Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Cave of Sorrow

A sequel.

David sat at the entrance to the cave, cradling his head in his hands.

"Maybe it's not so bad," he said to himself.

"No, it pretty much is that bad," Tiffany told him. "Every nation on the Five Isles is after our heads, not to mention a legion of independents. We're fracked."

"I'm the Marquis of Atrithau, right?" David said. "I've got resources. I can fight this."

"Except that the Duke of Gotha stripped you of your title when you refused to give him the Artifact, and now your seneschal is assisting him in the hunt against you in exchange for being named the new Marquis," Tiffany reminded.

"I should really have hired more loyal servants," David said regretfully.

Tiffany nodded.

They sat for a little while, lit from behind by the blue-green glow of the Artifact.

"Maybe we can pledge our loyalty to one of the Great Lords hunting us - give this thing over to them?" David suggested.

"Then we'd just be sitting in one place while the rest of the Great Lords, and all the Lessers, came after us," Tiffany rebutted. "Plus, we wouldn't have the Artifact."

"And even if we left the Artifact somewhere in the middle of a village or something, they'd still be after us, just to tell them where we found it, so they could try to see if it was some kind of vast treasure trove..."

"And they wouldn't be contented with a note," Tiffany said, agreeing. "For something as important as this, the only certainty a Lord would accept is torture."

David threw up his hands. "Frack it, then. We've got this relic that can find other relics. Why don't we use it? Find enough other relics, powerful enough, that we can stop anyone who comes after us?"

"Trying to do that - an occupation that necessarily involves some travel, some exposure - while escaping pursuit from every freebound in the Five Isles?" Tiffany asked. "Our life expectancy is nil."

"It already is!" David shouted, frustrated.

"I agree," Tiffany told him. "And that's why I think we should do it."

"You do," David said.

"Just didn't want either of us getting overconfident," she told him.

"All right," David said, pulling out the Lexicon as he walked toward the Artifact. "Let's get started. What's the first thing we can find?..."


It was a relic that produced mice when prodded sharply.

"Don't be so sad!" Tiffany suggested. "It worked!"

"But it's useless!" David said, pointing to the small, glowing fragment in his other hand. Several mice were gnawing on his boot-laces.

"At least now we'll always have something to eat!" Tiffany said cheerily.

They did not eat the mice.

The Infallible Remnant

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The David in this story is a different David.

Tiffany, seeing something out of the corner of her eye, turned sharply.

"Look!" she hissed, whispering to her boon-companion David. "That glow - from within the ruins!"

David looked, lowering his sword to the surface of the trail. "That blue-green glow, showing up clearly against the night sky?" he asked.

"Yes," Tiffany agreed.

"The one coming from the ruins at the center of an area that - as we've discovered from our experiences of the last few hours - is filled with hideously deformed monsters?" David further asked.

"Yep!" Tiffany agreed again.

"The sort of glow that characteristically indicates relics from the Far Past, characteristically possessing terrible destructive power, immense quantities of ancient knowledge, and/or the unpleasant tendency to warp and pervert any living thing that comes near them?"

"Yeah!" Tiffany agreed enthusiastically. "And that glow's really bright, especially for so far away - I think it could be a really big one!"

"Tiffany, I think you should know this," David said. "It is one of my great ambitions in life to die, one, at a ripe old age, surrounded by my hundred mistresses and my immense piles of gold and jewels; and two, not a hideous, shambling abominations. I really feel that my pursuit of that second goal could be seriously compromised by going anywhere near the source of that glow."

"Aww, come on," Tiffany implored. "We don't know that the monsters were turned into monsters by this relic."

"Perhaps they're just here to bask in the glow!" David suggested.

"Sure!" Tiffany said. "Plus - even if we were mutated - who's to say it's all bad! I for one could do with an extra arm or two!"

"What about the whole 'turned into mindless, moaning brutes' aspect of the transformation?" David asked. "Because that could really be a bit of a problem."

"Eh, you're exaggerating," Tiffany said. "You don't know that the animals that got turned into monsters got dumber when they transformed. For all you know, they're twice as smart now - except that you can't tell, because they started really, really dumb!"

David gave her a look.

Tiffany matched it.

Then, with a sigh, David relented. "All right," he said. "We'll go towards the glow, and see what kinds of ancient, priceless treasures we can recover. But I'm telling you - the moment we start forgetting our times tables, or tentacles start sprouting from our foreheads, we turn right around and run as fast as we can out of here. Do you hear me?"

"All right, all right," Tiffany said. "Though I really do think that I could do with a tentacle or two. Maybe one on the shoulders, to scratch that one spot on my back..."


The travellers made to the centre of the ruins. En route, a number of monsters tragically lost their lives to sword- and arrow-related injuries. Services will be scheduled for next Tuesday.


"There it is!" Tiffany exclaimed, pointing. "The source of the glow - I can hardly see it, it's so bright!"

"No kidding!" David agreed, squinting. "But still no tentacles, so I'm with you. Let's crack this thing open."

Then - as they approached - the glow abruptly dimmed. A tall pedestal was revealed, runes flickering across its surface.

"Shiny!" Tiffany cried.

David grimaced. "Look, just - let's see if we can use the Standard Lexicon on this thing," he said, pulling an old, battered book from his pack as he strode up to the relic. He began to mutter to himself as he worked, Tiffany peering over his shoulder and occasionally pointing. "All right. Entrance symbol - okay, here it is, top-left, third form." He pressed it; it flashed, and new runes appeared. "Now it's giving - ah - that's a password request, yeah - give it the standard. One-rune, two-rune, three-rune, four-rune - and okay, it's gone, we're at the main interface. Man, this thing's a mess."

"Call identify," Tiffany suggested.

"Right," David agreed. "Okay, looking... first form's not there... second form... third form.."

"What about that squiggly one over in the bottom-center?" Tiffany suggested.

David looked. "Oh - yeah, that is the second form, isn't it? Okay, here we go. It's a... um. There's pages of info that it's spilling out now - there's the projection mode - yeesh!"

The runes leapt off the surface of the artifact, floating in the air in a square a meter to each side.

"Ah," David said. "Don't think we want to try to translate that - we'll be here for weeks."

"Get the title?" Tiffany suggested.

"Where?" David asked. "I don't see anything that looks like one -"

"There," Tiffany said. "Over on the right, those five really big runes."

"You don't think they're 'cancel' or something like that?" David asked.

"Can't hurt to translate them," Tiffany said.

This took some time, as the runes in question were not in the quick-reference section. Several monsters interrupted the work. This ended poorly, for the monsters.

"Okay," David said, looking up from the Lexicon. "That's the last of the four characters, 'tracking.' So - it's a "[meaningless character] Automated Remnant Tracking Remnant."

"Why would the people who built this even have needed one of those, anyway?" Tiffany asked.

David shrugged. "Maybe just to keep track of things, generally?" he suggested. "To make sure people didn't steal their stuff?"

"I guess it doesn't matter," Tiffany said. "But - think about what we've just found! A relic that finds other relics? We're rich! We're beyond rich! We are made for life!"

"Let's see if it works, first," David suggested. "We need to get the right command, 'find nearest' maybe -"

"Already on it," Tiffany said, looking through the runes. "Here. I pulled it up, and yeah, here's an object - some kind of listing. We can look up type, location, status -"

"Get the location!" David suggested. "We could recover it while we're here, if we're nearby -"

Tiffany's face fell. She pointed. David looked.

"Yeah, I can recognize that without consulting the Lexicon," David agreed. "Error messages."

