October 2010

The room must once have been the rig’s cafeteria. And it might well be said to have become a cafeteria of a different sort: the small room was coated in dripping gore, viscera, and offal and thick with the buzzing of flies. Gina could barely hold back the bile rising in her throat at the sight, the stench. None of the horrific mess was remotely identifiable as human; even the few slivers of bone peeking through were splintered and shredded.

Gina was frozen, overwhelmed. What could have possessed someone to mutilate their friends and co-workers so? Not even the most dedicated genocide she’d covered had been able to so thoroughly wipe away the victims’ humanity.

Something moved in the distance…the same shadow that had been flitting about since the party arrived? Gina’s hand trembled, rattling the flaregun Johns had given her as a makeshift weapon. She pulled back the hammer, assuming what she imagined was a threatening stance. “W-who’s there? Come out where I can see you, o-or you’ll get a bullet between the eyes!”

More movement, barely perceptible in the flickering fluorescent miasma of the rig’s innards. And then, a hiss–something that might have been language or just Gina’s fear-addled mind reading meaning where only menace existed.

We…ain’t got…eyes…


The announcer’s voice, warbled by the distance of the WQEH transmitter, breathlessly ran through the series’ back story:

“It’s time once again for the adventures of ‘Gravedigger’ Perkins, the only lawman of the West to earn that grim moniker through his tireless pursuit of law and justice…and his pursuit of evildoers to their graves! But Gravedigger Perkins isn’t tangling with any old small-time thugs, is he cowpokes?”

“No!” cried Sandy.

“That’s right, he’s got two of the meanest outlaws in the West to bring their eternal justice! Daniel ‘Thinker’ Evans, a mastermind of planning and execution! The godfather of crime out West! The Moriarty of the Mojave! And Thinker Evans’ sinister sidekick Robert ‘Shooter’ Dawson! The murderous yin to his boss’s yang, a hardened killer with the second-most skillful gun west of the Mississippi! With Gravedigger Perkins on their trail, it’s anyone’s guess where the adventure will lead!”

“The story teller says that it’s in a place beyond seeking,” Solanine said. “A grove in the deepest forest where the leaves turn and fall year-round.”

“That should be warning enough,” replied Dalonyn. “An overt warning followed by an impossibility. Beyond seeking means it cannot be sought for to do so is folly, while year-round leaffall would bury a tree to its crown. Can’t you see that the storyteller is using this as a metaphor? He seeks to describe a foolhardy chasing of shadows in terms our ancestors understood.”

Solanine folder her arms. “If that were the case, why not simply say so? If it’s in the stories, it must be true.”

“You’ll find that many of the stories are metaphors, lessons for living a good life wrapped up in our ancestors’ tales,” Dalonyn sighed. “Do you honestly believe the tale of Kulynan spearing the moon or Linoni flooding a valley to drive out spirits? It is the same with the Everfall Glen and the miraculous panacea it contains.”

“The storyteller holds them to be true,” replied Solanine, defiantly. “He says nothing of metaphor. When I seek and find it, you’ll see how wrong you’ve been.

Sarcosi examined the equipment, lined up and labeled on a table. “Amateurish. You would think that someone with the audacity to steal from me would be better armed and trained.”

“Tell us, for the class, what it is that makes this man an amateur,” Hodgkin said. “Enlighten them while showing that you are not to be trifled with.”

Sarcosi hefted the mercenary’s pistol, a Desert Eagle. “Take this sidearm. A ridiculous toy, nearly three kilograms heavy when fully loaded. It is loud, it cannot be concealed properly, and cannot be drawn quickly. Won’t take a proper suppressor. Fires heavy, bulky rifle ammunition.”

The students nodded murmuring among themselves.

“Quite right,” Hodgkin said. “This man has forgotten our maxim: the right tool for the right job. A pistol should be small, easily concealed, and used as a backup weapon or close-in wetwork tool only. Anything else ought to be done with a proper rifle from a distance.”

“This man has evidently seen too many Hollywood movies, where men carry this weapon because it looks impressive,” Sarcosi added. “The appearance of a weapon is irrelevent. Anti-material rifles are ugly to a one but nothing is better suited to taking out a target in an armored and bombproof limousine. Furthermore, by allowing himself to be influenced by fantasy, this man has revealed himself to be an amateur who only deludes himself into thinking he’s a professional.”

