When The Giants Wake

If there’s a certain amount of poetic justice in the latest round of layoffs to sweep the country, it’s a small one. In the first place, the executives who were let go all had contracts that stipulated exorbitant severance packages and in the second it doesn’t really portend anything good for the working class.

Nobody’s even sure exactly where the trend started, where the idea came from. Memos floating it went around the halls of the big multinational banks. It worked its way into the middle of mass e-mail chains. At one high tech firm, a voice on a conference call quietly made the suggestion. It seemed like a radical notion at first, but it gained traction at first based on sheer buzz alone.

The purpose of a corporation is to make money. This is considered to be obvious almost to the point of tautology. The right decision is always the one that produces the most profit, the biggest return on investment, the most reward for the least risk. Everything else? Just a distraction.

In recent years, this came to be understood as gospel truth and the officers of the corporations became little more than executors of a program. The ones who wouldn’t make the “hard decisions” for the good of the company got booted out. The ones who would were rewarded.

But if it’s possible to determine what the right choice is, why did there have to be a single person who was tasked with making them? It doesn’t take a warm body in a seat to cut services and reduce payroll to the minimum needed to operate, after all. Eliminating the decision-makers not only saves a company the not-inconsiderable cost of their future compensation, it reduces the chance of a costly error made in a moment of sentimental weakness or compassion.

Maybe the human touch is needed to deal with the fallout when things were pushed too far, but people are getting more and more used to hearing “that’s business” and “we have a right to make a profit” when they complained, anyway. The longer this goes on, the more it seems like it’s always been that way.

There were laws and regulations that needed changing to accommodate a headless corporation, of course, but by this point that was little more than a formality. The government expectes there to be a person to hold accountable, but corporations are people and they’re firmly in charge.

The evidence increasingly suggests that they know it.

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December 15, 2011 | Horror | No Comments »

Check, Please

“Is it true,” I asked Death, “that I can challenge you to a game of chess for my life?”

“It is,” Death said. “But few enough people think to ask, and even fewer exercise that right. Fewer still see the game through to completion. Most give up within a matter of turns.”

“Are you so good?”

“I am as skilled as you might expect of one who has had as much practice as I have, though my skill is not solely the reason for concession.”

“Certainly you’ve had more years to practice than most people,” I said. “But how much of that time did you devote to a serious study of the game?”

“A little here, a little there,” Death said. “It adds up. In particular, I have spent more time than most masters of the game learning to play under the peculiar conditions that govern the game in this between-place.”

“What peculiar conditions?” I asked.

“There must be judges, for an impartial contest,” Death said. “No move may be made if the judges deem it illegal.”

“What is the penalty for attempting an illegal move?” I asked, with more than a touch of trepidation.

“Nothing,” Death said. “It is withdrawn, as if it had never happened, and play continues.”

“Must all the judges agree?” I asked, looking for the trap or hitch.

“No, there are three of them and majority rules,” Death said.

“Who are they?” I asked, expecting it to be either angels or demons… and not knowing which one I’d rather have.

“A council of theologians,” Death said. “We have had other judges, but none remained sufficiently interested long enough.”

“I will probably lose,” I said. “But… I think I’m going to challenge you anyway, and I’m going to have to see the game through until I’m checkmated. That’s what life is, right? Struggling against death until the last moment?”

“Sometimes. There is such a thing as acceptance,” Death said. With the wave of a hand, a chessboard appeared on a pedestal. A trio of figures appeared in the mist that swirled around us, though they kept their distance. “Our judges… they will remain some distance away, unless their judgment is needed. You may have your choice of sides.”

“I’ve heard that white has an advantage in going first,” I said. “That if you’re playing white and you play a perfect game, you can’t be beaten. Do you suppose that’s true?”

“Do you suppose you’ll play a perfect game?” Death asked.

“I concede the point,” I said, but I chose white anyway. There seemed to be a better chance that Death would play perfectly than I would.

The opening moves of the game seemed nothing particularly remarkable to me. It was only when I reached for my knight and moved it out of the back row that the judges came forward.

“False move! False move!” two of them cried.