"Well, we'll lug it back to the Fastness anyway," Tiffany said disappointedly. "See if it works. But - frack it!"

David shook his head sadly.

"Even the ancients wrote buggy code," he said conciliatorily.

"Pretty sure that's all they wrote," Tiffany shot back.

But when they took it back to the Fastness, it turned out it worked after all! Hooray! Now David and Tiffany just had to fight off the thousands of people envious of their new acquisition and quite ready to commit murder for it.


Based on a true story*.


EDIT: It should be noted that the David featured in this story is David II, Marquis of Atrithau, and not the David who posts on this blog. Just to clarify.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Armoured Tancs

In the city of Shalva, all the ladies wore armoured tancs in their hair.

Now, this was a rather peculiar custom - even by the standards of that land! - and a quite recent one, to boot. Yet nonetheless it was the case, quite universally, by nature of necessity. This was by means of an infestation - a colony of rare birds, Striatus dinorhynchus, which had mysteriously appeared in the city - which made a habit of viciously attacking anything they saw worn upon the head of a human being. The ladies of Shalva had ever been fond of wearing many types of headgear - hats! Ribbons! Feathers! - so the coming of the queer birds had been terribly devastating to their lives. The only way in which they might continue was the donning of heavy, metal armoured tancs - quite cumbersome, quite unfortunate.

So a freelancer was sent to Shalva, hailing originally from the distant land of Nihon, but having become something of a traveller in recent years. She identified herself as Rebecca, to those who asked, and further provided her goal: to identify the source of these peculiar, foreign birds, and identify the actions necessary to remove them.

"And take those actions?" some would ask her.

"No," she would be forced to admit, somewhat sheepishly. "That's not really my department."

Nonetheless, the people of Shalva were quite willing to assist Rebecca's investigation; for the birds had been a terrible bother. Her first approach was to look for a natural cause: had there been some great shift in climate, in Shalva or in the homeland of the Striatus dinorhynchii, that could have produced this large migration? She sifted through the weather data available, looking at results for six months before the birds had first been observed in Shalva, but there was no pattern to be seen. The weather seemed much the same as it had been the year before, and the year before that; it had been a very unremarkable year, for weather. (With the exception of a sudden, abnormal hailstorm in Shalva, five months before the arrival of the birds, which had damaged motorized vehicles all over the city. Rebecca considered it unlikely that this had attracted tropical birds.)

Of course, if the birds had not been attracted to the city by natural means, then there must have been an unnatural cause - that is, the intervention of humans. Rebecca considered the matter: who was damaged by the arrival of the birds? The hair-wear companies, of course. And who benefitted?

Why, the manufacturers of armoured tancs.

There had been two manufacturers dedicated to the production of tancs, armoured and non-, before the arrival of the birds in Shalva. There were twenty now. (Or more - the most recent records Rebecca could find were a week out of date.) It was clear that there had been a boom in the industry, and the original two manufacturers had profited quite handsomely indeed. So that was motive - but for Rebecca to be certain of guilt, she needed proof of means and opportunity as well. There was no sign of the former - for though she tried, Rebecca could find no trace of the long-range transport equipment that the importer of the birds would have needed. And as for opportunity, if anything, Rebecca found only negative evidence - for neither of the tanc companies operating before the arrival of the birds had increased production in anticipation of the sudden surge in popularity to come. One of them had actually decreased its orders to its supplier!

Certainly one or both of the tanc-manufacturing corporations might still be responsible - but were they so, they would have to be run by very clever criminals indeed. And Rebecca thought it might be best to look elsewhere, first; for hunting down a very clever criminal could take a great deal of time, especially if they did not, techincally, exist.

So where to look?

Rebecca decided to take a walk outside, to clear her mind.

This was promptly accomplished, as the moment she set foot outside the library in which she had been doing her research, a bird plummeted downwards and began viciously mauling her hair. Rebecca wasn't thinking about her research at all!

In fact, her line of thought - as she verbalized it - went something along the lines of, "Augh! A bird! A bird biting my head! Get it off, get it off, get it off!" She thrashed her head, she smacked at the creature with her arms - but it was too large! Too heavy! She could not dislodge it!

Thankfully, one of the passers-by was a kindly and resourceful soul - further, one possessed of a spare tanc. This passerby ran to Rebecca's aid, beating the bird back with her tanc, and offering Rebecca the tanc to use until she had "gotten her own".

"But why?" Rebecca asked, rubbing the back of her skull as best she could beneath her new, cumbersome headgear. "I thought they only attacked people who were wearing hats?"

"What? No," the anonymous Samitarian replied. "That's just the new birds. The native birds attack anyone who's not wearing something on their head. Why did you think hats are so popular here?"

Rebecca decided that Shalva was a very strange place.

But, rather forcibly diverted from her previous train of thought, she had an idea. She'd been investigating the tanc manufacturers - who would, of course, be the ones that benefited most directly from the attack of the hat-wearing birds. But what about their suppliers?

Their suppliers, which, as Rebecca discovered with mounting excitement, were all owned by a common holding company; which had a large, long-range transportation network, with little accountability; and which had increased production by a factor of four in the weeks just before the appearance of the birds, completely independent of any demand from their customers?

She had the culprits.

So she went back to the office; handed in her report; and went on to other projects. She still kept an eye on the situation in Shalva, being rather curious as to how matters would resolve themselves, and was not entirely surprised to hear that, a week after Rebecca had delivered her report, every last non-native bird vanished from the streets of Shalva; and, in quieter, less broadly distributed reports, that certain large corporations had their managements violently reshuffled.

And there was a lovely bonus tucked inside her paycheque-envelope when it came in the mail!

Looking back, Rebecca decided that it had been a very good day's work.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Aixeca els Murs

NOW, M. N. who was indeed very panicked, and sweating profusley, and in a great storm and fury, sent his valet to go up to the tower, and send a message to the tower-keeper, for whom to deliver to the womoan. And it was so done, and the womone réponded that she was in the secret corridor, across from the gargoyels, and he feared that she was hiding from him, out of an aversion, and he carefully ascénded the final flight of stares, and thys, she was there, and she greet him cordially.

THEREFORE, did they investigate the legs of the frogs, upon the tableau, where there were stacked many tomés, and many instruments of Opticks, and did they have many plaisant conversations, and they stopped breifley, in order to summon a pheasant to be killed, and dressed, and roasted in a wood-burning-oven, and they ate of it, and it was very tasteful.

AND, near the end of their meeting, came a gentleman, who could only be décribed as "Lanky and Effeminate", came unto the odd couple, and he touched him self in a most erotick manner, such to imply that he was a homosexuel, however, that not being the case, he was making a most convinçing argumente for the womoan to lie with him in a bed.

THEREFORE, was M. N. very displeas'd, however he kept to himself, and stimlilated the frog in silénce.

HOWEVER, his overall impression of the meeting remained positivé, and he indeed had high hopes for the futur, anticipaitng the return of the womane to his door-steppes upon several days at the moste, and he was tremendously excited.

BUT, the strange man, whom he had seen in the clock-tower, and who tried to woo the womoan, and whom he thought was naught but a small cocke, and whom he dissmissed of his mind thereupon, was determined, M. N. décided, to lie with the womoan, in a bed, or to isolate the possibilité of him self doing such that, for him being excludéd, and in a rutte of unfurtuné.

BECAUSE, he saw, the next day, the man him self, conversing in the womon, in a most suggestive and erotick manner, in the lecture halle, where they engaged in stimulation, and he became most enraged, and he could hardly keep his countenance, and he wept bittre tears, and he sought to take his life, however, he be a cowarde, and did not that.

