The Death of Long Tom, Part I

I groaned, sluggish to wake up as my alarm sounded.  Behind the shrill buzzer coming from the small device on my bedside table, I heard the boom of Long Tom, echoing through the panes of my window.  I reached over, fumbling, and managed to find the snooze.  I still had another fifteen minutes or so before I had to get out of bed.

As I forced my way through a bowl of dull, fairly tasteless cereal, Long Tom fired again.  Speeding up the rate that the spoon carried slush to my mouth, I stood up, carrying the nearly empty bowl over to the sink.  I knew that I only had twelve more minutes until I had to be at work.

I strolled into the back of the little produce shop, nodding to Tommy, who was already unpacking the day’s newest shipments.  “Looks like a nice day, today,” I commented.  We always talked about the weather.

After unlocking the register, sweeping off the checkout counter, I made my way through the cramped aisles to the metal grate covering the entrance to the store.  There wasn’t a clock hanging in the store, but I knew that I just had a few more minutes.  Sure enough, as Tommy trundled several crates of oranges out towards the front of the store, I heard the next roar of Long Tom, rolling out over the city.  I bent down and unlocked the gate, hoisting it up along its track into the ceiling.

The morning passed without much of interest, Long Tom ticking off each half hour.  Quite a few customers strolled through the small shop, although most were long-time regulars.  They clucked over the new bits of produce, shared little tidbits of uninteresting gossip, and generally helped pass the time.  Nobody brought up the war, of course.  Everything that could be said about the war had already been stated years ago, and there was never any substance to the updates issued by the War Office.

Finally, lunch came about, the church bells coming from the middle of town interrupted halfway through, as always, by Long Tom.  I flipped the sign on the front door and retrieved my brown paper bag from beneath the counter.

Author’s note: My apologies for the shortness of this beginning, but the concept is much clearer in my head than the execution.  More to come, soon!

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Money is weird.

Money is weird.

The whole concept is strange to think about, especially with the emphasis that is so often placed upon it.  Basically, money is simply a method for trading the work that you put in, for goods and services that you can enjoy.  It’s just the reward that’s earned.  You help out society by doing work that betters the world, or at least the immediate community, and in exchange, you can pick out food, toys, and keep your home warm at night.

And yet, money has grown into so much more than that.  So many items in our world serve solely as status symbols, indicators of how much extra money is available to burn.  Nobody actually needs to drive an Italian sports car, or encrust their watch in diamonds.  The only purpose of these items is to brag about how much money is coming in.

Now, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if the amount of money earned was directly proportional to the amount of good done for society.  It makes sense that inventing a medical cure that saves millions of lives should be worth more, financially, than restocking a crate of apples at a grocery store.  But so much money seems to go to managers, financiers, lawyers, people who don’t actually solve any problem.  Indeed, some of the highest salaries go to people that do nothing more than play with the money, swapping it back and forth to get rich off the pennies that slip through the cracks.

Like I said, money is weird.  It also seems especially strange when I am at work, when I talk with the homeowners I work with every day.

In many neighborhoods, I see homeless people pass by, see people driving five-hundred-dollar cars, see people where the Gap is high fashion and who will most likely never see their bank account hit six figures.  For these people, making forty or fifty thousand dollars a year is a huge accomplishment, and watching the reality TV stars parade around in their designer clothes and spend their days shopping and lounging by pools is a glimpse into another world, a world in which they will never be a member.

I like learning about finance.  I enjoy reading books about the stock market (yes, in my free time!  Shocking.) and make investments.  But so many people I know don’t have stocks, don’t think about money, don’t have much going for them financially besides a vague IRA into which they put the minimum.  Even though these people are just as talented as I am, if not more so, they are being handicapped by their lack of financial devotion!

I am not rich.  At least, not by my idea of rich.  I recently read that most Americans would consider “rich” to be approximately 10 million dollars.  Invested in a balanced portfolio, this would generate roughly $600,000 per year, which is enough to live in any city, pursue almost any hobby, and never have to work again for the rest of one’s life.

