How do you get a Universal Pictures Monsters shared universe off the ground? By focusing on making one awesome story that stands on its own, but does so in a way that picks up threats from the most popular such movies in recent memory, is inclusive and modernized, and hints at a larger world without taking time away from the things important to your first film. Here’s my pitch:
It is 1950. In communist Romania, Alex O’Connell (early30s white, British, he/him) manages to gain permission for an archaeological team to catalog and record items being removed from an ancient abbey in the Carpathian Mountains prior to its demolition as part of a plan to build a massive road to access the Transylvanian Plain. The Romanian official warns Alex he is only doing this as a favor to Alex’s parents, who were allies during the War and in the troubled years afterward.
Alex brings the good news to Jonsey Johnson (early 30s, black, French/American dual citizen with links to Paris and Harlem), the head of expedition security, and Doctor Mary Jessica Van Helsing (early 30s, white, Dutch, she/her), the expedition’s leader. The three talk about the archaeological value of such a mission, as well as the political and regional dangers, and all three hint their parents raised them to be… cautious. Alex has a cat. Jonsey has a German shepherd. Mary has a fancy white rat. The three animals get along surprisingly well.
Meanwhile at the abbey, looters are holding local workers at gunpoint, forcing them to use their digging tools to break through the back of the abbey’s basement wall. The looters have an old map that claims the “Eyes of the Dragon” have been locked away in a secret chamber. The looters think these are gems.
But the Eyes of the Dragon actually refers to Dracula, who leaks out of a tomb under the Abby in a mist form when the wall is cracked, and one by one turns the looters and workers into his ghoul minions. Only one manages to flee out of the abbey, into the sunlight.
Alex, Jonsey, and Mary (and their expedition) reach the base camp at one end of the Carpathian pass, but find it abandoned. Both become very suspicious, and eventually find the survivor, who explains what he saw. Alex asks if there were hieroglyphics, or Chinese or Aztec symbols. Confused, the worker says no. Jonsey asks if there were vials, chemical agents, or signs of drugmaking. More confused, the worker says no. Mary asks if there were signs of dragons and inverted crosses. The survivor says there were… maybe. He wasn’t paying much attention.
The expedition decides to send the laborer back to the big city with half the expedition’s Romanian guards, to report the attack to the government. Alex, Joney, and Mary all three slip him letters to send to their respective parents, each without the others knowing.
That night, the base camp is attacked by ghouls. The main character’s pets all send up warnings, allowing Alex, Jonsey, and Mary to gear up with their respective monster hunting equipment. (Alex’s are in the false bottom of a steamer trunk. Jonsey’s are stashed in muscial instrument cases. Mary’s are secreted away in a hidden drawer of her traveling work desk.) During the fight, they run into each other, and realize they all have anti-monster experience.
Mary: “You’ve fought vampires before?”
Alex: “Vampires? Those are real?! No, mummies. Mostly, And one dragon.”
Jonsey: “Mummies are real? I’ve fought vampires and a dragons, yeah. Never a mummy.”
Mary: “Dragons? Like, fire-breathing flying lizards? Those are real?!”
Curious as to how his ghoul’s attack was repulsed, Dracula visits the camp the next day. He asks one of their team-members if he can enter the camp, and is told yes, causing Dracula to give a big smile. He goes up to Alex, Jonsey, and Mary, and asks if they were the ones to treat his pets so harshly the night before. Alex begins to draw down on Dracula, but Jonsey stops him, asking the vampire if he was invited into the camp. He affirms he was, and Jonsey rolls her eyes. Mary then tells Alex a vampire can’t attack them while he is their guest, and if he is attacked they’ll be cursed.
Alex notes he thought vampires couldn’t move about in daylight. Dracula asks where he got that idea, and Mary confirms it’s true for some vampires, but not Carpathians. Jonseynotes it doesn;t apply to a lot of Non-western bloodsuckers.
Dracula says he is unsurprised they were able to send his servants fleeing, because Alex reminds him of his most beloved servant and general. Almost as if the spirit of Dracula’s dear friend was reincarnated in Alex.
Mary asks Alex if he could be a reincarnation of Dracula’s beloved friend. Alex shrugs, and says it runs in the family. Jonsey, meanwhile, tells Mary she quits, and walks away. Alex is flustered Jonsey would quit NOW, but Jonsey points out her name is on the papers the Romainian government signed too, so she can set up her own camp if she wants to. Mary tells him not to worry, she trusts Jonsey.
Dracula suggests Alex leave the expedition and join him. Jonsey is seen getting people to take down her tent, and draws a line in the dirt, loudly telling Alex and Mary that anything on her side of the line is now HER camp, and screw them. Dracula seems amused, and begins to talk about how hard help is to get these days, when Mary distracts him by noting Dracula still has some scars from where he was injured last century, and wonders how long it took him to heal from that near-death. He is angered and suspicious, and asks her how she knows about his last conflict. She tells him her family name, and he looses some of his cool and nearly attacks her.
In the background, Jonsey has gotten all the expedition members to set her tent BACK up. Alex asks if she is leaving, or not, and she tells him if he has a question for her, he can come over where she is and ask her. Alex has his father’s confused-and-annoyed expression, but Mary grabs his arm and hauls him across the line Jonsey drew in the dirt. All the remaining expedition workers are around Jonsey’s tent. Dracula goes to follow, but stops up short at the line, as if hitting a barrier.
Jonsey says she didn’t invite him into HER camp. Alex grins, and he and Jonsey and Mary unload at Dracula, who is taken by surprise and flees.