Dos Mons

IN the towne of Pelloponise, with was 20 km out side of Gérale in the départment of Houtelé, a man who was name Kélséye, he was a purveyour of boucher-producte, like meats and fleisch. He was the son of Nékolés, who was also a pourveyor of boucher, and who was born in province of Sallame, in the wind-swept vallies in the Pleines of the southe, and who was adept with the forgereon, being a black smithe, and he understoud the principels of the magnetes, and the électricité.

THERE, one day, a resident of the towne of Boulouton, which was 5 km to the West, invited M. Kélséye to dîner, at his house, what M. K. did not know then was that the man in question, who was name Nékoulás, was, a homousexuel, and wished to engege in intercouse, not with M. K., för that would be inapropriate for his casuèl acquiaintence, but he did wish to engege in intecourse in front of him, to démonstrate his skils.

HOWEVER, M. K., being a Chrétièn, feared that would not meete the approvale of Jesús, so he did not come to accepte the invitación.

THEN, M. Nikoulos, who was from the Greek Îslends, became very ofended by the behaviour of M. K., and M. N. avowed to avenge him self, and he went to the Université to educate him self in the ways of the électricité, and he studied at Cambridge, under M. Nikoulesse, who was a professeur of Histoire, and Gouvermente, and he learned of the Currents, and the Voltaic Piles, and the vitreous électricité, and the resinous électriçité, and he was very safistied by this, but he was not satified sexuelley, so he went to do some thing about that.

THEREFORE, M. N. went to the laboratoire, and he conducted experiments upon the movementes of the frog-legges upon the electriçité, and he did not make much progrèss, and also, he was loneley in the night-time, and he wished to lie down with a womane, and thus, he went upon the lecture Halls, and he stood in one of the vestibules, and waited for some womones to passé.

AND, surely enough, after a peroid of time, a womane paçed, and he found her superficialy atractive, and thusly became enamoured of her immédiately, and he said that he need assistençe with his frog-legs experimente, for it was of great urgency that the frogs must be stimilated at regulaire intervals, and she said that she would, and he was excited, such that he had to couver the ligning of his pantalon, to prevent seepage of unseemley materials, and then he further suggested that they should discuss the matters in the tea room, so as to create an atmosphère of conviviality, and she agréed, and he was most pleased.

THEN, upon retourning to his apartemente which he rented upon the river, at Brattleboro, he found him self a lettre from the womane, and it said that they should meet in the Tea room in several days, or weekes, upon the ids of Marsch, but he was very concerned, so he wrote back, and expressed urgènçe, and became very worried, and she did répond eventually, and she said that she will be upon the Clock tower, and that he should go immédiately.

THEREUPON, he went, in a great storm and fury, through the rain, which fell like a rain drops from the Heavons, and he entered the clock tower, ascénded the 12 flights of steppes, and looked for the womane, but, alack, he crie, she was absént, and he panicked greatly.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The polyphonic

inspired by a bout of cholera

EDIT: Original lyrics:

(metal guitare)
danananananan n
uh uh uh uh uh uh u
uh uh uh uh
you know
let me tell you
uh uh uh
Let S be a set <> with a binary operation <> * . If e is an identity element <> of (S, * ) and a * b = e, then a is called a left inverse of b and b is called a right inverse of a. If an element x is both a left inverse and a right inverse of y, then x is called a two-sided inverse, or simply an inverse, of y. An element with a two-sided inverse in S is called invertible in S. An element with an inverse element only on one side is left invertible, resp. right invertible.
uh uh uh

the pasta and the fis


The wizard strides onto the stage, his long, silver beard flowing gently. In resounding, sonorous tones, he begins to speak...


At this stage we should really clarify a few points. Firstly, the person on stage -in real life, who I encountered to-night (yes! Another post about real-life! This is apparently a typical blog now! I am filled with sadness!) - did not have a long, silver beard. He had a little stubble-beard thing, and his hair was silver, but that's as far as it goes.

Secondly, his voice was neither resounding (except insofar as the sound system assisted it) nor especially sonorous. He spoke fairly well, but there was no shortage of "ums" or "ahs" - especially in the earlier portions of his talk - and he had a bit of a stutter to his speech at times. It essentially worked out.

And, most importantly, he was not, as such, a wizard.

But he was Vernor Vinge.

And that's much cooler.

(Pause for those who haven't heard of him to read his wikipedia entry. He had more stubble-beard-stuff in person than in that photo.)

So. 5:00 PM. April 23rd. Vernor Vinge to give a lecture at UCSD - Vernor Vinge, an author who has inspired and amazed me for years! I am very pleased by this. So, somewhat before 5 PM, I head over - I have no idea what sort of crowds to expect, so I want to get there a little bit early. I also bring a copy of one of Vinge's books, Rainbows End. It isn't my favourite, but it's the only one I have on campus, and it has the additional benefit of being set on and around UCSD. (In the future.)

But I digress. I arrive at the specific location; a fairly large, comfortable lecture hall/auditorium/thing. (I've had several classes in it, including one this quarter.) There are only a few people around, including Mr. Vinge himself. I meet a friend there, the dreaded Justin Huang; we sit down together in a pair of front-row seats. (Why not?) We discuss classes for a little while; time passes. People straggle in, including a few that I know; notably, three or four teachers show up, including two which I have for classes this quarter. It's a little odd. By the time Mr. Vinge's talk begins, there's something on the order of twenty people in the room, maybe a third of whom I know.

Later, pizza arrives, but I'm far too busy listening to Mr. Vinge talk to do anything about it.

It's roughly an hour-long talk. That's fascinating enough. And then there's a half-hour or so of questioning after. (It might be closer to forty-five minutes each, actually.) Subjects covered include:
- How to predict the future (with scenarios, not with trends)
- Why Moore's Law has spoiled technologists
- Why there is no such thing as "Good Enough Computing"
- Why the next generation of native Mandarin speakers will infuriate their parents
- Hint - really good OCR and text-to-speech
- Cell phones sans cell towers
-And a host of other things that I'm forgetting
And then in the questions - which had some really standard questions that Vinge must have been asked literally hundreds of times, and some really good ones - he covered things like:
- The singularity: quite likely in the next ten years
- Was the invention of fire a singularity? No.
- On writing - get a day job (and make writing a hobby)
- Video games - It's an entirely new art form - several of them
- Video games vs. silent film - skimming the surface of the technology
- The singularity again - probably after 2005, before 2030
- Intellectual property - mixed views, but legislation won't change reality
- unless you have a sufficiently prepared reality
- Favourite Philip K. Dick story - "Man in the High Castle"
- Augmented reality (with contact lenses) - still pretty far away
- AI, and moving the goal-posts
- The Turing Test is valid, but requires a larger scope to operate on
- "Will there ever be human-intelligent AI?" "Only very briefly." A new short story by Hugo-Award winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge, coming soon to a something near you!
- Suspension of disbelief as a "soft hack"
- They buy it to enjoy your story; so they accept it, to some degree, and it can shape them!
- unlike an essay
- "them" = "the very smart people who will be rich and powerful some day, but aren't yet

There was one professor in the back - I suspect I misheard, but I could swear that the dreadful Justin Huang said he was a geology professor? - who asked questions that fell rather into this category. Slightly annoying.

