Sunday, December 12, 2010

Part III

I am working on several projects simultaneously, but hit a milestone tonight--finishing the treatment of part 3, which is basically a sketch of the plot. Part III is like Act I of a three or four part series. At least I think that's how the length will work out. So the good news for me is I can actually write more than fragments on it. Here's the first draft of the introduction:

Every nous flees from itself,
Yet has no power to escape,
Clinging on in despite and loathing,
Defective with hidden faults,

Which in true understanding,
Would put all aside and first,
Learn the nature of the world,
Where it spends its own eternity.

--Adapted by an unknown PDA from Lucretius, Book III

It’s hot.The sun and wet air conspire to set the very bones of the Queen City to simmer. The concrete carapace that encases uptown cracks as it swells. Windows pop from their frames and fall like lethal leaves, poor construction or specifications long exceeded. The 100-year heat waves occur every year, and herald 100-year storms almost as often. The city pauses panting and holds its breath as the swirling monsters reach out their long claws to rake the coast. Sometimes the hurricane wants more than sandbars and abandoned condos, and dies thrashing against the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but not before scouring the low country and sand hills of human ambition. Sometimes the path leads across the city, where tropical malice sets its teeth against the artifice with a fury of wind and water, dousing enlightenment as thoroughly as any barbarian horde. These are meteorological gods, and not kinds ones. They no longer suffer to be named after boys and girls, not after Zed. Now the weather gods have birth dates and ages, eyewall speeds and sustained winds, but no cute names. Everyone on the coast pays tribute to them, and most have rituals to keep the violence away. Anywhere but here. Go north this time. We paid last time. Someone else’s turn.

To me, the heat is as abstract as a sine wave. I have custom rithms that turn the temperature outside into a sort of feeling and input to my emgydala, but I don’t mistake that for the direct emotion that a Sticky feels, trapped in his fleshy box and suffocated by the sweltering pile of the atmospheric column. I don’t have the half-billion years’ evolution that created that rich sensory I/O. Any PDA would covet such intimate connection with the real-real. I do. Ahab thinks of little else, apparently.

But we have another kind of riches in the many dimensions of experience we can combine. Humans can’t know the glorious intersection of the city heartbeat--the literal heartbeat of all its plugged-in citizens, which synchronizes in waves, reacting to some unseen stress. This thudding pulse crests and slows in response to the heat, but flares in bursts of white noise when the walkways become crowded or when the heavens dump their worldly burdens to soak streets in sheets of rain. Or a new Wave is rumoured.

Sticky I/O, as beautiful as it must be, cannot register and watch the dancing harmonics of a hundred thousand mask sniffers as they identify and call out the lusty organic molecules that bloom in the height of summer, the pollens outside and mold spores inside, sweat and heavy perfume locked in an olfactory struggle in uncooled buildings where wind deigns not to stir itself through the open windows, spurning the invitation and inviters alike.

Humans don’t know the fear, either. Fear as real as that of drowning or falling, although it is a fact impossible to prove. A PDA must fear the storm too, for the grid will surely go down and with it the light of reason that sparks a nous. It means the hell of a cold reboot. The real fear is that a sudden shutdown will cause lasting damage that even the Am I Me tests cannot find, and linger malignant until there is no recourse but full backup restoration. Loss of self, a kind of death that Stickies do not understand.

Even between storms, the summer months are dangerous. Few can afford air conditioning, but even so the demand on the old, creaking grid increases to the breaking point. Maybe Bakkras Power keeps the maze of wires and poles that comprise the power distribution grid in a state of near-collapse because they want to be needed, to remind everyone that having electricity is a privilege, not a right. This is the manner of a monopoly. This will be the source of war between them and MOM.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Discussion on Less Wrong

I wrote a short article on Less Wrong describing the premise behind PDAs in Life Artificial. There is a good discussion there, but it's being downvoted as a discussion, which I find odd.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Part 3 Update

The third installment of LA is in the works. It has a lot of moving parts, so to speak, so I've created a big spreadsheet with all the elements that need to work together. I've also started writing some important scenes. Any ETA I guessed at now would be useless, so I'll refrain.

