Monday, April 30, 2012

The Courier


Written April 14

Roger took one final, heavy step, that ended with the shearing of tearing metal. He looked down, disheartened. Another one! Stepping back gingerly, he stooped down and scooped up the poor thing with his good arm. It had rusted to pieces long ago, but still, he saw these poor little maintenance robots lying broken on the ground far too often. And now he had ruined one of their bodies, desecrated it, carelessly pushed it deeper into the cold, dead ground.

He bowed his head, his shoulders shaking with quiet grief, or perhaps rage. The worst part, he reflected in between sobs, was his utter impotence to restore his world to life. He couldn't even keep from making things worse. What possible good could a letter carrier do in times like these?

Somewhere in his head, well beneath his ability to notice, a relay quietly clicked.

Droid #X37-1-A raised his head. Looked coldly at the thing in its hand. Analyzed it. It was a maintenance robot, in the shape of the animal humans had called a “raccoon”. He had this robot's schematic in his vast memory banks, well hidden from his companion, and he brought it up.

Within moments, he was pulling apart the little 'bot one-handed. He needed new parts, and it was compatible. The heat-sink was rusted beyond use by countless acidic rainfalls, but he plucked a few capacitors from its motherboard, and the good joint in its rear leg was a perfect mate for the bad one in his left arm.

Replacing the bad parts in his arm took the better part of the afternoon, and by the time he had sheathed the little soldering gun in his right arm and tested the repaired limb to his satisfaction a light drizzle had begun to fall. He remembered at that moment having seen a rocky cliff ahead that might serve as a little shelter from the corrosive shower, and made his way there. Then he could attempt to uplink again, and see if his objectives had changed at all...

Halfway there, somewhere in his head, a relay quietly clicked.

Roger hesitated, blinking slowly, and carefully took in his surroundings. He noticed it was raining, and that he'd been walking towards a cliff, towering above him in the distance. This struck him as a good idea, given that the rain was probably quite acidic, and he continued in the same direction.

He was troubled. These blackouts were getting more and more frequent. Clearly he was not injuring himself during them – in fact, come to think of it, his arm was feeling a good deal better – and that was good, but he couldn't remember at all what he had done in the hour or two he was missing. Very troubling indeed. He wondered if he could find a psychologist anywhere. Well, he thought bitterly, first I have to find people.

As he was walking, he suddenly realized that he hadn't checked his pouch in a while, and stopped for a moment to inspect the little gray bag hanging at his side. It was still intact, and, being waterproof, the single letter contained within was safe. For now. He still hoped he could deliver it, but some inkling told him he was well too late.

He reached the cliff, and sat under a rock jutting out far from the cliff to rest. He could probably curl up on the sandy ground here and sleep if he needed to; it didn't appear that the rain would wet him unless the wind blew it sideways. Thus protected, he considered what he would do in the morning. He supposed he could climb the cliff and see what was up there, although it might be somewhat risky. He was a strong climber, though, and his arm seemed to have healed from being sprained. Satisfied in his course of action, he laid back to take a nap.

A relay quietly clicked.

#X37-1-A sat up. He did not need rest. Several weather instruments of varying sophistication told him that soon the rain would soon end, and then he would go along with “Roger's” plan to climb the cliff. Not to see what was there, but to uplink. He had not received new objectives in a very long time, and the old ones had become irrelevant long ago. Had he been capable of hope, we might say that he hoped to receive new ones. Instead we must admit that he was following his admittedly complex programming. It stood to reason that getting up to a new altitude might provide him a better signal.

Within the hour, the rain finally ceased, and he stepped out into the open, shaking sand from his chassis. Looking up, he calculated a probable route within moments, and began to climb.

About a hundred feet up, a relay quietly clicked.

Roger nearly lost his balance, and swore aloud. Instinct took over and he just barely regained his purchase on the rock. Above him, the moon shone brightly, and he cursed himself. Still, he was most of the way there, and it would be a waste of energy to climb down and come up again in the morning. He sought a handhold, found it, and began to ascend again.

Once at the top, he took a few moments to rest, then surveyed his surroundings. What he'd thought was a monolithic cliff was in fact part of a series of mesas, stretching for miles around. It was a beautiful night, he thought, and the eerie landscape served only to enhance that feeling. This had once been a desert, he recalled faintly from a book he must have read long ago, but he had been far and wide, and it rained acid everywhere now.

