down and partly overgrown with weeds, although they were that, too. But on top of that they were a tangled mess of criss-crossed, misaligned threads that tangled up the greater Weave around them. Half the street was quivering with the tension the threads were creating. Marcus ran a finger across one particularly bad tangle of threads as he approached the house at the center of the snarl. Untangling the mess was the kind of thing that could take days for a skilled weaver, or months if he allowed it to unravel naturally. In the mean time, it could cause all kinds of problems. And that was assuming no one was actively making it worse.

Marcus pulled out his phone and made a quick call, then slapped his thighs lightly and let himself in the house, carefully reaching back and drawing his sword. It was a three foot long, broad bladed weapon forged out of silver and cold iron that was itself a knot of carefully woven magic that represented the great Weave and the Pattern it tried to follow. It was the only weaver related thing he had taken with him when he left Fort Wayne and he was glad to have it with him now. He made a mental promise to himself that he would stop using it against thugs and scrappers. Not only did it get the neighbors upset with him, not only was it a disgrace to the purposes that the sword embodied, it drastically raised the odds he could get arrested or see it confiscated. And then he’d be up a creek for real, especially if he intended to do something this harebrained again.

The inside of Freddie’s house was littered with the corpses of the kind of small rodents you saw a lot in urban and suburban areas. Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, even a raccoon or two. They all looked like they had been caught and strangled. Where they weren’t rotting it looked they had been gutted in a very messy way. Marcus suspected that knives hadn’t been involved so much as teeth. Foul smelling gunk caked the floor in the entrance hall and the rooms on either side. It didn’t really bear thinking about what it might be.

With sword in one hand and the other dipping in and out of his pocket, Marcus proceeded deeper into the tangle of out of place threads that ran towards the back of the house. He found himself wishing that he had come in through the back window or something. The whole back wall of the house turned out to be full of paraphernalia – the kinds of stuff popular culture had come to associate with magic and that still got used in a lot of the rituals many who tinkered with it performed.

If Marcus had any doubts that old Freddie had Invoked something before, they were gone as soon as the “magic” rubbish started popping up. The first piece he found was a large, wrought iron candlestick, a perennial favorite. It was at one point of a pentagram drawn in chalk on the floor. Marcus snorted. If Invoking didn’t drive the people who did it insane, the clichés involved would be almost funny.

With a few quick strokes of his sword he split the candlestick in half and carved a pair of parallel lines through the pentagram, the blade effortlessly severing both the objects and breaking the mess of tangled threads that had been anchored to them. The Weave convulsed slightly as the anchors that were holding the snarled threads in place disappeared and the Weave began to repair itself.

There was enough paraphernalia in the house to make Marcus think that it might have been as long as a year since Freddie Invoked whatever nonsense was now stuck in his head. He went through two rooms with at least a dozen items each, before he felt the impact. Something was trying to go out the back door.

He glanced back, intending to send one of the other Templars to check it out. But he was alone on this run, really he’d been alone since he left home. There was nothing to do but fish a pair of quarters out of his pocket and follow it up himself.

He found a dirty, unkempt man still trying to force his hand through the back door to pick up the small, silvery disk sitting on the step. “You must be Freddie,” Marcus said. “Or should I call you Fredrick?”

Freddie spun around, a snarl crossing his face. “Who are you?” He snapped. “This is private property.”

“No use playing dumb, Freddie Ruin,” Marcus said, holding up the quarters in his off hand and twirling them so the other man could see that they were just like those on the step, with George Washington’s head visible on both sides. “These doors are mine. One way or another, you’re not leaving this room until I’m done with you.”

Something intangible changed about the man and he suddenly seemed less human and more alien. He jerked to his feet as if pulled up by puppet strings, banging one shoulder on the doorframe in the process but giving no signs of actually feeling the impact. “So you’re supposed to be a Janus of some kind?” Freddie slammed his fist into the wall and the whole building shook slightly. “That name is ours!”

Marcus grinned. “Sorry, but your kind have misused it, just like you misuse pretty much anything you set your hand to. And once you mistreat something you forfeit any right to claim it – that makes it mine now.”

He let the two quarters fall to the ground and, instead of bouncing the stuck fast there, completing a web of threads that wouldn’t let anyone pass through the door until he removed them. Then he took the hilt of his broadsword in both hands and waded in.

Practically since the Round Table was organized, back in the misty days of yore, one of the responsibilities of those weavers who were trained in arms was to find and do battle with people who had Invoked sinister creatures. The records called them different things and mentioned various abilities, but they all agreed that no two were alike and, whatever they might be, they took over the mind and body of whoever had called on them and drove them mad.

Even if Freddie hadn’t recognized the two-headed symbol for the Greek god of doors, or left his home scattered with the usual dead animals and asorted paraphrenalia, the dense knot of distorted reality that was tied to him would have tipped Marcus to the fact that he had Invoked something. Time and space weren’t functioning in quite the normal way around old Fred, and that meant pretty much anything was possible.

But still, Freddie grabbing the wall and flinging himself up to the ceiling, which he dangled from using nothing but his fingertips, was way outside Marcus’ normal experience. He barely had time to turn to the side for a decent shoulder block before Freddie’s swinging feet caught him and sent him staggering back to the door.

Freddie dropped to the ground, ripping the ceiling joist he’d been clinging too down along with him. It made for a classic board-and-nail bludgeon and he came after Marcus swinging. The most prudent thing to do was step back through the door and let Freddie slam to a stop when he tried to cross the threshold.

This time it wasn’t a casual step or an exploratory poke, Freddie was out for blood and he slammed into Marcus’ weaving with all the weight of the Invoked presence riding his back. When he hit the threshold the entire doorframe seemed to flex and the pair of quarters that anchored the ward to the door actually skipped back an inch or two. Marcus ignored that and swung his sword in a diagonal cut, sheering through the joist Freddie held, leaving hims with about six inchest of board in one hand, and a good part of the door frame as well. Then he flipped his blade so the silver edge faced out and pressed the attack.

Whatever it was in the old man’s body, and by the dim light of the back windows Marcus could see that “old Freddie” was at least in his late fifties, thus truly ancient by Brightmoor standards, knew better than to let that sword too close to it. So it took the two by four end and flung it at Marcus and backedpedaled. Marcus followed at a brisk walk, point of his sword aimed down and across his body. They came to a stop when Freddie ran out of room to back up through.

With a sudden twist of the hips, Freddie dove low and to Marcus’ left, taking advantage of the fact that Marcus’ current stance made it hard to connect with anything other than a jab. Whatever was in Freddie knew that he would try not to hurt Freddie if at all possible and that meant cutting with the silver edge of the blade and nothing else, certainly no stabbing.

Marcus hissed and kicked his foot out to try and stomp the old man to the ground, but Freddie suddenly planted a hand and skidded to a stop, grabbed Marcus’ leg and tossed him onto his backside. Freddie reared up over him, his hands clasped together to make an all natural club that nearly smashed his head in. Marcus managed to roll out of the way just in time and Freddie left a small dent in the floor instead. The sound of breaking bone followed, but like most Invokers he seemed immune to the pain.

