Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Early morning, unformatted tales.

David: sir
tell me
the winding way
nick: But I am asleep!
(so tired)
There was a dude.
Walking his dog.
As dudes sometimes do.
David: ...
nick: But the dude walked into a happenstance!
David: um
nick: Five dudes, all beatin' each-other up with sticks.
(Like, quarterstaffs.)
(Big long sticks.)
Dude went, !
What the heck!
So he said, "Dudes, what the heck!"
This was a mistake.
They beat him up, too!
Left him on the ground, unconscious!
And when he woke up - his dog was gone!
They'd taken his dog!
This was also a mistake.
So the dude went and trained.
He became an expert martial artist!
Also, he learned how to use guns.
And bought one.
So, that'd probably be more useful.
Then he went out and hunted for the dudes!
Turns out they were members of ancient religious sects - each of which despised the others.
For religious reasons.
And one of them'd taken his dog!
So he scoured their bases, smashing aside minions and masters, alike, crying out: "Where Have You Taken Ol' Wetnose?"
And at last he found the dude who'd taken his dog - the Grand Master of both the sects, engineering their rivalry for his own nefarious purposes.
The dog was lean and scarred, ill-treated in the time since it had been taken.
But it still recognized the dude!
It whined plaintively at his approach - but, chained in place, it was unable to meet him.
The Grand Master stood before the dude.
"If you want your dog back," the Grand Master said, "You will have to fight me!"
So the dude looked at the Grand Master, and he looked at the dog, and he looked at the Grand Master again.
The Grand Master looked pretty mean.
A nasty individual.
The dude wasn't sure if he could handle him, in a fight.
And if he couldn't - well! His dog!
So the dude shot the Grand Master.
Like that!
And the Grand Master yelped - a very undignified sort of yelp - and fell over and bled all over the place and, presumably, died.
The dude didn't stay to watch.
He just unlocked his dog and took him home.
That's the winding way!

(Shooting a guy just to get your dog back.)
(For reference.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Of Dubious Inspiration

In a land ruled by Light, there arose a spirit of the earth.

Of shape it was manlike; of spirit it was gentle; of form it was comely. And it looked about itself, at the flora and fauna and the earth and the sky, and cried out with a mighty voice, "It is good!"

 And into the depths of the earth this cry shuddered; and creatures of shadow wriggled and writhed, hissing, "Our savior, our salvation! Here at last!" And legion in number they swarmed towards the surface -

 - but their time was not yet.

 Into the forest the cry echoed, and one mortal ear alone heard it; that of a woodcutter, unaccustomed to the sound of other voices there in the deep wilderness. And the woodcutter ventured forth, and quickly came upon the spirit: and with her eyes marveled: "A beautiful face!" she thought. "A flawless form! A jewel of a creature, such as might fetch a thousand shekels at the market!"

 And in her goggling she was caught out, and the spirit turned, and covered itself in its nakedness; but it was not fearful, not of the woodcutter's rough appearance, not of her sharp ax. Indeed, the spirit looked the woodcutter up and down, once, twice, and said simply: "You are good!"

 "Aw, shucks," the woodcutter said. "You really think so?"

 "There is not the slightest doubt in my mind!" the spirit replied.

 "Charming," the woodcutter drawled. "Here, could you turn around for a sec? I want to test something."

 One of the spirit's eyebrows raised; but it obligingly turned about.

The woodcutter stepped closer to the spirit, smiled, and delivered a blow with the back of her ax that would have felled an ox.

 The spirit, being rather less durable than an ox, naturally fell comatose; and the woodcutter, still smiling, hefted its motionless body and walked away.

 Time passed.

 Then the clearing where the spirit first appeared began to darken; strange shapes flickered in and out of vision, writhing with an unnatural rhythm. "It was here!" they hissed, frustrated. "We heard its cry, even in the bowels of the earth, our prison, our sole shelter! But it is gone!"

 "It is our thought that certain of our number should have been less tardy in their locomotion," a voice hissed scornfully.

 Then came the cry from one - "Blood! Blood on the earth!"

 And another - "Footsteps! Our savior has been abducted!"

 And en masse they faded into the surface of the earth, following the trail - carefully, carefully, avoiding ever the terrible gaze of the Light -

 - but their time was not yet.

 To the herb-city of Mesnc the woodcutter took her captive, bound and gagged in the cart which normally the woodcutter used to transport her timber; for the wounded innoncence of the earth-spirit, once it had awakened, was too much for the woodcutter's uneasy conscience to bear.

So muffled she transported it through the Scented Gates of Mesnc, and into the High Market. In those days slaves were sold there, and such the earth-spirit became. It was branded and chained and auctioned and sold; two thousand shekels were bid, for its beauty and grace (even wounded by the searing touch of the iron, and of trust betrayed); and of this the woodcutter received two-thirds.

 Now rich beyond her dreams, perhaps her part in the tale would have ended there -

 - but - she lingered.

 The shadows lurking outside Mesnc - its confines too bright for most of them to dare - greeted the return of their bravest companions. "It has been sold to an aristocrat of the highest standing!" one hissed. "A nobleman of Pern; two days from the city by carriage!" another reported. "An ambush in the thickest forest - " another suggested -

 - but their time was not yet.

 The Light looked down, ever-jealous of the earth it illuminated; and, staring down with beating heat upon the High Market, it spied the earth-spirit. A sortie was organized; a beam of light shone down, just as the Duke of Pern crossed the Tottering Bridge, and soldiers of the Light spilled forth from it.

 This caused the Duke some natural alarm; but his own bodyguard seemed reluctant to act, and so he was obliged by circumstance to do little more than frown as an Arbiter of the Light's Intent detailed his intent to make away with the Duke's very expensive new acquisition.

 The soldiers of Light clustered around the Duke's carriage, summarily evicted him, and together with them the spirit of the earth was carried into the sky - towards that burning orb that ever sought to see all the places of the world -

 - and of its opinion in the matter?

 None was asked.

 The details of this event were lost on the shadows, but the overall effect was not. "Our savior is lost to us!' they wailed. "Taken by those it was meant to overthrow! We are lost! We are undone!"

 The woodcutter, meanwhile, having concealed herself on the underside of the Duke's carriage, found herself in a surprisingly precarious position. Soaring ever higher above the surface of the earth, she looked down, gulped - once - and tightened her grip.

 The earth-spirit then saw the stronghold of the Light for the first time. It was thus: a great orb of crystal and mirrored glass, designed to reflect light only where it was directed, and leave only darkness elsewhere. Within this was another such orb; and within that, another; and so forth, seven times over. And in the very heart of that was that which was the harnessed Sun; but its unfiltered light was never seen these days by any but the servants of the Light, and its name went unspoken and unremembered.