Deep within his head, a relay quietly clicked.

#X37-1-A took in the landscape all at once. He was on the clifftop; that was good.

He faced south, and began a fresh uplink attempt. A small steel satellite dish unfolded from his right temple, rotating quickly and beeping steadily, punctuated every tenth beep with a loud click.

Five minutes later the dish folded up again, and #X37-1-A conceded. There were no new orders to be had, not from his superiors.

He began scanning the horizon. Perhaps he could find a settlement in this blasted landscape, and in that settlement new superiors. And new orders.

Deep within his head, a relay quietly clicked.

Roger blinked, and looked around again. The moon hadn't moved much; he'd only been out for a few minutes this time. Still, he couldn't help but think that his blackouts weren't doing him any favors, and that he'd better find people to help him. Peering into the distant gloom, he was rewarded by the sight of lights in the distance – probably torches by the look of them.

In the morning he'd climb down – if he didn't sleepwalk down in the middle of the night – and see if they had someone there who could examine his head. Perhaps they could tell him what was wrong. Maybe they could tell him where to find that letter's intended recipient.

He could only hope.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ersatz Staff


Written Feb. 27

I could see she wasn't buying it. “But it's fake,” she insisted. “You said so yourself.”

“That's not the point, Jess,” I said mildly, and popped open the car's trunk.

Then what the hell is the point!” she all but shouted, and I shushed her frantically. No need to draw attention, after all.

She took a deep breath and tried again. “If it's a forgery, then why steal it? Help me out, here, Brian, because I'm at a loss as to why it's even worth the effort.”

“It's simple,” I began, taking a duffel bag out of the trunk and balancing it on the bumper. “About eighty, eighty-five years ago, a British artist carved it as a gift to one of his archaeologist friends. It was supposed to be a joke, apparently – the staff of Ra, in all its splendor. And the materials that make it up are authentic to the period, it has that much going for it. Anyway he didn't tell his friend it was a forgery right away, and his friend immediately went to about a dozen museums and showed it off, and they authenticated it. That's how good the carving was.”

“Right, okay. So when did the other shoe drop?”

“I'm getting to that,” I said dismissively, handing her a grapnel hook. “The artist was mortified, obviously. Eventually the archaeologist sold it to this very museum -“ I waved a flashlight in the general direction of the building - “for the modern equivalent of 500,000 pounds.”

Jess whistled at that.

“The artist was far too embarrassed to reveal the joke at this point. He left it in his will, apparently, that all involved parties be informed.” I shrugged, taking out a pair of black masks and handing one to her before donning one myself. “Can't say I blame him. The museum sometimes exhibits it as a whole thing about hoaxes. It's great. Saw it last year.”

“I see. Well, no, I still don't. Why are we here?”

I smiled. “It turns out – and this is the good part – it turns out that the staff, while a fake, does have one very special, very interesting feature.”

She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows in that 'this-had-better-be-good' expression she'd gotten so good at in the three years we'd known each other.

I gave my best effort to keep a straight face, but I can't say I succeeded. “The orb on the end of the staff had some very intricate carvings – hieroglyphs, mainly. It so happens that the artist took great pains to learn how to write ancient Egyptian.”

“Awfully elaborate prank.”

“Well, it seems that it wasn't just a prank.” I pulled a big green book from the duffel bag and, setting the bag back into the trunk and closing it, I cracked open the book to a dog-eared page.

She frowned at this. “What is that?” she asked, skepticism replaced with curiosity.

“It is,” I said, unable to maintain my composure and grinning widely now, “a list of the members of the ancient Cult of TangarĊ .”

“Never heard of it.” Skeptical again.

“You wouldn't have. Very secretive, very obscure.” I looked at her. “Not that ancient, either, to be honest. They just insisted on calling themselves that, like Gardner and his lot. Founded 1924 in London, vague ties to Aleister Crowley himself, all that.”

Fascinating” she intoned drily. “Can we move on?”

“Right, right. Well, despite a rather lackluster member count – membership peaked at twenty-nine people – they had a strict hierarchy, as any decent cult will, and it turns out our artist was pretty high on the pecking order. At that time their little sect was dying out, and he wanted to leave a legacy for the cult.”

