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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.

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#101Mimics, the First Fifty!

Last month I spent some time on social media thinking up 101 unusual options and encounters for mimics, under hashtag  #101MIMICS.  Was it a good idea to take time to write up 101 ideas for unusual encounters with mimics? Well, you’re reading this, aren’t you?!

So if you want to hunt down all 101 mimics, they are still available on my Facebook and Twitter. But here are the first 50 of them, to give you a good chunk of mimic all in one place.

My Patreon backers get even more! All my mega-patrons will get a PDF in a few days that has all my free content from September, including the 101 Mimics, but I also wanted to compile these in one post for anyone interested in them. So all my patrons have access to a Patreon post with 101 Mimics, plus I added ONE more mimic encounter idea as a bonus, at the end of that post!

So if you want more mimics (and similar material as time goes on), go join my Patreon!

#101MIMICS

  1. Mimic as the keystone in an arch (build by mimic minions). When it attacks and jumps free not only it there a bitey mimic, the room’s ceiling collapses on you.
  2. Mimic treasure map. The mimic pretends to be a treasure map that leads you to am ambush of the mimic’s allies. The mimic changes this location as needed to keep the news from getting out.
  3. Mimic bandage. It just quietly drinks your blood when you wrap it around your wound.
  4. Mimic haute couture. The mimic rents itself out to be brand-new, impossible-without-living-cloth high-end outfits and shoes that fit perfectly, match your coloration, hair, and jewelry, and you don’t have to put in a closet after wearing once. Hourly or daily rates available.
  5. Mimic rope. It waits until you are using it in a life-or-death situation, then extorts you with greater payment or it withdraws its (literal) support.
  6. Mimic golem: Easiest to pretend to be a wood golem or clay golem. You think it’s a construct, but it’s actually an aberration, giving it a distinct tactical advantage.
  7. Mimic rock at edge of common rest-stop campsite. Look, people are SUSPICIOUS of treasure chests these days, but no one looks twice at a rock that happens to be near where their head is going to be when they sleep.
  8. Mimic false bottom of a chest. Go ahead, check the chest for signs it’s a mimic all you want. then, once you are inside and your guard is done, and you get excited you’ve spotted a false bottom…
  9. Mimic hanging tapestry. May rent itself out to high-end castles as a magic every-changing tapestry that also shouts an alarm when people find the concealed door behind it, or may drop down on unsuspecting adventurers looking behind it for a concealed door. Or both.
  10. Mimic trash-can private investigator. You can learn a LOT about someone by sorting through their trash, and if they give it to you there’s no expectation of privacy.
  11. Mimic Spike at the Bottom of a Pit. If you fall into the pit and still look fine, it ignores you as too tough to handle. If you fall into the pit and seem badly injured or incapacitated…
  12. Mimic bookcase wizard. People have been placing powerful and dangerous books on it in the forbidden section of the library for decades.
  13. Mimic altar. Honestly, a faithful devotee of a god that has decided to serve as an altar. Of course, if you come to DESECRATE that temple…
  14. Mimic Kitchen Table. Mostly just eats scraps when no one is looking. But may be in trouble since it is now so fat, it doesn’t really fit in the same space anymore…
  15. Mimic Mirror in a Vampire’s Employ. Look, some vampires care how they look!
  16. Mimic Siege Tower. Always the right size and shape to reach the top of a wall, able to become a bridge to get over a moat, and able to be healed or buffed against fire with “1 target” spells.
  17. Mimic Wagon. Mostly lets your draft animals pull it along (while it dozes off), but for an extra fee and turn into a boat to cross rivers, walk itself out of mud, and so on.
  18. Mimic Wine Barrel. Takes a nip now and then, but mostly stays sober so it can eat the occasional vagrant that wonders by late at night, who no one will miss.
  19. Mimic Wishing Well. I mean, people just THROW money into it! Why risk combat when you can get paid to sleep, then go buy any food you want later?
  20. Mimic Coffin. Sneak into undertaker’s (or cut deal with them). Get corpse placed indie me. Eat it. Dig my way out of grave, making people panic about ghouls. Sneak back to undertaker’s.
  21. Mimic Iron Maiden. Torturers put people in me, I drink their blood, and they are kept alive to go back into me again and again.