 The soldiers of the light took the spirit of the earth through the many corridors and passages of that place - hallways lined with glass, so that they might have appeared to not be there at all - and to the throne room, within the seventh shell, nearly in direct sight of the Light's Heart. And the ruler of that place, who named himself Justice, considered the spirit of the earth, and spoke with his Arbiter.

 "You have done well, my servant!" the so-called Justice said. "This is the spirit of the earth that was meant to bring darkness down upon the world; to shatter our rule and destroy all that we have created. But now it is within our power - to dispose of as we will!"

 "Let us do so, my Lord!" the Arbiter suggested. "It is a danger, even here, chained and guarded; there is no reason to delay. Bring oblivion to it, and put an end to the charade!"

 The earth-spirit shivered. The woodcutter, standing nearby in the ill-fitting armor of an inattentive Soldier of Light, hefted her spear.

 But Justice shook his head. "Your ambition is too little. If we kill it, another will just arise. Think of the possiblities!"

 "Do you suggest imprisoning it, then?" the Arbiter suggested. "I counsel against - if it escapes here, in the heart of all our works - we would have delivered it to our doom!"

 "Your ambition underreaches!" Justice boomed, frustrated. "Though - I suppose I might be grateful for that. Think again."

 The light dawned on the Arbiter's face. "You don't mean - to turn it?" the Arbiter asked. "To make it our tool - to scourge the darkness from the earth, once and for all?"

 "Think of the poetry of it!" Justice cried, delighted. "Begin, at once!"

 The Arbiter considered an objection; looked at Justice's face; decided against. Silently, he shoved the spirit of the earth forward, pushing it in the direction of the ritual room. The woodcutter, along with the rest of the Arbiter's guard, shuffled into motion, surrounding the spirit of earth -

 - and the battered and dejected earth-spirit, still unknowing of the reason for its captivity and abuse, turned slightly - and saw the woodcutter's face. Its eyes widened. Its mouth opened.

 "You!" it said.

 The detachment turned to look at the woodcutter.

 The woodcutter looked over her shoulder one way. She looked over her shoulder the other way. She shrugged.

 "Intruder!" the Arbiter cried, alarmed. "Infiltrator! Saboteur! Surface-dweller!"

 The woodcutter tried to throw up her hands. But one of them was occupied by holding a spear! So she smashed that into the floor instead.

 The glass creaked. And cracked. And shattered.

 Then everyone fell into the sun!

 It was a really fragile kind of fortress, but that's what you get when you build things out of glass.

 The woodcutter, cautiously, unshuttered one eye. She saw a field of endless white. This was not especially interesting, but neither did it seem to be causing permanent eye damage, so she decided to take a risk and open the other eye too.

 She turned around.

 The spirit of the earth was right behind her!

 Also, she seemed to have turned into the sun.

(If you are unsure of how the woodcutter recognized the spirit: you know how sometimes someone's changed their haircut, and their style of clothes, and maybe lost a few hundred pounds of weight - but you still know it's them, somehow? It was like that.)

 "My first thought was to scourge the Earth," the spirit-of-earth/Sun said in a businesslike manner. "For their many sins towards each-other - for their sins towards me - for taking a newborn, beating it, enslaving it, and trying to mindwash it - they deserved only death. And I found myself, coincidentally, in a position to deliver it. So: why delay?"

 The woodcutter gulped. "That's a bit strong," she said. "I mean, you really only saw the worst of us. We're normally not that bad - "

 "Then I reconsidered," the spirit-of-earth continued. "I decided: To kill everyone might be too strong. I would send an emissary to the earth, and seek out one thousand righteous men or women. If I could find that many - I might stay my wrath. Less, and I would spare only the righteous. (Numbers of five-hundred, one-hundred, or a mere ten were also considered.)"

 "...and that's where I come in?" the woodcutter asked.

 "Not exactly," the spirit replied. "Not as my emissary, anyway. Just as an answer. I considered my very short time on the earth, and in all of it, you were the only one I couldn't understand. After you sold me - why did you follow me to the Fortress of Light? Why didn't you abandon me? What more did you want?"

 The woodcutter, looking around at the infinite plane of white, became momentarily distracted.

 "I'm dead, aren't I?" she asked.

 "You fell into the sun," the spirit replied.

 "I figured," the woodcutter sighed.

 She gave a long shrug.

 "I felt guilty," she said. "You liked me. You didn't deserve what I did to you. So I thought - maybe, somehow, I could make amends - "

 She shrugged again.

 "Probably wouldn't have done it if I knew I'd end up falling into the sun," she admitted. "But sometimes that's how life goes."

 The spirit was silent for a long time.

 "I'm not ready to release your people from judgement," it said. "Not yet. But - I'll spend a while thinking about it, I think. Give it some time. No rush, after all."

 "And in the meantime?" the woodcutter asked.

 "I'll hide my face from the world, and let there come what may."

 And -

 - now it was the time for the shadows to shine!

"Shine isn't exactly the right word," one of the shadows observed as it rushed forward to swallow the earth in darkness, "but I'm not complaining."

 The end!

You seriously do not want to know what this was inspired by. It was much less interesting, anyway. Just gave me a good plot seed.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

REPOST: "A Tale of Three Men"

(Original posts begin here; they're slightly vandalized.)

This is a tale of three men. Each suffered tremendous adversity; each overcame it, in their own way, and found their own success. Each would, by their life’s end, shape the future of multitudes.

Jeremy Desmond was born to privilege. He was raised by the finest of nurses according to the best practices known at the time of his childhood, and he lived in sumptuous surroundings, ever nearby gold or diamond or natural wood. His parents lived the high life, traveling and managing their financial empire by day, partying by night.

But just before Jeremy’s ninth birthday, everything he had known collapsed. An audit, pursued with unusual vigor, found that the Desmond had been engaged in a number of extremely shady dealings. In the course of the ensuing investigations, it was discovered that nearly all of their wealth came from such: a vast mafia nick-named the “League of Desmond”, specializing in the traffic and manufacture of all matter of dangerous and prohibited goods. Jeremy’s parents were jailed; Jeremy himself went to an orphanage. There were rumours that the entire affair had been conducted, or at least assisted, by a rival mafia eager to overthrow their rivals.

If so, that might explain the attack on Jeremy that occurred seven months after his ninth birthday, even as he arrived at the orphanage. Gunmen destroyed the van Jeremy was traveling in; the driver was killed, and several passers-by were critically wounded. Jeremy quick-wittedly splashed his driver’s blood over his own body, tricking his assailants, who fled in fear of police response. Jeremy himself swiftly followed, not hoping to encounter the gunmen again, but realizing that the orphanage would be the most dangerous place he could be.