I don’t have 10 million dollars.  I can’t even imagine 10 million dollars.

But does this make me poor?  I’m debt free, on a career track, have a car, and have money in the bank.  I have a plan, I’m well educated on investments, and I don’t live beyond my means.  I certainly consider myself well off.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that I am incredibly rich and radically poor, all at the same time.  In so many ways, I am so well off, and yet I have so much more to work for.  Perhaps it is even stranger for me, since I can see the hint of light at the top of the tower, just well enough to show me how far I still have to ascend.  I can see a path, can set financial goals, but have a long and strenuous climb ahead.

Money is weird.

Budgeting

My 10:00 appointment was running late.  I looked down at the clock in the bottom corner of the screen.  Seven minutes past the hour already.  Glancing around the glass-walled cubicles to make sure that none of my bosses were looking my way, I alt-tabbed over to the scores for my fantasy league.

I grumbled to myself.  I was already down ten points, in third place, and my best player had a by week.  As I clicked back and forth between sites, trying to decide who to swap in, I heard a knock from the entrance to my transparent office.

“Yes?” I said, hastily escaping from my league’s home page and returning to the accounting software.  I glanced up to see a small, ordinary man in a gray suit standing at the entrance.

“I’m here for my appointment,” the man said.  “Sorry I’m late.  Well, no, I’m not sorry at all.  I mean, I’d rather be late and know what I do than be on time and in the dark.”

My quizzical look must have clued him in to how little sense he was making.  “Erm, don’t worry about it,” he decided.  He removed a rather untidy stack of papers from under his arm.  “Anyway, I need you to help me work out a budget.”

I took the stack from him, dumping them on my desk without much enthusiasm.  “Here at H&R Block, we make budgeting easy,” I said, reciting the rote speech without any conscious thought.  “Whether you’re budgeting for a house or retirement, we can-“

“No, neither of those,” the man said, interrupting my routine.  “I just need to live as comfortably as possible until June 24th, 2017.”

I looked up from the pile.  “What happens on June 24th, 2017?” I asked.

“Nothing,” the man responded, shrugging offhandedly as he settled into one of the two office chairs across from my desk.  “But on June 25th, 2017, the world is being demolished, so I won’t need much cash after that.”

“Wait, what?”

The man didn’t seem too perplexed by my, well, perplexity.  “Oh, yeah,” he continued, staring blithely off into space.  “Being demolished for an interstellar bypass, you know how things are.  Fortunately I thought to check the records office.”

I didn’t know whether this man was a prophet or insane.  He didn’t seem off, other than his gentle insistence that the world was about to end.  I turned back to his papers, a slightly more familiar territory.  “Well, according to your bank statements, you’re doing quite well, and you have a tidy nest egg,” I stammered.  “Are you planning on continuing at your current job?”

“If I have to,” the man replied.  “I mean, I wouldn’t mind being able to take a year off, get to travel about and see some of this place before it’s all kaput.”

I hit a few numbers, did some calculations.  “Well, you could probably afford to do so, although it would deplete most of your savings,” I concluded.  “Um, I suppose you could put more of your portfolio into stocks, since you aren’t as worried about long-term stability?”

The other man nodded, smiling.  “Exactly the type of advice I was looking for!” he beamed.  “Perfect.  Anything else?”

I leafed through the pile of papers and receipts.  “Stop paying for life insurance?” I guessed.

“Another excellent idea!”

I hit the print button on the computer, and the man rose to his feet, offering his hand as the printer spat out the paper.  “Thank you so much for all your help,” he said warmly.

“No problem,” I replied, still feeling slightly lost as I took the proffered hand.  “But, really, the world is ending in four years?”

At the doorway, the man shrugged.  “The plans could always change,” he said.  “But, at this point, the money’s already been granted, so they’ll have to do it just to justify their expense reports anyway.”

“So what do we do?”

