Category Archives: Short Fiction

Thoughts on Introductory Game Fiction vs game Tie-In Fiction

You can set the tone for an RPG, from an entire game system to a single adventure, with bits of short fiction. The purpose of this fiction isn’t really the same as fiction that exists only for its own sake. You need to introduce a world and show some of the ways it can be used, as much as entertain with prose.

That’s subtle different from game tie-in fiction. God tie-in fiction does work entirely on its own, and may even take liberties with what game rules could handle in order to present a story set in the same world as a game. It’s a balancing act, but the best tie-in fiction tends to be a good story first, and a faithful representation of a game later. (And this is fair – lots of games made as tie-in to fiction are imperfect representations of those fictional worlds. When you change the format, you accept some alteration in the details.)

For example, I’ve been experimenting with what fiction set in the Really Wild West would look like. I’ve done short introduction fiction for some of the RWW pieces, but am thinking I might take a different approach if I wanted to do my own tie-in fiction.

I haven’t had time to write a complete Really Wild West long-form story, but I have written the first scene of one.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RUSTY

The air was dense with smoke and ash, burning Skaff’s throat as he sucked desperately through the bandanna held to his mouth. His eyes watered but he dared not shut them,  glaring deep into the smoke as he ran. The clouds of thick gray ash and cinders were painful, burning his cheeks and hands, but it was infinitely preferable to the oily black vapor that would surely be crawling through the town’s streets by now. Choking, even burning, was a less fearful fate than the horrors he had seen visited on those who had been exposed even briefly to the black gas.

A loud roar, part steam horn and part animal howl, bellowed through town. Even over the screaming of panicked citizens he could not see through the conflagration, the roar was clear and chilling. He felt the need to run from that sound as quickly as possible, but it seemed to come from all directions at once. As its echoes faded, a similar sound rang in the distance. He was unsure how far away the source of the more remote roar could be—a mile?—less?—but he knew it was not far enough. The distant roar seemed to come primarily from the east and so he turned west, the direction only discernible because the low setting sun made one section of smoke glow more than the rest.

A woman crashed into him, running in blind panic, and clawed at his coat. She was tall and thin, with the fine features and sharp ears of an elf, but her face showed none of the serenity Skaff associated with the European clade. Before he could react to her at all, though he knew not if he hoped to aid the woman or shove her away, the elven interloper cried out and dashed out of sight into the smoke. She left a wet sensation on Skaff’s shirt, which he briefly hoped was water, perhaps a result of the woman trying to protect herself from the flames. But the strong smell of iron, wafting up even through smoke and bandana, told him the truth. He was covered in another person’s blood, soaked through her clothing to thoroughly that one impact had splashed it on him. It was a sure sign black gas was nearby. That woman, though running, was already dead. She just had the worst parts of experiencing her end yet to come.

Skaff tried to angle his retreat to move both westward, and away from the direction he thought the unfortunate blood-cover woman had come from. He could no longer see clearly from his left eye, and the stinging in his right forced him to close it even as he desperately fought to keep looking for deadly vapors. Shapes in the ash were vague, and he could only guess at their clades. A human, one of the insectile chivvin, the jerky motions of an automaton. A figure that was a centaur, or a mounted rider, thundered past. Suddenly, in a flash of crimson light and wave of heat, the horselike figure burst into flames, turning to charcoal before it could even fall to the ground.

And then, the dull glow of dusk was blocked from above.

The shape concealing the sun was vast, looming far above him. Even through the smoke its basic form was obvious, three long legs stretching up from the ground supporting a huge disk which writhed with undulating tentacles. Screams echoed down from the top of the shape, and Skaff stopped dead in his tracks. Hot drops of red fell on his face, like hellish rain, and he could taste that they were blood. One of the massive tripod legs lifted and swung forward, smashing some unseen building of brick and glass in the process. A stone struck Skaff, driving him to the dusty street, and the sky further darkened as the leg fell toward him.

Skaff woke screaming.

All around him it was dark, and for a long panicked moment he didn’t know where he was. Instinctively he scrambled backwards, fighting some wet shape that enwrapped him, tangling him and holding him tightly. Then he was falling. He thought he was falling from a great height, but he dropped just a short distance onto a hard, cold floor.

It was the chill air, as he dragged it into his aching throat, that made him realize he wasn’t in the smoke anymore. He wasn’t in that town. The tripod hadn’t crushed him, by the narrowest margin.

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Fossil. (One)

To call it evil would be to utterly misunderstand its entire existence, though it had been called evil many times over the heartbeat of one or another species’ rise. But those species were never considered when it took form. They had not yet existed, and would not exist for 60 million years after it’s origin was forgotten.

Concepts like good and evil were foreign to it, as they had been foreign to those who called it forth, those who ruled the surface of a very different kind of world, though it was what became our world. They has stood tall in the certainty that their 100,000 years of ascendance would be eternal, and had been as wrong as every collective that believed it before them.

