DP FICTION #68B: “Are You Being Severed?” by Rhys Hughes

Content Warning: discussion of suicide

He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.

Members of staff were gazing at him as if he was a violation of this refined space, a drifting smell or spreading stain. Conscious of their eyes on his back, he pretended an interest in the products on offer. He studied the blades, stroked the rough ropes and tapped the wooden frames. Nodding to himself and muttering, he tried to broadcast a message, to somehow radiate his intention to return another day, maybe tomorrow or next week, and purchase a model. In the meantime he was browsing, testing, and yes, he was sincere and innocent, a real customer.

His random passage took him in a circle that consisted of epicycles, a meandering path that perhaps resembled the rolling of lopped heads in some idealised schematic of brutality. At last a tall man approached. They were all tall on this floor, these members of staff, horribly tall as they stood in their unexpected corners, but the altitude of this one was especially remarkable. And yet he wore a coat too long for his body. His posture was rigid, beyond militaristic, and his moustache bristled, but then he smiled and made a little bow, as if he was sniffing a bowl of soup.

The others were watching carefully. There were no customers on this floor apart from him, just staff members, and it was clear the extra tall man was the floorwalker, that he could cover the distances necessary in next to no time at all with his long legs, that he was feared by his colleagues. Within that fear was awe, and nested in the awe was love, but more fear underpinned the love. These secret layers of regard were the geological strata of a commercial tyrant, as difficult to erode as the igneous slabs of a towering sea stack bathed in spray at high tide.

But they were far from the ocean now. This department store was located in a city in a landlocked country, and the land undulated with hills all around, not waves. Then the floorwalker clasped his hands theatrically.

“May I be of assistance, monsieur?” he asked in an accent that was so courteously forbidding that the syllables of his words were like crumbs of biscuits too durable to dissolve in strong tea. “And if not, why not?”

“I’m just browsing today.”

“But what exactly does monsieur have in mind?”

“My name is Mr. Plum.”

“Come now,  monsieur, you must have some idea of the particular model you are most interested in? We have every kind of guillotine in stock, the full historical and futurological range. There are the cruder versions that hack and the improved devices that slice. We have long drop and short drop models. Those that catch the blood and others that allow it to trickle or even spray.”

“That’s very helpful.”

“But is it helpful to you, monsieur?”

“My name is Mr. Plum. I was born in this country too. I haven’t yet decided what I need. I’m just browsing, for a friend.”

“For a friend, you say? That strikes me as unusual.”

“For an enemy, I mean.”

“Then it is for yourself you are shopping!”

“Yes, but I wasn’t…”

There was no point arguing. He was out of his depth with this fellow, this utterly lanky floorwalker, a man who was probably never out of his depth anywhere, even while wading across a continental shelf, not that the department store was nearer the ocean now than before. Not enough time had passed for sufficient tectonic activity to take place. Yet it felt as if he had already been trapped here for innumerable years. And now the floorwalker was taking full charge of his destiny, leading him not by the hand but with a form of mercantile magnetism.

Mr. Plum muttered to himself, “I only came into this store for a kettle. I got out of the elevator at the wrong floor, that’s all. I’m reading a book at home, a difficult book. I wanted a coffee break but I don’t have a kettle. I will return to my book when I can. With or without coffee, I’ll read it to the end.”

“Is monsieur troubled?”

“Not at all. No, wait, I want to know where we are going.”

“To browse the products.”

“I see. Yes. That’s your answer, is it?”

“Monsieur stated that he wished to browse. I can facilitate that wish. I am not yet a genie but I have the capability of making some wishes come true. The easy wishes, mostly. Your wish is a very easy one.”

Mr. Plum shrugged. He did this because his shoulders were trembling. The nerves inside his torso were vibrating unbearably. The shrug untied some unwholesome knot and he was well again. Able to walk, to accompany the very tall man, they stopped together next to an apparatus that might have been a grandfather clock rather than a guillotine. And it was explained to him that yes, it told the time as well as lopped off heads. It had been designed for the parlour, for people who still had parlours in their houses, and did monsieur have a parlour too?

“Not really. No, I don’t.”

The look he received was so withering, he added, “Sorry.”

“This way, monsieur!”

They passed squat machines with iron frames and no ornamentation, practical but unlovely, and highly rococo golden devices that soared almost to the ceiling, splendid but equally terrible. They were heading towards a very large guillotine that stood on a platform by itself, like an actor on stage about to recite a monologue. A long wooden ramp connected the lunette of the machine with the lane of a bowling alley. Skittles in the form of little human figures stood and waited for a severed head to roll along and knock them down. Execution as recreation.

“What does monsieur say?”

“It’s too big. It wouldn’t fit in my house.”

“For the garden. An outdoor model. You can sit in a chair and knit while the heads roll down the ramp. Does monsieur knit?”

“Not even cardigans, I’m afraid. And I don’t have a garden.”

“But are you not educated?”

“Of course. I have a university degree.”

“A bachelor’s degree then? Well, that can’t be helped. There are other models to show you. This way, monsieur!”

And they were off again, passing rows of guillotine variants that removed heads with circular blades or blades like the rotors of a propeller. One was simply a perfect replica of a breadknife but enormously magnified and fixed on a pivot to a board as wide as a double bed. Another was a bed, with the blade activated by springs in the mattress. A particularly grotesque version was a giant pair of crimping scissors and Mr. Plum could imagine the muted snip as the blades closed together and left a stump of a neck with bloody corrugated edges.

“Keep going, monsieur.”

“I like the look of the one over there.”

He realised it was a mistake to say this, but he desperately wanted to divert their path away from the hideous coffin-like contraption that stood directly ahead of them, a guillotine that clearly sliced sideways rather than vertically. He didn’t want his body in proximity with such a thing. The one he had pointed out was small and inoffensive in comparison, the sort of contrivance one might keep on a coffee table in the lounge without running the risk of adverse comments from visiting friends. It was like a little cabinet with a door, the blade hidden within.

“Monsieur, this is considered to be a lady’s guillotine. Akin to one of those pearl handled revolvers that ladies keep, or kept, in their handbags. Monsieur! But you are not buying a gift for wife or mistress! You are browsing for yourself. We worked this out using logic only a few minutes ago!”

