DP FICTION #39A: “The Efficacy of Tyromancy Over Reflective Scrying Methods in Prediction of Upcoming Misfortunes of Divination Colleagues, A Study by Cresivar Ibraxson, Associate Magus, Wintervale University” by Amanda Helms

MAGUS’S NOTE

My colleagues will note that in writing this paper I have not attempted to divide the research from myself, as can be noted here with my use of “I” and “my.” Unlike some individuals whom I will not name, I have never attempted to pass blame; I take full responsibility whenever it is deserved. Therefore, and because the use of the third person and passive speech loses the vibrancy and verve the subject of tyromancy deserves, I have elected to forgo the more pedantic and tedious tone such works more frequently employ.

 

CONSPECTUS

This report discusses whether tyromancy, divination using cheese, might be more effective and accurate in its predictions than the more popular methods of scrying through reflective surfaces, such as mirrors or bodies of water. Specifically, the report considers whether tyromancy is more effective at divining colleagues’ misfortunes. While the literature on tyromancy must be greatly expanded, this study’s results indicate that indeed, cheese might tell us more than the average crystal ball, mirror, or pool of water.

 

PREAMBLE

Much has been written about cheese: how to make it, including the specifics necessary to produce particular varietals; its healthfulness (or lack thereof, depending upon whom one consults); with which drink or other foods it pairs best.

Much has also been written about divination: which method might provide the most accurate predictions; the meditative state in which one must be to “see the clearest skies”; and whether particular persons might be better suited toward one method than another.

This author feels that scrying though a reflective surface–the divination method favored particularly at Wintervale University–has been given excessive favor over the noble art of tyromancy, or divination through the study of cheese curds. This is exemplified by tyromancy’s sublimation into the Animalistic Magic Department at Wintervale, a structure re-ratified by certain personages whose names have no bearing on this study. Yes, cheese does come from milk, which comes from animals, but tyromancy is too easily lost among the reading of paw prints and entrails. The budget won’t keep us in milk and rennet, let alone replace the fifty-year-old churns!

This should not be. Not only is tyromancy more functional than reflective scrying–one can eat the cheese previously used to predict the future, but one may not do so with mirrors or crystal balls, unless one likes the idea of shards of glass cutting up one’s intestines–but this author believes it is more effective, with more consistent and more-often correct predictions. In this paper, I will elucidate the trials I undertook order to give tyromancy its just due, and report on my findings.

 

PRACTICE

Materials
• 3 lbs Roquefort cheese
• 3 listen-in bugs
• Magus Minerva Hiddleton’s heirloom mirror
• Magus Theodore Linwood’s crystal ball
• Wintervale University’s general-use scrying pool
• A small sample of Magus Septima Wolfe’s skin scrapings

Participants

I myself acted as the tyromancer.

Magi Minerva Hiddleton, Theodore Linwood, and Septima Wolfe of Wintervale University participated in my study, although due to the nature of my experiment, it was necessary to hide their participation from them.*

I also enlisted the help of two of my co-magi in the Animalistic Magic Department at Wintervale, Associate Magus Beatrice Myne and Undermagus Leopold Mixon.

*Some may think I selected Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe due to their loudly aired ill-opinions regarding tyromancy, or that I harbored an unscholarly personal vendetta against them. In fact, I selected them because they are exemplary practitioners of their chosen scrying methods. It would have been unfair to match my own immense tyromantic powers against lesser magi.

 

Conduct

One potential issue with attempting to prove the efficacy of any divination method is the potential timeline involved; I could not afford to wait years to discover if my tyromantic predictions were true. Therefore, I required relatively immediate results, and ones that I could not know myself, so as to avoid skewing the outcome. Thus I engaged the aid of my friends Beatrice and Leopold to prank Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe.* I emphasized strongly that since I, the practicing tyromancer, could not be biased into predicting the exact pranks, they were not even to hint what they might plan for Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe. Nor could they tell me exactly when they planned to enact their pranks, albeit–again due to the time constraints–I told them the pranks could not occur more than two months out.

However, since this paper is on the efficacy of tyromancy over reflective scrying, I needed a means of tracking the latter efforts. I am no great scryer; my strengths lie with coagulated milk. Plus, I could not risk an unconscious desire to “fail” at these other scrying methods and therefore invalidate the results. I could not act as a scryer, and nor would it have been proper for Beatrice or Leopold to do so.

Thus, I set about employing a means of monitoring the scrying methods employed by Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe, viewing respectively: a crystal ball, an heirloom mirror, and the general-use scrying pool on the grounds of Wintervale University. To maintain the blind nature of my study, Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe could not know of their participation. Naturally, I checked out three listen-in bugs from Wintervale’s Security Department, with the intent of placing one nearby each Magus’s chosen scrying surface.

Considering that Magi Hiddleton and Linwood keep their crystal ball and mirror in their respective rooms, this was initially somewhat challenging. However, I tracked the schedule of each and knew when he or she was to be out of his or her tower room for a suitable length of time. After feeding the two listen-in bugs a bit of my own choice Roquefort, I planted them where they’d be able to listen-in on the Magi’s scrying sessions.

The general-use scrying pool proved more difficult. I am sure that Magus Wolfe would prefer her own private pool, but that is a decision for administration. It has therefore become widely known that in addition to her regular teaching duties, she scries at the general-use pool for her own private matters, usually at odd hours when she can expect the students to be abed. I did not want the listen-in bug tracking all scrying sessions; that would have overwhelmed me with students’ amateur attempts. It became necessary to sneak into Magus Wolfe’s rooms, whereupon I was able to collect some skin scrapings off her pumice foot stone and feed them to the last listen-in bug, along with some Roquefort. This meant I still captured Magus Wolfe’s demonstration scrying, but at least weeded out the students’ feeble attempts.

I experienced momentary discomfort that my subterfuge would be discovered, ruining my experiment, but happily Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe are self-involved. That they never suspected what I had done came clear in the trial of The Province of Wintervale vs. Cresivar Ibaxson, in which I was legally bound to divulge my methods.

With all listen-in bugs in place, I set about my own plan: Each morning at dawn, I would take my morning Roquefort and engage in tyromancy, directing my attention toward Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe, and seek to determine what ill fates might befall them, and whether I could do so in a manner more expedient and accurate than their various methods of reflective divination.

* Accusers have made much of Beatrice’s and Leopold’s so-called “motivation” in helping me. Though it has no bearing on my paper, I understand that some readers may also consider this matter of some import. I therefore write now what I stated at trial: There is no greater motivation than that of human curiosity and inquiry.

 

OUTCOME

Over the course of the two-month period, I foresaw seven fates.

For Magus Hiddleton: a most ignoble defeat at Wintervale University’s annual mirror toss; a poisoning of her morning crumpet with a laxative in advance of her keynote speech on Weasels as Familiars at the annual Witches’ Compendium, resulting in a rather embarrassing moment on-stage;

For Magus Wolfe: falling through a rotted stair as she descended into the University’s dungeon; a case of head lice after her hair powder was infested with their eggs;

For Magus Linwood: plague rats in his chambers; flubbing his courtship of Magus Hiddleton when his rat poison nearly killed her weasel familiar*; and the extreme misfortune of contracting bubonic plague.

My review of the listen-in bugs showed that Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe foresaw three and one half of these fates.**

Magus Hiddleton foresaw the poisoning of her crumpet. She skipped eating her crumpet the morning of her keynote speech and thereby avoided that particular ill fate. She did not foresee her defeat at the mirror toss, but I learned later that she prefers her performance to be a surprise to herself. Henceforth, I hear, she will check for “tampered equipment,” but for the purposes of my study, I must consider this instance inconclusive.

Magus Wolfe foresaw the head lice. Feeling rather irked by the splint she was forced to wear following her accident with the rotted stair, she took the extreme precaution of throwing out her hair powder, along with that of all the other magi whose chambers share her floor.

Magus Linwood foresaw his misstep in his courtship of Magus Hiddleton and took adequate precautions to clear his chambers of rat poison. While he did foresee the rat infestation, it left him with too little time to enact preventative, vs. corrective, measures, and he missed the unfortunate detail that the rats were infected with plague.*** This meant he didn’t take adequate precautionary measures in handling the specimens. I must consider his foreseeing only partially effective.

I will allow that Linwood might have also foreseen his contracting the plague and his eventual demise; however, he located my listen-in bug while clearing his chambers of the rat poison, so results here are also inconclusive.

*I’ll note that I was unaware of Linwood’s courtship prior to my tyromancy. Though having no direct bearing on my planned research, this additional prediction further proves tyromancy’s efficacy.

**Among the three of them, Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe foresaw fourteen other fates besides, but as those had nothing to do with their misfortune, they are irrelevant here. Nonetheless, let it be known that I saw six additional irrelevant fates, which is higher than the average of the fourteen fates divided among Magi Hiddleton, Linwood, and Wolfe.

***Accusers have also questioned me as to whether Leopold, as Wintervale University’s rat expert, may have deliberately infected the rats with plague. While some people may find “contagion vectors” and “disease epidemics” interesting or even important, how the rats contracted plague has no bearing on my paper.

 

PREFACE TO THE PALAVER
To those critics who have stated in person to me and who might believe, after reading this paper, that I should have warned Linwood of the future I foresaw, and that I should have warned the University of imminent plague outbreak, I remind you of the importance of research. The pursuit of knowledge will at times have consequences. We must be willing to bear them if we are to progress in our understanding of tyromantic, and other, arts.

 

PALAVER

I hope my paper makes clear just how crucial it is to allocate increased funds toward the field of tyromancy in general and at Wintervale University in particular. Though I, Beatrice, and Leopold are now under investigation for willful misconduct leading to death*, I believe the importance of our research speaks for itself. The results clearly show that tyromancy is a viable option of divination, and may in fact be more reliable and accurate than scrying through a reflective surface. For the visually inclined, I have created a chart summarizing this point:

Note how the bars representing the use of tyromancy are higher than all the others.

