August 2013


Moriko, daughter of Kaito the miller, was famously beautiful and wise throughout her province. Everyone, from the daimyō’s son to the lowly woodcutters who worked Kaito’s lands, sought her hand in marriage. Kaito, who had no other child and whose wife was long-dead, was very sentimentally fond of Moriko, and would suffer no suitor that his daughter, his light, did not fully approve. Nor would he, like so many in that era and even today, call on her filial piety to force a match.

Eventually, the daimyō grew tired of his son’s preoccupation with the girl. A member of the Fujiwara clan, he called upon his great-uncle, the imperial regent for the young Shāngmǐn Emperor, to force the issue. A retainer was duly dispatched to Kaito’s mill with an imperial decree that Moriko would marry her daimyō’s son unless she chose a worthier match in the intervening year. The daimyō had hoped that the girl might choose an honorable death or a suitor closer to her station (and thus more “worthy”); she might even be useful as a bargaining chip over a wayward and dissolute son.

But fate was to have other plans.

Moriko was a great lover of nature and the natural world, and she enjoyed nothing more than long walks in the Shizukesa Forest near her home to commune with the spirits of her ancestors and of the natural world. The forest had a consciousness, a gestalt of all its component parts, just as every other part of the world does. And, like every other entity that encountered her, it found itself enchanted by Moriko’s poise, intelligence, and beauty.

Her long walks soon became the equivalent of a courtship, with the Shizukesa Forest penning love poems in the shape of autumn leaves and songs in the form of clear running waters. She responded in kind with songs and poems of her own as she wandered beneath the forest’s sheltering boughs. The Shizukesa presented Moriko with a ring of woven sakura buds as a token of their bond.

The daimyō, alarmed, claimed that the use of a chrysanthemum token was a usurpation of the Shāngmǐn Emperor’s imperial prerogatives.

His response would lead to tragedy.

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Gnorw Yaw. It seemed like the name of a fairy or a gnome, and to see it prominently displayed on a red sign highwayside had perplexed Sean to no end when he’d first seen it in his rearview mirror. But he had shrugged it off as some tomfoolery by the local college students.

It was only six weeks later, when he had awoken from the medically induced coma, that Sean realized the true meaning of hat mysterious fairy sign:

WRONG WAY.

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The Founding

The City was founded–and the modern calendar begins–in 1 CD. Sejan, the de facto leader of the refugees, established a settlement overlooking the bay. The ships were stripped and scuttled offshore to prevent the invaders from easily identifying the site, and a fortified citadel was constructed of hewn stone to protect the citizens. This construction used up the limited resources that the refugees had brought, and they soon found themselves at the same technological level as the surrounding Outsiders.

While the expected attack by the invaders never came—indeed, they vanish from the historical record altogether—the nascent City soon had to contend with Outsider attacks. While poorly organized, the lack of a technological edge meant that these early battles were hard-fought, and the Outsiders—as has been the case in every subsequent conflict—outnumbered the defenders.

In the face of this onslaught, Sejan and the surviving Sepulcher clergy devised the foundations for their new society—renewed technological emphasis and territorial expansion to secure a buffer zone against the Outsiders. By allying with several loose groups of Outsiders, Sejan was able to take a considerable area of fertile land surrounding the city. Once the frontiers had been established, the Citizens turned on their Outsider allies and expelled most of them, while others were kept as slaves to work the new land.

By the time of his death in 44 CD, Sejan had conquered the core area of the modern City and Farmlands. He had overseen the establishment of all the trappings of a new society, invigorated research with the aim of re-establishing the technology of the Precursor City, re-founded the Sepulcher and laid the cornerstone for its basilica, and created the ancestor of the modern Citizens Armed Forces. For these achievements, Sejan was the only ruler of the City ever to receive the moniker of “the Great.”

The Imperial City

Though Sejan himself had not used a title, his son Valer was awarded the title of king by the leading citizens upon his father’s death; this began what later became known as the Imperial Period. Though initially intended as a temporary measure, Valer and his successors rapidly consolidated their power, and within a century the City’s government had become a hereditary monarchy. The early kings were generally able rulers who continued Sejan’s focus on technology (though the people had regressed to an Iron Age level since their arrival) and built a powerful military to expand and protect the Farmlands’ frontiers.

In 592 CE, King Aurel V proclaimed that the City would henceforth be ruled as an empire. Declaring himself Emperor Aurel I, the monarch moved swiftly against the City’s nobility in a brief but sharp civil war. Many of the City’s nobles were executed, and those that remained were reduced to landowners with hollow titles. Aurel oversaw the creation of a unitary state in which nearly all power was centralized in the hands of the emperor. While this led to short-term stability for Aurel and his successors, it had dire consequences for the rest of the population.