Jeremy found a new life for himself on the streets; learning the time-honored arts of the pick-pocket, the lockpick, the hack. In well-planned out challenge, he killed a juvenile gang leader and took her place as the gang’s leader; gaining as followers many children older than himself. By the time he turned ten, he had over fifty gang-members over his direct orders, and had several square city blocks paying him protection money.

A plan to assassinate another gang leader, though, backfired soon after. One of the leaders of the international crime syndicate, the Yakuza, had visited the area investigating the possibility of taking over criminal activity in the city. Jeremy’s troops ambushed their target while he was meeting with the Yakuza, and killed everyone in the room before they realized their mistake. Jeremy fled to the outer territories, in fear for his life. Behind him, his organization collapsed into the same chaos in which he had found it.

Once again, Jeremy was without allies or resources, at the age of ten-and-a-half; stranded on a barren plain with no way off except a closely-watched port. In a search for security, he found himself virtually imprisoned. Thankfully, he found help: a young revolutionary, named Kendrick Ojalfsson. Kendrick had been himself exiled from his native world after leading a (nearly successful) coup against the ruling council, along with a dozen of his most loyal supporters. Kendrick gave Jeremy training in surviving the local conditions and the support of a dozen fanatical, if untrained, warriors. In return, Jeremy provided weapons training, advice from his own (short) career of running an underground organization, and a promise of supplies once he had gotten on his feet again. Jeremy was eleven years old, having lived nine years in wealth and two years in poverty. He had one goal, the same as he had possessed for the last twenty-three months: to reclaim his birthright.

Commerce was closely watched on the prison-territory; Jeremy took months of hard labor and failed effort to find the black market that he knew existed. He attempted to enter it subtly, trading a few cigarettes and food rations, and was promptly the target of sabotage. He barely escaped death by exposure, Kendrick having noticed the subtle damage to Jeremy’s seal.

This cautionary lesson in mind, Jeremy abandoned his attempts at subtlety and interrogated a series of minions, Kendrick’s troops behind him, until he found the leaders of the local organized crime ring. He then started a firefight which left two of Kendrick’s troops and a half-dozen others dead, Jeremy scarred all along his right side from a grazing hit, and roughly a fifth of the habitat opened to the brutal, lethal environment. This proved another lesson for Jeremy.

A day after the spectacular damage to the complex, the local authorities came after Jeremy and Kendrick’s blood. Jeremy planned a precise operation to turn their threat into a boon: a simultaneous ambush on the forces searching for Jeremy, who was currently holed up in the wreckage left by the battle, and takeover of the administrative complex for the entire habitat. The attacks were carried out by Kendrick’s troops, the survivors of his original twelve as well as a number of local recruits. Success gave them control over the entire territory, their exile-turned-possession.

Jeremy headed back to his homeland, with a set of suitcases filled with cash looted from the administration and a duffel bag full of weapons. He left Kendrick with control of the moon and a promise to open a weapons-trading route as soon as possible. On the day he set foot again on the soil of his homeland, Jeremy Desmond was twelve, personally responsible for the death of over a dozen men and women, scarred all along the right of his body and in possession of a small fortune.

To avoid the yakuza vengeance that Jeremy had originally fled in fear of, he went under a code-name: Bearweasel. Learning from his battles in exile, he moved cautiously but without fear of violence. Within a year, he had control over every illegal activity within a square mile of the port at which he’d landed and had opened a weapons route to Kendrick. Within two, he had control over illegal activity across the entire city and most of the police force to boot. By the time it was legal for him to drive, he had created a mafia with power nearly anywhere in his nation that was feared even further.

The yakuza still remained to be dealt with; for all of his power, “Black Bear” (as he had attained infamy as) still feared the people who had a blood price on his head. Not only did they want his death for killing one of their own, but – he suspected – they were the ones who had toppled his parents’ organization in the first place and tried to kill him in front of the orphanage, seven years ago. Jeremy Desmond could not claim success until he had finally avenged his parents, who (he had learned on arriving home, five years ago) had died mysteriously in prison.

The yakuza, for all of Jeremy’s hard won power, were still a threat. Their organization was levels deep, the prowess of their assassins legendary. They were the last real threat left to Jeremy. But in the end, they came to him. A high-ranking yakuza came to Jeremy (not knowing his true identity), inviting his organization to a partnership. With little effort, Jeremy managed to arrange a meeting with the greatest of the yakuza, their leader; who, after all, believed that “Black Bear” had no reason to betray him.

With his death, Jeremy’s revenge was complete. At the age of eighteen, he was rich, experienced, and powerful: the most powerful man on the planet.


William A. Zhang was a very clever man. In his childhood, he was thought slow, and progressed poorly through kindergarten and elementary school; but at the age of 13, he bloomed intellectually. He flashed through high school, college, university. He graduated with a doctorate in biomedical engineering at the age of 25, and was recognized by all who knew him as a rising star in his field.

William’s focus was on nanotechnology, a young but increasingly popular field. Growing curious, he investigated the plausibility of creating autonomously self-replicating nanites – nanites that could replicate themselves with available materials, and would do so within internally-defined bounds. Existing nanites fell into several categories: non-replicating nanites, which were created by other nanites at manufacturing centres and were only useful for disposable devices. Externally-regulated nanites, which would reproduce only while receiving an external signal – useful for tightly controlled laboratory or hospital environments, but too vulnerable to disruption to be used elsewhere. Unregulated nanites, which were a weapon of mass destruction – unless swiftly eradicated, they would turn any mass, pebble or planet, into a gray goo of nanites. Autonomously self-replicating nanites – ASRNs – were considered not only difficult to design, but a potential world-threatening hazard, as any error might allow unregulated reproduction. William, however, discovered that a relatively simple protocol could be developed to create safe ASRNs. The applications for ASRNs, as he knew, were phenomenal – having the potential to virtually redefine humanity.

When he tried to get his paper published, he was invited to a very strange interview with the editor of one of the more prominent scientific journals he had applied to – the editor alternately threatening and pleading with William not to investigate the matter further. After the interview, William found himself virtually erased. The scientific publications and institutions did not return his calls, and – quite by accident – William discovered that no record of his existence was present anywhere in the public sphere. He had vanished.

Worried, he nonetheless continued his research – his personal motto was “Science must march on!” Personally contacting friends and colleagues, he scrounged up funding for a small laboratory and equipment, and worked with a handful of assistants on the creation of ASRNs. After months of work and trials, he successfully created ASRNs and injected them into lab rats. The entire laboratory staff took a day off for celebrations. William wandered home half-drunk and giddy with success.

He woke up in a white, featureless room, stark naked. Over an interminable interval, voices spoke to him, demanding his name, birthdate, loyalty, names of friends and co-conspirators. Water occasionally trickled down from a hole in the ceiling – no food was provided. William requested legal recourse, claimed his rights. This was ignored.