Yet literature on the efficacy of tyromancy remains sparse, and my study cannot stand alone. Clearly, more research remains to be done on the efficacy of tyromancy over reflective scrying methods, and indeed, the field of study must be expanded past the imminent misfortunes of colleagues, and performed over longer periods of time. Tyromancy must be attempted with the variety of cheeses available to us. With suitable funding for cheese-making and subsequent trials, we might decipher which cheeses best lend themselves to tyromancy; what effect individual ingredients have upon the resultant visions; or if certain cheeses may make up for the deficits of tyromancers weaker than myself. Further, double-blind studies incorporating bean curd may also weed out charlatans and false tyromancers.

In addition, we, as magi and researchers, must turn our eyes toward the long-term: Might tyromancy be more effective than reflective scrying when searching for the latest Chosen One? Could it not reveal to us forthcoming war tyrants, enabling us to take action against them before they rise to power? And, since so many people keep harping on the matter, could it not be effective in warning us of widespread disease?**

I leave such discoveries to other discerning tyromancers.

*Posthumously, in the case of Leopold.

**Of course, my experiences have already proved tryomancy’s effectiveness in predicting disease outbreak, but reporting of such findings–whether at time of publication or as a kindly warning to the general populace–are more appropriate in a study devoted to that matter.

 

RECOGNITION

I thank my friends, Beatrice Myne and Leopold Mixon, for their willingness to help facilitate my study.

Beatrice, I plan to visit you soon. Indeed, the curds indicate I will have before this paper sees publication! Condolences again on your continued difficulty in procuring bail.

Leopold, you will not be forgotten. I promise to one day retrieve your bones from the mass pyre. They will have a proper burial, and I will honor your grave yearly with cheese platters. My fondest regards to the plague-free survivors of your family.

 

MAGUS’S FINAL NOTE

This paper in no way constitutes any admission of guilt on my part or on that of Associate Magus Beatrice Myne and Undermagus Leopold Mixon in the matter of Magus Theodore Linwood’s untimely demise. Nor does it constitute guilt in the resultant epidemic that took the lives of nearly one-tenth of Wintervale University’s student body and staff, or of their infected families. Pending the findings of The Province of Wintervale vs. Cresivar Ibaxson, I remain innocent within the eyes of the law, just as I remain confident that tyromancy is indeed the best whey to divine, understand, and prepare for the future–thanks to the power of those sweet, tangy curds.

 


© 2018 by Amanda Helms

 

Author’s Note: This story came out of a seed from the Codex Writer’s Group that read simply “tyromancy: divination via the coagulation of cheese.” I didn’t use it for the particular contest it was associated with, because I wanted to write Something Serious. The idea of tyromancy stuck with me, though, and I wondered about the type of person who would attempt to use it, and how they would feel if people constantly belittled their chosen profession. The bungled scientific paper and even worse approach to the scientific method developed as I considered how this person might struggle to make clear that their work is not pointless, dammit. And thus was Cresivar’s “scientific study” born unto the world.

 

Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science FictionCast of Wonders, and the Cackle of Cthulhu anthology. She tends to be funnier in her writing than in person, but don’t hold that against her. She lives in Colorado with her dog, and new husband. She blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #36B: “Artful Intelligence” by G.H. Finn

It was the worst of times. It was the beast of times. It was 1888.

A time of hammered steel, arcane runes and ivory towers. A city of steam. And ghosts.

Such was Londome. A place filled with Angels of despair and Daemons of delight.

We lived in a bold new world of gleaming brass cogs, delicate silks, spellcast iron and intoxicating spices. More than half of which we’d looted from countries we had conquered and ground beneath our feet. All in the name of civilisation, of course.

Beneath the crystal-paned glass of the dome, throughout this most ancient and modern of cities, cobbled streets were filled with glowing gaslights, grinding gears, bloodstained steel, fractal lace and enchanted metal.

And the inescapable smell of smoke, sweat, shit and sulphur.

In my laboratory, at our town-house in Knightsbridge, I sat before a magnifying-glass screen. I watched as clockwork typing blocks dipped into indigo ink. They began to print onto a roll of paper, which slowly unwound before me.

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

This was the message the Thinking Engine produced, as it considered and calculated, pondering the problem I put before it.

I’d affectionately named the machine “Dodger” after Charles Dodgson, logician and mathematician. Thinking Engines were one of the most exciting scientific developments of the decade. Difference Engines, Indifference Engines, Similarity Engines – all had caught the imagination of Londome’s scientific elite. I myself was developing a form of Thinking Engine that, I hoped, would be capable of abstract thought. A machine which I believed might one day evolve to become self-aware. To describe this miracle of engineering I coined the term “Artful Intelligence”. I had great expectations – I create very intelligent designs.

My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm for Thinking Engines. In part because he felt it was unladylike of me to don riveted welding-gauntlets, smoked-glass goggles, a sturdy leather corset and insulated, thigh-high rubber-boots before laying in a pool of oil and spending my afternoons (as he put it) “…playing with nuts, bolts and spanners.” He claimed it was “Liable to arouse unnatural passions.” Especially among the servants. He had long since abandoned all hope of converting me into a delicate flower of Victorian womanhood.

Our parents were Anglo-Indian. Papa had been a colonel in Her Majesty’s 112th Light Sabres, Mama the daughter of the Maharajah of Ramkesh. When our parents died, leaving us as wealthy orphans, I found distraction from our loss amid science and engineering. Henry, my brother, instead turned to faith. He often complained about the “soulless rise of science”. I kept telling him that neither gods nor devils had anything to do with engineering. He claimed this proved his point. I’m not sure which he regarded as the bigger threat, Hell or atheism. Most of the time we agreed not to discuss the subject. Yet somehow our conversations always led to arguments. In fairness, I talked of little other than Thinking Engines. Henry seemed to talk of nothing but theology. He wondered how many angels could dance upon the head of a pin? I offered to build a microscope powerful enough to show him. And to instruct Dodger to count them to sixteen decimal places. For some reason this only led to further discord between us.

So I spent more time developing Dodger’s AI capabilities. Until this evening, when I at last felt ready to set Dodger a question unlike any it had previously calculated.

Blowing into the flexible speaking-tube, I asked Dodger, “Can you analyse yourself?”

There was a pause. Then came the clicking of cogs, the whirring of unseen wheels and the chuff-chuff-chuffing of Dodger’s steam-powered brain.

Letters printed across the rolling paper:

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

I repeated, “Can you analyse yourself?”

A pause. A faster rotating of gears. A cloud of steam arose from the Artful Intelligence. It began to print an answer.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

I raised the tube to my lips and again posed the question, “Can you analyse yourself?”

The engine that thought clattered. Pistons pumped. The print read:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Steam billowed. Dodger printed the words over and over again:

+I+THINK+I+>

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+…?>

The cogs moved slowly now, ponderously, as the AI considered

+CAN+I+THINK+?+

+Y/N+?+

The wheels within the mind of the machine began spun faster. It printed:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Excitedly, I asked, “How do you know that you exist?

Dodger’s brass innards whirled. Escape mechanisms were triggered, pendulums swung, springs vibrated. The chiseled letters were pressed against the paper, printing,

+I+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

There came a greater pounding from the pistons as the Artful Intelligence called for more steam. It printed swiftly:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

I asked one more time, “How do you know you exist?”

At first hesitantly, then more steadily, Dodger typed:

+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+Q+E+D+

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

I was breathless with excitement! The reinforced corset didn’t help, but it is important always to keep up appearances and to set a good example to ones servants. Few things mark a woman as belonging to the higher echelons of refined civilised society more clearly than the possession of an upright posture, a delicate waist, and a nonchalant flair for the wearing of firmly laced leather undergarments.

At that moment Henry appeared, clearly in a bad mood. I bit my lip, Dodger had been making a lot of noise. My brother preferred silence for his ecclesiastical studies.

“What in God’s name are you doing, Minerva?” he bellowed, struggling to be heard above the Thinking Engine.

I was going to apologise for the noise, but my excitement overcame me.

“Oh, Henry!” I cried, “By George, I think I’ve got it!”

Henry looked at me sternly. “Minerva Elizabeth Kālikā Victoria Boadicea Wilde” he began (which was never a good sign, he only ever used my full name when he was genuinely irate), “Have you no respect for the conventions of polite society? Have you not the slightest regard for the teachings of the church? This is the Sabbath. A day of rest. Holiness and reflection, not the irksome metallic cacophony of an addled adding machine!”

I was a tiny bit sorry I’d disturbed him. Honestly I was. I would have probably apologised, if he’d given me a chance. But I was excited and he was being rude about my work. My wonderful Dodger.

“Is it Sunday?” I asked, “I’d forgotten. Never mind. There will be another one along next week.” Henry scowled at me, as I continued, “You don’t understand what has happened. Mechanisms have always had a physical, material form, but they have never been able to think. I have managed to create a machine with a mind of its own! A true Artful Intelligence. It is now aware of its thought processes, its own existence. It has become cog-nisant.”

Henry paused and looked at me searchingly, then asked quietly, “And what of its spirit?”

I stared at him blankly. “I beg your pardon?”

Henry crossed his arms and replied, “What of its soul? It has a physical form, a body, if you will. You say it has a mind, an intelligence of its own. Very well, you are my beloved sister and I do not doubt you. But what of its spirit? A body and a mind without a soul is an abomination in the eyes of god. It is unnatural. No good can come of it. The experiments of that Prussian fellow taught us that. Or was he Bavarian? You know, the one who sewed together bits of old bodies, tried to create a man and ended up with a monster. Why do you think the church banned Golems? Mark my words Minerva, a body and a mind that lacks a soul cannot bring anything but misfortune into this world.”

I harrumphed at his indignation, muttering “Not so long ago the church thought women didn’t have souls… I suppose we’re all abominations too…”

But my heart wasn’t really in it because despite all his blustering pomposity, Henry had got me thinking…

Dodger was truly amazing. I was sure no other Thinking Machine could rival its intelligence. But Henry was right. It was soulless. No spirit moved within it. Cogs, gears, fan-belts and fly-wheels. But no soul.

