Hiatus

When I first concepted Pay the Piper late last year I had no idea how future events would play out (as is true of most of us). It seemed like a fairly harmless lark poking fun at Silicon Valley and reminding our Tech Overlords that they, too, are mortal. The irony of my writing it on The Internet (TM) was not lost on me, and I felt would show that my tongue is firmly in cheek. However, over the last six months I’ve watched a lot of public life erode. We actually seem to be slipping into dedicated opposing camps as time goes on and I’ve come to question whether the story I’m writing is truly helpful – to myself if nothing else – and whether I like where I had planned to go. For now, Pay the Piper is on hiatus as I evaluate what I should do with it. In the meantime, look forward to a return of essays, starting next week, for the near future.

 

– Nate

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Postdated Vacation!

Hey guys! Dropping a quick post to let you know I’ll be taking the next couple of weeks off, due to being on vacation – or rather, being back from a vacation. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks, but in truth I was actually absent for most of that time! This time around I managed to get a running start and had content to post for the time I would be gone, but now I’ll need to build a buffer back up, so I won’t be posting anything beyond this today or next week. Thanks for tuning in and reading and I’ll see you in April!

Nate

Castlevania is a Work of Beauty

I hate vampires.

But for Netflix’s Castlevania, I’ll make an exception.

Spoiler warning for the show, by the way.

The story of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades and Alucard on a private crusade to topple Dracula, Lord of Vampires is grim and overly gory at times, but it manages to do what many shows about dark topics attempt but rarely succeed at – show troubled, almost unsavory people working towards a worthy and noble goal in a way that makes us like people we might otherwise not. While not without flaws, it is an excellent piece of entertainment.

Probably the strongest aspect of Castlevania is it’s villain. Dracula is brooding and dark, but he manages to come off as sympathetic rather than tiresome, a rare achievement. He has a deep seated hatred of humanity but he comes by it honestly. Too honestly, to be frank. It’s hard not to take his side of things, given what we see of the world around him. If there’s one misstep Castlevania makes in spinning it’s tale it’s that the world it presents seems to deserve Dracula far more than it deserves Trevor, Sypha and Alucard to save it. For that matter, with the way those three have been treated by the world at large, it’s a wonder they don’t join forces with Dracula and help destroy it.

This creates the biggest problem with Castlevania as a story. There’s no discernable reason for Dracula to be the way he is. Which is not to say there’s no reason for him to be a vengeful monster, but rather there’s no reason for him to possess so much humanity in the face of the world he lives in. It’s hard to tell where he got it from, or perhaps more accurately, where his wife, who he learned it from, got it from. Concepts like compassion and the value of human life are not natural, but rather truths that must be taught and preserved, yet the world of Castlevania gives only hints as to where such truths might be kept.

Now we could get more development of that in the promised season 3, but with Dracula now dead I’m not sure the show can keep up its high quality going forward.

Because, again, Dracula was what made Castlevania so great. His air of menace, his authority, his casual cruelty and his deep insight into the people around him propels him into the ranks of the best villains in the modern canon. His suicidal desire to destroy what sustains him is also easily understood after watching the tenderness between him and his wife and the brutality of the people who took her from him.

Sadly, the weakest point for Castlevania is the rest of its villains. Carmilla and Godbrand are terrible secondary villains, more one note caricatures of villainy than anything, and Carmilla (the one who survives) lacks the personal charisma and intellectual skill necessary to step into Dracula’s shoes and serve as the primary villain going forward. Isaac poses a human alternative, but while his sorcerers powers are impressive he lacks the vision and scope that made Dracula so terrifying – the very fact that he never set out to wipe out humanity without Dracula to push him along suggests he’s just not the villain the series needs. At least the story brought good heroes to bear.