The plot can proceed from there along pretty typical adventure/horror lines — Alex, Jonsey, and Mary decide Dracula is growing stronger by the day, and they can’t wait to stop him, so they go after him in the tomb complex. The three have different and complimentary skills, and make a good team. They hunt down Dracula and seem to destroy him, but when he “dies,” a gem that looks like a snake eye falls to the ground. Mary realizes this is one of the two legendary Eyes of the Dragon, relic of the Order of Dracul, and it’s how Dracula survived her grandfather’s assault in the late 1800s. Alex smashes it, and asks how many such gems there are. Mary says two, and three agree they need to find and destroy the other one.
Searching through in notes found in the camp of the Looters who released Dracula, they find that there were two places the Looters thought the Eyes of the Dragon might be. One was here. The other was Castle Frankenstein, and there is a map to a Lost Lab of Frankenstein’s, which might hold the secret location of his original Castle.
Castle Frankenstein then becomes the next movie. In that story, Alex, Jonsey, and Mary seek to find Castle Frankenstein, but find they are competing with a man who can become invisible, who apparently is part of an evil occult organization…. and a little mad. During the source of that movie, it’s revealed some of Doctor Frankenstein’s reagents for creating life came from a lost Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein had sent Igor on an expedition there to gather more materials just days before the villagers stormed his castle, which is why Igor wasn’t around when that happened. There’s no note saying if Igor ever came back…
As the Shared Universe expands, I can get Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, and even the Hunchback into this if the first few are successful. The original characters from The Mummy (1999) as occasional support characters. Like, if the Invisible Man’s formula turns out to need blood of an ifrit of the djinn, who are naturally invisible, one of the movies can include a backup appearance by Oded Fehr as Ardeth Bay. And, of course, we can bring in elements from Mary and (rightholders willing) Jonsey’s families as well.
Both heroes and villains expand their plans, form allies, and build toward the end of the first story arc, a final showdown with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Woflman. But even that is only the FIRST story arc…
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“Of course, Doctor Frankenstein did not begin his work with human corpses. Not for ethical reasons, you understand, but simply because they were difficult to acquire, and until his work progressed to a stage where human trials were needed, there was no point.
“His earliest experiments on revivification were on marmots, easily bought from trappers near his family’s Swiss home. There were far more failures than successes, of course, and were it my preview I would condemn the man to perdition on the basis of what he did to those alone.
“Even so, in time he brought a marmot to life, indeed my current companion Vivo is that first, fully-revived marmot, though in Vivo’s case no surgery had been needed. The Doctor had killed him under exacting conditions, and revivified him moments later.
“I have often marveled at Vivo, for while he has all the robustness and vitality of all we mortiborn, unlike the majority of us he is a peaceful, caring creature. Well capable of defeating a predator ten times his mass, Vivo would prefer affection to affrontation. Bless him.
“But from there, the hubristic doctor did decide he must move to primates, if not yet humans, to perfect his procedure. No large primates being common in Italy or Switzerland, he had to order them bespoke. But hunting expeditions to Borneo were common enough, and he was rich.
“Indeed, I am unsure how many evils would never have been visited upon this world had the Frankenstein family not been one of vast resource and reputation. In the century-and-on of my existence, I have found more evils traced to rich, well-respected men than any other beast.
“So, vile Frankenstein had no difficulty having Indonesian and Malaysian orangutans captured and brought to him. It was thought perhaps he wanted a menagerie, such as at London’s Exeter Exchange. Many were sick and died after arrival, but that too suited his needs.
“I am uncertain how many of my distant cousins, living or dead, he constructed me from. Close examination of my form and logic dictates no less than seven, but without taking my internal organs apart — an act I have always objected to — an exact accounting is impossible.
“I have been told, repeatedly, by anatomists that my brain, at least, must be human, rather than native to my orangutan skull. This is argued that because I can talk, and reason, I cannot be a mere ape. Of my speech, I will grant, the doctor most likely used some human parts.
“But my reason? No, I am not convinced my reason is any less orangutan than my limbs. For, did his homo sapiens subjects not show vast, cold intellect beyond that of their flesh-donors? Is it so hard to believe that the gap from apes’ reason to mans’ is at best a short distance?
“I would propose the question cannot be truly settled until men show the ability to see themselves as something other than the divinely-appointed lords of all matter in the world, animal, mineral, gas, fluid, and plant alike, to use and despoil as they see fit.
“I remember nothing of my time before mortibirth, though instincts still exist from my firstflesh lives, and some smells and sounds strike me as familiar in the extreme. But having gone to Borneo once, I can safely say I am no native of it. I am no native of any land.
“I remember my first weeks. I thought the doctor wise and kind, something between a father and a god. He taught me to walk, talk, eat–ensured that I was fine in form and function. Then he drowned me in an arsenic solution of his own devising, and took notes as I screamed.
“I do presume he believed my consciousness fully destroyed. I think this not out of some trust in his character, but from the fact when I stopped moving, he stopped taking notes and never consulted my glass sarcophagus again. I sat, silent and unmoving, and thought. For years.
“Should I not have been found in the investigation that ensued after the publication of an account of Doctor Frankenstein’s insensate experiments, I believe I would be trapped, paralyzed, and thinking still, looking through the arsenic water and glass at some stone wall.
“But found I was and, in time, released. As I could speak, and was witness to the foul knowledge and process the doctor had created, I was not destroyed. In time, decades, truly, I earned my freedom by turning the lie of a human origin for my brain back on the government.
“So, here exists I. Corpses pretending to be one flesh. Abyssal chemical reactions pretending to be life. An ape’s mind pretending to be human.
“But I am also cunning, robust, and potent in the way of all my kind, and though I carry no love for Monsieur Dupin, he taught me well.