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AWC #269630 was by far one of the most popular destinations in the Alternate World Catalog. The entire planet, save for the occasional oasis or polar cap, was essentially the same as Monument Valley on AWC #000001: gigantic, picturesque mesas sculpted by wind and a long-ago wet period. The air was breathable thanks to rampant microbes and super-cactus, and vacationing families who came through the transdimensional gate at Wooster Station often had weeks of camp-out related fun with a rented 4×4 and trailer.

Assuming, of course, that they paid for them.

“Go, go, go!” Brian Mowan cried from the luggage rack atop a rental truck-and-trailer. He slapped the side furiously, which his counterpart at the wheel, Mako Yun, took as the signal to floor it.

“Hey! Stop them!” the camper-rental employee called. When no aid was forthcoming, he ducked into his shack and emerged bearing the most advanced theft-deterrent system on the planet: an old Ithaca 37 loaded with hyper-velocity Element 234 double-aught buckshot.

One corner of the 4×4’s truck bed disintegrated as the stolen vehicles took a sharp turn out of the lot. The third member of the team, “Ace” Motown, leaned out a back window with his Ruger GP100 .357 magnum. It was loaded with “hot poppers,” which made a lot of noise but not much else–no sense getting slapped with a murder charge when all they wanted was a clean getaway.

The Ithaca barked once more and Swiss cheese holes appeared in the far wall of the trailer–far from Ace or the others–before the shotgun’s owner hit the dirt. There was nothing between the three and the Wooster Station gate.

Their way cleared, the trailer thieves set off, headed for the wilderness…and adventure.

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Silver shone the humblersuate, and the crempole was waxing edialic.

Paulo had fled the mother country with the court of João VI, but he realized a curious thing: the further he traveled from his home in the Algarves, the further he grew from language and reality as he had known them. Thus the port at Rio de Janiero was aglow with a ructinsor that the other maltharld refugees could not tivene.

Paulo founs himself unable to go about the rochinfar of his old court position, because what was a rochinfar, after all? It was not the role of a page which he had sculneurried in Lisbon. No; the duties seemed the same, he seemed the same, but language forbade–it obvilled–any true similarity. The hellish humid bertic of Rio de Janiero, the maddening reversal of equinox and qualuator, the strange terminanice with which the locals rolled and spat their Portuguese and Galacian…for Paulo it might as well be the inrize of the moon, the apologate of the sun, for its distance from his prined Algarves.

Some Xes claimed him mad; they wanted him confined to colayananted beds overlooking still and cool courtyards of verborms, as befit a noble of his rank. Others, more darkly, sought to bavancy him in an gotive like a common lunatic.

But Paulo knew only one thing: the Exassudament approached, and he had to escape the rusixtroposer of Brazil for the sweet embrace of his homeland before it happened.

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Some people painted their cars with crude woodland camouflage. Rick painted his with authentic World War I pattern Royal Navy dazzle camouflage.

Yes, Rick was a bit of a WWI nut, dating from the day that he’d found his great-grandfather’s collection of war medals, including a German insignia said to have been taken from a dead man. World War II got all the press and all the movies since it was all black and white without shades of grey, but Rick reveled in the moral ambiguity of the older conflict and researched it compulsively in his spare time between menial jobs.

After all, going to reenactments usually meant a cross-Atlantic plane ticket at best.

Sure, people pointed and laughed and whispered a little. But was Rick any more eccentric than the Elvis impersonator who worked at Costco, or the body piercing and suspension fanatic who waited tables at Stuckey’s?

At least, that’s what Rick thought until he woke up one morning to the sound of air raid sirens and Zeppelin motors overhead.

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“Harry, you really need to relax,” said Greg. “Stressing like this, missing sleep…it’s not good for anybody, let alone someone who’s…not well.”

Harry was ensconced in a hospital-style bed, surrounded by crumpled pieces of looseleaf paper, open composition notebooks, and three laptops (his current model and the two previous ones) on the tray that was supposed to hold his food. “You need to call a spade a spade, Greg,” he said without looking up. “End-stage pancreatic cancer isn’t ‘not well.’ It’s ‘dying.'”

“You know, they say that a positive mental attitude helps,” Greg said. He shuffled through a few of his old friends’ papers, which seemed to date all the way back to their high school days. Reams of faded pencil told of the stories Harry was always scribbling in class when he should have been paying attention.

“They don’t say anything about a realistic attitude, though,” Harry replied, his eye still riveted to his computer screen. “This is a hospice, Greg, not a hospital. The most positive mental attitude in the world isn’t going to change six to eight weeks left into anything but six to eight weeks and seventeen seconds left.”

