March 2021

Our shredder broke down
Just as the world was doing the same
During the last year
The most stressful year of our privileged lives
Secrets built up in a shoebox
Secret numbers, secret checks, even secret plastics
We had no way to destroy them
And money seemed so very precious at the time
This afternoon I burned them all
In the backyard of the house we, and the bank, now own
Raking coals over secrets
Spring sunshine raining down upon us from above
Half a vaccine in my arm
Is it a purge, a cleansing, or a simple ritual
To stand outside in the light
Burning to ash secrets that could hurt us both
In the wrong hands
Ashes borne high on springtime wings
I look at the embers, smile
We have survived; we have survived; we have survived

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One year hence, and
Is it Stockholmish to say
I rather like my world contracted
Office in the back, entertainment out front
Strangers only on video screens, in the news
My garden, my birds, my pets, my spouse, all here
Available 24/7 yet just as easily withdrawn from when
The nagging, if gentle, drone of anxiety reaches a crescendo
I should be happy at the needle slid into my arm, jubilant even
But when I think of the world, the work, that waits outside my home
The terror I feel is not from any plague, nor from any politics or politicians

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Attracting funding and followers from a well-publicized lecture tour, Dr. Pike preached that he had conducted intensive seances with a variety of innovators, scientists, and prophets, from Benjamin Franklin to Elijah. Enumerating a total of 23 luminaries that he had been able to contact from beyond the grave using his “electro-bio-mechanical spiritual energy amplifier,” Pike began to build a base of followers. With their donations and his continued popularity on the lecture circuit guaranteeing his financial security (he was by all accounts a genial, humorous, and entertaining orator with a mesmerizing effect on audiences), Pike closed his medial practice and set about completing what he at first called “The Project.”

At various times it was also known as “Project 23,” “The Electro-Mechanical Messiah Project,” the “Bio-Electro-Mechanical Project 23” and so on. For the remainder of his life, Pike continued rearranging various permutations of “electric,” “mechanical,” “biology,” “messiah,” and “23” to suit his ever-evolving purposes and plan. Thankfully, the project had a relatively simple elevator pitch, which Pike continuously delivered to rapt audiences. An excerpt from an 1877 speech perhaps explains his goals best:

“Our first messiah was a messiah of flesh, holy and incorruptible, for all the human race knew at the time was flesh, machines being in their infancy and electricity even more so. And, like some infants you may personally know, they were a long time a-raising! But that time has now come, with electricity and machinery past those first few wobbly steps. This is a new world dawning; a world of energy and a world of steel joining the world of flesh. You might expect, then, a messiah of volts, a messiah of metal, to each arise about two thousand years distant from the other. But we have seen that spiritual energy, like electricity, moves quickly, and the Father of All is increasing His pace to match ours. Thus I say to you: look for the coming of a messiah that is not just electricity, not just machinery, not just flesh, but all three in holy trinity. It will be inhabited by a messiah, yes, but we will not wait on another virgin birth. The going rate of one every five thousand years is simply too slow. No, my friends: the electro-mechanical messiah approaches, and I know this because we are going to build it, together.”

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Dr. James MacDonald Pike was a renowned–perhaps ‘infamous’ is a better word–figure in the early Spiritualist movement. A trained physician and amateur machinist, he served with distinction as a field medic during the American Civil War, and was able to patent and sell a design for a breech-loading carbine as well as an electrically-detonated torpedo to the Union government. Nearly 1,000 “Pike Pattern” carbines were made for Union cavalrymen, and a further 2,500 “Torpikedoes” were made for harbor defense by 1865; though the weapons never saw combat and were quickly mothballed after the war, royalties left Dr. Pike a wealthy man.

He was wounded at Fort Stedman near Petersburg in the closing stages of the war, shot at close range in the head by a Confederate attacker during the breakout attempt there. The wound should have been catastrophic, fatal, but Dr. Pike miraculously survived. The lead ball was never removed, and the wound bothered him for the rest of his life, but nevertheless he regained consciousness in a Union field hospital shortly after the surrender at Appomattox.

Pike claimed in later writings that he had a vision during his convalescence, with “the voices of the pioneers of our current electro-mechanical age singing into my head a song of light like unto a heavenly choir.” Subsequent correspondence with other leading Spiritualists of the time, such as Graceline Kelly Andrews and John Murray Spear (both of whom later fell out with Pike) convinced the doctor that he had been divinely ordained to create a new “electro-mechanical messiah” which, once imbued with a spark of life, would be apart from and above human concerns and able to lead mankind to a new age of spiritual reason and progress.

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Mirrorbreak – Seven years, the period of bad luck breaking a mirror is said to bring. Does not necessarily signify a bad seven years.

Nielsen Hour/Nielsen Half-Hour – 44 minutes and 22 minutes, the period of actual original programming, minus commercials, in a broadcast hour or half-hour in the United States. Falling out of use with the rise of streaming and the decline in Nielsen ratings as a barometer.