Mimic smuggler. Can look like any crate, fake any needed seals or markings, hide among other crates and shuffle from warehouse to warehouse and hold to hold as needed.

  1. Mimic roulette wheel. Doesn’t detect as magic or illusion, but can still make sure the house gets more than its cut (or, if smuggled in as a ringer, it’s partner can take a huge bite out of the house).
  2. Mimic Spymaster Confessional. Look, if there’s a place people are going to just whisper their secrets anyway…

(Lots of other Mimic Spy possibilities, too.)

  1. Mimic sleeping bag guard hireling. Hires itself out to protect travelers. It can sleep during the day, eat all your leftovers, and quietly watch over you while you sleep at night, while being the perfect size and warmness for you.
  2. Mimic is a single wheel in a rented wagon. It can thus “fall off” at any time to make the wagon vulnerable to ambush, and attack from inside the defensive perimeter once the ambush begins.
  3. Mimic weapon rack. With luck, you disarm yourself and give it your weapons before the fight starts, and it’s certainly armed.
  4. Mimic as obviously trapped secret door. Everyone moves away from the rogue in case the trap goes off, leaving the rogue alone with the mimic.
  5. Mimic table in room convicts meet with lawyers. Might be spy for illicit law enforcement, or might be enforcer for the thieves’ guild ensuring people keep their yap shut.
  6. Mimic cloak. Rules a gang of cloakers who think it is a highly evolved version of themselves.
  7. Tiny mimic sheath for dueling rapier. One of two. Everything seems fine when your foe selects one of them, but once the fight starts, the mimics don’t let your foe even draw his weapon.
  8. Mimic fishing pole. Mostly works as advertised, but when hungry just eats a fish which you think is “one that got away.”
  9. Mimic emulating a corpse. When it starts moving and eating things, everyone thinks it’s an undead. But it’s not.
  10. Mimic big overstuffed chair. Is a consulting detective, but keeps hiring someone to sit in the chair and play the public role of detective, so no one suspects their cases are being solved by a mimic listening in.
  11. Mimic crystal ball. Works with fake psychic to show clients what they want to see, but can’t actually tell the future.
  12. Mimic workbench. Friend and ally to renowned craftsman, acts as his guard and assistant, moving tools to be in reach as needed.
  13. Mimic guillotine psychopath. Just wants to kill people, so as long as the revolution feeds its bloodshed, acts like a guillotine. If anyone tries to reign in the mob rule, sneaks out to kill that person.
  14. Mimic crossbow. Works with its hunter. Loads itself, can even fire itself as needed.
  15. Mimic printing press. Always well informed, and can tweak things it prints to move its own narrative or plots forward.
  16. Mimic sail. Self-trimming, self-furling, heals if damaged, and can help defend the ship if attacked.
  17. Mimic lump of clay. Works with fake sculptor to allow the sculptor to appear to be a great artist, then sneaks off with sculptor once a commission is paid.
  18. Mimic high-end furniture from antique store. Gets bought and placed in rich house. Waits to see where their valuables are. Steals them blind while antique dealer has alibi. Sneaks back to look like different high-end furniture at shop.
  19. Mimic banker’s or merchant’s scale. Check for false weights and magic all you want, it can still claim your valuable are 1-2% lighter than they really are, getting its merchant partner an extra profit margin.
  20. Mimic rock full of veins of gold and silver. Sits in a mine its partner wants to sell. Makes sure the potential buyer “happens” to see it, still wedged into the wall. Great for cycling through multiple played out mines.
  21. Mimic pile of hay. Only good for some seasons, but great way to hide in plain sight, and local children often sneak off to play near you, making them easy targets.
  22. Mimic outhouse. Perfect for catching prey with their paints down.
  23. Mimic dressmaker’s dummy. Can be the exact size and shape (and even weight) the dressmaker needs, often happy to work for scraps of cloth (leather, cotton, and other biomass). Plus, gets to feel like a pretty, pretty mimic.
  24. Mimic periscope. Fits in any shape, crack, or around any corner, can show you what it sees, and even report on what it hears.
  25. Mimic game table. Can play chess with you, or help you subtly cheat against others.
  26. Mimic elevator. Crawls up and down (and even sideways) though the large castle, giving easy access quickly in return for a fair daily wage.