The antipathy between Belmont, last of the monster hunters, and Alucard, son of the greatest monster, is fun to watch. Neither one of these men likes the other, they probably never will, but in a common cause they find that bizarre masculine bond that only other men who find themselves in the same boat truly grasp. Sypha is a more understated character, at once peacemaker between them and dragging them along towards worthy goals, coming up with plans and then trying not to die when they prove to be more dangerous than she anticipated. She’s a figure of balance in the narrative of the first two seasons, and that keeps her from standing out too much most of the time, but her presence is still welcome and necessary to keep the flavor of the series from turning too hard towards apathy or angst.

Fortunately all three heroes fully come in to their own in time for the final battle with Dracula, a jaw dropping ten minutes of pulse pounding action that takes our heroes and their nemesis from the top of Dracula’s castle to its deepest reaches as they pit their wits, weapons and teamwork against the inhuman might of the lord of vampires. The fight is jawdropping in its visuals and inventiveness, and the Castle in Castlevania is a place of wonder and beauty in its own right, but it’s the ending of the fight that really puts a capstone on all of it. Villains are destroyed by their contradictions – and Dracula could not love a woman of compassion and mercy while seeking to destroy all she loved in turn. For all the titanic physical battles that led to that point, Dracula is defeated when he realizes that truth, and not a moment before.

In the end Castlevania is a terribly mundane, straightforward story of the evils that men do, and how sometimes just aspiring to set them right can be enough to make a difference. And that can be a beautiful thing indeed.

This Post is a Vacation Post

Hello dear readers! I’m grateful to those who tune in every week to read and I know it hasn’t been that long since our last break but I was on vacation with family for most of this week and just did not do as much writing as I would have liked. As a result this week’s post will be delayed until next Friday. Thanks for understanding,

Nate

Chapter Delay – With Apologies

Hello faithful readers,

I’ve been under the weather this week, nothing serious but enough to scatter my brains while writing. I went over this week’s chapter last night and found that it really didn’t come together – not all the plot points followed, the dialog wasn’t great, that kind of thing. The next few chapters are pretty important, lots of character development and important lore bits coming, and I want them to be good so that the build to the climax really nails it. So I’m going to delay this chapter and polish it up with a clearer head, and hopefully the story will be better for it. Thanks for understanding,

Nate

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nine – The Failsafe

Previous Chapter

“You can’t patch the thrusters in here. This is an auxiliary system. Look, it’s got the yellow and black emergency stripe.” Lang shook his nanosealer at Dex. “Do you even know what this is?”

“It’s a nanosealer. It uses nanotechnology to take things apart and put them together again.”

Lang growled in exasperation then pointed at the lever by the van’s driver’s seat. “This. Do you know what it is?”

“Nope.” Dex grinned. “Do you? Because if you don’t, we won’t know when to activate it anyways.”

“That’s not the point. Auxiliaries are there as a failsafe. If we’re taking it out we should at least know what kind of shit we’re risking.” Lang shook his head and considered disconnecting the thruster control from the mystery lever.

“You could just ask someone familiar with this control scheme,” Dex said, prodding gently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this wasn’t the fifth time he’d brought it up. “No. We’ve spent too much time thinking we can make headway by playing nice with two low ranking technicians from the Terran government. We’re spacers, ground bound in hostile territory. It’s time to start acting like it. Just because Earth is the homeworld doesn’t mean it’s going to be any more hospitable to us than anywhere else.”

“I get it, Lang, but-”

He pulled the mission log recorder out of its leg pocket and shoved it at Dex. “Do you want this? Because I seem to recall that you and Priss were pretty eager not to get stuck with it. Was it because of shit like this? Was it this fucking shit you wanted to avoid?”

Dex looked down and away. “It was this fucking shit.”

“Thought so,” Lang muttered, shoving the log back in its pocket and sealing it. An uncomfortable silence fell around the van for a minute. After letting his temper settle Lang tapped the mystery lever and said, “Why this set up for the thruster activation?”

