Saturday, April 30, 2011

By The Sea

Gulls screamed as they wheeled lazily through the salty morning breeze coming off of the dark, cold sea. Galyssa looked out across the crescent-shaped bay at the whitecapped waves crashing upon the blackened rocks and gray shingle. Fog slowly drained away from the wet and dreary walls of the slate-roofed structures that made up the village as though it had sucked out all the color, draining away what remained of life or joy or enthusiasm from the very walls of the place. Like most such old-timey fishing villages or touristy cottage-clusters, this village was dreary, mostly empty and depressing the way only these sorts of places could be.

What a dump.” Galyssa spat on the still frosted rough-cut flagstones of the observation plaza where she had come to watch the suns rise. Chelmsford, the world of the nostalgic fishing village of Connlach-Exeter, orbited two close-paired suns and even then the place was unpleasantly dim, perpetually overcast and drearier than the moldy bog-woods of Badjeth.

Even with two suns this place can’t ever get warm or stop drizzling.” She watched the Eastern horizon and all that was visible through the sea mist, fog and scudding clouds was a silvery haze behind the rain, a muffled light that remained indistinct, distant and diffuse. It was the kind of environment that would only appeal to the congenitally suicidal, the English or the Irish, those who still recalled the old ways of living off of the cold, capricious seas and the pursuit of schools of fish between storms. It was not a life that appealed to Galyssa at all. Her folk were hunters, not fishers. She came from deep green forests, not cold and rocky coastal regions best left to the gulls and flotsam. She could hardly wait to get clear of this damp, dismal place where even the suns couldn’t be bothered to look too closely at things probably best left forgotten like sleeping dogs.

But that wasn’t the way things worked. Not for Galyssa.

Hunter. Do you seek some sign from the suns this morning?” wheezed the old fisherman who reeked of old guts and stagnant brine.

Just a bit of warmth, maybe a spot of sunshine, if that isn’t asking too much of things.” Galyssa stood with her hands on her hips, not quite menacing, not immediately threatening.

Ha! Not bloody likely lass. It’s the height of summer, just past the solstice; it only gets darker and colder from here on out until midwinter.”

This is your summer?” she asked even though she already knew the answer from her briefing. The local datasphere provided a streaming record of the time, temperature, calendar and all the other essential pieces of information necessary to the day-to-day lives of civilized people like current exchange rates, weather forecasts, and what passed for news. Galyssa’s implants maintained an ongoing connection so that her software could sniff out potential leads and keep tabs on things back home.

Aye. You're not enjoying the balminess of it then?” the old-timer laughed, then practically doubled over in a coughing fit until he hawked up a nasty bit of yellow-green phlegm onto the cobblestones of the viewing platform.

I don’t know how anyone could stand to live in a place like this. It makes me want to drag a razor through my wrists and I’ve only been here two days.”

To each their own lass. There’s those as love the land, even the bitter-dry deserts and bad lands as there are those who are loved by the seas, called out by the salty winds unto the bosom of the ocean-mother Herself.”

Ah so you’re religious?”

Hah! Practical more like. We don’t have any churches in this village, just a few decorative shrines for the handful of tourists we get every couple of years and our own traditions.”

You people are oral traditionalists?”

As good a description as any. Half the village is descended from Arcadianists or Greenlanders, the rest are one or another type of Irish, Welsh or Hebridean by way of Aegron, except for the three Danes and the one Orkney family that tends to keep to themselves.”

I’ve already read the village’s genomic and cultural profiles.”

The registered stuff, aye; but what about the living, breathing reality of the place, eh? What aboot that now?”

I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

Books and records, database entries and all that are so much myth, legend and I suppose; what goes on day in and day out between real people isn’t clean, clear nor concise. You won’t really appreciate nor understand anything about a place from reading about it, especially not while you’re standing around in the middle of it like ye are. Open your eyes lass. Breath the salt air, let the mist chill you a bit, feel the wind; until you experience it for yourself you don’t know nothing about it and never will. Mark my words.” He tilted his ratty old fisherman’s cap beneath the grubby rainslicker hood and continued on his way. Galyssa could hear the oldtimer whistling some obscure folk tune as he made his way down the causeway past the lonely little shacks interspersed down the length of the jetty towards the sheltered moorings and the smaller, one or two-person row-boats, sailboats and the like that were kept there.

Gulls wheeled across the early morning sky swooping down to snag morsels and tid-bits from the surf. Galyssa leaned against the cold, wet stones of the low wall and watched the sea birds and the green-black waves. She missed the moons of her homeworld. This godsforsaken place was so perpetually overcast that even if it had a moon no one would ever see the thing. Scuttling brown-shelled robots dragged driftwood into artfully arranged piles either to dry for municipal beachfront fire pits or to keep the shoreline more aesthetically attractive to the few intermittent tourists who visited the village. With a rueful shaking of her head Galyssa realized that she was pretty much the only visitor in the place currently. But she was no tourist.

Is it a good day for your hunting then?” yelled the old-timer from just outside his shack.

Galyssa turned away from her reverie and began to wave him off. There was work to do. Serious work. Deadly work.

Fair enough for what I have to do, I guess.” She shouted back to the fisherman.

As ye will then; I’d invite you to sit with me a spell. You ever met a selkie afore?”

Selkie?” she yelled back in consternation. A flash download from her background datahandling software streamed a packet of images and vital details describing the selkies of Connlach-Exeter- -they were a mythopoetically oriented aesthetic offshoot of the Aquatics who’d taken up residence on Chelmsford three hundred years prior to the founding of the village and who occasionally traded with select individuals from time to time.

I’m going to play a few tunes for my friends;” The old-timer yelled; “There’s a righteous storm coming in that’ll swamp my poor little boat, but the selkies’ll trade me a few buckets of mussels or some tasty redfin for my music. They do love the concertina.” He smiled broadly as the winds kicked up the waves and a frigid spray shot up over the retaining wall.

