November 2012


“Another year, another novel that hasn’t quite been finished but has the requisite number of words.” My muse, a blatant appropriation of Stephen King’s concept thereof as expressed in On Writing, cracks open the fridge and retrieves a cold beer. I keep it on hand for guests, being a de facto teetotaler myself; I don’t know where he got the Cuban cigar that billows smoke all over my single-room downstairs.

Since my muse is an insubstantial personification of my creative drive, albeit one ever so slightly ripped off from a more successful author, I don’t suppose it really matters.

“It’s not just the number of words,” I say. “I’ve takes one of the stories I wanted to tell and given it a good start. It barely existed before and now it’s 300k on my hard drive.”

“300 unfinished k, you mean.” My muse emerges from the fridge with beer and leftover barbecue chicken strips. “Don’t you think it’s about time you finished the others?”

“What others?” I bristle. “There’s only the project at hand, nothing else.”

I mean it as a metaphor, but it’s taken literally. “The story about those kids finding alternate dimensions with giant landsquid for one,” my muse says. “Don’t forget the unfinished noir detective novel about a librarian, and the comic wish-fulfillment tale of the assassin and the accountant.”

“I’ll get to them in time,” I say, a little defensive. “It doesn’t matter if they’re finished. What matters is that I wrote something that didn’t exist before. It’s good even if it’s a little rough.”

The muse sits down heavily on my couch and fires up the Xbox. “What about the one from 2008, where you tried to stretch that 500-word short story into a tale ten times its length, and wound up so desperate for wordcount that you undid all your contractions a half-hour before midnight on the last day?”

“Don’t bring that one up,” I snap. “It was an election year and I had a new job. Too many distractions!”

“Whoa there, killer,” my muse says without looking up from the first-person shooter he’s working away at. “Did I touch a nerve? Don’t forget that it was a failure for me too. Or do you think part of a novel each year and a blog post a day is nothing for me?”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s a stressful time even without the novel.”

“But you’re glad you did it again this year?”

“Yeah.”

“Well then,” my muse says, wreathed in smoke and barbecue beer fumes. “That’s all that matters.”

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“Well–and I’m surprised you don’t know this–using an item by necessity imbues it with some of your life force,” the tiny golem said, its “eyebrows” made from housekeys around threaded screw “eyes” waggling. “Everyday things tend to absorb more life force, and when the humans leave…well, that life force has to go somewhere.”

“That’s…weird.” Melody said, scrunching her nose.

“Oh, and I suppose being made of meat imbued with a divine spark by the All-Creator is ‘normal’ then?” The golen huffed, jabbing its fork-fingers at Melody accusingly. “I suppose you’d rather that life force went into a poltergeist, then, or a barghest? Yes, that’d be a loverly fate for grandpa’s old house, wouldn’t it?”

“Calm down, calm down,” Melody said, afraid that someone might–impossibly–stumble upon her arguing with animate metal pieces living in a teapot.

“Calm down, she says, after impugning my very origins and nature! Your family’s fallen a very long way since you’re grandfather’s time.”

“Wait,” Melody said. “You knew my grandfather?”

“It’s mostly his life force that gave me animate life,” the golem said. “Oh, so you’re interested now that I can give you something, is that it? Well, missy, I bid you good day.”

The metal face–tea filter, keys, screws, and all–disappeared back into its teapot with a clank.

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I took my proposal to the Department of Infernal Affairs. Never heard of it? There’s always one nearby if you know where to look. Someone’s got to coordinate for the Other Side, after all, and what could be more hellish than bureaucracy for which the normal human meanings of time and space don’t apply?

That day, I had a modest proposal all typed up with the proper forms filled out in quadruplicate and properly stamped and sealed with blood. I was ready to pledge my soul to the Other Side in exchange for something in the here and now, like many people (more than you’d think) have done in the past. I was ushered in to see the local Department Manager after a wait of only 97 hours; that they sped things along, I thought, was indicative of how important the issue was.

Unlike most of the workers for the Other Side, the department manager wasn’t a human sympathizer or required to wear a disguising glamour. He was all raw and evil, leaking noxious fumes and fluids. The only concession for my sake was a business suit, which must have been made out of teflon to withstand all that Other Side hellish ichor.