“That was a perfectly valid move,” the third one said. “But I’m outvoted. As usual.”

“What’s wrong with the move?” I asked.

“You moved your knight one square over and then two squares up,” one of the objectors said.

“Yes?” I said.

“Knights move two squares in one direction and then one square perpendicularly.”

“No they don’t,” the third one said. “They move just as the white player described.”

“It’s the same results either way,” I said. “Fine, though. I’ll move the knight two squares forward and then…”

“Stop!” the other objector said. “That isn’t how the knight moves at all. The knight moves one square diagonally in any direction, and then one square orthogonally in a direction outward from its square of origin.”

“Oh, it does not!” the theologian who hadn’t objected to my original move said.

“‘Orthogonally’, indeed,” the first theologian said.

“But… listen,” I said, having taken a moment to decode the new claim and what it meant in terms of squares on the board. “All three methods you’re describing end up with the same set of squares as valid destinations. You’re all stating the same rule a different way.”

“We most certainly are not!”

“The very idea!”

“It is frankly insulting that you would take the true rule and lump it together with the unfounded suppositions and fallacies peddled by these charlatans!”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me try a different tack. You’re just describing different ways for calculating the valid moves the knight can make, but the knight does not actually cross through any squares. All the actual rules of chess care about is the destination square. So if you can all agree that the destination is valid, can I make the move?”

“You’re suggesting that the path doesn’t matter?”

“The very idea!”

“Your sophistry has no place in a serious game.”

I sighed and looked at Death.

“It is possible to win a game without the use of knights,” Death said. “But I’ve had more practice at it than most. Do you wish to continue?”

I knocked my king on its side.

“Look on the bright side,” Death said. “Before this occupation was arranged for them, they spent all their time arguing about more important destinations than that of a chess piece.”

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December 12, 2011 | Fantasy | 3 Comments »

Corked Creativity

The magician pulled the stopper from the pewter bottle. Oily black smoke bubbled out of the top and then spilled down the neck to pool around its base. Gradually, the dark vapor coalesced into a solid form, that of a tiny figure with needle-sharp claws, glowing red pinpoint eyes, insectile wings, and a twitching tail. It wore a black hat with a skull and crossbones on it.

“What is thy dread bidding, master?” the imp intoned.

“Wretched spawn of the hell-pits, it is my wish that… wait, is that a pirate hat?” the magician said, registering the headgear.

“Er, no,” the imp said as the article in question poofed away in a puff of smoke. “I mean, not really. Just… just some dark glamour. It looked like a pirate hat, though. Good eye.”

“Why were you wearing a pirate hat?”

“Well, it gets boring, living in a bottle,” the imp said. “So I took up a hobby.”

“Playing pirate?”

“Well, not at first,” the imp said. “At first I was just amusing myself by grabbing little crafty things for myself whenever you sent me out into the world, and then I got into model-building, and then from there it just sort of… snowballed.”

“You mean you built a ship inside your bottle?”

“I think it could catch on,” the imp said. “Though I think if you got me a slightly larger bottle, a glass one, then it might be a little more, you know, functional. As a decoration, I mean. Decorative, I guess, would be the word.”

“I didn’t summon you from the hell-pits for decorative purposes.”

“Right, no, you didn’t,” the imp said. “But I’m just thinking… when I’m in the bottle, which is most of the time, you’re not getting any use out of me anyway. But with a glass bottle and maybe some kind of a display stand, maybe a nice polished red walnut or a polished mahogany… well, you’d just be getting more value. And since you gave up your soul to bind me, you might as well get as much as you can out of the deal. Right? I mean, am I right?”

“…let’s just get back to my dread bidding,” the magician said.

“Right,” the imp said. “It was only a suggestion.”

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December 9, 2011 | Fantasy | 2 Comments »

On The Other Foot

His wife was waiting for him when he slipped back through the crack that led to their side of the wall.

“Well?” she said. “Did you find anything we could use?”

“There was some leather,” he said. “All cut out and laid out for tomorrow’s work.”

“Have you made anything for our shop this day? Any clothing we can sell?”

“No clothes,” he admitted.