Yoor welcome to pull up a seat; I’ll get a little coal-fire going in the shack. It’ll be cozy-like.” The fisherman bent forwards and busied himself unlocking the door to his shack.

Thank you. That sounds nice.” Galyssa shouted across the distance and the crashing waves. “Maybe later. I have-“

To get back on the hunt, eh? Well, good hunting to you lass.” He waved back to her and slipped into his little shack, out of the increasingly fierce winds.

Time to get back to work, I suppose.” Galyssa muttered to herself as she pushed off from the slick wall. Her drones were still prowling around the village, each one tuned out of phase with the normal range of human visual perception so that they could scout things out without drawing any attention to her efforts. They were discrete and would allow her to track Vruekaczi down without having to run all over the place like a chicken with its head cut off. She took a good look around her, letting her gaze linger almost longingly on the promised warmth and camaraderie of the fisherman’s modest little shack. With a visible scrunching up of her resolve, Galyssa headed back along the jetty towards the tiny knot of slate-roofed buildings all huddled together against the near-perpetual drizzle. The stout, regularly spaced and tree-like lamp-posts glowed with hazy haloes in the chill mist, not so much illuminating anything as dispelling the worst of the darkness and contributing to the persistent, pervasive dimness that characterized the general ambiance of Connlach-Exeter more than anything else. It was almost as gloomy as Salonta, Oradea or Satu Mare had been. Ice-locked Odense with its eternal midnight was downright cheerful compared to the dim, wintry seas of Chelmsford. At least it’s not another inbred mountain village like Dundrajevo or Gornijo she reminded herself. Galyssa didn’t much care to remember her brief time in Gornijo. It had been colder there, darker too. Her left hand had needed three weeks to properly heal after…what had happened. She fumbled through her sleeve-pockets and counted the smooth, hard outlines of her personal wards; the sigillized chips of nanivory from Morokozz, the heavy-edged platinum trapezoid from Csurgo, and the delicately filigreed beryllium-bronze lozenge from Bjelovar that had been guaranteed to have been prayed over for a minimum of at least three hundred lunar months by a dedicated robot acolyte. Galyssa wore the usual gun-wards on her belt as well as a few more esoterically-oriented psi-wards, but those she took for granted. They were standard equipment. The other tokens were what she hoped would afford her some measure of protection that had been sorely lacking last time. Vruekaczi wasn’t going to leave her mutilated and bleeding to death in the middle of nowhere. Not this time.

//Query: Location and status of Alderman Dunleavy.// She accessed the Localnet.
//Green Lion.// The pub’s icon rotated slowly in the hallucinatory overlay of her implant commsystem.

I should have known.” Galyssa shook out the cold droplets of sea spray that had accumulated in her exposed hair and set off back towards the village and its only pub.

She knew better than to try to call the Alderman- -if he’d been inclined to make himself available then she wouldn’t have gotten the pub’s icon, he’d have accepted her query. Since he was at the Green Lion and not at home or at his mistresses’ place meant that he was either drinking or meeting someone, probably over a steaming mess of cabbage, potatoes, sausage and eggs, the local breakfast specialty. Galyssa grinned ferally; she’d just have to interrupt hissoner’s breakfast. She was on the hunt and there was only so much time allotted to her before her quarry would find some form of sanctuary or escape. It’d be hard to escape from this forsaken village, but it could be done. Vruekraczi had managed to elude her on a world with three suns and only one hour of darkness during one third of the year. She knew better than to underestimate her one-time nemesis, her target, her prey. Her regrown left hand throbbed with the memory of the lesson she had learned the hard way back in Gornijo. She was not going to be the one left bleeding out their life onto the cold, hard rocks of some godsforsaken backwater world this time. Galyssa’s internal subsystems automatically ran a full-spectrum diagnostic of her weapons and defenses while she walked through the increasingly wild and erratic winds of the fast approaching storm. It reflected her mood perfectly.

The Green Lion was the only three-story structure in the entire village besides the central clock-tower. It was also the single oldest building on the world, according to the polished brass plaque just to the left of the main entrance. Galyssa didn’t even break stride as she kicked her heavy boot into the double doors, smashing them back upon their reinforced hinges with a loud crash as she continued along her trajectory right towards Alderman Dunleavy who sat in his chair next to the main fireplace, a forkful of sausage and eggs halfway to his gaping mouth.

Now Miss Galyssa there be no need-“ started Moriarty the publican who froze in place under Galyssa’s glare. He’d been married to an Irish woman for the better part of half his life and knew better than to risk ending it all by needlessly incurring this woman’s wrath without having an escape planned.

Good morning-“ smiled the Alderman as he sat down his still-loaded fork. Galyssa came to an abrupt stop directly in front of the bearded, paunchy elected leader of the little community.

She stared at him.

He squirmed.

Can I offer you some breakfast? You’re welcome to join me-“ the Alderman began to muster his wits and his voice began to take on the oily pseudo-brogue that he only used on tourists and visitors.

No. I didn’t come here for breakfast. I’ve played by your rules and spent the night in this godsforsaken place. Now I have work to do.”

Ah yes. Hunting. Who exactly is it that you’re looking for lass?”

Galyssa glared at him. He knew. They all knew. It was a matter of public record. They were stalling her.

You know damn well who I hunt. Who and What.” She hissed the last in barely controlled anger.

But you must forgive us our backwards ways lass; we’re not sophisticated urban-dwelling iconoclasts. We’re just simple fisherfolk who prefer to live and let live.”

You’re a fucking hypocrite who’s harboring a dangerously Infected plague-bearer-“

We harbor none but our own, except as the rules of comity and hospitality demand. We’re not savages here Lass. Not barbarians clutching at knives in the dark, tearing each other down into the wailing darkness like some folks are wont to do.”

Galyssa flinched at the obvious insult. The Alderman did not approve of her. No matter.