That didn’t mean Marcus could relax, though. The old man might be empowered by a supernatural force but that didn’t mean he stopped being an old man. The shock from the broken bones could very well be shorting out his nervous system, all the activity was a strain on his heart that it might not be able to take, there were a dozen other problems healthy Invokers could run into, and Freddie didn’t look like he’d been healthy back when he first Invoked – he certainly wasn’t after months under the influence.

Under normal circumstances, Marcus reflected grimly, this would have been over already. As soon as an Invoker focused on one Knight he was generally toast, because the Knight’s friends would hack the Invoked power off it’s host before it quite understood the situation. Group tactics wasn’t something they seemed to grasp very well. Without backup, things would take longer.

Marcus kicked his legs up and scissored them around Freddie’s waist, then threw his weight to one side and rolled his opponent down to the ground. Freddie grunted and started to push himself back up but Marcus lost no time chopping his sword down onto the other man’s back. The silver half of the sword chopped into his shoulders and slid back out like a knife through butter.

Freddie convulsed as the silver edge cut the ties the Invoked presence maintained with it’s host, sending it spinning back into wherever it came from, and forcing it to spend long minutes or even hours pulling itself back along the anchor lines it had created in the various pieces of magic junk Freddie had been creating for the last who knows how long. Of course, Marcus didn’t plan on giving it that time. Just like the silver edge could cut through any kind of magic bond he’d encountered in his life, he’d never found anything the iron side couldn’t cut either.

It looked like most of the paraphernalia in the house was gone, he didn’t see that many stray threads left in the house and most of them tied back  to him, not Freddie. But every Invoker had at least one prime object, something that was a part of the original Invocation and that was the nexus of the anchor lines that kept the presumptive magician chained to the thing that rode him. Nine times out of ten, it was a book of some sort and Janus hadn’t found anything like that so far.

A quick check of old Fred himself didn’t reveal anything like that, so Marcus figured it must be in the room somewhere. As he looked around he spotted a dark, squarish lump sitting by the door where he’d first found Freddie. Of course that made sense, neither Freddie or his ride-along would want to leave that behind. Marcus took a step in the book’s direction only to stop short when Freddie’s hand grabbed him around the ankle.

He lacked the manic, supernatural strength he’d had a moment ago. This was the old man, not the supernatural malevolence he’d summoned. Marcus tried to pull free but Freddie was surprisingly determined. “Stop…” He coughed once. “This is… best shot. Not going…”

With a growl, Marcus knelt down and pried Fred’s hand off his ankle and shook his head. “You’ve caused enough mischief already, friend.”

Freddie made another frantic grab but with only one hand and the strength of a man in his late fifties to work with, Marcus was able to get out of his reach easily. Unlike most of the paraphernalia, the book had to be handled carefully. It took a few minutes to strip off most of the out of place threads and pull a little slack into them so there wouldn’t be a backlash when he destroyed their anchor point. That could lead to all sorts of problems.

Then he set fire to the pages and left it to burn itself out on the concrete back step of the house. Then he slung Freddie over one shoulder and carried him to the front door. His cargo made little noises as he bounced along but Marcus wasn’t feeling particularly charitable. It was true, Freddie’s Invocation hadn’t run loose and killed anyone, but the sheer negligence involved in doing such a thing certainly biased Marcus against the man. There were hundreds of cautionary legends about deals with otherworldly forces for a reason – it was almost always a bad idea.

On reaching the door Freddie panicked. It appeared that Marcus’ earlier diagnosis had been right. Destroying his environment, killing most small animals he found and now agoraphobia, all symptoms of what was commonly known as the “Ruin” type of Invocation. While Invoked powers didn’t have any pattern in what they could do, what the did to people did fit into broad categories. Other than his new found dread of open places Freddie would probably recover mentally. Physically, it was another story.

Marcus left him just inside the door and took a post on the front step where he could watch the street and Freddie at the same time. Other than the quiet sounds of Freddie Ruin muttering to himself it was a quiet night. Marcus smiled slightly to himself, wondering how he had managed to find himself doing this kind of thing again. He had left home thinking he wanted to get away from his work as a Templar. Apparently he was wrong.

On the other hand, Templars were dedicated to the defense and growth of a particular place. Maybe he just hadn’t been in the right place back in Fort Wayne. He’d originally planned to leave town after Freddie was taken care of. But winter was coming on and at least he had a place to stay here. In the doorway Freddie moaned softly, almost but not quite enough to cover the sound of ambulance sirens drawing closer, finally responding to the call he’d placed before heading into the house. “Relax, Fred,” Marcus said. “Nights’ almost over.”

Part One
Fiction Index

Author’s Note:

Shadow and Brightmoor is a work of fiction and, like most works of fiction, most of the people and places are a not real. But, while the most of the specifics I’ve mentioned in this story are not real, Brightmoor is an actual part of the city of Detroit and the Farmway is likewise an unofficial subset of the neighborhood where people are taking new and innovative steps to fight urban blight and experiment with new urban lifestyles.

The people there are fighting a real, difficult battle against forces just as oppressive, if not more so, as what Marcus faces in this story. If you wish to know more about Neighbors Building Brightmoor (the neighborhood association Marcus mentions in Part One) and the Farmway, there’s an excellent article about them here.

The Long and Short of It (Where It is Writing)

One of the many things I’m currently juggling is completing the outline for Water Fall. It’s actually mostly finished, but my method of outlining has it’s own idiosyncrasies, which will undoubtedly be the subject of their own post some day soon. But today’s subject is more straightforward: Length. 

When you sit down with an eighty to hundred point beat outline in front of you the thought that you’re going to try and turn all that into a fully fleshed out novel/script/screenplay/whatever can be more than a little daunting. Water Fall is my third crack at writing a novel and the scope of the project is still intimidating, doubly so because it has to keep in mind, expand on and complete things started in Heat Wave. It’s a lot to keep in the air and I have a feeling that I’m going to wind up doing a lot more correcting and rewriting, just in the first draft, than I had to do with Heat Wave. That’s not a bad thing, but it can sometimes be overwhelming. 

But there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction when a long project is finished, and you can sit back (for about ten seconds, at least) and say, “Yes! I have accomplished something.” 

On the other hand, you might expect short stories to be much simpler to write. You just sit down and toss off a couple of thousand words and make sure you don’t contradict yourself in that short span of time, right? 

Well, not so much. For one thing, keeping a short story short is more difficult than it might seem at first glance. Two of the short stories I planned for this summer wound up far exceeding the length I expected of them – both #63 and Shadows and Brightmoor were supposed to be one installment. However, I really don’t want to publish anything too much over 5000 words in a single post, not only because I don’t want to overload people with the Wall of Text o’ Doom but because I simply cannot write that much, plus two other posts for a week, and get it out in good time with good quality. 

For another thing, short stories have little to no time to be leisurely. You can’t putter around when introducing your characters, setting or conflict. Things have to go from minute one or you’re going to wind up with a novella rather than a short story. Finding places to squeeze in all the detail you might want (or need) in your story can be daunting. 