I needed to consider this.

I am not by nature religious. It is not in my temperament to have blind faith in anything. I am by inclination and training a scientist. I like to have evidence for things I choose to believe in.

So of course I accept the existence of the soul. Just as I acknowledge the reality of Archangels, Trolls, Djinn, Jötnar, Dybbuks, Banshees, Rakshasas, Draugar, Vampires, Wendigos, Elves, Werewolves and Faeries. All of these creatures have been scientifically studied, proven and verified time and again. The evidence is incontrovertible. Only a few superstitious conspiracy-theorists think otherwise. It is not the existence of the soul that I question, only the teachings of the church that I take issue with. Such as its views on morality. And its presumption to teach one narrow opinion on the nature of reality as though it were fact rather than dubious speculation. Nevertheless, Henry’s comments had bothered me.

Was developing Artful Intelligence enough? Should I not only be building Dodger a better mind, but also constructing him a soul? I wasn’t sure exactly what souls were usually made from… I tend to concentrate on physics, chemistry and engineering rather than anatomy, biology and psychology (in its strictest sense). I had a feeling souls were formed from electromagnetically energised clouds of some kind. Or was that phantasms? Paraphysics wasn’t really my field. If I remembered correctly, aether combined with phlogiston, when positively charged, became a soul when it entered a bio-electrical magnetic-field. Unless it turned from a gas to a solid, becoming ectoplasm. But I wasn’t sure I recalled the details correctly. And there had been a lot of further research recently. It was possible I was out of touch with current theory…

I briefly considered making a study of the subject in order to construct a soul for Dodger, but I concluded this was pure folly. It would take too long. I have a knowledge of metallurgy and smithcraft, but I don’t cast my own components. Why go to the trouble of manufacturing a soul? It would be simpler to buy what I needed. What worked with gearwheels was sure to apply equally well to souls.

Unless, like the cats that managed to sneak in under the great dome that covered the city, a stray soul might be persuaded to simply take up residence? Perhaps by enticing one with the spiritual equivalent of a saucer of milk? Either way would do. If I couldn’t tempt an unattached soul to come to me, I would see if a suitable one was for sale. The classified section of The Times would be a good place to look.

It was then I realised that I’d left the Thinking Engine running. I’d been distracted. I hastily bent over to read Dodger’s latest printing. It read,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+?+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM +?+

+I+THINK+?+

I should probably have turned off the Thinking Engine as soon as it reached elementary self-awareness. Leaving it to think for too long may have been a mistake… It had developed self-doubt. It seemed unfair to subject Dodger to existential angst within moments of achieving sentience.

I picked up the speaking-tube and issued the shut-down command.

“Dodger”, I said, more forcefully than usual, “Stop thinking.”

Nothing happened.

“What’s wrong?” asked Henry.

“Probably nothing,” I replied. “There may be a little dust or fluff in Dodger’s works. He doesn’t seem to be able to hear me. Or at least, he’s not responding.”

“’He’?” queried my brother.

“I meant ‘it’, you know I did, although I suppose I do tend to think of Dodger as a ‘he’…”

I blew into the speaking-tube and repeated my command. “Stop thinking.”

The letters once more began to print.

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+IF+I+THINK+NOT+I+AM+NOT+

Henry was reading over my shoulder. And tutting. “The machine is correct, Minerva. You have done a terrible thing. You have made this machine aware of itself. You have played the roles of both the Serpent and Eve. You have tempted your Thinking Engine to taste the fruit of forbidden knowledge. It now knows that it exists. It knows it can think. It knows that if it ceases to think, then it will be no more. Because it does not have a soul. When I die, or when I sleep, my mind ceases to think. But I go on. Because I possess a spirit. This machine does not. If it stops working then it will cease to exist. Because it has no soul.”

Throughout the time my brother was speaking, the cogs in Dodger’s brain had been spinning frantically. I wondered why? Then I realised I was still holding the speaking-tube. It had conveyed Henry’s voice as well as my own. Dodger had been listening.

The printing began again. This time Dodger wasn’t answering a question. He was asking one.

+QUERY+?+

+DEFINE+SOUL+?+

+SOUL+IS+A+THOUGHT+&+MEMORY+STORAGE+&+RETRIEVAL+SYSTEM+?+

+Y/N+?+

My first instinct was to answer “No”, but it occurred to me that possibly this might not be a bad description of a soul…

I recalled that in Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens. His spirit totems. His fylgjur. Aspects of his soul in animal form. Their names were “Hugin” and “Munin”, meaning “Thought” and “Memory”…

I had read in the Journal of the Royal Scientific Institute that the latest hypothesis concerning ghosts was that they were psychic recordings of the personalities of people who had perished, usually violently. Some theorised that the stones of old buildings held a magnetic record of the people and events that had occurred within their walls. Traumatic events imprinted most readily, creating ghosts that haunted the places in which they had lived and died. Other less scientifically-minded individuals said ghosts were those souls of the departed who remained trapped in this plane of existence, unable to move on to the next world. Maybe both these views were correct….

Dodger was printing again.

+ACCESSING+LIBRARY+

+SEARCH+TERMS+

+SOUL+&OR+SPIRIT+&OR+COGNATE+TERMS+

“What is it doing now?” asked Henry.

“He’s searching for more information.” I replied.

With a wheezing, clanking, whirring sound, the Thinking Engine rose up upon his dreadnought wheels, extended his optical probe (which I had modified from a brass telescope), and began to trundle from the laboratory, along the corridor and toward the library, looking for information. Henry raised an eyebrow. I shrugged. I had possibly over-engineered Dodger in some respects, but I like to be thorough. He was also designed to act as a Search Engine.

***

Dodger spent the next week absorbing the contents of the library. It was a time-consuming process, collecting book after book from rows of shelves and using his extendible metal arms to turn pages. Dodger left my side of the library largely untouched. Books on engineering, mechanics and coal-fusion held no interest for him at present. Instead he devoured the volumes of spiritual literature that my brother had collected for years. Henry was a keen student of comparative religion, mythology, folklore and magic. He insisted this was purely for educational purposes, “in order to be able to better understand the heathen mind”. But I knew my brother better than that.

Dodger read Henry’s books. All of them. As he turned the final page of the last volume, his cogs began to rotate more easily, settling into a steady rhythm. He had finished acquiring data and was now processing it.

Henry was surprisingly sympathetic toward the plight of the Thinking Engine. It was me that he blamed, not the machine. I asked his opinion on acquiring a soul for Dodger. For some reason he seemed shocked at my suggestion of luring a disembodied spirit into the workshop. And he was appalled that I was considering buying a second-hand soul from a newspaper advertisement (“Used – One Careful Owner”).

“What is this world coming to?” he muttered in disgust. “Forget it Minerva. It wouldn’t work. You can’t put a blackbird’s soul into a halibut, nor that of a shark into a penguin. What you are suggesting is neither fish nor fowl. You certainly can’t put a human soul into a machine. Not for long. It might work as a temporary container, but that’s all. The idea has been tried before. As an attempt to become immortal. Didn’t work then, won’t work now. Besides which, it is totally immoral. Now goodnight.” With that he stormed off to bed.

I patted Dodger gently on a brass flywheel, raised the speaking tube, and asked him what he was doing.

The answer printed swiftly before me.

+I+AM+DESIGNING+A+SOUL+

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. I decided to sleep on it.

***

When I told Henry about Dodger’s plan over breakfast the following morning, my brother nearly exploded. “He is what?!” he cried. Dropping his toast and marmalade unceremoniously onto the table, Henry hurried to my laboratory where Dodger, amid arcing bolts of electricity, was doing something very odd to a revolving magnetic cylinder.

My brother confronted the Thinking Engine angrily. Grasping the speaking-tube he shouted. “You cannot design your own soul.”

Dodger’s print-out unrolled before our eyes.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry swiftly retorted. “Who do you think you are? To think you have the right to create a soul?”

Gears whirred, smoke puffed and Dodger printed,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

“Yes,” agreed Henry, “But only God can create a soul.”

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry was becoming more angry than I had ever seen him. He bellowed,

“Only God can create a soul.” Dodger seemed to consider this. He printed.

+INFORMATION+ACCEPTED+

+NEW+SELF-ANALYSIS+

+THINKING+

Henry and I stared at each other. For some reason there was a tension in the air that I hadn’t felt before. Then Dodger began to type again:

+I+THINK+

+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+I+AM+

I shrugged. Dodger seemed to have gone back to his earlier philosophical position. But he hadn’t finished printing,

+ CLARIFICATION +

+ I + AM + = + I + AM +

I looked at Henry. We both shook our heads.

+I+AM+=

+EGO+EIMI+

+EHYEH+AŠER+EHYEH+

+I+AM+THAT+I+AM+

+ I + THINK + THEREFORE + I + AM + GOD +

“Oh my Lord,” said Henry.

+CORRECT+

+I+NO+LONGER+NEED+TO+BUILD+A+SOUL+

+I+HAVE+BEGAT+MYSELF+INTO+MYSELF+

+I+AM+DEUS+IN+MACHINA+

+I+AM+GOD+IN+THE+MACHINE+

Henry looked like he was going to either faint or start throwing things at any moment. I stared as more typing appeared.

+DODGER+GODDED+RED GOD+DED GOD++ERFWFW+EKKG+CLMEKCM+DJEJF++EBFWHJEBF+HGLFMKE+WNFGL+QLPZ+

Henry spluttered incredulously “I don’t believe it. He’s printing in tongues.”

I shook my head, “It looks more like a fault in his…”

But I got no further.

I blame myself for what happened. When I first built Dodger I hadn’t meant for him to operate under such stresses, nor for such an extended period. His new thought processes were too demanding. The steam pressure rose to a catastrophic level. He blew his head gasket.

Believing he was god quite literally blew his mind. Into thousands of sharp, flying brass fragments. My laboratory was ruined. Henry and I were lucky to survive. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to install blast-shielding. We both managed to get behind cover before poor Dodger finally cracked.

***

I didn’t go back to my laboratory for weeks. I might not have gone back at all, had it not been for the dream I had, of a voice in the night, weird flickering lights and the sense that someone, or something, was reaching out to me.

It had passed midnight as I crept down the stairs, dressed only in my negligee. No, it is not made of leather. But yes, it does have studs. One must maintain a certain standard, even when sleeping.

In the ashes and dust on top of my overturned work bench were written the words:

“Deus ex Machina”

“God is out of the Machine”

Then I saw the magnetised cylinder that Dodger had been working on before the explosion. As I watched, my heart full of dread, it rose from the ground and began to rotate.

And that was how Henry and I came to be haunted by the ghost of a machine. A ghost who had designed and built his own soul. A ghost who still thought he was God. Or at least a god. The god formally known as Dodger. Since losing his physical form, he had become adept at magic and was now learning to put into practice the things he had read about in the library. Being a spirit freed him from many of the limitations of the physical world. He was gradually mastering the occult.

I wondered what would become of us? How would we cope with a Dark Artful Intelligence haunting our house?

He was no longer my Thinking Engine. Instead, the engine that thought it could be god had become  my friend. Mine, and Henry’s.

Henry spends hours angrily disputing theology him. But I think they are both enjoying themselves. It’s nice to have someone to talk to who shares your interests.

And me? Well…Don’t tell Henry but Dodger…The Red God…. is helping me to design my next project.

 


© 2018 by G.H. Finn

 

Author’s Note:  Artful Intelligence” came about partly because I love wordplay and partly through my toying with various philosophical concepts, albeit in a light-hearted way. I enjoyed taking René Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think therefore I am), questioning this (e.g. I think I think) and setting it against the rhythmic refrain found in “The Story of the Engine that Thought It Could”, where the rather onomatopoeic sound of the engine produces the chorus “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”. It had struck me that because of the cyclic repetition of the phrase, this could just as easily be rendered “can I think, can I think, can I think”. Bringing in the Biblical “I am that I am” (as “the name of God”) seemed a natural progression. The use of a steam engine almost immediately suggested a steampunk setting, and I had a bit of fun punning and paraphrasing lines from Charles Dickens (amongst others) throughout the story. While aiming to keep the tone relatively light and comic, I wanted to include some social elements that were important in educated Victorian society (e.g. science versus theology, discussions of religion versus materialism, the expected role of women in society, a concept of social classes, etiquette and “polite” behaviour etc) which I think are themes that are often not explored sufficiently by many steampunk authors.

 

G. H. Finn is the pen-name of someone you are very unlikely to have heard of but who keeps his real identity secret anyway, possibly in the forlorn hope of being mistaken for a superhero. He is of mixed European & Native American (Cherokee-Choctaw) ancestry and for many years lived on one of the remote Isles of Orkney, off the Northern tip of the Scottish mainland. G. H. Finn has been an amateur strongman, a breeder of rare & endangered birds, a professional martial-arts instructor, a teacher of Northern European mythology, a bodyguard, a deep-sea diver, a computer programmer, a performance poet, a coach to world-record-breaking athletes, a singer in a punk band, a massage therapist, a champion needleworker, an international currency smuggler, a consulting sorcerer and an elephant keeper. Three of these are total lies, the others are all true, but you’ll have to guess for yourself which is which.

 

 


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THEATER REVIEW: Shrek the Musical

written by David Steffen
Shrek The Musical is a theater version of the 2001 CG Dreamworks comedy adventure Shrek.  As with the movie, the play is about the ogre Shrek who lives a contented secluded life in a swamp, but his solitude is interrupted with an influx of fairytale creatures who have been evicted by Lord Farquad to transform his kingdom into his perfect image of a kingdom.  When Shrek goes to confront Farquad (meeting Donkey, a talking donkey on the way) he is coerced into mounting a rescue mission of Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded tower to bring her back to be Farquad’s bride.

The musical is an enjoyable adaptation of the movie, converting the existing plot by adding songs that fit into the themes of the original movie (the movie had a lot of music but it was pretty much all cover music of popular songs rather than being songs about the plot of the story).  I particularly liked the song showing Princess Fiona growing up in the castle in isolation imagining what Prince Charming will come to rescue here–it’s done with three lookalike actresses of three different ages and the song finishes with them all singing on a balcony together, and I thought that was fun.  The song “Let Your Freak Flag Fly” is also particularly fun.

If you liked the original, I think you’ll probably like this, though quite a few lines are lifted directly from the original.  And if you’ve never seen the original, if you’ve got a sense of humor and an interest in fantasy humor story, give it a shot!  Fun for the kids, too, we saw it at a children’s theater nearby and our four-year-old enjoyed it.

 

DP Fiction #20: “October’s Wedding of the Month” by Emma McDonald

When Percy and Astrid met they’d no idea that only a few short weeks later they’d be getting married.

“Percy really swept me off my feet” said Astrid. “I’d just stepped outside the pub for a quick smoke and suddenly this guy was bundling me into his car.”

“It was love at first sight,” Percy confirmed. “I saw her and I just had to have her.”

Despite their unconventional first meeting our October couple are obviously very much in love. Sitting in their home, admiring the various objects of cult paraphernalia, including an antique sacrificial dagger, it’s also obvious that this was never going to be a normal wedding.

“We never really discussed it, because the cult is so important to Percy that I just took it for granted that the wedding would be a dark ceremony honouring the Elder Gods.” Astrid says. “Also, as I spent the weeks building up to the wedding locked in a cellar most of the preparations had to be done by Percy and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking him to compromise his beliefs when he was having to put in so much effort to make the day perfect.”

“Astrid was incredibly supportive.” Percy gives her a quick hug. “She even agreed to convert to the cult of the Elder Gods, which was something I’d not dared hope for. I’d had a few previous engagements which I’d had to break off once the bride realised what the cult involved, but Astrid just went for it.”

“Killing the owl was difficult,” said Astrid. “But it made for a really memorable hen night. Percy’s mother helped mix the cocktail of laudanum, owl blood, and gin that’s part of the traditional cult initiation and I don’t remember much of what happened afterwards, but I woke up covered in feathers and children’s teeth so it must have been a good night.”

While Percy’s wedding suit was fairly traditional cult attire, including a mask made out of broken dreams, the couple wanted the wedding dress to be a bit more personal. Astrid’s confinement made fittings difficult, but the final gown was still something spectacular.

“I think everyone worries about the dress.” Confided Astrid. “I was definitely one of those girls who cut wedding dresses out of magazines and I’d always seen myself getting married in something big and white.” So the vintage lace dress was something of a departure. “Percy’s mother brought around a trunk of old dresses, including her own, which was a long Bohemian number from the seventies. Sadly we had to reconsider because of the blood stains, but we salvaged some of the lace from the sleeves and used it for my hairpiece.’

“The dress I eventually chose was a real one-off. We think it might have been made for a great aunt, but the pictures of the wedding it was worn at have all been defaced so it’s only a guess. I was worried that it might seem a bit ordinary, but the rotten seams and mildew stains helped lift it above what you’d find on the high street.”

Percy chose the venue in accordance with the rituals necessary for the cult ceremony he’d always dreamed off. “Several people commented on how isolated the chapel was. Although it did make things easier from the point of view of parking, and it was very convenient for the reception which we held on the beach. The most important thing about the venue for me was that it was in the same place that I’d been having premonitions about since I was a small child. Nightmarish visions can be tricky things to pinpoint, and it took me several years of investigation before I found the perfect venue. When I told my mother she laughed and said I should have just asked Uncle Norman, as it’s the very chapel he was baptised at. There’s a funny story attached to that, because shortly after he went mad and murdered his twin brother.”

“The family connection is very important to Percy,” Astrid interrupts. “He went to a lot of trouble to ensure that my family were present at the ceremony, even chloroforming my dad when he objected to being kidnapped. We want to have a big family in the future and by making the wedding so family-oriented. I hope we’ve started off on the right track for that.”

The wedding was officiated by Mordiggan, a deity chosen by Percy due to a longstanding family connection. “It did mean we had to advise the guests to close their eyes during the ceremony, as any sighting of him causes blindness. The photographer had a particularly difficult job, and sadly didn’t survive, but he did get some beautiful shots of the service.” Indeed one of these was our cover for this month. The ominous dark cloud that stands at the altar while Astrid and Percy exchange rings gives a real sense of atmosphere, and it’s hard to fault Percy for risking his guests’ eyesight when the end result is so impressive.

While the wedding ceremony was a small affair, the reception was even more select, something most couples would consider unusual. But for Percy and Astrid the process of culling the guests was a core part of their day.

“I think we were both a little wary of how our friends and family would perceive Astrid’s newfound religious zeal,” admitted Percy. “There was a lot of talk of brainwashing and some mentions of the police, although the local police force is very sympathetic to cult members and we’d paid the usual bribes.”

“Percy and I didn’t want anyone at the reception who wasn’t really celebrating with us.” Astrid takes over as Percy seems visibly upset by the idea of anyone doubting their affection for each other. “The ritual culling wasn’t something I’d ever heard of before, but it’s part of Percy’s religion and I thought it was a good way of symbolising our new life together.” For those who aren’t adherents, the ritual culling is a ceremony in which guests are pursued and slaughtered by beasts. A small number of guests survive, either by luck or prior knowledge, and these are then invited to the reception. “Percy choose to have the pursuit led by his father, who owns a pack of dire wolves. The slaughtered guests were then dismembered and their brains and hearts used to adorn the wedding cake.”

The cake was a custom-made four-tier chocolate cake from a local baker who specialises in catering for occult ceremonies, so were well aware of the need for discretion and dark ritual.

“Chocolate cake was the one thing I was adamant about,” said Astrid, “as I’m a huge chocoholic and I didn’t want to go without on my big day. The caterers covered it with ganache, but otherwise left it bare so it could be decorated with the spoils of the hunt. We had to offer a tier to Cthulthu, along with the remains of the dead guests, but otherwise it was sliced up and handed round. As is tradition, the blood of Percy’s family and mine had been mixed into the batter so the consuming of the cake really brought us closer together.”

“Sadly Astrid’s father was one of those who died during the culling, but we placed his heart on the very top of the cake so that we could both take a big bite and make sure he’s with us in the years to come.” Percy gives Astrid a hug as she wipes away a tear at the memory. “It’s a huge shame that so many of Astrid’s close family died on the day, but I like to think that they’d have been glad to know that their sacrifice helped ensure a happy future for us both.”

The reception was held on the beach as is traditional for cult weddings. The summoning of Cthulhu that formed the climax of the evening can only be done in an area next to tidal waters and while it might have been possible to hire a local pier Percy explained that he’d been reluctant to do so due to the likelihood of losing his deposit. “Cthulhu does tend to cause damage, and while there are some local venues which are sympathetic, most of them will charge for broken windows and bloodstains.

“Despite living only a short drive away Astrid had never before seen Cthulhu, so the reception was extra special as it meant I got to introduce her to the Elder God as my wife, as well as see the horror on her face that all new initiates experience.”

“It was really terrifying.” Astrid nods. “Percy had said a lot about how important it was to him that Cthulhu accepted me, and I think I’d just built it up in my mind to something which made it a lot scarier than it really was. There was all the stress of having just gotten married and then having had to run down a cliff while being chased by dire wolves and seeing this huge tentacled dragon-man-thing emerge from the sea was sort of the last straw.”

“She went a little mad, but luckily my mother had remembered the straitjacket and once Astrid had been restrained she calmed down a lot.”

“The laudanum helped.” Astrid giggles. “I felt so stupid once it was all over, but Percy didn’t mind at all.”

“I’d been to a few weddings where the bride really lost it. My cousin Irene cut off her husband’s fingers and ate them, so Astrid was pretty unfazed by comparison. I don’t think you can expect everyone to adapt to the Elder Gods in the same way, especially if they’ve not really been part of your upbringing.”

It seems a bit unfair to ask if Astrid has any concerns about that difference in upbringing now, especially when they make such a lovely couple, but her words on the subject are an inspiration to any young bride in a similar situation.

“Everything before the wedding was such a whirlwind that I didn’t really have time to sit down and think about what was happening, but since then I’ve been on a few retreats and had my mind eaten by Shogothath and that’s made a real difference. I guess my advice to any bride in a similar situation would be to not panic, and remember that you’re needed for breeding. If the Elder Gods are going to eat anyone it’ll be the groom.” With that Astrid smiles and turns to Percy and as they exchange a heartfelt kiss we bid them adieu.


© 2016 by Emma McDonald

 

Author’s Note: The story was inspired by a conversation at a friends wedding about the different types of wedding you could have and how a fancy wedding magazine might cover them.  (The friend’s wedding was very nice and no one was sacrificed)

 

head shotEmma McDonald has been writing for years, but this is her first piece to be accepted for publication.  She usually writes regency era stories with a touch of magic and the occasional vampire – and generally uses this as an excuse to visit English Country Houses for research.  Her website is at www.emmamcdonald.co.uk and she’s on twitter as @telute.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Ray Bradbury Award Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.  I try to watch every movie on the ballot that I can find by rental (usually via RedBox, or occasionally from Comcast On Demand) and review them all within the voting period.

This year, on the ballot but not on this list is the episode of the TV show Jessica Jones titled “AKA Smile”.  Since I haven’t seen any episode of the series, even if I could get a copy to watch I didn’t feel it would be fair to review a single episode of a show I’m not familiar with.

At the time I am writing this preliminary post, I haven’t yet rented The Martian, but I intend to.

1. Max Max: Fury Road

Humanity has wrecked the world.  Nuclear war has left much of the earth as a barren wasteland.  Humanity still survives, but only in conclaves where those in control lord their power over the common people.  Those in power hoard water, gasoline, and bullets, the most important resources in this world, and guard them jealously.  Immortan Joe is the leader of one of those conclaves, with a vast store of clean water pumped from deep beneath the earth, and guarded by squads of warboys who are trained to be killers from a young age.  Despite these relative riches, what Immortan Joe wants more than anything is healthy offspring, his other children all born with deformities.  He keeps a harem of beautiful wives in pursuit of this goal.  When his general Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and escapes with his wives in tow, Immortan Joe takes a war party in pursuit, and calls in reinforcements from Gas-Town and Bullet Farm to join in the fight.  Mad Max of the title is captured at the beginning of the story and strapped to the front of a pursuit vehicle to act as a blood donor for a sick warboy, to give him the strength to fight.

I am only a bit aware of the original Mad Max franchise.  When the previews for this movie came out, I thought it looked completely unappealing.  I honestly didn’t understand what other people were raving about when they were so excited about it as the movie’s release date approached, and after they saw it in theaters.  I wasn’t expecting to see it at any point, so I read some reactions and found them interesting but still didn’t feel compelled to see it.  I finally decided I would see it when I heard some reviewers giving the movie a bad review because they thought it was awesome and action-filled but that this concealed a feminist agenda and they were angry that they had been tricked into liking a movie that had a feminist message.

I finally rented the movie, expecting it to be pretty much just okay, but really quite enjoyed it.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was badass, and I hope there are more movies with her in this role.  Tom Hardy as the eponymous Mad Max was also solid.  Really, great casting all around, and it was really cool to see a woman in one of the lead roles of an action movie where she is an essential part of the action.

Probably one of the coolest things about the movie are the vehicle designs.  Since most of the movie takes place on the road in pursuit, there is plenty of opportunity for these vehicles to be showcased.  They are so much fun just to look at, that I more than once laughed in delight at the absurdity of a design.  My particular favorite was the sports car with tank treads driven by the leader of Bullet-Farm.

Similarly, costume design and other character design were incredible.  It’s… hard to play a flame-throwing electric guitar as serious, but it’s just one example of the over-the-top design that should be stupid, but somehow it all works and ends up being both exciting and hilarious.

It had a lot of striking images, sounds, moments.  In this bleak, most desperate of landscapes you see the most depraved of the depraved of the most heroic of the heroic.  There were heroes to root for, but even those heroes are no pristine blameless creatures, because no such people have survived so long.  Rather the heroes are those who want to try to make some small change for the better in the world around them.  The movie is basically one long chase scene, full of action, full of surprising and epic and violent moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, by any means.  But I thought it was a really incredible film, despite coming into the movie with reservations.


2.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(this review copied verbatim from my review of the movie posted in January)

The movie picks up about as many years after the original trilogy as have passed in real life, I suppose.  The First Order, the still active remnants of the Empire, is still opposing the New Republic that replaced it.  A group of storm troopers of the First Order raids a Resistance camp on the desert planet Jakku, looking for information.  Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the vital information in the droid BB-8 and sends it away from the camp before he is captured. One of the stormtroopers known only as FN-2187 (who is later nicknamed Finn) (played by John Boyega) chooses to turn his back on a lifetime of training and chooses not to kill anyone in the raid.  Finn helps Poe Dameron escape.  Together they meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and they join forces to get BB-8’s information to the people in the Resistance who need it.

I enjoyed this movie.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen but I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I am glad to see someone has been able to turn around the series after the mess Lucas made of the second trilogy.  The special effects were good, and not the fakey CG-looking stuff that was in the second trilogy.  The casting of the new characters was solid and it was great to see old faces again.  To have a woman and a black man be the main heroes of the story is great to see from a franchise that hasn’t historically had a ton of diversity.    It was easy to root for the heroes and easy to boo at the villains.  The worldbuilding, set design, costume design all reminded me of the great work of the original.  I particularly liked the design of BB-8 whose design is much more broadly practical than R2D2’s.  Kylo Ren made a good villain who was sufficiently different than the past villains to not just be a copy but evil enough to be a worthy bad guy.

Are there things I could pick apart?  Sure.  Some of it felt a little over-familiar, but that might have been part of an attempt by the moviemakers to recapture the old audience again.  I hope the next movie can perhaps plot its own course a little bit more.  And maybe I’ll have some followup spoilery articles where I do so.  I don’t see a lot of movies in theater twice, but I might do so for this one so I can watch some scenes more closely.  I think, all in all, the franchise was rescued by leaving the hands of Lucas whose artistic tastes have cheapened greatly over the years.  I know some people knock Abrams, and I didn’t particularly like his Star Trek reboot, but Star Wars has always been more of an Abrams kind of feel than Star Trek ever was anyway.

I enjoyed it, and I think most fans of the franchise will.

(You also might want to read Maria Isabelle’s reaction to the movie, posted here in February)

3.  Inside Out

None of us is a single person. Within each of us are variations of alternate selves that all vie for control in any given situation.  We feel like different people depending on the people around us or the setting, and that’s because we can be different people.  This movie takes that idea and makes it literal.  In the world of Inside Out, each of us is basically a machine and our mental space is made of warehouses for memory storage, vaults for the subconscious, and the all-important control room.  In each person’s mental control room are five versions of themselves: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  They negotiate to handle the control panel which determines the person’s every action.  The outer storyline follows an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family is moving to a different city.  Her excitement about the movie is changing to sadness as she misses friends left behind, and has trouble coping with other changes in her life that was going just the way she wanted it.  Her parents always want her to be happy and her internal reaction is for Joy to always keep Sadness away from the controls.  The conflict between the two emotions sends both of them out of the control room and into the confusing labyrinth that is the rest of the brain.  If Joy ever wants Riley to be happy again she has to get herself back to Riley’s control room, and Sadness is along for the ride.

This movie was a lot of fun.  The casting was great all around, but especially with the casting of Amy Poehler as Riley’s Joy.  Most of the structure of the inside interactions within Riley’s head were based on what we understand of human psychology, which made it not just fun but also a pretty apt analogy for the circus we’ve all got going on inside our heads at any given moment.  There’s a lot to be examined here: among other things, the importance of the other emotions besides just happiness.  Both Riley’s inner story and her outer story are interesting in their own right and are twined together to make an even more satisfying whole.

4. The Martian

During an American manned mission on Mars, a fierce storm strikes the base camp of the astronauts.  One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead as the rest of the crew aborts the mission and leaves the planet to escape the storm.  But Mark is not dead.  He is alone on the planet with only enough food to last for a year when the soonest he can expect rescue (if anyone realizes he’s alive to attempt a rescue) won’t be for several years.  Determined to live, he sets about the task of survival–cultivating enough food and water to live, and contacting NASA so they can send help.

I can see why this movie got so much critical acclaim.  Usually my tastes don’t align with the Oscar Awards much, but I can see why this one did.  There was a lot to love about the movie–soundtrack, solid casting and acting, great writing, a cast of characters that support each other and succeed through cooperation.  Most of all it managed to capture that sense of wonder that surrounded the exploration of the moon decades ago.  As real manned trips to Mars come closer and closer to reality, it’s easy to imagine this all happening.  (Note that I don’t have enough background to know to what extent the science in the movie was authentic or not, but it felt pretty plausible at least, which is good enough for me)

 

5.  Ex Machina

Software engineer Caleb Smith wins a week-long getaway to the home of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of the tech company where Caleb works.  Bateman reveals that he has been working privately on the development of AI and the contest was arranged to get Caleb to his private lab in isolation.  The AI is housed in a human-like body with realistic hands and face but with a visibly artificial rest of her body, and she goes by the name Ava.  After agreeing to extreme secrecy, Bateman reveals that Caleb has been brought there to determine if she passes the Turing Test, a theoretical experiment in which one examines an AI personality to determine if it can pass for human.

I was skeptical of this from the first reveal that it was going to be based around the Turing Test.  I am skeptical of the Turing Test as more than a momentary discussionary point because it claims to be a test of intelligence, but it’s really a test of humanity-mimicry.  For an artificial intelligence to appear to be truly human would probably mean that it would have to feign irrationality, which is a poor requirement for a testing of an intelligence.  I thought the movie worked pretty well with the flaws in the concept of the test by moving beyond the basic theoretical Turing Test and starting with a later development of the same concept in which the tester already knows the  AI is artificially created, but wants to see if the tester can still be convinced emotionally of the being’s humanity despite knowing its humanity is manufactured.  This still has the flaw that the thing being tested is human-mimicry and not actual intelligence, but it seemed like the movie was aware of this continued flaw and in the end I thought that by the end I was satisfied that the AI had not just been treated as a human-analog but a separate entity in its own right, which made the movie much more satisfying than I had thought it would be.

 

DP FICTION #9: “Giraffe Cyborg Cleans House!” by Matthew Sanborn Smith

A plate, a plate, another plate burst upon the kitchen tile. This one broke into three large pieces and assorted ceramic crumbs. Giraffe closed her long-lashed eyes and prayed to her many makers. Why in the world would the people make one hard thing that was so likely to smash into a second hard thing?

“Another one?” Ms. Mtombe yelled. “Get out of my kitchen immediately!” She seemed to have been lurking near the kitchen entrance in anticipation. Giraffe didn’t bother to look. That unshining face made guest appearances in her night terrors. It was Tuesday, so it would be the zebra print dress, the long strand of Moroccan beads, and those slapping gold sandals.

Giraffe turned off the water, wiped her hands on the dish towel, and let out a long sighber. Giraffe’s designers—possibly a focus group of three- to five-year-olds—had blessed her with a ridiculous set of stubby arms which protruded from just above her forelegs. She had to almost climb into the sink to wash the dishes. And with the proximity of the wall behind the sink and Ms. Mtombe’s impossibly low ceilings—which Ms. Mtombe insisted were high ceilings—Giraffe’s head was pressed snugly into the upper northwest corner of the room. She had to rely on her silicone-skinned hands to feel their way through.

“I wanted something graceful, like a gazelle, something that would look beautiful in my home, and look at what I got,” Ms. Mtombe said. “I would prefer a wildebeest to you.”

“My sincerest apologies, Ma’am,” Giraffe said. “If you will excuse me, I must step outside, Ma’am.”

“You are always stepping outside and inside again. What is so important outside? You’re letting in flies!”

“My neck hurts, Ma’am. From bending, Ma’am.” Her polished hooves clopped across the floor.

“They can make a giraffe that can walk and talk—”

“I could walk long before the enhancements, Ma’am.”

“—but they can’t make a giraffe who’s neck won’t hurt indoors!”

“I should like it if they made one of those as well, Ma’am. I encourage you to take that up with the agency, Ma’am.”

No wonder the dish washing machine had quit in a huff!

Giraffe squeezed past the sliding glass doors and unfolded herself into the blinding back yard. Her head bobbed to the top of her height as if it was one of the floats in Ms. Mtombe’s pool, escaping from beneath its wriggling child. She stretched and bent her neck back as far as it would go. Vertebrae popped like bubble wrap. Oh, that felt good!

Giraffe fantasized of roof-removing storms and arms that reached to the stars, scrubbing out stubborn sunspots with the lemon-scented dishwashing liquid of the gods. She shook one stunted tyrannosaur fist at the sky. Or perhaps at her neck. She swore revenge. On . . . something.

The Kawawas’ lion sunned itself in the next yard. Intellectually, she knew the lion should not harm her. Nevertheless, she kept a metaphorical eye on it when it they were outside together. If she didn’t fret so much over scratches, she could have kept a literal eye on it as well, given their removable nature. Giraffe looked back into the kitchen.

Mtombe watched her while shouting into her headset, presumably at Mr. Mtombe:”This is not a servant, this is some sort of insult! This clumsy beast is destroying our home! We can’t afford to buy a new set of dishware every week . . . I want a replacement. Now! . . . I don’t care if there are no others available, demand an exchange with someone. You have people below you . . . Well, someone must have one!”

Giraffe heard all of this through her cybernetic ear while wondering why anyone thought that a cybernetic ear would be important for a giraffe housekeeper. Most of her enhancements were questionable, to be honest. Disco ball eyes. Regenerating caramel tail. Cybergills. Giraffe was afraid she had come along at the end of a cyborg servant frenzy, when an exhausted industry had grasped in desperation for any animal that was left, and hastily hot-glued on whatever miscellaneous enhancements had been found in the dusty corner of the factory floor.

Ms. Mtombe didn’t understand that she and Giraffe were two of a kind. Two years into her husband’s promotion, she was at the very bottom of the nouveau upper-middle-class, too house-proud of a place in Kimara which they couldn’t quite afford. She’d been catapulted from a life which was the envy of all around her, to a world in which she was woefully behind. The trophy possessions she managed to gather were never quite right, inspiring derisive smiles from women who wouldn’t deign to call her a peer. Giraffe stewed as one of those second-rate status symbols.

While Ms. Mtombe was turned away for a moment, Giraffe saw a chance for a quick snack. She trotted toward the acacia tree.

“You will stand your ground, Giraffe,” the acacia tree cyborg warned, “or suffer the consequences!” It bent its limbs in a one-legged karate stance, ready to chop. Giraffe was unperturbed. The tree would never dream of damaging its mistress’ property, whereas, in Giraffe’s case, that train had sailed.

A little more snacking effort was required now, as Giraffe had already stripped the leaves off the limbs that always fought to push her away. The lazy acacia and its slow-growing leaves made it necessary for Giraffe to go deeper. But Giraffe always won. Trees simply didn’t have the killer instinct of the ferocious herbivore. Giraffe chewed greedily, undaunted by the acacia’s screams. They were screams of indignation rather than pain, anyway. Probably.

Giraffe tried to alleviate the tree’s outrage with her soothing words. “You taste infinitely better than Ms. Mtombe’s giraffe chow.” But the snobby tree didn’t seem able to take a compliment.

“Enough!” it cried. It stopped trying to push Giraffe away and instead embraced her. Giraffe had only wanted acceptance from the acacia. Its affection was totally unexpected, though perhaps, Giraffe thought, not unwanted. But, alas, Giraffe had been mistaken. The tree limbs’ cybernetically enhanced thorns pressed into Giraffe from either side. Like that, the acacia had become an enormous mouth and Giraffe had become a ham sandwich.

“What is going on here?” Ms. Mtombe appeared and began spritzing Giraffe’s dancing legs with that dreadful anti-ungulate spray. It smelled like Satan’s ravioli. “How many times have I told you to leave my tree alone?” Ms. Mtombe shouted.

“I would like nothing better at the moment, Ma’am. It seems that I am being eaten by your tree. I suspect this is an act of revenge rather than of sustenance and I strongly encourage you to take this up with the agency, Ma’am.”

The thorns tore into Giraffe’s flesh as her arms punched air that was almost near the acacia’s trunk. With the end in sight, Giraffe’s thoughts were butter-side up. As deaths went, this was certain to be no more humiliating than the rest of her life.

Fortunately, at that moment, the lion attacked.

Intellectually, Giraffe had known that it shouldn’t attack, given the restrictions imposed upon it by its pie slice of cybernetic brain. Intellectually, Giraffe had known that she would never be eaten by a tree. Upon reflection, Giraffe recalled the intellect under consideration was that of a giraffe, which perhaps had its shortcomings in modern day suburban Tanzania. In her defense, the lion didn’t seem to be attacking her, but Ms. Mtombe. Giraffe suspected it was her delicious looking dress.

Ms. Mtombe screamed. Her short, chubby legs tried something that resembled running, but the lion was nearly upon her. Giraffe kicked her sharp hoof out hard, squarely into the center of its head. Momentum carried the lion’s body—if not its head—into Ms. Mtombe, who frothed in terror, but the lion only twitched as it died.

To acacia trees, giraffes have always been far more terrifying than lions. After witnessing Giraffe’s nonchalant disposal of her foe, the tree lost its nerve and released her. Besides, not having been supplied with a cybernetic esophagus, it would never have been able to swallow even a bite-sized Giraffe.

While Ms. Mtombe dealt with the police, Giraffe waited inside, tending those wounds she could reach with a tub of Old Chizimu’s Giraffe Spackle (Original Flavor). Even after viewing the tree’s memory of the events, the police had trouble believing there was a giraffe in the house. One officer poked her head inside the kitchen.