Do you wish to file a formal objection to my hunt?” she challenged the politician. He was small-time and he knew it. All he could do was delay her hunt, not stop it. Within two hours of any objection he might raise she’d have it struck down by the magistrates back in Bournemouth, the so-called capital of this world. She’d already invested a day and a half setting her contingency plans up before setting off for Connlach-Exeter. Galyssa knew better than to trust the locals. Vruekaczi was nothing if not persuasive. He knew how to turn things around, twist them to his advantage and politicians were especially vulnerable to his wiles and charms.

The Alderman hesitated beneath Galyssa’s intense stare. His hand shook, spilling scrambled eggs off of the fork back onto his plate. Sweat beaded up on his splotchy and windburned forehead. He looked away in defeat.

No. No, lass I cannot do that. Not that’d do any good, would it?”
No. It wouldn’t.”

You’re sharp as a fish knife, aren’t ye lass?”

Better not to try me.”

I imagine you speak truthfully.”

Where is he hiding?”

I cannot stop you, Huntress, but I do not have to help you, either.”
You would put your people at risk to harbor this…this monster?”

You judge him thusly, perhaps we do not. It’s a matter of perspective, surely you can appreciate that.”

Apparently you can appreciate his sick predation, his unnatural appetites-“

He is a guest here. We do not judge our guests unless they violate our laws. He respects our ways. He has our respect in return.”

Respect? For that vermin? Don’t make me laugh.”

You’d do well to learn a measure of respect for other folk, Huntress.”

Don’t threaten me Alderman.”

No threat lass. Just a few words to the wise.”

I don’t need your respect. I need to find Vruekaczi and to kill him once and for all.”

And by rule of law I cannot stop you, but can I dissuade you from this course of action? Can I not entreat you to abandon this pursuit of yours, to let him go free and in peace?”

Are you insane? Do you have any idea what he’ll do to you all if I let him?”

He has given his word-“

The word of a confirmed mass murderer who’ll do far worse than just murder you all in your sleep if he’s left to his own devices. I’ve seen what this bastard can do when he sets his mind to it.”

Thus you know why I wish to avoid any unfortunate repercussions from both your presences here in our village. He has given me his solemn and binding word that he will leave this village unspoiled and blameless if you agree to leave him in peace. Walk away from this place Huntress, walk away and we all live. Stay and we most assuredly shall all die in the most horrible ways imaginable.” He looked down at his breakfast.

Galyssa adjusted her stance uneasily. This was not how things were supposed to work.

Please. Just walk away.” The Alderman looked up from his plate imploringly. She looked away from the Alderman’s pleading gaze. This was different than the usual gambit. Something out of the ordinary.

A predator does not make deals with its prey any more than lions lie down with lambs.” She sneered. It made no sense for Vruekaczi to come all this way in order to just abandon the place, to surrender it as soon as she arrived. It was out of character. It did not fit his profile. It was unheard of, unnatural, so unlikely as to be impossible. And yet there it was; he had made a deal with the Alderman. It put her in an awkward position.

Please. For all our sakes.”

Galyssa tried to contain her anger at the Alderman’s cowardly, foolish complicity. Hunters never backed down, not when they had their quarry cornered up against the wall like she had Vruekaczi right now. She saw the overlaid telemetry of her drones as they pin-pointed his hiding place. Predictably Vruekaczi was in the cellars. He seemed to prefer subterranean places, sewers rather than alleys, cisterns instead of towers, catacombs and crypts not manors or enclave-estates. He especially had a fondness for basements. The drones relayed their coordinates to Galyssa’s implants. Vruekaczi was beneath the Green Lion. The arrogant bastard was asleep immediately underneath where she stood. Directly below her feet.

She flexed her fingers and felt the alloyed blades slide quietly into place at the tips of her left hand even as her customized pyroneedler oozed into shape within the palm of her right hand. The blade-ward she had acquired back in Koblenz flickered with soft blue light along its artfully raised edges as it came online. Outside the wind began to batter the window shutters and howl through the chimneys. Inside Galyssa braced herself for violence.

Lass, please, I implore ye- -let this one go. Walk away. You’ve been outmaneuvered. You can’t win this one.”

Enjoy your breakfast Alderman. I won’t be long.” Galyssa smiled coldly then walked crisply, disconcertingly fast to the back of the pub and the stairs that went down into the storage cellars. Without a thought she tossed herself over the rim and landed cat-like in the dark, dusty cellar, blades extended like claws, her pyroneedler poised and ready to spew fiery hyper-actinic death wherever she pointed. In less than three seconds from leaving the Alderman she stood before the sleeping form of Vruekaczi. He was tall, dark, slender and as harshly featured as some Neo-Carpathian warlord. A thickly brocaded cloak draped down over the makeshift platform upon which he reclined. His boots gleamed like oil in firelight, his trousers and blouse were immaculate, spotless and the demi-cuirass he wore was heavily scarred and scorched by countless duels, battles and fights including several previous encounters with Galyssa. Pale, bloodless and excruciatingly well-groomed, he lay there silent and aloof like a corpse.

Wake up before I kill you Vruekaczi.”

He ignored her.

Wake up damn you!” She shouted at the pseudo-corpse.

I’m tired, Huntress.” His yellowish eyes snapped open as he sat up without the slightest effort.

I’m old, Huntress.”

You’re a disease.”

And you are the cure. I know. I’ve heard it from your predecessors. It’s not terribly original, but I suppose it is an apt analogy, as far as it goes.”

Like you’re anyone to criticize someone else’s fucking originality! Over thirty-seven thousand kinds of undead out in the Known Worlds and you’re one of the most pathetic, a fucking Host leftover from the plagueyears. You’re not even all that scary-” Galyssa snorted derisively.

Touché, Kitain.” Vruekaczi cut her off peremptorily.

But you do have to admit that I have managed to lead you on a merry hunt. I’m so glad that your hand appears to have healed nicely.” He smiled wickedly at the memory of the taste of her flesh. He had eaten her hand in front of her, dragging out the biting and the chewing until she had fallen unconscious.