“You heard the man,” Hodgkin said to the students. “Release this amateur into the live-fire range.”

“Here’s the pitches we’ve got in fast-track right now,” Scuttler said. “All high-concept, all drawing on aspects of IP’s which test off the chart and are in the public domain along with proven crowd-pleasing updates fresh off the presses.”

Leighton looked at the sheaf of papers spread across his desk. “So all I need to do is choose one and write a script?”

“That’s right,” Scuttler said. “It might have to go to a doctor, of course, but you get screen credit and a paycheck and we get a nice juicy literary name attached to the script. Like Faulkner and The Big Sleep, though if you come up with a murder mystery it should probably be within the context of an intergalactic war or something.”

Leighton had a momentary and horrifying vision of his name, computer-animated, whooshing by a viewer wearing 3D glasses. “Pitch them, then,” he signed.

“Shakespeare’s Hamlet with biotechnology!” crowed Scuttler. “Biotech is hot and ask Disney, Shakespeare ripoffs never get old.”

“They never get old, they just fade away until a second-grader wonders why old Bill cribbed from the Lion King,” Leighton thought.

“Coleridge Rime of the Ancient Mariner re-imagined in a post-apocalyptic setting with faster-than-light travel instead of ships! We think the albatross around the neck could be some kind of squid alien.”

“There may be a sucker born every minute, but most don’t wind up around your neck,” Leighton said to himself. He nodded as if interested.

“Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a disaster pic!” Scuttler continued. “The treasure is the key to stopping the earth’s tectonic places from sinking.”

“Okay, are you there? The door should say ‘to Ophidian’s Cloister.'”

Harv worked his controller. “Yeah. Who’s Ophidian?”

Jim’s sigh was audible even through the crackly cellphone connection. “Haven’t you been reading the books in-game? They fill you in on all the little bits of backstory!”

“Look, if I did that I’d be dropping 100 hours into this game instead of just 50,” said Jim. “I’m only playing it to match your awards and get my score in a reasonable place, and because it was Game of the Year in twenty different places.”

“And the fact that it’s been praised as having the deepest and most original story in years makes no nevermind to you, huh?” Jim said.

“Look, I called you to guide me through the Maze of Insanity, not to get a lecture,” Harv said. “I like games where the story is ‘kill the evil alien overlord and his 10,000 troops with big guns.'”

Another crackly sigh. “Okay, whatever. Once you’re in the cloister, go right, then up the stairs, and then right-left right. That will bring you to the Oubliette of Redemption.”

“And from there?”

“Pretty straightforward. Two circles of doors; just take the ones for the Solarium of the Holy Haunt and then the Spire of Honor and Truth and you should see the cutscene before the final boss.”

Harv shook his head. “Where do they come up with the names for these rooms?”

“Certainly not the team of award-winning fantasy and sci-fi authors that were mentioned in all the reviews you didn’t read as part of crafting the story you mostly skipped.”

“Dr. Janssen’s device has proven very useful in the past.”

“But I still don’t understand how it’s possible,” Harmon protested. “I mean the theoretical problems alone, not to mention the practical points, would take decades-”

“Enough whining,” Fields snapped. “I’m telling you about how the Janssen Probability Thruster has been, not how it works!”

“All right, then,” Harmon sighed. “How has it been useful?”

“Well, the Modified Antimatter Configuration caused an explosion that threw debris over ten miles, killing hundreds including myself and the entire staff. So we scrubbed the experiment before it was ever run.”

“But how-” Harmon began.

Fields, clearly enjoying recounting the old war stories, ignored him. “Then there was the Diversified Positron Ionization fiasco. That created a black hole that consumed the Earth in a matter of hours, crushing every one of us into a quantum singularity. A tiny adjustment was all that experiment needed to be successful.”

“Still, I think-”

“And who could forget Electrical Osmosis? Sounded simple enough, but it duplicated a piece of lab equipment until it filled every micron of space in the universe! We scaled it back to one, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a major improvement.”

“To people who say belief doesn’t mean anything, I say: remember Noyceton.”

Chig cocked his head. “What’s Noyceton?”

“Little settlement out past the mountains, near a spring,” Headley said, falling into his storyteller cadence. “Like a lot of places out there in the basin, it was founded by folks who didn’t like the way their hometown churches were going and struck out to make a difference.”

“What happened?”

“For awhile they prospered like many new towns, but they soon fell to fighting amongst one another over matters spiritual. Time came that the fight spilled over into matters temporal, and their little church cleaved plumb in half. Things got so bad that half the town was harassing the other or singing hymns in such a way to boondoggle the others. People that passed through said they’d never seen fervor or tension so high–including some that lived through the late wars in Italy.”

Chig shrugged. “Don’t see what that’s got to do with belief,” he said.

“One night, some folks out that way saw a bright light and heard a boom. Travelers on the road said that both sides had planned big revival bonfires that night, and the mass of all that raw and contradictory belief…well, no one’s sure what happened. But the town was leveled like it was hit by a shooting star and nobody ever saw one of the settlers again. Folks that have passed through since say the whole site makes ’em uneasy, and that they don’t feel right again ’til they move on.”

Out in the Permeable Lands, long decades of overuse have left the fabric of reality fragile and mutable. In most places, it takes a psychic of enormous power to alter their surroundings. Not so the Permeable Lands: humans of average ability can mold reality as well as a Class 10 out there.

Living out there, as many have chosen to do, presents enough benefits and challenges to come out a wash. There’s no need to worry about building materials or food; a little thinking is enough to spawn a farmhouse and acres of crops. It takes a little more training and practice to form complex machines or gourmet foods, which has led to a thriving industry of Permeable Landers providing those services for a fee or offering training. Animals and such are harder still, but well within the capabilities of someone who puts their mind to it. So one need not worry after food or shelter out there.

On the other hand, it takes a superbly organized mind to create only the things one wants to create. Many Permeable Landers are inundated with detritus–things they create unconsciously. It’s impossible to move anything they create into places where reality has remained strong; the vast Impermeable Lands mean certain fading destruction to anything wrought from permeability. Rumors abound of people created from permeability, generations ago, who would turn to ash if they left. And then there are the stories of people thinking others into oblivion, or powerful Class 8’s enslaving entire communities.

Yes, when one moved to the Permeable Lands it was as much a gamble as anything. And Petron was gambling it would be his salvation.

Legend has it that the Saudeleur grew to resent the power of his nahnken, who wielded power absolute over their own weis but were bound to give tribute to their lord and master. And so it was that the idea of Nan Madol came to the Saudeleur in a dream: a great city of stone islands, where the nahnken and their saudeleur would reside. He could keep an eye on them by controlling the boats that plied the stone islands and even keep an escape tunnel ready under the coral to the edge of the reef should his overthrow be imminent.

Thus bound and determined, the Saudeleur had a problem. Though the isle of Ponape had stone and coral aplenty for quarrying, it lacked the manpower to move the stones once they had been hewn. It was to this end that the Saudeleur sought out the magician Isokelekel, who lived in seclusion on the north of the island. Isokelekel, said to be the son of a woman from the isle of Kusaie and the thunder god Daukatau, had sworn to hold himself and his powers separate from other men. But the Saudeleur prevailed upon him, and Isokelekel agreed to move the stones as the Saudeleur saw fit, breaking his vow.

Knowing that to do so would anger his father Daukatau, Isokelekel extracted from the Saudeleur three promises which would secure the magician’s future. First, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s totem of Nahnisohn Sahpw, the god of agriculture; his request was granted. Second, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s throne…in 1000 years. The Saudeleur readily agreed to this condition, thinking such a promise impossible to enforce. Third, Isokelekel asked for the isle of Ponape itself…in 2000 years. Again, the Saudeleur agreed to what he saw as a mere flight of fancy.

True to his word, Isokelekel used his powers to move rock and coral to build the magnificent canal city of Nan Madol. He then vanished with the Saudeleur’s totem, never to be seen again. One thousand years later, a man claiming the name Isokelekel led a band of 333 rebels to topple a corrupt and decadent descendant of the Saudeleur, founding a dynasty that lasted until the pale men in boats arrived 900 years later.

Of the last promise the Saudeleur made Isokelekel, nothing was heard…until now.

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