Mr. Plum spoke thickly, as if congealed blood already clogged his throat. “Perhaps I myself am a wife or mistress. Perhaps.”

The floorwalker arched his lush eyebrows and now they were so high that to reach them for a plucking a woman with tweezers would require an extendable ladder. Or a man with that ladder could conceivably pluck them. It was a modern city, despite its remoteness from the ocean, from the trading networks, from foreign news. For long moments the eyebrows remained up there. He kept his eyes fixed on them. Then they descended soundlessly, at last, and he heaved a sigh of relief, for the floorwalker was smiling. They didn’t descend like blades.

“I understand. You jest. It is for a masque, a fiesta.”

“For one of those, yes.”

“A malign fiesta. In that case, permit me to explain its workings.”

“I grant you permission.”

“You open the door and ask your enemy to smell the interior. Your enemy falls for the deception. They insert their head into the space and inhale. The drop of pressure inside the box then activates a switch that causes the blade to fall. The drop is short, too short for a decapitation. The neck is only partly severed. The victim stands up in surprise and pain. Now the box is attached to his head. He can’t get it off, so you will offer to help. You take hold of it with both hands, a firm grip, and you twist with all your strength. That finishes him off.”

“I see. But what does the inside smell like?”

“Pine resin varnish, monsieur.”

“My name is Mr. Plum.”

“May I suggest that monsieur try it out in the changing room?”

“But I haven’t decided.”

“May I insist that monsieur try it out there?”

The other staff members giggled. They were still standing in their corners, in the alcoves and niches of the walls. He licked his lips. Ought he to make a run for it? But it was futile. The long legs of those man-spiders would catch up with him, they would converge on his fleeing form from all directions. He was doomed that way. The only chance he had was to continue the charade and somehow come out the far end in one piece. He shrugged again, nodded and lifted his hands in mock surrender. The echoes of the giggles faded away. Silence reigned.

Swooping on the box with his long arms, the floorwalker snatched it up in gnarled and massive palms and conveyed it to the nearest changing room. Mr. Plum followed in his wake, pulled along on invisible strings.

The curtains in front of the changing room were dyed the brightest of pulsating reds. But the floorwalker swept them aside and ushered him inside, then he placed the guillotine on the coffee table that was the only item of furniture in the oval room. He departed and closed the curtains after him and Mr. Plum was left alone with his anxiety and his imminent death. He turned to examine his reflection in the mirror, but there was no mirror. There was a screen on which shapes flickered. They were a projection but he was unable to locate the projector.

The shapes achieved greater clarity, came into full focus. And now sounds rose all about him from hidden loudspeakers. The baying of a mob. The shapes were figures of men and women, those who had come to watch a public execution. It was only an illusion, but it unnerved him. He wondered if he ought to thrust his head into the box and hold his breath for a minute, then withdraw and claim the apparatus was broken. Hadn’t the floorwalker told him it was operated by the breath of the victim? But that would only buy him a little time, not enough.

The alternative was really to cut off his own head and have done with it. His body resisted this option, he felt nauseous. What should he do? Remain in this room until after closing time and then hope to sneak out when the staff were gone? But he wasn’t sure the floorwalker ever left the department, or even had a home to go to. It seemed implausible. Then an audacious idea came to Mr. Plum. Picking up the box and turning on his heel, he pushed his way through the curtains without parting them. He looked neither to left or right but marched out briskly.

With his best attempt at a confident voice, he stopped before the floorwalker and said, “Yes, it works perfectly fine. I’ll take it.”

“Monsieur actually tried it?”

“Of course I did.”

“And the result for monsieur was?”

“It’s just what I need.”

“But… but did monsieur follow my instructions?”

“To the smallest detail.”

“You pushed your head into the box and breathed in.”

“Yes. Then the blade fell.”

“And it cut off your head? But I don’t see…”

“It didn’t cut it off entirely. No. I had to twist the box around several times before that happened. Then I knew it was a good device and I picked up my head and put it back on my neck. I wish to buy it.”

“Well now. Does monsieur want it gift wrapped?”

“No need. I’ll take it as it is.”

The floorwalker lifted his immensely long arms and let them drop again and this gesture was one of the deepest disappointment. The tall men in corners and alcoves groaned in unison. Mr. Plum reached for his wallet. He was acutely aware that all eyes were probing his bare neck, searching for the join, for the mark. Not finding it, they would grow suspicious very rapidly, but he might well be out of here before they had time to stop him. It was just a question of finding the elevator. Or maybe there was a flight of emergency stairs somewhere near?

“How much is it?”

“One large and tarnished penny, monsieur.”

“I only have a florin.”

“We don’t have change in the till.”

“Do you even have a till? No, don’t answer that! Keep the change. Keep it until it does change. Until you change.”

“Monsieur is very generous. Very wise.”

“And the way out?”

The floorwalker pointed in two different directions with two of his long arms and Mr. Plum went in a third direction, clutching his guillotine and whistling, but his breath came in shuddering gasps and even when he saw that he was indeed heading straight for the elevator doors his lungs still rasped against his ribcage and every step was an ordeal. But no one followed him. He had won. He pressed the red wall button and the door opened immediately. Then he stepped inside and it closed. He stood to attention, wondering if this box was a guillotine too.

No, it wasn’t. The elevator descended to the ground floor. He stepped out and left the department store. It was early evening already. As soon as he stood in the street, a smile formed on his face and he uttered the words, “I’m free.” The nearest tram stop was only a short distance away. He caught a tram back to his own district, walked for fifteen minutes to his apartment block, tramped up the stairs to the level on which he resided. He placed the guillotine on the floor, groped for his key and opened the door, then picked up the box and carried it inside.

The kitchen was a melancholy place. It still had no kettle. He found space for the guillotine on the counter next to the blender.

Then he went into his study to resume reading a book, the book he had abandoned halfway through, the difficult book. It was the oldest book he owned and he couldn’t recall how it had come into his possession. He sat at his desk and frowned. The words on the page no longer made sense. Even the individual letters were incomprehensible. They resembled bubbles within bubbles. He flicked through the volume rapidly. The same script filled every page. The language the book was written in must have gone extinct while he was shopping in the store.