It functioned. That was all it was ever to do, just function, and through functioning prove that thought had gone into it. That thought had existed. Not thought as any mammal brain would produce, or even recognize, but thought nonetheless. Nothing else was enough to memorialize those who had seen the need for a memorial to their meaningless aberration from lifelessness and wild. They called it forth to prove that they had once called things, that the idea of calling into the night had come before, and were satisfied they had crafted the perfect monument to their own immortality.

Then, like every other spark of order or sapience that had even arisen, they were extinguished. Erased so totally that even if the surface of the Earth had not churned over and crushed their edifice to dust over tens of millions of uncounted years, there would be no proof to betray their scar in the timeline of thoughtlessness. Nothing was left of them, who were so different that they could not conceive of man, and man would never conceive of them.

Nothing but the fossil.

And all it could do was function.

Not well. Not as it once had. Nothing it did was in any way what had been planned for it. But it had been planned by creatures more alien than even those on other worlds. Entities who had no concept of anything a mammal could recognize as culture, or art, or philosophy. They made their monument to be magnificent in their sight, but they saw a different world, in different colors, and had no care for what it might do once they were gone.

The monument, the fossil, still functioned, And it would be fair, from the perspective of frail, floundering human minds to call that function evil. Not by intent, or manufacture. But because it was never even vaguely predicted to ever interact with anything like humans, and thus everything it did would be antithetical to human rationality.

It could have destroyed the world, but that was not its function. It could have made men gods, or revealed the secrets of the hidden dark energy binding the universe and accelerating galaxies away from one another, but that was not its function. Divorced from any context native to its creation, its function could no longer be said to be rational, for the rationality of the apes briefly reshaping the world with things born of their dreams was different from the closest equivalent of rationality to those of the things that had brought it forth.

Its function was at best, an approximation of what had been expected of it when it was made nearly eternal. But even if it had been aware of how far from its first conception its new actions were, it would not have cared. It would just have functioned.

On October 28th, 1987, in Grange, Oklahoma, that function was, by human standards, horrific and maddening.

Game Masters, Chapter One

One. Those Above.

Maise Delores tapped the ‘record’ light hovering midair in front of her, making sure her host saw her do it. She could have set the device to record with just a though, but that would’ve been a violation of her streaming site’s official privacy policy. She almost never did that.

She smiled in a friendly manner, but didn’t really think it was necessary. Her host, Winton Classen, was famously among the calmest men in the public eye.

“Thank you for agreeing to an interview, Mr. Classen. My producer and your PR people will put together all the introductions and pleasantries, so we can skip right to the meat of what people want to know. Are you ready for that?”

Winton gave an easy smile in return, no less practiced or perfect than her own.

“Of course, Ms. Delores. I’m delighted to proceed however you feel is best. You’re the tastemaker, after all.”

“Thank you. All right, let’s get right into it. Your company offers vacations to the masses using ‘manufactured reality.’ So the difference between the neural virtual reality we’re all familiar with and manufactured reality is…?”

Winton’s voice broke into the easy, regular rhythm of someone who had practiced saying something a hundred times. “Manufactured reality is literally adjusting the reality you, personally, are experiencing. You can see, hear, even taste and feel an entirely new world we create for your entertainment. And you can do so entirely by yourself, or with a group of family, friends, co co-workers.”

Maise nodded, as much to show Winton she wanted to interject something as to indicate she understood. “Okay, but how do you do that? How is it possible for someone to experience a different reality other than broadcasting electrical impulses into their brain, the way modern VR parlors do?”

Winton’s smile grew in a way Maise thought looked a bit predatory. “VR is just as you say, an illusion of senses sent to your brain. But you only experience what the VR system is programmed for you to experience. It’s no more than a game, or a movie.

“Manufactured reality actually creates a new set of physical laws, which act and react to whatever you do within that reality. We set up those rules, but don’t control the outcome of how you interact with them.”

Maise switched her smile from “friendly” to “slightly bemused,” one of her trademarked moves. “How does that work? At a layman’s level, I mean?”

Winton spoke energetically, his hands moving to punctuate specific words. “We’ve known that perception influences reality since the old double-slit experiments of the early 2000s. It took time for that to eb well-excepted, but the sciences of quantum attunement and quantum frequency grew out of that. In short, at it’s most basic level, reality is just a state of energy, and conscious minds can impact the form that energy takes. Because we are all at the same quantum frequency, we all experience the same reality, on a macro-scale.

But it is possible to adjust that quantum frequency, temporarily, attuning a person and their perception to a new energy state. With the right equipment, such as our extreme comfortable q-couches, your entire body can be placed slightly out of attunement with the reality we all perceive around us, and attuned with a manufactured reality, created by a q-bit cogitator that can emulate a new set of physical laws. That create the framework of a new energy state that an individual can perceive as real.

“Once the framework of a manufactured reality is set up, a visitor’s quantum frequency is attuned, through entanglement, to a master oscillation which serves as a common reference point. Everyone attuned to the same oscillation experiences one, shared, manufactured reality we design and oversee, but do not control. When something happens in VR, it’s part of a script. When it happens in our manufactured reality, it’s because of cause-and-effect beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict.”

