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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!

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Life in Evansville… So Far, So Good

I have heard recently from three different friends who all said three different other friends are “sure” I hate it in Indiana, here in the Land of the Brain Eaters.

I don’t.

I’m actually settling in really well. Yes, I am sometimes lost, depressed, disconnected, moody, or in a black doldrum so dense nothing, not even cheer, can escape.

But… that’s just me, folks. I have civilian PTSD. I suffer clinical depression. I am a socially awkward introvert. None of that was going to stop because I moved to the last place in the US where you can buy a fried brain sandwich any day of the week.

I mean… maybe once I eat my first brain. I’m saving that for a special occasion.

But honestly, I am doing better than I expected, by a long shot. I have only ever lived in central Oklahoma and the Seattle region (well, and one semester in California when I was in kindergarten). Ever time I have moved, even just to a new neighborhood in the same town, it has taken me months to get comfortable. Sometimes years.

Here? I’m already pretty comfortable.

Some of that may be how I moved–for me the most grueling part was packing things up during the 5 weeks I was still in Redmond after Lj had flown out to Evansville. But that meant our possessions, including my bed, were already in place when i arrived. There was a space for me before I got here. Yes, about half of what I own is still in boxes, and we’re still figuring out which kitchen drawer has the spatulas, and the movers lost some of our furniture and ruined more–but none of that is part of Evansville. It sucks, but it’s just life.

Gen Con was shortly after my arrival, and while driving to and from the Con in a few hours was a new experience, the Con itself is familiar. The Con Crud I got was new — just a little sore throat and a tad too much mucus, combined with a fatigue that kicked my ass for three weeks. So some of the vibes people seem to have picked up may have been annoyance with how little energy I had.

The culture here is one I understand. It’s not the same as OK or WA, but it’s similar to both of them in a way. No one looks at me funny when i say ‘yes, sir” or “thank you, ma’am,” most food is fried *or* bar-b-que *or* Asian fusion, there are multiple multiplexes, lots of delivery services, and a dizzying array of test kitchen restaurants.

Roads are largely laid out on a grid with 90-degree turns and packing lots shared between businesses. Things are flat, though not Oklahoma flat. There’s real thunder, so far on a nearly-weekly basis. The sun comes up and goes down at reasonable times.

I miss my Seattle friends… but I still chat with them online. I miss my OK friends… but I just saw them last month. I enjoy being closer to friends who live in IN and adjoining states, and I expect I’ll make new friends. And if I don’t, that’s okay too.

And WOW are things cheaper than Seattle. Like, stunningly cheaper. That takes a LOT of stress off.

My wife Lj and I have begun figuring out what life here is going to be like. We took our first ever yoga class–a chair-based one, for beginners–and I think that’s going to be a huge part of the future. It’s less than 15 minutes from our apartment, we clicked with the class and instructor immediately, and it had an immediate positive effect on us. I have come to think of it as physical therapy for being human. As I claim back strength and flexibility lost to years of stress and sitting, I’ll be looking at next steps, but this first step feels very *right*, and useful, and sustainable.

I’m already in a Pathfinder game, so that’s good. 🙂 I have also already begun to carve out the new shape of my career. I’m the Game Design Expert at Lone Wolf Development, I have a real plan to produce some fiction in a way I never have before, and I have more things as settled deals which just aren’t ready for announcement yet.

There will be dark times ahead, of course. That’s a fact of my life — I am at war with my own brain, and I take that war with me anywhere I go. But I don’t think those battles will be harder here than they were elsewhere. Yes, my support network is more virtual and less direct now, but then my sources of stress are also reduced. Yes, there are some big financial challenges we put off until after the move, but we are in a good place to tackle those. A lot of the things I thought would happen now look like they aren’t going to, but I knew not all of them would–just not WHICH ones wouldn’t. And, at least at the moment, I am sanguine with my prospects.

And for a while at least, there’s a whole city to explore. Will we go to the giant bridge club building? Visit one (or more) of the many minigolf courses? Pick a “favorite” restaurant, or game store? Go back to taking the occasional evening drive in air that cool but not cold?

Find the elusive Red Cathedral? Or Storm Arsenal? Fight the Brain eaters… or join them?

I don’t know.

But I look forward to finding out.

ABOUT PATREON

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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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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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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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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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Top Ten Geeky TV Series Pitches

A lot of shows got cancelled recently. That’s fine. Good, even. It’s part of the Entertainment Cycle of Life.

So, here are my top ten pitches for new Geeky TV series. Note that in many cases while I am pitching it, I’d be the WRONG person to write, direct, or produce these.

10. Nebula’s

It’s a single-room comedy… in space! Think of it as Cheers, but set at Quarks.

9. UnCivil

The US Civil War was about slavery. In a world where the heroes of the ancient world were real, and super-science and magic are just beginning to develop, this is the story of early mystery men (and women) operating during the civil war.

8. Lower Decks

The U.E.S. Topeka is the jewel of the United Earth fleet. On its upper decks negotiations decide the fate of systems, bluffs end wars, and strange creatures on contacted for the first time.

On its lower decks the sanitation systems have to be maintained, the quantum torpedoes polished, and the missing synthetics crate from storage 141 has to be found before the new official review. What goes on above deck 50 doesn’t make much difference down here.

Unless there’s a hull breach. Or a Krangin prisoner escapes. Or a visiting alien turns out to be accompanied by a vampiric slime that got into the air ducts.

Again.

7. Vigilance

A therapy group on loss decides they are tired of just mourning their dead. They have MMA fighters, engineers, paramedics, even a cop. No one of them could be a hero, but as a group? As a group they can forge one new figure to make a difference.