“Then what were you doing all hours of the night while the giants slumbered?”

“I… I was making shoes,” he said.

“Oh, well,” his wife said, brightening. “Good shoes?”

“Very fine shoes,” he said. “Of the best leather, and not a stitch out of place.”

“That’s something,” she said. “They should fetch a decent price.”

“I hope so,” he said. “The shoemaker’s family could certainly use it.”

“The shoe… wait, do I understand you to mean that you made shoes for that cobbler and his wife, and nothing for us?”

“It wouldn’t feel right, taking from them when they have so little,” he said.

“And we have less!” she said. “You didn’t even make a hat or a jacket from the scraps?”

“There… there wasn’t time,” he said.

His wife threw up her hands.

“When my older sister’s husband traded their beans away for a lumbering beast full of milk and meat, I told her ‘You won’t catch my Alfred doing that.’ When my younger sister’s husband gave away his two best axes to a man because he ‘had an honest face’, I said ‘My Alfred’s got a better head than that!’ Now what will I tell them?”

“Now, dear… it isn’t as bad as all that,” he said. “The cobbler and his wife are very kind people… I’m sure they’ll do us a good turn if we give them a chance.”

“You can wait for a good turn when our shop is prosperous and our pocketbooks bulging,” she said. “Until that day, you’re going back through the wall every night until you have something to sell!”

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December 6, 2011 | Fantasy | 1 Comment »

Any Witch Way You View It

“I asked you for some proof of your wisdom and you give me astrology,” the king said. “If you wish to retain your cushy appointment in these increasingly enlightened times, crone, you had best do better.”

“Is there some problem with astrology, sire?” the witch asked.

“The problem is that you are either a fool, or a charlatan who takes me for one,” the king said. “Astrology is a trick of perspective. My own philosophers, learned men all, have explained to me that the stars we see as points of light on a plane are in fact celestial bodies separated by great amount of space, that there is no more relationship between two stars in one of your so-called constellation as any two other random points in the sky.”

“Is this so, sire?”

“It is a fact!” the king said. “Why, my chief philosopher says that if you were to stand at any other point in the cosmos and look skyward, you could gaze upon the same stars and not see a single one of your constellations. The distances from front to back would make them all wrong when viewed from any other angle.”

“This is why I make it a point to make my observations from here,” the witch said.

“Well, you’ll have to find somewhere else,” the king said. “I have decided to give your tower over to the chief philosopher, so that he may better continue his scientific observations of the heavens. I have not yet decided where to put you.”

“I see,” the witch said. “Well, if you will have none of my astrology, my liege, I do have other arts. Augury by observing the flight of birds, for instance. Has that been exploded by philosophy?”

“Not yet,” the king said.

“Then, if your majesty would please indulge me to look out that window for a moment?” the witch said.

“Certainly… good heavens!” the king exclaimed as a vast and shadowy shape like an enormous skull erupted from the distant treetops, visible just outside the windows. It quickly dissolved into a massive flock of cawing birds that swiftly winged away.

“Oh, we’re in luck… that was a big one. Now, then,” the witch said. “Did you mark in what direction the flock departed? The breeze is southerly, but the birds…”

“That was… that was a death’s head,” the king said.

“Points in space, sire,” the witch said. “As I say, the breeze is southerly, which might lead one to…”

“Forget the breeze! Tell me what this grim spectre portends!”

“That? Oh, nothing, clearly,” the witch said. “You see, that was just a trick of perspective. The birds’ positions relative to each other… well, if you had happened to see them from any other angle, they would surely have resembled nothing more than a random mass. As they were.”

“But I saw…”

“Yes, sire, indeed you did,” the witch said. “But consider! A flock that size must have been seen by dozens, scores of people, even people in this very castle. But only from your vantage point at the window would it have been possible to make out the grim spectre of death among the beating wings. It appeared to you and you alone among all who witnessed it. I’m sure your philosophers would be happy to explain how this means it can’t possibly…”

“Hang the philosophers!”

“Well, that’s probably going a bit far,” the witch said. “But if you’re in the mood to discuss their disposition, let us talk about the housing situation.”