Maise jumped on that. “So, it’s real, not artificial experiences? Then why are people’s bodies still here, sitting in high-tech sofas? If you manufacture a new reality, why are they still present in our reality?”

Winton looked unsurprised. “We keep the quantum amplitude low enough to only impact each individual’s experience of the manufactured reality. It isn’t some naturally occurring alternate universe, though we now know those exist. It is a framework of reality, built to be real enough to enjoy and have largely-consistent rules, but not real enough to impact our perception of guest’s bodies. So as soon as their quantum attunement stops being maintained, they snap back to our perception of them, no worse for wear.”

“But to the guests, their experiences are entirely real-feeling?”

Winton allowed his smile to fade to a friendly grin. The kind of grin your grandfather had just before telling you a bad joke. “Only within the rules of the manufactured realities they visit. We keep some sensations, such as taste, touch, and smell, at full strength. But we have adjusted each manufactured reality to have different expressions of pain, for example. So while being stabbed in the manufactured HeroLand reality hurts, it hurts like a bruise or cramp. Typical sport-activity level pain. Nothing traumatic, for obvious reasons. And we ensure that the bandwidth of the quantum amplitude is taken up with enough other feedback that even the most horrific experiences in our manufactured realities are perceived more like watching them in a movie, rather than experiencing them. We make worlds better than real – nothing too bad is capable of happening within them.

Maise knew there was no chance of catching Winton off-guard, but there were certain questions her fanbase expected her to ask. “And no one can get stuck in a manufactured reality? I understand there were some incidents during early human trials.”

Winton choose to look more somber. “When the technology was young and the applications being explored were all military, yes there were cases where it was not possible to detune a subject from their manufactured reality without bringing back the physical effects of their experiences. And some people were allowed to experience manufactured realities for much longer than current best practices dictate. But our systems literally can’t do either of those things.” The big smile returned.  “Our quantum cores can’t generate manufactured worlds with the amplitude needed to overwrite physical reality, and our transmitters overheat after 40 continuous hours, well short of the 150-hour duration that has been shown to potentially cause physiological distress. We built systems that break before they can put anyone in actual danger.”

Maise had one shot at getting a good sound bite, and she took it. “But the system could, theoretically, be repurposed to create more dangerous manufactured realities?”

Winton laughed. “In the same way you could strap a jet engine to a ferris wheel to make it less safe, yes. But no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and it would take hundreds of millions to create such a thing in any case. Guests to any of our Manufactured Marvels sites have nothing to worry about.”

Maise was prepared to push the point—less because she thought Winton actually ran secret off-the-books manufactured deathsport reality, but more because such conspiracy theories were good for clicks and views—but the magnate lifted a finger to forestall her as she took in a breath.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Dolores.” There was no humor in Winton’s expression now, and Maise could just barely see a tiny flashing red light in the corner of his right pupil. “I’m afraid one of those ‘unexpected emergencies’ my staff must have warned you might crop up has, in fact, raised it’s ugly head. Could we have my staff arrange for a virtual interview to answer any more questions? We have, in fact, had an in-person interview now, so your claim of an exclusive remains legally valid.”

Maise smiled and stood, putting out a hand as she did so. “Of course, Mr. Classen. I appreciate you making any time at all for me.”

Winton stood and clasped her hand firmly. A tiny series of hums Maise felt in the bone of her skull, inaudible to anyone else even if they were adjacent to her, confirmed what she suspected. Winton was receiving a stream of wireless data. Her bootjack system probably couldn’t record it, and even if it managed to she’d likely never break the encryption. But even just knowing how much data he was getting could help her figure out what part of his vast empire was under threat serious enough for hum to cut HER short, in person.

His voice remained eminently calm was he walked her to the door of his office. “Perhaps we can make it up to you/ Allow you to run a stream from one of our Manufactured Marvel facilities?”

Now Maise was surprised. “I… was under the impression that was never allowed?”

“Not while guests are present—privacy concerns and such, of course. But we often have previews for VIPs before we open a facility to the public, I would imagine we could let you stream from one of those before anyone else was allowed to use it.”

“That would be lovely.” Maise let real excitement leak into her voice. “I can guarantee that would get fifty million live views.”

Winton’s very-practiced smile returned. “With you as the streamer, I’m sure it will. My staff will contact you to set something up.”

And then Maise was in the waiting room again, and Winton has smoothly closed the door, blocking her access to whatever emergency had his attention.

Winton Classen tensed his jaw in exactly the way needed to bring up his personal HUD, and a list of options popped into his view, though the ‘URGENT’ light flashing in his peripheral vision remained bright and obvious. He focused his vision on “Lockdown,” and as that option was picked heard the hum of antispying devices turning his office into the next-best thing to espionage-proof.

Not that he believed someone couldn’t break those protections, if they really wanted to. Winton just wanted to make sure such an effort would be so expensive no one would ever bother.