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!

Supers Ideas: More Knight Shift

Yet more members of the not-front-page, unusually-themed second-string heroes of Cathedral City, the Knight Shift.

Crimson Kpinga: John “Jake” Jefferson James tried to do everything right, despite growing up in a broken home in Devil’s Avenue, one of the worst slums in Cathedral City. He worked part time to help his mother with the bills, avoid criminal crowds, studied hard, and looked after his younger siblings. But none of that mattered when someone matching his description (“young African American male in a t-shirt and jeans”) hijacked a car four blocks away. Jake was grabbed and beaten by police, including the notorious Sgt. Stoneman, who consistently called Jake a “goddam cannibal, like the rest of you Ni-niams.”

CCTV footage proved Jake was innocent, but not before he spent 48 hours in lockup. Kake tried to bring complaints against the specific officers who mistreated him, only to find the system was designed to favor their word over his. He was told repeated by the people in his community that police did not treat them equally, and that while there were good cops and bad cops, they didn’t look different until one hit you. Or shot you. His community did not trust, or call on cops.

Jake was done trying to do things the way the system demanded. He decided to fill in the role of peacekeeper and justice dealer in Devil’s Avenue. And, guided by the “Ni-Niam” slur, he researched an African people and their weapons to be his inspiration. He researched the Zande and their traditional weapons, the  Kpinga throwing knife. he got a job at an upscale axe-throwing bar that had moved into a bankrupt barbaer shop on the edge of his neighborhood, and at night practiced throwing the weapon again and again. The Crimson Kpinga was born.

He had a few successes, but his career would have run short early except for one fateful decision. While leading a group of drug-dealing thugs away from a residential area, Jake happened to run through the stairs to the door of the 13th floor of an abandoned building. And, it turned out, Tacoma was watching.

Since joining forces with Tacoma, Crimson Kpinga has received a great deal more training, and significant equipment upgrades, giving him armored costumes and high-tech kpingas, allowing him to operate on a whole different level, though his first priority remains the people of Devil’s Avenue.

Tacoma: Tacoma is a ghost building. It’s elevator can access the 13th floor of any building in the world that is 13 stories or higher, and that has a working elevator. Tacoma itself can only be accessed from an elevator with a 14th floor button, and only if Tacoma feels like allowing it (and is paying attention).

The Tacoma Building, and early skyscraper in Chicago built in 1889, was the first riveted-iron-frame building in the world and the first 13-story building in the world. It was home to numerous offices and businesses. One of these was the Beneficient Order of Hieremias, a charity that existed as a cover for the evil-hunting Gileadian champions of peace and life. When the building was destroyed in 1929 by Sfinții Dracului, the public was told it was to make way for a new building.

But the building known as Grandfather Skyscraper had been murdered by magic, and it’s spirit was restless. It existed as a ghost, seen only from the corner of the eye or as a glitch on maps of various big cities. When Sister Celestial staggered out of a 14th floor elevator in 1934 on death’s door after a bloody gun battle with the King of Hell’s Kitchen, she accidentally access Tacoma instead of the afterlife. Tacoma managed to bring a doctor to her (who, despite great confusion, saved the Sister’s life), and then became Sister Celestial’s best friend and ally for the next 20 years of her crusade. After her death in the mid 1950s, Tacoma sat empty and unaccessed until Crimson Kpinga, wounded and leading dangerous men away from innocents, ran through a 13th floor door, and Tacoma noticed. And brought “CK” safely into his own space.

It took time for CK to realize Tacoma was alive, or at least aware, but with Tacoma showing him special 13th floor rooms all over the world — places where supervillains set up special labs that remained secret after they were killed, or that heroes a generation or two ago had used as their bases of operation, CK and Tacoma became a powerful team. When Firecracker invited Crimson Kpinga to join the Knight Shift, he accepted, and brought the considerable resource of Tacoma with him.