With a deep inhale Dex shook himself off and looked back at the setup. “It’s a simple connection point. We can let the thruster computer we pulled do most of the think work that needs to happen, so long as you tie it into your AI it should fire thrusters in the direction you’re steering whenever you pull the lever. It’s pretty much the best access point for the system that doesn’t require us to try and parse the van’s onboard computer language and patch it in that way. We could try that, of course, but it’s another point of failure for the system. And we’ve already got two.”

“Two?”

“The van chassis isn’t built to handle the kind of stress the thrusters put on it. And, even nanosealed to the chassis, there’s a chance the thrusters will rip free when you fire them, so I guess that’s kind of two problems.”

“I assume there’s another one coming?”

Yes.” Dex kicked the underbody of the vehicle. “We’ve attached the thrusters to the bottom of the chassis. Because that was the only way to secure them to it safely. But it also raises the possibility that they’ll knock the van airborne when fired. And it isn’t built for hard landings, either.”

“So switching them on can kill us in any one of three fantastic ways already,” Lang mused. “Why run the risk of dying because they won’t work?”

“That’s the logic, yeah.”

It was a good argument. “Is there anything else we need to do if we don’t change the control system?”

“Not really. Just close it up and she’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.”

“Then do it. We leave for Priss’ datahub first thing in the morning. And have Priss take stock of our supplies and work out how long they’ll last with the dietary needs of our prisoners factored in.” Lang turned and stalked towards the building, mood still foul. Priss looked up when he burst through the door but didn’t try to stop him as he took the stairs up, buried in his own thoughts.


The roof of the library was a flat, unadorned stretch of gravel punctuated by pipes of unknown material and purpose. Other than the small room at the top of the stairs that held long dormant machinery there wasn’t anything that approached a significant feature. Lang found the bleak solitude peaceful, and he’d been enjoying it for the last hour or so, since he’d left the others after dinner. The Terran sunset was much more spectacular than what they got on Copernicus. Probably something to do with the cloud cover – the terraformers were still trying to work out the nuances of a healthy water cycle back home. By definition, Earth already had it perfected.

The last streaks of sun were fading from the clouds when the door to the roof swung open and Sean wobbled over to join him.

“Should you be up and about?” Lang asked.

“Probably not, according to Priss.” He slumped down, elbows braced on the ledge that ran around the roof. “Surprised you bothered asking. Is the health of prisoners a major concern for you spacers?”

“Hm. In general, I suppose. It can’t be priority one all the time but it’s not like we don’t think about it.”

Sean shook his head and went back to staring at the sun for a moment. “What would it take to convince you to send Aubrey back?”

“That’s not generally how prisoner exchanges work,” Lang said slowly. “And it’s not a thing I’m willing to consider out of the goodness of my heart, either.”

“I don’t care about prisoner exchanges or whatever. I’m willing to do all your maintenance work on the van until you get where you’re going. Dex can work oversight-”

“I appreciate the thought and, believe me I understand why you’re making the offer but I don’t intend to treat either of you as anything other than prisoners of war.” The last reflections of Sol were fading from the clouds above and the sky was getting dark so he turned from the scenery to his prisoner. “That’s not a threat or even a downgrade, really. Prisoners of war are entitled to very well defined treatment. We’ll feed you, keep you out of combat, even pay you for any work you do if-”

“Sapiens don’t use shit like money,” Sean said derisively. “It wouldn’t be worth anything. Why not-”

“Fine,” Lang snapped. “I wasn’t about to offer you work anyway, as you might have already guessed. I don’t care about your fucking holier than thou sapiens shit. I’m trying to explain how things are going to be going forwards. It’s important that these forms be observed, Mr. Wilson.”

“And why the fuck is that?” Sean pulled himself to his feet, wobbled a bit, then leaned back down against the ledge again, whatever movement he’d been about to try aborted. “No one on Earth cares about this shit, Corporal Langley.”

“Maybe. But one thing I know for sure about colonial governments, Sean.” He leaned in close to the off balance man, making him shrink down and away. “They can’t let people go off the reservation. By which I mean, betray the government or what it stands for. When people do that, they’re punished, and treason is usually punished by death.”