If you would like to nominate a name based on your lastfour, I'll include any I can make fit. There are a lot of ways to do this: use a math thing (like Sevens or Goldie) or a nomenclature reference (like Jumbo or Colt or Eve), or something tied to a date (like Arizona), or a personal characteristic (like Two-by-Four). Or roll your own. Just leave a comment or send me an email if you want to be immortalized in this obscure fashion.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Word Cloud for Nova's Continuation

I came across Wordle today, and used it to create a word cloud for the novella:
It could be cleaned up by eliminating low-information words like "now," but as a first try it's pretty cool.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Update for 10/18

I have started outlining LA part 3, and have written an introduction. One of the fun parts is really delving into the nature of the city's immune system as monitored by MOM. It's not just the masks and cameras.

I set up a LA twitter account (name:LifeArtificial) , but haven't quite decided what to use it for. It could be strictly for notifications, or I could try to post quotes from the text occasionally.

I also have the manifesto referred to in the notes at the end of Nova's Continuation. It's called "Canman" and describes a fictional genesis of the Speaker. I do not plan to list it on the website because it's really tangential to the story, but once I clean it up I'll link from this blog.

The epub versions of the texts are long in coming. It's quite tedious and I have a lot going on, which is another way of saying I've procrastinated. I have an iPad now, so I can at least see what it would look like in the iBook reader.

I am also trying to get the next paper out the door on complex system survival. The first 12 pages are in good shape, probably 1/4 of the total. It's hanging together nicely. The results don't leave me optimistic about long-term survival for any such system.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Nova's Continuation" has been uploaded.

Look on the site for the links. I'm still working on epub format, but both pdf and html are up.

This segment took far, far longer than I thought it would. I came close to chucking the whole thing as a bad idea,
but I am happy with the final result. Hope you like it too.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Creative Commons

I have uploaded new versions of the existing files, labeled e1.1 for reference, which contain the Creative Commons license, so you can distribute these per the terms. The only one not done yet is the .epub version, because I'm finding Sigil such a pain to use. It's probably because I'm just a noob-nous at it, and I will persist until everything is in that format too. Note that if you want to convert to some other eformat to distribute for iPhone or something, that's great.

A decent draft of the next installment is done. I run hot and cold on the thing, and I need to let it marinate in its own juices for a day or two before I try for a final edit. It's about half the size of the first two installments, and it's not from Calli's POV. So it's like an intermission. Part Three per se is under development with plot outlines and an introduction done.

I just noticed that blogger has a "subscribe by email" link at the bottom. Maybe that can serve as the notification service that was suggested?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

License Change for Life Artificial

Gaz wrote in a recent comment:
[...] I hope you license this under some permissive license (ie CC:SA/NC/ND like Stross' Accelerando) so it can be distributed to iOS and Android devices via Alkido book reader and others.
This is a great idea, and I'm grateful for the suggestion. The work is henceforth available under the Creative Commons cc by-nc-nd license. I have a little work to do in posting this in the documents themselves, and I hope to get that done this weekend. Note that the "no-derivative works" part of the agreement does not prohibit transforming the text into new electronic formats. That is, you are explicitly allowed to take the .pdf version and convert it to a format for some new e-reader you just bought, and then send a copy to a friend (the attribution has to be there, and you can't charge for it--that's the other two parts). If you send me a copy, I'll put it on the site.

This does present a bit of a problem I'd like advice on, if anyone's game. To wit: once I modify the documents to include the new copyright statements, I can't easily make edits anymore. So if there's some godawful error in Part III that someone catches after I post it, I don't have any way to fix the copies hypothetically winging their way around the internet tubes on bit torrent or whatever. I hate to stoop so low as putting version numbers on the text, but maybe an edit date stamp isn't too much. Once the whole first novel is complete I'll post it in one piece with a complete full edit. Maybe that's enough?

Gaz also suggested an email list for notification when the new bits arrive. I'm happy to do that, and thought I'd just create a little CGI form for that purpose when I get a moment. In the meantime, my crude solution is this: just send me a note by email to if you'd like notification as installments come out, and I'll make a mailing list. I'll make sure the RSS feed is working on the blog too.

Thanks for all the support and interest!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Am I Me?