“That’s easy!” the man sang, as he danced out of my office, budget in hand.  “Catch a ride!”

I sat, staring blankly into space, for a few minutes after the strange appointment.  A few other accountants had stories of the crazy people who had come in, needing help.  Most of the time, it was the finances that were crazy, however, not the actual person.  This man had actually had a very good setup, financially.  I checked the name.  Mr. Prefect.

Waiting for my next client, I once again glanced over at my fantasy scores.  However, after a long moment’s thought, I opened up a tab and googled “NASA.”

Gotta Go!

Oh man, I really have to go.

Ugh. I’m trapped, though. Whomever decided that booths in restaurants should be one long, curving bench ought to be locked up. Should I say something?  I guess I have to wait for a lull in the conversation?

Erp. Nope, can’t wait that long. Gotta go. I’ll just make a quiet announcement to this lady next to me.

Okay, well, that sort of worked. It’s spreading like a ripple. Wonderful, now everyone knows that I’m about to explode. Ugh, doesn’t matter. Gotta go. Let me out!

New observation for future reference: standing makes the sensation worse. Yes, yes, be back in a second, sprint away. Now, where the heck are the bathrooms in this place?

There they are . . . Nope, never mind, that’s the kitchen. Oops. Seriously, they’re always impossible to find!  I’m going to leave a big puddle on their fancy carpet- wait, there!  Like a light from heaven, I see the restroom sign!

Okay, men’s room. Not women’s. Not making that mistake again.

Great thing about being a guy – never a line for bathrooms!  Now, unzip. Oh man, my teeth are floating. Come here, where are you. Ah, there you are. Come on out, little buddy.

Ahhhhhhhhh. Oh, that’s such a good feeling. Someone probably says that it’s better than sex. I mean, they are either wrong, or having really terrible sex, but it’s still a great feeling. Total relaxation.

Man, it feels like this is taking forever. How much did I drink?  Whoop, gotta correct for declining water pressure. Aiming is hard.

There we go, all done!  Now, shake it off. Wait, where did that drop go?  Aw man, it’s on my shoe. Maybe I can sort of scrape it off with my other foot. There, now it isn’t so noticeable.

Shake complete; time to holster the rifle. Aaand there’s still one more drop left. Dampness. I hate that feeling. Oh well. On to the hand washing.

Didn’t I read somewhere that it’s actually cleaner if I don’t touch anything in the bathroom?  Besides myself, of course. The handle of the door is definitely dirty. I’ll use the paper towel to open it.  I wonder if everyone else has this thought too.

Okay, time to head back to the table. One last check: any spotting?  Good, nothing has bled through. It’s as if it didn’t exist!  What bodily functions?

Reaver, part IV

Author’s note:  This is the conclusion of a story, with 4 parts.  The beginning can be found here.    And here is the previous part.

Flame shot from every crack in the machine, and Daniel felt the scorching heat suffuse the air above him.  Limbs flailing, every system going haywire, the Reaver staggered back, traveling twice its length across the cornfield before collapsing.  Smoke rose from the joints, and occasional, smaller, secondary explosions marked the collapse of internal systems.

Daniel unsteadily regained his feet.  Hammer in hand, he approached the smoking hulk with caution.  The legs had stopped moving, although Daniel could still see small pieces of machinery moving inside the machine, visible through newly opened cracks and holes.  A dark brown, oily fluid was slowly leaking out, spreading across the muddy dirt of the field.

Some of the other young men who had managed to keep clear of the dying Reaver were also nearing the machine.  Their faces were a wash of fear, loathing, and horror, all mixed with a deep-seated savage triumph.  Some of the men of the village would not be returning home.  But this monster, this reminder of the Great War, would no longer plague the village with its yearly visits.

Daniel stood there for a long time, watching the Reaver slowly die.  The other men headed out, searching the field for wounded, checking the remains of the oak grove for any survivors of the explosions.  But Daniel couldn’t leave.  Not yet.  He slowly edged closer to the towering remains.