Somewhere in the middle of that is the novella. I might try writing one of those sometime soon, but currently have no plans to work on one before the end of Water Fall sometime next year. But I suspect if you were to try it you’d find it to be somewhere between full novel and short story – just long enough to be intimidating, but short enough that you’ll still feel pressed for space. Fun, no? 

Writing is the use of words. You have to know them, use them sparingly and with maximum impact and keep with them until the job is done. No matter what the scope of your story, your building blocks are the same. There’s a saying among management circles at the library where I work: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” 

The same is true of all stories: They’re written one word a time. 

Keep that in mind, love your words and no matter what kind of story you’re working on, at least the work will be a joy. 

Cool Things: Doomed by Cartoon

In many ways it seemed like William Tweed had it made. He was the boss of one of the most powerful political machines in the history of New York, and possibly the United States. He and his political underlings had arranged to keep large swaths of the public coffers at their personal disposal through graft and patronage. Their takings are estimated at a minimum of $1 billion in today’s money. Some estimates go as high as $8 billion.

Although Tweed would hold only a handful of high profile offices in his life, as an alderman and later as a commissioner he would engineer massive overpayments to contractors and companies that he owned or were owned by his friends and allies. Tammany Hall seemed to be in an unassailable position astride the New York City economy, gorging itself on public money and keeping many dependent on the money they doled out. But in the space of just a year or two a coalition of city fathers, turncoats and one unlikely character artist would break Tammany Hall’s power and leave it flailing for relevance in the new political landscape.

Doomed by Cartoon, by John Adler, tells the tale of Harper’s Weekly and Thomas Nast as they set out to call out and bring down Tweed and his ring.

Thomas Nast is not a well known name today, but many aspects of his work are now irrevocable parts of the American consciousness. Among other things, he created the modern image of Santa Clause and the association of the Republican Party with the elephant. He also helped to popularize the images of Columbia (America personified as statuesque Greco-Roman woman bearing sword and shield), Uncle Sam (Nast is credited with adding the goatee) and the Democratic donkey.

But few of his accomplishments equal the significance of his stand against Tammany Hall (although he is credited with being a deciding factor in the election of Grover Cleveland as well). The contrast between Tweed and Nast is stark. One was a big man, the other small. One was a wealthy man of far reaching influence in business, the other was a very poor business man and had little influence beyond beyond being a goad in public policy. In many ways, it was a bit of an American David and Goliath battle.

But Nast did far surpass Tweed in one respect, and that was his ability to influence people. While Tweed’s methods were usually straight forward bribes and blatant corruption that couldn’t be proved only because he was holding all the cards, Nast leveraged humor, cultural touchstones and memorable images into a platform that goaded his opponents to distraction.

While it’s fair to say that there were far more factors at work in Tweed’s downfall than Nast – inside information, a timely riot, news exposes in other papers – it was Nast’s constant attacks in Harper’s Weekly that kept the issue before the people. Tweed himself acknowledged Nast’s influence when he said, “I don’t give a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

In fact, attempts would be made to bribe Nast into leaving the country for a while, with offers of half a million dollars (worth considerably more then than now) being made. But in the end Nast stayed in New York Tweed went to jail. In an ironic coda, when Tweed escaped a few years later and made his way to Spain by boat, the Spanish police would identify and arrest him using a Nast cartoon as a reference.

It’s actually a rather straightforward political story, in as much as political stories can be straightforward, but what makes Doomed by Cartoon unique is that it includes over 160 Nast illustrations, giving them context and pointing out the ways many of them tie into the events of the Tweed era. As an amateur artist and a student of politics I found it very interesting. Maybe you will too.

Shadow and Brightmoor (Part One)

“Okay, so now we got apple trees.” Xayvion gave one of them a rap with his knuckles. “And you spent the last six weeks harping on this why? They don’t look like much.”

“Apple trees have been doing good for the American people for centuries. Since before we even counted as a country. Besides, these are Harrison apple trees, express delivered by my cousin as a personal favor.” Marcus Harrison handed his shovel to the eight year old boy who had been helping him plant the last tree on Benton Harbor Boulevard. He used the motion to hide his other hand as it looped an invisible pair of half hitches around the trunk of the tree, weaving it into the larger pattern connecting the two dozen apple trees he’d managed to convince his cousin to send him on short notice. The connection sent the tree and it’s branches swaying lightly, as if a wind  was blowing in it’s branches. Marcus smiled. “See? They’re special.”

Xayvion snorted. “More like I’m strong enough to have ’em shaking scared.

Marcus’ attempt to think up a good comeback stalled out when he noticed a beat up old truck slowly rolling down the street. It wouldn’t have looked out of place most places in America, in fact, he’d owned one a lot like it once. It was a dingy green, with a heavy steel toolbox across the back bed. Two men sat in the cab, pretending to pay no attention to anything around them. One of them saw Marcus had noticed them and gave him a hard look.

“We’ve got scrappers,” Marcus said under his breath.

“Yeah, well most of them know better than to hang around Brightmoor,” Xayvion said with a grin. “And after last time? Word will get around. You can go anywhere you want in Detroit and steal scrap out of houses. Only here does someone pull a sword on you for it.”

“He had it coming,” Marcus pointed out, his feet taking him slowly after the truck. “Get on your phone and call your mother. We may have to run them off.” He’d learned much to his chagrin that the police rarely showed up in time to deal with minor vandals in Brightmoor – when they came at all. But he’d also gotten a stern lecture about letting the locals deal with it their own way, and while they didn’t shy away form confrontation, the threat of violence was not an accepted part of their modus operandi. Not that he would have actually bothered to cut them with his sword.

Well, maybe a little.

“It’s okay,” Xayvion said. “They’re probably just headed to old Freddy’s empty houses.” He waved vaguely in the direction of St. Joe, the cross street about a half a block away. “He’s always tearing stuff out of there and tossing it by the road. The scrappers come by and pick through it about once a week, take whatever and leave.”

“And you put up with that?” Marcus asked. In his experience, the people left in Brightmoor didn’t really like it when their neighborhood got messed up.

“They’re his houses,” Xayvion said with a shrug. “We can’t make him not mess them up. Mom says he’s got more right to do that than some.”

Marcus gave him a sly look out of the corner of his eye. “She wouldn’t be referring to a band of mischievous vandals who leave murals on abandoned houses, would she?”

“I don’t even know what you just said,” Xayvion said. “She’s talking about the way we paint the run down shacks so the place doesn’t look like crap.”

“Praise the Lord and pass the paintbrush.” Marcus snorted and shook his head. He’d been to one of those church outreaches and it had to be one of the ten strangest thing’s he’d ever lived through. Still, he didn’t think that the borders of the part of Brightmoor unofficially known as the Farmway extended along St. Joe in that direction. “This Freddie guy a part of the NBB?”

“I don’t think so,” Xayvion said slowly. “He moved in a couple years ago, I know he talked about tearing down some houses and putting in something there. But people just stopped talking about him much last fall and the scrappers started coming.”

