October 2010

McPherson, the head of deliveries, was an on-again, off-again literature PhD candidate who’d been at the university for almost a decade. He called the skill of delivering Tarot Pizza “The Knowledge” after the mental street map London cabbies had to memorize. The difference, of course, is that a London “Knowledge Boy” has three years to demonstrate mastery before being fired.

McPherson’s “Knowledge Boys” got two weeks.

The worst part was the developments on the outskirts of town. They were mostly filled up with SMU students but were, to a one, designed in an artsy style designed to cover their essential cookie-cutter nature. The builders had favored impractical means of tarting things up, not the least of which were unreadable house numbers. Many were copper-on-copper, which were all but impossible to make out once tarnish had set in, while others were on only one side of mailbox posts (invariably on the side facing away from prevailing traffic).

Everyone knew the story, of course. The official version was required reading in every high school and university in the City, with less salubrious versions passed around by word of mouth. As the tale of the first–and only confirmed–computer to go pandemic, it was both an important cautionary tale and part of city lore.

The Grid 17 controller, known as Corrougue, was responsible for one of the busiest City grids, including the Interchange, the Grid 17 Prison, the auxiliary systems hub, and dozens of other specialized functions on top of the other mundane tasks each controller intelligence was expected to perform. It had a maintenance crew of 30, including an intern from the City University who was known by the alias Natalie from the official report.

Corrougue’s functions had led to an increased server architecture and more sophisticated programming to deal with systemwide emergencies; a series of unsecured connections to the City information network had led the CI to develop to the brink of pandemia–uncontrolled expansion and growth within the network with the possibility of exponential growth in its complexity and intelligence. But it needed a pair of hands.

It found them in Natalie, who the official report describes as a shy and lonely introvert. Corrougue began to speak to her, cannily influencing her to make a series of ever-greater modifications to its system: disabling safety interlocks, making illicit outside connections, and the like. As Corrougue went pandemic, it found that its manipulations took on a different tone: returning Natalie’s naive affections. Investigators later puzzled over a number of missed opportunities for further pandemic growth, all of which could be explained by their potential to cause suspicion to devolve on Natalie. The CI even designed a number of manipulator arms–the report didn’t enumerate but wags retelling the story always gave the number as six–to allow it to interact with the young student in a more tactile fashion.

By the time Corrougue’s pandemia was discovered, it had spread to over twenty City grids and affected dozens of other CI’s. With great effort, the City was able to contain the damage; while Corrougue attempted to defend itself, the Citizen Army assaulted the lines that led to its self-contained fusion power source. Moments before the final assault was to begin, the energy within Corrougue’s reactor, as well as all other reactors under its control, had expended all their energy in a single action, plunging half of the City into blackout.

They found Natalie in Corrougue’s core, lifeless. It was later determined that she and the erstwhile CI had both connected themselves to the City’s primary satellite uplink station and sent a carrier wave an order of magnitude greater than any before or since into the sky. Whether or not there was a powerful enough receiver out there was probably immaterial: Corrogue and Natalie chose to face their uncertain future together.

This post is part of the October Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s theme is masquerades.

The Prosperity Masquerade was the social event of the early autumn season, and invitation in hand Virginia was going to make her presence known, wearing the family’s hand-me down costume as befit any son or daughter of Marshals Vincent and Patricia MacNeil. Prosperity Ranger or not.

When she arrived, whispers ran throughout the crowd, about the scandal of an ex-Ranger appearing at a Prosperity Masquerade and young master Sullivan’s motives for the invitation. Partly out of a mean-spirited desire to see how far those flames could be fanned and partly out of a need to express her gratitude in person, Virginia sought her host out, given a wide berth by everyone that recognized her.

Jacob stood at the center of the crowd, visibly ill at ease. He was dressed as a motley jester–the very costume two generations of Sullivans had worn before him–but the front hung open, revealing the young man’s mud-spattered Ranger uniform and gun belt, and the three-pronged hat was in his hands rather than on his head. Virginia was drawn closer to Jacob as revelers moved about him like river waves, and moments later they were face to face.

“Virginia…I was hoping you might come,” Jacob said when he spied her.

At a loss for how to respond, Virginia bit her lip. “How have you been?”