Approaching one of the largest cracks, at what had once been the top of the Reaver, Daniel slipped his head inside.  Bits of shattered machinery were everywhere, but there were still several thick, reinforced tubes that led, intact, deeper into the belly of the beast.  Carefully avoiding the sharp metal edges of the opening, Daniel slipped inside the machine, following these tubes inward.

After the first appearance of the Reaver, Daniel had continued to pester Elders Jonah and Buie.  Eventually, the old men had told him of the Reavers, of the Great War.  Daniel had learned about the guns, the missiles, the access hatches, and the two-minute delay before the more powerful secondary systems would activate, energizing the monster into a juggernaut of destruction.  But, on his deathbed, Elder Jonah had called Daniel, alone, into the room.

“Boy, I know what you’re planning to do,” the old man said, his breaths slow and labored, as Daniel approached the bed.  Over the last few months, Jonah had wasted away to little more than skin and bones, but his eyes still held the glint of intelligence.  “Buie knew, too.  Despite what we’ve said, you’re still going to fight the fool thing.”

Daniel didn’t bother protesting – not now.  He nodded.  “But, there is one more thing you need to know,” Jonah continued.  He sat up slightly, reaching out to grasp Daniel with one frail arm.  “Buie didn’t know this.  But when we broke that thing, when we smashed it apart, we found out the truth.”

By now, Daniel was further into the machine; the opening through which he had entered was fading behind him.  More tubes, some pulsing from the motion of the fluids coursing within, were coming together, all leading along this path.  Ahead of him, he could hear the sounds of machinery, pumps still operating.

“The Reavers, they aren’t just driven by clockwork,” Elder Jonah had whispered.  “Aye, that’s how they run, but at their heart . . . they were once one of us.”  He sat back, sighing from effort.  “Abominations.”

He had turned to face Daniel, his eyes reflecting a deep-seated pain.  “Kill it,” he gasped.  “Don’t just destroy it.  Kill it.”

Rounding the curve, Daniel stared at the chamber that had opened up, at the center of the Reaver.  A small, cramped room, the floors covered in pulsing tubes.  The many conduits converged at the center, attached to a tank of gently sloshing green liquid.  Daniel had known what was coming.  Despite that knowledge, he still couldn’t look directly at the thing floating within the liquid.  The thing that had once, long ago, been another person.

Daniel raised his hammer, his knuckles white.  “One of us,” Elder Jonah had whispered, as he died.  “Once, they were one of us.”

The glass cracked, shattered, fell apart.  Green liquid spilled across the floor.  The pumps stuttered and died.  The brain of the Reaver sank to the bottom of its chamber.  It shriveled and twitched, dying in the air.  A pathetic thing, connected to an engine of destruction, blind, scarred, and crippled.  Amid the rage, the hate, the anger, Daniel couldn’t help feeling the slightest hint of pity.

He raised the hammer once more.  The Reaver died.

Reaver, part III

So, quite a while ago, I wrote a short little piece called “Reaver.”  Well, I decided that it needed a second part, which is here.  This wasn’t enough, so here is part three.

You can read the first part here.  

His muscles were already beginning to tire, the stress and exhaustion beginning to overcome the adrenaline.  Reaching the control center, Daniel forced his arms to raise the hammer over his head.  The first overhand blow left a deep dent in the riveted metal plate.  The third swing knocked the bent sheet of metal aside, and he stared down into the maze of pipes and wires glinting inside the monster.

The Reaver was still struggling to regain its feet, the three operational legs churning the cornfield into a muddy pit.  As more young men reached the open hole, each carrying their weapon in one hand as they climbed, a small sack slung over one shoulder, Daniel heard the next boom of fireworks.  Thirty seconds left.

“Hurry!” Daniel called out, as the nearest men unloaded the satchels from their shoulders.  A thin string protruded from the neck of each bag.  Daniel worked to weave the strands together into a thicker cord, keeping the lengths equal as each man lowered his sack into the exposed hole.

Daniel was trying his best to count down in his head.  He only had ten seconds left, he figured.  He hoped that enough of the packages had made it into the Reaver’s inner workings.  “Everyone off!” he shouted, as the last sack was lowered in.  The cords were hopefully close enough to the same length.  He fumbled in his back pocket for the small paper box.

As the other men leapt away, landing among the flattened stalks and struggling to regain their feet, Daniel drew a match with fumbling, trembling fingers.  He only had a second or two left.  Dragging the head of the match along the rough metal plates of the Reaver, he sent a prayer of silent thanks skyward as a tiny flame flickered into life.

As Daniel brought the lit match to the interwoven strings, the mechanical sounds of the Reaver beneath him suddenly shifted.  The secondary defense systems were coming to life.

A moment too late, the last set of fireworks sounded from the grove of trees.  Something below Daniel’s feet let out a sharp hiss, and a rocket streaked from an opening at the front of the machine.  The trees were briefly outlined in orange before the grove vanished in a roaring gout of flame.

A wordless scream ripped its way out of Daniel’s throat.  In his hands, the woven fuse caught, just as the flame of the match reached his fingers.  The strings, each soaked in a mixture of alcohol and gunpowder, burned rapidly, disappearing into the hole in the Reaver’s armored shell.

More of the secondary systems were coming online now.  More barrels were sliding out of the Reaver’s shell, some already blasting scalding steam into the wilting stalks.  Metal shrieked as the machine forced itself to stand on shattered and broken legs, lurching erratically but stumbling forward.  Daniel was thrown from his perch, landing heavily in the mud.

The Reaver reared above him.  The fall had knocked the breath from his lungs, and he lay on his back, helpless as his death turned to face him.

For a split second, rearing over him, the Reaver seemed to pause.  Then, with a deep and resounding boom, the satchels of gunpowder inside its exoskeleton ignited.

Outworld, A Primer – Chapter 2, Geography

Continued from Chapter 1.

Okay, here’s an overview of navigating around in Outworld, summed up in two words:

Good luck.

Oh, you want more detail than just a sarcastic remark?  Fine, I’ll do my best, but I warn you that Outworld has a tendency to . . . shift. Although the immediate geography (aka the location of your neighbor Dan’s barn, or the outhouse) tends to remain the same, the background is much more variable. I once spent two weeks hiking towards an especially tall range of mountains, only to find that, by the time I reached the foothills, they had become a small inland sea. Be ready for disappointment and abrupt course changed.

Descartes, one of the most brilliant and well-known philosophers of Outworld, once tried to track these shifts, by planting long lines of coded stakes in hopes of tracking their movement. As he was creating his ninth set of replacement stakes, he realized that the landscape was staying the same, and only his measuring tools were vanishing. This experiment eventually became a footnote in his larger announcement: “The gods of Outworld are total dicks.”

Now, to make matters worse: the biomes of Outworld tend to be fairly patchwork and haphazardly scattered, due to these shifts. This means that a tropical rainforest can abruptly become a desert with no explanation.

There is one useful fact for measuring biome shifts, however. Over time, the borders between these shifted areas become less and less distinguishable, and the physical climate equalizes. Deserts in warm, humid areas are reclaimed by foliage, mountaintop lakes freeze or drain away, and lush forests that have the misfortune of appearing in cold and inhospitable climates are rapidly reduced to dead skeletons, crumbling trees with twisted, leafless branches.

On a larger scale, just how large is Outworld?  Nobody has quite ascertained this fact, and the answer will likely remain undiscovered. Some measures of curvature suggest that the world is spherical, although guesses at diameter have varied from less than 10,000 miles to greater than 50,000 miles. The High Priest of the Light, Sanctis, claims that the gods informed him that Outworld is an island, adrift in an endless sea. “It is no one size – it grows,” he informed his gospel. While this theory is hotly contested, it does also lend some explanation to the constantly shifting biomes. However, it is unclear where this land is being added, as travel times between the larger cities remains fairly constant.

A whole new set of splits, shifts, and general chaos was opened up by the Ascension, but I’ll get to that in a later chapter.

Finally, a few words on demographics. The population of Outworld is constantly in flux, but the majority of sapiens tend to be humanoids of various forms. There are also smaller but significant populations of androids, sentient animal races, and other consciousnesses that don’t fit into other categories.

Most of the stable inhabitants of Outworld reside in small, self-sufficient towns. Most towns are rural communities, relying on some combination of farming and/or trade. Peddlers travel between towns, carrying goods and news of the larger world. Most peddlers tend to have prescribed routes, often passed down through generations, in an attempt to avoid the many dangers that lurk off the beaten path.

Several larger cities do exist, producing intricate goods, serving as bases for manufacturing. Governments exist, usually dictatorships, but they have little power. Most of their limited military forces are required to defend against the onslaught of monsters. Few leaders bother to waste time with dreams of conquest.

Reaver, Part II

So, quite a while ago, I wrote a short little piece called “Reaver.”  Well, I decided that it needed a second part, so here it is: the continuing story!

You can read the first part here.

Crouching in the tall corn, Daniel gripped his hammer until his knuckles turned white. He could feel the earth shaking with each step. Waiting, willing himself to be motionless, he tried to banish the undercurrent of fear that curdled in his stomach.
Six years had passed. Six years, but the Reaver had always returned, lurching unsteadily through the chest-high corn. Daniel had watched, had talked with the other young men of the village, had plotted and laid plans.
Across the field, from the stand of old and grizzled oaks, Daniel heard the first pop of fireworks. Just as they had hoped, the Reaper responded, ancient subroutines forcing the legs to change direction. Steam hissed from escape valves and cracks as the mountain of metal and clockwork began advancing on the trees.
As the Reaper grew closer, a dark shape looming through the corn, Daniel swallowed heavily. Their enemy was so huge. From across the fields, the war machine had always seemed smaller. Less imposing. Glancing along the line, he saw the same emotions, the same thoughts, painted on the faces of his friends. Daniel held up a calming hand. Wait.
The Reaper was almost on top of them. A leg stabbed down, only feet away from Daniel’s position. Just a little further.
Daniel had chosen the most forward position for himself. He was the leader. Bringing down the Reaper had been his idea. For that reason, Daniel would strike at the back, waiting until the Reaper had passed his position before beginning the attack. Even now, as he stared up at the underside of the machine, a mass of gears, pistons, and armored plates high above the young men, he was still committed to his plan.
Finally, the Reaper was nearly past their position. It was time to strike. Daniel tensed his legs, waiting for the next pop from the forest.
The next firework exploded. With a yell, Daniel and his friends leapt up from their hiding spots.
The Reaper’s response was alarmingly rapid. Jonah had shared much of his wisdom with Daniel, before he passed, and Daniel knew that the minigun, flamethrowers, and other weapons systems were broken. But the Reaper was still massive and dangerous. The eight legs danced back and forth, stabbing down into the earth. One of the boys approaching from the other side, Jack, was caught by one of the metal pillars, impaled, torn apart.
Daniel dragged his eyes away, focused on his target. His blacksmith’s hammer was in his hand, and he swung it with all the force he could muster at the nearest leg. The vibration from the blow threatened to tear the weapon from his grasp, but the metal plates of armor on the leg, weakened and rusted from time and neglect, shattered into brittle fragments.
One of the supports gone. A dozen meters away, he heard the crash of two more legs giving way. Hissing steam gave the illusion of a scream as the Reaver sagged, forced to use its remaining legs for support.
Above the screams from his friends, battle cries and shouts of pain, Daniel heard the pop of the next set of fireworks. Their time was running out. Jonah had warned him that, after two minutes, the Reaper’s secondary defense systems would engage. Half of their time was gone.
Another two legs, shattered. The Reaper sagged, coming to land among the corn with a massive crunch. Daniel leapt forward, scrambling up the rocky sides. The Reaper was like a hill, steep but spotted with protruding machinery. The others, those that had kept both limbs and wits about them, also hurried to climb.
Gazing up, Daniel could see the red blinking light of the control center. “The brain, if you can call it such, is beneath that,” Elder Jonah had told him. “You’ll have to smash your way in, cut off the connections. It’s the only way to make the thing stop, to truly kill it.” Daniel put his head down and forced his arms to climb faster.

Continued here.

[Outworld] In the Heart of the Slaver Queen’s Hive

Finally, we were in the main chamber of the hive.  The tunnel suddenly opened up into a vast, open room, and I stared at the pulsing monstrosity of the slaver queen before me.

Above us, countless thousands of drones zipped back and forth, the buzzing of their wings melding together to create a constant hum that vibrated through the underground maze.  They paid us no attention.  Only the queen, bloated and reposed upon her disturbingly organic throne, bothered to spare us a glance.

“So, you’ve come to me,” she hissed, shifting her bulk slightly so her face could stare down at us.  “A wise choice.  Many do not willingly come to serve.”

Behind me, I heard Cain grunt, but I didn’t hold back my anger.  “We aren’t here to serve – we’re here to destroy you!” I shouted.  I hoped that the undercurrent of fear didn’t show in my bravado.

The slaver queen blinked, for a moment appearing disturbingly human.  “To destroy?” she repeated.  “You have come to the seat of my power, the very heart of my hive, and you make threats?”

I was worried that she would attack us right then, and I could hear the almost imperceptible creak as Cain shifted his stance, moving to get a better grip on his weapon.  I knew that he was a fraction away from attacking.  But the queen was rising up, towering above her twisted throne.

There was nothing to do but continue, to press onward with my speech.  “You’ve stolen the people of the neighboring towns!” I yelled out.  “You’ve corrupted them, turned them into mindless drones!  This isn’t right!  For what you’ve done to them, you must be punished!”

“Ah, humans,” the queen spat, gazing down at us.  “So torn, so frustrated by life.  You speak of the freedoms you seek, of the horrors of being a ‘mindless drone’, trapped here.”  She raised one long arm, encased in plates of chitin, and a squadron of drones changed course overhead, buzzing down to land alongside the throne.

I stared at the drones that had landed, wondering if they had come from the nearby town.  The enslavement process was acting rapidly, twisting their limbs, rupturing their spine as wings burst from their backs, and stimulating the formation of chitinous plates that grew across any exposed skin.  However, one of the drones still seemed slighter than her male cohorts, and strands of thick, lustrous reddish hair poked from between the armored plates.  My breath caught.  Sue.  The barmaid, who had graced me with a dimpled smile before bustling off with her tray of drinks.

“And despite your insistence on freedom,” the queen continued, swaying back and forth as her many legs wriggled back and forth, “you humans are so quick to embrace order.  You insist on choice, but you are happiest, at peace, when you have orders to blindly follow.”  She smiled.  “And now, this is my order.  Die.

At this command, the drones leapt forward, their arms rising to brandish claws and spines.  My draw was only a millisecond behind Cain’s, and our bullets stitched holes across heads and chests.  I felt a brief but deeply penetrating pang of regret as the drone that had once been Sue fell back, her wounds gushing ichor.

The queen was already calling down more of the drones, and the hissing sound that filled the chamber was rising in intensity.  I turned my pistol on the queen, but her armor was thicker, and the bullets failed to penetrate.

Cain had a different idea.  “Hold them off!” he shouted, closing his eyes as he focused.  I didn’t know what weapon he was magically calling into existence, but I kept my eyes skyward, carefully placing my shots to keep the drones at bay.

Through the hum I could hear a lower pitched sound, growing steadily closer.  The guards, larger than the drones and outfitted with ranged, shooting spines, were drawing near.  “Cain?” I called over one shoulder as I slammed another clip into my pistol.