Winton moved past the cozy sitting area he and Ms. Dolores had been at, where he interviewed people he wanted to put at ease, to sit in the massive leather chair behind his immense oak desk. Where he interviewed people he wanted to frighten. With a wave of his hand he brought a section of the wall to light and the image of Cory Mai, his chief of operations, took form on it.

“Who is it, and how badly did they screw up?” Winton’s voice was terse, but not angry. If Cory thought he needed to be interrupted, he assumed she was right. He trusted her judgment.

Her face was calm, but the slightest crinkle by her left eye worried him more than most people would have if they’d been spitting in rage.

“It’s the Morgan brothers. Both of them, at once, I’ll note. And they screwed it about as badly as possible.”

Winton signed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can we get them out alive?”

Cory shook her head. “I’m not sure we can get them out at all. They’re Gamma-6.”

“What?!” Winton rarely lost his reserve, and was immediately annoyed. If anyone but Cory was claiming that. “Okay, Cory. Explain to me why that’s not impossible. My last briefing said Gamma-4 is still as deep as even DARPA has gotten. And we only recently proved Gamma-5 as even theoretically possible. How the hell did a couple of rich idiots get themselves attuned more deeply than any other manufactured reality system in the world.”

Cory visibly shrugged. “We don’t know. David Morgan is a hell of a quantum engineer, even if he’s refused to ever do much with his talent. We’ve just gotten on-site, and it’s obvious he’s made extensive modifications to his oscillator. And as far as we can tell, he hasn’t documented any of it. We’re analyzing it now, but we have to do that while it’s running, which complicates things. We can’t shut it down without losing both Morgans, given the state of their quantum signatures, and David may be the only person who has never managed a G-6 attunement.”

Winton released the bridge of his nose, and let his mind float for a minute. Cory knew he was thinking, but also knew she wouldn’t interrupt him just by giving him more facts.

“Their overwatch team got worried 12 hours ago, when the Morgan’s bodies began to show sign of severe trauma. They don’t let their overwatch monitor of record their manufactured experiences, but there is a tandem rig for each of them. Two security experts settled in and got attuned, with a 5-minute timer. Both came back into native attunement with enough trauma on their bodies to die within seconds. The Morgan’s chief of staff freaked out, ignored house policy, and called me directly. It took time to get here with a team…”

“You’re there, yourself, in person?” Winton interrupted.

“I am,” Cory confirmed. “The Morgans are huge donors and investors in many of our concerns, and we supplied them with the original private oscillator they’ve since modified. Given their influence, and that we already had two dead, I wanted to assess the situation directly.”

Winton waved a hand to indicate he understood. It was an unusual step, but Cory had always proven to have good reason to take unusual steps.

“The Morgan’s oscillation system shows them at Gamma-4, but I wanted to confirm that, so I had our people do an independent sampling. When that came in at G-7, I had them run it again. And again. But it turns out the Morgan’s system simply isn’t set up to show any attunement deeper than Gamma-4, and our results are consistent. I can’t tell you how they managed it, but I can tell you what David Morgan thought he’d done.”

Winton raised an eyebrow, an affectation he’d developed as a child but also an effective way to let people know they had his attention.

“His diary entries are clear.” Cory’s voice was carefully neutral. Unjudgmental. “He thought he’d found an actual alternate reality, which just happened to have magic and dragons and evil tyrants.”

Winton’s eyebrow stayed elevated. “Do you believe that?”

“I…” Cory rarely paused. She was silent for a full two seconds. Then:

“I don’t believe it. But I can’t disprove it either. And whatever they’ve done, it’s going to radically change some dearly held belief of our experts. So as ridiculous as that sounds, I’m not ruling it out of the list of possibilities, though I’m not basing decisions on it, either.”

Winton nodded to himself. That kind of risk-management, and willingness to accept facts over her own view of what ought to be true, was a big part of why he trusted her judgement. “So…,” he let the word linger for a moment. “”What do you recommend?”

“Now Cory didn’t hesitate.” “We need to send a team in after them. If nothing else, we need to talk to David Morgan, even if we can’t extract him alive. I already have new attunement couches being set up. The Morgans only designed their system for the two of them and the two emergency tandem rigs, but the quantum oscillator has the same standard 32-output connections as our standard models. Even so, I don’t think we can afford to send more than 12 people – there’s a limited about of power available, and while the Morgans’ couches are normal, I don’t know what might happen if we overload their oscillator’s output. It looks like the system can handle 12 more without any issue, but after that it might start throttling back the among of energy used for each couch, and since I don’t know how they got to Gamma-7, I don’t know if reducing total power available might impact it.

“As for who to send, obviously we have a number of qualified teams for most of this. But the manufactured reality the Morgans are in was… custom. It’s not based on any of our Manufactured Marvel settings, or any of the common tropes we have explored and trained in for possible setting expansion later. That means we don’t have any internal setting experts. I recommend we hire some from… unorthodox… sources.”