Zanziwar – 38 minutes, the length of the Anglo-Zanzibar War, often called the shortest declared war in history. Used in the early-to-mid 20th century but now fallen out of use due to its colonialist overtones.

Handfast – One year and a day (366 days). Often erroneously described as a period of ‘trial marriage’ in common law, but owes more to Sir Walter Scott than any historical period. Occasionally used by neopagans who accept Scott’s historical invention. Note: disregards leap years entirely.

Long Count – 10,251 years, 264 days, or the period between the epoch of the Mayan Long Count calendar (Thursday, Apr 1, 8239 BCE) and the end of its 13th bʼakʼtun (Dec. 20/21, 2012CE). Based on a fundamental misreading of and misunderstanding about the Mayan calendar, peaked in popularity in the early 2010s before the damp squib of the actual 2012 reduced its usage.

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CARL: This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, coming to you live from the 2k21 High School Robotics Championship.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, and I am also coming at you live, albeit 6 feet away and muffled by a mask, from the 2k21 HSRC.

CARL: I have to note, Tom, that the epistemological data for six feet of distance being some sort of magic shield against infection is frankly rather lacking.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, it’s all part of the sanitary theater here in the University of Northern Mississippi Omnidrome, from wiping down surfaces for an airborne virus to pretending that kids under 18 are somehow magically immune. But their wrathful parents will not be denied this day so here we are.

CARL: Now, before the commercial break we saw a stunning turnaround as Team Robofop had their automaton explode, taking them out of contention for the lead in most categories.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. Building their ‘bot around cheap Chinese power cells led to an explosive result in the last match for the same reason Tom Jr. can’t bring his hoverboard to the airport anymore.

CARL: Uh, I’m sure that it was the foolish team of laowai brats misusing the glorious, and safe, technology benevolently provided at fair price and high quality by the General Secretary.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, how silly of me. Anyhow, with Team Robofop out of the running, who do you like for the coveted category of Best Overall Robot?

CARL: I’m gonna say that Team Belle of the Bot is a strong contender for me. I’ve never seen a robot that was able to curtesy and cut through two inches of solid Bethlehem steel in the same fluid motion.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, but I think you might be underestimating Team Mostly Armless. Their ‘bot had superior speech synthesis and music capabilities, after all; while I could find fault with some of their slant rhymes, the fact that the robot could both rap and beatbox freestyle was impressive.

CARL: I thought that Team R2-Wii-2 had a vey creative use of obsolete and hacked video game technology.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, though you know how I feel about video games.

CARL: You’ve made your position on them very clear, much like your first wife, while nevertheless continuing to do them despite the complaints, much like your second. But more importantly: do you think that meltdown we saw from Team Tin Can Do has eliminated them from the Best teamwork category?

TOM: That’s right, Carl, I think that little tantrum hurt them more than the name-calling we saw from Team Pro Botic and the thrown wrench that marred Team I, Killbot.

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“Don’t worry about the E-Z Inn/E-Z Out Motel,” Kunstler said. “I’ve seen the manager. A weak man, skulking about sucking money from those who have nowhere to go. A good, firm grasp is what’s needed.”

“Good, firm grasp, eh?” Sexton said. “You going to rough him up?”

“I’ll just tell him that if he breathes one word about this to anyone, I will lash him to a telephone pole with razor wire, facing his wretched little establishment, so that he can watch it burn to the ground as the life dribbles out of him.”

Mercifully, Sexton’s phone buzzed before Kunstler could further elaborate. “Okay, I need to take this call,” he said. “From the boss.”

Kunstler grunted and walked onto the balcony; a moment later, he could be heard lifting one of the metal deck chairs like a dumbbell.

“You did well, Sexton,” Fairburn said. “It will take the authorities weeks to figure out that the body in Kunstler’s cell after the fire was not his, if indeed they ever do. My analysis has so far proven correct, which is why I have your third and final recruitment ready. Complete this, and statistically speaking, your team cannot fail–you, and they, will all have their lives back and be none the wiser.”

“Who is the third one,” Sexton said. “Let’s get it over with.”

“Are you familiar with internet videos, Sexton?” asked Fairburn.

“I’ve seen some, mostly with cats,” Sexton replied. Kidnapping a celebrity cat would be a nice change of pace after two impossible jobs.

“I need you to acquire for me Crys Appleby, who is probably better known as Crystal_Apple or Crypple. They are a singing star of online streaming videos, which they record, edit, and promote themselves.”

“Easy enough,” Sexton said. “Live in mom’s basement?”

“Currently, the subject is on tour with a number of other internet celebrities as part of a marketing stunt. However, security is very tight due to an assassination attempt against another star late last year. There have also been noises that the subject is due to be signed by a major record company and/or a major film studio. This is immaterial to their value to this enterprise.”

“Which is?”