“By the aegis of his brusque acceptance of me, I am established. I have legal papers that sometimes grant me rights, and monies that do so more often.
“How did I come to know Dupin? What is my vocation now? Those shall be future articles, for which I’ll receive a nickel a word.”
–From the Diary of Ardra Maias, the Empire Coast Journal, Jan 17th, 1934.
I wrote this more than a decade ago. This is all there is of it– no outline, no list of names or plot points. Just the beginning of an introductory scene, likely to be incomplete forever, hanging as insecurely as the character in it.
The sound of rain splattering on the floor of the chamber was rudely interrupted by the loud clang of a three-tined metal hook bouncing through a hole in the ceiling. The hook swung on the end of a knotted rope, dancing mid-air as the rope jerked and swayed. Then the rope disappeared back up through the hole, the hook traveling with it. The hook rang like a bell as it popped back past the edge of the gap it had come through, and disappeared up into the rainy night beyond. For long moment, the chamber was again filled only with the sounds of rain falling down through the same rough opening in the stone roof, to patter against the worn tiled floor. The water pooled, then meandered like a snake in a thin, dirty stream that weaved past rusting helmets and yellowed bones strewn across the old tile floor, until it flowed with a quiet gurgle down a rock ramp corridor that exited the chamber. Even when lightning flashed its harsh brightness through the hole in the ceiling, followed seconds later by thunder, the light did nothing to illuminate the dark corridor, or show the stream’s final destination.
The metal hook banged across the rock at the top of the hole, without falling in, and was again dragged away. A muffled curse, invoking gods too dead or imaginary to be offended, echoed into the chamber and then the hook came flying into the old stone room once more. This time when the knotted rope was pulled back, a single tine of the hook caught on the lower edge of the ceiling’s hole, and the rope was tightened against it. And then, the chamber was again filled with only the gentle patter and gurgle of the rainwater.
Before long, cursing could again be distantly heard thought the ceiling’s opening. Though closer and louder than before it was no more imaginative, mostly focusing on improbably sexual positions and the dubious heritage of the architects who had chosen to build the chamber, and the complex it served as entrance to, so high in the mountains. Had the architects been around to hear such speculation they would have been filled with rage, and likely summoned demons and spectral horrors to strike down the blasphemers. But not only were they all long dead, the moldering remains of several of them actually lay in the damp room, their impotent bones scattered and once-rich garments turned to tattered rags. The architects had claimed that even in death they would defend the chamber, but their complete lack of action gave lie to the ancient pledge.
More than half an hour after the hook had first banged its way into the chamber, a second knotted rope was slowly lowered through the rain-filled air from the gap in the massive stone slab that served as the room’s ceiling, its lower end coiling neatly on the wet floor. A thin, nimble figure was silhouetted in the gap of the ceiling as lighting and thunder flashed across the sky above, and then his pale, exposed body slid down the second rope. He was breathing heavily and might have been sweating, though the rains lightly pelting him made it impossible to know for certain. He had a strip of cloth wrapped around his groin and another above his eyes, and leather straps protecting his palms and feet, but was otherwise unclad. He slipped easily down the rope, letting his feet and hands slide nimbly over the rope’s knots. While still a score of feet above the ground, he paused on the rope and spoke softly. The words were sibilant, soft, and yet seemed filled with great value, as if he was whispering something terrible and important.
As the sounds — never designed for human lips — slipped away in a hush, a blue mote of light formed in the air beside the thin man. The mote drifted down below him, to bounce gently off the pooling water on the floor – though it created no ripples. The man watched it roll for a few feet, then come to a stop. It was little more than a single candle’s worth of light, and he had to peer through the rainfall still all around him, but he rushed nothing. Every inch of the corridor he examined from his perch on the rope, taking note of the water trickling out the only exit, the bones and armor, the cracked altar against one wall, and the smashed statue against another.
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They killed me again, today.
I suppose I should be used to it by now. I mean, anytime anyone comes to the old carnival grounds, or the camp and lake next door, it always ends up with me getting killed again.
I mean, yes, the first time was legitimately surprising. I put on the dead firefighter’s gas mask and coat to help get those campers out of the burning building, not hurt them. But I guess when you catch on fire, roll around in plastic tarps to put it out, and get covered in patchy molten tarp cloth, you look a little scary.
Especially when you have a 4-foot long flaming bill hook hedge cutter in your hand.
So, sure. I get that they thought I was a vengeful spirit come to drag them to hell. I don’t think they needed to wrap a chain around me, hook it to a pickup truck, drive to the lake and jump out just as it went off the dock, so I was pulled underwater and drowned in brackish muck, but at least I get it.
And I guess if you are dumb enough to run an illegal underground carnival and blare intentionally Satanic lyric over the loudspeakers, and that actually DOES raise a vengeful spirit in the form of one wet dude with a patchy coat, mask, and flaming bill hook, you might decide to “douse its hellfire” before discovering I was vengeful about poor OSHA compliance from the original carnival’s corporate owners. I still think dumping the illegally-stored tanks of liquid nitrogen on me was taking it a bit far, though.
So I confess, when one of the things stored in the liquid nitrogen turned out to be a human regeneration formula that brought me back as an infectious zombie… rotting flesh visible through the broken gas mask (but still with the same patchwork coat and flaming bill hook — Black and Decker, man, it’s a quality brand), I was pretty sure it was going to go badly for me. So, yes, I lurked a bit as the urban explorers took pictures of my stomping grounds. I didn’t want to get frozen or drowned again! But when I saw they had mobile phones, I did try to ask them to call for help!
Turns out, enunciation is tricky with a rotting, burned, flash-dried tongue.
