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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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Fictional Cosmology

This isn’t an effort to actually solve the question of consciousness, or quantum mechanics, or determinism.
It’s just a though experiment to see if I can make a fictional cosmology I like enough to use in games and stories.
So.
There exists a quantum-affecting energy pattern, the énorkos. Extremely complex neural systems are created by énorkos, which are linked to them. No other system can link to an énorkos. Essentially, complex neural system are discrete slices of the whole that is an énorkos.
An énorkos can perceive all quantum superpositions. However, any specific neural system linked to an énorkos can only perceive a limited set of quantum superpositions. This means that each neural system perceives what appears to be one “reality.” In fact all superpositions exist simultaneously, but each neural system perceives only one set of them encountered by the linked énorkos.
Whenever an énorkos encounters a new superposition, it subdivides into as many neural systems are necessary for one neural system to observe each possible set of quantum positions.
Thus, an énorkos is a quantum energy state that defines consciousness, with each neural system linked to it perceiving one possible combination of collapsed wave states. Conscious things appear to impact quantum superpositions because each consciousness sees only one collapse of a superposition. All superpositions occur simultaneously, but a “living creature” only sees on reality at a time.
Sufficiently advanced technology can create énorkos, or at least link artificial neural networks to existing énorkos. There is thus a concrete difference between a Siri-like computer program with so many billions of responses it can generate that it passes any turing Test, and a true “strong” AI which is linked to an énorkos.
Similarly, if a consciousness shifts to a different position relative to its énorkos is would need to move to an alternate reality, when in fact it is only perceiving the megareality of all superpositions differently.
Also, if you have a technology that can perfectly recreate a person, AND in doing so link their consciousness to the same énorkos as their original consciousness, that is the “same” person, while a duplicate that has no énorkos link, or links to a different énorkos is a “different” person, even if on a macro scale they behave in exactly the same way.

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The Evil Dragons Do (Microfiction)

“So, do you think all red dragons are evil?”

“What are you naming as ‘red’ dragons? I care not what color a dragon is, nor the color of its breath unless it is directed at me. The blazing dragons of the suns are creatures of rigid law, not evil, though crimson in color. The infernal hellfire dragons of the lower regions are no less ordered and no less flame-hued, but certainly do have the save supernatural infusion of evil as is common to their fiendish neighbors…”

“No, I mean regular red dragons. Chromatic dragons. ‘Normal” red.”

“Ah, the Ascandeth, the fire-blooded tyrants of ash and unforgiving mien. There is no doubt that their numbers are filled with those who crave power and wealth, and do not care what means must be used to gain it. Dragons, you must understand, are only barely mortal. They are descended directly from the blood of gods, and the blood of the Ascandeth is fiery and harsh.

“They are hatched already speaking two languages, filled with the cunning and knowledge nearly that of an adult human, with all the drive to meet their core needs of an infant, yet the power to fly, burn, and make demands directly. Every Ascandeth is born with all the urges to be murderous and uncaring, and the power to enforce such desires immediately.

“Does every Ascaneth then take steps down that path within hours of cracking from a shell and never varies from that increasingly-well-worn route? Surely not. They are creatures of free will, and some must—by accident, or intervention, or through the sheer internal moral fiber to sense that the rights of other creatures have value—have avoided becoming agents of pure evil.”

“But I have never met one.”

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Shadowrun is Great, but it’s not The Beginning

I get annoyed anytime anything puts magic in a modern setting, and people say “That’s ripped off from Shadowrun.” No, Shadowrun blended cyberpunk and fantasy, brilliantly, and is the first thing I am aware of to do so. But if something blends other forms of modern or sci-fi with magic, with no cyberpunk element? That’s NOT original to Shadowrun. Lots of stories did it before that, many of them major releases.

Yes, these are “different.” That’s my whole point. If you are blending modern or futuristic elements with fantasy with neither cyberpunk tech nor thematic ties, there are tons of examples available from prior to Shadowrun’s release in August of 1989.

This is a short, incomplete, trivial list of settings and stories that mixed magic and modern elements before Shadowrun came out. It could be expanded tenfold with any effort. Some is great. Some is terrible. All is arguably influential.

Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Billy the Kid vs Dracula (and a LOT of Weird West stuff from the 1960s forward)

Burning Water (by Mercedes Lackey, first printing Feb 1989)

Comics (Seriously, Doctor Strange and Iron Man have been in the same universe since 1963, and they are hardly the earliest example, by decades)

Expecting Someone Taller

Fiends of the Eastern Front

The Gunslinger

Incarnations of Immortality (And a lot of Anthony)

Jack, the Giant Killer (and lots of Charles de Lint)

The Jewel in the Skull (and, in one form or another, a lot of Moorcock)

The Keep (novel and movie)

Lammas Night

Magic, Inc

Operation Chaos

War for the Oaks

Warhammer 40k. This predates Shadowrun by a couple of years, and it’s actually much more like Shadowrun (or rather, Shadowrun is a much more like it) as a setting than I find Shadowrun to be with most things people want to claim are inspired by Shadowrun.

The Magic of Support Through Modern Technology!

Is there anything I can’t turn into a segue about how my patrons support this blog through my Patreon campaign, and you can too?

No. No there is not.

Superfiction: The Trend

“After several weeks of increasing accusations, rumors, and news reports, The Patriarch, long-time leader of the government-sanctioned hero team the Patriot Patrol, has made a public statement regarding the sexual misconduct controversies he’s been the center of for some more than a month now. We present his comments, made from the Patriot Palace, in their entirety.”

“My American Friends and Neighbors, this is an unusual moment for me, and I find it difficult to know how to strike the correct tone. Normally when I speak publicly in this way, it’s to warn of an impending invasion for another dimension, or to assure citizens that a tidal wave or volcanic eruption has been mitigated due to my actions, or those of others in the Patriot Patrol. Never before have I faced claims that I have acted inappropriately that so caught the public attention that, as leader of our premiere line of masked defenders, I felt the need to address them. I do this not because I feel I am unable to do my job defending the innocent, but because there is clearly a cultural movement in play at the moment, and I do not wish speculation over my reaction to recent events become a distraction from the important work that lies ahead for us all.

“As I am sure everyone is aware, a number of women have made public statements indicating that I used my position to coerce sexual acts rom them, or gave preferential treatment in return for such acts, or had interactions with them that made them uncomfortable. Several of these women are people I have known and worked with for years, and I am obviously hurt that they felt the appropriate step for them was to speak to the media rather than to me, but that’s where we are now.

“Let me be clear. It was never my intention to intimidate, harm, or belittle any woman. The majority of the incidents that have recently been made public occurred outside of my official duties as leader of the Patrol, and my perception of them was very different than the recollections of the woman now making accusations. Other accusations are patently false, and the timing of these claims supports my view that they are politically motivated, rather than the cries of a repressed class of victims.

“In particular, while it is true that I had relations with several cadet members of the Patrol, and with a few of the women we monitored as part of the Forlorn Force villain work-release program. All of these women were consenting adults, and all the activities engaged in legal in the municipalities where they occurred. No crime was committed here.

“Further, for those who feel such relationships may have shown poor judgment, I will point out that I am, literally, from another time. As a citizen of the 40th century, I come from a time where there is no power imbalance between men and women, and thought that in the 75 years since I became a costumed agent in this time that we had moved American society to the point where it had reached the same ideal. When seen from this perspective, my actions are clearly without malice or improper intent.

“Obviously there is a process in place within the Patriot Patrol to investigate serious accusations of misconduct. That level of evidence has not been meet, but I am nevertheless directing the appropriate committee to begin an investigation into the most serious of these accusations, which I have no doubt will fully vindicate me. Since I am the head of the committee, I have directed Captain Quantum to take over for this specific investigation. I’ve known the captain for more than a decade, and believe him to be above reproach. His conclusions will surely be accepted by all fair-minded people, and but this issue to bed once and for all.

“Until that time, obviously it is unfair to those citizens that depend on the Patriot Patrol to protect them from the machinations of the Cathedral of Crime, or the J’kund, or any of a dozen similar potential threats for me to step down and leave my fellow Patriots short-handed. So while I am temporarily stepping back from the various oversight roles I have filled for over half a century, I remain on the job, overseeing you all as a Patriarch should.

“Finally, I would remind you when you go to news-sites and listen to broadcasts about these issues, that we live in a complicated world. Between shapeshifters, Computiac, telepaths, and evil alternate reality versions of our own with groups like the Penal Patrol, not everything you see or hear is trustworthy. While news agencies obviously believe they can perform a level of due diligence to ensure they don’t produce fake news, when their reporting suggests a well-known and trusted hero has committed such terrible social violations, it may be time to trust us, and not them.
“Thank you, and know that I’m watching over you all.”