Winton nodded. “Approved. What is the setting based on, and where are you going to get experts?”

Cory sighed. “It’s something called the Grimdarque Roleplaying Game. It’s a paper=and-pencil tabletop game, not computer or VR, with origins in the 1980s. And… there’s a fan convention… “

“Game Masters” is an experiment in serialized fiction. It is supported only by contributions to my Patreon. if you want to read more of the story, go support my Patreon and let me know!

The Orders of Scholomance

“I stick my arm in the ArchGauntlet, and it BRANDS me with the mark of the Scholastic Order I’m assigned to?”

“Yes, just above the inside of your wrist, though there are procedures for those missing a left arm.”

“Doesn’t that seem… insane? To ask a teenage to let a magic gauntlet brand them forever?”

“Mr. Fletcher, you are gaining access to the Scholomance. You will be taught by, among other instructors, devils, trolls, and even the dead themselves. Vlad Tepes was a student. We will give you the power to turn men into ash.

“This is the least insane thing we require. If you cannot accept your order’s Mark, you have no business here.”

“Fair enough. How do I leave?”

“Though the chapel. In a coffin. We pay for the funeral ourselves.”

“… Ah. So I just shove my arm in, then?”

“Normally there’s a ceremony, but we’ll forego it, seeing as we’re already mid-term.”

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Short Order Heroes. 1. On The Clock.

Deputy Jensen Jackson was not particularly important. He knew that.

He was simply too young to be important. Or, at least, too young for someone from his social circles and economic circumstance to be important. That was fine. That was how the world worked.

But he did WORK for people who were important. Old Sheriff McCarter, of course, but “Mac” McCarter had stopped trying to elevate his own status, or those who worked for him, long before Deputy Jackson came along. Assuming, of course, he had ever made such efforts.

Deputy Jackson did assume that.

But Old Mac simply spent too much time hanging out with unimportant people to be a ticket to betterment. Oh, sure, being trusted by people on both side of the tracks — as well as townies, ranchers, drillers, hunters, natives, and even truckers — was useful when it came to policing. Deputy Jackson assumed that was why Mayor Gauge put up with Old Mac — he kept things quiet. And, it meant Mayor Gauge never had to worry about the sheriff looking to move into his job. Old Mac just ran in the wrong circles for that.

Mayor Bill Gauge very much ran in the right circles. When it came to being important in the town of Virtue, Oklahoma, Mayor Gauge defined the right circles.

So if the mayor called up and said “Jensen, my fellow… ” and it pleased Deputy Jackson that the mayor always called him ‘Jensen,’ “… I am having some folks over at the Boomer Barn, and I’d sure like if you were there to keep an eye on things.” Well then, Deputy Jackson would be there, keeping an eye on things.

He was not, in any formal sense, “on duty” when he stood near the mayor and his associates at the Boomer Barn. He was in uniform and thus, under Old Mac’s rules, couldn’t get a drink even though the Barn’s owner,  Amos Lauren, would happily have given the deputy a free glass like he did for Mayor Gauge and whoever was sitting with the mayor. At least, Deputy Jackson was sure Amos would slide him a liquor-by-the-wink (as Apache County was dry) if he was out of uniform while keeping an eye on things for the mayor.

It had never come up.

Mostly, he just stood a bit away from the bar, in his tan and brown uniform, with his belt and holster and badge, between most of the Boomer Bar’s main room, and the leathertop table in the back corner where Mayor Gauge talked to folks and got things done. It was unofficial, of course, but efficient. No rules of order, no minutes of each meeting, no snoops, no party officers, at least unless the mayor invited them.

The government, people in Virtue said, was in town hall. Solutions came from the leathertop.

The mayor normally told Deputy Jackson who to expect so he could wave them to the leathertop, as Jackson knew everyone in town and most everyone important in the county. If anyone not on the list wandered up, the deputy stared at them until they got skittish and wondered away. If they seemed important enough that the mayor might want to talk to them even if they weren’t on the list, Jackson cleared his throat to get the mayor’s attention.

That was keeping an eye on things.

As a result, Deputy Jackson was surprised when Peg Shaw walked into the Boomer Barn, wearing her waitressing uniform and apron, kicking red dust off her boots, and then marched straight toward him. He was even more surprised she had a big, white cloth sheath hanging from her apron, with a knife stuck in it. His surprise grew only slightly more when he realized she was carrying a shotgun.

Shotguns were more common in Virtue than 12-inch-long knives.

She wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone, and she seemed calm enough. And Peg had been a law-abiding citizen her entire life, 32 years in town. There were stories that her mother had been a bit nuts, had maybe used grandpa Shaw’s tractor to run over a whole heard of razorbacks in ’31, but whenever the question had come up Old Mac always said that was, after all, not illegal

And while Peg was mostly a waitress at the “Ranch 66” diner by the highway, she had been known to step up and cook if the regular staff got sick, or had to go help family who lost a home in a tornado. Her family were ranchers and butchers going way back, so it was no shock she could cook. And, he recalled, when he had seen her running the Ranch 66’s grill once, she had been sporting that same cloth sheath and knife.