They can be Vigilance.

Foresee a fight? Then have one of the fighters wear the suit. Need to interrogate someone? Send the psychologist. Someone in the Vigilance suit gets hurt? Patch them up in secret at a member’s house, and send out someone else the next night.

No one has all the skills to be Vigilance. But between the twenty of them, they have this covered.

6. Lost City

Under Seattle is the famous and well known Seattle Underground.

Beneath that are the Tunnels and Cellars.

Beneath that is the Lost City. Things that have been lost, forgotten, or abandoned often end up in the Lost City. Atlantis may never have existed, but there are a few Atlanteans here. the Rat emperor is always lurking at the edges. And this is where the Sasquatch went when they were driven out of their native homes.

Debbie Darbaski’s little brother disappeared when they were children. Now a young adult she gets a letter from him, asking for help. In the Lost City.

5. Perri Hotter and the Arcane Adult Education Class

Look, not everyone in the Magic World can make it at the ivy-wand-league schools, like Warthogs, or Bullbrakes. Sometimes when you AREN’T the chosen one, your life takes an unexpected turn, and you best bet is Arcane Adult Education Class.

Of course that means if some villain DOES manage to encase all the major magic schools in dream ice, you and your evenings-and-online-classmates may the the only hope the Magic World has. And as the best-of-the-worst, everyone is looking to Perri Hotter, who was once mistaken for the Chosen One, to save the day!

Which doesn’t mean she can skip her day job, either. Saving the world doesn’t pay the bills.

4. Asmara

The year is 2100. Asmara is the major, mobile solar-system traveling space station controlled by the African Union. With unlimited solar power and self-sufficient hydroponics, it is beholden to no one, and on it cultures suppressed for millennia are having a Renaissance.

3. The Game Masters

As the world gets weirder, the governments of the world often need experts who can tell the difference between real satanic rituals, and circles taken from the Paladin Roleplaying Game. Combining esoteric knowledge, game theory, and a host of friends with weird hobbies. Han Kite, Robin Kaos, and Mike Selinker (as himself!) tackle the weird cases the more traditional agencies have thrown up their hands and given up on.

2. Ashmen

A group of US firefighters go to help with an out-of-control blaze in Europe, but are cut off and surrounded by flame. they take refuge in a root-encrusted cave, pass out, and when they wake up and come out, it’s the 9th century.

And the locals mistake them for “ashmen,” Dane raiders famous for their ash-wood ships.

They have what was on them at the time, and their collection of modern knowledge. Can they make a new life in the dim past? Can they even learn the language? And, once they befriend a local village, can they protect it from the REAL ashmen, who are coming to raid?

1. The Morrigan

Erin Gabanna always loved her grandmother, but is still shocked when she inherits everything upon her grandmother’s death. In a letter, her gran warns her that this includes the title of The Morrigan–Erin is now the harbinger of death, lady of crows and wolves, and a member of the unseelie court.

Erin will be drawn to death and war for the rest of her life, and will be hunted by the one-eyed Cuchulainn as her geas.

Erin’s grandmother hid her connection to death, but Erin is going to fight it. Or, at least, seek to bring justice to those deaths she is drawn to. In this she leans on her friends of college, which include a paramedic, a lawyer, and her best friend, a celebrity bodyguard.

The Morrigan is a murder-of-the week procedural, as Erin is supernaturally drawn to death but decides to solve these crimes on her own accord, with a running B-plot of supernatural politics with Maeb, Dagda, and other entities trying to draw Erin in as a young, inexperienced member of the court with a lot of enemies, and few allies.

Entertained by just the IDEA of these shows? Feel free to support me on Patreon!

(Want to pay me to actually work on these, or create more ideas for you? Leave me a note in the comments, or shoot me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com!)

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.”

PATREON
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Writing Basics: Learn from Your Mistakes. Or Else.

I love my editors.

I kinda have to. I need to treat them the way fighter pilots need to treat their ground crews. without them, I can’t do my job.

They are the only people in the world companies will pay to make me look smarter.

So, when they savagely rake me over the coals on something, I try to pay attention. To be a better writer, of course. And to show them I respect the effort I put into sending me feedback.

But, also, because I never want to know the savagery of a twice-spurned editor who finds the same mistake in a turnover of mine after pointing it out for me all special.

So that you can perhaps learn from my mistakes as well, here are the three two most savage pieces of editorial feedback I have ever received on my writing. I’m naming names.

One. Stilted Dialog.

Lj Stephens was editing a short piece of intro fiction I wrote for a game product. She asked for a revision noting:
“It’s great, except for when people are talking. That is all bad. Can you rewrite this so no one speaks?”

Yes. Yes I can.

Two. Passive Voice.

Louis Agresta sent me feedback on an adventure I wrote for him that said “Too much passive voice has been put in this adventure.”

Wow, that sentence is So awkward I wonder why…

Oh.

Three. American Spelling.

I turned over a manuscript to Wes Schneider which, to be clear, was for an American publisher.

I spelled the word gray as “grey” throughout the text.

He gave the manuscript back to me with editorial comments. The first time that appeared, there was a correction.

The second? A bigger correction, with a star by it.

The third? The page bled red ink.

Wes said we fought a war for that ‘A.’ He mentioned I was making baby George Washington cry. He drew a sketch of a field of cut-up and dying E’s in red ink on the manuscript, and told me I had to enter all the corrections myself.

I did.

With apologies to baby George Washington.

Good luck out there. Be kind to your editors.

PATREON
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