Galyssa went cold, hard, professional at the mention of her title. Kitain. It was the name she had earned during her trials and testing on Kuud itself. It meant hunter of the unlawful dead. She earned the title after having destroyed over one hundred undead minions and slaves in service to the Lamya Empress Herself. Galyssa scowled in anger over her previous mutilation, her past shame at the hands of this…unclean thing that masqueraded as a human being. Her eyes narrowed into slits and she brought her pyroneedler to bear. There was no escape for Vruekaczi this time, there would be no appeal to the Huntress' mercy, not after what had happened back on Gornijo. For a brief instant Galyssa could almost hear the wind sighing through the dark, heavy hemlocks overhanging the mountain pass where she had lost her left hand. Phantom pain stuttered through the regrown cloneflesh of her new fingers.

We really do not have to do things like this-“ Vruekaczi began to make the expected offer, a negotiation that Galyssa had no intention of listening to whatsoever.

Yes. We do.” Galyssa held out her left hand, the one with the delicate but lethal viblades protruding from her fingertips and made a simple, ancient gesture that triggered the nanoextraction routine that she hadn’t been able to use the last time. A throbbing hum rippled out from the air precisely halfway in-between the two figures. Vruekaczi screamed as his skin peeled, curled and cracked like curdling paint. A fine silver mist erupted from every surface of his body. A glinting, gleaming cloud surrounded the nobleman as he staggered, his skin going sallow and translucent, the very unlife leaving him, rejecting him, abandoning him.

The cloud coalesced down from a spherical mass into a slowly rotating silvery whirlpool that drained away into the receptor surfaces embedded in the palm of Galyssa’s left hand.

For a breathless, timeless moment Vruekaczi faced her in the dim cellar beneath the pub. Blood oozed from his nose, his eyes, his mouth. She glowered at him in his ruin, his final downfall, but felt no thrill of victory in watching his slow collapse into mortality as all his internal organs began to fail, his blood congealed into a scabrous mass within his veins. She kept vigilant watch as his heart stopped beating and his lungs collapsed into a wet mucousy mess within his chest with a hollow sounding wheeze. The once devilishly handsome features of his face drew back in a grotesque rictus.

Finally, once she was satisfied that he had been fully and completely drained of the nanological virux that had remade him into a second-rate monster and that he had suffered all that it was possible for him to experience Galyssa calmly triggered the pyroneedler and played the stream of hyper-accelerated femto-droplets of counter-antimony carried along a beam of spectrally-compressed ultraviolet radiation directly into Vruekaczi’s eleven hundred year old form. He didn’t even get the chance to scream before he was reduced to a small quantity of clingy ash and a fading afterimage.

He was destroyed.

Once and for all.



But somehow she still felt as though he was laughing at her.

It ony made her mood more foul.

Galyssa ordered her drones to examine the cellar.

They found nothing.

She had the drones run a complete analysis of Vruekaczi’s ashes before gathering them all up and bonding them into a polycarbonate ingot that would cure into a diamond-hard reliquary from which Vruekaczi’s viruxically tainted remains would never be recovered.

It was over as far as she was concerned.

It had to be over.

It had to be.

The old timer sat on his stool and played his concertina. It was a jaunty tune he played in contrast to the howling wind outside. The slicked black coats and stiffly bristling whiskers of his audience bobbed and rocked in time to the tune. Slowly, gently a fine silver viruxive mist played out from the old fisherman’s skin and enveloped the selkies.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Diaspora Stories: Options and Decisions

Knowledge that is not applied is worthless. Andrew had lived his life by that maxim for most of his one hundred twenty two years. It was the guiding principle that he had clung to throughout three divorces, six children and eighteen operations that had replaced various and sundry joints, bones and organs with either synthetic substitutes, cloned analogs or mechanical prosthetics.

Now he looked down at the spiraling vortex of the commode and felt his life slipping away from him in a way that even cancer hadn’t threatened to do. Biometric nanoware embedded in the facilities of his modest home had detected early indications of the onset of dementia. Alzheimers. There was no doubt about it. He could almost feel the impending wave of incipient memory loss coming in towards him like a gentle wave on the beach at low tide. It was only a matter of time before his memories were compromised, his behavior shifted and his identity degraded into a sad parody of his accustomed self.

At least cancer only devoured one’s cells, claiming your body bit by painful bit. This was worse. Far worse. It was the slow death of the personality that would eventually consume even the ability to know what was going on. 

Andrew looked in the mirror at his well-maintained face and reasonably toned body. He was still fit and in decent condition for a man his age, all things considered. With luck and good choices he could expect to live another hundred years, barring accidents, violence or acts of random bad luck such as walking into an urban riot or falling victim to some pointless act of terrorism. 

It wasn’t fair.

But then little, if anything was ever really fair in life.

Comfortable but not super-rich, Andrew occupied a modest flat overlooking the reclaimed parkland skirting the Northern Exurb-cluster of the Greater Minneapolis Reclamation-Zone. He lived in the midst of an artistic community that claimed over a hundred years of continuous responsible occupation and eco-stewardship of the region. His studio was one of thousands in the immediate area. It was a comfortable, post-Bohemian community filled with established artists and fashionable galleries. Eudyce would have loved it.

It had been his last wife who had selected this community.

It had been her choice. He had only gone along at the time because that was what one did with Eudyce in their life.

He had never been so good at going along before her.

He'd always been something of a rebel growing up.

Now he wondered to himself if he had made the right choices in his life.
Doubts and regrets have a way of poisoning even the happiest thoughts.

Did he have many regrets?

Art and culture had always been essential, central to his identity and the overriding passions that drove him, fuelled his ambitions and guided his course. Sculpture, photography and digitography, mask-making, costumery and theater; it had all called him onwards with a siren-like intensity that had carried him past every obstacle, through all the challenges, onwards ever onwards into the unknown with the unbridled enthusiasm and insatiable curiosity of a man possessed by his Muse. 