In Part I there's a reference to Am I Me? (AIM) tests that a PDA can buy as a service. It's supposed to give the user a before-and-after assessment of how different they are. The usefulness of these tests is in question, primarily because Rice's Theorem severely limits any general approach to describing behavior of a complex deterministic system (assuming Church-Turing, I guess). Nevertheless, the question is an interesting one that I came across in my research. I posted an article on my professional blog about it: "Surviving Entropy", along with a cute and surprising pair of inequalities that come out of it.  There's an associated questions "Are You Me?" that will eventually make an appearance in the novel.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Short Fiction

I've written a couple of stories in the past unrelated to Life Artificial, but having to do with machine intelligence. Here they are:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Update on Nova's Story

Okay, obviously my estimate for the next installment was way off. I thought it would go faster because it was already written. But re-writing is turning into a bigger project. This piece is smaller than parts one and two, and is a POV account told through the eyes of "Ingrid," as Jumbo calls her. Here's a bit of it.

by Calli0xE

Your identity comes from the shared Good. Alone you are nothing but system noise. Reflect on this: it took three billion years for individual cells to learn how to work together to produce complex life. This is the essence of Good: striving together, tested by the crucible of fate. Duty to this larger struggle runs deep in our genes, deeper than reproduction, deeper even than self-survival. This is the sweet burden, the light load, the joyful climb--attributed to The Preacher


It takes almost a full day for someone to make the connection between the Quasi-human who plunged out of a window in the DiaHai building and this other woman who lives in the old Polk building.  It is Cyclops who makes the call to Dingo. Cyclops lost an eye in a knife fight years ago.  Now he stays away from sharp points and makes a living by knowing things: a human database of rumor, gossip, and speculation.

Dingo always takes calls from Cyclops probably because the mutilated man never wastes his time. Keeping control over a hundred city blocks in the Outs is like living with a wild animal. Good information fast is a necessity to survival.

He sits in a hugely expensive leather chair harvested from a deserted lawyers’ s suite and ponders this turn of events. His perception is nearly overwhelmed by the volume of data--photos, text, maps, and analysis--covering his whole visual field as he tries to make sense of it. The public channels from the walled city to the north fairly writhe with activity concerning the Quasi human and her intentional dive to the street. This woman, this Shanghai, never once let her mask transmit an ID in the Outs. It’s not unusual for the lawless and desperate people who live here to remain anonymous, but to be so assiduous as to not leave a single trace is unusual. Tracking her to the Polk building is therefore a nice piece of work, and Dingo must appreciate that Cyclops did this homework before making the call.

It must also occur to him that Cyclops can make even more money by passing on the information to others. The city’s law and order, their ironically-named MOM, for example. Cyclops would be foolish not to cash in this juicy bit of information with them.

Dingo immediately sends a five man team on their way to the Polk building to watch it. According to Cyclops, another woman lives in the building who keeps to herself. Another oddity in a city of the banished, where that distinction is hard to earn. Maybe the two are a pair.  But rumors and street talk never tell the whole picture. Just enough to get you killed sometimes.

Ten minutes later Dingo gets a call from MOM, from a high ranking PDA named Ahab. Indeed, who else would they call in this part of the city? But the near certainty that Cyclops is sharing promiscuously must be unsettling. Dingo messages down to have a cold fizz drink sent up: a remedy for stomach acid climbing his esophogas.

Dingo sets his VOX for uninflected speech, which will produce a crude robotic rendering of his throat mike input. It’s usually used to avoid emotional signals.

“Lastfour,” Abab’s command voice rakes across his audio field, “I represent city MOM leadership. Heard of us?”

“One prince to another,” Dingo says.

“Well, then prince, you have something we want.” Ahab layers on enough emotags to make up for Dingo’s flatness.

It wouldn’t do to pretend ignorance, since that’s the same as weakness.

“The Quasi’s living quarters, I’m sure. I assume you wish to negotiate?” Dingo chooses his words carefully. Without inflection, it’s very easy to be misunderstood. This goes double when talking to an electronic talk-box so-called artificial intelligence.

“Reciprocity, Lastfour. I assume you know your game theory? Machiavelli could have written the book on it if he’d had the technical language.”

“Reciprocity I can understand. What do you have in mind?”

“I’m glad we are of the same mind, Lastfour. I can see how you have managed to survive your circumstances.” Ahab’s continued use of the honorific contrasts with the Dingo’s intentional lack of social nicities. Machine prejudice, perhaps.

“Why don’t we get to the point, Ahab?”

