If Dungeons & Dragons, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and Tolkien were my early fantasy genre influences, my science fiction side was tempered in those early years by Star Wars and Robotech. And while Star Wars finally got a good ship to ship miniatures combat game thanks to Fantasy Flight Games, I relied on FASA’s Battletech to scratch my mecha combat itch. But I knew it wasn’t Robotech, and Robotech was what I wanted. After decades of waiting, Palladium Books is working with Ninja Division to bring me… well, us, I suppose, Robotech RPG Tactics. Continue reading
Everyone prefaces these sorts of things with “I don’t do chain letters BUT . . .” So consider mine prefaced as well. Jeff LaSala was kind enough to tag me in this chain that I think was begun by Elaine Cunningham. (Chain letters always make me think of the telephone game that starts at one end of the classroom as “I’m finished with our big stone calendar” and ends on the other end as “The calendar has predicted the date humanity is finished!”)
The idea behind the Next Big Thing is to answer 10 questions about a work in progress, and then tag 5 more writers who do the same thing the following week. I like the idea of promoting some good people. And a little self-promotion never hurt anybody, I suppose. My lead project for 2013 is a novel. –gasp– I’m always working on multiple things, but this is receiving the lion’s share of my efforts. Continue reading
System-neutral material for roleplaying games has recently caught my interest. Eldritch Entertainment’s science fiction adventure, Dark Outpost, is a system generic product that I noticed on the heels of Frank Mentzer’s Lich Dungeon. Once again, Eldritch Entertainment engages some names that might ring familiar to gamers of yore. Written by James M. Ward and Christopher Clark, it certainly carries with it the same “old school” approach seen in Lich Dungeon.
A brief warning, there might be some spoilers ahead. If you’re usually on the crowded side of the GM’s screen, just forward this link to your GM. But, if you’re here looking for hints to survival, your character deserves the cold, airless fate he or she suffers. Continue reading
On the heels of my review of the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game, I had the opportunity to take in a battle between the Rebels and the Empire while visiting Dropzone Games. Aside from its simple yet engaging mechanics, one of the lures of the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game is that you can steadily expand on your force with additional ships and, for the game I observed, the players fielded both the new Y-Wing Fighter and the TIE Advanced. Continue reading
I did not get to play the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game at GenCon this year. And I left the convention covered in shame for it. After all, I’m a big fan of Fantasy Flight Games, and the look and feel of the game was everything I love about tabletop games: elegant mechanics, cool Star Wars miniatures, and a self-contained game that did not require (the admittedly cool) extras in order to play. Continue reading
<< back to Chapter 6
I found a lady. I dropped credit. She found three more. Good times rolled, and a fresh set of bursts went out, “Coop’s here and he’s treating the world.” Partiers who just got home were turning around at their front doors to head back to Rubberneck. My four ladies turned into a crowd so big, I had to leave my own party and start a new one on a deck over the dance floor. But I brought my first lady. She ditched her friends and followed the credit balance. All those anarchist ideals fluttered away with someone else’s open and endless tab. She learned in one night what it took me years to develop: find the winning horse and get behind him, even if it means you’ll be shoveling some shit. Continue reading
<< back to Chapter 5
We cruised the streets further and further from the beltway, closer and closer to home, until I picked up an invitation-only burst from a substreet club I never quite managed to outgrow. It had been a while since I dropped into Rubberneck, so either the crowd started off thin, or the poli-punks had already started calling it a night. After being away so long, I imagined I was low on the guest list, low enough that I rarely even got the invites before the place was packed to the point where people started thinking of the fire marshal’s occupancy limit as more than just a suggestion.
The pylons that supported the network of overpasses above the sprawling warehouse made Rubberneck seem like a grand, sprawling temple. The first time I saw it, at twelve years old, the place might as well have been the Taj Mahal. But it was a Taj Mahal that was tossed off one of the bridges overhead, discarded out a car window, and nestled among half-crushed cans and plastic wrappers whipping in the wind. Back then, it didn’t matter to me that it was a gutted storage facility that probably hadn’t been swept out since the turn of the century. For a kid, it was easy access to cheap liquor, fringe music, and radical ideas.
As my teenage years drew to a close, though, I told my girlfriend at the time, “We all grow up, I guess.” And I left her and Rubberneck behind for a long time. Nearly everyone there eventually outgrows the place. Suddenly holding down a job becomes more important than a night out discussing the failure of government over too much house whiskey. A look around reveals that, instead of colluding with like-minded political souls, fueled by that same whiskey, you’re just sitting in a bar with different shit hung on the walls.