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December 3, 2011 | Fantasy | 3 Comments »

Undue License

“I’d like to issue you a preliminary welcome aboard,” the interviewer said. “Of course, we do have to wait for your genetic screening to come back. Most of the time if someone makes it this far in the interview process, there are no nasty surprises lurking there. The questionnaires catch a lot. But… people slip up. Eat a patent tomato, dump a packet of sweetener in your tea at a restaurant without reading the EULA on the package…”

“Do they even have to put a licensing agreement on the packet anymore?” the applicant asked. “The last time I looked at one, it just said that a copy was available online. I put it back, obviously. I was mostly looking at it out of curiosity.”

“Yes, it’s getting quite scary out there. I’m just glad the Supreme Court stopped them from making their viruses opt-out instead of opt-in,” the interviewer said. “That was an increasingly rare victory for us. One hundred million Americans are now completely incapable of eating anything that hasn’t been genetically modified for the designer bacteria in their stomachs, and a hundred million more have eaten things that enter them into legally binding agreements that preclude the sort of work we do here. It takes an amazing amount of discipline… to say nothing of privilege and opportunity… to go your whole life and eat nothing but the few remaining natural heirloom foods or open-source alternatives in this country. Do you mind if I ask why you made that choice?”

“Well, it’s mostly my parents,” the applicant said. “Though of three children, I’m the only one who stuck with it past middle school, so maybe I shouldn’t give them all the credit. But if they hadn’t made the choices they did for me when I was a child, I’d be out there paying a licensing fee for my lunch, too. I guess that’s part of it. I don’t like the idea that a corporation can own our food. If we don’t own what we put into our bodies, do we own our bodies at all?”

“Excactly,” the interviewer said. “You know, free software proponents used to say they were talking about free as in ‘free speech’ rather than ‘free beer’.”

“That’s an interesting comparison,” the applicant said. “Since you can’t find beer that doesn’t have a binding license on it these days.”

“Yes, well, when’s the last time you saw any free software?” the interviewer said. “Of course, people also used to say ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ Time has regrettably proven them right.”

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November 30, 2011 | Science Fiction | 2 Comments »

The First Blush of Spring

The old year moves on.

The new year rolls over, stretches, sits up, and looks around. It notices with a slight blush the bare limbs of its trees. It notices the layers of ice and snow that the old year had piled on before its departure. It is a look that the old year had the maturity to wear well, but the new year finds it gaudy.

It’s time for a change, the new year thinks, and it begins the slow process of peeling back the blankets of snow, of shaking the sleepy world out of its stupor. Out with the white, in with the green. Hello, everybody!

The old year looks back. It remembers when it was so young and thought everything was flower blossoms and babies. The new year would learn soon enough. It would find out there were more interesting things to be done with leaves, and then it would get bored with them entirely. The old year could try to tell the new one that it would all just end up in the same place, but there was little point. The new year wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t believe. It had to learn for itself.

Time marches forward. It never looks back.

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November 27, 2011 | Fantasy | No Comments »

Playing Soldiers

The first truck rolled up to the curb at fifteen hundred hours. The children on the swings nearest the fence noticed it first. By the time the first boots were on the ground, all activity on that end of the playground had stopped and kids were drawing cautiously closer.

Two soldiers, disregarding the gate not fifteen feet away, quickly cut through the chain-link fence. One peeled back the snipped section while the other slipped through, looked around, and then motioned towards the others waiting by the fence.

“Go, go, go!” the commanding officer barked. “Move it, move it, move it!”

A whole squad of soldiers stormed through the fence. Some of the schoolchildren screamed and fled, but most stood watching in shock as the soldiers took up positions around the cage-like structure of the old jungle gym and began throwing faded blankets of assorted colors over the top of it. A pair of soldiers knelt in front of it, propping up couch cushions that were handed to them by their comrades.

“Come on, I want those bars fortified. I want a sniper on top of that slide,” the commander said. “Get the foursquare courts secured, now!”

One child, hypnotized by the action, lets go of a bright orange foam football, which gets one good bounce on the hard surface of the basketball court them wobbles towards the main body of soldiers.