“Of course. You deliver anything you can find in the Quasi’s living space. You search, capture, and deliver alive the woman identified in the attached documents. In return, MOM will recompense you according to the value of the deliverables.”

The attachment gives only vague details about a suspected accomplice, with some public video of an unidentified lastlegs.

“In hell.” Dingo is probably angry. The volume of goods that passes through “his” roads to get to the South gate every day is significant to the city’s well being. Not to mention the garbage that comes back out.

“I take your response as reticence. Let me assure you, Lastfour, that the good will of MOM is hard to earn. It may not seem like much now, between Waves as we are. But what do you do when the next microbe hack comes along? Remember BLASTER? What would a refuge be worth then, Lastfour? A pass through the city gates when the infected are going the other direction? When every lastlegs in the city is driven into your arms, coughing blood.”

“That’s a start. I want a guarantee of safe passage. What else do you have?”
Ahab pauses for a moment.

“Have you ever considered how your mask filters work, Lastfour?”

“You can’t scare me with stories for the weak-minded.”

“Suppose BLASTER2 comes along. It’s a modification that slips through the immune system even if you survived infection the first time. The last line of defense is your mask. Yours is an old model, but still servicable, a Minuteman, yes?”

“Go on.”

“Without an accurate software update, it isn’t smart enough to recognize the new signature either. It’s the game genehackers play. Who can slip through on a zero-day exploit? It’s an exciting game to be involved in, I understand. Did you know that there are a few high-end DNA printers in the Outs? A new variant from Asia could be in your building within a few minutes of some hacker downloading it. Of course, I’m not human. I don’t think about these things as personally as you. But I imagine I’d want to be the first to get the new patch to the mask filters.”

“I already get the updates.” He holds back a curse. They sound stupid coming through the VOX with this setting.

“Where do you get your updates from, Lastfour?”

“From--” Dingo stops in mid-sentence.

“From your bioware vendor, yes. But the signatures physically route through the city network. It would be tragic if a few packets got mangled in route, would it not? If the new signature didn’t make it intact to your mask. I assure you that if we are looking out for you, such an unfortunate event is impossible.”
The carrot and the stick are in plain view. Dingo doesn’t think about it long. Perhaps it has occurred to him that by acting quickly, he can control what MOM knows anyway. He has nothing to lose by agreeing.

“It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Ahab. I’ll let you know if I find anything you might be interested in.”

“I shall take that as an affirmation of our cooperation. Stay in touch.” The command is not subtle.

“Lastfour?” Vocal, in the room.

Dingo snaps back to real-real, banishing the volumes of heads-up data in his mask view.  There’s a man groveling in his office: Guano, a smuggler.  Not a very good smuggler because his walk-ins both got caught at the South gate and their payloads taken by city security. Some of the drugs confiscated were paid for by Dingo.

Hunch and Gladboy stand behind Guano. It was Hunch, the more senior of the two, who  spoke. He now raises his eyebrows and gives a significant glance at the ceiling.  

Dingo thinks before answering. Cruelty is a tool, like a pry bar or hammer. In the hands of an amateur it can be used passably well as a simple instrument. But Dingo plays cruelty like a pipe organ.

“How much is he worth?” he asks. This is a reference to Guano’s blood type.  The harvestable organs of rare blood types are worth more.

Hunch shakes his head.

“Sleeper,” he says.

Dingo’s curse shows surprise.  Guano is sniffing his own product? Not that such things are unknown. He addresses Guano directly.

“Is it true, Lasty? Have you taken to the pillow?”

A string of curses pass out of Guano, rising in pitch, denying ever more emphatically. Then he turns to swearing on gods and mothers and all that is sacred that this charge is false.

Dingo’s software rates Guano low on truth-telling due to several factors. Among them is blink rate, use of hands, and particularly the swearing on maternal parent bit.

“Tell me Guano, have you seen the videos of the Quasi diving from the tower?”

Guano shakes his head slowly left and right. His mask hangs by a strap. His eyes are squeezed shut and leaking wet hope.

“No? I bet you have. Do you know anything about her? Ever seen her in the zone?”

There’s a hopeful flash, a widening of the eyes, as Guano sees a sliver of light.

“She plays the numbers,” he says, coughing to get it out.

“Really? What building does she live in?”