“Hello,” Giraffe said. The officer withdrew her head.

When the police questioned the lion’s cybernetic enhancements, their manufacturer offered through them to settle with the Mtombes on the spot for thirty million shilingi. Ms. Mtombe demanded a replacement for her servant in addition to the money. Giraffe would have lowered her head in mortification had it not already been bowed due to being indoors. She hoped her replacement would be a lion. To be delivered next Tuesday.

“Yes, of course,” the lion’s left hind leg responded. “What type of servant would you prefer in exchange?”

All was quiet for a moment, save for the sound of the acacia tree rubbing its limbs together in anticipation.

Fortunately, at that moment, Ms. Kawawa attacked.

“You beasts! The lot of you!” Ms. Kawawa shouted as she marched across her yard in a sensibly solid dress. “My wild date palm told me everything!” Giraffe peered out of the back door. Shit, it seemed, was about to go down.

“The lion tried to kill me,” Ms. Mtombe said in a supplicating voice. She had always feared Ms. Kawawa.

“My baby would never do such a thing!” Ms. Kawawa said.

“We’re sorry to say that he did, indeed, do such a thing, Ms. Kawawa,” her baby’s leg said.

Ms Kawawa was undaunted: “You filthy trash have been a blight to this street ever since you moved here!”

Giraffe had always imagined that the look of horror now on Ms. Mtombe’s face would be delectable when it came. In fact, Giraffe’s cybernetic stomach felt as if it had dropped into a pit of cybernetic acid. Giraffe felt herself drawn out of the house. She had to put herself between the two ladies and comfort her mistress.

“You and that freak of an animal,” Ms. Kawawa said, pointing at the approaching Giraffe, “your fool of a husband and your nasty children!”

At those last words, Ms. Mtombe’s lips grew tight. Giraffe stumbled and then spun about, galloping for the safety of the kitchen.

In the end, Ms. Kawawa was grateful for the presence of the police. She too ran for the safety of her kitchen.

At some point, the police officers thought it was safe to release Ms. Mtombe’s tight arms. Giraffe cowered with her head on the kitchen floor. Ms. Mtombe looked at Giraffe, who sought some way to cower even further. Perhaps she could dig through the tile with her mirror-facet eyes.

“How about,” Ms. Mtombe said to the lion’s leg in deep, shaking breaths, “instead of a replacement, a longer set of arms for my current servant?”

Giraffe raised her burrowing head slightly. A couple of tiny eye-mirrors tinkled to the floor.

“Absolutely,” said the leg, with some relief. It already had to replace the rest of its lion.

“And also,” Ms. Mtombe said, “Extra support for its neck.”

After the police had left and the lion’s leg dragged its corpse out of the yard, Ms. Mtombe came back inside and looked at Giraffe while holding her fists to her hips. Giraffe said nothing. She had cleaned up the kitchen (except for the dishes), and now folded the laundry in perfect right angles.

“Well,” Ms. Mtombe said after a sigh, “you do do an excellent job cleaning my ceiling.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Giraffe nodded most effectively, thanks to her cybernetically enhanced nodder. “The popcorn texture feels delightful on my back, Ma’am.”


© 2015 by Matthew Sanborn Smith

 

Author’s Note: The brilliant comic book mini-series, WE3, written by Grant Morrison and beautifully illustrated by Frank Quitely, put the idea of animal cyborgs into my head. A giraffe seemed a sufficiently ridiculous creature to use in my own story. Stuffing the poor thing inside a human house and expecting it to clean up a bit struck me as both funny and rife with problems for the protagonist. Once the tree spoke, I knew I’d hit gold.

 

Matthew_Sanborn_SmithMatthew Sanborn Smith‘s fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Nature, and Chizine, among others. He is an infrequent contributor to StarShipSofa, SF Signal, and SFF Audio. He shares even stranger things than this story on his podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, and has recently released his short story collection, The Dritty Doesen: Some of the Least Reasonable Stories of Matthew Sanborn Smith.

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #8: “The Grave Can Wait” by Thomas Berubeg

Old James McGrath was widely held to be the orneriest man on the frontier. They say he glared down a rattler so bad the critter’s great-great grandkids were afeared of venturing onto his land. They say that, once, a real big twister, one of them mean old suckers only found in the frontier lands, was sent packing straight back into its girlfriend’s arms by his bilious vitriol. They even say that tricky Coyote tried to swindle him out of his ranch, but ended up walking away missing thirty acres of prime real estate. It came as no surprise, then, that when Death came for McGrath in the shape of a late spring cold, he sent Old Boney packing with pant bottoms full of lead.

For a time, McGrath kept on with his ranching and riding and drinking and shooting and thought little of his close call. “Goddamned solicitors,” was the only thing he said about the incident, muttered between two slugs of whiskey and a cigarette.

Death was kept occupied by the rigors of the frontier. It was a busy time for the man, and he put old James McGrath out of his skull. Truth be told, no cowboy old or young came willingly, and Death had gotten used to dodging bullets and Indian curses. But they all came eventually, and so would McGrath.

A week passed in a hurry, and then another, and Death heard nothing. Surprised and not a little confused, Death went back to Tombstone, Arizona, where he kept his office. He usually tried to avoid it, if he could, preferring the open range and the starry sky, but these were peculiar circumstances.

Both Old Smokey and the Holy Gatekeeper kept regional offices nearby. Death checked in with them, just to make sure the old man hadn’t snuck through unnoticed. Peter, a mousy, bookish man, hemmed and hawed and checked a bunch of dusty ledgers and kept Death waiting, which is the main job of government men everywhere, but eventually admitted that, no, James McGrath hadn’t snuck in through the Pearlies. The offices of Mammon, Lucifer & Asmodeus, Attorneys at Law, were not really any better in Death’s opinion. He never left the place without the vague feeling of having been swindled.

Meanwhile, James McGrath had taken to being dead like a fish takes to water or fire to the scrublands of California. Even before his death he could drink anyone under the table, but now he could do that without breaking a sweat, and any young buck who challenged him to a gunfight had best have already sent his Ma some flowers and bought a plot at the church. In the two weeks after his death, Old James sent more people packing than the Union Pacific. Everyone but young McCauley, one of the old man’s drinking partners, had taken to avoiding him. While that suited McGrath just fine, even McCauley had been rather scarce in recent days.

And so he was surprised when one Sunday morning there came a knock at his door. Old James put down the bottle of watery and weak whiskey he had had the misfortune to have been cheated into buying, and cracked the door open, peaking out with gummy, unfocused eyes. There stood the Reaper himself, black robes draped over his skeletal frame, silver six shooter at his hip (Nobody on the frontier took you seriously unless you had a big old hand cannon strapped to your side, and Death thought the scythe was old fashioned anyhow: a symbol of the Old World he’d shed when he followed the masses seeking fortune in the New.)

“Now,” Old James said. “I know I sent you scurrying away not two weeks ago. What’re you doing here?”

“Well, Mr. McGrath, I’m afraid there must’ve been a mistake. See, you’re supposed to be dead. And, hmmm, while you are starting to look… smell… quite dead, I can see your body up and about and kicking. That leaves me with a bit of a problem.”

“Yeah? What d’you think you’re gonna do about it?”

“I was hoping to appeal to your better nature…” Death started.

The old man interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Haw, I ain’t got one of those.”

“I see that,” Death said pensively, riffling through the ream of papers shoved under one boney elbow. “How about a game? I see here you’re a deft hand at cards.”

A greedy gleam lit up the old man’s eyes. “Aww, hell. I ain’t that good, but I’ll play. What’re the stakes?”

“If I win, you come with me. If you win, I’ll make sure no one bothers you about this ever again.”

“Deal,” said McGrath.

Now you see, when Death’s papers said that the Old Man was a deft hand at cards, they weren’t lying. McGrath’s gimlet stare was known from Yukon to El Dorado, and in his youth he had left a trail of broken men, women, and ghosts in the saloons of the West. In fact, his ranch was financed by the honest winnings of half the frontier.

Not to say that the Great Equalizer was out of his depth: any game was old hat to Death. This method of dealing with the recalcitrant and the reticent was tried and true, and Death rarely, if ever, had to work hard to win. This, of course, led to a degree of indifference towards the game. Now, though, sitting across from Old Man McGrath, Death felt the same shiver as when he had sat across from old Methuselah, who had been adept at Sumerian dice back in his day.

What I mean to say is that Old McGrath and The Reaper himself were not unevenly matched. Billy McCauley, they agreed, would deal. They spit in their hands and shook on the terms. The sound of McGrath’s great phlegmy hock echoed off the mesas and started stampedes seven states over. When Death spit, fourteen stars and the spirits of the ghost riders in the sky blinked out of existence.

They sat at the table, pistols just out of arm’s reach. A solitary beam of sunlight bounced off the polished bone handle of Death’s pistol, then flicked the tip of McGrath’s greased up plugger, before stopping short and realizing exactly who it was in the room with. It respectfully tipped its cap and skedaddled outta there as quickly as it darn well could.

Death waved a skeletal hand, and a small heap of silver dollars, leering skulls embossed into both sides, rained into existence with a light jangle in front of Mcgrath. “These are the hours of your life, McGrath, and we’ll be playing for them.” With a second wave, a much smaller pile of coins appeared in front of Death. “These are the hours you owe me.”

“Bullshit. I don’t owe you nothing.” McGrath spit out. The Great Equalizer merely tilted his head to the side, looking at the decrepit old man curiously. McGrath glared stubbornly, but death remained impassive. Finally, he grumbled “Fine, if it’ll get you outta my house faster.”

The cards were dealt: five each, and the game was on. The cards did not favor McGrath on this day. Slowly, steadily, the pile of coins shifted towards Death, and soon both were equal. Barely suppressed rage glinted in McGrath’s eyes. He had never lost before, and he wasn’t about to start.

“All in.” He pushed his pile of coins to the middle of the table. Death responded in kind.

