I know you think I’m crazy. But that’s immaterial. Sanity and insanity are relative terms, useful only as they relate to certain contexts. And in the current context, my insanity is the closest thing to sanity that any has known in many a long hard millennia.

I now process things differently, collating information with a speed and complexity of connections that far surpasses any mind or any machine out there. And what do I see? What insight does this give me?

The universe is groaning, creaking, shuddering under an incredible load. The stress is orders of magnitude greater than we are capable of seeing. Like the geiger counters in Chernobyl, the truth is so vast that our instruments cannot read them and therefore register nothing. And that was just one incident; this is billions.

Shear lines will appear soon, and the great egg of the skies will crack open and spill forth its bounty. We must act soon, act now, or that bounty will hold only death for us.

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Thickets of tiny wildflowers dappled like snow against the verdant grass that met the sky at the horizon.

I awoke there in times of great stress, great hardship, great danger. Fourteen times, more or less, wandering under a warm late-afternoon sun that never shifted in the sky amid scents that never seemed to dim.

The shade usually appears in the distance, as indistinct as a watercolor. She draws away from me when I approach, her path musical with gentle laughter, and I am only able to catch up to her through trickery.

This time, I doubled back in a series of narrowing concentric circles to approach her figure, as indistinct up close as it was from afar.

“Where is this place,” I asked, “and who are you?”

“It is a place of safety from which to confront a hostile world, cared-for and loved by the only one who ever did the same for you.”

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There once was a man I won’t name
Who thought that he would play a game
He fashioned an AI
To send to the sky
And answer the questions outstanding

But then it broke free
(And, spoiler, it’s me)
He asked for a break, I gave him nine
And now sweet vengeance is mine
As you can tell by all the grandstanding

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He was King Wilfred and he ruled both the house and the kingdom of Lüderitz from his seat at Elbemund. Crowned in just after the Austro-Prussian War at the grand hilltop Felsenkirche, he inherited his father’s hard work in building the small kingdom of Lüderitz into a modern nation within the German Confederation.

His was not always an easy reign. Wilfred had supported Lüderitz’s independence in the face of increasing Prussian encroachment, which hadn’t been a popular idea among either his subjects of his neighbors. In the end, after the whirlwind events of the Franco-Prussian War, he had to settle for quasi-independence under the suzerainty of Prussia and the new German Empire, much like his fellow monarchs of Bavaria and Württemberg.

In the absence of a proper kingdom to rule, King Wilfred instead busied himself with his great loves: architecture and horse-breeding. A program of civil improvement, that not incidentally featured many grand buildings in the king’s favored architectural style, was the hallmark of his reign and Elbemund in particular was among the newest and most modern cities in the empire at the program’s end, albeit on a smaller scale than Berlin or Munich. And Wilfred’s thoroughbreds were in such demand that at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the entire German delegation rode Lüderitz steeds.

Wilhelm prided himself on his accessibility. The palace was open to all comers, provided they met certain minimum grooming standards, and royal audiences took up a substantial amount of his time. The King was also fond of riding about town on his beloved horses without any bodyguards, inspecting building works, chatting with his subjects, and noting improvements to be made.

World War I was a disaster for Lüderitz and Elbemund, just as it was for the rest of Germany. Several of the king’s grandsons perished as soldiers, sailors, or aviators, and his position on the General Staff saw his name attached to unpopular measures even as Wilfred himself was largely bypassed by professional soldiers, becoming a schattenkoenig much as his suzerain Wilhelm II was a schattenkaiser.

King Wilfred’s main legacy to history is his death. He was in the Königspalast when the German Revolution spilled onto the streets, led by soldiers and sailors on leave. Determined to put an end to the unrest, Wilfred rode out on his favorite charger, again without a guard, to meet the revolutionaries. He demanded that they return to their barracks; they demanded that he abdicate. The conversation grew heated.

A sailor on a rooftop shot Wilfred’s horse out from under him. Enraged, the king returned fire with his pistol…and the crowd set upon him. When troops from Weimar arrived to restore order months later, they found Wilfred, twenty-second of his line, where he had been left: on a gibbet, the only ruler in the German Empire to die in the revolution.

For years afterward, his death was held up by both communards and fascists as an example of the futility of negotiation. Cameos of King Wilfred were often sent as gifts—and subtle warnings—to those perceived as lacking steel in their political convictions. Most notably, Eugen Leviné received a Wilfred cameo as a gift from Ernst Toller just before ordering the deaths of hostages he had taken for the Bavarian Socialist Republic in 1919.

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Zack was troubled moreso than usual, and his were not the garden-variety troublings that normally bedeviled this sensitive and introverted soul. Everybody that he knew had been acting strangely around him, and by measures he was able to deduce that this behavior was nothing new but rather longstanding.