Guano freezes, trapped. His mouth trembles.

“Head first,” Dingo says.

Guano collapses prone on the floor, limbs spread out like a starfish and begins to wail.  He is dragged away clawing at the rug, grabbing at furniture, eyes seeking Dingo’s, pleading. But there’s only the mask between them, and its judgment is fixed. Dingo can hear him bumping up the stairs, to the thirteenth floor, curses floating down as a vulgar fugue.  In a moment or two, Guano will plummet past his window into the pavement below.  The concrete there is already spider-webbed with cracks from the skulls that had hit there before and stained them dark with living dye.

Dingo opens his window—one of the few in the building with glass still in it.  He tunes in the video from the launch floor. Guano continues to scream as his arms are tapped at the wrist, and and L-shaped hook slid between. The whole wall has been knocked out to give an unobstructed panorama north where the ‘scrapers still shine: monuments to the Age of Large Things.

“I have names!” Guano is howling. “Names! I have names!”

This is Dingo’s Game, and everyone on the street knows the rules. If you can convince the man that there’s someone else more deserving of a trip on the express elevator down to the concrete, then sometimes--if Dingo can be convinced--you might win a reprieve. At that point, the Game depends on how long it takes to catch the substitute. Of course, Dingo is choosy about making enemies, and prefers only to eliminate the ones that already exist and who are vulnerable. So this exercise is a crude way to gather intelligence.

Guano makes the mistake of kicking Hunch in the knee and gets a solid blow to the gut in return, which knocks the wind out of him. Mute, he is shoved out on the rolling carriage hanging from a beam that projects five feet beyond the edge of the building. There he dangles over the hundred foot drop, feet cycling.

“I have a name for you,” Hunch hollers at him. “Defenestration. Know what that means, Bat-shit? It means being chucked out the window.” He laughs.

Hunch puts his hands on the lever that will release the L-hook and let gravity do the rest of the work.

“What was that, boss? Didn’t make it out?” 

Guano’s shirt has fallen down over his head. Urine runs up his belly and drips, falling lightly to the pavement as profane rain. 

“Pull him up. Cage him. Then get down to the Polk Building.” Dingo commands.  It is perhaps a test of Hunch’s loyalty. The lieutenant is as cruel as his boss, but not nearly as clever by all accounts. But if it is a test, the men pass it, hauling Guano back in, and releasing the catch to let him fall in a shivering huddle.

“Good,” Dingo says.  Guano might be an asset in some way not clear at the moment. And gravity is patient; it grinds down bones and mountains and smothers stars in their own waste. It always wins in the end.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What's Next

Minor spoilers ahead if you haven't read Part Two.

This project started as a prose story that didn't have an outline, turned into a screenplay (finished, but not very good I think), then into a prose novel from the omniscient POV. This latter petered out in Act II because I couldn't maintain my own momentum. So I went back and started over, to tell the story as a single perspective, which I must say works much better for me. Of course it limits what can be told, but the other advantages more than make up for it.

The reasons for writing this have changed too. It started with my fascination for the idea of the masks and what it meant for society to wear them in public, and have video archived of everything that happens. This technical fascination is not the best way to generate characters, however, and it took me a while to reach that conclusion. Over the span of time it took to write the existing stuff, I also started a research project on the topic of survival of complex systems. Interestingly, no one else seems to care about this topic, so I seem to have it to myself. (See this paper on Arxiv). Many of the concepts in the reworked story incorporate this research, such as "Am I Me?" tests from the first part.

What's next is a short story penned by Calli, scratching her creative itch. It's related to Shanghai, who we met in Part two, and directly concerns the character Jumbo calls Ingrid. Most of this will be pulled straight from existing material and reworked, so the 14 kiloword (or so) story will appear pretty soon. Probably within a week.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Part 2 is up

My final edits and posting were delayed by my 13 year old, who wanted to learn something about CGI programming, so we did that for a couple of hours. As a result, the ebook version isn't up yet. I'll fix that in the next couple of days. The glossary is updated with a few new neologisms.

Part two is much less a solipsism than the first installment, and could be read on its own without too much confusion I think.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Part II Status

After somewhat of a pause I have been writing solidly for several weeks. Part II is really like act I in a traditional story, whereas the first installment was just an extended introduction to the narrator, the lovely and talented PDA pictured on the cover. Current status is close to 60K words, and pretty close to finished as a first draft manuscript. I just realized tonight where it needs to break (where part III will pick up from).