“Capital punishment is-”

I don’t care!” Lang adjusted his voice down from a yell before he continued. “I suspect your vaunted UNIGOV is bound by the same necessity as those of the Triad worlds – hell, even Rodenberry has executed a few people and they’re almost as sanctimonious as you. And what I know with absolute certainty is that they can kill any of you with that damn medical nanotech whenever they want.”

He pulled himself upright again and turned away, letting the stress bleed off a bit before he went on. “Look, I know you didn’t come out here for trouble and I’m sorry we’re the disaster that fell in your lap. But operational parameters call for me to get home in any way I can, with the smallest civilian impact possible. I want you and Aubrey to go home, but I can’t run the risk that letting you help us and then walk away will get you branded collaborators. You’ll be treated as prisoners of war, within the Triad Conventions, and be formally returned to your government at the earliest opportunity. That’s the best I can do for you.”

As Lang walked to the stairway door he heard Sean push of the ledge and take a few uncertain steps across the roof, saying, “Come on, Lang, that’s stupid. UNIGOV is a sapiens structure not – dammit, Langley, listen – ” A frustrated growl cut off the protest. Lang ignored it and stepped back inside, headed towards the stairs. Behind him echoed Sean’s parting, “Yeah, fuck you, too.


“Our prisoners are pretty tight lipped today,” Priss said.

After a second argument on the subject of prisoners with Dex that morning Lang really wasn’t in the mood to cover the subject again. He was about out of diplomacy, too. “Just because we’re away from the others doesn’t mean you won’t piss me off questioning this, Priss.”

“Who died and made you LT?” She muttered, going back to trying to dump the datahub.

He thought about reminding her that she, too, had passed on being the one in charge. Had practically pushed it on him.

First rule of space: Bitching helps nothing.

He walked away from the cluster of consoles where Priss was working to check on the jury-rigged power feed. When they’d arrived half an hour ago they’d found that the building basically just lacked power to run all the computers inside. The tech itself had basically been shut down and abandoned, much like many of the cars they’d seen in their drive over. Once again Lang wondered what, exactly, had happened forty years ago to leave the city entirely abandoned. With the new hostility between himself and the Terrans he doubted he’d get a clear answer by asking. Hopefully something in the datahub’s files could help.

Their portable generator was enough to get a few of the computers running and the patchwork connection they’d scraped together was holding up for the moment. They were eating through fuel at an alarming rate but hopefully the solar panels on the van could make up for the power shortfall a little bit. It’d take some more tinkering.

“I’m in.”

Lang pulled himself out of the mental bookkeeping and hurried back over to look over her shoulder. “Let me see.”

“I’m just going to dump these drives as fast as I can,” Priss said, holodisplays flickering hypnotically as her AI worked to parse all the information pouring in. “Anything I should filter for?”

It did make more sense to grab everything so they could digest it at their leisure. “Grab current events or historical documents first. Then technical information. Then whatever’s left.”

She nodded and kept working. Lang moved over to one of the robocrates, fishing for portable data storage to swap for the drive Priss was using once it filled. He’d just found one that read as mostly empty when the cast of the hololight behind him switch from a peaceful greenblue to an angry red. He bolted upright and said, “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of lockout is trying to kick in. The AI is keeping it back so we’ve still got access but something’s also wiping the files.” Priss was working overtime but Lang knew she wasn’t trained in infotech warfare. Suddenly the building around them came to life, dormant machines kicking to life for reasons unknown. “Shit. Wiping all the files. Some kind of malware buried in the – Fuck.”

“What?” Lang tried to parse everything happening on her holodisplay but most of it was unfamiliar screens. He was completely lost. So he went with his gut. “Is there some kind of self-destruct in this facility?”

“No. But it just radioed someone somewhere.” Priss glanced up. “My guess is, UNIGOV did not want anyone digging through the past, and they installed a failsafe to wipe the data and tell them someone was here if anyone tried.”