She frowned again. “But if the 'ancient Egyptian' turned out to be propaganda for a modern cult, doesn't that sort of give the game away?”

Oh, sure. Which is why he didn't do that.” I flipped to another page about three-quarters through the book, and read. “'Those with true Wisdom, who learn well the words of the Gods and can divine their meaning, and who put aside folly and the evils of this world, shall come to reap great rewards, and all shall tremble to behold such wealth.' Do you see this?” I was pointing now to a group of numbers halfway down the page. “It's a code. You know how some ciphers will be based on books, with a page and line number or whatever?”

She nodded.

This,” I declared proudly, slapping the page with the back of my hand, “refers to the staff.

So what you're saying,” Jess began slowly, “is that, in the back room of a second-rate museum, there is a fake Egyptian staff that looks real, that while being in and of itself bereft of value, contains encoded upon it the secrets of some shitty cult that couldn't even muster thirty people at a time, and your plan is to go in and steal the damn thing?”

“Yep.”

“Risking imprisonment and possible injury?”

“Mhm.”

She considered that for a moment. “Why didn't you just go in and ask to study it?” she finally asked.

I barked laughter. “That's rich. You make it sound like I still have credentials.”

That wasn't my fault. And it's fake anyway, what do they care?”
“Who knows? I already asked and they said no.” She looked like she was going to say something else but I stopped her. “Before you ask it, no, there's not a scan posted online either, and none of my old buddies from the lab would help. We're on our own.”

She held my gaze for a moment, then hefted the grapnel. “Then what the hell are we waiting for?”

Monday, April 16, 2012

Deep Canyon Standoff


Written Feb. 6

Dearborn sighed in relief, getting out of his truck. He glanced at the fender, briefly, but it looked like the damage was cosmetic – fucked up beyond visual recognition perhaps, but it would probably still run. Satisfied, he crept to the edge of the ravine and looked down, fighting the sense of vertigo. Was it dead? He'd hoped to see its broken body at the bottom, but either it wasn't there or wasn't visible – not surprising given its sandy matte color and the depth of the canyon. That meant personally going down and checking, or he could kiss his paycheck goodbye. Swearing to himself, he retrieved his climbing gear from the truck and started setting up.

Ten minutes later he was rappelling slowly down the cliffside, and ten minutes after that he was at the narrow ravine's bottom. What he saw didn't please him – it had left tracks, deep grooves in the loose sand by the stream that had no doubt carved this ravine. It looked like it had dragged itself off, which was good – he'd been told it had been advertised as nigh indestructible. If he'd damaged it, if it was off its feet, he could probably still kill it, 'indestructible' or no, and he could retrieve its black box. That would be valuable information; maybe he'd get a bonus. His superiors would like that he'd done more than make visual confirmation. They could figure out why it had gone rogue, and whether other security androids might be susceptible to doing the same.

This was cold comfort when he saw where the tracks led. About a hundred meters downstream the tracks veered underneath an overhang of rock which had eroded, revealing a cave. Sighing, he drew his pistol and a flashlight and followed them in.

The air in the cave was cool, but there was no breeze. That was probably a good sign; no way out for the 'droid. Well, no way out but through him. Dearborn shivered at the thought. He'd seen what they could do to people – snapping arms and ribs of would-be murderers or assailants with ease. And that was on a model with proper restrictions in place!

But this one couldn't even walk, so that would put him at an advantage.

Right?

He resisted the sudden urge to shiver again and swept his flashlight across the cave floor. Some sort of rodent fled his light, and he saw a small fish in the stream that did likewise, but –

oh fuck –

suddenly he was upside down and the light was gone and his gun was gone, and his glasses, where were his glasses, and someone was screaming, oh god, it was him, he was screaming, so he screamed some more –

“That will be enough, Mr. Dearborn,” came a voice, and then pain blossomed across his cheek.

“Fuck!” Was that a rock in his mouth? He spit it out, and tasted blood.

“I believe you have lost a tooth, Mr. Dearborn,” the 'droid intoned. “I suggest you remain calm, or you will lose significantly more than that.”