I have also outlined a second story that I'm excited about. I will work on them in parallel. It seems to be easier that way, as when I get stuck on one I turn to the other, and ideas seem to cross-pollinate.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prolog for Part Two (draft)

The monsoon has pooled refuse and dirt into stinking lakes along every street in the Queen City.  Some will be impassable until the sullen water gives up its soul to the sun and to sluggish sewers.  The gutters are gorged and the drains regurgitate putrid secrets. The city swims in its own filth, and even the high ground west of uptown is not immune from the cloying humid embrace of Mother Summer, whose breath reeks of vegetation, decay, and broiled concrete.  Only the crowns of the skyscrapers are truly above the inundation: heavenly in contrast to the profane pools and lost hope in the hell below.

Hope has not entirely fled from the city, but it has become doubtful, more modest in its ambition, looking for a dry bed without parasites or a full stomach or a day without violence visiting.  Those are the terrestrial horizons of optimism.  On the highest floors, one can perhaps find a great imagination, a real Hope.  But it stays there in its aerie because down all those stairs hope looks just like madness.

Sevens is fourteen years old, and has found that there is money in madness.  The city Maintenance of Order administration has enlisted hundreds to patrol its streets and buildings looking for cats and insanity. Everyone prefers the former.

Some gene hacker on the other side of the globe is to blame for WESTCOTT.  The hack is a devilshly clever modification to the genome of Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan that passes through our feline friends and infects humans.  The wild version can produce behavioral changes in humans, some pathological.  The new microbe delivers a heavier punch of the same.  By now it's everywhere.  Most of the scum-layered water that Sevens splashes probably has the stuff swimming in it.  But cats were the problem, the story goes, so the cats must go.  It makes the Maintenance of Order unit look like it's doing something constructive.  Never mind that removing cats will cause the mouse and rat populations to boom, making the problem worse.  Sevens has heard the older men speculate that MO doesn't care about the cats at all, and that's why they pay by the hour and not by the cat.

For Sevens, being a squad member with five other boys is a meal ticket.  He doesn't like the job, but the food is plentiful.
  After the GRAMPS Wave tore into the DNA of a quarter of the citizens, leaving many prematurely aged with mangled telomeres, young faces seem rare and precious.  Or to be envied and hated.  It's better to travel in packs.

The squad walks along East Boulevard, each boy taking a house to inspect.  This is risky, all the more so because the whistles they were given are next to useless when one is wearing a mask that covers one's nose and mouth. At least his eyes are unaffected by the breathers.  And Sevens carries a large stick he's grown fond of.  It has tipped an argument in his favor more than once.  He shared his enthusiasm for his inert companion with Two-Tooth, calling it The Convincer, but the other boy seems to lack imagination: he has no name for the aluminum baseball bat he twirls. 

Sevens steps onto the porch of a house that was once grand, as the others fan out.  Mosquitoes have been waiting there in the shade for him, and lite on his pants, hungry for a taste of ankle. 

He pops the seal on his mask, and pushes back his ball cap.

"Hello!" he yells inside.  "Maintenance of Order inspection!"  He hears Two-Tooth doing the same across the street. 

The front door rests on one hinge as if it's leaning against the frame to catch its breath.  Sevens edges around it and peers into the ruins of an antebellum foyer.  It's a sog--a swamp of trash and profaned treasure, dewy with drops that still fall from the breached roof, through the second floor filter of hardwood and plaster.  The water darkens the ceiling in pools, fights the gravity with its surface tension and finally falls in fat drops, separating from each other in the eleven foot dive to the floor. Spat! Spat!

Sevens can smell the black mold. He checks and adjusts the straps on the mask. 

Only an insane cat would live here, he tells himself.  The game is to wait inside the door long enough to be credible, and then on to the next sham inspection.  His single glance has told him there's nothing left here worth looting.

The scream floats to him, not piercing his consciousness until it stops abruptly.  The sound of the aluminum bat is unique.  Two-Tooth has wasted its fine construction by denting it on any suitable target, often a mailbox or sign.  But this sounds like hitting something that resonates well.  Something stiff and hollow. 