Now he plunked down upon his ratty old leather-upholstered futon and looked around himself at the accumulated bric-a-brac and debris from all his various ventures and shows, all the experiments, projects and showings.

It all felt cold.


The taste was gone flat, all the excitement had been bled dry like an old fashioned internal combustion motor devoid of oil about to seize up. It was only a matter of time before his brain stopped working right, betraying him into a shadowy half-life of misremembered and mangled memories. It terrified him. After so many years of intellectual activity, of decades of artistic enterprise to have it all torn down by a slow motion descent into dementia seemed like a bad joke.

A terrible joke.

It wasn't funny.

It’s not right.” Andrew whispered into the silence of his apartment. He sat on the futon and looked blankly at the empty wall before him. It had been left devoid of ornamentation and free of shelving so that it would challenge him, act as a spur to his creativity. Now it mocked him in its barrenness. He grew angry with the wall’s impudence. How dare it ridicule him after all they’d been through together.

I do not accept this.” He yelled out loud, making a fist and shaking it menacingly at the blank wall before him.

A ridiculous display of impotent emotions.

He felt embarrassed, almost ashamed.

Then he got angrier still.

He stood up, glared at the wall and walked to his old fashioned kitchen nook. Brewing coffee and unraveling a piece of hydroponic fruit from his own greenhouse alcove. He looked at the cold piece of fruit. It was a hybridized peach-tangerine that his last wife had designed decades ago. He missed Eudyce. She had died in the protests. When such things still seemed to matter.

Andrew sat down at his counter and watched the brewing brown liquid in the coffee machine’s transparent carafe as it sloshed around. He bit into the tangy, sweet yet tart flesh of the hypertrophied pink-orange fruit and let his mind wander around like a bruised animal within his skull. Self-pity was a lousy hobby. He'd spent decades trying to replace it with better things. Now it was sitting on his heart like a gargoyle.

He was scared. Not for his flesh-and-blood life, nor even for his career or any of the usual things. He was afraid of losing himself. He did not want to go quietly into the good night.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and sipped it black and hot. It reminded him of the old days, back when he had been younger, angry and hungry, an ambitious man consumed with his passions and pursuing the Muse with the zeal of a flagellant-monk crying out for salvation. The taste of the hot, bitter brew awakened something deep within Andrew. Memories stirred. Anger wasn't the only thing that had occupied his waking days and sweaty, passionate nights. Nor was it the only thing that seeped and echoed up from the depths of his memories, buried under so many layers of contentment, comfort, complacency. He set down the coffee and stared at his half-eaten fruit. Then it came to him full force.

“I don’t have to accept this.” 

The words spilled from his lips.

For a moment he wondered if it truly had been him who had spoken.

Maybe the dementia was already playing cruel tricks upon him?

But no. He knew better.

He balled-up his fist and shook it at the walls around him.

He was getting angry. Truly angry. The diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's was not a death sentence. It wasn’t a verdict without appeal. Alzheimer’s could be fought, even beaten, if one was willing to pay the price.

Machines built at the molecular level could record his memories, preserve them, make them accessible even if his brain degenerated and eventually failed. Nanosystems had been developed that could take up residence in his central nervous system, maintaining his personality, modifying his behavior so as to mitigate the worst effects of the disease. There was talk out on the Nets that some folks had even been able to fully beat the scourge and upload themselves entirely into a cyberlogical prosthetic neural network. Where once such a thought had filled him with trepidation and a cold dread now it gave Andrew a sense of hope. For a man who had already replaced elbows, hips, knees, pancreas and various other parts of his anatomy the idea of supplementing his brain with cybernetic processes to assist his endangered memory, to stave off the degrading effects of Alzheimer's no longer sounded quite so bizarre or outrageous.

So what if his mind had to be propped-up by implants and resident nanoware? It was just another form of prosthetic, a different kind of technological replacement for failing and ailing biology.

Andrew closed his eyes and sent a query to the local Net requesting a search for all available information on options for the treatment of Alzheimer's. In a matter of seconds his internal diagnostics and analysis filters were hard at work sorting through all the data, advertising packets and infomercials. Testimonials, medical studies, research white papers and a host of other materials flooded past his subsidiary AI and integral software, each item sorted out according to his already established personal preferences and in direct response to his current mood. Significant patterns emerged from the onrush of chaotic inputs, shapes began to present themselves from out of the morass of live data and ever expanding information sets drifting down from the Nets like digital snowflakes in a blizzard of unmediated knowledge, hyper-prejudiced data and raw opinion.

Andrew let the information surge through his buffers. He relaxed and let it all play across his consciousness as the filtration routines sorted it all into some sort of sensible order for him. He had already accepted numerous forms of mental enhancements such as the data filtration subsystems that allowed him to work within the Nets that operated at bandwidths and processing velocities far in excess of anything an organic brain could hope to match. It wasn’t that far a leap from accepting the things he already took for granted to uploading his brain, his memories, his mind into a nanolitic or even an artilectic prosthetic.

Less than three minutes after beginning his search Andrew’s resident systems had downloaded everything deemed pertinent to his situation and sorted it all into appropriate sub-sets that were then arrayed before him in an integrative gestalt that soaked into his conscious awareness.

Fear drained away.

Anger receded back into memory.

Knowledge filled his mind and Andrew sought out some kind of understanding. He intended to make his decisions from a place of certainty, not doubt and definitely not out of ignorance. There had to be options. Choices. A way to beat this thing.

There were thousands. Millions. Even more if he wished to expand his personal parameters a bit.

He poured over the offers and enticements of thousands of clades, clans and other factions who offered one version or another of the core technology that he now knew beyond all doubt that he needed and would accept. His internalized subsystems carefully analyzed and compared the thousands of pitches, slogans, enticements, blandishments and inducements of the various recruitment presentations. Thousands of options boiled down to hundreds, simmered down to dozens, evaporated into three choices that fit all his personal criteria. Three options presented themselves from out of the babbling morass of choices pleading for his attention, asking for his consideration, begging for his acknowledgement.