“It’s a nice proposal,” he said in a voice that sounded like two concrete blocks being ground together. “But I’m going to have to turn you down. We don’t want your soul, not for this or any other bargain.”

“What?” I said. “Why not?”

“I’m going to be honest with you,” the Department Manager said, tenting the clawed pseudopods that served him for quasi-arms. “Fulfilling wishes, making changes to the physical world from the spiritual? It has costs. Effort, time, and soul energy. In the old days, when souls were pennies a gallon, it was no problem. But things have changed, and the arithmetic isn’t always as good.”

“But it’s a small request,” I said. “Hardly anything needs to be changed, and you get my soul forever!”

“That’s the other thing,” said the Department Manager in his ruinous voice. “We on the Other Side have quite the actuarial staff, and we’ve done a few calculations. Turns out that the kind of person who’d sell their soul, or even consider it, is usually a right bastard in their own way. 90% of them, they’re ours anyway in the fullness of time; we get the whole soul without having to expend any effort at all.”

“So what are you telling me?”

“No more soul deals anywhere, ever. Only exceptions are for mass cults, business leaders, and politicians. That one comes from the Big Guy himself, incidentally, so don’t try going over my amorphous eyestalk to the District Manager either.”

“Then why see me at all? Why make me wait just to shoot me down? why have the forms in the first place? I wasted almost a year of my life getting this ready, all for nothing!”

The Department Manager grinned with all six of his tooth-ringed mouth-suckers. “We’re still the Other Side, kid. It’s what we do.”

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The project leads asked for volunteers, and every single scientist, engineer, and assistant associated with the project responded. The lead, with a certain amount of dark yet geeky gallows humor, called the maneuver “Operation Broomstick.”

Each volunteer was dressed in similar conservative clothes and given a briefcase with papers and a laptop. All text was encoded; the true piece of information in either one stack of papers or on one laptop (not even the volunteers knew for sure) and the rest meaningless lorem ipsum gibberish. The only means of communication was an encoded signal, routed through military-grade encryption, that could be sent from any computer terminal.

All it communicated was that the volunteer in question was still active and had not been captured.

On the appointed day, the volunteers began slipping away from the Institute one or two at a time. All they knew was that a friendly contact had been ordered to seek them out, and that they were to lay low and avoid contact with anyone, from the other side or not. Moments after the last volunteer slipped away, Dr. Vollmer–the project lead–locked himself in his office and overdosed on the sleeping pills that had been issued to everyone.

Things couldn’t have gone well. Every time Hays sent his signal, he could see that more and more of the 108 volunteers had not reported in. By the time he arrived at the run-down Canadian border crossing in The Angle, he was the only one left. He was a wreck, mentally and physically.

And the worst part? He had no idea if the briefcase he carried had the fruits of the time travel research or simply meaningless gibberish for which he was to give his life.

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This rebuttal to a rebuttal was received yesterday from prior editorial contributor Black Bill Cubbins, whose prior article elicited a lively discussion and a contentious response from ninja activist Felisa Lloyd Matsumura-Tamaribuchi. In the interest of covering both sides of the contentious pirate-ninja conflict with armed neutrality, we present his statement here.

-The Editors

I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that my plea for tolerance of pirates and pirate culture was viciously appropriated as an opportunity for the pro-ninja lobby to make its vile and disenfranchising views known. I am used to the pro-ninja bias in the media and the constant agitation of ninja-affiliated terrorists and lackeys using whatever excuse they can to forward their anti-pirate agenda, after all. My essay on the disgusting and disenfranchising use of my people as Halloween costumes became just another excuse for an anti-pirate diatribe by ninjas for whom civilized discourse instead of violence is as foreign as giving open battle.

If I mentioned ninjas as a costume possibility, it was only because they do not constitute a nation unto themselves like pirates. That label has been forced on discourse by the pro-ninja movement despite the fact that ninjas have never been anything but a small subset of larger peoples. If you had asked the ninjas living on Plunder Harbor, Jolly Roger Cove, or Dead Man’s Cay (the Takeshima, Okinotori, and Senkaku islands, to use the invented ninja terms) what they were before the war they would have said anything but ninja. That would have been the same as giving “construction worker” as your nationality today.