Marcus walked back to the place where they’d planted the apple trees. Finding buyers for them and getting them delivered had been his first contribution to Brightmoor, and of all the different aspects of the family business he had expected to find a use for in Brightmoor, orchard keeper had not been high on the list. In fact, avoiding the family business entirely had been the major reason he had come to Detroit in the first place. Ironically, he was about to put his hand back into yet another aspect of it.

He hefted his backpack and dug his phone out of it, pausing long enough to check that his sword was still tucked along one side, the hilt poking out of the top for easy access. It always paid to be careful.

“You’re not planning on looking for trouble, are you?” Xayvion asked.

“Just going to make sure they really leave,” Janus said, slinging the pack onto his back and thumbing his phone to life. “You’d better go and let your mom know there were scrappers in the area, so she can get the word out. If they come back and want to top off their load, people can be on the lookout.”

“All right,” Xayvion said doubtfully. “But don’t go starting nothing. Monique says you got a temper and we can’t have you running loose and scaring people. The city ignores us right now, we don’t want them to change their mind.”

“No swordplay, I promise.” Marcus started down the street, then paused and glanced back at Xayvion. “By the way, is there a bank around here?”

“A bank?” The kid asked, clearly thrown by the sudden change in subject.

“Yeah, you know, places full of suits and money? I need to get a roll of quarters…”

——–

Marcus had met a lot of different kinds of weavers in his life, but Detroit’s Lord Caledonensis was the first one who managed to claim leadership of the local Order of Merlin and run an art gallery. There were similarities between art and weaving, he supposed, but he’d never expected a person who specialized in highly theoretical magic weaving to take an interest in those aspects of it.

Then again, it was the nature of research and development to prize creativity, so maybe it wasn’t so surprising.

Either way, he felt a bit like a bull in a china shop as he walked in, his jeans and T-shirt still dirty from the morning’s work, and loomed over the saleswoman. Looming wasn’t what he intended, of course, but he’d inherited the famous Harrison build that had made his family natural farmers since time immemorial. He did his best to slouch in a non-threatening fashion and asked for the owner. It took twenty minutes of wheedling before he finally got her to page the weaver Lord and tell him it was Council business. From the way the woman acted when he’d first told her that it was clear she wasn’t a part of any local weaver’s Order, so Marcus was just grateful she’d passed the message on and he settled in to wait.

It turned out he didn’t have to wait long. About five minutes after his message was passed, a short, round man with paint on his fingers made his way out of the back of the gallery and shook hands. Marcus couldn’t help studying the man with a critical eye. He’d only known two other men who had held the title Caledonensis in his life but they had both been somewhat more, well, wizardly. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting from Detroit’s leading theoretical weaver, but it hadn’t been someone who looked like he taught middle school art classes.

Not that there was anything wrong with middle school art classes, or teaching them.

“Well, this is something of a surprise,” the weaver lord said, pumping Marcus’ hand up and down enthusiastically. “I haven’t met an out-of-towner in some time.”

“Pleasure is likewise, m’lord,” Marcus said quietly, old habits slipping back into place almost, but not quite, without any effort at all. “A little business in town I was hoping you could help me with.”

“Of course.” Lord Caledonensis glanced at his receptionist then said, “Well, business is best conducted in the office. If you’d follow me?”

The shorter man escorted Marcus back into a room that qualified as an office only in that it did contain a desk and was probably the place Caledonensis managed his business from. But the desk and pair of guest chairs by it were mostly a sideshow, the bulk of the room was dedicated to hanging canvases and a large easel set up in the center of the floor. The other man had apparently been working on one of those lovely abstract art things before Marcus had called him away.

Rather than giving him a chair, Lord Caledonensis took Marcus on a slow but purposeful tour of the canvases on the walls. Most of it was the kind of thing that didn’t make much sense to a man who hadn’t taken art classes for half his life, so Marcus kept most of his attention on the conversation, although he tried to be rude about it. After introductions, the Merlinite got straight down to business.

“I have to confess I wasn’t sure I was going to see a new weaver come into Detroit in my lifetime,” the portly weaver said. “I am a bit curious as to what brought you to us.”

“Personal business, actually,” Marcus said with a shrug. “I left the Anthony Wayne chapter of the Knights Templar a couple of years ago and wandered into Detroit. It was my intention not to show my face before an Arbiter’s Council ever again.”

“A wandering Templar?” The other man looked honestly confused. “A bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?”

“As I said, m’lord, I resigned. It’s strictly coincidence I’m here, and I was only able to find you by pestering my cousin until he pulled in some favors and found out your name.”

“Well.” Caledonensis peered at him with an evaluating squint. It was a bit unnerving. “I’m afraid your stated intention of never appearing before a Council again will not be broken, at least not yet. You see, there is no Council in Detroit. At least, not any more.”

“What?” Marcus felt a little wind go out of his sails. “Why not?”

“Not enough membership,” Caledonensis said. “There are only three Orders left functioning in the city these days. The Order of Merlin, of course, along with The Order of the White Ash and the Watchers in the Howling Dark. That’s not enough for quorum, even if we had an aware non-weaver who was willing to sit on the Council with us, which we don’t. The local Council was officially dissolved ten months ago.”

“The Knight’s Hospitaller aren’t here any longer?” Marcus asked, a growing feeling of unease gnawing in his gut.

“No. The membership of the Motor City branch had been declining for the last four years. They officially disbanded and merged with the Crossroads of America chapter, which was actually what led to the Council folding.” Caledonensis’ voice took on a dissatisfied tone. “Tom Cross arranged for it.”

“That’s Tom,” Marcus murmured. “Expanding the borders by any means available.”

“Regardless, there’s no Council left in Detroit,” Caledonensis said, a bitter not creeping into his voice. “The Order of Merlin is also looking at the possibility of combining our section with-”

“Lord Caledonensis, forgive me but I’m not interested in the political details. Even in Fort Wayne I wasn’t seneschal.” Marcus waved his hand vaguely in the direction of Brightmoor. “What bothers me is I think I’ve found an Invoker and I’m trying to find enough war weavers to safely contain it.”

The shorter man sighed. “That’s very noble of you, Marcus, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. Sam Cross wants all Hospitaller activities routed through the Allen County Council in Fort Wayne. I don’t understand how he expects to manage a Knight chapter than covers four states from there but there’s not much I can do from here to change his mind.”

“That’s true.” Marcus rubbed his forehead. Like Lord Caledonensis, Samaritan Cross was the title given to the leader of a branch Order, in his case a chapter of the Knight’s Hospitaller. He’d worked with them in Fort Wayne but not Sam Cross directly. “Okay, I’ll try and work through some people I know, but Invokers just get worse as time goes by. Is there any chance that you-”

“No.” It was the Merlinite’s turn to cut him off. “Marcus, people are abandoning this city in record numbers and not even weavers have found a way to unravel that pattern yet. Until some kind of agreement can be restored about how to best serve both the weavers and the city as a whole, each Order must look to it’s own. I have no one I can spare to help you.”

Marcus felt his temper surge but firmly tamped it down. “Very well, m’lord.” He absently put one hand in his coat pocket and finered the roll of quarters there. “I figured that this was a possibility, though it’s upsetting. I’ve found creative solutions for this kind of thing in the past, I’ll do it again. I can find my own way out.”