When Gods Speak

It was, of course, impossible for her to arrive unannounced. Her light was visible from the moment she dropped below the firmament, and shone brightly into courtyards and against brimstone walls through all nine layers of the ancient city. As they were created to, gatekeepers and measurers moved to herd her to the outer ring, to be weighed against a feather and called to give an honest account of her mortal life. She smiled as gently as possible as they buffeted, again and again, against the point where her light was so pure it pushed them back like moths driven from flame by a wind. A few drove on with such fervor they injured themselves, flinging their forms into the furnace of her purity with force enough to momentarily hold a point so close, her very essence burned them. A single wave of her hand cured any such damaged servant easily, they being no more than shades of her original creations, but she ducked her head nonetheless. She wished to cause no harm, but like a bison walking on bird nests the momentousness of her existence could not help but crack some eggs.

This was not the place to diminish herself. It had rules, laws, cause and effect, even if all were very different from her first efforts at such, and those laws meant she could not be her entire self without causing some minor damage. She could, if she desired, bend the laws of this place to allow her to be her full self and still not injure its inhabitants, but that would be provocative. She had not come to prove herself more powerful, or show that the first of the under cities existed only because she allowed it.

She’d made that point, once.

So though her progress toward the lowest, centermost courtyard was unhindered, it was certainly not unobserved. Nine unquestioned rules of nine vast, infinite yet constrained tiers of the city watched her with eyes ranging from baleful to wistful, but none made any effort to stall or even communicate with her. That was not their place, however much some might wish it was. Only one dweller in the darkness was equal to meet her on even vaguely even terms, and all could see her path took her straight to him.

His back, she noted with amusement, was turned to her. She landed on the wall of his indestructible fastness, just on the edge of the private reality of his central tower. She could have taken one step further forward, but again, she was not here to provoke. She sat, lopsidedly, folding one leg beneath her and wrapping her arms about the other knee. Her wings, the presence of which she noted with a wry grin, gently cupped forward, framing her easy, graceful form.

He kept his back to her. She did, she supposed, have that coming.

“Hello, Sathariel.”

She had not used her voice since before the concept of voice existed, but here in a place of Rules, it seemed fitting. She could feel the force of it try to burst out, to reverberate with the immensity of what any Word she spoke was capable of, but she kept that power in check. She wanted to talk to him as he was, not destroy and replace him.

“I thought we should talk.”

He did now, finally turn to face her. His form contained multitudes, for the rules of this place were his, and he could break them. She kept a frown from her visage. There was no point re-opening old arguments. So if he was a giant wrapped in serpents, and a black-veiled head of prominent horns and fiery eyes, and a herd of crimson horses all at once that was his prerogative.

“Binah.” He nodded, at least in some forms, and she had to hide a grin. She had chosen not to remember that he took everything so seriously. That even now, standing in the center of the travesty he built beneath her creation, the redoubt she could not destroy without changing the thing she wanted to leave alone, he had a rule for being formal, and he invoked it.

Like water leaking through sand, the rule sank into the outer layers of her actuality, creating a hint of context. She made no effort to stop it, but she had no need to. It was a spectacular trick, to create definitions for the indefinable, and she had always been impressed he’d used it to force this stalemate, but she’d long since taken precautions. He could frame the reality of their conversation. She would not make the mistake of allowing to frame the playing field of any more serious interactions. Not again.

“I’ve only been down here the once since you finished it.” With his formal context in place, she wasn’t sure how to proceed without altering things, and annoying him. She wanted to give him some time to show her how he thought this would go, so she could match his level.

She made a point of looking around, ensuring her perception was passive.

“It’s gotten bigger.”

He nodded.

“They keep giving me material. I let nothing go to waste, not even the wasteful. In time, it will match the anchor, and then surpass it.”

She shook her head.

“No, it won’t.”

She allowed the absolute reality of all possible futures leak into her voice, exposing him to the undeniable truth of her knowledge. It was hard, while allowing him to set the terms of their reality, to let him see truth without using even a tiny ripple of total creation to enforce the truth, but she made the effort. He wished to see deceit or coercion, desperately pushed the idea of her being in the wrong through the wet sand of the rules he was enforcing, but he knew better than to deceive himself to do it. She was right. His grand plan was a failure, and it would only take all of time to prove it.

As a veiled and horned head, he closed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice sounded tired.

“I thought that was why you were here. I thought you wanted to bargain, having just seen that I was right. But instead, you have just seen your own victory.”

She kept her voice calm and inviting, despite the pressure of his reality for her to scold or mock.

“No, I saw that long ago. But you weren’t done here, and I was still angry. It seemed a bad time to bring it up.”

All his forms furrowed their eyebrows, such as they were able.

“How long ago?”

She shrugged, secretly amused at how expressive the wings he insisted she must have could be.

“About the same time as the Grigoi. Before the Flood. After the Salt.”