Therefore it’s impossible for my remarks to have been racist, as the loosely ninja-affiliated Ms. Matsumura-Tamaribuchi claimed, because ninjas (unlike pirates) are not a race but merely a mongrel people who made their living by assassination and sneaking and just happened to live on the islands in question when pirate resettlement began. Each island was historically dominated by pirates until their expulsion by the shogunate a thousand years ago, after all.

But pro-ninja activists like Matsumura-Tamaribuchi and her friends in the pro-ninja mass media refuse to engage in civil discourse with pirates, despite the pirate nation’s status as a representative democracy (unlike the feudal and dictatorial ninja government, dominated by terrorists). To them, violence and name-calling are the only forms of communication. Perhaps I shouldn’t encourage children to dress up as ninjas for Halloween, but then again perhaps Ms. Matsumura-Tamaribuchi shouldn’t bear the cross of an apologist and project moral equivalency on the peaceful pirate people and the inherently unreasonable and violent ninjas.

Like many, I look forward to the day when pirates and ninjas can live in peace. But that day will never come if racist anti-pirate demagogues like Matsumura-Tamaribuchi and her cohort of terrorists hell-bent on disenfranchisement have their way.

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“The thing is, we get a lot of wannabes in this business,” said Mr. Klint

“Posers,” added Mr. Wyd.

“Impostors.”

“Frauds.”

“Charlatans. So we have a little test we like to run applicant through.” Mr. Klint gestured toward the range. “A quick shooting demonstration.”

Curry felt hot panic sweat begin to prickle along her neck. “I beg your pardon?”

“A true mercenary knows how to handle a weapon properly, able to hit a target and reload without incident,” said Mr. Wyd. “So we have a selection of weapons for you to shoot while we look on.”

“Nothing to it,” added Mr. Klint. “Except when something goes wrong, of course. Remember when that poor fool picked up the left-handed Steyr AUG and was burned by hot ejecting brass across his face?”

“Or the Dirty Harry who tried firing a .44 Dan Wesson with one hand and wound up with the hammer spur buried in the web of his hand?” said Mr. Wyd.

“Or the so-called ‘sniper’ who got a half-moon cut from the scope of his own rifle being driven into his face?”

“Or the fool who hit the slide release when he meant for the mag release?”

“What happens when there’s an…error…like that?” Curry asked, trying her best to keep up her facade and not show an ounce of panic.

“Well, most of the time we’ll simply have to kill them on the spot,” said Mr. Wyd. “Knowing what they do about our operation…it wouldn’t be prudent to do otherwise. Not always, though.”

Mr. Klint hit a switch on the range, raising the bulletproof shutters to reveal a man in fatigues handing by meathooks and groaning softly. “Sometimes we can still find a good use for them. Don’t worry; we’re not heartless. His next of kin will get his full fee.”

“Report, Mr. Sykers.”

“There be no question, cap’n,” Sykers said, removing his hat. “The logbook in city hall say there be no less than two thousand souls afoot in Scurvy Cove. Me raiding party found a hundred bodies, give ‘r’ take. There be but scant sign o’ the rest.”

“And their booty? What of their booty, Mr. Sykers?”

The bo’sun shifted his weight nervously. “There be some signs ‘o lootin’ about the place, cap’n, but on the slice o’ things looks like most every bit o’ plunder be where twas left. There be signs o’ battle aplenty though.”

“Curious.” Black Bill scratched at his long, carefully coiffed locks. “Most curious. Mr. McGinty?”

The Rotten Borough‘s quartermaster thoughtfully toyed with an unloaded flintlock. “I say arm the rest of the crew for raidin’, send ’em ashore, and plunder what there’s to take. Keep an eye out for whoever hit the place first, or townsfolk a-returnin’ from hidin’. When the hold’s full, set sail and have no lookin’ back.”

“Very prudent course, Mr. McGinty. I agree.” Black Bill stood, his dark, fine, frock coat’s golden embellishments glinting in the candlelit cabin. “See to it, Mr. Sykers.”

Sykers nodded, replaced his chapeau, and left. Black Bill immediately turned to McGinty with a meaningful look.

“I know. The men’ll be scared out of what few wits are about ’em,” the quartermaster said. “And I’ll admit to more’n a twinge of the uneasy myself. Whatever hit this port afore us…they didn’t do it natrual-like. And if they come back to see our men with arms full of plunder…”

“Right. The skeleton crew aboard will keep the ship in trim for a quick departure. With or without the raiding party.”

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