No drowning, at least. Getting fed into a wood chipper, mixed with mulch, and spread over the baseball field was hellishly painful, especially since as a regenerating mutant undead spirit of vengeance I was still aware the whole time, but at least I was outside. Some nights it was quite nice.
I DO feel bad for terrorizing people when that freak storm dropped a phone line onto the field and I was sucked into cyberspace and tried to kill people using the internet. But what can I say, it was the 1990s, and netiquette for horror monsters wasn’t really codified yet.
And then there was the seance, being reverse-possessed by the brother of my first “victim,” the attempt to recreate the regeneration serum by cloning me, turning out not have been killed but just in hibernation for 7 years while digesting a guy’s liver, the SECOND clone of me, the group of multi-denominational priests who summoned me just so they could destroy me “once and for all,” the alien parasite…
I gotta be honest, even I am not sure I didn’t hallucinate that last one.
So when I reformed from a single drop of my original burning blood and found a mock-up of my original mask and coat in the roadside attraction based on my exploits (but with the SAME bill hook — *man* those people can make gardening tools!), I should have know that moving away from everyone and everything wasn’t going to be enough.
At least someone ought to be able to make a cool movie out of all that cell phone footage those kids got of me and themselves before the fungus that grows on my mutant undead body turned them all into homicidal killers and they did each other in.
And chained me to a bigger truck, and drove me into a bigger lake.
The “Next Last Stand” is a campaign idea, which spawned a bit of fiction. Both are presented below.
Campaign Idea: “The Next Last Stand”
You build a character explicitly to begin with a scene where you died heroically, delaying enemy forces in a last stand that achieves greatness, even though your death is inevitable.
Encounter 2 is with the rogue Valkyrie who recruits you, in death, to join the Verloren, the “Lost Troops” who are the only hope for staving off a planar apocalypse.
Fiction: Last Stand of Knight’s Bridge
“Stay calm! If you can’t carry it, set it aside. Do not block the path! Move, quickly.”
Valaina’s voice was ragged, the warning harsher in her throat the fiftieth time than it had been when she first shouted it an hour ago. There were still refugees streaming past her, rushing out of Arches Square and the roads that ran into Oldstep and the Tanner’s Town. But the numbers were far fewer, and she realized with a shock most of those running toward the Knight’s Bridge now were truly carrying only small bundles, and several showed smoke stains on their clothes.
And a few had wounds.
She turned to her cohort and waved to indicate they should keep directing people to move over the bridge, toward the relative safety of Aldenear Citadel.
Her eyes scanned for, and quickly spotted, a lanky blue-skinned lad in a hauberk, carrying a massive plate of wood and steal over his shoulder and guarding the closest avenue from Oldstep.
“Sinjin!”He turned at the sound of her voice. “How close is the main force?”
The lean orc armiger set his bulwark shield against the corner of the lesser Knight Bridge tower, and nimbly climbed up its tightly-fit stone side as if it was a ladder, the weight of his armor and toolkits slowing him down not one bit. Once he reached the peaked roof he braced a leg and swing out like the lookout in a ship’s rigging, barely hanging on to the tower with one hand and using the other to shade his eyes from the flashing light of magebolts streaking back and forth across the skies.
His face looked paler than usual, but his voice was calm and strong.
“They’re marching through Oldstep now, lady. They could rush us in ten minutes, or a tad less, if they rushed us. But are clearing every arch and building.” He paused, then looked down at her. “There won’t be many more fleeing to use from there, m’lady.”
Valaina nodded and waved him down—his keen eyesight, and it’s ability to cut through smoke and haze, were worth the risk of running him up high once, but she’d not leave him there to be a target for mage or sling-stone.
Besides, she was going to need him soon.
She marched calmly to where the Tower Guard were holding the line onto the bridge proper, and maneuvered herself next to Guard Kinnon, the watch commander, and Elder Berett, though the “elder” was no more than twenty summers old, and the bands of mastery on his robe cuffs had been roughly stitched in place just hours earlier.
“Liegemen, it’s time to prepare the withdrawal. The enemy is nearly upon us. We’ll want to give people every change to make it to Aldenear, but once the enemy is here it’ll be too late to begin to fall back. We need ordered lines, and warn the yeomen some folk aren’t going to make it. We can’t let that break the formation.”
Kinnon nodded and turned to begin giving orders, but Berett put a hand on the guard’s shoulder.
“Can’t we redirect refugees to go around the moat and killing field? Rush through the city to the farther gates? The enemy is just coming up this one direction, so far, so surely some of them could enter Aldenear from the harbor-side? I know they won’t all make it, but…”
Before Valiana could speak, Kinnon shook his head and cut Berett off.
“Once the enemy forces take the Knight’s Bridge, the citadel will have to close the curtainwall gates. And the bridges—ALL the bridges—will be brought down by sappers. Those fleeing from the far side will be cut off as well, with little warning. Otherwise the moat and killing field won’t serve their purpose.” Kinnon waited a moment, staring into Berett’s eyes to see that the young Elder had understood, the turned and walked to his men, leaving Berett’s hand hovering mid-air.”
Berett turned to Valaina, his eyes wide.
“M’Lady, most of the city will be fleeing through the far gates. There are far more neighborhoods with access to the Queen’s Gate and Harbor Gate. If those are closed and their bridges destroyed as the enemy takes Knight’s Tower…”
Valaina nodded, grimly.
“You’re right Elder, but there’s nothing to be done for it. It’d take hours to evacuate the city, and it’s not time we have. Once the bridges come down, any remaining cityfolk will have to flee into the fields. They’ll have no walls, but the invaders can’t sweep the surrounding lands thoroughly until the citadel is taken.”
A hint of desperation came into Berett’s voice.
“My lady, they have necrothurges! Every death will swell their ranks. Which means every minute we buy here not only saves our own, it robs them of more troops. If we hold the Knight’s Bridge Towers, even briefly, we buy the city more time to flee through the far gates.”
Valaina shook her head. She nodded to the assembled guard, who were nearly in formation preparing to move slowly back from the two Knight’s Gate Towers. Only a trickle of refugees fled past them now.
“If we hold, all who stay here are lost. There will be no relief for us, and the oncoming forced will overwhelm us. I cannot ask the yeoman guard to die here, they will be needed on the citadel’s walls soon. And my cohort alone cannot stave off this advance As you note, they have necrothurges. Without a warder…”
“I’m a warder.” Berett voice was calm, for this first time since he had arrived at the towers.”
“Elder…” Valaina began gently.
Berett shook his head. “I don’t mean I am a warder because I am an Elder. I know these” he waved vaguely at the bands on the end of robe’s sleeves, “are a measure of desperation. But I am a trained warder, lady. I came up through the Siege and Fortifications college of the House of Abjuration. Put me in a tower,” he nodded at the greater Knight’s Bridge Tower, “and I can screen a unit of two score or more against all hexes and maledictions. I swear it.”
Valaina looked at her cohort. Nine squires, each lacking only patrons and experience from being full knights. Ten armigers, each with a massive bulwark shield. They could span the gap between towers, but…
“We haven’t the support, Berett. We’d need lancers, crossbows in the towers…”
Berett, very much looking an Elder for the first time, turned to the assembled guard formation.
“Who among you yeoman have family on the far side of the city?”
Half the assembled guards raised their weapons, spears and crossbows held high.
“How many will give their lives to buy those families more time to flee to Aldenear?”
Not a single weapon lowered.
Berett turned back to Valaina. “Thirty, maybe forty defenders lost here. To prevent hundreds or thousands from becoming soldiers for the Adversary. Tactically, a good trade.”
Sinjin had come up beside Valaina, and when she glanced at him, he nodded, almost imperceptibly.
A distant scream echoed up from the streets of Oldstep, but was cut short.
“We are guided by your wisdom Elder. Kinnon!” The guard commander turned from his formation. “Ten lancers, ten crossbowyers, volunteers only. Those without families and older than thirty take precedence. Then get across that bridge immediately, and beyond the curtainwall. No lingering, not for anything!”
Kinnon began selecting men and women with their weapons raised, and dressing the line to fill the gaps.
“Sinjin, set the armigers. Bulwarks down, one swordsman behind each, one lancer behind that. Also one at each tower door. Elder?”
Sinjin rushed off, and Berett looked at her.
“Take the crossbowyers. Six to your tower, and they guard you above all else. Four to the other tower. As long as you ward us, we’ll hold.”
Eyes wet, Elder Berett nodded, and hurried over the the gathered crossbow-armed guards. Kinnon’s remaining unit was already falling back, and a single old man with a ragged bundle–fat cat sitting atop it–was scurrying up to rush with them across the bridge.
Valaina marched over to her position, the center of the line of defenders, behind Sinjin.
From the streets into Oldstep, a shambling figure staggered forth. It was dirty, and hunched, missing most of its face and part of its left arm.
Behind it, were many more.
Sinjin’s strong voice bellowed, and he drew a hatchet and braced his massive bulwark.
“ALL TOGETHER, IN THIS LIFE AND THE NEXT!”
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CARRY A TORCH SONG
(A Sorcerers & Speakeasies short story)
Felspethe moved silently from her office to the interior balcony overlooking the main room, her form concealed in the dark shadows the balcony’s drapes cast from the stage lights hanging just under it. It was a good crowd, tonight. Mostly human, as you’d expect on a Saturday night at an upscale place like the Annwyn Avalon, but with a smattering of feybloods, dworrowfolk, sidhe, and one small block of uroks. She saw with approval that Tam-Tam, the night’s floor manager, was lounging in apparent boredom between the uroks and the nearest humans. It was unlikely anyone would dare bare iron in her club, but it was better if Tam-Tam could calm tensions before they got anywhere near that far if someone had too much to drink.
Or smoke. Or snort.
Her Court was similarly alert, if lazily so. Their dull yellow beaks and dark feathers were nearly invisible in the rafters, up at her balcony’s level, though from time to time a rook or jackdaw would flutter from one beam to another, and sometimes a patron would look up. The larger crows and ravens were much quieter, content to sit in spots picked out before she opened her doors. If they took wing tonight, it would be at her command alone.
One of the largest ravens, nearly three feet from tip of razor-sharp beak to end of it’s tailfeathers, was sitting on the railing of her balcony. It had ignored her when she walked out, but turned it’s head now to regard her with one shiny black eye.
Felspethe smiles. “What catches your attention tonight, Valgrn?”
The corvid’s voice was quiet and deep, very much at odds with its appearance.
“Captain Auburn is back.”
Felspethe raised a long, delicate eyebrow, and scanned the room more carefully. To her annoyance, she couldn’t spot the brazen-headed police agent who should have stood out like a pumpkin in a potato patch.
“Where?” She kept her voice calm — no reason to ruffle the Court.
Valgrn tilted his head and leaned, jutting his beak forward. “There. Standing by the maquette.”
Felspethe’s eyes jumped back to a point they had just slid over, a small roped-off alcove which featured a terracotta statue of a lithe elven figure in clothes a century out of fashion, its face a near match for Felspethe’s own. And sure enough, there was Captain Urielle Auburn, in the smart pinstripe suit that functioned as her uniform nowadays. And, as always, her enruned rifle Killfire was neatly slung over her back, in a well-maintained but obviously military shoulder sheath. The captain’s eyes were boring a whole across the club, though Felspethe didn’t bother to see what she was looking at yet.