That did sometimes happen. But what bad timing! What was the solution, if any? He turned his head in the direction of the kitchen. Surely an extinct man was the kind of man who would be able to read an extinct language with ease? But suicide was a drastic action to take for the sake of finishing a book, one he hadn’t found especially entertaining even when he was able to understand it. A desire to chop the book in two overwhelmed him. “I’m not free at all,” he told himself as he stood and wandered out of the study. “None of us can ever be that.”


© 2020 by Rhys Hughes

Author’s Note: The belief that a complete story can grow from a small seed, from just one idea or something even smaller than an idea, an image, a remark, or in this case a pun that just popped into my mind one day for no reason, ‘Are you Being Severed?’  And the moment I had those words I had the story entire. It grew in my mind with an inevitability that seems to have little to do with any conscious effort on my part. Watching the still unwritten story unfold in my mind was like watching the spreading of a pool of water from an upset jug. It just formed a pattern, the pattern it couldn’t help but form. Then it was merely a case of me setting down in words that story and its pattern. I also wanted to see if it was possible to include the sorts of allusions and puns that many readers feel lessens a story’s impact in such a way that the impact isn’t lessened at all. I wanted to find out if such tricks might even enhance the impact. That is how this story came into being.

Rhys Hughes was born in Wales. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published fifty other books, more than nine hundred short stories, and innumerable articles. He graduated as an engineer but now works as a tutor of mathematics. His most recent book is an epic poem, The Meandering Knight, and he is currently working on a collection of experimental stories to be called Comfy Rascals. His blog may be found at http://rhysaurus.blogspot.com


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #7: Foil by Weird Al Yankovic

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Foil by Weird Al Yankovic a cross-genre story with multiple twists and turns, which is a parody of Royals by Lorde (though the story has no relation).

The story begins very mundane, with our protagonist (Weird Al Yankovic) talking about how he never finishes all of his food when he eats at restaurants. With a segue where we see this on a video monitor it becomes clear that this is part of a pitch in an infomercial or cooking show titled “Now We’re Cooking”, overseen by a producer (Patton Oswalt). He describes the benefits of aluminum foil to seal in flavor and keep food fresh, and to up the marketing cheesiness he is joined by three 1950’s-style women backup singers with big hair and form-fitting outfits (apparently made from foil, natch). He takes a sip of tea…

…and the film takes an abrupt turn as he reveals, to the surprise of the producer, that he has figured out the secret to the shadow organizations running our country, and starts namedropping conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, black helicopters, fake moon landing, and that sort of thing, as the lighting gets dark and the videos all change to something darker, and the backup singers drop away as the producer looks on in dismay at the disaster this is becoming. All before saying he’s protected because he made this hat…

…from aluminum foil! And the story comes full circle as the lighting comes back up and the backup singers return again as he turns the advertisement around to aluminum foil hats to protect yourself from mind control and aliens! But soon two men in black arrive, and are directed by the producer onstage, where they inject our protagonist with something and drag him away (on camera, for some reason, you would think they would cut the feed first). The producer sighs in relief and pulls off his mask to reveal that he is apparently a lizard alien.

This story is so much fun, and the twists and turns especially the first time are great fun. The clear best moment in it all is the twist where he returns from the conspiracy theory segue and the backup singers return to promote aluminum foil as a way to fight the shadow government, but still with the cheesy overmarketed costumes and marketing. A great parody and comedy film.

Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson.

MOVIE REVIEW: Spies In Disguise

written by David Steffen

Spies in Disguise is a 2019 computer-animated action/comedy film produced by Blue Sky Studios and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The movie follows super-suave celebrity spy (ala James Bond) Lance Sterling (Will Smith), who is on the top of his game, able to infiltrate an enemy’s facility and make it look effortless with a combination of martial arts, gadgets, and catchy one-liners.

But Sterling seems to meet his match facing off against an unknown adversary with a robot hand (Ben Mendelsohn), when he takes the blame for the theft of an expensive drone, and barely escapes agency headquarters when Marcy Koppel (Rashida Jones) of the agency tries to to apprehend him for it. He makes an unlikely friend in a gadget-inventor Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) he got fired from the agency that same day for his flashy but pacifist gadgets. Shortly after, Sterling unknowingly drinks down an experimental chemical formula that turns him into… a pigeon, albeit a pigeon with human intelligence and speech. Being a pigeon makes most of his tactics… less than effective, though it does have a certain appeal in the fact that there is a major manhunt looking for him but they don’t know he’s a pigeon.

I went into this movie with low expectations. It looked like an okay movie to take a kid too, and I thought there was a pretty good chance that I would nap through it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, I thought it was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed Will Smith in particular–it reminded me in some ways of his character in the original Men In Black, suave when he needs to be, but out of his element, with a sense of humor that helps him get through more difficult times. I liked the interaction between them, Sterling’s confident and gungho but violent means eventually coming to see the benefits to Beckett’s preferred nonviolent engagement. The villain is suitably scary and easy to root against. My particular favorite part of the movie were the comic relief from the secondary pigeon characters.

I would recommend it, especially if you have kids, but even if not.

TV REVIEW: Pushing Daisies Season 2

written by David Steffen

Pushing Daisies was a fantastical and whimsical murder mystery romance show that aired for 2 (both very short, the first one cut short by the writer’s strike) seasons between 2007 and 2009.

Ned (Lee Pace) is a piemaker, who lives a mostly quiet life, but who has a secret ability to reanimate the dead with a touch. If he touches any dead thing (plants, animals, humans, included), then it will come alive again no matter what condition it’s in. If he touches them again, they will be dead forever with no way to raise them again. If he leaves something alive for more than one minute, then some other alive thing in the near vicinity will die, something of a similar level of order of complexity (i.e. a small animal for a small animal, or a human for a human).

Ned didn’t know about this ability until his mother suddenly died when he was a child and he brought her back with a touch, and dead again when she touched him again. And he learned the other part of the rule that same day because his mother stayed alive again long enough to pay the consequence and the father of his best friend and neighbor Charlotte Charles (aka Chuck) (Anna Friel) died as a result, and she moved away to love with her aunts.