After some unknown interval, the torture ended. William was, under heavy guard, set on designing unregulated nanites with various specifications: nanites that would spread only in certain materials, that would activate after a certain interval or a signal. Though it was not outright stated, it was clear that the nanites were intended for use against the rebels of the outer provinces. Alongside him worked other scientists – clearly coerced as well – but their contact was closely supervised. Guards and cameras were everywhere.

For several weeks, William cooperated. He designed the nanites that were asked of him, inserting as well a ‘back door’ that would shut the nanites off if they detected a certain, complex signal. He worked on an escape plan, but progress was slow until a mistake – or sabotage – unrelated to William’s efforts activated the nanotech weapons. Amidst widespread panic, with pockets of nanites popping up throughout the facility and being vaporized by heavy weaponry, William seized the opportunity to escape. Emerging, he found himself a short distance from the nation’s capitol.

William knew that he might be pursued – fearing surveillance devices, he abandoned his clothes and rinsed himself thoroughly at the nearest water source. Seeking protection, he found a contact with the criminal underground (having first acquired new clothes). The underground had gained increasing power and notoriety over the last seven years, especially after their brutal and widely-publicized decapitation of the yakuza a year before. The government seemed unable to touch them, either due to incompetence or corruption. William was loathe to associate with them, but he feared his captors more. His offer of providing some of what he’d learned in his captivity for protection was accepted, and he was smuggled out of the country to a secure location.

He continued his work on the ASRNs, reproducing his earlier work in a quarter the time. Working with a slowly growing group of colleagues (either rescued from captivity or recruited from academia), the ASRNs capability progressed apace. One team worked on improving the longevity and stability of the nanites; others worked on creating programs to let the nanites improve the user’s strength and vision. One marked success was a ‘bullet-proofing’ nanite – upon the entry of any high-speed object into the user’s skin, the nanites would swiftly use the projectile’s kinetic energy and mass to reproduce themselves, effectively stopping any bullet or other projectile. The only adverse affect would be minor surface damage, though this would still be crippling if the eyes were hit.

With this discovery, William was ready to go public. After animal testing, he introduced the bulletproofing nanites into his own body – a decision he encouraged his colleagues to follow. More importantly, he finally went public with his discoveries: he broadcast a formal paper, instructions on recreating the nanites, and video demonstrations, all put out on every channel and medium available. His mafia allies deserted him in disgust, saying that he had voided their agreement.

His gambit succeeded. Forced to acknowledge his existence, the government praised him to the skies as an example of their nation’s character and brilliance. They offered him federal funding and support – so long, he was confidentially warned, as he did not mention his captivity. William Zhang accepted happily. He had gotten everything that he wanted. In the end, science must march on. What does it matter what government it does so under?


Kendrick Kessler was born in one of the endless slums of the outer colonies. His father was a construction worker, who had married upwards. His wife was homeworld-born, emigrated outwards for reasons she never discussed. Her birth gave her a social advantage that she never failed to exploit. The two of them were never particularly warm to Kendrick, at least by his toddler years. They gave him every gram of attention required, but rarely more.

As such, it was only natural for Kendrick to begin wandering. His parents cautioned him when they caught him, but nonetheless he continued exploring the dangerous environs he lived in. As he grew older, he began to understand what he saw: a people continually oppressed, kept in poverty through the exploitation of corporations and governments alike. He lived in the midst of oppression, and hated it. .

Naturally, Kendrick attempted to contact radical groups – in his early teens – to work for change. He was shocked by their reaction; they rejected him immediately, with the explanation that his father was a known spy. Returning home, Kendrick confronted his father: furious at the reaction, Kendrick ran away, fleeing to another continent. There he joined an anarchist group; though they likely would not have recognized his father in any case, he entered under an assumed name: Ojalfsson.

Kendrick ‘Ojalfsson’ spent his teens as an anarchist; running messages and smuggling weapons, manufacturing firebombs and spraying revolutionary slogans. By his eighteenth birthday, the rebels were nearly ready to act. Two weeks after Kendrick turned eighteen, they planned to launch all-out insurrection: and were betrayed, ambushed at every turn. Communications collapsed, most of the rebel cells collapsed at once. Kendrick, assigned to the rebel leader’s cell, took control after his death and gathered over two dozen committed rebels with him in a fortified warehouse. By the time government troops took control of the building, Kendrick’s rebels had killed over sixty regulars and three power-armoured elites, at the cost of half their force.

For his crimes, Kendrick was sentenced to offworld exile, on a penal moon. Sent alongside his loyal dozen, he was condemned to hard labour for the rest of his life. (He quipped to his followers, on the transit outward, that this was not too far different from what they might have expected if they had not rebelled.) There he worked with his comrades for a year, moving cargo and extracting ores. He recruited other inhabitants of the prison surreptitiously, but could do little more until a boy named Jeremy Desmond arrived.

Jeremy had been exiled as well; he fled his world, the homeworld, fearing for his life. Once he arrived on the penal moon, though, he offered Kendrick’s rebels a hope they’d lacked. Kendrick helped him establish himself in the black market, destroying a large chunk of the lunar habitat (with guns Jeremy had provided) in a firefight. Jeremy gave them a plan to take control of the prison moon and a promise to ship more arms once he had reestablished himself on the homeworld; a promise that he fulfilled a year later.

Kendrick now had his own free moon: his troops now numbered in the hundreds, many with criminal backgrounds, armed with light weapons and a gigantic mass driver fixed to the moon’s surface. Ostensibly, the moon was to be ruled by a democratically-elected council; in practice, for the duration of the crisis, Kendrick had direct and ultimate power. Moving swiftly, Kendrick threatened a nearby orbital station with the mass driver; taking it without violence. Another, on the other side of the colony-world the penal moon orbited, was effectively beyond the mass driver’s reach. Determined to liberate it, Kendrick launched a direct assault with spacecraft he had taken from his conquest of the moon and the nearby station. A cleverly-timed decompression on the part of the station’s security force killed half of the rebels; a third of the remainder died in the fighting. Despite the horrific losses, the attack was deemed a success. The rebel ranks continued to swell, infuriated by the corruption, oppression and injustice that permeated all of the colonies under homeworld rule.

Even as the assault on the far station commenced, homeworld forces finally took action against Kendrick’s rebellion: a trio of transports, carrying over two hundred marines and a dozen power-armour elites, swooped in to attack the moon habitat. The fighting was close and bloody; the rebels were able to hold their own against the marines, but the elites carved a swathe through the rebel forces wherever they went. Only with the weapons supplied by the homeworld underground were rebels able to stop the elites, and those were all too scarce. Large sections of the habitat were lost and exposed to vacuum; rebels and marines alike fell by the score. Kendrick himself was in the thick of the fighting, ever encouraging his followers onward. No less than five elites attacked him in the course of the battle; Kendrick personally dispatched two of them. In the process, he lost both legs to a monofilament blade, though he continued to fight until his followers forcibly dragged him back to a field medic.