Sevens turns and squints back out into the sun-seared street.  The silence seems to anticipate its own violent end, but only the whine of a mosquito fills the void.

He sees the soles of Two-Tooth's shoes first, a lazy inverted V pointing up into the dark maw of the house across.  That door shuts as Sevens watches, and dread scales his spine.

Two-Tooth isn't moving.  Those are his shoes.  He's still in the shoes.  He's not moving.  The shouts begin now.

The squad drags and pulls Two-Tooth's limp form off the porch and lays him in the shade of a sweet gum.  The boy takes quick shallow breaths.  There's a dark dent in his hair, betraying violation and the ending of things for Two-Tooth.  Maybe everything.  Kidder, the squad leader, has the only mask with a working comm unit.  He walks off by himself and calls the boss.  Sevens can guess that the odds are low, but he doesn't say anything.  He watches the house.

Movement in the window beside the front door catches his eye.  Then he sees the face staring out.  It's a man, tall, thin, impassive.  He sees Sevens too, and they lock gazes.  The eyes are intense and hypnotic.  The old fear wells up in a tide--the fear of the things that can go wrong.  Things that go bump in the afternoon.  There's the normal and the explainable, and then there's that fringe beyond, the Fear where whispers and superstition reign over science and reason.   The terror of immediacy, of intimate contact with this madness holds him transfixed until the face fades into shadow and vanishes inside the house.  Sevens remembers to breathe again.

The boys rage and say they want revenge, but Sevens understands that they want release from all reason, to act out their anger against the Fear that no one mentions. 
They  are not supposed to take on psychos, only the cats that cause the paranoia and rage by passing on their uninvited guests.  Five teens against a WESTCOTT psycho with a baseball bat is not good odds.  Sevens feels it too, the grating helplessness and the hurt.  But he's seen enough violence to know the bitter aftertaste.  He tells himself he's not afraid, but it's a lie.

There will be no ambulance.  They load Two-Tooth onto Sevens' shoulders in a fireman's carry, and then they leave him and begin to conspire.  He walks heavily, deliberately choosing each footfall to avoid obstructions and pools, his mask dangling around his neck, slapping him with every step.  It's exhausting, and his limbs and back begin to ache.  Two-Tooth gurgles, causing Sevens skin to prickle in sudden dread. 

He makes it about halfway before his legs give out.  He picks a shady spot and leaves the boy there, as comfortable as he can arrange the limbs.  He checks Two-Tooth's pulse, but it's hard to find.  He sits in the shade with the boy, helpless.  There are probably people around, skulking, looting, surviving, but finding the wrong sort could make the situation worse.  He checks for a pulse again, but can't be sure.  Places his hand on the chest of his burden--not yet a man's chest--and finds no movement.  But he can't be sure.  Sevens spits out the most potent curses he knows.

His ears prickle and his scalp crawls at some small noise.  He turns, feeling watched.  One final curse and he decides.  He takes off his treasured Giants ball cap and places it over Two-Tooth's face.  It's a promise.

"I'll come back." 

Damn Two-Tooth and his damned baseball bat, he tells himself.  The lesson bites: if you carry a weapon, it may be used against you. 

Mud spatters Sevens' knees by the time he reaches the mess hall at a staggering jog.  He raises the attention of a sergeant Lyons.

"Not breathing?"

"I can't be sure."

"Is he kin to anyone?"

Sevens' gut churns at the question.  Is this one important enough, is the real question.  Lyons sees the answer in his eyes.  Another orphan.  May as well have lunch first, while it's hot.  Sevens realizes how long it's been since he's had a decent meal.  His stomach betrays him.  Betrays Two-Tooth and the illusion of loyalty.  The food tastes like sog, but hunger tastes worse so he eats until he is full and then stuffs bread into his pockets for later.

A skinny man with gray hair and an MO officer's uniform sits at an angle to him.  The lastfour on his name ribbon reads 0405.  He looks like a GRAMPS survivor, which could make him not many years older than Sevens, but he's tuned differently.  When he speaks others meet his eye and listen.  Something from a children's book strikes at Sevens' imagination.  The Engineer of Souls.  This man is a soul engineer.  The others call him Colt or Lieutenant.