The only sound I heard in return was a brief, mirthless chuckle.  I turned, just in time to see the four rockets streak past me in tandem.  Cain was standing in a brace position, the smoking quad-launcher still on his shoulder, grinning slightly as he watched the missiles tear holes in the slaver queen.

As she fell, the queen let out a high, keening scream, picked up and amplified by the drones.  As her massive body hit the floor of the chamber, sending a shock wave through the floor, the drones dropped as one, like marionettes with cut strings.  With the queen dead, there was no central mind, nothing to control the drones, and they would all cease to function.  Staring around at the insectoid corpses, I felt a rush of melancholy, mingled sadness and frustration.  We had avenged those people, stolen from the nearby towns by the slavers, but we had not been able to save them.

Cain punched me in the shoulder, interrupting my reflection.  “We better get out,” he said.  “No telling how these tunnels will hold up without the queen.”

I nodded, following my companion as he picked his way through the cracked and shattered bodies littering the floor.  I spared only a single glance at the massive remains of the dead slaver queen.  Cain had seen hives like these before.  I made a mental note to ask Selene about the origin of these slavers.  For now, however, I focused on escaping from this gigantic underground hive before it became our tomb.

Outworld, a Primer – Chapter 1

So, if you’re reading this, welcome to Outworld.  My apologies in advance.  You probably won’t like it here.

Assuming you aren’t having your face gnawed off by some monstrosity with more tentacles and eyes than a giant squid convention, you’re probably wondering what sort of place this is.  By the way, if you are fighting a monstrosity out of nightmare, by the gods, put down this journal and focus on staying alive!

Anyway.

The best description I’ve ever heard of Outworld goes like this: “[Outworld is] a temporal garbage pit for a thousand other, failed Earths – a place where all the wreckage eventually washes up.”  This description was uttered by a sentient robot, who was drunk off its ass at the time on electrified ether laced with jet fuel, but it’s still an apt way of summing up this whole, wretched place.

In the next few chapters, I’ll do my best to cover the population, landscape and geography, history, religion, and the economy of Outworld.  As such.  This place is incredibly fragmented, and it’s tough to really put together facts about history when, outside the tavern, a guy with stone-tipped spears is dueling a cyborg with laser pistols.  And, if previous fights are any indication, Johnny Caveman is going to be the one who comes back in for another drink in a few minutes.

I know you’re going to ask.  No, Johnny Caveman isn’t his name.  We all call him Ugg, since that’s about all he says.  Yet despite his limited vocabulary, he can be quite expressive with his hand gestures.  Which is how he got himself into this duel, by the way.  Implied that the cyborg’s father was running Linux, I think.

Now that you’re in Outworld, please take your time to enjoy the sights.  Meet the people, although you’ll probably want to keep a healthy distance from most of them.  Healthy, in some cases, is measured in miles.  Admire the views, solitary and undisturbed by tourists.  Although keep in mind that the reason these views are so undisturbed is because the tourists are usually torn apart, devoured, and digested before they can make too much of a mess.

After reading this primer, you may be thinking to yourself, “Outworld doesn’t quite sound like my cup of tea. (Or motor oil, or plasma, or whatever you prefer to drink.)   How do I get out of here?”

If you have just asked this, let me congratulate you.  You have asked the most common question in Outworld.  More common than “What is that thing!?”, more widespread than “What’s this place gonna throw at me next?”, heard more often than “Help!”, “I’m dying!”, and “I hate this place!”.  Although, to be fair, those last three are statements, not questions.

Unfortunately, that’s one question that I can’t answer.  You see, I’m still stuck here too.  Everybody’s searching for a way out.  As far as we know, nobody’s found one yet.

Well, maybe one person knows.  But he carved out the largest empire Outworld has ever seen and ascended to become a god, so it’s not exactly an easy solution.  But I’ll get to that soon.

On that note, settle in for an informative read, stranger.  You’ve got the time.

Continued in Chapter 2.