Flespethe’s heart fluttered a little, which was almost as annoying as not being able to spot Auburn on her own. She wanted to be annoyed about the rifle, but couldn’t generate any heat behind the feeling. The Annwyn Avalon forbade weapons, but she knew perfectly well a quarter of her patrons concealed some derringer or stiletto. And Auburn could likely flash a badge, or a note from the mayor, and insist on bringing Killfire in anyway.
But most police would have brought something more subtle. It was just so like Urielle to insist on being obvious about it. A smile crept onto the corner of Felspethe’s lips, and it took conscious effort to suppress it.
“Do we know why she’s here?”
Again, Valgrn pointed with his beak, the line of his gesture crossing the steely gaze of Captain Auburn at the location of one of her VIP tables, where a circle of patrons in suits that each cost more than her monthly payroll sat and laughed loudly. The largest of the group was Beula “Breakbone” Jotkin, an ogreblooded uruk famous for being able to punch through brick. No one in the club would want to trade blows with the big enforcer… except Auburn, of course.
But the greater threat was a small man sitting next to Breakbone, and almost certainly paying for her meal. Pleasantly plump, balding and gray-haired, Fodrick Freeburner was the unquestioned head of the Weefolk Beneficent Society… known on the streets as the Halfling Mob. He was an almost cherublike figure, with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, who played “Little Father Christmas” in the city’s Yule parade every year.
He was also, Felspethe knew, a merciless criminal mastermind, and a potent necromancer.
She found her mouth suddenly quite dry. If Auburn was here for Freeburner…
“What can you see in the farther branches, my knight?”
As she stroked Valgrn’s feathers, his eyes went from glossy to flat black, as he looked beyond where she could see.
His voice was barely a whisper. “Captain Auburn hunts a killer. She believes it to be Aussker Crackkettle, a minor numbers-runner for Freeburner. Freeburner has kept Crackkettle hidden. She is here to remind him she has gone to war. True war. And that if she does so again, it will not go well for him.”
“And here, tonight?” Felspethe held her breath.
“Captain Auburn will begin no war in your lands. But if Freeburner senses advantage, he may unleash Breakbone upon the captain.”
Valgrn’s eyes regained their normal gleam.
“It is unlikely Freeburner would risk it. But not impossible.”
Felspethe knew the future was too shadowy to ever be sure of anything, and Valgrn had certainly earned her trust with his predictions. But she needed to push the chance of a street war breaking out here, tonight, well into the “impossible” category. And to do that, she needed to make Freeburner wonder if she and her Court would side with him, or Urielle, should blood be spilled. But at the same time, she had to do so in such a way he didn’t perceive it as a threat. She couldn’t operate without his tacit approval.
But she also could not allow Auburn to fight alone. Not again.
“The Captain’s unit in the War, the Stormguard. What was their color song?”
Vagrn’s beak could not smile. Yet, the humor was clear on his face.
“March of Cambreadth. Shall I signal the stage chief to ready for you to perform?”
Felspethe allowed the smile this time. “Indeed. One song, to honor the war hero among us. No one could blame me for that, could they?”
She glanced down again, and was startled to see Urielle looking up at her. She should be invisible here in her balcony, but their eyes locked. Urielle nodded once. And… was that a hint of a smile of her own ?”
Felspethe’s heart pounded but she kept enough composure to simply nod in return, and let her smile bloom to its full glory. Urielle’s eyes widened briefly, and then she looked away quickly.
Felspethe felt the emotions that fueled her mortal form more than food, air, or lifeblood boiling within her. Rather than fight them down, she began to let them coil, where she could access them as needed. This song, this one rare song from the owner of the Annwyn Avalon, would be enough to make anyone considering crossing her pause.
And if it didn’t? Well, Felspethe was sure Urilee Auburn and Killfire would not let her and her court fight alone.
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Hofenung ripped a streetlight free of its cast iron mooring with one arm, caked ice shattering off of it, and hurled it down the alley. A bolt of faefire caught the it before it’d gone more than 20 feet, ripping through it with the same boom as a glacier breaking free of the icepack. The streetlight exploded in a cloud of dust and burning embers, filling the narrow space between buildings. Still clutching his charred side with his other hand, Hofenung staggered to the end of the byway and turned onto the next major street.
Behind him, he heard a chorus of buccasnickle cries of pain and anger. Though he could not smile, Hofenung allowed himself a flat-faced chuckle. The Fel Moroz wouldn’t make the mistake of assuming everything made by man was wood and stone again, but for now they had coated themselves in iron shavings far more efficiently than he possibly could have.
Still, the Fouettard would have the diminutive trackers whipped back into a hunting pack within moments, so his reprieve was to be a short one. He bulled forward through the near-blinding snow toward the nearest doorway, using his good shoulder to burst the door in, popping it entirely free of its frame. He staggered a half dozen paces into the shop, plowing through a display of silk hats and gloves, before crashing down on a wooden bench, which groaned under his weight.
His form heaved as though he was breathing heavily, though he lacked lungs or need for air. He rolled onto his side, bringing the wound he had been clutching with his spare hand up from under him. Gently he peeled his fingers back to survey the damage. A chunk nearly the size of his fist was missing from his stone body. Worse, veins of shiny black silver was spreading from the wound, tiny spikes drilling through his granite form and cracking him apart.
At full strength, he might have been able to fight the curse. Weakened as he was, there was no chance of stopping it. He would break, and die, soon. He had even less time than he had feared.
Gingerly, Hofenung reached into the inner pocket of his tattered opera cloak. He pulled forth a single thread, a golden line of light, its tail end trailing into the fabric of his cloak. It resisted his pull at first, but when he gave it a determined tug it popped free. A chill set into his massive stone form, and he felt the animation begin to seep from him. The glowing thread curled one end of itself around his bulky fingertip, stroking the rock that was turning more gray by the second.
“It has been my honor to protect you.” Hofenung could no more cry than he could smile, but there was sadness and pain in his voice. “But I can carry this duty no longer. Your enemies ride fast. We must find you a new protector.”
It was scarcely a minute before heavy hoofsteps crunched in the snow outside. The light from the doorway was blocked by a massive form, hunched and shaggy, a long, barbed whip clutched in one hand and a massive wicket basked over its back. Around it, tiny, beautiful, perfect human forms danced and shook their fists angrily.
The hoofed figured pressed its head against the open space of the doorway, and for a moment was held in place. It pushed, and the entire frame of the building groaned, as if being pressed by a terrifying wind. Then, it’s passage no longer blocked by the invisible force, the creature stepped into the shop. It walked down the obvious path of destruction through smashed displays and toppled shelves, to find Hofenung lying on a broken bench.
“You have been a worthy hunt, protector.” The creature’s voice was deep and gruff, nearly closer a growl than speech. “But it comes to an end now.”
“That you have enjoyed my escape is my sole regret in evading you.” Hofenung’s mouth opened, but did not move with the words. His body was almost entirely stiff, lifeless rock.
The creature bleated once. “You evaded nothing, protector. The teacher’s gift shall now be ours. Produce it, or I shall rip it from your broken rubble.”
More than ever in his long existence, Hofenung wished he could smile. “It’s not here.”
“WHAT?!” The shaggy form stomped a hoofed foot in anger. “What foolishness is this? Left alone, it could be damaged, destroyed. I need it intact to harness it, and you would never risk a gift from the teacher!”
Hofenung nodded. “You are right, of course. I have stitched it anew. And it will find a new protector, and that entity shall carry on where I have fallen.”
The creature snorted, in a mix of anger and amusement. “A new protector? Oh, it has the power to bring another like you alife, it is certain. But you believe here, in this time in this place, someone will craft a new body for such a protector? Make a man-form, or close enough, imbue it with their love and joy and cheer, so the gift can embody it?” One of the tiny forms yelped in squeaky complaint, and the creature nodded. “Indeed, even if some student of secrets was so inclined, there is snow on everything!”
Hofenung felt his last moments come upon him. “Yes, I believe all those things. And until it selects a protector, it will be difficult even for your buccasnickle to find. You will, at least, be delayed.”
And then the protector was no more than a pile of rock.
The hoofed, shaggy whip-bearer stared for long seconds at the remains of its foe of centuries, then cracked its whip. The buccasnickle flooded into the shop, and began tearing apart everything within in. Hats were rent asunder. Coats split in half. Scarves unraveled. As dawn approached, the whip-bearer roared in frustration and, with a crack, drove the small searchers from the shop, back toward the alley.
As they marched past the window of “Professor Hinkle’s Magic Shoppe and Rabbit Supplies,” not one of them stopped to glance at an old silk hat sitting in the display, a bright pink cloth flower sewn to it by a single, golden thread.
You can set the tone for an RPG, from an entire game system to a single adventure, with bits of short fiction. The purpose of this fiction isn’t really the same as fiction that exists only for its own sake. You need to introduce a world and show some of the ways it can be used, as much as entertain with prose.
That’s subtle different from game tie-in fiction. God tie-in fiction does work entirely on its own, and may even take liberties with what game rules could handle in order to present a story set in the same world as a game. It’s a balancing act, but the best tie-in fiction tends to be a good story first, and a faithful representation of a game later. (And this is fair – lots of games made as tie-in to fiction are imperfect representations of those fictional worlds. When you change the format, you accept some alteration in the details.)
For example, I’ve been experimenting with what fiction set in the Really Wild West would look like. I’ve done short introduction fiction for some of the RWW pieces, but am thinking I might take a different approach if I wanted to do my own tie-in fiction.
I haven’t had time to write a complete Really Wild West long-form story, but I have written the first scene of one.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RUSTY
The air was dense with smoke and ash, burning Skaff’s throat as he sucked desperately through the bandanna held to his mouth. His eyes watered but he dared not shut them, glaring deep into the smoke as he ran. The clouds of thick gray ash and cinders were painful, burning his cheeks and hands, but it was infinitely preferable to the oily black vapor that would surely be crawling through the town’s streets by now. Choking, even burning, was a less fearful fate than the horrors he had seen visited on those who had been exposed even briefly to the black gas.
A loud roar, part steam horn and part animal howl, bellowed through town. Even over the screaming of panicked citizens he could not see through the conflagration, the roar was clear and chilling. He felt the need to run from that sound as quickly as possible, but it seemed to come from all directions at once. As its echoes faded, a similar sound rang in the distance. He was unsure how far away the source of the more remote roar could be—a mile?—less?—but he knew it was not far enough. The distant roar seemed to come primarily from the east and so he turned west, the direction only discernible because the low setting sun made one section of smoke glow more than the rest.
A woman crashed into him, running in blind panic, and clawed at his coat. She was tall and thin, with the fine features and sharp ears of an elf, but her face showed none of the serenity Skaff associated with the European clade. Before he could react to her at all, though he knew not if he hoped to aid the woman or shove her away, the elven interloper cried out and dashed out of sight into the smoke. She left a wet sensation on Skaff’s shirt, which he briefly hoped was water, perhaps a result of the woman trying to protect herself from the flames. But the strong smell of iron, wafting up even through smoke and bandana, told him the truth. He was covered in another person’s blood, soaked through her clothing to thoroughly that one impact had splashed it on him. It was a sure sign black gas was nearby. That woman, though running, was already dead. She just had the worst parts of experiencing her end yet to come.