So Deputy Jackson could envision some odd scenarios where she needed to run an errand over to the Boomer Barn, and just happened to have a foot-long knife and a shotgun when she did them. And, honestly, those scenarios seemed more likely than Peg Shaw meaning to harm anyone at the local dance and social hall, so he didn’t feel the need to grab his gun or yell orders.

When it was clear that she was headed toward the leathertop, he decided his plan was simply to stare at her until she went away. Whatever she thought she needed from the mayor or his guests, Peg Shaw clearly was not important enough to skip the list.

That plan worked fine, right up to the moment Peg walked up to him, and matched his gaze.

“Peg,” he said casually, to remind her that even though she was a few years his senior and they weren’t friends, he had the position to use her given name.

“Jensen,” she replied even more coolly. Deputy Jackson had no idea what that was supposed to remind him of, but he suddenly felt like he had in elementary school, when Mrs. Floyd has asked him what 11 times 13 was, and he hadn’t known, even though he was supposed to know by then.

Her gaze became uncomfortable. If she found his stare in any way disconcerting, she wasn’t showing any sign of it. His sureness in her unimportance wavered. She also, he realized, had a book under one arm. It was a ragged, uneven thing with what seemed to be magazine pages and newspaper clippings and loose typed pages, all stuck hodge-podge between it’s covers. There were tabbed pages as well, and he could just read three of them, with tabs marked “breakfast,” and “desserts” and “therianthropes.”

It was, of course, rude to stare at a woman for this long. And it would be rude to suggest she go back out, or that she shouldn’t be wandering around with a big knife and shotgun. That was the only reason Deputy Jackson turned away from her gaze and pointedly cleared his throat at Mayor Gauge.

The mayor looked up, annoyed. His eyes flickered at Jackson, and then over to Peg Shaw. And then, to the deputy’s shock, the mayor looked concerned.

“Peg Shaw. You on the clock?”

Jackson’s eyes bounced back and forth between the mayor and Peg, and he felt his jaw relax a bit.

Peg’s voice was still cool. “I am, mayor. I need a minute.”

“It’s not a great time, Peg.” The mayor waved at the five men sitting at the leathertop with him. The most important of those was Bruce Shane, one of the wealthiest ranchers in the tri-county area. While most of the other men present seems as perplexed as the deputy (though none of them had either the annoyance or disdain Jackson would have expected from such a circumstance), Shane’s expression was as grim and serious as the mayor’s.

“Sorry, mayor. It can’t wait. Not unless Mr. Shane thinks he has cattle to spare. There’s already a truck rig missing, and it’s got to be belly coolers…”

The mayor held up a hand, which forestalled Peg finishing the description of whatever couldn’t wait.

“Gentlemen,” the mayor’s voice was calm, “forgive me, but a civil servant’s first duty must be to his constituency. We can finish this discussion another time. Bruce, can you stay?”

Peg walked past Jackson without any further invitation, and all the men not named Bruce stood from their chairs around the leathertop, and walked away without any grumbling.

“Jensen?”

Deputy Jackson was, as always, thrilled the mayor called him by his last name, and even more thrilled to be included in anything important enough to interrupt the major’s normal plans. He almost started to walk toward the table.

“Go get Old Mac, will you? Let him know there’s a Shaw Problem, and that Peg is here.”

The deputy swung his leg, which had been about to carry him toward the leathertop, in an arc he was sure looked natural and intended as he began walking toward the door. He heard a thump behind him, and the rustling of pages.

Peg’s voice followed. “There are signs, which ‘Nan Micah made note of back in ’04 here on her rules for boiling poke salad…”

Jensen hurried a bit, to go get Old Mac.

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Speculative Fiction Show Ideas

Speculative Fiction Show Ideas

Look, Amazon and Netflix are greenlighting everything else, so…

“SPOOKED” When the randomly-selected patsy of a deep cover spy mission turns out to have an honest-to-magic necromancer as a sister, spies and ghosts face off in a world that runs from honeypots to ceramic urns and pits undercover against undead.

“BLACK SPOT” For centuries the Order of the Black Spot have been hunting and killing pirates, working outside of government and outside the law. Now the King, Queen, and Jack of Spades, the royal family ruling the order, have mysteriously turned to the FBI to give information about bringing down both the remaining pirate organizations of the world, and their own Order.

“CRIME AND CHAOS” When the government becomes the problem, who can the people turn to? A mastermind thief, greedy con, addicted stage magician, reformed pacifist ex-assassin, gray hat hacker, and disillusioned counterfeiter form the ultimate crime league, with their only targets the corrupted forces who now control law and order.

“PLAN Z” Dozens of corporations and more than a few terrorist groups have access to a weaponized virus that creates undead, and the governments of the world are endlessly dealing with breakouts and pandemics in a desperate bid to prevent the zombie apocalypse. When a zone is too hot for any human to be sent in, the trained, international, experimental squad of soldiers who are immune carries to the zombie virus are sent in as Plan Z.