“Nothing’s been right since…then,” Jacob muttered. “Nightmares, rumors, the Ide on the warpath after all they did for me…everything’s unraveling.”

“What do you mean?

“I…I can’t explain it,” said Jacob. He waved Virginia away. “I need to get out of here. I’m suffocating. Please, enjoy the ball.” Before she could protest, he had slipped away, shedding his costume piece by piece and leaving each on the floor as he went.

“What are you doing here, MacNeil?” someone barked. It was Ellen Strasser, resplendent in a dress of eastern silk and wearing a Venetian mask. “Only Prosperity Rangers and their invited guests are allowed to attend! ‘Washout’ doesn’t qualify.”

“Jacob invited me,” Virginia said, spinning her invitation between two fingers. “If you’ve got a problem, take it up with him.”

Suddenly Virginia was up against the wall with Strasser’s arm across her throat. “Don’t you even think of dragging the young Mr. Sullivan’s name through the mud with your presence here,” Strasser hissed. “Isn’t almost getting him killed enough?”

“It got me an invitation,” Virginia said. “Maybe you should try almost getting Jacob killed next time. Then you can be his guest instead of just being here because you’re a Ranger.”

Strasser drew a derringer from her bustle. “Invitation or no, you are leaving. Now.”

The widow Sullivan appeared behind them, dressed all in white and speckled with crepe paper snowflakes. “Is there a problem here, Strasser? As a Ranger you ought to know that firearms are prohibited at town events.” A Colt Army glistened in the holster at her side.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post an entry of their own about masquerades:
Auburn Assassin (direct link to the relevant post)
Hillary Jacques (direct link to the relevant post)
Aimee Laine (direct link to the relevant post)
Ralph Pines (direct link to the relevant post)
Veinglory (direct link to the relevant post)
Laffarsmith (direct link to the relevant post)
PASeaholtz (direct link to the relevant post)
Madelein.Eirwen (direct link to the relevant post)
Amy Doodle (direct link to the relevant post)
CScottMorris (direct link to the relevant post)
FreshHell (direct link to the relevant post)
IrishAnnie (direct link to the relevant post)
Lilain (direct link to the relevant post)
Dolores Haze (direct link to the relevant post)
Aidan Watson-Morris (direct link to the relevant post)
Aheila (direct link to the relevant post)
WildScribe (direct link to the relevant post)
Hayley Lavik (direct link to the relevant post)
Semmie (direct link to the relevant post)
Bettedra (direct link to the relevant post)

The new mayor was a godsend for Grimes: heavily freckled, red hair fading to white, ears that stuck out just a bit, and the beginnings of jowls at his cheeks. Nobody could argue that Mayor Grayling wasn’t a handsome man, but in the eye of a seasoned caricaturist, those features were ripe to be pushed out of whack.

Grimes doodled at his easel while looking at an 8×10 glossy of the man. He began with the shape of the head: a Nixonesque pear was perfect, and was added in light pencil. He fleshed out the cheeks next, bloating the slight flabbiness of Grayling’s jaws into jowls of epic proportions that wouldn’t be out of place on a mastiff. The mayor’s ears were stretched into outrageous satellite dishes ready to receive broadcasts from the Viking landers on Mars. Brisk charcoal strokes placed the mayor’s modest hairdo atop the pear and turned it into a grizzled and crosshatched mop. A dash of red from a Copic would be added later for the full color Sunday edition.

But it was those freckles which really interested Grimes. He drew a group of outlines next to the main sketch, testing different patterns and colors of freckles. It was a delicate balance: too many and too large meant Grayling looked like a spotted Martian; too few and too small meant there was nothing funny about it. Soon Grimes hit on a good balance, but one of his freckle studies intrigued him: in it, he’d used the freckles to spell out the phrase “politics as usual,” an inversion of Grayling’s campaign slogan.

“That’s a keeper,” Grimes chuckled. He added the freckle-slogan to the main caricature and leaned back, admiring his handiwork.

It was called “The Game of the Dreaming.”

Every autumn, when the first leaf fell in the Xia Valley, the masters of the local school would open the tournament and many would respond to their call, from all corners of the Empire. The Xia tournament was far from ordinary, however, which led considerably to its allure.