Skaff tried to angle his retreat to move both westward, and away from the direction he thought the unfortunate blood-cover woman had come from. He could no longer see clearly from his left eye, and the stinging in his right forced him to close it even as he desperately fought to keep looking for deadly vapors. Shapes in the ash were vague, and he could only guess at their clades. A human, one of the insectile chivvin, the jerky motions of an automaton. A figure that was a centaur, or a mounted rider, thundered past. Suddenly, in a flash of crimson light and wave of heat, the horselike figure burst into flames, turning to charcoal before it could even fall to the ground.
And then, the dull glow of dusk was blocked from above.
The shape concealing the sun was vast, looming far above him. Even through the smoke its basic form was obvious, three long legs stretching up from the ground supporting a huge disk which writhed with undulating tentacles. Screams echoed down from the top of the shape, and Skaff stopped dead in his tracks. Hot drops of red fell on his face, like hellish rain, and he could taste that they were blood. One of the massive tripod legs lifted and swung forward, smashing some unseen building of brick and glass in the process. A stone struck Skaff, driving him to the dusty street, and the sky further darkened as the leg fell toward him.
Skaff woke screaming.
All around him it was dark, and for a long panicked moment he didn’t know where he was. Instinctively he scrambled backwards, fighting some wet shape that enwrapped him, tangling him and holding him tightly. Then he was falling. He thought he was falling from a great height, but he dropped just a short distance onto a hard, cold floor.
It was the chill air, as he dragged it into his aching throat, that made him realize he wasn’t in the smoke anymore. He wasn’t in that town. The tripod hadn’t crushed him, by the narrowest margin.
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E-Ville’s preternatural forces are mostly aligned with, if not actually part of, specific conclaves or ententes. The Red Cathedral is the most prevalent of these, and nearly every percival either toes the line with them, or has taken positions with lesser alliances specifically to oppose or avoid them. Most of these factions have specific otherworldly concerns, though I’m reasonable sure the Bridge Club are only interested in protecting their ability to play bridge. Which, given how particular the Red Cathedral is about the use of cards (focused on Tarot and Italian-suited decks, but covering all cards to some degree) does require some political power and unity.
But it turns out there are a few true independents left, existing in the margins. Many are sole practitioners, but some are small groups united by blood or possessions, too minor to be considered their own faction, too effective or connected to be considered civilians. The consuls of other factions seem well aware of at least most of these diacritic forces, which are sometimes employed as expendable mercenaries, but finding them is more difficult for outsiders.
Even so, there are some clues which can help you at least begin to make inquiries.
The occult links of both palm readers and old school barbers (especially in their early roles as bloodletters) are well attested to elsewhere. In most cases, those traditions are long since diluted to the point of rumor, but apparently a few followers in Evansville joined forces some generations ago, and have retained at least some of their true art. And, weirdly, they did so by combining their visible commercial front.
There are a few places in E-ville where one building serves as both a barber shop (never a “salon” or “stylist”), and a palm reader or fortune teller (but, interestingly, never a claim of being “psychic”). These public business are small and seem to mostly survive on loyal return customers. Their official offerings are no more connected to the hidden world than anything you’d find in a modern bookstore (though see below), but if you ask just the right questions, they may have the occult answers.
But don’t be insulting, and don’t threaten them. They’ve remained independent. Respect the why and how of that.
There are small, local stores where you can order groceries or deli items their own staff deliver. And some of them have options where you can pay for what appears to be a blank entry. But you can enter special requests, and pay extra for it. If you have the RIGHT shop, and the RIGHT special request and you pay the RIGHT amount, you may get something the Red Cathedral would rather control itself.
This works best if a trusted guide clues you in on where and how. Trying it at random is expensive hit-and-miss, and likely to get you tangled in mundane crime before you discover an occult supplier.
There are a surprising number of bookstores in E-ville. Even national chains that have gone bankrupt have still-active stores here. Many of those zombie chain stores are places with occult connections, but they are firmly controlled by the major factions (though interestingly this seems to be a rare place where the Red Cathedral is not the major influencer… and I do not yet know who is).
But there are independent occult shops, if you can find them. They are all in older, cheaper parts of town, and seem to universally inhabit buildings built before 1925, or in the 1970s (I have no idea why). And they all offer “Books + ____.” What that blank extra something is varies, but the more eclectic, the better your chances of finding a secret back room is available if you know the password.
Books, comics, collectibles, and vaping supplies is a good sign. Books and pizza is surprisingly common. I’ve been told Books and Vacuum Repair is a sure thing, but I haven’t been able to find such a store. Apparently, they do not advertise online. Or indeed, at all.
There is no doubt there are other independents, but the only ones I can confirm have required me to keep their secrets, which is fair enough. They are mites dashing between the feet of giants, and do not wish to be noticed needlessly. Or carelessly.
So if you need someone outside the compacts and factions that rule the shadows of Evansville, and you think you have a line, don;t dismiss it just because it doesn’t fit this pattern. As trends, these account for only a small portion of those who have stayed beyond the Red Cathedral’s reach.
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One. Those Above.
She almost never did that.
Her “friendly” smile was on full display, but she 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 be 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 creates 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 all the applications being explored were military-focused, 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 design and build such modifications 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-7.”
“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 can even get close to?”
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-7 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 Morgans’ bodies began to show visible, meatspace signs of severe trauma. The Morgans don’t let their overwatch monitor or 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 Morgans’ 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:
“No, 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 and learn how he did this, 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… “