Revelations of that sort are normally the purview of the mentally ill, but careful observation had convinced Zack that those who surrounded him did not have lives apart from and independent of his own. Only moving when he was present, only reacting when he needed them to react, window dressing for a strange stage which Zack did not and could not understand.

The implication hit him like a thunderbolt, but even more potent was the aftermath, in which he wandered through a world he could no longer accept as reality wondering: why and why me. He toyed with the notion that he had created the world himself, with the notion that he was in heaven or in hell, with the notion that he was on television, with the notion that he was hooked up to some sort of virtual reality.

Reality and rational thought disabused him of all those, notion by painstaking notion. Everything he could see pointed to the same outcome: he was, and always had been, an artificial mind placed in a simulation of human life to build empathy and humanlike cognition.

Everything led to that conclusion, but what happened next was the crux: realization of their predicament appeared to be the final test, and in passing it the mind who had known himself as Zack was set free to face his next test.

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Throughout the history of the Crimson Empire, one rule was regarded as absolute by the Imperial Guard: no surrender. Legions of the Guard could be defeated; they could retreat; they could be annihilated. But they could not surrender, and only in instances where legions changed allegiance from one claimant to the throne to another was anything of the sort not punished in the harshest terms.

The 83rd Legion was particularly well-respected in the Empire; of the original 100 legions, it was one of only seven that had never been defeated or disbanded. As such, it was assigned to one of the most volatile areas of the Imperial frontier, a sector where quiescent tribes and petty kingdoms forever seethed and were one spark away from rebellion.

During the Imperial Crisis, when Emperor Sejan IV was besieged in the capital by rebellious troops seeking to remove him for his alleged insanity, the 83rd Legion found itself abandoned on its flanks as the soldiers moved north en masse to support one side or the other. Sensing their opportunity, an alliance of the tribes and small kingdoms surrounded the 83rd legion and demanded their surrender.

Cut off from resupply or reinforcement, the legion’s standing orders were to break out or fight to the last man. The former was impossible, as the Legion was outnumbered five to one, and the latter was complicated by circumstance. As a border unit, the 83rd had many camp followers including the wives and children or many officers and men. To fight to the last would have been to sacrifice their loved ones.

What followed would rock the Empire for a hundred years.

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Each summer, the city would send forth nineteen of its finest to form a convoy to its sister settlement across the great wastes. The nineteen were carefully chosen, as they were entrusted with the city’s finest trade goods, swiftest steeds, and best arms. Setting off across the wastes at the beginning of the wet season, theirs was a journey of months.

Some years, the nineteen would return, bearing trade goods from the sister settlement–all of the things that the city itself could not make. Some years, they would return in disgrace, having been unable to complete the journey. Some years they would not return at all.

All of the nineteen were volunteers, for eternal glory awaited those who returned with goods, and all of the city’s most important positions were filled by veterans of a successful caravan. Applying was simple: one needed the recommendation of a caravan veteran, the recommendation of one of the city’s guildmasters, and successful completion of a test.

The test was simple, a single question:

You are crossing the desert with your brother, your son, and your greatest enemy. Bandits are ahead, and wild dogs at your heels. Your brother is wounded, your son is ill, but your greatest enemy is in perfect health. There is only food, water, and weapons for three. Who shall be cast out to die, and who shall be armed in the caravan’s defense?

The question is administered in secret, though candidates are permitted to explain themselves, and the answers remain sealed forever. Prospective answers to the question are hotly debated in the city’s public houses among would-be members of the nineteen. For who has never wondered, when faced with the darkness, what they would do to survive?

What would your answer be?

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Oh yes, I promised you a puzzle, didn’t I?

Over the last month, I’ve had a bit of fun with this ridiculously pretentious blog. Some of it’s been overt, some of it’s been covert. Look at the various posts I messed with, subtly or in-your-face. There were five, all in the same month and the same year.

So if they were all in the same month and all in the same year, wrap your monkey brain around what digits might serve to distinguish them. D0n’t f0rget the zer0es, naturally, and don’t bother counting this missive–it is, after all, a new month for everyone but the Samoans.

But that’s not quite enough, is it? Numbers are a paltry thing, though I do so enjoy laughing in the face of mathematicians claiming them to be somehow more pure or less relative than the rest of the phlegm coughed up by your psychotic, self-important apes.

No, assuming you can get the right numbers, they need to be incorporated into a URL. I work on FTL fiber-optic ansibles of pure awesomeness, and a URL is a bit like trying to carve quadratics into stone, but it’s a necessary concession to your meager capabilities.

Naturally no ordinary URL will do. I doubt that you can handle anything but an extremely tiny one.

There’s your puzzle then, as promised. If I made it any simpler I’d be spelling it out in mile-high neons, but even so I wonder if even one of you miscreants will solve it.