“Wait a minute, Marcus,” Caledonensis called. “Don’t be rash. Even Mad Anthony’s Templars wouldn’t try and take on an Invoker alone!”

But the only person who could hear him was the receptionist. Marcus was long gone.

Small Picture, Big Picture

By now you’re probably not at all surprised to learn that I like to put big ideas in my stories. From Circuit’s love of large projects to Helix’s complex family tree to the question of whether we as a society can deal with outstanding people who are outstanding in ways we don’t like, big ideas are the bread and butter of this blog. The problem with big ideas is they tend to take us over.

Say you read a new book, one you really love. How often do you catch yourself measuring everything by that book? Let’s say you took my advice a few months back and read up on Girl Genius. Then you went out and read Whitechapel Gods right after that. I can almost guarantee that you like one of those stories much more than the other, and what’s more, you probably measured them against each other.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Measuring ideas is something humans are hardwired to do, and comparison is one of the key tools we have to do it with. But the problem with running into big ideas is they often become our standard for everything, at least for a short time, and that can throw our perspective out of whack, especially if we keep going from big idea to big idea. Eventually we wind up kind of aimless, just sort of wandering from fad to fad with no idea what we’re doing or what’s really going on at all.

Oddly enough, one of the easiest ways to pick out a person’s big picture is not to walk up to them and ask, “What do you think is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”

For starters, the cool people are all going to tell you, “42.” (So will anyone else who’s read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) But more than that, most people haven’t thought it over enough to actually give you a clear answer, or in some cases even realize that they have a big idea at all. (Note: In some circles, this blog included, not having a big idea counts as a big idea. It’s just not a great idea…)

No, the simplest way to work out a person’s big idea is to pay attention to their small ones. All ideas are interconnected, and your big idea defines how you look at all your smaller ones. With a lot of practice and a solid understanding of humanity you can start to extrapolate exactly what it is people are thinking about all the time based on what they’re thinking and talking about at any given minute. All the ideas are connected, even if the core idea is just, “Shiny!” (Actually, that one’s pretty easy to figure out.)

In the West, the study of ideas is called philosophy, and a lot of Western traditions think of philosophers as wise men and advisers, people who take a hand in advising their community and pointing out potential pitfalls and errors. They’re valuable men, but often rather mundane. In our fiction, they tend to be either well educated men who have devoted their whole life to learning; or people who have simply spent their whole life working, the people they meet and the tasks they carry out teaching them the value of some ideas and the weaknesses of others.

In the East, people who study ideas fall into a group best described as sages. They are men who live in isolation, taking part in community life only when it comes to them for advice or, at times, drags them forcibly back to civilization. Their ideas give them power, physical, political and often in fiction spiritual and supernatural. But the time, dedication, isolation and natural talent needed to develop a sage’s wisdom sets them irrevocably apart from other men. They tend to keep to themselves and associate primarily with other sages. A sage who steps into the world will change it in huge ways, at the risk of destroying one or both of them in the process.

The Weavers of the Heartlands are a group of people who live in the American Midwest. They are a collision of philosopher and sage, at once seeking to live in ways different from their community and shape it and nurture it.

Like the witches and wizards of fairy tales or the sages of Eastern traditions, they often eschew the stifling bustle of humanity that comes with cities, and that’s not surprising. Like those people, the Weavers have understanding and power that exceeds what most people strangely consider “normal”. However, these powers stem from the nature and depth of their thought, not from a natural talent or selective blessing. Rather it is the connection of things and ideas, and the careful analysis of those patterns of connections, that makes a Weaver powerful. And in turn, the ideas Weavers carry are carefully reasoned, vigorously defended and actively prosecuted, putting them in constant conflict with one another and with humanity at large.

Of course, the modern world looks poorly on direct conflict, and magic by any name has baggage of it’s own. So the conflicts between Weavers are a quieter thing these days.

But not gone. No, the Weaver’s magic is alive and well, and in the most unexpected of places…

Cool Things: Quintessence

Some books try to create a cleverly envisioned world that replaces the world we know with a something that is different from everything we know. History, geography and sometimes even physics are totally alien things. Some books replace only the tiniest possible things and painstakingly work to make everything else the same, so that we are struck by the ways the story is like coming home – except not. It’s the rare book that shoots for something in the middle. Quintessence is one of those books.

David Walton gives us the Europe that we know and love, with a history that is mostly the same, with one major caveat: The Earth is flat.

It’s been scientifically proven and everything.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Age of Exploration is playing out a little differently there  than it did here. But it is playing out, regardless. Explorers have discovered a land literally on the edge of the earth full of gold, gems, new plants and animals and a host of other wonders. The problem is, all the explorers who came back slowly sickened and died, most before they could even make it back to England.

Meanwhile, Europe is embroiled in the usual political, social and religious controversies that have defined that continent pretty much ever since the Romans decided it might be fun to conquer it (and perhaps even before.) Before our story is over, mad alchemists, royal surgeons, gentlemen scholars and Protestant leaders will all be involved in exploring the new land and the strange nature of quintessence, the alchemical substance that suffuses it. Also, the Spanish Inquisition makes an appearance (bet you weren’t expecting that.)

Quintessence has a strange charm to it. Most of the characters are ideologues, but perhaps that’s not surprising given the time they come from. A person had to be highly motivated in order to undertake the kind of exploratory journey that is at the heart of the tale, and even today it’s usually idealism that motivates that kind of behavior. And, of course, I have no problem with fiction that’s suffused with ideas.

What’s better is, most of the ideas are given fair hearing. Even Catholicism, which is something of the villain of the book, has sympathetic voices as well. On top of that, the characters are believable in their pursuit of their ideals, not simply cardboard cutouts that spew speeches. They struggle with their motives and make surprising choices from time to time.

At it’s core, Quintessence is a fun adventure story that delivers exactly what you want, strange sights and exciting times, but leaves you with a little extra to chew on and the promise of second helpings to come.

A Correction to Yesterday’s Post

It may seem strange to talk about making corrections to a work of fiction, but as big and complex as world building can often get, it’s easy to loose track of details and let little things slip through, especially when you’re playing against type.

In yesterday’s story, Captain Rainer tells Elizabeth to avoid using the term “space navy”. This is because The United States Combined Orbital and Deep Space Forces didn’t start as an outgrowth of the United States Navy.

Many sci-fi settings adopt a naval theme for their space forces because they envision large fleets of ships moving through interplanetary or even interstellar space, their massive crews working to keep the juggernaut of galactic space power moving forward. However, this overlooks the fact that military activity in space is likely to start with small ships, probably crewed by no more than a dozen people and much similar to the heavy bombers of yesteryear than the much larger ships of the Navy. Their mandate will likely have more to do with ensuring that hostile forces stay clear of strategic orbitals than forming large platforms for spaceborn firepower. The USAF handles many of those tasks already and, while it’s true that the Navy does similar things using carrier air power, the fact that the Air Force only deals with those situations makes them more likely to take the lead in developing space power. Once that development begins, bureaucratic inertia suggest they’ll keep it until the Orbital Force break free of the Air Force just as the Air Force once did from the Army.