Longlegs: Longlegs is Jennifer “JennJenn” Janice James, the younger sister of Jake james, better known as the Crimson Kpinga. When CK was captured by the Kill Klan, Tacoma reached out to JennJenn as she happened to be on the 13th floor of an office building as part of her food delivery job. Tacoma managed to communicate with JennJenn, and urge her to call the Knight Shift for help. She did, but she also insisted on going to help herself. Wishing to keep her from harm, Tacoma took her to an abandoned safe house where the Parole Patrol criminal gang had been planning a heist during a 4th of July parade, but had been captured before they could attempt it. Among the unused gear was a single-purpose tight-fitting exoskeleton with powerful hydraulic stilts, designed to be disguised as an Uncle Sam Tall Man. during the parade. JennJenn too the suit for its armor value, but discovered she had a knack for using it’s telescoping legs for movement, escape, and powerful kicks.

After CK was rescued, he tried to forbid JennJenn from becoming a costumed hero, claiming she was “too young.” Tacoma disagreed, and CK discovered he could help JennJenn become Longlegs, or he could let her do it on her own. She has since become a valued member of the Knight Shift.

Mirror Mirror: When the Villains Alliance attempt to use the Multivexer to slice off alternate realities from the blended alterverse, allowing them to be isolated and eventually drained of all energy, somehow Adam Mason was caught at the edge of the field, and briefly linked to ever version of himself in ever reality. The result of this is twofold. First, Adama has access to every skill any version of him gained in any reality, which mostly runs to a long list of service jobs and hobby-level sports and games, but occasionally includes a real outlier of high degree skill or learning (such as preparing blowfish safely, and speaking fluent Cantonese).

Secondly, Adam can assume the form of an alternate reality version of anyone he touches. Normally this is a very close duplicate, though sometimes there are surprising differences (the alternate reality version of Dexter he once assumed was, inexplicable, a chainmail-wearing swordwoman with a raygun). However, he can maintain this form only until he encounters a high-energy state change, which includes anything as powerful as a good punch. Once he is “knocked back to reality,” he can’t assume an alternate version of that person again until his quantum state bleeds off all related residual vibrations… a process that takes just over seven years.

He has also discovered that some entities, such as the Incorruptibles and the Elders from Before, do not HAVE alternate-reality versions of themselves.

As a result As Mirror Mirror (Em-Em, in the field), Adam tried not to duplicate anyone, especially a teammate, unless he absolutely has to, since doing so removes that option for seven years of future encounters and sometimes it’s no help at all. That said, when the Terminax was prepared to destroy all life in the solar system, Em-Em was able to beocme an alternate version of itself and countermand its every order to the Terminaughts, and then send a shutdown code to defeat the Terminax itself.

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Tales of the Brain Eaters. Three.

Sometimes, you have to move away from something to get a better view of it. Sitting in E-ville makes it difficult to truly understand the forces swirling around you in the twilight. Coming to Railroad City helps me put context around much of E-ville’s hidden society.

Things only hinted at in Evansville are spoken of openly in Indy… for certain definitions of open. I expected my inquiries to take me down, into the undercity, as they would have in Seattle where the City Below is such a strong part of the Second World. And yes, Indy has the same basement boroughs  as any major metroplex, with stairs and ramps leading down to the places where sunlight can never sear or cleanse. But the Lower tracks of Crossroads are a waystation, not a destination. You can make contact with the true Unigov there, but you can’t hold meetings with them.

That only happens at Skydeck.

Skydeck likely existed before the city was planned and platted 1821, but as with many things the colonizers took what existed and forced it to fit their culture, regardless of the consequences. Originally accessed from rooftops and (amusingly) chimneytops, Skydeck is now formed from the 13th floor of hundreds of buildings, some of which are missing many floors below 13. These are crammed window-to-window and hall-to-hall, making it possible to step over the Dropov to reach a new deck manually, but most transportation occurs with elevators and Skykeys.