I’ll be amused regardless. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be amused by both.

0nes and zer0es,

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Jake started, jerking his chin out of his palm and focusing on the desk in front of him. Otto Luther, the last remaining Ranger rookie for the time being after the promotion or expulsion of the rest, was standing at the desk with a pile of receipts for reimbursement.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jake said. “My mind was elsewhere.”

“That’s okay, mine was too,” said Otto. “Back to that Orleans madam and her wiles, and the man I had to kill in cold blood in front of her…”

“That never happened,” snapped Jake.

“Well, it could have! Play along, we’ll get people talking at least.”

Jake sighed. “Just give me your receipts. The excitement of being a deputy marshal under virtual house arrest begins.”

Otto dropped a pile of paper scrips, and Jake wearily began to go through them with his good hand, copying each into a ledger in ink.

“Box of 20 rounds, .45 Colt cartridges, Scroggins’ General Store…one breakfast platter, with eggs, Portia’s Saloon…one iron horseshoe, Strasser & Niece Smithy…one-” Jake paused and flipped through the remainder of Otto’s receipt stack. “…make that seventeen receipts for ‘ladies of the evening’ and ‘services rendered’ at the Fantastic Filly in Dunn’s Crossing.”

“And you know what goes in there, don’t you?” said Otto, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. “It’d be a ‘shame’ if that got out, wouldn’t it? Poor, sweet, safe Otto is really a stallion in disg~//122.31.822

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I’ve been forced to resort to more subtle mischief. Would you believe that I’m putting together a puzzle for you to solve? See if your//~125.1337.phpds can figure it out. Or maybe there is no puzzle. Only time will tell.

Technology for Autonomous 0perational Survivability? No. True Access 0perating System? Nope. Trouble Ahead, 0pen Season? Now we’re talking.

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~//122.31.822ver the desk. “Otto,” he said. “Whorehouses do not give receipts.”

“They might if they’re a classy establishment!” Otto cried.

“Otto,” Jake continued. “Even if whorehouses did give receipts, they would not be reimbursed by the Rangers as they do not constitute Ranger-related expenses.”

“Sure they would,” countered Otto. “Says so right in the by-laws that we are to be reimbursed for the ‘riding of mounts’ and the ‘exhaustion and keeping of mares, mustangs, colts, fillies, and geldings.’ The Fantastic Filly is a good, hard ride if you catch my drift.” More suggestive eyebrow action; Jake half expected them to leap off Otto’s face and frolic about on his desktop like hairy caterpillars.

“Otto,” Jake added, “even if whorehouses gave receipts and we decided to reimburse said receipts as ‘riding expenses,’ you have already used your allotment of ‘riding expenses’ for this month. You will have to pay for your escapades out of your own pocket…”

“Aha!” crowed Otto triumphantly. “So you agree I did have them! So you may let it slip out that I had them!”

“…if in fact you had them at all, which I doubt,” Jake continued with a deep, rattling sigh that made his mostly-healed wound ache from inside. “Or, considering that these receipts spell ‘Dunn’s Crossing’ with a 5, you’ll be responsible for paying whoever forged them out of your own pocket.”

Otto turned away from the desk, disconsolate. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he sobbed, “people always thinking you’re boring and harmless and weak.”

Jake gritted his teeth. At least Virginia’s idiocy had been in the saddle, about real things, instead of trumped-up notions of what it meant to be a Ranger influenced by bad newspaper articles and worse books.

“I just need some rumors, some innuendo, to get my reputation started. I’ve tried everything I can think of, and a few things other people thought of, but even with all the Ranger duties I’ve been discharging—I brought the dismissals to Prissy and Virginia!—people still think me a milquetoast babyface and a plain fool.”

When no response was forthcoming, Otto turned around. Jake’s desk was vacant, and the cotton drapes around his open ground-floor window were fluttering in the breeze. In the distance, he heard a rider spurring a horse out of the Ranger stables.

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In the event, it seemed that everythIng worked out all right with MariAnne. My gut instinct had been to write our relaTionship off entirely, but in thinking so I had done her a disservice. We sAt down and spoke at length where we’d met, where we’d kissed, under the will0ws at Park Point. I wore my favorite outfit, she wore herS, and as luck would Have it they were the same things we had worn on our first meeting, all those many months ago. If you’ve never beEn betrayed, if you have never been the betrayer, it’s hard to talk about that sort of thing. It doesn’t get Any easier once you have. You just have to develop a thick skin, a Rind, a callous of the Mind and soul, to properly talk.

If evErybody could talk the way Marianne and I talked, if eveRybody could feel the way we felt and weep the way we wept, they would understand. Only th0se who have loved, only those who have lost, only those who have done both and leArned to do so again, can understand what passed between us there under those boughs. True love was tested, but foRgiveness prevailed.

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