October 2014

“I am old, and the repose of a country gentleman suited me. It would more surely have suited my son.” Lusk staggered backward, clutching his wound. “But you have denied me the only woman who was capable of bearing the son that I need, and for that, I must cast the facade aside.”

Lusk’s estate blurred, liquified, vanished; for it had never been an estate, but an illusion, an extension of its master’s form and will. The neat lines of trees and manicured lawns dried up like water in the desert, revealing cracked and bone-dry earth; for the grounds were their master’s skin and the trees his sinews. The twisted remains of the earth gyrated in a movement that was not quite tremor, not quite spasm.

“Cunning and guile serve me well, a mailed fist in a velvet glove,” Lusk continued. The voice didn’t seem to issue from his mouth, but rather from the ground itself, and the register varied wildly, from conversational and high to a low and menacing growl like a grindstone of volcanic glass. “But even for an old trickster like me, cunning must sometimes give way to brute force.”

Lusk’s own form was melting away, running like hot tallow into the blighted ground. Like everything else, it had been an affectation in the service of guile. The dread spirit of the land was rising up, a cloak of shadows about a towering, impossible, and utterly horrifying form.

“You will regret the day that you interfered with the will of the dread god Ksul,” the horror cried in a voice that was wolves howling against the fierce midnight winds. “Pay for your foolishness with your lives, and the lives of every living creature in the valley!”

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Human-spec android Z001/19, better known to the crew of the cruise ship Kerguelen as James, was regularly employed as an assistant to the crew tending the nuclear reactor keeping the ship afloat, since his synthetic skin was CBRN resistant and could be easily swapped out.

While assisting a hazmet crew in routine maintenance of a coolant tube inside the “warm zone” of the reactor, James paused and looked up. Instead of saying “the outflow level on valve three is below nominal” like he had meant, he said what he had been fearing.

“I hate her, and I hate that she is here.”

Without a further word, James left the hazmat enclosure for the hallways of the cruise ship. There were no survivors from the first security team to confront him.

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The Crimson Empire had espoused no particular state religion at its outset, preferring a secular veneration of the Emperor as a unifying and civilizing force which drew various competing religious traditions under its protective wing; in this way it was unique among the ancient empires, which tended to make their emperors also the high priest of a state religion.

Around 1000 years after its foundation, the Crimson Empire began to move toward an official recognition of the Universal Sepulcher as a quasi-state religion, largely in belated recognition of its spread among the populace and the conversion of Emperors during the Anarchy Crisis. Over time, the Universal Sepulcher became the established religion of the empire and its godhead (whose holy name it was forbidden to speak) became paramount to the extent that other faiths were ruthlessly suppressed.

The New Order began as a small movement in the Imperial periphery, where a self-proclaimed prophet-warrior named Taayan began to preach that the godhead of the Universal Sepulcher was actually but one half of a dualistic cosmos, existing as a figure of universal and omnipotent good in opposition to an equal force of universal and omnipotent destruction. Only by venerating them both in equal measure, Taayan taught, could true enlightenment, salvation, and afterlife be attained. Furthermore, he broke the most solemn taboo of the Universal Sepulcher by naming the godhead as Argna the Protector. Set against Atneps the Destructor, the arrangement was known as the Duality and the movement that advanced it became known as the New Order, with Taayan as its Hierophant.

Arising in a time of crisis for the Crimson Empire and its other imperial foes, the New Order was able to carve out a vast empire in a shockingly short amount of time, and by the time of Taayan’s death (reportedly at the age of 101) the New Order rivaled the Crimson Empire in size. Only after a long period of consolidation and nearly constant warfare was the New Order able to defeat and subjugate the Empire, killing the last Emperor. Once it found itself in possession of virtually the entirety of the known world, worshippers of the Duality reorganized the lands into the Dominion of the New Order, adopting many of the institutions of the old Empire into a new, fiercely fundamentalist, and fiercely expansionist entity.

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“I won’t do it,” Gibbons cried. “You can’t make me.”

“Make you do what?” laughed Spinelli.

“Make me your guinea pig in all these magical insect demonstrations!” Gibbons replied, her voice shrilly passionate. “I’ve been mauled by a toothless ghast, mind-controlled into eating an Iowa’s worth of corn…orders or no orders, I’m not doing it!”

“Relax,” said Spinelli. “The Fighting Unicorns aren’t about coercion. Would it make you feel better if I was the next demonstration subject and you got to release the insect on me?”

Gibbons nodded eagerly, a fiendish gleam in her eyes, and Spinelli obligingly handed over a small case and a cue card before standing in the middle of the proving ground.

“This is a species of Auchenorrhyncha, best known for…producing loud noises in summer,” read Gibbons from the card. She opened the container and a repulsive insect resembling a giant housefly with oversized (and bright green) wings buzzed out. It made a beeline for Spinelli, who held out his arm for it to land on.

“Go on,” Spinelli said.

“The creature’s natural song…has evolved into a strong magical defense mechanism that uses sound to cause nausea at a distance,” Gibbons continued. “The sound becomes more potent at greater range, with a zone of safety extending about one meter…to…all…sides.” She looked up. “Oh no.”

As if on cue, the insect on Spinelli’s arm buzzed loudly. Spinelli himself felt nothing, but Gibbons, standing some distance away, was immediately and violently nauseous, and turned to hurl a mixture of various kinds of corn all over the waiting cadets.”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Spinelli said with a grin, “is why we call this particular specimen a Sick Ada.”

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“You’ll be happy to know, my friend, that the law firm of Spiner, Hernandez, and Xon has a full stake in the local private hospital, run by the prestigious Infrared health care network.” Spiner said, in an upbeat tone of voice more fitting for a used car salesman than an attorney.

“Uh-huh,” Jake said from between clenched teeth. “And that means what to me?”

“Well, I’ll have you know that fully 10% of your legal fees paid thus far will count against your bill at Infrared Health,” Spiner said brightly. “It’s one of the first vertically-integrated docket-to-death systems in the state, and we’re very proud of it.”

“What good does that do someone who’s just been shot?” Jake cradled the phone with his shoulder, both hands being busy pressuring the seeping bloody wound in his abdomen.

“I’ll have them send you a paramedic.” Spiner’s tone was dismissive, as if that were a minor obstacle on the way to health, happiness, and an astronomical bill. He once again hung up before Jake could offer much in the way of an answer.

Moments later, the silence of the alley was broken by the hum of diesel engines as the C-47 from earlier wheeled overhead; Jake noted that it bore Spiner, Hernandez, and Xon roundel and fin flash. “Oh, not again.”

Someone leaped from an open door of the plane and drifted on thermal air currents down into the alley. “Hi there!” they said upon landing. “I’m your Spiner, Hernandez, and Xon paramedic. I can be with you as soon as I repack my chute.”

“And how, exactly, is that going to help me?” cried Jake. “Are you going to carry me to the hospital?”

“Now, now, the ambulance will be here in 30 minutes or less or your tetanus shot’s free. In the meantime, I have three flavors and six colors of chewable morphine tablets for you.”

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The mysterious assassin was known only as El Gancho. He didn’t use weapons in his killings; no, he preferred a hand-on approach. He was an expert in getting close to targets, usually by blending in with a larger party of onlookers or hangers-on, and then getting them alone on a pretext. By the time a target’s guards heard the screams, it was too late.

Word had it that the president of the República de San Martín, the first democratically elected head of state after a half-century of rule by the corrupt Alvarez, the insane Gonzaga, and the brutal Exposito. Powerful people wanted the new president to disappear, and El Gancho was just the one to make it happen for the right price.

Detective Ramirez, on loan from Interpol, was scouring recent pictures of the president at galas and balls, trying to root out inefficiencies and outright holes in the security detail. As he did so, he came across a recent photograph of the president opening the Sanmartínese legislature. A variety of dignitaries were pictured applauding…including a man in a formal suit striking a hook where his left hand should have been against his right.

“…El Gancho…!” Ramirez hissed.

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Les trois Juliets (1970)
Director: Auguste Des Jardins
Producer: Jens Dardis
Writer: Auguste Des Jardins & Jens Dardis
Juliet Delacroix
Marguerite Delacroix
Géraldine Delacroix
Sid Jendras (voice)
Music: Georges Delerue
Editing: Auguste Des Jardins
Distributor: Union Générale Cinématographique

Long considered the masterpiece of French auteur Auguste Des Jardins and overshadowing the other projects he completed before his death in 1976, Les trois Juliets reportedly came about as part of a dinner conversation about the minimum number of actors that would be required for a fantasy film. Des Jardins’ longtime paramour Nadeau Struggs argued that a large cast was necessary, while the filmmaker himself insisted that it could be made with as few as two people, which he later revised to one and a half (with the half person being a voice-only role).

The resulting film follows a lonely woman named Juliet (spelled in the English fashion rather than the more Gallic Juliette) who lives in a Montmartre hovel working an unfulfilling job after the collapse of her dream to move to Paris to become an actress. Through an inventive use of ambient sound, camera angles, and deep focus techniques, Juliet is the only person ever seen onscreen despite the bustling inner city setting. She speaks only to herself or in telephone conversations to her father (Des Jardins’ frequent leading man Sid Jendras in the aforementioned voice-only role).

Only when Juliet spies another young woman in her neighborhood who looks exactly like her does another human being appear on screen, and the meat of the film revolves around her discovery of not one but two young women who seem to share her appearance, background, and even memories (albeit with some key differences). The film plays out as an extended metaphysical meditation with the occasional moments of levity as the three young ladies, each presided over by a father on the telephone that may or may not be the same man and is evasive in his answers. The ambiguous ending, which can be interpreted as a suicide, a merger of the three Juliets into one, or a belated agreement to live their lives as if they had never met, is still cited as an influence by filmmakers to this day.

One noteworthy piece of trivia revolves around the casting. While Jendras is clearly and unmistakably the telephone voice, the situation with the three credited actresses (Juliet, Marguerite, and Géraldine Delacroix) is much murkier. Des Jardins himself claimed that he had happened upon a set of triplets of the proper age and appearance purely by chance (and counted the three as one as a “clever trick” vis-a-vis the original wager). Nadeau Struggs and many critics disagree, insisting that it was a single person filmed with camera tricks, with the reason for the farce cited as a liaison between the star and the director with a triple credit for triple pay (Struggs, for her part, did concede the wager). No triplets Delacroix have ever been located, and Des Jardins’ insistence that the girl or girls weren’t professional actors has made the topic an occasional cause of friction among cineastes. None of the three girls have been seen in public since accepting various awards in 1971.

That point aside, the film is and remains widely popular among devotees of minimalist and fantasy cinema; Kubrick and Tarkovsky both lavished the film with praise and an English language remakes were released to lukewarm reviews in 1977 (Three Juliettes) and 2003 (The Three Juliettes), both notably using the French spelling of “Juliette” rather than Des Jardins’ preferred “Juliet.”

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“It’s a paingate,” said Leland. “Haven’t you ever read Tarboski?”

“How about just telling me what it is,” said Cliff, “instead of trying to make me feel stupid.”

Leland sighed. “Tarboski’s a science fiction author, a pretty good one, even though people don’t read him as often as they used to. One of his best books is about how weird alien artifacts start showing up in some podunk town and screwing things up, and one of them is a paingate. It’s shown up in some other stuff that people have written too.”

“Okay, but why is it called a paingate?” Cliff said. “It looks like a coffee cup for clumsy people.”

“Well, according to the book, any liquid that you put in that middle part there–coffee or otherwise–is immediately crystalized into a valuable gemstone,” said Leland. “Diamonds, rubies, alien gemstones of incomparable power that emit lethal radiation, that sort of thing. But there’s a catch.”

“A worse catch than lethal radiation?” Cliff tapped at the plexiglass box containing the three-handled ceramic ‘cup.’

“Yeah. If you touch it with bare skin, you die. Really, really painfully.”

Cliff backed away violently. “You could have said that to begin with!” he cried.

“Relax. It’s obviously a replica that some super-geek bought at Nerdicon.”

“Where’s the ‘gate’ part come in?” Cliff said, with a sideways glance at the case and its contents. “I get the ‘pain’ bit now.”

“That’s the best part of the book. Well I think it’s the best, anyway.” Leland grinned. “If you die from touching it, another you–identical to the dead one in every respect aside from having no memory of the last day or so–appears randomly nearby after 19 minutes and 17 seconds.”

“You mean they could…see their own dead bodies?” Cliff said.

“Could and did. It’s a pretty intense book.”

“I guess so.”

“You want to open the case and see how accurate the reproduction is?” said Leland eagerly.

“Not in a million years.”

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“I stayed up all night,” I said, “trying to think of something witty to say to the Queen.”

“Really now?” The Queen’s eyes twinkled. “What did you come up with?”

“I just said it,” I laughed.

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“Sir, can I see that camera?” The Metromart employee held out his hand.

“It’s my camera,” I snapped. “I came in with it.”

“Sir, do you have a receipt?”

“Of course I don’t have a receipt!” I cried. “Here, look at this.” I turned the camera on and handed it to the Metromart greeter. “See this picture of me in the park? With my nephews? Do you think I just took those in the store?”

“Oh,” said the greeter. “I’m sorry. We’ve just had a lot of thefts lately.”

I took the camera back with a harrumph and left. As soon as I was out of view, I popped it open and removed its SD card. I’d taken the pictures with another camera over a year ago; by switching the cards, it was very easy to make the camera look like it was mine. By the time Metromart found the discarded packaging, it was too late.

Starting up the car, I headed over to Berkeley’s to pawn my new acquisition.

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