Andrew ran the three pitches against each other looking for differences or some sort of contrast that would help him make a final decision.

The Meergazzi Hivist Clade offered him the unparalleled opportunity to join into a collective consciousness, a meta-group awareness that would integrate his individuality into a dynamically collaborative existence within one of the techist hive-states claiming entire worlds. The notion of contributing his personal sense of style and artistic vision to such a collective appealed to him, but the inevitable loss of old fashioned independence nagged at his vestigial sense of autonomy. It would be a radical departure from the sort of linear consciousness that he had grown up within, but perhaps it was time to experience such a radical shift, like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, or a mass of bees more appropriately.

A consortium of Orbital Clans offered Andrew the opportunity to join their ranks and earn his way into whichever clan he found to his personal preference over the course of his acclimatization and indoctrination process. They would outfit him with the nanoware he needed to maintain his identity, he would retain his rights and privileges as a citizen without interruption and would gain access to the various habitat-states where he could expect to live for multiple hundreds of years thanks to the cybrist technologies he could subscribe to as a clan-member. It was claimed by some that the cybrists could offer a form of technologically-enabled immortality, so long as one didn’t mind becoming more machine than human. Where that had once seemed vaguely distasteful to him, now it intrigued Andrew. He had lost his fear of embracing technology first in terms of supplementing his failing body, and now in the face of losing his mind and identity to a biological condition that he could escape. There were worse things than becoming a Cyborg.

But then there was the third option before him. The black trapezoid of the Necrosophic Enclaves blinked slowly, demurely before his inner-vision, an induced interactive hallucinatory daticon offering him access to the mysterious, ultra-selective faction known to only accept the terminally ill, the dead and the dying into their ranks. They offered a chance at preservation of consciousness, continuity of memory and identity in a variety of modalities suited to the individual. And more. Necrosophics believed in the transcendence of physical death as a right of passage into a form of adulthood. They looked down on the living as immature, neotonous forms of proto-humanity at the mercy of unbridled emotions and lacking the perspective that comes only from having died to the world and become something other than hormonally-enslaved organic accidents at the mercy of chance, heredity or environment.

Andrew mulled over the three options before him

He could join something much bigger than himself, perhaps risking the loss of his ego but gaining a strange, wondrous sort of shared continuity that might be as close to an enlightened socialist immortality as one could ever hope to accomplish.

Taking the second option opened up the possibility of joining a society dedicated to truly long term meta-projects scaled for millions of years, projects that their ever-updating technology offered the chance of his actually seeing come to fruition. The notion of helping to terraform entire solar systems according to his personal aesthetics or assembling cloudlike Dyson spheres and even more ambitious pursuits was tantalizing, slightly daunting but extremely tempting. Who wouldn’t enjoy playing God for a few centuries?

But then there was the third option. What lay beyond organic consciousness? Who would he become after passing the threshold of the gates of life and death guarded by the Necrosophics? That too pulled at his mind with the seductive allure of an altogether different kind of immortality, what they referred to as amortality. What would existence be like as an amalgamation of man, machine and hyperconscious AI that had transcended the limitations of fallible flesh and decrepit biology? To become so much more than he could even imagine from his limited, living perspective.

That was heady stuff indeed.

Three roads ran out from where he was now, off into wildly divergent futures.

Behind him lay a rich and varied life of artistic accomplishment and achievement that was now effectively coming to a close. The curtain was falling and the audience was clapping their final ovation. The show was over and would not go on in the same way ever again. 

Falling into the decaying behavior of dementia was not an option.

Not for Andrew.

Not for anyone who valued independence or who had fought in the Revolution as he had done during his forties.

He scanned the three choices laid out before him. Each one had distinct, obvious benefits that appealed to him in their own, unique ways. All three were definitely alluring, offering him some version of the things that sang to his imagination, piqued his interest, offered him adventures and excitement that would both incorporate and challenge his artistic vision to the fullest, offering him forms of expression beyond anything that he had ever experienced before. The options for personal transformation he contemplated were exhilarating and exceptional, intoxicating and overwhelming. But he had to decide on which one to pursue.

Or did he?

Andrew made another query of the Net and almost instantly had his theory confirmed as a possible option.

Instead of choosing one over the others he would elect to undertake all three choices simultaneously. If they could enhance his central nervous system, back-up his memory and capture his consciousness within their respective technological milieus, then why not let each of them copy, transfer or upload him into all three options at once?

Smiling to himself Andrew solicited the Public Access Representative for each of the three factions and enlisted a probationary client with the stated intent to advance towards citizen-shareholder status upon completion of integration protocols and assimilation training, but under the express contractual condition and legal contingency that he be accepted into all three at the same time.

It was a novel solution. The Reps collected his information and initiated the preliminary induction process while the Local Authorities sorted out the legalities and details of Andrew's tripartite enrollment.

Seconds later, as he bit into the remainder of his fruit and poured himself a fresh mug of coffee, Andrew received confirmation of his acceptance into all three factions. The Local Authority approved his decision and he was still considered of sound mind, so there was no way for anyone to contest his decision, beyond the conscientious objectors who always protested such things. He closed down his public access address and converted all his personal communications to a black box filtration routine to keep the crazies out. His public access inbox had already been spammed, slammed and attacked over 2,700 times as   all manner of earnest pleas, well-meaning petitions, and religious form-letters requesting him to reconsider his 'obviously ill-informed decision to endanger his immortal soul' flooded his inbox. He purged it without looking at any of it.

None of that mattered. It wasn't their choice, it wouldn't be their mind that paid the price of their heartfelt convictions. It was his mind, his brain that was going to fail. It was his choice.

And he'd made it.

He would not slip away into that dreaded miasma of nightmarish dissolution and dementia. Not at all.