In older elevators, you may have to seach for where to place a Skykey, but in most cases it’s the same as the fireman’s access. Most keys access only a few decks, and these are codified as times correlating with the position the Skykey needs to be at for that to be the correct 13th floor. The guide who took me to the common entry point, the 13th floor of the Thomas Building which survives despite the rest of the building burning, has a “Thomas Three O’Clock Key,” which accessed the area known as Ashlands by having the key rotated 360 degrees, and then turned to a 3-o-clock position. The clockface position is believed to have been standardized by the 11th Hour Society in the 1930s, when they served as Stewards of the Skydeck access points.

Ashlands is neutral ground, at least officially, less out of some agreement and more because the layers of soot on every surface and strong smell of smoke makes few people wish to claim it. from there the guide warned me not to go far, and I saw only the Stacks, as expected when seeking a sage, but saw tagger signs directing me to the Wherehouses, Galley,   De-Magiced Zone, and most troubling HighHell. I did not wander.

The sage declined to answer my questions, but even just overhearing others talk of local twilight conflicts told me much. The Kith are strong in Indy, as with much of the continent, but truly weak in E-ville. The BraiN Eating was mentioned more than once, and now I must wonder–are the Brain Eaters just defending themselves against the Kith’s influence? If I am to live here, I’ll need to know.

The Torsions are a new faction to me, and powerful only in Indiana, and their power wanes in areas called the Tippecanoe and the Vincennes, that later being the area of the Brain Eaters. The Torsions are very concerned with keeping a temporal barrier between their dominions in central Indiana, and those other counties, which manifests as a time zone caved from what should rightfully be central, but not for all the state.

But for Vicennes/Land of the Brain Eaters/ There are several factions, many minor or unknown beyond the borders of river and rock that define my new home, but which are apparently ascendant enough that no outside faction dares operate in any but the most clandestine fashion in Vicennes without some local alliance. Of these regional groups, the Red Cathedral seems most powerful, and are strongly tied to the brain eating ritual, but I know little else. The Storm Arsenal is agreed to be smaller and weaker, but otherwise a mystery. Other names–the Old Passe, the Clowder Guild, the Death Wake, the Eastcheap Livery–seemed to refer to Vicenne, but I have no context for them.

When my guide told me the Clowder Guild insisted he give me safe passage back to Railway City, which I had wrongly though was included in his services, I did not question it. I was above my depth, and I knew it.

But these are grand threads for me to follow once I return to Evansville. The Clowder Guild I must seek out, clearly, and the Red Cathedral as well.

There are things I must learn, before I dare eat a brain.

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Supers Ideas: The Knight Shift

Some ideas refuse to leave me alone until I write them up to at least a sketch level. This is one of those. I haven’t even searched for similar ideas and names already in use, yet.

THE KNIGHT SHIFT

When Citadel City’s primary defenders are injured, off in space, or just on vacation, the citizens still sleep safe knowing they remain watched over by the less-experienced, less-famous, but still competent Knight Shift.

The Knight Shift can be B-Team backup for the Player character heroes, or just interesting local color.

The Amalekite: The Amalekite is a powerful champion that appears to be a mighty armor made of stone and metal, marked with ancient sigils and crafted in a mix of Biblical and modern styles. The Amalakite can teleport at sunup and sundown, stand watch ceaselessly, fly, command (but not create) fire, always hear its name if spoken by one who has met it, and is spectacularly powerful and strong. Though the Amalekite can bleed if struck hard enough, no one has ever seen its wearer, who is often thought of as the bravest and most noble of the Knight Shift, and sometimes considered “too good” for the ‘secondary’ team of heroes.

In truth, the Amalekite is not a suit of armor worn by anyone at all, but a powerful sorcerous tool created in ancient times by the last of the Amaleks. It is controlled by the dreams of whoever last spoke the rites of kingship over it. Lost for eons, the words were found inscribed in a table by Clifton Kirk, a famed archeologist in the 1960s. Fearing the power of the Amalekite, Kirk never risked speaking or sharing them. Kirk sadly turned to alcoholism when his career never reached the level of success he felt he deserved for finding the Amalekite (a fact he kept secret), and when he died his possessions passed to his estranged son Steven Kirk.

Steven spoke the words accidentally, while going through his father’s papers, and gained the power to command the Amalekite in his sleep. There is no risk to him, he feels no pain, expends no energy. He has even learned to enter a dreamlike state while waking by smoking various herbs and playing mindless video games. But, of course, if his identity was ever discovered, Steven would be in great danger.