 The homeworld assault was turned back, but the moon habitat was in ruins, and immense numbers of rebels lay dead. After the simultaneous ‘victory’ on the far station, it would be months until Kendrick acted again. In the meanwhile, revolutionaries were seeded throughout the system: the two colony worlds, their surrounding satellites (natural and artificial), and even the homeworld itself were infiltrated by rebel propagandists. For every spy discovered by the homeworld government, five more acted unnoticed; on homeworld perhaps aided by the grace of the criminal underground, whose corrupted officials showed a curious lack of enthusiasm investigating spies. By the time the rebels were ready to strike again, every colony in the system was ripe for full-blown insurrection.

Most of the satellites fell to Kendrick – one by one, with far fewer losses than the victory on the far station, the rebels having learned from their mistakes. Homeworld sat by, seemingly content to watch its empire fall. Feeling ready at last, Kendrick launched his most daring attack: on his own birth-world, the colony orbited by the penal moon. Rebels on the ground seized the spaceport, and endless waves of rebel troops and arms floated down from orbit. The capitol fell within five days. Mob justice ran rampant through the streets; suspected government spies were executed en masse, without benefit of trial. Kendrick heard, later, that his own parents were killed in the riots. He felt no grief.

The penal moon, despite the rebels’ victory on the outer colony, remained Kendrick’s headquarters. That is why the homeworld targeted it for their conventional attack, and then their unconventional attack: a delivery of unregulated nanites to random points across the moon’s surface. Once the threat was realized, a mass evacuation began. All the rebel leaders escaped, but large quantities of materiel were left on the moon as it was transformed into a sphere of homogenous nanogoo. It was an unfortunate coincidence that at this time, when the supplies provided by the homeworld underground were most needed, their delivery was temporarily suspended due to a tightening of homeworld security. Kendrick, furious and suspecting betrayal, swore off Jeremy’s organization, severing all ties with it and purging his own ranks of former members. It was an act that did nearly as much damage to the burgeoning rebellion as the nanotech attack had.

Kendrick knew that he could not risk another nanotech attack; the weapon could render any of his installations sitting targets. He ordered his spies on homeworld to find and destroy the nanotech production facility. With remarkable haste, and despite the loss of criminal cooperation, they managed to do so: releasing nanotech from the production line into the facility, at the cost of their own lives when security arrived. In the chaos, as the homeworld military’s own weapon turned against them, most of the facility was destroyed, and many of the scientists involved in development escaped. The rebels deemed it a success.

By the time Kendrick turned twenty-nine, all of the system but homeworld lay under his control. Both planets and all of their associated stations, moons, and general debris had fallen willingly into rebel control; though generally not without resistance from homeworld loyalists. Still the homeworld claimed eventual victory and recreation of their old empire. Kendrick took the only step that would assure peace. He invaded homeworld itself: launching an assault from orbit onto the surface of the homeworld. Hundreds of thousands of troops, alongside two thousand armoured elites, fell onto the remote wilderness Kendrick chose for his target. Millions of homeworld regulars opposed him. It was the bloodiest battle of the war by a large margin; historians would analyze the tactics and strategy of the Eleven Day Battle for decades to come. By the end, despite horrific losses on both sides, it was clear that the rebels held their beachhead, and could have pushed all the way to the homeworld capitol if they wished.

Homeworld at last sued for peace; accepting the loss of their outworld possessions, and even paying limited reparations to the newly-formed Free Coalition. Kendrick, still temporary leader of the outer government (as he had been for the last ten years), promised in his first official address to hold free elections within a year. Peace had come at last; Kendrick Ojalffson’s lifelong dream had been fulfilled. And at the age of thirty, he ruled an empire.


“At times it will seem that nothing changes at all… and then again the sudden dramatic events which make history leap into the future. Guns, murder, revolution. And I even will have moments when I wonder if the quiet was not better than all that death and hatred. But I will look about my village at the illiteracy and disease and ignorance and I will not wonder long.”

Four years after the Colony War, Kendrik Ojalfsson still ruled over the Free Coalition. Elections had been postponed twice successively; Kendrick’s government promised that they would be held by the end of the following year, but analysts remained skeptical. Kendrick himself ruled absolutely: intent on leading his nation his way, destroying the threat posed by the Homeworld-first agitators and other traitors. Government-sponsored polls found his popularity ever soaring, propelled by his status as a revolutionary hero and wise leadership in office: or, at least, that was what was opined on the government-owned media.

Jeremy Desmond himself still ruled his vast criminal organization, his new League of Desmond. He lived in high style, known publicly as one of the richest men on the homeworld (though the reasons for his wealth were not quite openly admitted), donating fortunes to charities with one hand and extorting politicians with the other. High on power, he set out to expand his mafia into the colonies: knowing that the minor local gangs could hardly oppose him, and relying on his old friendship with Kendrick to deter official retaliation. Events did not favor him. Kendrick, upon discovering League members actively recruiting in Free Coalition space, cracked down brutally, ordering new security measures internally and externally. With secret police on overdrive, he issued an ultimatum to the homeworld government: give Jeremy Desmond up, or be subject to systematic orbital bombardment.

The homeworld government was unlikely to comply with the demand. Jeremy’s tendrils of corruption and bribery had entirely subsumed the government’s ostensible purpose and loyalty, giving him inordinate influence with the highest politicians in every sector of the government. (It should be noted that he put this influence to some good end; the secret police, previously omnipresent throughout homeworld society, were nearly abolished. They competed with Jeremy’s own operatives, after all.) They refused Kendrick’s ultimatum, in unusually strong language, in a declaration that began the Second Colony War.

The war was bloody, brutal, and inconclusive. After the First Colony War, both the homeworld and the Free Coalition had invested in the creation of a space navy, a thing which had never been necessary before. The Second Colony war was their first chance to test their newly-invented strategies in tactics, which proved to be as flawed and ineffective as one might effect. Both sides fought to intercept incoming attacks upon their civilian centres: the Free Coalition fought to protect their stations and planets from nanotech clusters, and the Homeworld Defense Force fought to prevent their cities from being turned into radioactive rubble. When they succeeded, they generally lost hundreds of men and precious ships to a foe who had, merely having to protect their genocidal payload, suffered lesser losses. When they failed, tens of millions died.  The battles were legion and famed: the Defense of Bombay, the Loss over Aurora III, the Great Fireworks Display, the Twelve Days; that last being the largest and fiercest combat of the war, with over fifty vessels on each side skirmishing in an attempt to gain a decisive edge.