If you do you homework for real, and not just spout stilted facts from third-hand accounts, you realize that the same man who owns Rubberneck, owns seven other clubs between DC and Baltimore. Two of those clubs are tucked high up inside the Beltway. The men in those clubs know that their kids are down here, talking revolution, but they know those kids will realize the same thing I did. We all grow up. The difference is that those kids are bound for the clubs where their fathers smoke cigars and pretend they don’t know what house whiskey is. When I grew up, I was bound for a lot less.
But I realized a lot sooner than most. And I did my homework.
A few kids lingered at the fire door near the Crouch, a low concrete shelf jutting from one of the pillars that was a hook-up pad since I was their age, probably even before. The toughs smoked with a couple of dishwashers wearing dirty, white aprons. They wore retro suit jackets, vintage threads with their red ties unknotted, some sort of ironic statement, I supposed. One had drawn the classic anarchy A, but the red clashed with his necktie, and that symbol played itself out decades ago. Anarchy failed. He apparently missed the broadcast.
They all put on their best hard faces the moment I stepped out of the sedan that Walt had parked in the middle of the open lot. They sized up my suit, my age, tried to look harder. Walt swung his legs out of the car, stood up to his full height, and put the width of his frame on display. The kids went for broke, tried to stay hard. “The fuck are you?”
They hadn’t done their homework, not like I had when I was doing this same routine. My homework gave me names, names I dropped like precision munitions. “The guy Anders sent to tell you two For-Foods-in-waiting to get back to loading the dishwashers.”
“This guy for real?” Dishwasher One asked Two.
Two scowled, shook his head, but took a last drag like he was holding back spite. Sometimes, one name puts hard out of fashion. He ducked through the propped open door. “Whatever. I’m done anyhow.”
The three toughs stayed, but their feet shuffled. I remembered how hard it was to back down. But you have to know when enough is enough, and you want to learn that lesson without swallowing too many of your teeth. “Youth is bravery. Right, Walt?”
“S’what made me a monster.” I watched the nervous faces, but behind me I knew that the flecks were stirring across Walt’s skin.
I stepped through the middle of the group, through the doorway, and into a dark space filled with bass echoes. I glanced back. “We’re going to catch a different ride home, I think.”
Walt tossed the car remote at one of the punks. “It’s probably got ‘til daylight. Burn it down.”
The one face I could still see through the open door stared wide-eyed at the forged remote. Walt stiff armed him into the doorframe, on the boy with terrifying quickness, their faces separated by scant inches. “And stay outta the fuckin’ Services.”
He spun the kid out the door, kicking the doorstop out into the lot as part of the motion. The door slammed shut and, as my eyes adjusted, I picked up the gleam of the flecks in Walt’s eyes. “Really, man? Didn’t feel like doing the “stay in school” jingle for him, too?”
I heard Walt exhale lightly. “Sometimes bravery never learns.”
“Well, they’ll remember that, for sure. Think they’ll joyride it first or just head straight to a chop for the money?”
“I’m hoping it’s barely holding together when it rolls into a garage for stripping. Those punks earned a good time. Nobody pissed himself. Think I’m losing my edge, Mr. Cooper?”
“Your fleck batch is past it’s prime, sure. But that stopped being your edge a long time ago. Your edge is knowing that bravery never learns and still coming home to collect your due anyway, whether they’re intending to give it to you or not.”
“You softening me up for something?” As the darkness began dissolving into gray outlines I could see Walt looming over me, already scanning, probably seeing shades color in the darkness I’d never know.
“Yeah, you’re getting the night off so you don’t cramp my style with the ladies.”
“You find a lady here, and my ride home’ll probably be an ambulance.”
on to chapter 7 >>
<< back to Chapter 4
The route from the private room to the parking garage was a parade of “Goodnight, Mr. Cooper.” The whiskey slowed me down just a little, and the hallway tipped in unexpected directions whenever I turned my head. The carpet felt like it had more give, or my footsteps were heavier now. A dip of the chin from the doorman and another “Goodnight, Mr. Cooper.” This time I imagined I’d reached a new level of status and prestige. I imagined the doorman could sense the change, as if my posture had further straightened or I had a telltale gleam of wealth in my eyes.
The second doorman held the door as I stepped onto the concrete of the parking garage. The first strike of my heel against the floor echoed in a way that made me smile. The doorman took it as if it was meant for him, smiled back. Once more, “Goodnight, Mr. Cooper.”