Greg sighed. The nurses had told him that Harry had been at his computers and in his notebooks constantly since he had them shipped in the day after he had arrived. He’d barely slept, ate only enough to keep from starving, and refused to partake in any of the activities or painkillers that had been proffered.

“Marilyn says her prayers are with you,” Greg said. “I ran into her in the supermarket the other day. Perhaps she’ll come to visit.”

“Well, that’s more than most people get from their ex-wife, so be sure to thank her for me.” Harry’s fingers were flying over his keyboard. “Maybe if she’d managed to crank our a kid or two with me, instead of McPherson, there’d be a better reason for a visit.”

Greg pulled up a chair. “Is this really how you want it to end, Harry? Cut off from everybody, with me as your only visitor? I’ve seen the logbook.”

“Everybody was cut off from me long ago,” said Harry. “My own doing, so caught up in that goddamn firm that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I made my bed, and now I’m quite literally sleeping in it. Wailing and gnashing my teeth aren’t going to help.”

Greg glanced at the computer screen; it looked like Harry was writing prose fiction with a separate window open for an outline. “Well, at least one thing hasn’t changed,” he said, trying to force a smile. “Still writing your stories.”

“After a fashion, yes.” Harry hadn’t shifted his gaze from the monitor since Greg had come in, the glow making his wan features, ravaged by disease, seem even more drawn and angular.

“Goddamn it, Harry, will you stop that?” Greg cried, fed up with being all but ignored.

“Don’t you see that I can’t, Greg?” Harry shouted back. He met his friend’s gaze for the first time, and Greg could see that his eyes were teary.

“Why not?”

“Every day for fifty years I wrote a little of this and a little of that,” Harry said miserably, indicating the accumulated papers and laptops with a sweep of his hand. “Hardly finished anything, never published anything, because I told myself that there would be time later on. The firm or Marilyn or some other little bit of life always came first.”

“It’s natural to think that, looking back with 20/20 hindsight,” said Greg. “That doesn’t mean that you have to bear yourself up over it now.”

“No,” Harry said. “No, no, no, no. I have to finish them, Greg. I have to finish them all: every novel I ever abandoned, every story I left half-finished, every poem that needed the right rhyme, every play that could use a better ending! I have to finish them all, and there’s not much time!”

“Why? Why do you need to finish them so badly?” Greg said. “Why is it more important than living what’s left of your life, Harry?”

“Because when I die, every piece of information that’s up here,” Harry tapped the crown of his head, “dies with me. All the endings, all the plots, all the characters, dead as a doornail. Unfinished forever. It’s like burning a library full of books that have never been written, and it’s my own damn fault for putting it off for so long.”

“So what?” Greg continued. “People leave unfinished stuff all the time.”

“You don’t understand,” Harry said desperately, plaintively. “The life I led, the choices I made…these stories are all that will be left of me after I die, Greg. They’re the only thing I have left to give the world, and the only part of me that has any chance of living on. I can’t let it end with them all unfinished. I just can’t.”

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Welcome back, students! Southern Michigan University, the third-largest university by enrollment in Michigan (assuming that you count our online students and not Western Michigan’s) is proud once again to welcome you back to our historic campus in Hopewell, MI. Southern Michigan University Student Housing (SMUSH) is proud to once again offer the following list of tips and useful information for your edification, especially for our incoming freshmen.

Be sure to have your mom walk you to your classrooms before classes start. Helicopter parents are hovering lower than ever before, so why not take advantage of that fact? And with the employment outlook at an all-time low, especially for your chosen double-major in philosophy and art history, combined with your sense of entitled distaste for any job less prestigious than the chancellor of a major university, you’ll be living with her again soon enough. Best keep her happy!

Make sure that you have the required dress code. Each new class of freshmen has their own fashion code to follow. Ladies will have to make sure they have the proper sneaker substitute (such as the Uggs or riding boots of years past) and pants substitute (like running shorts or leggings for previous classes). Gentlemen will of course be expected to follow a much stricter code of douchy shirts, khakis, and baseball caps oriented any way except toward the front. Over-gelled hair, carefully molded into the form of a duck’s butt, is an acceptable substitution.

Remember: the university is here to serve you and your tuition money pays the salary of everyone from the lowliest adjunct to the most powerful person on campus (the head football coach). So it is your right to demand exceptions to your classes’ tardy policies, campus parking policies, posted building hours, and more! After all, just because you insist on driving to class from your dorm since walking would require a brutal five-minute slog, that doesn’t mean that you should be any less annoyed at how few parking spots there are in the most developed part of campus!