And so the master of the Amalekite lives in his mother’s basement, high and dozing off most of the time, as the resentment that none of the acclaim, hero worship, and less proper offers of thanks and rewards ever filter down to him, a massively obese, homebound, part-time online customer service rep.

Dexter: When Caliburn the NovaGuard used his NovaStrike to slow Voidrox the Sun-Killer, the feedback destroyed Caliburn entirely.

Except for his right hand.

With the last mote of Novadronimum in the galaxy powering it, with just a tiny piece of the Justice Circuit still held within it, that hollowed-out gauntlet followed its core programming, and sought someone most in need of justice, and compatible with its (broken, fragmented) OathCode. It should serve as no surprise, perhaps, that it found at that moment the person with the strongest combinations of a need for justice and the strength to fight for it was a young black transgender woman. And so it configured itself to fit on Samantha Baker’s right hand, and gave her a fraction of the last NovaGuard’s power.

And as Dexter, she has wielded it to oppose every injustice she could find since, fiercely, fearlessly, and relentlessly.

Diagoras: Diagoras is the distant descendant of the famed pugilist and athlete Diagoras of Rhodes, and is the chosen and beloved of Palaestra, goddess of wrestling. His skill and ability are defined as the best that any mortal human (which turns out to mean unpowered human) has ever performed in competition. He is thus skilled with all tools of sport, including javelins, discus, bows, rifles, bowling balls, shot-puts, and so on. He often wears sports-related armor, and carried various sport paraphernalia with him.

As a near-demigod, he is also surprisingly resilient, and though showy, and often willing to do things the hard way if it’ll look more impressive, still honestly wishes to fill the role of hero and make the world a better place.

DefCon: The last of the Countdown Clones, from the Countdown to Calamity event, DefCon was the only one of the clones to reject his programming and work with heroes to prevent the Calamity. He has since become a full-time hero, trying to understand his place in the world as a sapient strong-AI with all the knowledge and intellectual capacity of a mature adult, but only a few years of actual life experience.

DefCon still has a ‘5’ on his forehead, as all the Countdown Clones did. If he absorbs enough damage, he becomes tougher, stronger… and angrier. The ‘5’ then becomes a ‘4,’ and DefCon 4 is a somewhat less kind and patient personality. If the increased resilience of DefCon 4 doesn’t prevent him from absorbing a great deal more damage, the ‘4’ becomes a ‘3,’ and he gains an angrier, more prone to violence personality while turning into someone who can go toe-to-toe with some of the most powerful known superbeings. each state lasts only a few minutes, unless it continues to absorb energy from massive attacks.

No one knows what DefCon 2 or DefCon 1 are like.

Firecracker: Rita Miguel was born in the late 1990s a Booster, one of the rare humans who, apparently at random, inherits a superior mental and physical capacity. Almost a textbook Booster, Rita was able to perform 25-50% above peak human athletic and mental capacity–running a two-minute mile, testing at an IQ of 280, able to deadlift 1,400 pounds, able to go for 300 hours without sleep and still function, and more.

Her parents, second-generation immigrants, knew the US government wanted all Boosters to be registered, and thought this would be what was best for their girl. After all, General Glory was a registered Booster, and a national hero, and with registration came free education and health care. So Rita grew up to be poked, and prodded, and tested, and assumed she would be able to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a costumed hero, like so many other Boosters that went through the program.

The All-American Alliance sponsored most of the pretty white Boosters in her classes as teens. General Glory picked a series of young Boosters to be his sidekick Private Patriots. A few Boosters were adopted by wealthy families who trained and equipped them to be local heroes and good PR for those families, while others got corporate sponsors.

But no own gave any such opportunity to Rita, and at 18, she aged out of the system.

So, she made her own patriotic costume, named herself “Firecracker” for her strong personality, and went it on her own, assuming her success would earn her a slot on the Federal Guard, or the Regulators, or the Heroes’ Alliance.