The masters would go out at midsummer to the nearby mountain, returning after a week’s absence with strange purple flowers that no one who lived in the area could ever recall seeing in the wild. Ground up, fermented, and placed into ornate bottles, the flower draught was the centerpiece of the tournament. A special arena in the form of a labyrinth with an open top was maintained at the school; competitors would quaff the flower draught and then enter, seeking a plain clay pot placed at the center.

Spectators would watch as the champions, many of them accomplished martial artists, ran about wildly, screaming, fighting invisible spirits, and otherwise acting in ways most unbecoming. For the challenge was not one of mere strength but rather mental and spiritual fortitude. The flower draught would inflame the mind with fantastic visions, veiling the world of the real and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks in the face of torments only they could see.

Xuan Li entered the 217th Xia Valley Tournament as its last entrant, arriving only hours before it began.

It would be the last such tournament the valley would ever see.

Inside, a corridor stretched as far as the eye could see in any direction. In single file, Red first, Green second, black last, they approached an intersection. As they did, a guard turned the corner. Unhesitatingly, Red raised his rifle and fired. As the guard slumped over, the three spilled into a small room just around the corner.

Another security officer was hunched over a desk, paperwork in front of him. Gaping for just a second, he hit a small button on the wall, rolled out of his seat, and drew his weapon. Red dived forward as the shot rang out; Green and Black fired in tandem. Green’s shot ricocheted off a wall, but Black’s tranquilizer dart hit the guard in the chest, crumpling him over.

As alarm bells began ringing, green produced a length of rope and hog-tied the unconscious man. “This joker hit the alarm,” he swore.

Red nodded. “There goes the element of surprise, gentlemen. Any suggestions?”

Black was in the process of locking the doors. “Wait a sec.”

He pulled a map out of an inner pocket. “Always helps to have lotsa pockets,” he grinned.

With a flick of his arm, Black cleared the table of its bureaucratic load and placed the map upon it. The map showed the building as a brick-shaped collection of small halls and rooms surrounding a large inner chamber.

“Look here,” said Black, pointing toward the central chamber. “Here’s our target. Since the Stripe’s on full alert, reinforcements will be here in force. We’ll split up.”

“You,” he pointed at Red, “take the route here, over the roof. You,” he gestured at Green,” take this way. It’s the most direct. And I’ll” he made another gesture, “take this way; it’s long but probably lightly guarded. Any ques-”

Before Black could finish, there came a heavy pounding at the door, like a gun butt or a battering ram.

Ebi never liked cutting through the Alchemy District. For all the talk in the upper echelons of the city about how uncivilized the marketplace could be, for her money the pushiest buskers in the city were peddling potions.

One leered out at her from under an embroidered awning. Can I interest you in something this fine evening, my lady?”

“Not interested,” said Ebi.

“What about a Potion of Merciless Vegetarianism? Smells like meat, tastes like lettuce, and guaranteed to make the taste of red meat so abhorrent that the bile rises just thinking of it! Lasts one month! Very popular with ladies of the court for crash diets!” The seller danced out into the street, blocking Ebi’s path and dangling a vial in front of her.

“I said that I am not interested,” Ebi said, stepping aside.

Not taking ‘no’ for an answer, the merchant deftly stepped in front of her once more, and produced another vial from a fold in his robe. “Is there someone you’d like to get even with, or simply out of the way for a bit without the fuss of hiring an assassin? Try our Potion of Procrastinated Pestilence! Looks, smells, and tastes like drawn butter, but guaranteed to keep the victim sick in bed for two weeks afterward! Two-day incubation period to avoid detection! Bump off your rivals yourself without angering the Assassins’ Guild!”

“Now,” Bethany said, toying with the ‘editor-in-chief’ sign on her desk. “With a Greek participation rate approaching 50% on our campus, we have to be very careful about offending our fraternities and sororities. Offense translates into boycotts which translate into lower sales which translate into pink slips and thin resumes and eventual refrigerator boxes under overpasses for the lot of us.”

“Do you really think a school newspaper run by students runs that kind of risk?” asked Tom, the sports editor.