What does all that have to do with yesterday’s short story?

It has to do with rank. You see, the Air Force was once a part of the Army, and thus uses Army nomenclature when referring to it’s enlisted men and officers. Among other things, this means that Captain Rainer is an O-3 like an Army captain, not an O-6 like a Naval captain, which is why he’s in charge of recruiting at an aging space station rather than commanding a larger garrison somewhere. But more importantly, it means there are no Chief Petty Officers. Rather, ComODS has Master Sergeants, the equivalent to Chiefs in Army, Air Force and Marine ranks. So Elizabeth didn’t get insider information on the application requirements from a Chief Computer Technician’s Mate, she got it from a Master Sergeant.

Naval Chiefs are handy for sci-fi writers for a number of reasons. One is that their rating is right there in the title, which is part of the reason why I accidentally used it in yesterday’s story. The rank also sounds very authoritative, which is nice. But most of all, it’s a naval rank, and space navies are the default for sci-fi writers.

I debated about going back and making the change. However, since my intended history for the Extrasolar Age has the U.S. space military tradition (and several others) founded in the Air Force, I have ultimately decided to go back and edit the story rather than letting it stand as is.

Now, I’m going to pause to consider whether effort expended was worth time invested. I’ve used over five hundred words to explain why I’m changing four. We must as we must, I suppose…

Citizenship

“Do you approve of the citizenship exam in its current form?”

Elizabeth thought about that question. It didn’t seem wise to disapprove of an exam she was currently taking, but she was also being monitored for truthfulness. It was probably best to answer honestly. “No.”

“Interesting. Do you disapprove of a particular part or the exam as a whole?”

At the moment what she disapproved of most was talking to a blank speaker in a wall. With no tone of voice or expression to judge by she couldn’t get any feel at all for how the interview was going, whether she was doing well or not. It put her on edge, although she wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t the point.

The ideal of total fairness was elusive in the citizenship exam, current thought put as many layers of anonymity were put between examiner and examinee as possible. Even the voice coming from the speaker was filtered to nearly expressionless neutrality and she knew that her own was likewise altered to the point where the person interviewing her had no idea of her gender, place of birth or age.

It still seemed a little silly to her. But at the same time, Elizabeth knew that if she were to test for her citizenship without all those safeguards her odds of achieving success would drop dramatically. That wasn’t her real problem with the exam. “Giving someone the full rights of citizenship just because they reach a certain age seems foolhardy to me. What’s the difference between being born in the United States and outside of them?

“If foreign nationals become citizens by first being green card holders and then taking the citizenship exam, then the children of citizens should receive green cards at birth and test for their citizenship as well.” Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, stared up at the featureless metal ceiling and wished there were something more interesting to look at. “The people are the government of this country, we should check that they actually know how to govern before entrusting it to them.”

The voice on the other end of the speaker was silent for a moment. “That’s an interesting way to put it. Of course, that idea is hardly a new one. But at the same time, there’s a lot of room for discrimination if we were to test everyone.”

“Somehow, I doubt this process leaves much room for that.” Her sarcasm was lost on whoever was on the other side of the speaker, filtered out by legions of computer subroutines. But she found it therapeutic.

“It doesn’t seem that way, no,” the voice conceded. “But there are a lot of places prior to this where things aren’t so strictly monitored. Even now, it can happen here and there. And the process of signing up for your citizenship exam can be full of complications as well. It was bad enough when we only had national and ethnic difficulties to contend with. When you throw in interplanetary rivalries, not to mention interstellar ones, the potential for discriminate is just too great.”

“If it’s such a bad idea, why have any kind of subjective testing in the citizenship exam at all? I’m sure the process could be automated fairly painlessly.”

“To go off of your previous point, what makes you assume that governing is something that is objective, and not subjective?” the voice asked. “I think I’d enjoy exploring that question at length but the time for this interview is almost over. But consider this. Citizenship comes with benefits and responsibilities. The clearest benefit is the protection of the government. So is being part of governing  a benefit or a responsibility? And if it’s a responsibility, should people who have enjoyed the benefit since birth naturally assume a part of the responsibility at some point? Just something to think about.”

There was a click from the door of the interviewing room. The voice came back once more. “You’re now free to exit to the lobby. Someone will be with you shortly.”

Elizabeth got up and stepped out into the brightly lit lobby of the United States 21st Circuit Courthouse on Outer Centauri Station. It was nearly 1400 and she had been awake since 0400, but she didn’t feel very tired. There had been plenty of time for sleep on the long flight out from Mid Centauri syncorbit and the early flight had been mostly empty, so catching up on her rest hadn’t been a problem.

Fortunately the irregular sleep schedule hadn’t hindered her during the written portion of the exam. She felt less confident about her performance during the interview but it was such a subjective thing she wasn’t even sure how a good interview might have gone. With a sigh Elizabeth plopped down on a bench and looked around.

Unlike the much newer Middle Centauri station, Outer Centauri was a relic from humanity’s first push into deep space. Most public buildings she had been in were full of creeping vines and small bushes bred for maximum leaf size and the greatest possible rate of photosynthesis, natural machines dedicated to turning carbon dioxide into breathable air and usable compost as fast as possible. However, the nutrient frames necessary to sustain those plants had to be purpose built into the structure. The Circuit Court building was far too old for such an apparatus, making do with ferns, large and small, growing out of pretty much every place a home for one could be found. She fidgeted with the leaf of a fern growing next to her bench and did her best to ignore her nerves.

Deep space stations had complex and incredibly redundant biospheres designed to sustain human life even in the face of a catastrophic failure of many of their most technologically advanced systems. The contrast to her own life was stark. If she failed the citizenship exam here she wouldn’t have another chance at what she wanted. The exam could be retaken, but not for another year. By then, she would be too old-

“Elizabeth O’Sullivan?” Her thoughts were interrupted by a tall skinny man with the posture of a long time deep space resident. He kept the fingers of one hand resting lightly against the wall and his knees bent, ready to propel himself in whatever direction necessary if there was a gravity fluctuation. Elizabeth stood and crossed over to him and held out her hand.

“I’m pleased to report you passed, Ms. O’Sullivan,” the man said as he shook her hand. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you very much,” she said. “Are you the person who conducted my interview?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” he replied, his expression suggesting he didn’t think that made sense any more than she did. “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Elizabeth pulled a tab out of one pocket and held it up. “There was a little datawork I was hoping to get filed while I was here in the Courthouse, if I passed.”

“Of course.” He led Elizabeth down a short path between the shrubbery to a small console. It was a jarring sight, and not just because it was nestled between a pair of rather tall bushes to give privacy from the desks and clerks on either side. It was common knowledge that the government still used strictly physical interface equipment, even though almost no one else did. Or, you might say, because no one else did. The very archaic nature of physint equipment theoretically made it more secure. Still, it was odd to see, especially considering why she had come.