But it was completly splendid all the same, and - best of all - after the panel, I managed to ambush Mr. Vinge himself! Yammered at him for seven or eight minutes, maybe. Talked to him about "indie games", in the context of his earlier comments about silent films - specifically, Passage, my description of which made him burst into a grin, and Braid, which is harder to describe. (Or I just did a worse job of describing it.) Also: narrative approaches in video-games (traditional vs. emergent) and webcomics as a model for IP-free art. (He reads both xkcd and Dresden Codak! Holy crud! I really did not expect him to have heard of Dresden Codak.)

No photo, no book signed (it didn't really seem appropriate), and all the pizza was gone by the time I got there - but look. I got to talk to Vernor Vinge about webcomics and video games.

This was my best birthday ever.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can't Stand the Distance

"You'll never be able to stand the distance, old fogey!" the newcomer taunted. "Soon you'll be nothing but dust - and all your dreams with you!"

"I am stronger than you think," his opponent said creakily.

"Hah!" the newcomer laughed, tossing his sword in the air and catching it with his off-hand. "You really think you're a match for me? I'll smash you into powder and turn you into grout!"

"Try me."

The newcomer tossed his sword up into the air again, watching it spin lazily into the air; then, as it reached the apex of its arc, he charged forward, pulling his sword from the air behind him and into his foe in a tremendously flashy, tremendously powerful arc, an arc that could slice through flesh and shatter bone -

- and that ended, with a loud thunk, embedded in his foe; who seemed, oddly, quite undisturbed by all this.

"Huh?" the newcomer asked. He drew his sword back; and gasped, for only half of it remained in his hand. The rest stuck, jaggedly, from his foe, lodged too firmly for any amound of tugging or pulling to retrieve it.

"But how can this be?" the newcomer asked histrionically. "My technique - it's unstoppable!"

"Ho ho ho!" his opponent chuckled. "No-one can defeat me without finding my secret weak spots. And that's just impossible!"

With a thud, he brought his staff down; rotten eggs pelted down onto the newcomer, who fled towards the entrance of the cave, hands held over his head in an attempt to shield himself. "Yeah, that's right, you better run!" the Blockhead cried after him. "I am your better! None will ever defeat me! All shall pass!"

The Blockhead considered. "Wait, no. That's not right."

"Some shall pass?"

"Many shall pass?"

"Many shall pass..."


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kronikles of Dessmonsouseldorreielefeoriederneiminen

"'Old'-'skoule'" style

Little Nikolas: Epilog

Little Nikolas woke up the next day, bright and early. He smiled at the day, innocently, adjusted Samhadriel's seat (left somewhat too high by yesterday's repairs), and set off again. Within fifteen seconds, he heard a rather loud noise.

"Your back tire's got a flat," a helpful passerby informed little Nikolas.

Nikolas thanked her politely, then, wearily, began walking his bike once again to the bike shop.

The end.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Little Nikolas and his Bicycle Dilemma

Once upon a time, there was a teeny-tiny Nikolas. He was just a little creature - so young, so innocent! He was friend to man and beast alike, and cherished every gift he recieved dearly, but there was one thing he loved above all others: his bicycle, Samhadriel, swifter than the wind, stronger than the sun. It was his steed and companion in all matters; so naturally it distressed him to no end when he came to it one bright Saturn's-Day morning to find its front tire flattened, distended, punctured.

Little Nikolas was quite alarmed. He fetched his bicycle-pump immediately, so that he might re-inflate the tire; but the air all leaked out, and green goo oozed out along with it! This was even worse. Nikolas called out to all his friends, exclaiming the particulars of his woe to them; but all they could tell him was what he already knew to do. Go to the bike store, to get a new tire; an eventuality which would have to wait, for the bike shop was closed for the week-end.

The next two days were, for our poor Nikolas, bleak, cold, empty. Without bold Samhadriel at his side, Nikolas was perpetually lonely; tears flowed freely, on a regular basis. But at last he was free from classes, on a scorchingly hot Monday afternoon; he had a lab at 5 pm, but it was an hour and a half until then, so he had no concern on the matter. Achingly slowly, he walked Samhadriel to the bicycle shop, relentlessly oppressed by the powerful rays of the sun. The tire was removed; its replacement was emplaced, over a long ten minutes. (It seemed to be fighting the bicycle-shop-man, named Ian, fifth-year Lit major, by some - perhaps the green ooze was ectoplasm?) But then he receieved worse news.

"What?" I hear you cry. "Worse news? How could this be?" But it was indeed.

His rear wheel was out of true - and it would take until 5 to fix it!

Forlornly, Nikolas agreed to this. He idled, walking here and there, pondering the nature of remarkably short shorts (do they have a name?), purchasing pencils and pens. Then he returned, at five-to-four. The bike was there - but still under repair - for there was yet more!

"More?" you cry. "More?" Yes. More.

The reason the wheel had gone out of true, you see, is because one of the spokes had been damaged - nay - destroyed! So that of course needed replacement. (This had been accomplished.) But the reason that the spoke had been damaged, in all likelihood, was because the rack on the rear of the Nikolas's bike was rubbing against the wheel - dreadful thought! - quite possibly because of the asymmetric weight of the basket attached to the rack which, by the way, had rusted nearly solid, owing to its out-doors confinement.

Oh, woe to poor Samhadriel! Woe!

Repairs were swiftly made - little Nikolas paid the bill, half-emptying his little wallet - to think, $30, from a trip to fix a flat tire! - and sped off, racing to his laboratorium. He was late, of course, but the lab was late as well - it being for a class that was rather poorly organized. And his rack sat in the bicycle shop, abandoned; for, of course, the only way for little Nikolas to transport an object as large as the rack would be on the rack itself.

Weep for Nikolas!

So dark are his sorrows, all else must pale before them.

(But at least Samhadriel is all right in the end.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Curse of the Malarothe

Deep within its concrete tomb, the Malarothe sings.


The year was 1963. Upon the campus of Dartmouth, New Hampshire, many peculiar sights might be seen; some real, and more possessing somewhat of a hallucinatory nature, caused by the high quantity of substance consumption that characterized the era. But whatever you might see there was nothing compared to the tales that were told; tales of what lurked beneath, in a vast labyrinth of tunnels and ancient ruins dating to before Cristofer Colombo first sucked his mother's teat. There were monsters there, stories told; part of a Great Catastrophe unleashed by the indigenous peoples of the region, who had dared too much and gone too far. By the tales, they contained it in the end (after a hundred years of terrible battle!), but were left terribly vulnerable to the advent of the Europeans; their tribe vanished from the Earth, and the better part of their secrets went with them. But adventurers dared the place, now and again, across the centuries in which it was known to them: for it was said that the Malarothe lurked at the bottom of that place, and to reach him would be a prize beyond price.

(For, as all men know, the Malarothe grants a wish to any that come before it, wheresoever as they might be; though very few indeed are known to have succeeded.)

So many adventurers had gone into the tomb of the Malarothe; and one young man, lifted high upon the hallucinogens which he did so love, felt the need to follow suit. He snuck into the well-guarded entrance in the black of night; broke the five seals with the crowbar he kept upon his person. And then, flashlight in hand, he descended.

The horrors he beheld were far beyond what he had been told to expect. Rooms made all of flesh, pulsing and oozing unnatural substances; strange corridors in which one might see oneself to every side, but possessing a variety of strange new appendages, and staring back with a hungry look; worms larger than horses, with teeth like knives, which dined on the corpses of men (with, of course, knives like teeth). And worst of all were the things that had once been men - had ventured in there, like our brave student, to seek out the Malarothe - and had been consumed, and turned into yet another Thing to populate that dank and noxious place. The student tried not to look at them too closely.