Ned has been working on the side to help private detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) solve murder cases. Ned’s abilities are very convenient for such a venture, because he can raise the murder victim and ask them some very quick questions before making them dead again, before there are consequences. But one such case (at the beginning of the series) is murdered tourist Charlotte Charles, and Ned doesn’t have the heart to lose her again, so he keeps her alive. They develop a romance, albeit an untraditional one since they can’t touch again on penalty of her death. She feels that she can’t tell her aunts Vivian and Lily (Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz) that she’s alive. Ned feels he must keep his own secret from everyone except Emerson and Chuck, including his only employee, Olive (Kristin Chenoweth).

Despite the extremely dark premise, the show as a whole is relatively lighthearted in tone with odd and whimsical set and costume designs and clever dialog, and much of the show being centered around the awkward romance, and around the banter between Cod and the others. The premise is contrived, but if you overlook that and just look at how it’s used to structure the show, it’s a fun mystery to watch.

The second season, you could tell that the writers were working under threat of cancellation because the arcs are kindof muddied, longer arcs building and then suddenly resolving without much fanfare, and then shorter arcs without much sign of new larger arcs until the end when there’s a hasty wrapup. All in all, I think they did a pretty good job wrapping everything up with how this sort of thing all goes. The whole two seasons is only about the length of a normal season of a show, so it’s not a huge time commitment, but it is a lot of fun to watch.

TV REVIEW: Chuck Season 4

written by David Steffen

Chuck was an action spy action/drama/comedy show, starring Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), who started as a down-on-his-luck geek working at the BuyMore fixing computers, when he ended up with a supercomputer with government secrets downloaded into his brain, as he has been used as an intelligence asset. And later in the series he got an upgrade to the software that also gave him various physical skills like martial arts. Season 4 aired from September 2010 to May 2011.

In this season, Chuck and his partners Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Casey (Adam Baldwin) face a new adversary in Alexei Volkoff (Timothy Dalton), a criminal mastermind who is still working with Chuck’s mother who he hasn’t seen since he was a child. Everything changes while remaining the same as the CIA takes over the Buy More and converts it into an official base, and builds out new areas that even Chuck and his partners don’t have access to.

While Season Three had started out shaky but got stronger, Season Four is reasonably solid throughout, new situations, expanding on Chuck’s physical abilities, and taking new steps in the relationship between Chuck and Sarah. The Buy More continues to offer the comic relief while also tying into the CIA plots, while also changing as the managerial structure changes and now Morgan (Joshua Gomez) is in on Chuck’s secret so manages to involve himself more and more. At the same, it’s hard not to miss the early seasons of the show where Chuck was clever but flighty and not physically adept. But the show has changed into something different, even if the first couple of season were special in their own way.

Well worth watching!

MOVIE REVIEW: Big Hero 6

written by David Steffen

Big Hero 6 is an animated action comedy science fiction movie released by Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2014, which is loosely based on the Marvel superhero team of the same name.

Hiro Hamada is a 14-year old high school graduate  living in San Fransokyo (a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo apparently?), who spends his free time building robots to fight on the illegal underground bot fighting circuits.  His big brother Tadashi shows him to the advanced research lab where Tadashi has been spending his time inventing a balloon robot with nursing capabilities, and Hiro quickly makes friends with the other young researchers as well as the lab’s director Robert Callaghan who invites Hiro to apply to join the lab by entering something in an inventing competition.

Soon after, a disaster at the lab takes the life of Callaghan and Tadashi, and Hiro is left to pick up the pieces of his life.  But Baymax was in Tadashi’s bedroom at home at the time of the accident, and activates to help Hiro cope with the loss of his brother.  Hiro recruits Baymax’s help, and the help of his friends, to get to the bottom of the accident at the lab.

Baymax is lovable and hilarious from the first minute he’s onscreen, in part because of his unusual architecture as an inflated balloon built around a flexible skeleton, built to be nonthreatening to help with his healthcare functionality.  Even as he gets pulled further and further away from his core purpose for the sake of the story, Baymax’s focus is always on helping Hiro heal from the loss of his brother.  This is both funny and sad.  Funny, because Baymax is always so well-meaning, he is always looking out for others at all times, that he interrupts action scenes to verify that what he is doing is helping Hiro feel better.  Sad, because he is so trusting and Hiro honestly takes advantage of someone he calls a friend, by pretending that a quest for revenge is equivalent to grief counseling.

Spoilers in this paragraph: I normally don’t discuss big plot points in reviews, but in this case I wanted to talk about a particular point that did bother me, although I like the movie as a whole.  This ongoing choice to take advantage of Baymax comes to a head during one of the major climaxes of the show when Hiro asks Baymax to kill in the name of his quest for revenge, and Baymax can’t harm a human being because of his programming.  Instead of trying to understand this, Hiro removes his healthcare programming chip, which is like lobotomizing a friend because your friend doesn’t agree with you.  I feel like that was more than just a mistake, that was a mind-rape of a friend who trusted him, and while the movie made it clear that was a bad choice, I felt that it glossed over the consequences.

But overall, loved the movie, lots of fun action, lots of funny stuff.  Great for kids too.  Since we watched the movie, my 4-year-old asks me on a daily basis “Do you remember the Baymax movie?”

 

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Spoiler Alert

written by David Steffen

spoileralert

You are the Chili Pepper Knight, and you have already vanquished your foe and rescued the princess. But, now, time is rolling backwards and you have to replay the game in reverse, in this comedy platformer from Megafuzz in 2013.

This is harder than you might think, because if you take any actions that contradict original events, then there’s a time paradox that resets the level and you have to redo it.  If you see a dead enemy, you have to make sure you unkill the enemy to revive it.  If you see a live enemy, you have to AVOID unkilling it, since it never died in the first place.  If you see a collected coin you have to uncollect.  If you see an uncollected coin, you have to avoid touching it.  And so on.  The Chili Pepper Knight is constantly running so you’ve got to figure out when to jump to match all of these rules, and different rules apply when the Chili Pepper Knight has a power up like the dragon suit where you have to catch your own fireballs as they come flying back at you.
The concept is simple, the gameplay is simple, and the game’s not particularly long, but it’s an interesting puzzle to wrap your hand around and to get the hang of.

20161229205938_1Visuals
Simple, cartoony, but fun.

Audio
Simple, but fun.

Challenge
Not too terribly challenging once you get the hang of it, but it’s a fun distraction while it lasts.

Story
The story is pretty slight, and even more so when it’s told in reverse–the conversations with the boss characters are more than a bit silly (nothing wrong with that, mind you).  And there’s not really any explanation for why it’s all rewinding, not that it has to.

Session Time
Each level takes at most a minute or two, and it saves which levels you’ve completed and how well, so it’s pretty easy to shut it off when you need to, making it easy to digest in short spurts.

20161229205950_1Playability
Easy.  The character is always running (backward) at a constant rate, so most of the time your only choice is to jump.  When you have special powerup suits you will also have extra powers that will be one extra button, but still quite simple.

Replayability
There is some replayability in terms of trying to go back and beat each level on your first try, as well as other achievements, and a time trial which strings all the levels back to back nonstop so that to get a perfect score you would have to make it all the way through the game without making any mistakes.  So if you’re into that kind of challenge it’s there for you.  There is also a level editor where you can set up your own challenges.

Originality
I have certainly never played another game based around trying to avoid time paradoxes in a reverse chronological gameplay, so certainly original!

Playtime
I played through the whole game in about 50 minutes, without any particular effort at playing back through to beat each level on the first try or to beat the time trial.  I would’ve liked if the game had been longer.

Overall
Amusing game concept with came with some weird and fun game dynamics.  The game is not very long and didn’t wear out its concept in that time–I would’ve liked for it to be a bit longer, but it was pretty fun while it lasted, if not particularly challenging.  $3 on Steam.

DP FICTION #48B: “How Rigel Gained a Rabbi (Briefly)” by Benjamin Blattberg

Rabbi Dov Applebaum argued—quite eloquently, he thought—for keeping the spaceship to its original flight plan. After all, there were Jewish children on Orion Station who needed Torah lessons before their upcoming B’nai Mitzvah. And yet the AI refused to listen to him and instead plotted a new course towards the distress signal on Rigel-7.

When the AI stated that intergalactic law compelled them to answer a distress call, Dov might’ve kept quiet—he wouldn’t actually have kept quiet, but he might have—but when the fakakta computer started citing Jewish law, Dov had to object.

“True, Leviticus says not to ‘stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor,'” said Dov, “but there are many interpretations of the Jewish law around distress signals. For one, what is a neighbor, galactically speaking?”

Dov could have discussed this for days, turning the argument about so that every angle of interpretation caught the light. But he only had hours before landfall and the AI had stopped actually listening anyway. Dov was used to that. His students throughout the galaxy didn’t listen, so why should his ship? Dov tried to imagine the Jewish children on Orion Station wailing and rending their garments over the delayed arrival of their favorite rabbi, but it was easier to imagine them eating synth-pork and forgetting what it meant to be Jews.

To add to Rabbi Dov’s woes, as his ship entered orbit and prepared to descend to the surface of Rigel-7, the Rigelian ambassador Cho’sun called on the viewscreen to forbid Dov from landing.

The spider-like Rigelian spoke its own language, which sounded to Dov like Coney Island being picked up with little warning and shaken. Luckily, Dov had a universal translator, a small black box clipped onto the upper sleeve of his flight suit, loaded with an AI that had been trained specifically to Dov’s native language. The box seemed to hum and clear its throat before translating.

“Listen, schmuck,” said the Rigelian through the translation box, “we have no laws to protect outsiders and you’ll just have to live with the consequences.”

Dov glanced at the translation box skeptically and tapped at it with one chewed nail. He couldn’t hear any loose parts in there—and if there were, what could he do about it?

“You hear me, schmuck?” Cho’sun waved its anterior arms in emphasis.

“Ah,” said Dov, as he attempted to stroke his red-brown beard thoughtfully, as his teachers had done and their teachers before them. The effect was rather ruined by his beard’s tendency to float up in microgravity, the curly mass haloing his jaw. “But you see, Ambassador, I am not landing—the ship is.”

Cho’sun made a sound like a garbage disposal chewing up dinosaur bones. The universal translator rendered this as laughter at first and then clarified: “Dismissive laughter.”

“Ambassador,” said Dov, “intergalactic law demands that distress signals be answered by the nearest available ship.” Even if that ship was a weaponless family transport that currently held no family, just Dov and his collection of Judaica, including a parchment Torah in a chased silver case all the way from Earth. That treasure he rarely brought out: only for brief ceremonies and never while his people were noshing.

“Universal law, shmuniversal law.” The ambassador flexed its claws, which might have been body language for emphasis or negation or something else entirely. Dov had skipped taking xeno-linguistics in college and the translator had its limits. “And in any case, Mr. Bigshot, we plan to take care of our own distress call, thank you very much.”

“Ah, so there is nothing to be distressed about?” Dov looked over at the terminal where he imagined the AI to be, a slight air of triumph in his raised eyebrow.

“Nothing at all distressing,” agreed Cho’sun. “As soon as we find them, we will kill off the entire unclean species that is sending whatever call you are receiving.”

Dov grimaced like he’d tasted a bad piece of whitefish. “It sounds, Ambassador, like you are speaking of genocide.”

Insofar as a spider can smile, the ambassador did. “Aha, now you understand.”

Dov’s bad fish expression deepened and he sighed. He couldn’t see any way to avoid landing on Rigel-7. He raised his hands and shrugged, the ancestral Jewish gesture for “What can I do about this? Nothing.”

Even the ambassador, who had probably never met a Jew before, seemed to take Dov’s meaning. Its voice took on a husky edge: the Empire State Building being scraped the length of Long Island. “We will cleanse Rigel-7 of this degenerate species and if you interfere, your life will be forfeit, schmuck.” The viewscreen went dead, the communication cut.

After a long moment of sighing, Dov flipped on a tablet, calling up commentaries on mediation by the most esteemed rabbis, as well as accessing a brief summary of the Rigelians. Their description—violent, xenophobic—sounded to Dov much like his ancestors’ stories of growing up with the Italians in Yonkers. And hadn’t they made peace there before moving to Scarsdale and Florida?

Perhaps Dov could be the one to bring Rigel-7 into the intergalactic community. He’d rather keep to his schedule and be teaching Torah to ungrateful children on backwards space stations, true, but if he had to make peace between two warring tribes on Rigel-7 and go down in history, so be it.

Perhaps, with his help, no one would die.

***

They were all going to die.

Cho’sun had called these other aliens a “species,” but the ambassador had called Dov a “schmuck,” too, so what did he know? Truth be told, Dov felt less like a schmuck and more like a schlemiel: not the clumsy waiter spilling the soup, but the guy the waiter spills soup on. Only in this case, it was more like the universe itself was spilling soup on Dov.

To Dov, these aliens didn’t seem like a distinct species. For one thing, there just weren’t that many of them, maybe ten total, camped out here in the middle of the green-black jungle. The jungle itself smelled faintly of burnt sugar, like overspun cotton candy, and was lush and thorny. Dov had time to discover the thorns as he hiked a few miles from the only clearing where his ship could land, since this benighted planet hadn’t any spaceport or roads or Chinese food. It was unpleasant, even if the air was breathable and the only large predators here were the man-sized, spider-like Rigelians.

Like the ones standing in front of Dov, asking for help, and not really listening when he said he couldn’t give them any.

“No, I don’t have ray guns on my ship,” explained Dov again. “What should I have ray guns for?”

The aliens talked to each other in voices that sounded like the Long Island Expressway being rolled up and eaten like pastrami, in the same language that Cho’sun used. Not only did they speak the same language and look nearly identical to Cho’sun—the same dark compound eyes, chitinous exoskeletons, and abundant limbs—but they waved away Dov’s well-thought-out arguments with the same motions. Dov wasn’t sure what set these Rigelians apart or why he hadn’t become a dentist with a nice little practice on Mars.

“Given your similarities, why do the Rigelians hate you so?” asked Dov.

Yen’tah, a smaller and slightly reddish but just as horrifyingly chitinous and hairy spider-thing, bristled, rising on its posterior four legs. “I reject your question—we too are Rigelian! It’s divisive speech like that—”

The other Rigelians began to yell at Yen’tah, making even more noise than it did. Dov’s translation box parsed their commingled cries: “hush, sheket, enough already!” Yen’tah made a gesture that Dov assumed was rude among egg-laying, non-binary sentients, but it stopped speaking and a moment later the ones who had shouted Yen’tah down quieted to a low grumble.

“The Kin hate us Other-kin because they do not believe in change and we have changed,” said Buch’ker, who was larger than all the other Rigelians and spoke in a voice that sounded like a Ferris wheel making love to a container ship. Buch’ker cocked its head to one side and then the other, a gesture that indicated thought among the Rigelians. Buch’ker was considering how to explain to Dov, and eventually it said, “We see the world differently.”

“Ah, a philosophical difference,” said Dov. “As a Jew, I have some experience—”

The Otherkin around him cut him off, their bulbous abdomens grumbling. The whole noisy rabble reminded Dov unexpectedly of a congregation held too long at service, with the promised land of cookies and gossip so close.

Buch’ker pointed to one of its eyes, as shiny as new challah, and said slowly, as if to a young child, “We see the world differently.”

After some clarification, with Buch’ker talking ever slower, Dov eventually realized this talk of “seeing the world differently” was the literal truth, as well as a metaphor. As metaphor: whereas the Kin avoided change and only maintained the technology they had inherited, the Otherkin believed change was acceptable, particularly when it would help them avoid extinction. And as literal truth: the Otherkin had experienced a genetic shift that allowed them to sense many different wavelengths. Though as they hadn’t developed a theory of genetics yet, Buch’ker explained this as simply a difference between its family—all the spider-aliens here being closely related—and the other Rigelians.

Also, Yen’tah explained, their thoraxes were smaller or hairier or something, but Dov couldn’t see it.

While Buch’ker explained this, two of the Otherkin scuttled up the trees and began to dismantle their nests high in the canopy overhead. These nests were temporary structures, Buch’ker had said before, put up and taken down as the Otherkin migrated through the jungle, staying ahead of their distant cousins and would-be murderers. A few others began to look up at their nests, realizing that Dov couldn’t help them, that running away would be their only hope. Maybe, if they were lucky, the next starship they called with their distress beacon would be more help.

And if not, more running, more distress calls, and more running.

The original distress beacon was still beeping—Dov’s ship relayed the call to his suit, despite his request to the AI to not do that, please. Dov had even asked the Otherkin to turn off the beacon, fearing that the Kin could track it.

Alas, explained the Otherkin named Gon’nef whose eyes were oddly close together, they had just recently invented the distress beacon and had not yet invented the off switch. A few Otherkin made a noise that seemed like laughter at that.

But Dov decided to leave that topic alone, especially after Buck’ker told him that the Kin had viewscreen technology that operated only on that frequency, but not a lot of other communication technology. The Kin couldn’t track this new signal since they didn’t invent any new technology, just lived with whatever old things they had and never changed.

“This taboo against change, this is taught to the Kin from your Creator or Creators?” asked Dov then, looking forward to discussing comparative religion rather than the first topic the Otherkin had wanted to discuss: ray guns.

“What kind of a cockamamie question is that?” grumbled Yen’tah.

“No,” said Buch’ker, “the Creators didn’t teach anything to the Kin before the Kin ate them.”

But now, with the Otherkin packing their nests and preparing to run, Dov felt rather sympathetic to that distress beacon, calling off into the interstellar night for help that might never come. There was something deeply Jewish about it. Dov could almost imagine the Otherkin as the Israelites of the book of Exodus, under the cruel yoke of the pharaoh.

“I have a plan,” said Dov proudly. “We run.”

“This he calls a plan?” Yen’tah sneered.

“If we run, we can escape,” said Dov, “as long the Kin can’t track our signal.”

***

“We easily tracked your signal,” said Ambassador Cho’sun, as it entered Dov’s prison cell, high up in an ancient tower. “But then you probably figured that out when we caught you.”

Dov turned from the window, where he’d been watching his spaceship’s rocket trail, but after he saw the look on Cho’sun’s face, Dov almost turned back. On a human, Cho’sun’s expression would’ve been called a deep frown, but on a human that expression wouldn’t have exposed so many chitin-brown, needle-sharp teeth.