The clerk motioned for Elizabeth to have a seat on one side of a desk in a sleek metallic chair. A display folded up and exposed a touch board which he quickly began tapping on. “What kind of paperwork were you wanting to file?” He asked with a smile. “Voter registration? Information request? Or perhaps an action in small claims court?”

Elizabeth knew what a person sounded like when they were humoring her. She was hearing it now. She also knew exactly what to say to wipe that smile off of his face. “I’m here to sign up for the United States Combined Orbital/Deep Space Forces.”

The smile disappeared but he wasn’t shocked like Elizabeth had expected. His expression became blank for a moment, and then got a little sad. “I see. You realize that there are certain pieces of information I’ll need from you?”

Elizabeth held up the phys tab again. “I’ve heard. That’s why I brought this along.”

The clerk nodded, taking the tab and carefully slotting it into his desk computer. “This may take a few-” He stopped as the screen changed. Apparently it hadn’t taken that long after all. After a few moments of looking things over, he cleared his throat. “It looks like everything is in order. Would you come this way please?”

Elizabeth stood up and followed along behind him. They didn’t go back towards the lobby but instead stepped further into the building, following a path into a long hallway, free of the normally ubiquitous plant life, and through a door into what appeared to be the equivalent of a space station’s deep computing core.

Most modern computing was done wirelessly in a very decentralized fashion. But the really number intensive calculations still needed concentrated, high end processing power to pull off. Things like artificial gravity, atmospheric regulation and Hawking generators still needed the close, careful monitoring of dedicated computer subsystems. Elizabeth had never thought that government computing might have similar needs. She wondered if the system she was seeing was the US Government’s primary computing node on the station, or whether this one just served the courthouse. Given the fairly paranoid level of security most governments showed towards their digital records, she was willing to bet this facility just served the courthouse, which made it’s size seem a bit excessive.

As they moved down into the core Elizabeth saw signs that hinted at why the area might be so big. In at least three different places she saw people working to maintain systems that were at least fifty years out of date and appeared to be hooked into the core by mysterious, complex sequences of strange equipment that might have been better suited to Frankenstein’s lab than a modern computing center. The courthouse was obviously using a lot of obsolete equipment still, whether for security’s sake or bureaucratic necessity she wasn’t sure.

The whole room was circular and it looked like all of the clerk’s desks formed a semi-circle around the top. Elizabeth followed her clerk through a series of stairs, catwalks and ledges holding various kinds of equipment down to the ground floor of the core and from there into another office.

A man in the drab blue day uniform of an officer in the U.S. ComODS Forces leaned on a desk there, facing towards the back wall with one hand tapping a command on the desk’s touch screen over and over. He held a diagnostic readout in his other hand and a panel on the wall behind the desk was open and more old-fashioned cables ran from there to the desk. He didn’t look up as Elizabeth and her escort came in.

“Be with you in a second,” the officer muttered. “Trouble with the old networks.”

Elizabeth glanced at the nameplate on the officer’s desk. “Have you tried flushing your desk processor’s mothergel, Captain Rainer? I’ve heard that standard model Gallagher desk computers made in the last decade or so have a bad tendency to develop a memory if it isn’t swapped out every so often.”

The captain finally turned around to look at them, slightly surprised. “That’s right. But we don’t exactly have the budget to swap out something that expensive every couple of weeks, so I have to run diagnostics before I can authorize the substitution. Have a seat ma’am. What can I do for you?”

“I’m here to enlist, Captain.”

He didn’t look at all surprised. “And I’m guessing you want to join the Biocomputing Corps.”

“Yes, sir.” Elizabeth nodded. Her escort handed the captain the data tab she had given him before.

The officer took the tab and set it aside, pulling an adhesive label out of a printing slot on his desk and tearing it in half. He pressed the adhesive side of one half of the label onto the tab while he spoke. “Very well, ma’am. If you’ve been brought this far then you’ve already produced documentation showing that you qualify for admission to the testing phase of the program. While officially biocomps are so rare we can’t afford to turn one away, they’re also expensive enough to build and train that we want to make sure you actually qualify.”

Elizabeth settled into the chair at the captain’s desk. The room had more in common with the blank, sterile interview room she’d been in a few minutes ago than the artfully arranged green lobby she’d just left. The significance wasn’t lost on her. This man was another hurdle along the way. “Do these tests include calling ahead, taking me the long way around and seeing if I can basic computing problems in nearly obsolete computer equipment?”

Rainer paused in the middle of attaching the other half of his label to a device she wasn’t familiar with to give her a hard look. “As a matter of fact, they do. Turning the human brain into a top of the line biocomputing system, whether civilian or military, is a huge investment of time and materiel. And a ComODS biocomp gets more than just the ability to think forty times faster than the standard human with machine precision – you’re going to be at the heart of a warship. So forgive us if we test you in any way we can think of, at any time we want.”

The captain’s tone suggested he was anything but apologetic. He waited for a moment, as if expecting a reaction, then continued. “It’s going to be a long, hard, ugly process. You may wash out, with nothing to show for the time and effort you put into the program but two years spent away form home and a really nice haircut. You may wind up with your brain rewired to smell colors. There’s a very small chance you may become a permanent vegetable. But we need you, so that concludes the mandatory scaring you to death part of the interview. Regulations state that you have twenty-four hours in which to consider whether you want go through with this or not.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Elizabeth said.

The captain eyed her for a minute then, apparently resigned to the fact that he hadn’t managed to run her off with a frightening speech, grunted and slotted her tab, label and all, into the computer rig on his desk. As she had expected, Rainer’s computer trouble had magically cleared up an he had no trouble getting the data to load. The captain perused the files with the eye of an experienced paper warrior. “Math aptitude looks good,” he murmured. “Good IQ, high emotional resiliency profile.” He frowned. “What’s this?”

“That’s a gel processor cleanup routine I wrote,” Elizabeth answered. She knew exactly which file he meant as it was the only one he hadn’t mentioned so far, other than the basic biographical data that you would expect to find on any kind of job application. “It enhances the performance of older systems by as much as forty percent when part of a proper maintenance routine.”

“Older systems?” The captain asked, curious.

“Aging systems are at the heart of any peacetime space navy,” she said. “More time is spent maintaining them than developing new systems. Am I right?”

Rainer winced and nodded. “True, although I recommend not mentioning that fact until you reach a position of seniority. And you should probably refrain from ever using the word ‘navy’ except as an insult.”

“Right,” she murmured. “Interservice rivalry.”

“That aside, why did you include it here?”

“Because it’s a part of the application process,” Elizabeth said blandly. “Although it’s not part of the stated requirements. Another one of your tests, I presume.”

“No reason denying that,” the captain said with a shrug. “What I’m asking is how you knew we’d be looking for it.”

Elizabeth sighed. “There’s a lot of different places you can find out,” she said, wiggling a bit further back into her chair in an attempt to keep blood moving. “I’m guessing that there’s some bad advice seeded out there by people like you, and presumably you make sure there’s one or two real sets of guidelines for the test out there, too. Then all that information proliferates through planetary Internets. But in my case it was possible to skip all that data sifting by finding a retired Master Sergeant that had worked to set up the program, then retired. He told me that, at the time the program started, prospective applicants were expected to show initiative in addressing computing issues, and it was likely that that requirement was still in place. Twenty-five years is apparently a very short time in the world of military regulations.”

“And did it ever occur to you that his giving you that information might be prohibited?” Rainer asked darkly.

“No, actually, but it did occur to him. So I pestered him into looking it up, and he was only supposed to keep quiet about aspects of the program which were not made public.” Elizabeth shrugged. “Requirements for applying to the corps was made public, so it wasn’t off limits. I would suggest that you adjust the regulations if you want to maintain the mystery requirement.”

“Yes,” he said quietly, making a note on his computer screen. “So it would seem.” Once he was finished with that, Captain Reiner deposited the tab into a plastic envelope and pressed down on the molecular seal, creating a nearly impossible to duplicate bond that would ensure the documents weren’t tampered with. Then he put the other half of the label into a file. “From this point out you are BioComputing Cadet Candidate St. Claire. By law, you are forbidden to tell anyone of your identity in the BioComputing Corps or even to mention that you have applied. If you mention either of these facts to anyone you will be immediately disqualified.”

“I understand, sir,” Elizabeth replied.

Captain Reinter tucked the envelope away in a drawer. “I’m not really sure you do, Cadet Candidate. But you have twenty-four hours to think about it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She got down from the chair and sketched something like a salute, then headed for the door.

——–

Rainer watched the door slide closed and sighed, then stood up from the desk and began closing down computer console. It was time to move back to his regular office. He glanced over at the clerk, who had watched the entire interview quietly from one corner of the room. “You going to come stand as witness when the paperwork’s signed, Sam?”

He sighed and shook his head. “She’s twelve years old, Brian.”

“First biocomp application?” The captain asked, pausing as he collected the diagnostic equipment he’d been using.

“How can you be so calm?” The clerk demanded.

“Like it or not, she’s an adult under the law,” Rainer said. “She passed her citizenship exam and has all the right, privileges and responsibilities that entails. She can join if she wants. And we can’t make a biocomputer out of the brain of someone much older than her. They just won’t be resilient enough.”

Sam shook his head. “Craziest law I’ve ever heard of, when a person not even in their teens can be declared an adult and have their head chopped open. What is this country coming to?”

“People have been asking that since it was founded. At one time kids were locked away from the rest of society for twelve years before they were given any idea how the world really worked.” Rainer slapped the clerk in the back. “Besides, the operation is done by nanotech. No bone saws involved. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I think I’ll need it more tomorrow. Do you think she’ll come back?”

“The smart ones always do,” Rainer said sadly. “The smart ones always do.”

Fiction Index

Genrely Speaking: Hard Sci-Fi

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the show where I come out and explain what I mean when I mention various genres and/or subgenres of fiction. I do this in no small part because everyone looks at classifications a bit differently and since I am always in need of content want to be totally clear about what I mean when I use these terms it’s best I spell it out so I have something to link back to rather than defining the terms each time they come up.

Today’s genre is “hard” sci-fi. This is science fiction for the thinking man, something that clocks in at 4 or more on the Mohs’ scale probably qualifies. You won’t find much in the way of laser swords or rubber forehead aliens here, hard sci-fi takes itself and its readers very seriously. The hallmarks of hard sci-fi are as follows:

1) A strong emphasis on technology and science as it works in reality (and thus, in the story.) Hard sci-fi starts with the premise that science fiction needs to have a strong grounding in science. Generally, this doesn’t just mean basic physics and chemistry. Any and all science used in the story must be explained to the reader and the scientific facts (or as-yet unproven hypothesis that the writer is betting will be proven) is important. The narrative will spend time explaining some or all of the high-level concepts the story deals with, be they quantum physics or alien biology. How in-depth this goes depends on the author and their goals.

2) A tendency to advocate a particular kind of technology and the social changes the author thinks it will bring about. In other words, many hard sci-fi writers want science to be doing specific things in our culture and write about what they think science doing those things would be like. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact pretty much every story is a writer saying, “I’d like to see something like this.” However, in hard sci-fi creating a new tool to make the change come about is the story, or at least one major part.

3) Strong belief that humanity need simply progress scientifically to achieve better philosophy and life. The hard sci-fi author’s love of science borders on a bizarre kind of Messiah complex. Arthur C. Clark’s maxim that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is probably the most blatant statement of this principle. Another is the way many aliens in hard sci-fi sound like they walked out of a cosmic horror tale (see this post for more on cosmic horror, although Lovecraft and Co will eventually get their own post, I’m sure). Not only are aliens made deliberately, well, alien to humanity they’re often much more technologically advanced and allowed to do inexplicable things simply because they’re technologically advanced. This point is allowed to contradict point one.

What are the weaknesses of hard sci-fi? Well that’s a difficult question. You’ve probably already gathered that I’m not the biggest fan of hard sci-fi. In fact, I said as much last week. So my critique might be a bit harsher here than it is in some of the genre write-ups for genres I really love. That in mind, here we go.

First, the tendency to explain all the science does horrible things to the flow and pacing of the story. Some hard sci-fi authors have great stories roaring along until they stop for five or six pages and expound on theoretical quantum physics. Once things start rolling again you’re just frustrated and need a break. Eventually the story will draw you back but you’ll probably never get back to the level of your first investment. You can avoid this and still get all that exposition in, but so few authors in the genre actually pull it off.

Second, the way hard sci-fi handles human vs. non-human intelligence is directly contrary to its core tenants. Humans are almost always running into weird aliens with more advanced technology that somehow can’t quite figure out human psychology and/or behavior. Yet humans tend to get a handle on aliens pretty quickly. There’s a huge array of reasons for this, from the desire to avoid rubber forehead aliens to the fact that the writers are human, and thus can only create aliens that make sense to humans (unless the aliens behave randomly, but that has a new host of problems.) This is a problem because hard sci-fi says that technology should be the defining element in advancement. Thus, aliens should have an easier time understanding humans than the opposite. On the other hand, a strong AI will probably understand humanity just fine but it’s creators will find it almost inscrutable.

Part of this is just because the story wants to keep the focus on the human characters, but then, why be so hard line on “hard” sci-fi? While it’s not something every reader will notice, it sometimes galls me.

What are the strengths of hard sci-fi? Hard sci-fi does have some great strengths. It’s the best genre for asking hard questions about what technology we’re making and what we intend to do with it. Serious philosophical issues underlay these questions and the very serious matter of technology and human development give these sometimes-abstract questions very immediate consequences.

Hard sci-fi is not a genre for everyone. There’s a reason laser swords and rubber forehead aliens are what define science fiction for most people – they’re fun. Also, the people who are telling those stories have spent huge amounts of time studying the art of story and making their stories as interesting as possible. Hard sci-fi writers are less invested in story or fun, but that’s not saying they avoid it entirely.

There’s also no saying that hard sci-fi couldn’t do both, make great stories and still carry most or even all of their scientific and philosophical emphasis. But it will take a lot of time, effort and skill. Right now, the genre is still defining itself. I find it worth a visit every now and then, but not something I’d want to read all the time.