“Goodnight to you, young man.” He looked only a few years younger than me. But now I had the money of old men. My attention and my interest felt like gifts I could give away or withhold. I clumsily thumbed at my touchpad in my pocket and opened a quick-tip channel, when it vibrated once I confirmed a transaction using a digit I had never touched before. I swelled with the thrill of knowing I had never had so much money flow out of an account that was my own. It wasn’t money handled on someone else’s behalf, but money from a credit line that was remained untouched by such an excess. I probably tripled his wages for the year.
The doorman wouldn’t know the amount until he was out of sight and I was gone, but the vibration in his pocket told him there was a tip waiting. The stock goodnight I’d heard following every visit to the Other Coast was appended with “I hope we’ll see you again soon, sir.”
I felt giddy. No other word would suffice. Walt stood alongside the car, swept his eyes over the garage again as I covered the four steps to the sedan, and boxed me in as I opened the door. I tugged it shut and he was already turning to get in front, no doubt scanning again. We surged into motion quickly, and Walt had us merging into a swift traffic flow in less than two minutes. When he was confidant that no one was tailing us, his grip eased up on the steering wheel. Through the rearview mirror, I could see the headlights reflecting off the flecks in his eyes.
“Relax, Walt. It’s a done deal.” I searched the back of the sedan, wondering if I would suddenly discover a mini-bar that I’d missed earlier in the night.
“You don’t pay me to relax. I do that on my own time.” His tone was brusque and he continued to scan for threats, car by car and street by street. But the upward line of his lips belied a thin smile. Walt knew what the deal meant for us. Maybe later, “on his own time,” as he often put it, he would feel as overwhelmed as I did. Now, though, there was joy in duty. Joy and purpose.
The biggest misconception people have about soldiers is that they are machines. It might be what helps them distance themselves from the Deployed Service when the sad stories make it home. And, after all, a man who can’t experience joy also can’t feel homesick, can he?
But Walt was smiling, completely now.
“Obviously, you’ll be getting a raise Walt.” The swelling thrill returned as I imagined the credit at my disposal. “And I think we’re going to relocate. New clothes, too. I felt a little behind the scene after seeing the Senator. A good suit never goes out of style, but… we need a sharper look, I think.”
“You gonna dress me up like your own private Secret Service?”
“I’m thinking a cross between that goon in the dining room and a bouncer at flashy, inside the beltway rub and tug.” My eyes started to scan the side streets as well. But while Walt was tuned in to out of place cars, people, and debris, I scanned for a good spot for a celebratory drink.
“I don’t think they call them rub an’ tugs inside the beltway, Mr. Cooper.”
“I meant the Baltimore beltway, Walt. Get you something shiny an’ purple, put some high-end brand patches up and down the sleeves so people know who you’re representing for. Sound good?”
Walt gave a low chuckle, a rare privilege to hear. “Only if I get a big, gold savior to hang from my neck, too. Gotta complete the look.”
“For you, Walt, any saviors you feel you need. We’ll dip them in gold and hang them from a chain that you could pull a tank with.”
He chuckled once more, then the sound faded into silence. I listened to the wheels thump their way through potholes and the rush of air that accompanied the cars we passed. Bands of yellow light slashed the length of the car at intervals with each passing streetlamp, as if we were being scanned like a barcode. At nearly two o’clock in the morning, no one walked the sidewalks. A handful of businesses remained open at this hour, mostly fast food bunkers, but the harsh white light spilling from them as we sped past only highlighted how empty they were.
The thrill and giddiness slipped away in an instant. They were replaced by a cold vacancy and a formless dread. The next street we crossed seemed to stretch on impossibly far, disappearing into the glittering haze of the dome. It struck me that I didn’t know the name of the street, didn’t know what businesses were on it, or who claimed it as theirs. I didn’t know what substreets ran under it. And if I had been able to see it from the high road earlier that night, I couldn’t say. Down here the city sprawled away in every direction, immense. And suddenly I was unbearably small.
on to chapter 6 >>
<< back to Chapter 3
“I’ve been here on several occasions now, Mr. Cooper, and I must confess I was unaware the Other Coast had a house whiskey.” The senator nudged his dinner plate slightly and a waiter immediately spirited away. Another one of the staff scooped the crumbs from the table with an impossibly unobtrusive effort. When the senator reached forward, his hand settled around a newly arrived after dinner cocktail.