But even in the bloodiest and most polarized climate, there were those who defied both corrupt states.

Over the last four years, William A. Zhang had continued his research into nanotechnology with government funding and a growing number of colleagues. His daring insertion of nanites into his own body paved a way, as more and more advanced nanites were created and inserted. Most of Zhang’s colleagues – now followers – had also infected themselves with nanites, giving them immunity to bullets, superhuman strength and vision, and limited reconstruction ability – able to regrow lost hands or feet over a period of several weeks. Rumors were that William had even stranger and more potent nanites operating inside his body.

Zhang’s stated intent was to transcend humanity – to enhance himself, through nanotechnological implants or other means, beyond every human limit. His followers agreed. And when the government became increasingly shy of Zhang’s goals and methods and cut off funding, Zhang began to simply seize necessary materials, by force if necessary.

As the Second Homeworld War raged on, entering its seventh month, a relatively minor asteroid slipped through the Homeworld Defence Force perimeter and impacted near the homeworld capitol. Over eight million people died in the ensuing shockwave and radioactive burst. News reported noted that among them was Jeremy Desmond, in the capitol on unspecified ‘business.’ The asteroid struck while he was eating dinner with several major politicians; the restaurant collapsed atop them. Rescuers found only bodies too mutilated to be identified.

His main nemesis was gone, but Kendrick continued the war against the crumbling HDF. The League of Desmond had persisted, even with its leader dead, and Kendrick now stated that the goal of the war was (and always had been) to unify all of the start-system under a single government. In a speech broadcast across the system, he repeated these aims, and further clarified his hopes for this pan-system government: freedom, prosperity, and peace would all follow from such centralized control. It would be a new dawn for humanity, free of the bickering and warfare that had always plagued it. The justice that had been denied his insurrectionist comrades would finally be granted to everyone.

To further this aim, Kendrick sent an open appeal to Zhang’s posthumanists. He demanded that they assist in the control of the homeworld, either by seizing a spaceport for the Free Coalition troops to land at, or by seizing the capitol itself and offering a surrender to the Free Coalition. If they did not, or if they violated strict regulations on nanotechnology research or use, they would be destroyed by any means necessary. “No democratic society can exist,” Kendrick justified, “when certain elements of the populace have the technological ability to dominate and coerce the vast majority of that society. No light can shine if giants stand in the way.”

These terms were unacceptable to the Posthumanists. Twenty-three of them commandeered a commercial flight to a military control base, overpowered the two-hundred guards in a matter of minutes, and launched a specially prepared missile at Kendrick’s birthworld. Free Coalition vessels were completely unable to stop it; ships that approached were consumed by a nanite cloud and turned into a shell for the missile. The missile itself was able to dodge every attack, using nanites alternately to shield itself from attacks and as projectiles to assimilate attackers. It arrived at its target on schedule and promptly proceeded to turn the planet into undifferentiated goo. Five hundred million people died, reduced a pool of nanites. The casualties exceeded the entirety of all other deaths in the war by a factor of two, and shocked the Free Coalition.

Zhang and his followers never felt the need to publicly justify the attack. After all, “Science must march on.”

As Kendrick watched the genocide from orbit, a small craft stealthily docked with his orbital station. The onboard communications array was disabled before security noticed an intrusion; then the infiltrators moved to attack Kendrick himself. It was a battle between the most skilled and best armed combatants of the war, with both the infiltrators and Kendrick’s bodyguard power-armoured and armed with heavy weapons. The battle was close-fought, with elites falling left and right and gigantic sections of hull blasted out of existence. For a moment, it appeared as though the attack would be successfully resisted: then the last infiltrator jumped the last of Kendrick’s bodyguards and killed them from behind. Only two men were left standing: Kendrick Ojalfsson himself, and the last infiltrator, Jeremy Desmond.

The two power-armoured figures hunted one another through the ruined station, a lethal game of cat and mouse. Kendrick’s voice spoke on radio channels at frequent intervals: threatening that Free Coalition ships would soon arrive, denouncing the attack, Jeremy’s “betrayal”, the war itself. Finally, the two faced each other, Kendrick breathing heavily. He shouted, “Justice!”, and charged, gun blazing. Jeremy sidestepped and gunned Kendrick Ojalfsson down.

The Second Colony War was over at last. Without its charismatic leader, the Free Coalition collapsed into an anarchic heap of local governments, stations and asteroid feuding over jurisdiction and territory. The homeworld was in scarcely better shape: most of the government was gone, and the League of Desmond had abruptly split in a bloody coup, Jeremy’s chosen successor and an ambitious subordinate battling in the streets. William Zhang, who could have helped to rebuild, refused. His posthumanists traveled with him to the remains of Kendrick’s birthworld, which they manipulated from orbit into becoming a ship of vast size. On it they traveled out of the system, to visit the stars.

Only Jeremy Desmond was left of the three great men: the youngest of them, only twenty-three years old. He had lost everything that he owned twice before, and now he had again: even his life. Without a strong hand to guide it, the system would devolve into chaos, little governments achieving little things, tyrannies and democracies arising in unfortunate disproportion. The wreckage of the Colony Wars would remain for generations. Perhaps, compared to the excesses of the great governments of the recent past, that would be an improvement. But Jeremy Desmond saw no reason that it should be.

“And perhaps… perhaps I will be a great man… or perhaps I shall live to be a very old man, respected and esteemed in my new nation… And perhaps I shall hold office and this is what I’m trying to tell you: Perhaps the things I believe now for my country will be wrong and outmoded, and I will not understand and do terrible things to have things my way or merely to keep my power. Don’t you see that there will be young men and women to step out of the shadows some evening and slit my then useless throat? And that such a thing as my own death will be an advance? They who might kill me even… replenish all I was.” (A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry)


The main thing that makes this story grate on me, re-reading it now, is that I felt the need to somehow cram it into the "League of Desmond" theme. It was a blag for my group of high-school friends; but I wanted to write fiction. So, I named all of the main characters after my friends (more or less) and did whatever I wanted otherwise.


 Also, I felt the need to quote from books I was reading in English at the time, didn't quite understand the idea of "writing dialogue" (why would you write about talking when you could be describing gory battle scenes?), and felt the need to split the series into eight parts, on the principle that 500 words was too long for a blog-post. But - it still reads decently, and I'm amused at the little genre-switching trick I used - disguising the offworld exile in the first section (Jeremy Desmond/Devin's part) as some Siberia-alike. Haha, it's actually sci-fi, you guys! Tricked you!

 It is worse than my current stuff - thankfully, I'd be pretty unhappy if I'd not improved in three years - but not unreadable. (In contrast to most of the stuff I wrote around that period. Makes me want to poke my eyes out with a stick.)

Anyway, 5600 words of unedited past-me. There you are! Now you know. Heh.