“Break off, pack up.” He was already keying the generator’s remote shutdown. “It’s time for us to go.”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Three – The Martians

Previous Chapter

“We’re not from Mars,” Lang said, amused at the idea. “We’re actually from Copernicus, one of the Triad systems. I’m Corporal Martin Langley, Copernican Spacer Corps. Could I ask the two of you to step out of our drop pod?”

The three of them pulled back to give their guests room but neither one seemed very eager to come out into the open. The woman eyed them suspiciously and said, “We wouldn’t be in here if you hadn’t pushed us.”

“Sorry, but we weren’t expecting company.” Not entirely true, but what they had been expecting was either military or emergency response, not civilians. “We had to improvise. And decide what we were going to do with you all.”

“And what is that?” The man asked, his suspicion better hidden but still very present.

“For starters, invite you out of the pod.” Lang gestured meaningfully with his left hand. After a moment of silent deliberation the two decided to climb out of the drop pod and back onto solid ground giving a better look at them.

Both were wearing backpacks with belts in addition to the shoulder straps and a light frame to keep the weight distributed evenly. There was a spot for a water bottle on the right side of the pack and some kind of heavy plastic case on the left – at a guess he figured it was some kind of food storage. Each had a half dozen tools stuck through loops in the backpack belts and, while he couldn’t identify them all by name, it all looked like archaic wrenches or electrical tools. The backpacks and tools were where the similarities stopped.

The woman was short by the standards of Copernicus Prime, perhaps a hundred and sixty to a hundred and sixty-five centimeters. Her long blond hair hung straight and her lithe figure was covered by a set of khaki colored capri pants and a deep red button up shirt or light jacket. Both looked to be made of some kind of synthetic fabric that had a slight gleam to it under the right light. With the hiking boots to top it off she reminded Lang of nothing so much as a student terraformer headed off to check on one of the many still ongoing projects in the mountains or ocean valleys.

The man was a good ten centimeters taller and built incredibly broadly. He looked like he could have played some kind of contact sport if only he bothered to bulk up. As it was he was more of a gawkish figure, like a kite had grown arms and legs and started walking around. His clothes looked to be the same material as the woman’s but he wore dark blue pants and his shirt was a simple pullover with a gray torso and blue sleeves. Neither one was obviously armed but…

“Dex, check their packs?”

Dex nodded and slung his plasma carbine then worked his way around them to rummage through their backpacks. The man shot them a resentful look and said, “There’s nothing in there but some food and old auto parts. And my sleeping bag.”

The woman was doing her best to keep an eye on Dex without letting Lang or Priss out of her field of vision. “And do we get to know your friends’ names?”

“Corporal Priscilla Hu, Copernican Spacer Corps,” Priss said without missing a beat. “You can have my service serial number if you want that, too. Do we get to know your names? Because we can just keep saying ‘you’ all the time if it makes ‘you’ feel better.”

The two exchanged a glance and a barely noticeable shrug. “I’m Aubrey Vance.” The woman said. “This is Sean Wilson. We’re not in a Corps.”

“Didn’t think you were, ma’am,” Lang replied. Dex finished his rummage through the backpacks and gave an all clear sign before moving back over to the other two. “Why don’t we sit down and talk a few things over.”

“Sure, why not,” Sean grumbled. “It’s not like you’ve already barged in here pointing weapons everywhere.”

“To be fair,” Dex said, “your defense satellites kind of blew the shit out of our mothership early this morning so I’d say we’re even.”

“What defense satellites?” Aubrey asked, looking confused. “UNIGOV doesn’t maintain defense satellites. It’s a sapiens government, not a martian one.”

“Yeah…” Lang gestured towards a weapons locker – contents currently split between himself and Priss – in an invitation for the two of them to take a seat. He settled down on a portable generator and laid his plasma carbine over his knees and waited for them to sit. Once they had he said. “Let’s start with with that. What do you mean by a martian government? I’m guessing you aren’t referring to the government of Borealis colony on Mars.”

He got a pair of blank looks. “There’s no colony on Mars,” Sean answered. “No sapiens colony, anyways. Never heard of there being martian one either, but I could be wrong. And it’s not clever to bring up the shared Latin root, just because we’re on a different planet doesn’t mean we’ve never heard of wordplay. That joke is as overdone here as it is on Copernicus or wherever you come from. I’m guessing that you – or your ancestors, really – were a part of the martians that left after the Last War?”

Priss and Dex were sharing confused looks that proved they were just as lost as he was. “Okay, look. It’s been nearly two centuries, more or less, since the Departure. I’m not going to pretend to have any idea what’s happened on Earth since then, and ancient history wasn’t my strongest subject when I was in school, so why don’t we wind it all the way back to the beginning. Assume I don’t know anything. What do you mean by martian?”

“You know. Homo martian,” Aubrey said. When Lang’s blank stare and accompanying silence grew uncomfortable she added, “One of the two sapient species that have existed on Earth since the beginning of recorded history?”

“Homo… martian.” Lang felt as if he’s suddenly landed on Copernicus Minor where the gravity was 1.2 times standard, confused and heavy, his sense of balance suddenly slightly off. “And the other sapient species is homo sapiens. Is that right?”

“Yeah.” She said it far too bluntly to believe it was anything other than the truth.

“Wait there. Don’t get up.” Lang got to his feet and motioned for Priss and Dex to follow him into the next room. On the way he pulled his AI and had it monitor the perimeter scanners for subjects leaving the building as well as those approaching. Once they were out of earshot of the civilians – their prisoners, as he was starting to think of them – he asked, “Does anyone have any idea what the fuck is going on here?”

“Nope.” Dex punctuated his one word denial with an eloquent shrug.

Priss was busy with her own AI, going through some kind of records. “Here we go. Shortly before the Departure there was speculation about prolonged exposure to solar radiation, microgravity and the other environmental pressures of space travel might give rise to a new subspecies of human. Several potential designations were floated – none of them were homo martian, by the way – but nothing ever came of it. Before the Departure.”

“So maybe something happened after.” Lang mused. “Not that the Triad worlds ever needed something like that. Spacers and grounders there are indistinguishable.”

“Yeah, but the colony ships were spinners and we solved unified field theory and artificial gravity a decade after Settlement,” Priss pointed out. “That may have been less of an issue here. We still don’t know much about the long term effects of microgravity on human physiology because it’s never been relevant.”

“None of which seems to matter that much because Aubrey there said there’s been two species of human since the beginning of history.” Lang said. “That doesn’t add up. Priss, did anyone in the comm center get ahold of Borealis before shit hit the fan?”

Her shrug was less eloquent than Dex’s but just as disappointing. “I think the Tranquility was supposed to signal Mars as soon as we dropped subluminal. But it’s still more than ten minutes from Lunar orbit to Mars and back again. If they got a message back it was after Major Rainer ordered the Armstrong abandoned.”

“So no help there, unless we can talk to the fleet.” Lang thought for another few seconds. “Okay, let’s assume Borealis Colony is gone and the Fleet is getting no intel from there. We need to do a few things. In order of priority, first we need to move away from the drop pod. Sooner or later someone else is coming to look at that and I don’t want them finding us.”

“What are we doing with the other two?” Dex asked.

“They’re going to be our native guides,” Lang said. “Because second, third and fourth, we need to find intel on what the hell this homo martian thing is about, why the former most powerful nation in the hemisphere has a random empty city in it, and how we can get back into orbit without getting caught.”

“Based on how your last attempt at talking to them went, I’m not sure how well any information gathering will go,” Priss said. “We don’t even have enough of a common frame of reference to ask questions it seems.”

“No worries,” Lang said with a grin. “We’re not getting our answers from them.”

The other two exchanged a skeptical look. “Then where are we getting them from?”

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