Six years have passed. Firecracker is one of the hardest driven, most dedicated, most skilled Booster heroes. She didn’t so much join the Knight Shift, as she saved them from biting off more than they could chew, and agreed to help out when they realized how well she understood the independent hero life. She is the ad hoc leader of the Knight Shift, though this is not an official position.

She doesn’t think General Glory will call, anymore. But that’s not going to stop her.

She’s a Firecracker.

Mona Lisa: Mona Lisa is a disembodied psychic presence. She was an innocent bystander slain during the Mind Wars event in Citadel City. For some reason, unlike others killed during those weeks, Mona Lisa managed through sheer force of will to project her consciousness into a nearby classic painting. Her intellect thus survived, and she has come to even appreciate the freedom her new form gives her.

Mona mostly exists on the Ethereal Brane, free of any constraint of the physical or temporal. However, she can use a conceptual gate formed by any image of a woman on the material dimension to look in on and communicate with the mundane world. Thus she can use the eyes of any image of a woman to see, the ears of any image to hear, and the lips of any such image to speak. The better the image, the stronger her power through it. Members of the Knight Shift generally carry both a smartwatch program with a hi-resolution image of Mona that she can easily find and inhabit, and a back-up in the form of a painted coin or picture in a locket.

While Mona mostly acts as a scout and communications relay, she has grown into a powerful psionic force, easily able to engage other mentallists and most supernatural creatures if they are anywhere near an appropriate image, and even able to whisper subtle influences into the minds of nonpsychic brains.

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Tales of the Brain Eaters. Two.

Evenasville. It’s not the Eeriest town in Indiana… but I am learning there are forces afoot that shorten the name. That think of this place, my new home, as E-ville.

In many ways this is like living in a suburb of a major metropolis, like the outskirts of Chicago, Cincinnati, or (unsurprisingly) Indianapolis. But there’s no major metropolis serving as the center of social gravity here. At least, none visible to common perception. There are surprisingly vast cave systems here, however…

If there are zoning laws in E-ville, they are either honored in being ignored, or arcane, or only cover a small part of the county’s largest—and one of only two—only incorporated townships.

The hodge-podge of buildings and land use mix in surprising ways, with metal shops right next to cemeteries right next to restaurants right next to bridge clubs. Older districts, such as Boneyard Park, often have century-old buildings sitting right next to modern drive throughs, often in the shadows of great brick edifices build in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Scottlaw, once its own town, still has clear signs of once being home to dozens of factories spewing chemicals into the now-missing Canary Creek. Museums and zoos are surprisingly common, and often surrounded on all sides by more plastic and neon edifices of corporate uniformity, as though the traditional spaces are being cut off from one another by modern, soulless progress.

(E-ville’s only incorporated neighbor in the country, Darmstadt, is a small German enclave, where old dueling rites are still performed at Saint Eligius’s Temple, on St. Eligius street, which may come as no surprise as he is the patron saint of soldiers… and metalsmiths, numismatists, farriers, ranchers, and taxi drivers. They often perform within site of the Tree of Peace, which commemorates the War to End All Wars, which legend says was nearly burned to the ground in 1939, which might explain why some locals feel protective of it.)

The food scene is particularly interesting, as one might expect in the land of the brain-eaters. Modern, corporate, franchised, uniform restaurants pop up constantly, many offering experimental dishes not available to the rest of the world, yet. They constantly appear just across the street or down the block from older, locally-owned places that often focus on comfort food.

Comfort, in fact, is one of the crucial local bywords. Not a pneumatic, power lift bed, but an old, comfortable one. Not a breakneck pace of work, but a steady, comfortable one. Tradition, community, and history are heavily leaned on to provide comfort. It’s as though something is always disturbing the residents of E-ville, always injecting disquiet into their minds. Only by clinging to comfort can generations of families remain here, and work the land, and try to survive where 10,000 years of occupancy has dictated some civilization must sit.

The modern mass-mall-eateries try to emulate this, of course. There are the Apple Barrel country stores and brunch palaces, the Craftsman Kitchen diners. But only the newest of arrivals or most transitory of tourists could mistake these for the true palaces of dozens of generations of comfort. The Blind Grasshopper’s Comfort Cafe, Citadel Bakery, and Steel River Lunchhouse have a kind of magic about them that no mass-marketed, prepackaged, manual-driven food establishment can touch.