 (I'd edit or rewrite, but that would take creative effort, and if I'm going to expend creative effort, I'd prefer to spend it on writing a new story, rather than rewriting old things. So you may consider this a 'bonus.')

Friday, February 12, 2010

(She Had) The Body of an Angel

Daniel Zhao carried her body in his arms, his heart and head both heavy.

His apartment-mate looked up, startled, as he entered the room with his grisly burden. His eyes instantly filled with pity and commiseration. "How did she die?" he asked Mr. Zhao.

 Mr. Zhao looked up. His eyes flashed.

 "I killed her," he snarled.

 His room-mate backed away slowly, watching in paralzyed fascination as Mr. Zhao changed. His head widened, his teeth lengthened; his posture changed, becoming hunched, stooped. A black smoke arose all about him, smelling like a thousand cigarettes, all smoked at once. A red glow of rage and hunger began to manifest as Mr. Zhao moved forward...

"No!" his apartment-mate cried, looking about himself, desperate for anything like a weapon. "Stop! We're friends, remember? Right? You'll have to pay my share of the rent if you kill me!" he attempted, changing tacts.

 Mr. Zhao appeared undeterred by the thought. (Not surprising; his family is quite comfortable, you know.) But then - the body in his hands stirred!

 "Huh?" it - or, rather, she - asked groggily. "This doesn't look like a party. Where have you taken me, strange man whose name I do not know? Was there something in my drink? You put something in my drink!"

 She seemed quite off-put by the thought - but not so much as Mr. Zhao was by her awakening. He looked from side to side, suddenly frantic - his dread auras evaporated like morning mist. He seemed poised between choices - then his apartment-mate advanced, brandishing the sign of the cross, and he dropped the woman's body and fled.

 How rude!

 She might've been hurt in the fall!

but what can you expect from a Mr. Zhao

(this post written by commission)

(Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead is of course purely coincidental. I mean, even if the real 'Daniel Zhao' was a werewolf, he wouldn't be driven off by the sign of the cross. That's vampires!)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Events May Have Been Embellished

The doors slam open. A silver-haired youth staggers in, his school blazer torn and bloodied. He stares forward for a long moment; then his eyes roll up in his head, and he collapses to the floor.

 Three others stand in the lobby: two girls and a very confused-looking boy. All wear school uniforms of the same make, though the boy augments this with a pair of large headphones, presumably not school issue. As the injured youth collapses, the girls both rush forward; one, the younger, to cradle the boy in her arms; the other, older and with a harder look to her features, to shut the doors. The darkness outside is unbroken by artificial light.

 "Akihiko!" the younger woman exclaims, holding the boy's head in her arms. She contemplates giving mouth-to-mouth; but the need passes. Akihiko opens his eyes again, weakly. His lips shape words.

 "It's coming," he says. "A big one. Bigger than any of them we've seen before. I got caught on the way back - "

 The older girl leans over, putting a finger to Akihiko's lips. "I'll guard the foyer," she said to the others. "Yukari, take the new boy to the roof. If all else fails - "

 "All right," Yukari said, her voice trembling. "I can do it. Here - to the stairs - "

 As the two retreated, heading towards the stairs in the rear of the dormitory (richly outfitted still from its former life as a hotel), the older girl drew a weapon from her side. She slipped the finger into the trigger, faced the door, tensed herself - and put the muzzle to her head.

 And watched the door, hearing the darkness murmur outside.

 And waited.

 Yukari and the 'new boy' raced up the stairs, panting for breath. "I'll protect you," Yukari promised between gasps. "If they want to get to you, they'll have to go through me first - "

 Yukari was trembling like a leaf. The new boy did not appear noticably reassured.

 They passed the fourth floor and continued on, charging into the emergency exit. For a moment it refused to budge, but the boy threw his weight into it and sent it crashing open. The two emerged onto the roof, and stand there a moment, panting, peering uneasily at the full moon above, glowing a sickly shade of green...

 Then something appears at the edge of the roof.

 "Oh, God!" Yukari cries out. "It's here! Stand back - I - I - " Her hands shake like leaves. As the thing grows more visible, pulling itself bit by bit over the edge of the building, she reaches to her waist, to a weapon like the one the older girl bore. She grasps, pulls it up, puts it to the side of her head - her hand shaking violently -

 And tosses it, clumsily, onto the ground midway between herself and the edge of the roof. Between her and the monster.

 "No!" she cries out, aghast. "No, no, no, no!" She collapses into a heap on the ground.

 The boy, sensing that something is wrong, looks at the weapon. He looks at the monster, now nearly over the side. He looks at Yukari.

 He makes a dash for the weapon!

 (Then he dashes back again.)

 The monster is fully on the roof now. It crawls towards the boy, hissing faintly. The boy thinks this is probably a bad thing. He looks at the weapon, considering; then he decides to follow Yukari's lead (oddly enough) and puts it to his head. He pulls the trigger!

 Glass shatters! Light flares! Orchestral music crests!

 "Thou art I, and I am thou!," a reverberating voice proclaims. "From the tall grass of thy soul, I come forth! I am - "

 "Metapod, master of hardening!"

 The characteristic green-shaped crescent of a Metapod appears between monster and boy. There's loads of special effects. It would be a lot more impressive if it wasn't a big lumpy coccoon, really.

 The boy looks at the Metapod. The boy looks at the monster. The monster hisses at him.

 Better hope that thing learned Poison Sting before it evolved, boy!


 (The boy is still pretty confused. He's missed pretty much all of the dialogue, owing to wearing an enormous pair of headphones at all times. But it's okay! I'm sure he's not missed anything important!)


 ((elsewhere, Ash Ketchum has just caught his first Incubus))


More Pokemon fanfiction! This one's a request, from the inimitable Chrono Master: Once and Future King of all the FEABLers! (Further story requests are welcomed. Put 'em in the comments!)

 The scene on which this is based is this one, though I only found the video after I wrote the post. (Wow, that's terrible video quality - vintage 2007 YouTube, ha!) Consider all inaccuracies to be either (1) for the purpose of heightening narrative tension & dramatic effect, (2) to be kind of a jerk to Yukari, or (3) because it's been over half a year since I played this bit.

 All of the above applies especially to the Metapod.

 (So Akhiko's Persona is obviously a Machoke, later evolving into a Machamp. And Yukari's is a Rattata, equally obviously. But what about Mitsuri?


 you cannot deny the Jigglypuff)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tragedy of the Witchcraftsmen

Julia and Robert leaned together, safely hidden in the shadow of a towering iron golem. Robert leaned close to Julia, his lips pressed to her ear as he whispered.

"I have learned something terrible, my darling," Robert said. "It's about the War."