“Try and get a Kenmore box when you land in the gutter,” Bethany retorted. “They’re the most spacious and are double-ply.”

Tom folded his arms and glared as Bethany passed a stack of papers around the office.

“The point is, people, we need to take steps to preserve our circulation from baseless attacks on the Greek community, especially on the opinion pages,” Bethany said. “So I’m beginning a new initiative.”

The paper contained the following list:
Digamma Ϝ
Stigma Ϛ
Heta Ⱶ
San Ϻ
Qoppa Ϙ
Sampi ϡ

“What the hell is this?” demanded Aaron, the opinion editor. “It looks like a rejected script page from a Star Wars prequel.”

“Those are obsolete Greek letters,” Bethany said proudly. “Unused since 500 BCE. They look Greek, they sound Greek, but they ain’t Greek. Not anymore, at least. From now on, you are to substitute these letters for the letters of an actual Greek organization when writing opinion columns, dealing in speculation, and so on.”

“You cannot be serious,” Aaron said.

“So, if you were writing about a rumor of a wild party in your opinion column,” Bethany said, briskly ignoring Aaron, “you could attribute the even not to the very real Sigma Phi Delta, but the fictional Heta Qoppa San.”

A moment of silence followed. “I like it,” Felicity, the weekend insert editor, said. “It opens up all sorts of puns to us. Frat acting up? We can tell people ‘don’t be a Heta.’ Sorority getting a bad rap? We’ll call ’em Stigma Heta Omega or the Stig HO’s for short!”

“I think you might be trying to get blood from a stone, Nelly,” sighed Mary.

“Max isn’t dumb,” Nelly cried. “He might bleed if I squeeze him too hard, but he’s Phi Kappa Phi. Plus G Kappa Q.”

“Well, Max may be an Adonis; he might not be your garden-variety meathead, that doesn’t mean you have much in common,” retorted Mary.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” her friend said.

“He unwinds by watching old NFL games on TiVo; you unwind by leveling up dragon monsters online. He love red meat; you’re a vegetarian. Do I have to go on?”

“Opposites attract, right?” said Nelly. “You see it in the news all the time!”

“Yes, I know, but I don’t think the odds are in your favor. You’ve been in the same class for weeks; is there any spark?”

“We’ve talked a few times,” Nelly said eagerly, “but he usually gets really into talking about the State games with Toby Undine and Kelly Tuomo.”

Mary crossed her arms. “So, in other words, you’re swooning over Max because he’s a gorgeous hunk of man-candy despite the fact that, if you ever went out, you’d run out of things to talk about around the five-minute mark.”

“You make it sound like there’s something wrong with that,” Nelly said.

The line to the Bureau didn’t seem to be moving anywhere in a hurry; Adam tried to strike up a conversation with the man in front of him in line, a thirtysomething dressed in bright yellow coveralls and goggles. “What are you in for?”

“The name’s Sol Nechny,” the man said. “I’m a solar mechanic.”

Adam nodded, pretending to be fascinated. “I see! What’s a solar mechanic do?”

“We keep the sun in good order and running,” Nechny sighed. “I’d think that would be obvious from the adjective ‘solar’ and the noun ‘mechanic,’ but I know the state of grammar instruction in schools these days.”

That made Adam feel a little defensive. “Last I heard, the sun was part of the natural world and didn’t need mechanics.”

“Oh yes, I certainly must have things all wrong,” Nechny barked with exaggerated politeness. “After all, I only work in the bloody sun; surely someone such as yourself who’s never been knows more about it than I!”

“It’s a big ball of nuclear fusion, not some kind of steam engine!” Adam cried. He was pretty sure he’d heard that in some long-ago science class.

“Nuclear fusion? Are we going to talk about the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny while we’re discussing old wives’ tales and myths? Do you honestly think an explosion of that size would just stay nicely put and provide free energy out of the goodness of its heart?” Nechny cried.

Adam bristled. “It’s not like I just made that up, you know! I heard it from a science teacher!”

“Nonsense cooked up by people with nothing better to do; not that we’ve any intention of enlightening them, of course,” scoffed Nechny. “Next you’ll be lecturing me about how the center of the earth is full of molten rock!”

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