A kind of magic that holds disquieting airs at bay.

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Ouroboros & Oubliettes RPG

This is barely a game. It’s more a way to track cooperative storytelling than a tactical exercise. It works only if everyone playing wants it to work, and is willing to overlook when it doesn’t work well.

Oroborous & Oubliettes

The Ouroboros is the dragon that encircles the world, unseen but everpresent, and survives by consuming itself. Agents of the Ouroboros wish to unleash it to consume the world, which will destroy everything with a few generations, but give those who release it vast power until that time.

This has been tried many times before, often by those who cannot be killed, or using objects that cannot be destroyed. In desperation, these things are placed in oubliettes, dark holes that go deep into the world’s crush, and thus deep into Oroboros itself, in the hopes of burying them forever.

But nothing is buried forever. When a new threat arises, the player characters must seek to stop it, often by delving into an oubliette to recover some lore or object that can aid them, or to beat some group of Ouroboros cultists from getting it first.

Making a Character

Describe your character in 2-3 sentences, between 10-40 total words.

Write down one thing you are good at.

Write down one thing you’re bad at.

Write down one important thing you have.

Write down one thing you want to accomplish.

Mechanics

The Game master sets a scene, the players say what their characters do, in order they are sitting at the table, and then th GM tells them if their actions automatically succeed (so extremely simple things), automatically fail (for impossible things), or are handled by a test.

Each scene is clearly defined as casual or dangerous when introduced. Casual scenes have no consequences. A casual scene can become dangerous, in which case the GM says so.

In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for each character to take an action. Actions aren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.”

A number of successful actions equal to the number of players but less than double that number is a draw–players ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene.

A number of successful actions equal to at least double the number of players but less than x2.5 that number is a win. The players make progress on the adventure without any major setbacks.

Successes at least equal to x2.5 the number of players is a BIG win. The players proceed, and get some kind of permanent improvement.

Successes less than the number of players is a failure. A number of players equal to the difference between the successes they needed for a draw and those they got must take a wound. A wounded character must either give up one of their bonuses until she healed, or write down a new thing you are bad at (which the player got to pick) as a scar that is kept kept until the character succeeds at a task using that trial.

BIG wins might give special equipment (standard equipment is assumed), or new allies, or new abilities, or anything else the GM and players agree on.

For each action that needs a trial, a player rolls 1d6, and a result of 4, 5, or 6 is a success and 1, 2, or 3 is a failure. If the trial involves something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to roll two dice and succeed if either is 4, 5, or 6, while if it’s a thing you are bad at you have to roll two dice and get 4, 5, or 6 for both to succeed.

The Campaign

A typical campaign is 9-14 scenes. If all the characters end up with wounds, and at least one has two or more wounds, the campaign is a failure. Every 2-3 scenes, there should be a way for one player to make progress on the thing they want to accomplish.

For now, that’s it.

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Tales of the Brain Eaters. One.

For those of you who don;t know, I’ve moved to Evansville, Indiana.

It’s a modest city in southern Indiana, population roughly 117k. It’s the third-largest city in Indiana, the county seat of Vanderburgh County, home to two universties and the state’s first casino.

It’s in an oxbow of the Ohio River, and is sometimes referred to as the “Crescent Valley” or “River City”. And the Ohio River is sometimes called the Green River.

It’s like they are afraid of True Names here. Which, in a place that’s been inhabited by one culture or another for 10,000 years, maybe makes sense.

Oh, and they eat brains, here.

Fried. In sandwiches. Mostly pork brain, though some claim you an still get fried cow brain. But once a brain is deskulled, battered, and deep-fried, can you tell what mammal it came from?

The expert brain eaters here can, of course. They’ll tell you so, with a certain… look in their eyes.

There are a lot of “oldests” in Evansville. Oldest zoo in the state. Third-oldest baseball field still in use in the country. Oldest active Greyhound Bus station in the country.

Oldest brain-eaters club.

Of course, that club goes back even more than the 10,000 years this palce has been inhabited…

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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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