Those of you who are interested in joining SMU’s thriving Greek scene, which actual Greeks ancient or modern would regard with apocalyptic horror, remember that there are special requirements laid upon you as well! Rushing will take up most of the time you would otherwise devote to getting your education, but you are welcome to drop out if you do not get into the fraternity or sorority of your choice, since the university collects your tuition for the semester regardless. And remember that even though hazing and refusing to admit pledges who do not meet certain physical beauty standards is illegal and a violation of the Geneva Convention, that behavior is tolerated by an administration addicted to the largesse of wealthy former Greek donors.

And finally, don’t let the fact that the Southern Michigan University Fighting Grizzlies are the laughingstock of the Big Seventeen national NCAA division get you down. It doesn’t matter than Southern Michigan University has neither the funds nor the donor base to compete in the intense national arms race that is college sports, in which fielding a winning team costs as much per season as the moon landing. Whether the team wins or (more likely) loses, you will still be able to participate in the vibrant local tailgating scene. After all, aren’t sports just an excuse to get drunk and behave in a rowdy fashion in a socially-sanctioned context? European soccer hooliganism and the ancient chariot race riots in Byzantium are just some of the rich traditions you will be tapping into.

An incoming freshman looking to kill a few brain cells before you inevitably boomerang home? A graduate student ready to occupy this or that because you accumulated $400,000 in debt getting a degree in Marxist political philosophy? A professor so ossified into the tenure structure that you haven’t changed your “Philogenetics of Freudian Archetypes in Derrida” syllabus since it was first xeroxed in 1977? Whether you fit into one of those broad categories or are a unique snowflake all of your own, remember this: college is a bubble. Don’t pop it, lest the existential horror of paying for a degree for which there are only thirteen jobs in the entire country overwhelm you.

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“I swear, it isn’t mine!” said the kid. “My friend must have put it there.”

“Tell it to the judge,” the officer said. “Cuff him and read him his rights.”

While the kid was manhandled into the back of the officer’s Crown Vic, backup arrived with lights blazing.

“What’ve we got here?” said the other cop, emerging.

“Come and have a look.” The arresting officer shone his flashlight into the back seat. He reached in with a gloved hand and fished out a plastic baggie filled with ones and zeroes.

“Well, shit!” the other cop said. “That’s a line of source code for the latest version of Abalone Photostudio! Does the perp have a serial number?”

“Nope. And look at this: these are premium Mexican ones and zeros from Call of the Medal of Honor V! That game doesn’t hit retail for three days!”

Popping the trunk, the cops found a whole bale of binary, shrinkwrapped in plastic in a futile attempt to keep code-sniffing dogs away. It was Annoyed Avians for eOS devices from Apricot, Inc., usable only on ones that had been prisonbroken and unlocked by illicit means.

“Mr. Chen, is it?” the first officer said. “Boy, you in a whole heap of trouble.”

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“Ma’am, is there a thrift store up here? The sign says so.”

“Jeffery, come on up!” The woman cried down the stairs, more or less ignoring my question. “Now! We can’t get your room ready without you in it!”

“Ma’am?” I said again, more insistently.

“Why are you wearing just a t-shirt in February?” the woman asked, acknowledging me at last. “And where are your shoes?”

“It’s a long story,” I sighed, shivering. “Suffice it to say that I didn’t get anywhere near enough sleep last night. But is there a thrift store up here?”

“Oh, no,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “They went out of business months ago and I bought their space to turn into an apartment.”

Dammit! I started back down the lobby stairs, holding the door open for the woman’s son, struggling inside with a box of toys.

“But there is a Salvation Army across the street,” the lady added. “Behind the McDonalds. It’s hard to see from the road.”

I barely touched the snow and slush as I dashed across the road–good thing, as I was in my socks. There were still a few hours until my date at 9pm. I could make it.

The Salvation Army was small, only a single room, but it had rack upon rack of wonderful clothes. I bought a warm sweater and a pair of pinchy but semi-formal shoes and socks. It devoured most of the $20 I had in my pocket, but there was enough left for a drink or two at the date, and I’d figure everything else out afterwards.

I decided to hang around to kill some time, and settled into a high-backed armchair. I flipped through a book and examined an old Professor X vinyl figure on the shelf, one that would have been worth a hundred bucks in good condition but barely ten now. Might be a good subject for a blog post, I mused.

Then suddenly the lights went off. I looked up; the store was dark and the doors shuttered. Apparently they were on a timer, and the clerk had closed up shop for the night when I was preoccupied–and invisible.

I was about to get up and look for a way out when I noticed a subtle red glow emanating from a socket on the wall. The store had a laser burglar alarm that was now live, and all the sweaters and shoes in the world wouldn’t mean anything if I tripped it.

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