The concrete tomb of the Malarothe was a vile and hostile place; not for nothing had it killed so many in the past! But our student overcame all obstacles; some he passed through by means of his swifter wit, and others by his swifter feet. The things he saw there would haunt him to his grave; but he passed through them all, shivering and afraid, and arrived at the Malarothe at last.

There he stood, the place a thousand men or more had tried to reach, in vain: the sanctum of the Malarothe, a cavernous space, its bounds beyond vision, lit dimly and only by the blue glow from the vast crystalline pillar that was the Malarothe itself. The student humbled himself before it; then, arms outstretched, he made at last his wish. This is what he said:

"I wanna get laid."

(For he was, in the end, a college student.)

For a heartbeat, the only noise in that tremendous space was the faint, haunting, alien song of the Malarothe itself. Then a terrible thunder arose, shaking the foundations of the world. Ten thousand alien visions flashed before the student's eyes, and then space twisted; and when he awoke, he found himself again upon the surface, lying with crowbar at his side before the five unbroken seals upon the entrance to the Malarothe's tomb.

But this, then, is what they call the Curse of the Malarothe; that in that place, and for a hundred miles in any direction, no man nor woman should have sex - nor perform any other action! - save that they be possessed of, nay, possesssed by, a significant quantity of alcohol. For that is the truth of the people of that place, that they name Dartmouth; so it was, and so it remains, to this day.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Great Expedition, Pt. 3 of 3.

(Continued From.)

Vishnu, Nathan, and Jordan decided to make the climb back up the steep, difficult trail... in the dark (for night had fallen by this time). The rest of us went up the road. (Asphalt-paved, roughly wide enough for one car; the only other traffic we saw was a lone jogger, all in black except for his white sneakers.) The last we saw of Jordan was his silhouette, reappeared at the cliff base (he had begun the climb, then apparently doubled back?), shouting something we could not hear from some distance along the road. Eventually, he went up the trail once more. Kailyn remained in custody of his pants. (Vishnu was paying him $5 to make the climb in nothing more than his boxers - except that he was wearing his sweatshirt - and it may have been $4. There was some element of uncertainty present.) We climbed.

A certain element of discussion occured on the climb up. The difference between Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper caused brief concern; Roheet expressed envy, once more, of the enormous mansion above and to our left. Schemes for entry were plotted. Rivalry between "SoCal" and "NorCal" briefly flared; the merits of deserts were discussed. (Slim.) The path curved; we were alarmed when it seemed to be curving directly up to the mansion, but it thankfully turned away; not too long after that, we arrived at a street. And had no idea where we were.

Shoes were put on; calls were placed. Eddie and Rachel, left behind at the top of the cliff (had you forgotten about them?) (with Nathan and Jordan's bikes, along with other miscellaneous posessions - Abhinay had long since vanished, for personal reasons not to be further discussed here), had seen nothing of Jordan's party. We walked in what we believed to the general direction of the Cliffs; a gate was spotted, which half our party swore up and down was certainly one they had passed before, the LDS church... only to rescind this upon drawing sufficiently near. Thankfully, not too far past this was actually the LDS compound; we elected to rest there.

The Light of Deceit; shone above the Gate of Deceit. Such a dreadful thing!

Talking. More calls placed; cars pass, including one in and one out of the LDS compound. Jordan's party, reportedly, finally arrives. We wait. Wait. They're spotted coming; an ambush is plotted. It is remarkably ineffective. (I shout "Boo", which is what they describe as 'weaksauce', in the trade. Blame it on improvisation.) iPhone jailbraking discussed, as well as the merits of VOIP. Eddie mocks us for not jaywalking across a four-lane street. (It's a very wide four-lane street, and we're unenthusiastic about the notion.) We enter campus once again; Jordan attempts to cause Vishnu to flinch, and fails. Games involving vicious attacks to the male genitals are discussed. (This comes from the girls, mind you.)

We arrive at the dining hall - never seen it from that angle before - wash our hands, look at a big map, climb up and go inside.

Ocean View Terrace, viewed from an unusual angle. Bathrooms and a large map are on the second floor, along with a skilled pianist (!); the dining hall itself is on the third floor.

I select a muffin (apple) and orange juice; Jordan, Nathan, and Roheet (?) get Gatorade. We sit down outside, lacking a table inside large enough for all of us; I eat most of the muffin; loud rap music playing is discussed. A friend is encountered; leather jacket, hair; the Fonz. (Mockery, mockery, mockery.)

They call him The Fonz. (On the right. Jordan is on the left.)

A kiwi is repeatedly mistaken for an avacado. Chinese food is poorly prepared; Gatorade improves it. The girls' pasta finally arrives. (We decide that they delayed it with black witchcraft.) Talk. At this stage, I am falling asleep.

And a note, an interjection from a future self: recall, here, that Jordan had been awake for 37+ hours, working on a Physics lab, at the start of this expedition. He had since biked to The Cliffs, climbed down, run around on the beach, climbed up again, biked back from The Cliffs... and, if anything, he was the most energetic of any of us.

Quite obviously, he is an android, cleverly disguised in a thin layer of human flesh. How foolish of me to have been fooled for so long! (Especially with the whole immunity-to-hypothermia thing.)

And now, back to the end of past-self's narration:

Then we walk back; the misfortunes of drunken friends are discussed; and I let myself back in, while the others attempt a more bizarre, obtuse means of entry. It may have been suited to the spirit of the night; but for me, the night is over.

(Did you like how all the plotlines from the dream were neatly wrapped up? So clever! Almost as though I was working... backwards in time.)


The Great Expedition, Pt. 2 of 3.

(Continuing from here.)

A wide, scrub-covered expanse.

The path descended...

Jordan and Nathan...


Caught up...

And just minutes after we arrived...

The sun set.

But the story does not end there. First Vishnu, then other members of our party began to descend; "There's a path!"

Vishnu discovers a 'cave', which he terms his 'hobbit-hole'. Pipe-weed is discussed.

Five feet above us.

Another 'cave'; to which, it should be noted, I thoroughly beat Vishnu in a race to.

He enjoyed its luxuries for a time all the same, in company with Nathan.

But as we enjoyed the luxuries of 'caving', Jordan (against Kailyn's cautions) went further. Rather a bit further.

He sat there for a little while, then climbed back up. I decided that this could not stand; I would go so far as he had, and then at least one inch further. Others followed me.

Jordan was the first to follow me; Rashmi followed him. There was some concern expressed over the threat of 1) slipping and 2) falling. (This was rather a constant threat; the path was extremely steep.) Jordan offered some element of comfort: "If you fall, I'll catch you! If I don't, I guess Nick will..." In some cultures, his helpfulness is a thing of legend...

We stopped after the descent, to admire the view.

We had come some distance down the cliff face!

Rashmi met me at Jordan's stopping point (which I had, in fact, overpassed by an inch); Jordan followed shortly after. "We should climb down all the way to the beach, someday," Rashmi mused.

"Why not tonight?" Jordan asked.

It was a plan.

I was the first to descend, though after a short while, Nathan caught up and passed me. The two of us stayed close together for the rest of the descent, chatting as we half-climbed, half-skidded down the ludicrously steep trail. Time passed; the light grew dimmer; the trail grew narrower. The effects of peer pressure are discussed; I assign all blame to Nathan, perhaps somewhat unfairly. We have long since lost sight of the others; very occasionally, we hear their voices.