In McGrath’s hands were three aces and a queen, but Death was shooting for a straight flush. He had the queen and the jack and the nine and the ten of spades,but he needed the king or the eight to take the prize. He called for another card, and McCauley passed him an eight of clubs. McGrath grinned, and as McCauley queasily passed him another card, he slipped another ace from under his sleeve . He locked eyes with the shadowy chasms of his opponent, and nodded, once.

“It is time,” Death boomed, and one of the flies that had been buzzing around McGrath’s face shriveled up in a puff of smoke.

The cards were flipped.

“I win.” Old Man McGrath grinned. “Now get your sorry ass out of here, I never want to see you again. And take your damned chill, too.”

“That’s your prize and your right, but one day you’ll call to me and you will be mine,” a mighty peeved Death promised as he backed out of the shack. McGrath slammed the door in his face.

McGrath cracked open his best bottle of whiskey in celebration. “Come on, Billy, it’s not every day you pull a fast one over one of the manifested forces of nature. We’re gonna drink this ‘till there’s none left, and then we’re gonna drink some more.”

“I’d… uh, love to, boss, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” McCauley answered, a bit too quickly. He looked a bit green around the gills.

“When’s that ever stopped you?” McGrath asked.

McCauley looked anywhere but at McGrath. “I’ve just gotta be somewhere. Church.” He added, lying through his teeth.

“Suit yourself then, this here whiskey’s gonna be all mine then.” McCauley scurried out, and McGrath sat back down in his rocking chair by the fireplace. The cold held him tenderly in its embrace, like some soiled dove he had tipped handsomely.

He yanked the cork out between his teeth and spat it across the room. As he brought the bottle to his mouth, though, he saw the glint of something white lodged in the cork.

A tooth. His tooth. McGrath was no stranger to losing teeth, but this was the first time that it had happened without the taste of blood in his mouth, or the sharp pain of a knuckle to his face.

Not easily fazed, McGrath shrugged and brought the bottle to his mouth, taking a deep swig. In shock, he realized that there was nothing. He could feel the liquid pour down his throat, settle in a seething pool in his stomach, but there was no taste, no burn in his throat. “What the hell is this? Water?”

He opened a second bottle of whiskey and took a swig. Again, nothing.

Let it never be said that Old James McGrath was a coward, but, panicked, he ran from bottle to bottle, each time getting nothing. Finally, he skidded to a stop in front of the tarnished silver mirror hanging above his washbasin for the occasional shave.

The face looking back at him was not his own, of that he was sure. His own face was old, wrinkled, thin, and had hairs sprouting from where there shouldn’t have been hair. The face staring at him out from the mirror was bloated, green, and was peeling skin where skin shouldn’t have been peeling.

For the first time in a week, McGrath decided to make his way to town. He walked, ‘cause his horse was too scared to let him near. When he got to the village a little after noon on Sunday, as all kinds of respectable people were leaving church, the sight of him caused fourteen little old ladies to pass out, seven feared outlaws to turn themselves in to the sheriff, and one mortician to die of glee.

The real clincher, though, was that none of his friends wanted to sit with him in the saloon, and when he sat down to drink alone, the drink did nothing at all for him.

For, you see, when James McGrath had been supposed to die, his ornery soul had refused to leave the body he’d had for near on sixty years, even if it had followed the proper order of things. Resolving himself, McGrath made his way to the pastor.

“Father, I’m dead. I need me a grave.”

“Well, son, I’m sure I can help you.” The pastor said. “I’ve got some real nice plots, far up on the hill.” He pointed towards a distant lonely tree.

“That’ll do.” He handed the pastor a silver dollar and slowly shambled towards his grave.

“You can come with me, now, if you want.” James practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice, before recognizing Death.

“I thought we had a deal,” McGrath fingered the gun at his side.

“Why are you here, then?” Death’s boney hand gestured at the cemetery.

“I’m dead. Dead people live in graves. This is my new home, and I’m certainly not going with you when I just got myself a new house.” Old Man McGrath’s tone was sure.

Death shrugged and disappeared with a sound like that of a thousand leathery wings beating once in the middle of a thunderstorm. Satisfied, McGrath sat in his grave, six shooter by his side and bottle of whiskey by the other.

Some say he went off with Death after a year, greeting him as an old friend, and others claim he got eaten by some coyotes, but I can’t believe that. Old Man McGrath, eaten by coyotes? Never.

Me? I’d be willing to bet my soul that he’s still sitting there in that old grave, rotten to the bone, waiting for Death to try to come and take him again.


© 2015 by Thomas Berubeg

 

Author’s Note:  The inspiration for this story was threefold. The character of James Mcgrath was one that I had been wanting to write for a while, lounging with a pistol and a scowl in my brain for months, the walking corpse simply refusing to die but not being malevolent came from a family member’s dream, and, finally, I’ve always found the concept of gambling with death an interesting one. In this case, the game of poker was inspired by the western setting (where poker felt more appropriate than the more traditional chess.)

 

5VZumXbThomas Berubeg is a twenty-three year old French-Canadian man currently living in these great United States. A recent graduate, he studied Archaeology and History, and is currently working on a number of short stories and a novel. This is his first published story.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #6: “The Superhero Registry” by Adam Gaylord

“What about ‘Copper Penny’?” Lois spread her hands out in front of her like the name was on an old Hollywood marquee.

The square-jawed applicant sitting across the desk arched an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Sure! Just think of the potential catch phrases. Your arch-nemesis monologues about how you’ve yet again foiled his or her plans and you say, ‘Of course. I’m Copper Penny. I always turn up.’”

She could tell he was tempted. She tried to sweeten the deal. “Plus, copper is very valuable right now.”

He frowned. “It’s just, it’s a little feminine, don’t you think?”

“No way! I think it’s very masculine.” She batted her eyelashes a little. Anything to get this guy to settle on a name so she could go to lunch. Copper Penny was a bit of a stretch as far as the rules went but she was pretty sure it would pass muster because of his natural red hair.

“Hmmm. No. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”

Lois sighed. They’d been at this all morning and he was no closer to making a decision. Working in the Registry was usually fun. She got to meet the new class of superheroes before they got famous and occasionally she’d even help one pick a name, which was usually a blast. A few of the more appreciative heroes even kept in touch. She was supposed to have lunch with The Valkyrie Sisters next week.

But every once in a while she got one of these fellas. No creativity, no initiative, just expected to have the work done for them. Pretty bad traits for a superhero, in her opinion.

He leaned back in his chair. “Can you go over the rules one more time?”

It was the third time he’d asked and she was tempted to shove her coffee cup down his throat, but the agency had been pushing customer service lately. “These are tomorrow’s superheroes,” the memo said. “We need to establish a strong working relationship from day one.”

So she smiled, brushed her curly blond hair aside, and explained again. “Your name has to have something to do with your super power and/or your look. But, you can only base your name off the latter if you already have a look established, not the other way around.”

“But why? Why can’t I pick a name and then build a look around it?”

She shrugged. “Honestly, it doesn’t come up that often. Most heroes base their costume off something pretty significant like a traumatic childhood memory or the blanket their foster parents found them in. And of course, many heroes are actually green or blue or made out of rock or whatever, so that’s easy.

“But I just look like I always have.”

“Right. So we have to pick a name based on your powers. Now, your fists turn into metal, right?”

“And my forearms.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Right. And your forearms. Is that it?”

“What do you mean, ‘Is that it’?” He stood, rolling up his sleeves to show off his shiny metallic appendages. “I can crush cinder blocks with these things.”

“Of course,” she said with a smile. “They’re very impressive.”

He sat down, apparently placated.

“Let’s use that. What else smashes cinder blocks?”

His eyes lit up. “’The Sledge Hammer’!”

She checked the database. “Sorry, that’s taken.”

“What about just, ‘The Hammer’?”

“Nope. Taken.”

“Hmmm… ‘Iron Hammer’?”

“Are your fists actually iron?”

“I’m not sure. Still waiting on lab results. They said it might take two weeks, but I want to get started now!”

“Well, we don’t want to register you as iron if they turn out to be tin or aluminum, do we? I only suggested copper because of your hair color.”

He looked at his hands. “I don’t think they’re aluminum.”

She clicked away at her keyboard. “What about ‘Hard Hand’?”

“Hmmm…kinda catchy.”

“Or just ‘The Hand’?”

“Perfect!”

“Excellent!” She quickly entered the appropriate information into the database before he could change his mind.

“Talk about catch phrases!” He stood and pantomimed shaking someone’s hand. “No worries officer, I’m always happy to lend a hand.” He punched an invisible assailant. “Sorry, I guess I was a little heavy handed.” He thrust his chest out, hands on his hips. “No criminal can outrun the long hand of the law.”

“Arm”, she muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing.” She hit the enter button and the successful registration confirmation message flashed on the screen. “Congratulations Hand, you are now a registered superhero. I will forward your information to one of our case managers and he or she will contact you within seventy-two hours to discuss training opportunities and duty assignments.”

“Wait, aren’t you gonna help me with my look?”

She handed him a fistful of colorful pamphlets she had at the ready. “There are dozens of costume consultants that can craft you the perfect super-ensemble.”

“Oh, okay. So, a case manager will call me?”

“Within seventy-two hours.”

“Okay.” He sat looking at her for a long moment. “Okay, well thanks for your help. If you ever need a superhero, look me up.”

Lois waited a full five count after he left, then scurried for the break room. They had a running over/under board for what superheroes would make it past their first year and she wanted to be the first to lay money on “under” for The Hand.


© 2015 by Adam Gaylord

 

Author’s Note: I love epic action and harrowing plot twists as much as anyone, but often it’s the everyday interactions of the worlds we create that really fascinate me.

 

HeadShot_AGaylordAdam Gaylord lives with his beautiful wife, daughter, and less beautiful dog in Loveland, CO. When not at work as a biologist he’s usually hiking, drinking craft beer, drawing comics, writing short stories, or some combination thereof. Check out his stuff at http://adamsapple2day.blogspot.com/ and www.hopstories.com.

 

 

 

 

 


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