“For the time being, also immaterial,” said Fairburn. “Get it done.”

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Sexton looked uncomfortably at the hologram of Dr. Fox, which was looking out the window at squirrels playing in the motel parking lot and muttering about the quantum causality loops inherent in acorns. “You were not lying about the insanity problem,” he said.

“Sanity is a social construct,” Fairburn replied, his voice jumping an octave for a split-second as the quality of the call wavered–probably thanks to the power drain of Dr. Fox. The E-Z Inn/E-Z Out Motel was not going to like their electric bill. “As long as she can do what is asked of her, the rest is of no concern.”

“So what do you need me to do next? You said there were three targets.”

“Yes, your next target should be ready for recruitment as we speak,” Fairburn said. “He is Captain J. Oran Kostler III. Are you familiar with him?”

“Never heard of him,” said Sexton. “Boat guy?”

“He is currently serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in the Armed Forces Disciplinary Barracks Annex,” replied Fairburn. “You will be expected to extricate him from this predicament.”

“How the hell am I doing that?” Sexton cried.

“You were able to recover Dr. Fox from a similarly secure location. It’s why I recruited you, after all. Refusal is not an option, but it is also not needed; my analysis says that you are more than capable of such an assignment.”

“I just…fine, fine,” Sexton muttered. “What is he serving life for, anyhow?”

“His unit fired into a group of unarmed protestors. I’m not surprised that you haven’t heard of it, the incident was largely covered up.”

“Is he…is he guilty of that?” Sexton said.

“It is absolutely immaterial to our endeavor,” said Fairburn. “You can ask him yourself, if it matters that much to you, once he is freed.”

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The line buzzed. “The first agent you must recruit is the late Dr. Zariquanna Fox. She was instrumental in developing the security systems I need you to bypass, and I believe she may have even left herself a back door, if you can get her to agree to use it. Which I suggest you do.”

“Hang on a moment,” said Sexton. “The late Dr. Zariquanna Fox?”

“That is correct,” said Fairburn. “My psychological and personality profile indicates that she is not fond of her given name, so do be sure to call her Dr. Fox when you meet.”

“I feel like you’re leaving out a pretty important piece of information, Fairburn,” Sexton said. “How ca I recruit her if she’s dead?”

“Ah yes. A tragedy, that. The operation would be so much easier if she were still alive in the traditional sense. But no matter. How familiar are you, Mr. Sexton, with the fields of emergent intelligence, neural nets, holography for data storage, and quantum encryption?”

“They sound like things that save the day just before the credits roll on Star Trek.”

“Well, luckily you were recruited for your interpersonal skills rather than your technical knowhow, Mr. Sexton. Dr. Fox used herself as a model for an early and experimental computational matrix based on a full neural scan of a living subject. The system is still active at her previous place of employment, the Summers Institute of Computing. You will retrieve it.”

“And I’m just supposed to walk out with a computer on my back, am I?” Sexton said.

“If necessary. Be sure to lift with your back.” Fairburn waited a beat, presumably for Sexton to chuckle at his joke, before resuming. “But it is my belief that her program is considerably more portable than that, luckily for you.”

“Bullshit,” Sexton said. “If they could miniaturize technology like that, I’d be using it right now.”

“They’ve been able to do it for years, Mr. Sexton. Decades, perhaps. But the cost is simply too high for consumer applications; if you’re looking at a billion dollars per unit, that simply doesn’t scale. Believe me, in the future everyone will have one , assuming they are able to solve the insanity problem.”

“The what?”

“On your way, then,” said Fairburn. “I will upload detailed instructions and schematics when you arrive.”

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Imperial Flag of the Czardom of Poccnr.

The Czars of Poccnr consider their vast realm to be the successor to the now-destroyed empires of old, and thanks to a fortuitous marriage to the niece of an emperor hundreds of years ago, they do have a tenuous claim to such a title. This is where the three-headed Imperial Seal of the Poccnran Czars comes from: one head each for the fallen empires and a third, exultant, head for Poccnr itself, each with a crown. This is also reflected in the Triple Crown of the Empire, which is so heavy that it can only be worn for a few moments during coronation and is often merely displayed nearby for weakling Czars. Michael III was removed from power after only a year for the crime of being too weak to wear the crown, for instance.

The original Poccnran banner was a simple triple eagle on a field of yellow, but this led to battlefield confusion with the Teutons, Poccnr’s on-again off-again frenemies to the west, who used a similar banner with a single eagle. As such, Czar Paul II revised the flag, placing the imperial triple eagle on a shield displayed on a banner of ‘stainless’ white. His son Paul III quickly realized that the flag looked too much like a white banner of surrender with no wind after the disastrous Postmyśl Incident, and instituted new colors based on that of the standard Poccnran infantry uniform of the time: crossed red belts over green with the Imperial triple eagle as a ‘buckle.’ With minor modifications, this flag was used until the deposition and murder of the last Czar.

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