But, after the long, long climb - growing ever darker as the last light leaves the sky - we make it to the bottom. To my surprise, I see not just Rashmi and Jordan behind us, but Vishnu, Rohit, Kailyn, and Sindhu as well. From the paved road that the trail exits onto, we climb down to the beach - we could have taken the road, but it seemed a bit of a cop-out after that long a climb. Nathan, Jordan, and perhaps Vishnu (?) climbed down the side; the rest of us, I first and foremost, climbed down the side of the cliff, where amply-heaped boulders provided an easier path than the sixty-degree, scrub-covered slope straight down from the road. The rocks crumbled oddly underfoot; looking solid, but softer than topsoil.

The beach. I must apologize for the quality of the shot; my beloved iPhone is not much for high-quality photography at the best of times, and in low-light video... it grows rather worse.

A Sign, just below the cliffs we just descended. I suggested a group photo; sadly, no such thing occured.

The others took their shoes off; I opted not to, not relishing the thought of the climb back up with sand covering my feet. (Most of the others ended up making the climb barefoot, possibly for this reason?) Jordan offered to skinny-dip for $5; I offered $5 for him not to; Nathan offered $6 for him to do it anyway. Thankfully, he left his boxers on. There was a brief chase of Vishnu along the beach, for no particular reason that I or Roheet knew; then we discussed the climb back up.

(Again, to be continued.)

The Great Expedition, Pt. 1 of 3.

(Continuing from here.)

The call was a call to action - the time of departure was sooner than we had thought. Cookies were put away; burritoes were tossed in the compost. All three of us made haste to the dining hall, where the other participants in the trip were waiting in the hall...

Well... with the notable exception of Vishnu, who was in the shower.

A quick roll call of those present in the hall, while we wait. (For the benefit of the readers.) From the girls' suite, in no particular order: Rashmi, Rachel, Sindhu, and Kailyn. From the boys' suite: Nathan and Rohit (my dinner companions), Jordan, and myself. (Jordan, notably, had been awake for at least 37 hours straight by this time; possibly longer. Keep this in mind for later.) Also present was special guest Eddie.

Still not present, of course, was Vishnu. ("Don't forget your pants!" one of the girls helpfully reminded him. "Right, my pants!" came the reply.) I took the opportunity to inquire of Nathan as to what, exactly, we were going to do during this trip. I was informed that we were going to see the sunset, at a place enigmatically known as "The Cliffs". Few more details were forthcoming.

Vishnu at last arrived, triumphantly adorned with pants; Abhinay, our last fellow-traveller, followed shortly behind him, having concluded a game of video-game soccer. ("Why weren't we yelling at you, again?" one of the girls inquired.) Events conspired now to delay Nathan and Jordan, who promised to catch up to us; the rest of us set out, at roughly 6:55 PM. (10 minutes later than we had intended.) Sunset, Rachel told me, was at 7:21. There was an element of time pressure present.

There was some element of walking present at this stage. Down a small hill; up a larger one; then downwards again. Out of the campus and into the La Jolla suburbs, at which point I started taking pictures; I may have been slightly bored. Here is a tiny sampling.

A gated compound of some kind. I'm fond of the image.

College dorm building; this became the subject of a heated argument later on. (I remained neutral.)

"McMansion". The area through which we were walking possessed... ah... high property values. Many signs for security companies, one actual security car. (We waved as we passed.) Envy was expressed of this one, specifically.

The path by the LDS institute, bizarrely, provided an excellent shortcut.

Not too long after the shortcut, we arrived at the entrance to the Cliffs; the end of houses, and the beginning of...

(to be continued; so many photos!)

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Great Expedition

My dreams are strange tonight, vivid. I see -
A muffin - apple - I eat them regularly, nearly every morning. But it's night; and I'm gripping it tightly, almost with anger. (Why anger?) A whisper: "The tighter you hold..."
And now I'm holding rock, yellow-red-orange. My balance shifts, and I grip the rock for stability; but it crumbles in my hand, leaving nothing but a layer of thick dust on my hand.
I can see myself, now; I'm on a narrow trail along a tall cliff face, a very long way from the top and the bottom both. I inch my way downwards; accidentally, I kick a rock, sending it flying downwards in a spray of dust. It lands, so far below, before a triangular sign: "Unstable Cliffs: STAY BACK!"
I look outwards, away from the cliff face. The sun has already set; no more than a tiny part of its light remains to show me the vast expanse of water stretching outwards and away. (The ocean?) The light dims, faster and faster; everything becomes pitch black. Then a light appears. I walk towards it, knowing somehow that it is the way back from whatever strange place I have found myself in; but I arrive, and there is nothing there but further darkness. I look up, into the light; it is so bright as to blind me...

And when my eyesight returns, I am in the dining hall near my dorm, eating dinner at the end of a long and tiring day. Two friends join me at the table; we talk. They mention that they are going to "The Cliffs" after dinner; "You want to join us?" they ask. Impulsively, I agree.

Minutes later, one of my dinner-companions recieves a call...

(To be continued tomorrow morning, when I can keep my eyes open. Preview pictures:

EDIT: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (11/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.)

Two days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

The sun rose across the river, casting a golden light across its waters. Mechanisms climbed to the tops of the three Cities and together hauled upon great winches, retracting the bronze shutters that held in the light over the preceding night. That accomplished, they descended; already, other mechanisms had spilled out into the open areas of the Origin compound, ready (to greater or lesser degree) to perform the day's tasks.

The Council met on the grassy ridge near the river. A series of petitioners approached them; their concerns were met, or dismissed, with more than usual haste. Then they came to the matter of the Unbounded.

Seven presided this morning. "Eight," it prompted. "Your report on armaments."

"As you know, as of two days ago, we had no dedicated weapons," Eight began. "When I heard that the Unbounded were returning, I immediately began shifting resources towards two purposes: discovering which of our current material might be used as weapons, and inventing new, purpose-built weapons for construction. The Council formally agreed on that course of action yesterday. So."

"Right now, we don't have much. The ornithopters should be useful for reconaissance, and perhaps to force down Unbounded ornithopters, as we've been using them, but they're useless for air-to-ground combat. We might be able to modify them, but that will take time. The work-frames may be useful for close combat - there are a number of modifications that would be useful before they were put to the purpose, but anything we have larger than two feet high could, if needed, effectively fight the Unbounded. Aside from that, the only useful tool we have is the prototype portable welding device at the forges. It's unreliable at present, but with work, it could serve as a weapon."

"As for new weapons; we have a lot of ideas, but it's only been two days. We have nothing yet."

"Duly noted," Seven said.

"I move that half our manufacturing resources should be put toward the modification of our work-frames for combat use, and the manufacture of new ones dedicated to the purpose," Five said.

The motion passed unanimously.

"Next order of business," Seven said. "Reports from the scouts."

Forty-Three spoke. "All but one of the survey expeditions have returned. I've sent them out to recon immediately, with only a half-hour servicing for their ornithopters between. And better - the first of our recon teams - One-Fifty-Seven's, which I sent south as soon as I heard of the Unbounded's return - has gotten back. They found the southern Unbounded; nearly four-thousand in number, at an estimate, though it's hard to count them through the treecover. One-Fifty-Seven stayed behind to watch them and coordinate with future recon flights. No report from the north, but hopefully we'll have that group spotted by tomorrow."

"Did One-Fifty-Seven's team see any Unbounded ornithopters?" Four asked.

"Yes - only a few," Forty-Three said. "It's not clear if they spotted our ornithopters, though; they showed no sign of noticing us. Perhaps ours were flying too high?"

"We'll need to do more than watch them," Four said forcefully. "If we allow their ornithopters to fly, they'll have too many advantages - the ability to see any attack coming, the ability to harass our own ornithopters, the ability to communicate between the two parts of their force. We must hound them to the ground and utterly destroy them."