“Oh shit!” the commander yells. “Grenade!”

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November 24, 2011 | Fantasy | 1 Comment »

The Quick Brown Fox

He flicked his thumb across the phone’s screen to switch over to the weather app, but it just told him there was a network error and to please try again later.

Frowning, he glanced to the right to check the window, but they’d put tinted screens over most of them that rendered every day sort of gray and muted-looking. Still trying to get his phone to connect to the errant server, he headed for the back patio door… that one wasn’t tinted, at least.

The day was still pretty gray, but he scarcely noticed. There was a fox lying on his trampoline. How’d it get in? was his first thought. The condo yard was surrounded by a high wooden privacy fence. Could foxes jump that? He didn’t know. He hadn’t even known there were foxes anywhere near.

It was definitely there, and it was definitely a fox. He wasn’t sure if he’d recognize a coyote from a stray dog, but he knew a fox when he saw one. He’d never seen one in real life, and couldn’t recall where he’d ever seen one photographed, but the foxiness of the creature could not be denied. From the red-brown fur to the angular face to the bushy tail to the black, sock-like markings on all four of her feet, she was definitely all fox.

He hadn’t ever even realized that foxes had socks, but looking at her now, he couldn’t picture her without them.

He suddenly realized that the thing he was holding in his hands was also a camera, and that the image of a fox hanging out on his trampoline was one that would be worth preserving and sharing. Maybe if he kept watching, she—he wasn’t sure at what point it had become she in his mind, but he was nearly as sure about that as he was sure that she was a fox—would get up and start jumping around, and he could get a video of it. Either way, he was definitely getting a few pics.

He glanced down at his phone only long enough to find the camera button, but when he looked back up, he almost dropped it.

There was a woman on the trampoline, lounging on her side. She was naked, except for black knee-high socks and elbow-length gloves. Her hair was auburn, her cheeks round and full and her nose turned slightly upwards into an impish point. She was lying in the same place and nearly the same position as the fox had been, and when he’d fully processed the fact that it was the exact same place and there was no sign of another separate creature who had been laying there before, he did drop the phone.

He cursed, bent down to get it, hit his head on the patio door, cursed again, and only recovered his cameraphone and a little bit of dignity and grace in time to watch a bushy tail disappearing over the top of the back fence.

His backyard was now empty, and it seemed that foxes could indeed jump that high.

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November 21, 2011 | Fantasy | 2 Comments »

This, Too, Shall Pass

“You know, I think this SOPA thing is going to be like Y2K all over again,” she said. “Everybody makes a big hairy apocalyptic deal out of it and then nothing happens and the world goes on.”

“Nothing happened with Y2K because people made a big deal out of it,” I said. “Because it was a big deal. It took a lot of trained professionals doing a ton of hard work that no one would ever see the results of because ‘nothing happening’ was the proof that they’d done it right.”

“And yet I remember you being all ‘blah blah blah blah misinformation’ at the time.”

“Because people were talking about things like toasters and coffee makers not working because a chip in them that was keeping track of the date for some reason and they imagined their non-computerized kitchen appliances would care if it was suddenly 1900,” I said. “And easily disproved misinformation like that only makes it easier for people to ignore the actual consequences of ignoring something like the Y2K glitch… like how the crap stories about Obama vetoing SOPA or the senate voting it down are making people complacent about this.”

“Okay, yeah, but even if those news stories weren’t actually about SOPA… the senate wouldn’t throw out one bill and then pass this one,” she said. “And why wouldn’t Obama veto this one after saying he’d protect net neutrality?”

“Because this bill doesn’t have anything to do with net neutrality, according to its sponsors,” I said.

“You said it did.”

“I said it’s an end run around net neutrality and could be used to demolish it,” I said. “But to the people who are pushing this bill, it’s only about stopping pirates and boosting business, and we can’t count on a bunch of career politicians to know or care better.”

“Whatever,” she said. “What are you going to say if this whole thing blows over?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Whatever I feel like saying, I guess. That’s the nice thing about free speech, when it works.”

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November 18, 2011 | Horror | No Comments »

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