Dov pulled at his flight suit to try to smooth it out and got his beard caught in the suit’s velcro at the neck. “Ambassador, intergalactic law demands that I be allowed to communicate with my home government.”

Cho’sun ignored him. It placed a black box between them and settled itself into the narrow room as best as it could. To fit here, Cho’sun had to fold and tuck its legs under it, like a spider who had extensively practiced yoga. Like most of the city that Dov had seen—while being carried by angry Rigelians—this room was built to a different scale and shape than these natives. The Kin literally lived in houses made for others who had come before them, which, even for Dov, was taking respect for tradition a little too far.

Cho’sun tapped the black box, paused, then tapped it again, this time harder.

“Ambassador, I demand—”

Cho’sun picked the black box up and held it up to its ear canal and shook it, before placing it down and pressing it one more time, firmly. Dov heard a slight pop, like a jar of garlic pickles being opened. Cho’sun clicked its mandibles, which Dov had learned was the Rigelian way of nodding to oneself. Then it began to talk.

“You putz, I told you not to land and what did you do?” Cho’sun fell silent, staring at Dov.

After far too long a silence, the Rigelian added, “That’s not rhetorical, mister. This is your trial right here, nu? You want we should execute you now? Don’t say anything, fine with me.”

Dov paused stroking his beard, getting it caught in velcro again. Buch’ker had told him the Kin would hold a trial before executing and eating him—more respect for tradition, Dov supposed. He just hadn’t thought his impending death would be quite so impending. Dov considered his situation against the long history of the Jews: this was not the worst situation his people had been in. It was not a very comforting thought.

“You want me to explain what I did?” asked Dov.

“Blockhead! We know what you did—you had the gall to save those unclean things with your…” Words failing it, Cho’sun waved a claw towards the window, towards the rocket trail, a column of smoke in the daytime sky. “They all escaped, so I hope you’re happy with yourself.”

Dov considered for a moment before deciding, yes, he was a little happy with himself. It hadn’t been, all things considered, a bad plan for him to run while broadcasting a signal the Kin could detect on the viewscreen technology, while the Otherkin made their way to Dov’s ship, following a signal only they could detect. Dov had a deep, rabbinical urge for symbolism, which was satisfied by the fact that the signal the Otherkin followed was their own distress beacon, relayed from his ship.

Only now he realized the plan’s tragic flaw: he was going to die. It had seemed so clear—and so righteous—at the time for Dov to be the decoy: if any of the Otherkin were left behind, they’d be immediately killed and eaten. At least Dov got this farce of a trial. Not a long enough trial for people to come rescue him, but at least it was something, right?

“We know what you’re guilty of,” said Cho’sun, “we just want to know why. You can explain yourself. And then, the execution.”

“But what am I really guilty of?” asked Dov, a sudden flash of inspiration rising to the surface of his brain like a matzah ball of the perfect lightness and airiness. “The Rigelians wanted to cleanse Rigel-7 of the Otherkin”—Cho’sun bristled at that word, the tiny hairs covering its body vibrating with anger, no xeno-linguistics degree necessary to read that—”and I have done that. There are no more of… them on Rigel-7.”

“Our world is cleansed,” said Cho’sun flatly, “but we were looking forward to killing them all. And now we have to be satisfied with killing only you. And speaking of that,” and Cho’sun reached out to turn off the black box.

“Wait, I can explain better,” said Dov, half-reaching out to swat away Cho’sun’s claw. He caught himself and steepled his fingers as if in thought. “We Jews have an old saying from the Babylonian Talmud—a book of commentary on our laws—that says, ‘whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.'”

“I do not understand,” said the Rigelian, claw still hovering over the black box.

“Ah,” said Dov, nodding, “you see, it’s a moral calculation that asks us to consider—”

Cho’sun waved him off. “Schmuck, it’s ‘book’ I don’t understand. Whatever those are, we don’t have them and don’t want them.”

But then Cho’sun cocked its head to one side and then the other, the Rigelian gesture for considering.

“And how is one life equal to a world?” asked Cho’sun.

“A lesson like that has to be interpreted,” Dov said quickly. He paused as he heard steps coming up the narrow stairs to his tower cell. The steps were halting and clumsy, the narrow stairs not at all suited to the Rigelian’s sprawling legs. And on top of the click of Rigelian claws, Dov heard something else being dragged, bouncing on each hard step with a clunk. Dov had a moment of vivid worry, imagining them dragging some torture device up to his cell.

Cho’sun had to move aside for the other Rigelians to make their way into the cell and drop what they were carrying in a pile at Dov’s feet. The Jewish children of Orion Station would’ve said it was a torture device, but after wiping away some leaves and mud, Dov recognized it all as his collection of Judaica and teaching materials.

They were dented here and there and all jumbled together—the Seder plate next to the shofar horn, his tefillin straps tangled around Elijah’s and Miriam’s cups, the menorah with one arm bent down, the Torah surfing on a sea of yarmulkes, and a classroom’s worth of tablets, loaded with lessons on everything from basic Hebrew to the most abstruse rabbinical commentary.

“We have only you and all of this,” said Cho’sun, gesturing to the pile. And then, with a little more hope in its voice, it added, “Is any of this edible?”

“No,” Dov admitted, “but I can explain how a life is worth a world.” He picked up a tablet, the least dented and mud-covered, checking that it was still working. He turned it on, flipped to the first page, and turned it to face Cho’sun. “This, here, is the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.”

Cho’sun looked skeptically at the image of the aleph on the tablet’s screen. “Listen, bubele, no more nonsense—this you call the answer to my question?”

Dov considered that for a moment, before answering. “It’s the beginning of an answer.”

“How long will this answer take?”

For once, Dov didn’t say what he thought—hopefully long enough for a ship to come rescue me—but merely shrugged, hands up, and gave Cho’sun the same answer his rabbis had given Dov back when he was a student. “It takes as long as it takes.”

Cho’sun looked back at the tablet, its head cocked first to one side, then the other. “Oy vey,” it said finally, and then clicked its mandibles. “What comes next?”

 


© 2018 by Benjamin Blattberg

 

Author’s Note: The seed of this story was probably planted by William Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi!” Not the story—just the title. (Though eventually I did read the story and you might want to check it out, too.)