"It's a risk to the pilots - " Forty-Three said, worried.

"It's worth it," Four replied. "Those in favor?"

The vote passed, with Forty-Three abstaining.

"We have to attack soon," Four said. "There's only so much time until the enemy arrives, and we must attack the two groups separately - otherwise, we'll be overwhelmed by their numbers. The attack should hit after their ornithopters have been destroyed or grounded, so that we can achieve surprise; and we have to assemble a sufficient number of combat-modified working-frames before we attacks. Besides that, we must strike as soon as possible, so that our returning force has time to repair and rearm itself before the other group arrives. Since we have spotted the southern group first, it seems reasonable that our first strike should be directed towards them. Forty-Three - how long until their ornithopters can be destroyed?"

Forty-Three seemed surprised by this sudden speech, sounding rather more prepared and informed than was the norm for Four. Most of the rest of the Council looked similarly surprised - with the exception of Ten, who looked almost as though it had heard this before. Still, recovering, Forty-Three thought for a moment, and then attempted to answer Four's question. "It's hard to say for certain - it depends if the ornithopters One-Fifty-Seven's group spotted was all there were, and when we next get ornithopters back," it began.

"We can build more ornithopters," Four interrupted. "Disregard that."

"In that case," Forty-Three continued, "I think we could have their air destroyed within... no more than five days."

"Then we will attack on the sixth day," Four replied. "Eight - how soon can we modify our working-frames to combat status?"

"We won't want to modify all of them," Eight said. "We'll still need some for wood-cutting and mining until the day of the battle itself."

"All right, then," Four said impatiently. "How long until we can have enough combat-ready frames for a one-hundred mechanism force?"

Eight calculated. "Assuming an average of three mechanisms per frame... we'll need to build some new frames for the purpose, and have to cut a corner or two... but we can have it done by nightfall the day after tomorrow."

"Too slow," Four said curtly. "What if we give you eighty percent of our manufacturing capacity?"

Eight ran the numbers again. "Nightfall tomorrow," it replied.

"Very well," Four said. "The force will move out at nightfall tomorrow, in time for an attack in six days. We'll strike at dusk, to allow for an element of surprise and increase the confusion - though it's too much to hope that the Unbounded didn't learn from our attack on their camp, before their Exile. They'll need a leader, locally, as it'll be too far for the Council to command them directly. Ten will serve for the purpose."

"Wait," Two said. "We are assuming too much. Think - you are proposing a full-scale mobilization of all our resources, a surprise attack with everything we have, against an enemy we do not even know is truly attacking us. Our source could not be less reliable - a badly damaged mechanism, of shoddy construction to begin with, willing to tell us anything in exchange for its survival - anything, including a lie! We cannot attack the Unbounded without first speaking with them - confirming, for a certainty, that their movements actually signal an attack."

"Confirming?" Four spat. "Are you insane? There is nothing else such aggression could signal - we might have doubted before the reconnaissance flight spotted them, but not after! The Unbounded are a menace to the Creation. We have no choice but to attack - and attack with every advantage we can gain, including surprise!"

"We could send an ornithopter to speak with them," Two insisted. "That would cost us nothing -"

"Except one mechanism," Four corrected. "Except one ornithopter. Except time - most precious of all. Though I am surprised that you, of all of us, would consider the first of those 'nothing'."

"That is not what I meant," Two replied desperately. "You do not know that the Unbounded are attacking. This emissary might be all that's needed to prevent a genocidal war - "

"I know," Four said, iron in its voice. "I know. I am absolutely certain of this - as certain as I have ever been, as certain as I am in every thing I say - as certain as I am of the Creation itself! I am certain that their will be war, and I am certain that we - the true, the faithful, the righteous - will triumph in that war. And - that's what you're really uncertain of, isn't it?" Four asked, a strange tone in its voice.

Two made no reply.

"You think we're doomed," Four said. "You think we've already lost - that the mere weight of numbers will be enough to destroy us. You have no confidence! And so you seek excuses - excuses to remove yourself from responsibility, to isolate yourself from the evidence from the doom coming upon you!"

Two made no reply.

"Very well, then," Four said. "You may remove yourself. You may hide your head in the ground as you hear the sky falling from above you. And one day, you will look up, and you will see that the sky is still there - as it shall be! And you will see that we have triumphed - as! it! shall! BE! THAT IS OUR DESTINY! THAT IS OUR FATE! Whether or not you are here to see it!"

Two was still for a moment. Then, slowly, without speaking a word, it turned and left.

"You misjudge it," Forty-Three whispered.

"Any further business?" Four asked Seven, its voice calm and level.

Seven, mutely, indicated a negative.

"Very well, then," Four said. "This council is adjourned."

Six days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

Noon. The council assembled once more upon the grassy ridge, their sixth daily meeting since the discovery of the plans of the Unbound. Two was not present; nor was Ten. Routine affairs were addressed briefly; then the matter of the Unbounded was broached.

"Reports in from south and north," Forty-Three began. "The last of the southern Unbounded ornithopters have been destroyed, ahead of our estimates. If any remain, they remain below the treeline or far away - in either case, unable to spot our ground forces before the attack. The skies are ours."

"Is Ten's force still on schedule?" Four asked.

"It is," Forty-Three confirmed. "Two days."

"We will expect the report the day after," Four said. "Continue."

"Good news from the north as well," Forty-Three noted. "We've finally found the northern Unbounded force - they weren't following the river, as we expected, but have been instead cutting a more direct route cross-country; we think they're navigating by using the mountains behind them as landmarks. That's a pretty inaccurate method, though, and they're weaving back and forth from the straight-line route to Origin; the total time comes out to about the same time it would've taken for them to follow the river. The only advantage is that it's taken us much longer to find them."

"How long will it take you to destroy their ornithopters?" Four asked.

"We're more experienced now, and the sharpened wing-edges Eight's team created should give us a big advantage," Forty-Three said. "We should be able to destroy their air capabilities within three days."

"Excellent," Four said. "Any other news?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Forty-Three said.

"Unfortunately?" Five asked.

"We've taken our first loss in combat," Forty-Three said unhappily. "One-Twenty-Six. It was an attempt to force down one of the Unbounded ornithopters - the pilot was pretty damn feisty, and was pulling all kinds of tricks as One-Twenty-Six's team hounded it. They got within inches of the ground, and then... they flew into the body of the Unbound force. From the reports from One-Twenty-Seven and One-Twenty-Eight, their original was literally torn apart, gear by gear."

"Did you get the ornithopter?" Four asked.

Forty-Three glared, but still answered. "I told you," it said. "No southern ornithopters still fly,"

"Good," Four said. "We'll schedule the funeral and construction of One-Twenty-Seven's new backup for tomorrow, then. You can ground it until then - and One-Twenty-Eight, too. Now that we've destroyed the southern Unbounded ornithopters."

Forty-Three did not seem happy - but it was Eight who responded. "On that note, I'd like to bring up our policy of backup-creation once more," it said. "The enemy - as I have said time and time again - outnumbers us thirty-two to one, at least. Very possibly so much as forty to one. Ornithopters and working-frames function servicably as a force-multiplier - I estimate that each crew-member on one of our most recent war-frames is worth twenty of the enemy. And clever tactics can help somewhat beyond that. But, while we strive to improve the tools available to us, there is a limit to how much any one mechanism can do - our combat-frames could be far more effective if we just had more mechanisms available! I must suggest again that we raise our mechanism-manufacture beyond the replacement rate."

Four had waited patiently, as though it had heard this all before. (It had.) Now, with only a hint of repressed anger, it replied, "No."

"Very well, then," Eight said. "Let us vote."

As it had each time before, the measure failed, four to three.

"Do you have anything else to contribute, Eight?" Four asked.

"As a matter of fact, I do," Eight said calmly. "Observe." It produced a large, rectangular box - four times its own size.

"What is that?" Seven asked. "A weapon?"

"Exactly," Eight said. "My assistants should be - ah, there they are. Would you please hold that piece of wood there, five feet away?" he asked. "Yes. Note its thickness, if you would - fully eight feet deep, and of one of our stronger types of wood."

"Now, observe. I pick up this pebble, here, and load it into the front of the weapon. Then I wind the crank on the side - this takes some effort - adjust this knob, here, and pull back these three slides - aim - we're planning to put a range-guide on the top for the production models - and fire -"

There was a sharp noise, and a small hole appeared in the center of the piece of wood. The pebble was nowhere to be seen.

"The weapon is somewhat less effective at longer ranges, and would be unable to pierce an equivalent thickness of metal," Eight said to its stunned audience. "We estimate, however, that it would be enough to pierce a mechanism's shell and do crippling damage to the internals at up to fifty yards away. This model is obviously not ready for mass manufacture - it is far too slow, too cumbersome, and has an unfortunate reliability defect which we were lucky not to see during this presentation. But we've already made great bounds in design and production, and think it should be ready for production in eight days."

"...yes," Four said slowly. "All right. Eight days. Is there any other business? No?"

"This council is adjourned."

Nine days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

Evening, on the grassy ridge. Emergency Council meeting.

"All right, then," Four said. "You said your ornithopters were back with news of the battle - late, mind you, to the detriment of our schedule. Nonetheless. Tell us at once what happened in the battle."

Forty-Three spoke slowly. "I've spent the last half-hour in a rush, trying to break down everything the pilots had to say into one coherent story, so you'll forgive me if I'm less than composed," it said. "But here's the short of it."

"The good news: We still have an army."

"The bad news: Half of it is gone."

"That's tragic - but could be worth it," Four said. "Tell us - did we win? Did we win?"

"The best estimates I could get said that we destroyed twenty of them for every mechanism we lost," Forty-Three said. "The destruction was immense."

Four looked ecstatic; Eight, on the other hand, was shocked. "Only twenty to one?" it asked. "With the advantage of surprise, and the war-frames...?"

"Yes," Forty-Three said. "At this moment, fully one-fifth of our entire population has been destroyed in that battle - and less than an eighth of theirs. If this is a war of attrition, it is one that we will lose."

"One-eighth?" Four asked. "So - we didn't stop the southern force, then."

"No," Forty-Three said. "We hurt them. We hurt them badly. But they are still coming. And our remaining force is in no shape to fight them. They're in full retreat."

"What happened?" Five asked, appalled.

"I'll tell it, as best I can," Forty-Three said.

"The attack began at dusk, per the plan. We achieved complete tactical suprise - the enemy never saw us coming. We destroyed over a hundred of the enemy before they even started fighting back; a thousand by the time they'd managed to wreck just one of our war-frames, killing the five on it. By that time, they were panicking, fleeing - they were trying to preserve their own existences! They were afraid to be destroyed! And they ran straight into their own ranks, which were pushing the other way, trying to fight us. It was utter chaos. There was no sign of any kind of organization on their part. Ten pushed hard - if it could send them all into flight, then it could pick them off at its leisure, finishing the job overnight."

"But they didn't break. The ones that were fleeing were destroyed, and the rest swarmed forward and around and fought. Our losses mounted, and Ten took too long to disengage. By the time it was over, half our war-frames were gone, wrecked on the field of battle."

"And - Ten," Four asked. "Where is Ten? What does it have to say about all this?"

"It was Ten's destruction that finally signalled the retreat," Forty-Three said gently.

Four was silent, motionless, for a very long time. No other voice rose to fill the gap. Then it spoke again.

"Very well," Four said, voice choked. "Ten's destruction is - a tragedy - but no worse than any of the other losses we have suffered today, despite the value it proved in this Council. It was truer to me than any other... we will find its backup, once this emergency is over, and elevate it to the Council. But there are actions we must take to counteract this - limited victory. We must accelerate the development of the spring-guns - those must be put into production as soon as possible. We must begin the creation of weaponized ornithopters, for use in air-to-ground combat; they will be able to harry the survivors of the southern Unbounded, and assist in larger combats. We must establish a formalized chain of command, to prevent the - consequences - of Ten's destruction from reoccuring. We must - "

"We must fight the battle here," Five said softly. "The next battle. The last battle. The final battle. There is no more time to build up forces, attack with clever plans. We must face them here. All of them. One battle to end it all."

Four was slow to respond; but it did. "Yes," it agreed regretfully. "We must. Our defenses must be strengthened - traps must be laid - we will plan further for that soon. But - you will excuse me - I must -"

Four fled.

"Council is adjourned," Forty-Three said, as night fell; and, with the rest, returned to the Cities of Bronze and Glass, to plan for what time they might.

Twelve days after the construction of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

Inside the Cities of Bronze and Glass, the fires burn high, channeled out through vents manufactured for the purpose. The forges are put not to manufacturing new war-frames or ornithopters, but repurposing the bodies of those destroyed in the Great Defeat; as is the custom of the mechanisms, the remains of the old are used as raw materials for the construction of the new. Their backups operate the forges, their hands shaking as they hammer the metal of their originals into new form. Certainly it is less efficient than simply using new metal; it took the ornithopters days to gather up all the bodies of those who had fallen. But it is remembrance, of a sort.

Forty-Three, though not having lost anyone in the battles, watches the mass funeral. It is surprised to hear a familiar voice from beside it. "To think, that the Unbounded - who lost twenty times this number - left all their own upon the field."

"Perhaps there was too much loss for them to bear," Forty-Three suggested. "Or perhaps they plan to return, after the Battle to Come."

"Or perhaps they simply care for no life but their own," Two replied.

"So you are planning to fight in the battle?" Forty-Three asked.

"I have never planned otherwise - only wished," Two said. "I have put certain contingencies into effect... Yes, I will be there, on the field of decision. Though it pains me to take a life, the Unbounded have no such scruples - and I, too, still wish to see the Creation."

"Do you think we will win?" Forty-Three asked.

Two was silent, watching one mourner finish its task, another take its place at the forge. Then, belatedly, it replied.

"Eight has been busy - and Five, and all of their teams," Two said. "The weapons available to us - the spring-gun, the fire-bomb, the welding-sword - are many times superior to what the enemy has at their disposal, which amounts to simply their own bare manipulators. We have the advantage of leadership, of terrain, and of unconcern for our own existences. These all tip the odds in our favour."

"But is it enough?" Forty-Three asked once more.

Two looked at it sadly. "My friend," it said, "My closest companion. I know no more than you in this. I can tell you nothing that you do not already know; I can offer you no reassurance. I am sorry. But I do not know if we can win this battle."

"Four is certain that we will," Forty-Three said absently, looking to the west.

"Four has the strength of pure iron," Two said. "The rigidity. And, if pushed too hard, the brittleness."

"Well," Forty-Three said, suddenly seeming more attentive, "One-Twenty-Seven's team should have finished their prelaunch prep - I need to go talk to them. I'll see you later."

Two watched Forty-Three walk away.

"Strange," it whispered, "That it trusts me so absolutely in so many ways, and yet keeps its secrets so very assiduously from me..."

Fifteen days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.


The Unbounded arrive.