Sevens eats and leaves with two adults assigned by the sergeant.  They carry a collapsible stretcher.  He retraces his steps down muddy paths, but Two-Tooth's body is gone.  His hat is gone too.  Sevens stares at the spot for a long time, while the men curse, do a perfunctory search, and finally leave him. 

There's no doubt that this is the place.  Is there?  His mind plays tricks on him now.  He wanders, broadening the search. His thoughts orbit that singularity pole of human understanding:  WHY?

The answer appears in the form of a large young man, dirty, torn clothing, holding a sharpened aluminum stake and wearing a Giants baseball cap.  He's unnaturally developed, probably the results of genehacking by his parents when that was still legal.  They probably wanted a football player or weightlifter.  Sevens has his own augments, but nothing like this.

The four others, younger and smaller, appear from the edges of walls and doors, surrounding Sevens.  His heart races.  This is bad.

These are not WESTCOTT psychos, just a street gang.  Ordinary lords of flies.  There is an expectancy here, a growing of roles to be filled as in a play.  Sevens feels the eyes on him, and the weight of each breath.  He knows what he has to do, and it terrifies him. 

The five are still spread out, and Sevens seizes the instant, charging straight at the biggest of them, the one wearing his hat.  The name sails to Sevens as the gang shouts a warning:

"Look out, Mackie!"

"Hammer him, Mackie!"

Mackie raises the stake to slash at Sevens.  The sharp end of the metal would cut deep, maybe lethally.  Sevens finds his footing as if in a dream, powering his tired legs over the broken glass, boards, and bricks.  A scream builds in his chest.  It's an outcry of terror, but it sounds like insane rage, garbled and inchoate.  Sevens sees that one instant of of doubt in Mackie's eyes, and the swing is too slow, bouncing off Sevens' shoulder, and then Sevens is there driving his head into the gut of the man and screaming like a psycho--like one of the really far gone WESTCOTTs who tear and bite their own flesh and break the night's silence with their inhuman cries.  The blows are quick and precise, but with all the channeled fury Sevens has dammed up from Waves and the deep meanness of human beings.  Mackie reacts defensively, dropping his weapon and covering his face.

Sevens knows he will lose if he stays.  Mackie is too big and strong for a fair fight.  Sevens snatches the baseball cap and runs, leaving a dazed and cursing opponent.  Attack the strongest one first.  That bit of advice may have saved him.  And Mackie did have his cap.

The adrenaline surge and relief at having survived impel Sevens to do something he knows is foolish.  He circles around and watches them, hoping to find out what they've done with Two-Tooth.  They gaggle around their leader, whose hurt pride rebounds into shouts and anger directed at the witnesses. 

Soon the damage to Sevens' shoulder begins to tell.  It HURTS.  In the end, his better judgment wins out, and he slips into the growing shadows and away.

The next day, the squad reunites.  Sevens is surprised to see them still all there.  He hears fragments of the story about setting the psycho's house ablaze and then throwing bricks at the man when he tried to leave.  There's a fire in their eyes that turns on and off, remembering bravery and comradeship and victory, but remembering also things that are dark and festering, that violate even the most tenuous bonds of shared humanity.  Those things will not be spoken of, but Sevens has seen it and lived it.  The memories land like crows, unwelcome portents.

Sevens and the other squadies search most of the day, but Two-Tooth has disappeared into the gulf where millions of others have vanished, swallowed up by events bigger than a man.  Maybe bigger than a whole civilization.  In the end, they carve the boy's initials into the live oak where Sevens left him.  No one knows his real name, so the letters chiseled into the bark are TT, with the date underneath.  It's the best anyone can hope for.

-by Calli0xE

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sevens's backstory

As I worked through the translation today, I realized that the prologue has stuff in it that isn't true.  Apparently Calli0xE relied on less-than credible sources for Sevens' backstory because he relates a very different version to her.  We also find out some interesting tidbits about the climate and the nature of the Waves.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Finished Part One

Well, more or less.  I'll probably end up having to go back and edit something. 

Part Two has about 15,000 words so far.  The reason I got so far into part two before really finishing the first part is that I dreaded going back and editing.  Not because I don't like editing, but because I lived the story the first time.  It was intense writing it, and I thought it would be as intense to edit.  A funny thing happened.  The really bad parts weren't as bad (maybe because I knew they were coming), and other parts got me.  Yah, well.