Instead, he would potentially live forever, his life splitting into three new selves growing apart, developing, learning, becoming far, far more than he had so far managed to become on his own.

It was a fitting denouement to a lifetime of pursuing his Muse.

Within a few more seconds he had arranged his tripartite induction at a local clinic and the integral subsystems residing in his bones and blood set his affairs into order.

His Living Will would become enforceable within 24 hours of his Induction.

That would take care of the children and relatives, most of whom had been too caught-up in their own lives to visit him in over ten years. And that was fine. He had always raised them to become self-sufficient, to go out into the world and build good lives for themselves. He was proud of his children and his grand children.

He had led a good life.

Andrew considered the implications of his decision. How it would impact his family. How it might affect the few friends he still kept in touch with.

He scheduled the transition ceremony for three days out in order to give his friends and family a chance to say their goodbyes and to tender their regards. It would have to be enough. He didn't want to lose his newfound confidence.

For the first time in a decade Andrew was beginning to feel the nervous excitement brought on by making an irrevocable, life-changing decision that he had lost without realizing it.

It was good to be alive again. Really alive, and not just going through the motions.

It was going to be even better to get on with what awaited him just around the corner.

The future was bright and exciting, and he felt like a small child anxiously waiting to open his birth-day presents. It was going to be hard to wait three more days for his three new lives to begin in earnest.

To Be Continued over at the Hereticwerks blog...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Scentificer of Noss: Part One

“The violet moon is called Shekale, which is a botheid word that the guides will tell you means ‘Lady of scents,’ but really it translates as ‘stinking woman.’ The pink and orange moon is called Ferezzi, the primary botheid word for amber, though they have close to a thousand words to describe every variation, grade and type of the stuff. The system of satellites in geosynchronous orbit are referred to as being 'Chimessa's String of Pearls'. Apparently the only thing these people like more than perfume or amber are pearls, all three of which they have in extreme abundance.”

“So why are we here? You don’t much care for perfume, incense or jewelry.” Nita didn't trust Urslingen's newfound appreciation of the finer points of Nossian culture.

“That’s simple. Noss is a world of elegance and refinement. A veritable shining nexus of culture and art. To be banned from this world is the height of social disgrace and poor form. It’s just the place to start a fight with aristocrats, nobles and other muckety-mucks who’ll be too worried about insulting the botheid to defend their precious honor which means we get to have some fun at their expense.” He made a dramatic show of inhaling a huge lungful of the wonderful early morning air of Noss. His overly well rehearsed sigh as he exhaled nearly made Nita cross-eyed with just how ridiculous he looked. Then it smacked her right between the frontal lobes. She knew why the old man had dragged them to this overly elegant world of snobbery and petty nobility. And amber. More amber than any other Known World.

“You came here to pick a fight?” Nita set down her mug of warm morning beer. It took her a few seconds to regain her composure. Beer had almost come spraying out of her nose. Again. She harbored the suspicion that the old bastard did it on purpose. It would be just like him.

“Do you know of a better way to find a suitable employer for a broken down old warhorse like me?” Urslingen turned away from the wide balcony and smiled that mischievous leer of his. The one that always led them into serious trouble.

“Other than the twenty seven options I outlined for you in my last report, no.” Nita fumed and reconsidered switching over to coffee like her mentor. It tended to hurt less coming through one's nasal passages.

“See; you’re out of options too. Come on; it’ll be fun.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rist, Part Five

Continued from Part Four
Ristdex / Index Page

Rist scratched his red-pocked scalp and tried to untangle several strands of straggly black hair. He started getting nervous. For the fifteenth time he reached into his belt-pouch to feel the dull weight of the foil-wrapped packet he had acquired from the Veil-lady just like he had been asked. He was a professional and one did what they had to do in order to stay in business. He picked out a reasonable spot to wait and hunkered down to watch for the dark lady to come back. All that was left now was to pass the shiny-shiny along to the lady-client. She may have scared the piss out of him, but she had given him a job to do and Rist had done it. He prided himself on being a dependable agent. He might be small, even frail, but he took immense pride in his work.

Rist sniffed, seeking some olfactory clue to the arrival of his client. Her absence worried him, but then so did most things. Especially people who were bigger, faster or stronger than he was, which included nearly everyone Rist had ever met and the dark lady even moreso. It was precisely this persistent fear, what Rist might have laughingly referred to as professional paranoia had he the language or conceptual framework, that had kept him alive all these years. Suddenly his yellow eyes narrowed and the slit-pupils widened as his heat-sensing pits flared just below each eye as something, or rather someone, moved down below him, on the ruined esplanade. Whomever they were they had emerged from one of the garbage-piled gaps between the pillars of the Empty Temple. No one went into that place. For as long as Rist could recall or imagine, no one ever went into the Empty Temple and now, right before his very eyes, someone had come out of it. He wasn’t sure what kind of omen that was but he knew it couldn’t be good. For all intents and purposes the Empty Temple was haunted and cursed, a lair of ghosts, plague-spirits and other lingering evils from the time of the Severing. Everyone knew to avoid the Empty Temple. Nothing good ever came out of that place.

Rist may not have been the smartest inhabitant of the lower precincts, but just the same he had survived for over six years all on his own. Like most his kind, Rist had been thrust out of the family nest upon reaching the age of expulsion, roughly around the time he had been able to walk upright. He had survived and even thrived in the midst of the roughest, most dangerous precincts of Talibarr and it certainly wasn’t on account of his cheerful disposition or good looks. By all accounts Rist was homely, even for a drijj. Rist was a survivor. He could sense danger the way some animals could smell changes in the weather. When you can’t out-fight the local predators, you’re smaller than the majority of your peers and weaker than the scavengers you either learn how to be smarter, trickier or more cunning than they all are or you wind up feeding one of them. Rist wasn’t a genius, not by a long shot, but he was clever and better than that he was ruthless, a true product of his social environment.

