January 2013


“Professor, I noticed during your speech that you have a religious icon around your neck.”

“Oh? Yes, I like to wear it to remind me of what lays beyond my theories, in the realm of faith that no theorem may penetrate.”

“But how can a man of logic and mathematics say that? Why not rely on them to provide concrete answers to all questions?”

“Ah, clearly you are not very familiar with my friend Kurt Gödel and his incompleteness theorem. Allow me to enlighten you: there will always be problems that cannot be solved, things beyond human comprehension. Logic, mathematics, science…they are all abstractions, conceits, rooted in our human nature. Useful ones, yes. Valuable, and not to be taken lightly or suppressed by the ignorant, not when they have taught us so much and brought us so far. But still, ultimately, limited.”

“Why that religion, then, instead of another?”

“Why any religion? I find it useful to participate in the cultural life of my community, of my people, as well. They have had a place in their home for faith for two thousand years. Even if I feel they were often in error, or led to error–and I do–that is not something to be discarded lightly.”

“But what about abortion, and married priests, and discrimination, and infallibility and all that?”

“You are speaking of doctrine, my friend, not faith. Doctrine is a human construct, laid atop the unknowable of the divine and subject to the same human failings.”

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“But shouldn’t we hire someone a bit stronger? A bit taller?” Eyon squinted at the goblins lined up along Sellsword Street. “I think the tallest of them barely has a hand on me, and I’m short for my age.”

“Patience, boy,” said Gullywax. “Much as I’d like to hire you an oakshaft spearman or a fey crossbowman or even a human, we’ve not ten coins to rub together between the two of us. We’ll have to make do with a gob until more coin or more renown comes our way.”

At the wanderers’ approach, the goblins (and their handlers) began to shout and heckle them.

“You there, boy! Good strong gob here, eight coin!”

“Gob for hire! Will bring own arquebus if you bring shot!”

“Finest gob in Sellsword! Was chief of Earpincher tribe once!”

“Gob! Gob! Gob here! Kill protect and serve!”

Gullywax whispered advice at Eyon as they walked along the cobblestones. “Don’t pick any that are too short; goblins grow all their lives and the taller ones are the most experienced. Pick one with armor; it will last longer in serious combat and have a better chance in ambushes. A sword is better than a bow or hammer because it can parry blows as well as attack. Don’t be afraid to haggle, but keep in mind the lowest any will go is half their initial offer.”

Eyon paused in front of a goblin taller than he was with burnished armor and sword. “How much?”

“Hunnert coin fer ten days,” the gob sniffed.

“Too much coin for too short a time,” whispered Gullywax, his whiskers tickling Eyon’s ear.

Further along, a goblin in ramshackle armor was swaying as if drunk (or punch-drunk) and using a sword for a crutch. “Five coin, thitty days,” it panted. “Bes’ deal onna Shellshord.”

“Obviously something wrong with that one.” Eyon was inclined to agree.

Eventually, they came upon a goblin with solid-looking (if coated with a rusty patina) armor, a sword that shone at the edge and the point, and a massive iron helmet that covered its head and all its features.

“How much to hire you?” Eyon said. The gob looked a good compromise in height, and stood solidly with boots planted on the ground.

“Fifteen coins, thirty days,” said the goblin, its voice echoing in its helmet.

“Hm.” It seemed solid enough, and quiet in comparison, but that could as easily be an indicator of weakness or stupidity as strength. “Impress me.”

The goblin clanked forward, lifted its sword, and tossed it into the air. It pivoted, and with a short running start ran up a nearby brick wall before launching itself, seizing the sword in midair, and falling with it–a lethal spike–to the ground. The sword buried itself in the packed earth up to its hilt.

“I think we’ve found our gob.”

Inspired by this.

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Cam led the old man aside, doing his best not to wrinkle his nose at the stench or stare at the tattered shirt and furs that passed for his clothing.

“How long have you been out here? It’s 200 kilometers to the nearest settlement.”

“Was a part of the Church of Peace,” the old man said in a voice creaking but understandable. “Moved up north to Alaska to get away from the violence and practice our ways. During the war, when I heard there’d be forced conscription, I took to the wilderness with my wife.”

“The war? Which war?”

“The great war, with the Kaiser,” said the old man. “A people what never done anything to harm us, and there was a chance we’d have to betray our sacred vows to the Lord. Lived up here ever since.”

Cam took a step backwards, supporting himself on one of the great pine trees. If the old man was telling the truth, he’d been living along in the taiga for over fifty years. “You don’t even know that you’ve crossed the border?”

“Reckoned I might have, but the Canadians was conscriptin’ too so I figured it didn’t much matter.” A sigh. “My wife’d often say she thought we were movin’ toward the Canada aide before she died.”

“Hey, what’s the holdup?” Jeanette from Cam’s crew called from behind him.

Cam waved her off with a curt gesture. “That’s a long time to be alone,” he said.

“Alone? No, I ain’t alone. I got the Lord, son. The lord and six children.”

Inspired by this story.

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Dr. Noah Sexton won a number of prominent physics prizes for his work on astrophysical X-ray sources. A PhD at 18, with his earliest major paper published at 20 and his first major award at 23, he was for a time regarded as an up-and-coming enfant terrible in the discipline, headed for a major academic or research position.

This changed, and rather forcefully, with his paper on “Nchimsi Background Radiation” penned at 27. Dr. Sexton argued that a certain type of background radiation, undetectable by all but the most sensitive instruments, contained a record of future events. The first such article, which was published but later withdrawn by the Canadian Journal of High Energy Particle Physics, proposed that the effect was on a quantum scale and only detectable under strict laboratory conditions.

His work went unchallenged for a year until a research team from Cambridge attempted to reproduce Sexton’s results. They found no evidence of the effects he described, serious problems with his procedure, and inexplicable errors in his mathematics (which was complex enough that the CJHEP had not bothered to check it). Sexton’s assertion that the name “nchimsi” that he applied to the background radiation came from a Sumerian goddess of future events also proved unfounded, with no such figure appearing in any authentic text from Sumer.

Sexton’s response was to compose a lengthy, rambling letter to the CJHEP defending his findings and accusing the Cambridge team of “petty jealousy.” He attempted to publish a follow-up paper, reporting data from experiments in his garage with a homemade apparatus and extending the timeframe of the “Nchimsi Background Radiation” to a scale detectable by humans. Every journal he submitted the new article to rejected it outright; Dr. Sexton eventually had it published by a vanity press at considerable expense.

His colleagues began to suspect that Sexton had undergone some kind of psychotic break, but he angrily refused to seek treatment and withdrew to his parents’ old home. Sexton continued to produce papers explaining how his discovery could predict the future, unlock the secrets of the universe, gift humanity with immortality, and more. He had them printed and mailed to libraries and academics, a practice that steadily drained his funds.

Sexton’s emaciated body was discovered by a neighbor not long after his 50th birthday; he had apparently starved to death after running out of food and money and refusing to leave his home in search of either. In what the coroner remarked as a fascinating coincidence, Sexton was found near his “Nchimi detector” with a scrawled note in his hand, which happened to be the same as a banner headline from the next morning, announcing his death.

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There was pandemonium in the waiting area between the stages; band members, roadies, burly security personnel, and every species of stoner known to man mingled in a gigantic mob.

“I’m here to see Dinky Gazebo. I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since they got their start in a Cascadia college bar!”

“Woo! Garbage Mashers on the Detention level for life! I have all their albums and bootlegs and bootleg albums and albumen bootlegs!”

“Does anyone know when Bad Pastel Paintings plays its first set?”

“Where’s Stage D? 10-Hour Flight Delay was moved there and they start in 10 minutes!”

“Yeah! Best Don’t Eat the Lobster concert ever! Even better than the 2010 tour!”

The Bands With Stupid Names fest 2013 was off to a strong start.

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It’s never a good sign when a client wants to meet you in an alleyway instead of your office. Granted, the average alleyway smells a bit better than my office and lets in less water when it rains. But the clients always want their suspicions to be alley’d, and I oblige; for my part, I think they’ve seen too many detective movies. I know I have; it’s where we both get our expectations for dress and the proper hardboiled tone for narration.

Evryali the Gorgon was waiting for me in the alley next to my office, her back turned, protected from the rain by a cheap paper parasol from Chinatown. “Your message said you had acquired it,” she hissed. “Let me see.”

I pulled out an old wooden crate–it’d held my last factory order of Lil’ Devil brand snack cakes– and dropped the small, wet packet on it, opening it to reveal the small but highly poisonous snake that had sent me to the emergency room three times and the toilet seventeen times since my halfling “brother” Mungle Snuh had surrendered it under duress of having his feast ruined by a torrent of sewage.

“I’m gonna bite you again, you know,” the snake said. “Even if you are bringing me back to my mistress. It’s just what I do.”

“You just do whatever you have to do,” I said. Sure enough, the tiny snake rose up and sank his teeth deeply into the iron knights’ gauntlet I was wearing, a late borrowing from Gilberte the Small, Knight Errant of 57th Street. The snake cried out in pain and recoiled.

“That’s him, all right.” Evryali turned and approached me, an envelope in her hands. “And here is our agreed-upon fee.”

I reached out to take it, but the snake interrupted my train of thought (money money money or something along those lines) with a startled squawk: “That’s not my mistress! What’re you trying to pull?”

I looked up, surprised. I should have known something was up; statistical analysis shows that 2/3 of my clients try to double-cross me (with the remaining third just settling for skipping out on the bill).

“Too bad you had to open your scaly mouth,” Evryali purred. She grasped her shades, ready to pull them down.

For my part, my anti-Gorgon shades were still with Chang’s Dry Cleaning and Pressing, so I pulled out my gun. I tried to, anyhow; it’s hard to handle a gun made for human hands, even human children’s hands, as a halfling. I dropped the gun instead, and it went off with a crack, with the .22 caliber bullet (hey, it’s the biggest round I can manage, recoilwise) ricocheted harmlessly off Evryali’s normal-looking but subtly armored skin. She laughed, and exposed her blood-red eyes.

Luckily for me, petrification isn’t instant death. As long as your ‘statue’ is intact, anyone with a little mandrake juice or harpy tear salve can being you back. In fact there are roving freelance gangs who do just that, picking up statues and holding them for “safekeeping” while relatives scrape together the cash for a de-petrification. That was the next thing I saw: a cigar-chomping satyr in suspenders and wifebeater, de-petrifying my face (and only my face) so I could arrange to buy my way into a full de-petrification.

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If approached, the Greenhouse Spirit will sometimes deign to carry on a short conversation rather than vanishing. The groundskeepers affectionately call her “Greenie” and appreciated the lack of malice or melancholy she displayed, in sharp contrast to the other spirits roaming the grounds.

When she appears, the Spirit will fill the greenhouse with spectral plants and flowers, though whether these are the spirits of actual flowers or a manifestation of Greenie herself is a matter of some debate. She herself appears to be a young woman, solidly in the 16-26 age range, but as spirits’ appearances do not always reflect their appearance in life no one has been able to discern any biographical details, and the Spirit declines to provide them.

She will, instead, extol the values of her current garden, which neither ages nor dies, and maintain that only as a spirit could she work with such plants.

Inspired by this image.

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