“GOTHIC JUSTICE” When Lady Penanggalan went to sleep in 1800, she expected her monstrous partners to wake her in a century, as agreed. Now it’s 2017, and she’s discovered not only did the other Gothic Scions betray her, most have turned to run organized crime. She is pissed, and ready to work with human law if that’s what it takes to gain her revenge. But the most powerful of those scions, the dreaded Akephaloi or “Headless Man” knows more about Lady Pen’s sleep and why her allies betrayed her than she could ever guess.

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How The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota Saved the World

Carson pulled the twine tight, again. She walked around the enormous almost-sphere of the material, again. She pulled a new skein of twine from her coat pocket, and tied it to the end of the twine coming off the twine-ball. Again.

this won’t work, mortal

The voice was much weaker than he had been when she’d started. Good. A few more hours, and even she wouldn’t hear it anymore.

She smiled, and she began tugging, wrapping, and walking around the twine. Again.

“It will, Svarmag, thank goodness. While you deigoth can only be bound by unique memorials, they don’t have to be hanging gardens, or colossi.” She patted the oversized string ball affectionately. “Just, you know, noteworthy.”

they built the sphinx itself to bind me

Carson smiled. “And then Napoleon’s troops screwed up and let you out, I know. Though let’s be honest, if you were stored in the nose, you probably aren’t why they built the sphinx. I’d bet there were dozens of you stored in there. You were just the lucky booger who escaped.

this is not fitting. it is not permanent. it is no…

Carson felt a grin tug at her face. Oh, it would take some planning. A foundation, dedicated to the cultural impact of the ball. A little money. Some websites.

But yes. Svarmag would be bound in twine, Forever.

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Short Fiction: Weftwork

Vanre felt consciousness creep into her body like an unwelcome guest. She resisted the lure to open her eyes, or stretch her muscles, focusing instead on the warm, soft quilts piled above and below her… but to no avail. The very act of trying to find a way to stay asleep sent her mind racing through options, which inevitably meant she was awake now. Keeping her eyes closed was an act of rebellion rather than a viable tactic.

A soft scraping above her did cause her eyes to flutter open of their own volition, and her brain was immediately fully alert. Dim light leaked in through the shuttered window, casting dusky shadows across the wooden beams of her bedroom ceiling. The poor visibility was not, however, nearly enough to conceal the enormous arachnid clinging to the wooden boards above her.

Its body was more than a yard long, from it’s eight glossy black eyes and furred mandibles to the rainbow-striped abdomen. It’s eight legs spanned nearly the whole room, the longest set of fore-mid arms just inches from touching the ceiling’s corners ten feet apart. Most of the body was thickly furred, with only the orblike eyes, sharp fangs, and the leg’s numerous small claws at the tips and joints not covered in the bright pelt.

As Vanre’s eyes opened, the huge spider tilted, so it’s inhuman face lowered suddenly to be right over her head.

“Floor too cold again, Senneh?” Vanre asked with concern.

The spider’s shorter aft-mid legs dropped from the ceiling and waved meaningfully, the many clawtips forming precise, complex shapes.

Can you see me? The hand-sigils were fast and smooth, better than most webfolk Senneh’s age managed.

Vanre smiled. “I can hardly miss you, darling. You take up the whole ceiling. Just because my eyes can only look at one thing at a time doesn’t mean I’m blind to obvious things.”

I am never sure. There was none of the little wiggling clawtips that would suggest Senneh was joking. The floor was much too cold. Even with the old weavings you convinced the steward to give me, my joints ached. Water is becoming solid outside. Why do your kind live here? I liked our previous school much more.

Vanre sat up in bed, reaching up to rub Senneh’s face, enjoying how thick and soft the webfolk’s fur was.

“It’s a major port, nine months out of the year. And this is about as far south as the uriphants are willing to come. They don’t understand why we are willing to live places where water ever isn’t solid. Finding one place for all five civilized peoples to come together isn’t easy. Eleanear is about as good as it gets. And the Empire only allows one school for advanced magic.”

But it is COLD. Senneh used one of her fore-mid legs to repeat the last sigil, to give her complaint more emphasis.

Vanre stood, feeling the very chill air on her skin. She dared a very minor spell to freshen her skin, then began pulling on her uniform, hung neatly on a rack next to her bed.

“It is cold, sweetling. I’m sorry. If you want, you can just sleep in here until summer. We can even burn some charcoal in the brazier at night.”

You do not mind?

Vanre smiled. “Not at all. I don’t use the ceiling for anything.”

Vanre’s eyes drifted to her tiny desk, in the room’s corner, where an open book was covered in her own handwriting. The tight runs were interspersed with illustrations of webs, spinnerets, and weaving patterns.

Vanre’s smile grew. “Not yet, anyway.”

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Microsetting: Midlands

The Plains are the safest. Not safe, mind you, but not as bad as when you move too far in any other direction.