“Mr. Card seemed to have something to say on the subject earlier, perhaps I’ll bow to his expertise.” I gestured toward the sullen man seated at the end of the table. He had remained unconscious for only a minute after the Secret Service agent yanked him away from me. I took the minute to apologize to the senator. I assured him the unpleasantness was not my intention. I made sure I was done acting sorry before Card came around.
Throughout the meal he tried to play off his demeanor as grogginess, but he glowered at me every chance he got. His silence quickly saw him boxed out of any conversation at the table. The stubbornness showed which one of us was the sort to give up easily. Once again, I’m sure the point was not lost on the senator. If this meal represented my only moment in front of some real, inside the Beltway power, I decided to go for broke. My performance needed to make a lasting impression.
“House whiskey is rotgut,” muttered Card as he took only the third bite of his barely addressed meal. He clearly wanted to be polite and not speak while chewing.
“Exactly.” I shot him a condescending smile. “It’s homemade alcohol. Usually it gets cooked up from whatever is around. A substreet tradition. And one I still embrace from time to time. They keep some on-hand here at the Coast for visitors like me.”
“Another way to remind me who I’m dealing with?” There was a fraction less humor in Senator Forsythe’s tone. I could bully a man like Card, but the senator wanted it clear that Card and I were on the same level compared to him.
“Not at all, senator. I just want the staff to know one of their own is in the building.” When the senator cocked an eyebrow, I continued. “You said yourself that you’d never heard of the stuff. But some of the waitstaff? A barback? Kitchen staff? They know. And they know the sort of person who orders it. Seeing it head up to a private room like this, well, there’s a little hope in that for them. It’s just a little bit of proof about the ‘potential of upward mobility’ they hear so much about but never seem to see.”
“Interesting.” The senator sounded unconvinced.
“Besides, someone in the kitchen probably provides the stuff from their own batches. Trickle down economics in action, senator. And, I’ll add, thank you for your part in it, as well as your hospitality.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Dom had no compunctions about talking around the food in his mouth. He chewed like a horse but it went unnoticed because the senator’s business associate fared marginally worse in the manners department. The idea that you could order a double portion of prime rib clearly escaped the man until Dom placed his own order. A moment later the business associate was happy to co-opt the idea. The two of them ate like animals from the moment the plates arrived, and they were only just slowing down. “It’s been a great meal, Jack.”
Senator Forsythe waved an accepting hand. He knew who could never afford a meal like this in their life and who could pay for a half dozen plates and never even remember the expense. The casual hand gesture also made it clear that we should know, and recognize it, too. The wave also seemed to be a sign for Chao, who leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “To business, Mr. Cooper.”
In conversation, clearly Chao was the sort who saw no value in minced words. Even during the senator’s anecdotes his attention clearly wandered. Chao was done biding his time and eager to get on with matters. It was time to prove my value to him. “I’ve amassed nearly 100,000 Participants in my Subdomain. If you’re interested, I can also provide you with another 50,000 For-Foods and a like number of Absentees.”
I’ll give him this, Chao tried to keep that stone cold face fixed firmly in place. But his eyes widened. His jaw moved as if he’d caught himself before he could lick his lips. I didn’t bother to watch anyone else’s reactions, from the moment he spoke, it was clear that Chao would be the one conducting business. His stoic composure returned quickly, though, and Chao ignored Card’s audible gasp. “This is a single, interrelated database?”
“Interrelated, yes. But culled from over a hundred Domains with no detected incursions. And the Absentees are valid, not cooked up by some last minute political maneuver.” I bit my tongue and involuntarily glanced at Senator Forsythe. A small wash of heat played across my face.
He let me sweat it out for a full minute. “Some of my supporters just haven’t been born yet, Mr. Cooper. But rest assured, when they are, they’ll see the wisdom of my policies.”
I couldn’t tell if the senator was making a joke.
Chao could clearly care less. “What kind of depth do you have with these?”
“I’d say about a quarter are between four and six, mostly the Absentees. About thirty-five percent are in the seven to nine range, the remaining forty percent are tens.”
“Bullshit!” Card looked to the senator. “There’s no way he has that depth if they’re undetected. If the database isn’t an outright forgery, it’s going to be scorching hot. You don’t want to touch this, Jack!”
“You’re here to verify, right Card?” I tossed a hard link across the table and he fumbled it into his lap before setting it down next to his barely touched meal. “Why don’t you do your job?”
Although they were bent from his rough handling earlier, Card’s blue data-specs appeared up to the task of reviewing the limited data the hard link allowed access to. We all sat in silence as Card worked. Chao drew a narrow-screened set of data-specs of his own from a case in his vest pocket. Looking like little more than old-fashioned wire-framed glasses, they matched Card’s cutting edge flash with refined style. Chao also focused on the hard link, then scowled.