 

Ben Blattberg is a software developer, improviser, and writer currently living in Austin, TX, as long as there are no follow­up questions on any of those facts. His stories have appeared in Tina Connolly’s Toasted Cake, Crossed Genres, Pornokitsch, Podcastle, and Pseudopod.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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GAME REVIEW: The Magic Circle

written by David Steffen

magiccircleThe Magic Circle is a first person puzzle/action game released by Question in July 2015.

Ishmael (Ish for short) Gilder is a celebrity in the gaming world, the designer of a wildly popular game twenty years ago, a text-based adventure.  The fans have been pining for the first person fantasy sequel that Ish has been developing… for the last twenty years. Ish dithers over every little choice, never making firm decisions on anything, and so the game continues to linger in “development hell”.  Not even so much as a color scheme, so the game in development is still in monochrome.  He has become too emotionally attached to the game so that any actual game could never possibly live up to his expectations, and his ego has become so inflated he thinks of himself as the Starfather god figure from the fantasy world.
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20160831060139_1You are the protagonist of that game.  But Ish is so indecisive, he won’t even allow the protagonist to have a weapon.  So, you can’t possibly win an action fantasy game like that.  Can you?

But soon you start to hear a voice that isn’t part of the game.  A voice that is aware of Ish’s indecisive nature and the embarrassingly incomplete state of the game.  And he knows how to help you.  He knows where the cracks in the game are, to let you manipulate the environment to your advantage.  You can harness energy from cracks in the program, and you can use that to generate glitches to trap enemy creatures.  Once you’ve trapped a creature you can manipulate its attributes–its method of movement, its attack type, its passive attributes, its alliances.  You can strip them away from one creature and attach them to another creature–make flying wolf, or a biting mushroom, or a flamethrowing rat.

20160527065246_1The mysterious voice has a vendetta against the Sky Bastards, which is what he calls the programmers (because they manifest in the game as floating polygonal eyes with rotating wait logo for irises, and he wants to use you to get revenge against them.

The game is clearly broken in many ways and you can approach each obstacle from various approaches.  You can make an army of creatures to follow you around everywhere, or you can make one creature your tank, or you can experiment with different attributes to find a different way.

As the game goes on, there are completely different kind of gameplay focuses in each one–but I don’t want to spoil the fun to work through them yourself.

Visuals 
Fun graphics.  Overly simple because much of the game is monochrome, (though that’s justified by story!).  They did a good job making it look like a half-finished game.  Besides the main fantasy quest game there is also some other segments of an unrelated game you end up, which has a fun but dated look.

Audio
Nice music, which is a nice plot element as well when it occasionally gets messed with because it’s not actually finished.  The voice acting is really really good, especially Ish, who is constantly complaining about game design details, and you can find collectible dev audio notes.

Challenge
The challenge level is reasonable, and the game is flexible enough in strategy that you can adjust the difficulty by picking a different approach to the game.

Story
Fun metastory.  The story of the game within the game is kindof all over the place, but of course that’s much of the entertainment.  The “real world” story is consistently entertaining, and meshes with the in-game story as the real-world actions impact the game world.

Session Time
Mostly, very very short, because you can save at most any point during playtime, so it’s easy to put down.  It… can be pretty slow to load, so might not be worth booting up if you know it’ll only be a few minutes of time to play.  There are a couple of longer story sequences, which aren’t easy to escape out of, so if you happen to catch one of those at an inconvenient time, then it can be a little aggravating.

Playability
Easy to pick up.  The only thing that took me a little bit of time to understand is that traits that you extract/give
Easy to get the controls down, challenging to master the game.  The level of challenge escalates well as the game progresses.

Replayability
Definitely some potential for replayability, to get all the collectibles, to try to figure out a different approach to different obstacles.

Originality
Much originality!  The FPS format is familiar, of course, but the metaformat where you’re in a game-in-development, where the slipshod state of the game is in itself an obstacle, where the point of the game is to get the game-in-the-game into some kind of releasable format, that all felt new.

Playtime
About 5 hours to finish according to Steam, on one straightforward playthrough.  I didn’t take a lot of time to try to seek out every collectible, and there were some areas and abilities that I didn’t fully explore (i.e. the groupthink ability).

Overall
Fun metastory for a game, fun play, nice and flexible gameplay, great humor element as the creator continually sabotages his own creation, and a good human story too as the various real-life people act against each other.  A lot of fun, well worth a playthrough.  $20 on Steam.

MOVIE REVIEW: Hotel Transylvania

written by David Steffen

Hotel Transylvania is a 2012 computer-animated children’s comedy by Columbia Pictures.  The legendary vampire Dracula (Adam Sandler), after the death of his wife at the hands of humans, raises his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) as a single parent. Frightened of violent and unpredictable humanity, he has made a life for them by founding a five-star hotel in Transylvania just for monsters, and telling Mavis constant horror stories about the human world so she won’t to go.  But it’s her 118th birthday now, which means she can make her own decisions and for some reason she still wants to go out into the world.  To make matters worse, a human named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) somehow finds his way to the hotel and is not scared away by the monsters, and Jonathan and Mavis hit it off.

It’s a fun idea, and since there’s been three movies to date and a cartoon TV show, clearly the kids especially like it. There are some funny bits, particular from Jonathan as he is an oddball human to have made it so far into Transylvania without being scared off.  The ensemble cast (Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, CeeLo Green, David Spade, Fran Drescher, among others)

Adam Sandler isn’t super Adam Sandler-ish in this one, so if you tend to hate Adam Sandler movies as much as I do (some notable exceptions exist), I didn’t get that vibe about it.  But the main plot of the movie is based around a fragile scaffolding of transparent lies that Dracula has been building for a century–it was pretty clear it was going to crumble at the slightest touch and then most of the basis for Dracula’s relationship with his daughter would be revealed to be completely fabricated and so the relationship between the two most important characters in the movie would be almost entirely built of lies while her father tries to intimidate and force Jonathan out of the hotel so that she can’t get to know him.  Especially since Mavis is an adult even by vampire reckoning at this point, this level of interference in her life was more annoying than endearing, and I thought she was remarkably chill about her dad being revealed to have been running a long-term con on his own daughter instead of trusting her.