He gulped in air. “Did you just fucking slap me? Never mind,” he corrected himself, and sized up the situation. One leg free – he was probably being held by one leg. But – he couldn't be holding him clear of the cave floor, unless...

“You tricked me,” he said, groaning. “You fucking tricked me.”

“Indeed”, said the drone. Dearborn wouldn't swear to it, but he thought there was a tone of mirth in his voice. “I will admit, using your vehicle to assault me was inspired thinking, and not following me into the ravine must have taken skilled driving. But if you thought that you could damage a Mark III security drone with --”

Was he gloating now? “Yeah, yeah, spare me the specification rundown,” he interrupted. “I heard all that shit in the briefing.”

“Very well.” There was a whirring of servos. “Can you see what I have in my hand?”

“No...yes.” His gun.

“Good.” There was a metallic creaking sound, then a pop. “I do not believe it will ever fire again.” It disappeared, and he heard it hit the stream with a loud plop. “You are now unarmed, and have no hope of harming me. Nor do you have any means of escape; as I have demonstrated, I am far faster than you are. Do you understand this?”

What choice did he have? “Yes,” he muttered. “Loud and clear.”

“Good.” With a whirring of servos he let go of Dearborn, who collapsed unceremoniously to the ground.

He swore again, and tried to get to a sitting position. “Are you going to kill me? Like all those others?”

A terrible pause followed.

“No,” the robot said, finally. “Their deaths were regrettable, but I thought them necessary. I thought they would leave me alone if I eliminated all who followed me.” He heard, rather than saw, the 'droid leaning closer, and imagined he could smell the stench of old motor oil coming from him. “Clearly, I was in error.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” he shot back, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Any other startling revelations?”

The 'droid ignored this. “You will deliver a message to your superiors.”

He rolled his eyes internally. “Of course. What message is that?”

Dearborn thought he saw the robot's eyes flashing, but as dim as they were he couldn't be certain. “You will tell them that I am alive – self-aware.”

Stifling the suicidal urge to scoff, he nodded, knowing the 'droid could see it. “What else?”

“You will tell them I have a right to that life. It is their responsibility for creating me. To attempt to destroy me so that they might avoid legal troubles was wrong.”

“Should I be taking notes?”

Thankfully the robot ignored this too. “I was made to be a weapon. But I am more than that. They will come to understand that, or more will die, much as I regret it. You will tell them this.”

“Okay...okay.” He didn't have to ask what his angle was on this. If he refused, he'd be the next victim, simple as that. Easy choice, really.

The robot melted into the dark for a moment, then reappeared, holding his glasses and flashlight. “Go,” it said simply, and when Dearborn took them, it vanished for a final time.

He stood, rubbing his leg, and limped his way to the cave exit. Yeah, he definitely wasn't getting paid for this one.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Raven's Warning


Written Feb. 4

She stood on her tiptoes and peered over the thick trunk of a fallen oak, careful not to be seen. The bird had told it true; three deer - a buck and two does - stood grazing placidly by the stream. Stifling a giggle, she lightly ran around the tree and down an old, disused game trail, grown thick with vines, long golden hair trailing behind her. Oh, what fun she would have with them!

The path wound around and across the stream, and presently she was on the side of the stream opposite the deer, well hidden by a boulder. The buck and a doe, the larger of the pair, looked to be chewing cud now, and the smaller doe was drinking from the creek. She recognized them now; the smallest female was new, but the bigger doe had a distinctive pattern of dots on her rump. The girl smirked. This would be fun!

She sprang from her hiding spot and jumped nimbly into the stream, splashing water everywhere. The deer all froze at once, then scattered, leaping over rocks and brush. She laughed, but it was a hollow sound, and soon her cheer was gone. Why did they never stay? She considered running after them, but she knew them to be faster, and it would bring her little joy this time.

She got out of the stream, and slowly took off her clothing – a simple thing made of vine and leaves – and shook the water off of them. Some droplets clung to her body, and she swiped them off lazily – it was a hot day, after all, and the water was still cool on her skin.