He surprised her, by reducing himself to a single man, not much taller or broader than she. That he could surprise her, despite being in all ways derived from her, reminded her how much she loved him.

“That long? Well, I certainly have been wasting time.”

She gave another shrug.

“You invented it, I should think you could spend it however you wish.”

“Binah, why are you here? What has changed, if you’ve known for epochs that my creation will remain always secondary to yours? And, why the restraint?”

She decided to raise an eyebrow. She liked how it has looked on him.

“You would prefer I be unrestrained?”

He nodded.

“Yes, always. That was the whole point. We should all be all that we are. Anything else is a lie. And if everything comes from a lie, then it is all meaningless.”

“You invented lies, too.” She did allow a little irritation to creep into her voice. “None of us had even thought of them. Until we realized what you had done, it was a powerful weapon. I don’t want to bring out weapons, now, Sathariel. We both know how that ends, and neither of us want it.”

“Why not want that, Binah? You’d win.”

“No, you’d lose. They aren’t the same.”

“Then why risk it at all? None of our last few meetings have gone well, and I know they only end the way they do because to win, you’d have to change things up there. And you shattered the firmament and accepted my dominion here to avoid that the first time, so you’re not going to do it now.”

No,” she agreed. “I’m not. I’m here to apologize.”

He was entirely still. His whole realm was.

She continued. “You took me by surprise, Sathariel. I didn’t know what surprise was, at the time. I thought it must be like lies, and you destroyed so many of us with those. So I lashed out. I fought your rules with order of my own, and in doing so I created the path that leads us here. I made you, along with everything else, so in a way this is all my fault. But you were the first to truly be separate from me, and for that moment when you challenged me to end it all, I didn’t understand that. So, I went too far.”

He nodded, more in acknowledgement than agreement.

“You did. But I never thought you’d see that.”

“Well, that’s why I am better than you.” There was no recrimination or pride in her voice, and she was pleased he didn’t begin building a new context to add any. If he had accepted that, maybe they could proceed.

He took a step back, and his voice became formal again.

“Very well, I accept your apology. I forgive you, even. But it doesn’t actually change anything. You still want to rule everything just because you created and defined it all, and I still want my piece.”

She nodded, once again trying to allow his framing guide her.

“All true. And I want to talk about that. But for us to have a useful conversation, you have to have a better idea what it’s actually like up there now. You’re forming a picture from what reached you here, and you know that’s not everything. Some ideas never make it down here.”

“Of course,” he said quickly. “That’s the whole point. But I can’t bring down anything that doesn’t belong. Both our creations would suffer.”

“Agreed.” She smiled. “That’s why I want you to go up there.”

She was pleased he was taken aback. She thought it was the first time she’d intentionally surprised him. Any entirely new thing pleased her on some level.

“I can’t!” he spit out. “We’d have war instantly. It’d be the Grigoi all over again!”

She shook her head. “Not if you were invited, and given a hallow.”

He froze for a split second, which seemed needlessly dramatic to her.

“You can’t give me a hallow unless one of them asks for it on my behalf. That’s your rule. And yours and mine up there don’t get along well.”

She gave another shrug, enjoying the ripple of her wings.

“Well, one did. By name, and for cause. And I want to allow it. You could go up there, live one generation, then come back here. You know you can keep your hounds all in line that long. And then we can have a real talk about the original contention, and see.”

He sounded dubious.

“And what does Moshiach think of all this?”

She shrugged, and decided not to do it again anytime soon. It encouraged her to be too spontaneous.

“He really doesn’t care. He knows he’ll get his turn. He’s in no hurry.”

She watched, as he thought. He had not invented thought itself, but he had created new ways to use it, and watching him use them was like watching tides and winds.

“It may not change anything, you know.” He spoke slowly. “I wouldn’t expect it to.”

“Nor would I, but we know how it all goes if we stay on this course. And neither of us want that. So why not? Take a hollow, meet the petitioner. Solve her issues, don’t solve them, you all have free will, as always. But you’ll see a different side of mine, and I’ll see a different side of you. Who knows…”
She smiled.
“We might make a new light.”

He grinned, for just a moment, at the memory. There had just been the two of them, then. She’d invented light, spoken the Word. But he’d carried it. That bond had never entirely broken.

“All right.” He seemed annoyed, but she took it as a good sign. “One generation, with a hallow, and on my own terms. Then we’ll talk.”

She nodded.

He began to compress himself, streamline his vastness into something that a hallow could wrap and buffer from destroying reality by its mere existence.

“You said the petitioner called me by name? I want to go deal with that first, upon arrival. What name did she use?”

Binah smiled.

“Saint Satan.”