Claws and teeth are all well and fine if you have them, and Rist’s dainty, dirty nails were well-suited to digging, climbing and precise manipulation, but they wouldn’t ever scare anyone, let alone serve as any kind of weapon. That’s why he still carried the first knife he ever owned, a gift from the D’phinn Fakir who suspended himself on cables and chains in the middle of a pool down past the merchant-pavilions lining the Botanica-Souk and the Wet Wharves at the fringes of the Low Zones. Rist, like many who lived hand to mouth existences in the brutal environs of the Low Zones admired the Fakir and vied with the others to bring him a suitable gift in order to earn a knife from amongst his impressive collection that hovered all around him like a swarm of telekinetic bees drawn to spiritual nectar.

Two years previously Rist had not only earned a knife from the Fakir, he had learned about poison from eavesdropping on a conversation amongst a group of dusty caravan-merchants from Jandalligon. Poison sounded like just the thing to help Rist gain a much needed edge in terms of his continued personal survival. He sought out any and everyone he could find who would tell him anything about poisons including a ceremonially blinded Ketanjin biorepentive-heretic who had foresworn its cultural, ancestral and genetic heritage as a living Venefice and who told Rist all about the ways of poison for a few scraps of raw meat and a half-gallon of j’reza-mint flavored grain alcohol that the little drijj had stolen from a drowsy merchant’s ill-guarded stocks. In addition to the simplest knowledge of poisons and some smatterings of street-astrology Rist had discovered the crudest and most basic fundamentals of distillation and concentration. It never occurred to him that, for a creature rarely able to remember what had happened an hour ago, it was remarkable that he retained this ill-gotten knowledge still. But things like that rarely, if ever occurred to the little drijj.

After a few weeks of clumsy, sometimes disastrous efforts that had inadvertently poisoned everything around his conspicuously hidden lair, Rist had finally been able to produce and then insert a small vial of concentrated canal-spider venom into the hollowed-out handle of his knife. It was a potent paralytic and Rist had found that the stuff really made it a lot easier to pilfer small shiny bits when his victims were conveniently incapacitated. It had also allowed him to escape from the crows on more than one occasion.

All told it had taken the better part of a month to capture and raise a clutch of spiders from a stray egg sac Rist had been able to make off with after a particularly fierce summertime thunderstorm. For a couple of quiet weeks Rist had nursed the egg sac until it had burst and a flood of tiny spiders had spilled out into the oversized jug he had salvaged from one of the abandoned shops along the old upper tier of streets overlooking the canals. For another week Rist had excitedly, expectantly fed crickets and other small insects into the mouth of the jug, after shaking it vigorously so that none of the spiders could escape. They grew bigger as they drained the crickets or preyed upon each other. Rist watched the number of spiders dwindle even as they grew progressively bigger. When they had finally gotten big enough Rist drowned the spiders with his own urine that he had filled another bottle with just for the occasion. Even Rist wasn’t foolish enough to try and pee on a bottle full of spiders. Then he set the jug of piss-soaked spiders out into the sunlight for the better part of another week, stirring them up with a length of corroded metal wire until the spiders had broken down into a gooey slop that Rist continued to reduce by leaving it exposed to the hot sunlight, letting it cook down into a nasty, sticky ooze that paralyzed or killed everything he spattered with it. Carefully, delicately Rist had poured off a good measure of the contents of the large jug into smaller bottles and vials so that he could more easily make use of the poison, only it had proven too good and anything he killed with it was likewise poison to anything that tried to eat it, like Rist himself. He tried to use the sticky poisons in a set of traps, but that hadn’t really worked out. He carried the last of the stuff for use as a last-ditch form of self-defense. But he hadn’t tried it out yet so he wasn’t sure how it would work and hoped, and sometimes prayed, that he wouldn’t need to ever find out.

This moment, however, seemed just like a last-ditch sort of time in the making so Rist prepared to make use of the poison, either to kill whatever was coming up towards him from the Empty Temple, or to ruin anyone’s chances of tormenting him any more. He’d finally had enough. His tiny brain was rapidly adapting to the stimulus in his immediate environment and was beginning to develop more synapses, more connections, more processing capacity. Though he had no idea of what was happening, Rist was getting his wish without the dark lady’s help. He was getting smarter.

He slid down a little and let the ferns cover his position while his mind replayed a memory for him. Back when he had been playing with his bottles and the spiders a pack of feral children had found the place not long after he had concocted his poison and several of them died after casually smashing the glassware Rist had used in his brewing. They had burned the place out after that, thinking it a cursed spot. All that wonderful glassware, lost. But at least several of the feral children had died and they had moved farther down the esplanade from where Rist had found his new perch. It occurred to Rist that if he were to spread the poison out on the ground before him, that whomever stepped into it would die just like the feral children had. Except what if they had boots like the dark lady wore?

Rist drew his special knife and slithered over so he could crouch down behind a massive chunk of schist that had fallen from the facade of the burned-out building he was lurking in front of. The one hundred and seven little trinkets and charms carved from rat vertebrae and other less identifiable debris that dangled from the rags he called clothes clicked and clacked softly in the fetid night breeze. Like most denizens of the Lower Precincts of Talibarr, Rist wasn’t particularly religious so much as opportunistically pragmatic; priests often rewarded the diligent and respectful with food or other things if they believed you were of their faith. Rist liked faith; it put meat in the belly a lot easier than his knife could, some days.

"Not good, not good at all. Rist no like this." He muttered to himself as he kept watch on the pitted ramp leading up from the level below, the most likely direction someone coming from the Empty Temple might approach his position. He’d mumble a prayer but he was illiterate and unschooled in such things and lacked any hope that his whining would amount to much that would move anyone to help him in the afterlife any more than it would here and now. Instead he made the sign of the seven-pointed star and hoped that there were angels, demons or gods out there who would take pity on a lowly drijj like himself. Rist liked pity; it made strong people leave dirty little things like him alone.

To Be Continued...

Part Six
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