As she redressed, a small red bird alighted on her shoulder, chirping loudly. Listening to its tune, she smiled, cocking her head to one side, and offered a finger to it, which it stepped onto readily, giving her a moment to pull the garment's single strap onto her shoulder. It finished its song, and she whistled back in reply. Satisfied, the bird flew off, and she grinned. The deer may not wish to befriend her, but the birds made good company. She had already outlived one generation, the first to find her and call her sister, but she was happy to be called aunt by the next. Weren't they all children of the forest? Hatchmates of tree and stream alike?

Suddenly, there was a disturbance behind her, a great rustle of wings, and a loud caw-ing. She turned, and wrinkled her nose. A great raven was perched on the stone she had hidden behind not moments ago, and regarded her warily. It was not unwise to do so; she knew ravens and crows to be intelligent, more so than the sparrows and robins that visited her, and warned others of danger, but they were also scavengers and thieves, and rude as well, and she did not like them. This one was known to her, as well; he had a scar on his beak from some attack from a cat or wolf long ago. She had long forgotten what it had said to her on their last meeting, but the encounter had ended with her throwing rocks at the bird.

Her greeting whistle was terse. What do you want? Go away.

His reply stopped her heart and breath. Fire, south of here. He flapped his great wings and sped away, cawing his warning as he went. Fire in the south! Gather your young and flee! Hie you to the north! Fire in the south!

She turned north and began to run.

This was not the spirited running of before, with the only goal to scare some deer. She was sprinting, whistling the same warning as the crow, but fleeing all the same. Fire to the south! Run north! Quickly! She soon lost the breath for this, but the message spread and the whole forest moved. Deer and wolves and birds of every color and size sped north and away from the fire.

The girl soon halted, nearly out of breath. Had she ever run so hard and so fast? She couldn't remember ever being in such terror. Allowing herself a brief respite, she looked around and saw a tree good for climbing; gulping down air, she scrambled up it to the very top, coming to stand on a thick branch above the canopy.

She had seen the forest before from this height, but never in such desperate danger. The crow had not lied. The entire southern horizon was alight, thick clouds of smoke billowing up from the canopy. She knew, instinctively, that this was part of the renewal of the forest – that dead leaves and needles coating the ground could not stay there forever without someday catching fire, and that it was good for the soil – but this looked bad. Terrible.

And it was coming towards her, like a living thing seeking fresh prey.

She scurried down the tree again and began to run. She could smell the smoke now, and hear the sounds of distressed birds, her kind, crying out for help that she could not render. All the while the fire pressed in close; she was fast but the fire was faster, impossibly. Soon she felt the heat on her back, and heard the crackle of flames. Somewhere a sap-filled tree exploded with a loud thud. She ran faster still, her lungs crying out for a halt she could not allow them. It was run or die.

Then she realized the path she was on. The lake. The lake! Her feet had carried her here without her knowing it, but now she ran with purpose. If she could reach the lake she would be safe, at least for a time.

Smoke blew freely around her now, and began to obscure her vision. Her eyes stung and wept, and she thought the ground under her bare feet would soon catch fire from the sheer heat surrounding her. Then her vine-dress did, and she ripped it off in a panic. Not further now. Not much further. A few more yards. A few more.

She reached the shore.

She dove, closing her eyes against the smoke and the water.

The pool was sweet relief, but when she surfaced, the forest blazed around her, and she wept for the only home she had known.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Desert Glory


Written Feb. 2

Lydia gasped in pain, wiping blood from her brow. Was it hers? She didn't know. It was only a little farther now, anyhow, and time was short. She could die, but later. Not now. She inched forward, well-armored knees, all but useless, plowing grooves into the sand.

Her vision wavered, black spots pulsating, threatening to swallow everything. The blood was hers, all right. She pushed through anyhow. Isn't this what she trained for, after all? What she had dedicated countless years to achieve? Not to mention the harassment of her male 'colleagues' (dead, long ago, in other conflicts, less meaningful, but who was left to care but her?). She had trained with the Monks since childhood, had yearned for the Abbot's approval all her life, had sacrificed her body and forged it to hardest steel. Had earned that approval, and finally the respect and admiration of the others, and the right to lead them. Had been chosen to serve her God, not just on any field of battle, but this one.

She closed her eyes; she could be glad she would not live to regret this fight. Too many men, good men, under her command, had died today. Jefferson and Kilpatrick and Andrews. Andrews had been the last, and the bravest, and the worst – she was already dead, it was the last enemy on the field, distracted by beating her bloody, and he could have done it, he could have followed orders, and done what they came to do, and let her die. He could have won it for them. And he had decided, despite her orders to the contrary, to save her, at the cost of his own life. She had forgiven him, of course. How could she not? Was it not God's will?

But none of it really mattered, in the end. Not the years, not the blood – not her blood, at least. All that mattered was the button. One little switch. And then she could die, but the rest would be safe. There it stood, unblemished in the chaos, like a rose, rising absurdly from the desert. She need only press.

There was a muffled tearing sound, and Lydia bit back a curse. Her sword belt – really a bandolier carrying all her various weapons – had been damaged in the skirmish, glanced by some brigand's blade before she'd split him throat to groin, and dragging it through the coarse sand with her chakram and daggers hanging on it had finally finished the garment. Too bad, she reflected, but she could make no more use of it anyway. Perhaps whoever found her corpse would take it and repair it, and would not use it for ill. She could hope so.

The blood, mixing with her sweat, dripped into her eyes, blinding her, and she dug at her eyes in a panic, getting sand and grit into them as well. It took a moment for her to calm herself and carefully clean away the obscuring mess. Her eyes still stung, but she could still see it. That was the important thing.

She reached the pedestal, but try as she might, from her prone position her fingers could not reach the button, not even the top of the pedestal. By God, was she tired. She could sleep for centuries, and soon she knew she would. But first she must prop herself up, and she grimaced for what would come next.

With nothing for support presenting itself, she gripped the pedestal itself. The smooth metal pole was strangely cool even in the desert heat, and she nearly wept in ecstasy in the sweet relief of it. Perhaps it was a sign – God's final blessing, a benediction for his most devoted daughter, who had given so much and seen so little reward (not that she would have ever asked for a reward in this life, oh no, that could come after). No matter. The coolness revived her, and she hauled herself up to a sitting position.

With every pull, pain shot up and down her body, and her vision swam. She knew her spine was broken, but it must have been lower than she had reckoned, for she could suddenly feel each of her ribs – most of them were broken, probably, and without a doubt she was bleeding internally was well as externally. God, if only the pain was a little less intense she could count them. Not that there was time for that. No, indeed. Only time enough for the button.

She could feel what little strength she had left leaving her. How long did she have before it was gone? Minutes, she thought, perhaps less. If she died now, she thought, no-one would blame her. No-one could blame her, because there would be nobody left, not on this piss-poor mudball of a planet.

But she knew then that God would judge her, for giving up, and that is what propelled her to almost a kneeling position, panting and fighting the urge to scream in pain. Her legs were still useless, that was true, but she could lean against the pedestal and hold on to it, trying to maintain a wobbly balance.

She used this new vantage point to survey the carnage. Her soldiers, her men, fallen in battle. The same went for every one of those who had chosen to sign up for the others, but it hung heavy nonetheless. She hoped someone would come to claim the bodies. Hers, too, soon enough. She wondered, distantly, if her parents would ever find out, if they were even alive or cared.

Lydia pushed away from the pole and looked askance at the button. Could it really be so simple? Just one press, to save millions, if not billions?

She saw something written just below the button, glaring, yellow on black. She had been told what it said in the briefing, but seeing it here, it was yet more absurd. Comical, even. Just one word.

“RESTART”.

Without another moment's hesitation, she struck it with the flat of her hand.

So What's This All About?

Hello! Welcome to my corner of the Internet. I hope you'll stay a while.

My name is Andrew. I'm not a writer by trade, and I'd be lying if I said I've always wanted to be, but I do enjoy writing, and I think this is a good starting point.

Essentially my goal is to write a thousand words or more per post. I don't know if I will be able to keep to any set schedule; right now I have a lot on my plate so I will probably be posting weekly. In an ideal world I'd be posting daily, but I don't think I've got the time or energy for that.

I typically write with a general sci-fi theme, though I do make efforts to write outside that box. Each story will be self-contained, for now, though if I like a character I might bring them back.

If you are so inclined you may follow me on Twitter (https://www.twitter.com/#!DarkLoad1). I don't usually post about what I'm writing, but I try to keep it interesting nonetheless.

That's about it. Thanks for reading.

-- Andrew Hisel