They can’t cross running water, so the Mississippi is the barrier from the East. I’ve heard the Panama Canal is as safe as you can go South, but I don’t know anyone who has gone any further than Laredo. Something about the air. Baja California is supposedly still okay, but god help them for being so far West.

There’s no set barrier between the Plains and the West Coast. The Rockies do most of the work of keeping us safe, but stay clear of the passes. Everyone knows what happened at Logan Pass, and I saw how bad things get close to Marias Pass myself. I-15 is like a line of death, and they move north-south along it much, much too easily. I-90 isn’t as bad, but it’s not good either. I don’t go farther North than Nebraska, anymore. I’m told U.S. 20 is worse, but I never saw anything on it.

I wish I could say they only come out at night, but that’s not true. They see better at night than we do, or at least most of ’em do, so night’s more dangerous. But they can move and hunt in the day, too. The leaner pickings get, the more they hunt in the light. But that doesn’t mean you should feel safe if there are people around. Some groups just haven’t been hit yet. Others make… arrangements. Arrangements that don’t go well for strangers to their area.

Shooting them in the head is great, but not strictly necessary and requires you to be sure what part is the head. If you have the ammo, center-mass is still the safest bet, but it takes a lot of lead. Clubs seems useless, and machetes are too likely to chip and bend. Spears are okay, but you need some kind of cross-brace, or they just pull themselves down it until they get to you.

Axes are good. Shovels work in a pinch, if sharpened.

Don’t listen to anything broadcast. Don’t eat anything you can’t identify, even if it comes from a can. Don’t try to read anything in a language you don’t recognize. If you think you can hear the stars, get inside. If someone near you says they can hear the stars?

Axes are good.

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Short Fiction: Epoch

My father never liked her. Grantha says it’s because she didn’t visit often when father was young. The wars kept her away. They were worse, where she was. And everyone agrees she is why it didn’t get so bad here. But she wasn’t around when Grampa died, and father never forgave her. “What is the point,” he’s said “of an eternal ally if they are eternally not here?”

It’s not a fair thing to say… but father isn’t the first to say it. The Grans and gran-Grans all love her, but I’ve seen the records. She’s saved us many times, or at least helps us save ourselves, but she’s also missed some terrible times. She helped the ‘steaders settle the vale when we first came here. No one is sure why. All the records say if we ask her, just just looks sad and says she owes us. A debt that will take a hundred generations to be repaid.

It’s only been 12.

The ‘steaders never bothered to write why she brought them here, or if they did we lost that book. I suspect we’d have lost most of our books from then, if she hadn’t brought copies of some every century or so. The Hearthstead Laws, most often. Especially when the Honey-Nots took over when she was gone so long most of us didn’t believe in her, or at least thought she was dead, and the Hunnots burned all the old Laws. My family were Avowers back then. We never stopped believing.

But she didn’t save us from the Honey-Nots. We had to do that ourselves. And she showed up just after the Battle of the Motte, within hours of it, with everything we needed to restore the way things were. Like she had been waiting. Like she could have helped, if she’d wanted to. But when people asked why she’d stayed away, why she didn’t help us against the Hunnots, the records claim she just said “They were Valefolk, too.”

Even though she stayed for almost a decade that time, she wasn’t very popular with that generation. At least, not overall. The Maoilriains have always been loyal, of course, Every generation of them, since the first. And Maehr Maoilriain left with her after her long stay, and came back much later as a real rune-whisperer. I met Maehr once, on his 200th birthday, just before he died. His eyes were still bright. But then, the Maoilriains have always lived longer than the rest of us.

An eternal ally. The Ageless, some records call her. Silverlocke, in others. The Harrower, but only in the oldest songs, and Leithe Leithaene in the oldest reference I can find, but never after that.

Grantha calls her Constance, which I think is funny. So does Grantha. And, according to Grantha, so does Constance.

When any valefolk reach their 15th year, we line up and wait to see if she comes, to ask for our part of the bargain. One years service from any she asks on that day, and a lifetime of service of all she asks once in ten generations. She’s only asked for that year three times, and the last time was Maehr. Of course, he was gone for decades.

People forget about the lifetime of service, asked of all those who stand the line for one in every ten generations. She’d only invoked it once, and it was a long time ago.

Ten generations ago.

I know. I checked the records.

So, tomorrow, I and six others stand the line. Cuthair is convinced she’ll come, but he’s another crazy Maoilriain. No one takes him seriously, because he looks about 11. But 15 scars run his left hand, like all of us. Suski thinks she’s dead. Suski likes thinking about death. And I swear, vultures and jackals like Suski. I guess I’d like Suski too, if I needed death to eat.

Father swears if she does show up, he’s going to break the accord. He could, any alder could on line-day, but none ever have. I can’t imagine father will either.

I only met Constance once, when I was very small. She rested her right thumb on my head, and smiled. It’s my earliest memory. That smile visits me in my dreams.

And lately, it’s been visiting a lot more often.

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