 "The War?" Julia asked. "Between our two races - the witchcraftsmen and the witchcraftsmen, cursed to be forever divided by the curse of generations-long hatred? The war that makes out love one that dares not speak its name? That War?"

 "Yes, Julia," Robert said. "That was an excellent job providing exposition. But there's something more. Something much worse."

 "What, Robert?" Julia asked urgently. "What?"

 "You know that your people, the witchcraftsmen, are witches who are also craftsmen," Robert said. "And my people, the witchcraftsmen, are craftsmen who make witches."

 "Of course," Julia said. "It's the primary division between our two races."

 "Then this is the truth," Robert said: "Something I only learned earlier today. The witchcraftsmen make the witchcraftsmen."

 "What?" Julia gasped. Robert hushed her, looking nervously out between the legs of the iron golem; Julia quieted. "But that makes no sense! Why would you make us, only to war with us?"

 "But that's exactly why!" Robert said. "We make you for crafting experience - and then we kill you for combat experience! This war is no war at all - only a hollow shell concealing a generations-old atrocity!"

 "We have to stop this thing, Robert!" Julia said. "We must! We can stop it - with our love!"

 But she'd been too loud. A witchcraftsman, walking nearby, had heard!

 "No! Stop!" Robert cried out desperately.

 Pew! Zzt! +500 XP! Robert's share of the XP sent him up a level!

 "Nice, dude!" the other witchcraftsman said. "'Gratz!"

 And who wouldn't be happy with that?

Old Friends Long Forgot

I was very greatly surprised to meet those two on the road: a man and a woman, seemingly young, with one's hair colored azure and the other's violet. Their reputation was known to me, as notorious malcontents and villains; seeing them in the flesh, still seemingly as young as in their photographs from years ago, I deduced (in a flash of intuition) them to be oni, evil spirits, and leapt back in alarm.

 "Stand back!" I cried. "My guardians wait ready at my side. I come prepared for trouble - "

 But they only laughed, much to my mortification, and walked forward. "There's a good coffee place nearby," the man said. "Let's talk there," the woman suggested.

 The coffee was quite strong; I took mine dark. "What do you want with me?" I asked them. (The man was stirring in cube after cube of sugar into his coffee; the woman seemed content to nurse a glass of ice water.) "If you're trying to get me involved in one of your schemes - " I touched my hand to my belt.

 But again the woman laughed, a deep, full-throated chortle. "If only, if only!" she said. "We haven't had a good scheme in years. If you know anyone - but no. That's too much to ask, on first acquaintance. I won't repeat the question."

 I felt increasingly out-of-place; but I hadn't finished my coffee, and I had the distinct impression that they were paying. "I'm not complaining," I said perhaps somewhat untruthfully, "but I seem to have missed the question entirely. And I'm more than a little confused. You say you haven't been plotting anything for years - but why? I'd heard you were opposed, rivaled - did they defeat you? - "

 "Entirely the opposite," the man said, his voice distracted. His coffee was, I supposed, more sugar than water at this point. "They left."

 "They... left?" I parroted, bewildered.

 "They travelled to the Golden Lands of the West, which we know not," the woman explained. "And so we had no reason left to scheme."

 Feeling a headache growing, I motioned the waitress over with a hand, drained the remainder of my cup with one long swallow, and ordered another. I looked up.

 "Why don't you start from the beginning?" I suggested.

 "In the beginning, there was nothing," the man intoned solemnly. "Then the Svayambhu entered into being, and caused there to be a seed - "

 "Not that beginning," the woman chided gently, reaching out to give him a gentle slap on the arm. Sugar cubes spilled onto the table. "Our beginning."

 The man seemed confused. "Conception?" he asked. "The womb? The second would be pretty boring, I think, and the first is probably a poor story to tell in a public space - "

 "No, fool!" the woman said. "The beginning of the team!"

 "Oh," the man said. "Isn't that the same as the first story? But I suppose if you only want me to focus on immediate causes, I can skip ahead a little:

 "Once, many years ago, there was a great disturbance in the world. The trees thrashed to and fro as though caught in a great wind; the dwellings of men trembled, as they so often do. Even the tall mountains in which the sages make their homes shook with the magnitude of the event; and so one of them, who had committed himself less firmly to the severing of all ties between spirit and flesh, rose and looked down upon the land.

 "'What is this thing?' he asked. 'What sources this great trembling, that reaches even to the root of the world?'

 "'A Wheel-Turning King has arisen!' the land told him, crying out in joyous ecstasy. 'A Wheel-Turning Dharma-Defying King, to make an end to this cycle of the world! Rejoice, rejoice!

 "But this sage was skeptical. Turning to a swallow resting on a nearby branch, he told it, 'Go forth, and summon your friends to do likewise. Find this 'Wheel-Turning King', and make evaluation of his character. Then return to me.'

 "And it was so; in one day's time, the swallows returned, and swirled around the sage in great numbers. They cried out, 'This boy is no Wheel-Turning King! He is feckle-careless-naive-ignorant-careless-immature - ' these words and a hundred others piling together as the swallows complained. And the sage listened to all of this, and considered.

 "'He is certainly a Wheel-Turning King,' the sage concluded, 'but at present, not a very good one. I will train him.' So the sage descended from the mountain, and the power of this choice brought forth two spirits from the earth, to help him. The sage named the first spirit James, and the second Jessie - "

 "That's us, if you'd lost track," the woman said.

 (And as well that she did - I had lost track, by this time.)

 "Together we found him, this young 'Wheel-Turning King'," the blue-haired man - James - continued. "And together, by our sage-master's will, we conspired to torment him."

 "Hold on just one second," I said, frowning. My cup was empty again. I ordered another. "So your sage finds about some guy, this messianic figure, whatever. And you torture him? What the hell?"

 "Torture is too strong a word," James demurred. He took a sip of his coffee, frowned, stuck out his tongue in a moe of disgust. Jessie took over the explanation.

 "Strength is a product of adversity," she explained. "You gain physical strength by contending with physical opposition - struggling with weights to lift them into the air, struggling with pedals to push a bike up a hill. As with the body, so with the soul: we served as the weights upon the boy's soul."

 "And you complain about my phrasing?" James asked.

 This accounting of events was very different from those I had heard. "But weren't you - y'know, a bit evil?" I asked. "Lying, stealing, blowing things up..."

 "Our evil was a cartoon evil," Jesse said. "Fake. No-one ever really suffered any harm from our actions; we did what we did only to challenge the boy and his friends - to force them to change, to adapt. In the end, our greatest hope was that they would grow beyond our plots, and see us for what we really were."

 I rubbed my forehead. "Here, I'll sum it up for you," James volunteered kindly. "In the end, all of our plots and schemes and subtle machinations were intended towards one purpose. To push young Ash, the Wheel-Turning King, to do one thing: