April 2013


Love…it’s not long for this world. A doomed word, one destined to fade away like the scent of flowers on a summer breeze. An endangered word.

Not because people are any colder than they’ve been. The indiscriminate slaughter of a thousand generations gives the lie to that idea.

Not because people are have any less capacity to love themselves or others. There are too many marriage certificates, too many babies, for that to be true.

No, people are more disconnected from one another than ever before, and that makes love at best a distant abstraction. Not disconnected in the sense of remoteness, in the sense that it’s hard to love someone 3,000 miles away, but disconnected in that many people don’t know their next-door neighbors. Disconnected in that without the mediation of a pad or screen no one really communicates anymore.

To love, you must know. And we seem to be forgetting.

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It came to pass that a great and mysterious spirit of old, the Sarmisethustra, came to the Darkwood. None could look upon it, blinded as they were by its light and darkness and shapes which had no expression for human eyes nor interpretation in human minds.

But it spoke, after a fashion, and the Mayor of Brightspear ventured out to meet it after laying plans for his people’s evacuation and appointing a successor.

Where are the Vle-Ya who long stewarded this wold? asked the Sarmisethustra in a voice that was not a voice. Why do they not respond to my passage?

“They are gone from this world and the ken of mankind,” replied the mayor, “and we of Brightspear have inherited their covenant. None have been seen since my grandfather’s grandfather’s time.”

Then it is too late, and I am bereaved, said the Sarmisethustra. I will depart, then, and seek them elsewhere.

“Tarry a moment,” said the mayor. “The Vle-Ya once sought to teach us of the forest and impart their knowledge. The stories say they interceded on our behalf with nature itself. We would ask the same of you, and grant you boons in return.”

What boon could you offer me? The affairs of your kind are beyond my ken, and to interfere would be to ruin.

“We would honor you as we do the memory of the Vle-Ya,” said the mayor. “And surely one of your power need not cause ruin.”

Ask the anthill how power is felt when applied out of scale. Ask the ant to pay you meaningful homage. It knows what it knows and it is what it is, neither inferior nor superior. Yet laws which govern us and the scales at which we operate are simply too different for meaningful interaction.

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People find hidden or dummied-out content in video games all the time. Often, especially for games released in the infancy of a platform or on a tight schedule, relics of development or pieces cut out at the last moment remain.

With the development of computer-based emulation, enthusiasts have been able to pull back the curtains and see things that developers didn’t want them to see. It might be as little as an unused enemy or palette, or as much as a whole area, plot thread, or ending.

For most people, it’s harmless fun, something to post in fan wiki.

Then, there was the programmer/artist that worked on the obscure 1991 platformer Mighty Metal Adventures. When a group of enterprising hackers downloaded data from the cartridge onto a computer to sift through it…most were never seen again. The few who could be found were driven to frenzied bouts of madness by what they’d seen.

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Chenelle had laid out all the food we’d brought end to end, open. It was all discolored and putrid, with worms visible writhing through the ripest bits and fungus on the rest.

“It’s rotten,” she said. “It’s all rotten, even the stuff that was sealed airtight when we came through.”

“Figures,” I said. One look at the dark and color-leeched surroundings, all rust and corrugated iron was enough to tell me that the warehouse we were in wasn’t normal in any sense of the word. And that was without the snatches of angry red sky visible through the chinks.

“Damn it, I knew it was going to be unforgiving on this side of the portal, but this…this is madness,” Chenelle continued. “How are we supposed to survive with no food?”

“We’re not.” It was Enola’s soft voice. She had seated herself on a pile of rotting lumber and was slowly, numbly, removing pieces of the mountaineering kit that all three of us were wearing for survival’s sake.

“Enola, stop that,” I said.

She ignored me, and tugged off one of her boots. “It’s all going to end in pain and darkness for us,” she continued. “Even before we came through.”

“Enola,” I said again, approaching her.

“It doesn’t matter what we wear or what we eat…pain and darkness…”

“Enola Bock,” I said firmly, taking her by the shoulders. “Stop that. We are not getting anywhere with that attitude.”

She looked up at me and Chenelle with her wide eyes misty with tears. “Don’t you think I know that?” she sobbed, weakly hurling a glove at us. “But I can’t help it. The vision haunts my every waking hour.”

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“Why don’t you go over and ask him about it?” said Jacob. “Let him know that his shiny engraved revolver is throwing sunshine in your delicate eyes, that tears of pain are dripping down your face.”

“Fine, if it’ll shut you up, I will!” Virginia kicked back her chair and walked over toward the well-dressed gentleman.

“Hello there, young lady,” the man said with a silver dollar smile. “Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire. Faro dealer, card player, gentleman of fortune, at your service. May I interest you or your posse comitatus over there in a game of chance or skill?”

“Your table gun there is shining light in my eyes,” said Virginia.

“I suggest you purchase a pair of tinted spectacles in that case,” Evans said. “I am also a trained optometrist and would be happy to set you up with a pair.” He opened a side compartment in his faro game box, revealing a selection of eyeglasses ornate and plain.

“Aren’t gamblers supposed to keep their guns up their sleeves?” Virginia continued.

“I’m sure an observant and intelligent young lady like yourself can see the impossibility of containing a full-size Merwin Hulbert revolver in my shirtsleeves. And a lady never asks a gentleman about his gun,” Evans said coolly. “My offers of entertainment or protective eyewear still stand, but I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to be on your way otherwise, unless you’re buying me a drink.”

Irate at the implied insult, Virgina lashed out her hand, intending to scoot the offending shooting iron out of the sun.

Evans reacted with lightning speed. He snatched the gun up by its handle and deftly twirled it in one hand. It threw the afternoon sun square into Virginia’s eyes once again; as she held up a hand, blinded, Evans spun his revolver into his other hand, gripping it by the barrel. He brought the handle down on the crown of Virginia’s head, lightly enough not to shatter bone or draw blood, but heavily enough that she stumbled backwards and landed square on her rear with a dazed look.

“I’m normally not one to engage in ad feminam attacks,” drawled Evans, “but you lay a finger on my gun at your own peril, miss. Mulier est hominis confusio.”

The saloon roared with laughter as Virginia sulked back to her table.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” snickered Jacob as she unsteadily sat down opposite him. “A fellow tried to lay hands on that gambler’s gun while you were tarrying and got the same treatment. Seems he’s a mite temperamental about his shooting irons. Sorry to say it slipped my mind.”

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“And I’d like to remind you that this is all brought to you by the Macroware Zoom!,” cried Blake. “Live the share!”

The assembled crowd–mostly girls–roared, and the MC doused them with water as music blared.

Satisfied, Blake walked backstage on the converted semi-trailer that unfolded into the Zoom Share Tour 2013. He found Mitch, the salesperson in charge, smoking a cigarette and looking over information on a tablet.

“You hear them out there?” Blake said with his marketer’s grin–it was hard to turn it off. “They love it.”

“They love the free swag and the music and the impromptu wet t-shirt contest,” Mitch grumbled back.

“And you’re going to tell me that’s not going to translate into enthusiasm for Macroware Zoom and Portal OS phones in general?” said Blake.

“Mark my words, kid,” said Mitch. “When this tour’s over, you and I are both going to get our walking papers no matter how much those party-hungry kids slut it up out there.”

“What?”

Mitch took off his glasses and laid them on the fake carton of Macroware Zooms serving him as a desk. “Beyond the fact that we’re peddling what’s basically a stripped down iPhone or Android years after the real things came in and ate our lunch? Above the fact that there’s a $50-a-month data plan in the fine print for stuff that other phones are doing for free?”

“Even Disneyland had problems its first day,” Blake said. “It survived melting pavement sucking off celebrities’ shoes.”

“Be blind if you want, then,” Mitch said. “But I’m looking at the sales figures for the last month. We’ve sold 500.”

“Thousand?”

“Five hundred period.” Mitch said. “2-3 per store, tops. Macroware’s sunk over a billion dollars in the project, and if every single oversexed sorority girl out there grabbing our free merch and running bought a Zoom, it would almost double our total sales.”

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CAPTAIN: My grandpa was a xenoman, my dad was a xenoman, and I’m a xenoman. And someday I hope my boy’ll take over the ship too.

ANNOUNCER: The hit series The Deep Space Catch returns this Friday, following the xenoman fishing the great vacuum abyss of the shoulder of Orion. Xenomorphs are a delicacy for the Oeglians of the outer rim, and their popularity at the dinner table means a continuation of hard-working xenomen working out of New Darwin and their way of life.

[On the deck of a fishing starship, a Xenomorph trap swings wildly through the hard vacuum on a crane]

CAPTAIN: Watch those traps!

[The trap falls to the deck and bursts open, coating the deck with green blood]

CAPTAIN: Dammit! Craig, clean off that acid before it eats through the deck!

ANNOUNCER: It’s statistically the deadliest profession in the known universe, with 95% of the xenomen being injured or killed on the job.

[CAPTAIN knocks on a cabin door belowdecks]

CAPTAIN: Come on, Matt, get up! We have traps to clean out…

[CAPTAIN forced the door open and recoils from the sight within]

CAPTAIN: Oh god, chestburster got him! Quick, toss me the flamethrower!

ANNOUNCER: Deep Space Catch. Returning to the Astronomy Channel this Friday.

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Desperate for modern civilian heroes to counterbalance the grand old military figures and aging ex-partisan fighters in its national pantheon, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia embarked on a quixotic quest to honor an obscure Serbian inventor and tinkerer.
Radmilo-Henrik Petrovic, born to a minor noble and his Norwegian wife, had been an embarrassment to his family in the years leading up to the independence of Serbia in 1878.

Setting himself up in a workshop outside Niš, Petrovic squandered his share of a large inheritance (having split it with three older brothers) on a variety of mechanical and technological projects. A polymath, and largely self-taught (his family had hoped for him to become a priest and trained him as such), Petrovic applied himself to a study of the principles of magnetism, electricity, and gravitation. Though he corresponded with many other inventors and thinkers (including his fellow countryman Nikola Tesla), Petrovic’s most lasting contribution to engineering and mechanics was a water fountain powered by barometric pressure that he build for a public square on the outskirts of Niš. There was plenty of speculation by townsfolk about the nature of his doings, but Petrovic, and all of his notes, perished in a 1901 workshop fire.

That would have been that, save for Joseph Tito’s need for an inventive hero for his regime. Beginning in the late 1960s, Petrovic was lionized in the SFR Yugoslav press as a visionary inventor in much the way that Tesla was eventually feted in the West (Tesla’s immigration to the United States, incidentally, made him unsuitable for the government’s propaganda). Every rumor that had ever been spread about Petrovic, every surviving letter and item of correspondence…they were accepted up front with bold sincerity.

At the height of the campaign, just before Tito’s 1980 death, Radmilo-Henrik Petrovic was said to have invented a workable incandescent lightbulb, an elecromagnetic dynamo capable of producing and storing energy, a heavier-than-air flying machine and a parachute to escape from it, and a host of other inventions “before their time.” A museum in Niš, and many items of official SFR Yugoslav propaganda, celebrated him as the true inventor of those items, with his fame unjustly usurped by those who came after. His later eccentricities, documented in letters, were carefully concealed. It would not do to have a shining beacon of scientific progress known to be afraid of a race of spectral shadow-harvesters, would it?

After the breakup of the country, the funding dried up and Radmilo-Henrik Petrovic plunged back into obscurity. His museum is now in ruins, regularly looted for scrap metal and an occasional destination for urban explorers. No Serbian history books mention his name, while Croation texts mention him only as a straw-man example of misrule from Belgrade.

And his fountain in Niš? It still runs like a Swiss watch, more than 100 years after its construction, and having never been cleaned.

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Do you really think, child, that shadows simply go away when the sun sinks below the horizon?

Far from it.

As bees must gather nectar as a bulwark against the leanness of winter, so too must shadows be gathered for the fast that is nighttime. For darkness and shadow are two different things, and those that repast on the one will find no succor in the other. And the lean and sickly shadows cast by mankind’s lights are a thin gruel of a substitute.

They are the shadow-gatherers, you see, and they steal unseen upon the dusk, taking the shadows which are no longer needed as the red light fades to darkness. Casting no shadow themselves, the gatherers are nevertheless a key part of the great cycle of darkness and light which binds together our world. They are, not unlike the bees, content to go about their duties and are rarely dangerous unless disturbed.

But we are disturbing them.

The shadows have grown weak and poisonous in many places, and the powerful lights of mankind confuse the shadow-gatherers and draw them into feeding on the awful artificial shadows cast by mercury vapor. The brightness of the dark also leads the gatherers to waste their energies at night with no strength left to face the dawn.

One interferes in the affairs of bees at their peril. We do so now with the shadow-gatherers; it remains to be seen whether we will be stung.

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