“I see nothing Mr. Cooper.” His tone had gone from stone to steel.
“As a precaution, it’s reinforced against multiple users. While Card has access, even I can’t view the data, I can only shut him out.” I swiped the pattern over the touchpad in my pocket and Card’s head shot up from the hard link as his eyes refocused beyond the interior of his data-specs. I gestured to Chao. “By all means.”
The telltale glow of the specs flickered over Chao’s eyes, but his specs didn’t reveal any trace of light on the exterior of the lenses. Refined style jumped up to cutting edge, then past it. People wanted specs to do that for a long time. It looked like somebody had succeeded, but they’d done it in private. Card interrupted my plans to try to get a pair out of this deal.
“It’s real,” he muttered, probably not even sure himself if he was asking me or telling everyone seated at the table.
“It is.” I didn’t condescend. I stayed matter of fact. “And, even if I could forge a database like that, I imagine you’d still want me on the payroll.”
“Mr. Cooper,” Chao’s eyes were darting back and forth as he read the information displayed just in front of his eyes. “It appears that some of these entries go back nearly a decade.”
“I began my Subdomain that long ago.” I could tell Chao was readying the questions I had prepared for, the obvious questions. These were the questions that fed right into my sales pitch. And I I knew that the answers –even ten years ago as a teenager, scraping data off the swipes at a fast food bunker – would deliver me to where I belonged.
“But your Subdomain is still updating on these entries.”
I gave a single nod. “It is.”
“But the Domains that they are sourced in,” he paused to read something, then continued, “they appear . . . uncompromised.”
“Because they are.”
Chao removed his data-specs and fixed me with an unexpectedly terrifying gaze. “Then, if you’ll forgive my apparent technological ignorance, how exactly is that possible?”
I had waited a decade to say the words, rehearsed them more times than I could ever hope to remember, and still my hands trembled under the table. “Because I broke the System. I broke it ten years ago. And I’ve waited, all that time, to sell what I’ve done to the right person. Senator, are you the right person?”
on to chapter 5 >>
When my wife catches me watching a particularly in-depth show about subatomic particles, or when she looks over my shoulder at a diagram of supergravity, she only asks questions to be polite. I can’t really blame her. Either that stuff is “your thing” or it’s not. But the best question she ever had, during an episode of “Through the Wormhole,” was simply, “How does any of this affect my daily life? If they make this discovery [the Higgs boson], what will that mean for me?”
My answer was spectacularly vague. After all, I’m not a scientist, I just enjoy listening to people who are explain to me what they do. But, to summarize, I explained that it’s a discovery that leads to innovations down the road, creating technology that potentially benefits us all. Like I said: spectacularly vague. Ultimately, it means a lot more to the scientists than it does to me.
Yet the Higgs boson is going to have huge implications for my daily life, just like most startling scientific theories. It’s not because I think that scientists intend to use their newfound knowledge to create an Apple product that’s “cruelty free” and incorporates exciting new Bacon Port™ technology. Generally, I assume the first thing science attempts to do is to try using the technology to make something explode, preferably in a rival country. Then they try to eat it. If that doesn’t work, they shrink wrap it and sell it at the Dollar Store where it can blow the minds of juggalos nationwide.
Alright, maybe those aren’t the implications I’m looking for. But every time a scientist says, “this could mean x,” I immediately say, “What if it doesn’t?” And then I begin writing a story in my head. If the scientist says, “this certainly means x,” I automatically take that conclusion and run toward the extreme possibilities born of that notion. Good science makes for good stories, and strange science makes for better stories. Despite what the world’s fucktards skeptics had to say about it, the only singularity caused by turning on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was due to crushing density of ideas that appeared in my head at once.
Setting aside the three obvious uses –it explodes, it’s edible, or it’s a children’s choking hazard– for a moment, there’s so many other great possibilities. An excellent novel, The Light of Other Days, takes a remarkable technology, a wormhole capable of transferring data instantaneously, and illustrates a great many unintended (and unexpected) consequences. Side effects fascinate me. The “repurposing” of inventions fascinates me. When this sort of thing happens, either with real or fictional technology, I can’t help but marvel at it.
But my favorite parts of the scientific shows I watch, and the books I read, are the parts that effectively say, “…and we don’t know anything past this point.” To me, that’s the sound of a starting gun.