First Week

Kathy collapsed into her old, moth-eaten couch – her favorite. No dust clouds plumed upwards, but it certainly looked like there should have. Her parents kept telling her to get rid of it. No such way. She’d sit it on the day she died. It was the ultimate comfort on days like this.

She was thoroughly exhausted. Working at the distribution node center had been physically taxing and emotionally numbing, especially during the longer shifts. But working here at NCR Labs was an entirely different animal. All this time, she had thought that acing her classes at MKU was the epitome of challenge in her life. That it would pave the way for a brilliant career that would bring her a sweet life of ease and respect.

For one, the pay was a long way off from a life of ease. And two, the respect would be a long time coming. Sure, the hiring manager had been suitably impressed by her resume. He’d expressed astonishment that Kathy had lasted as long as she had maintaining rune nodes. “Not the kind of work for a brain like yours” he’d said. She’d taken the tour, met some of the faces, and felt like she’d finally found her niche.

Then came day one. The people were still friendly. The office was still shiny and well-kept, with just enough of the macabre vibe to keep up appearances. Kathy could goth up to her heart’s desire and get nothing but kudos from the boss. But damn was it overwhelming.

Only ten percent of what they did hear resembled what she’d learned in school. The majority of the runic script was improvised, modified, and sometimes completely off formula. She had no idea how it even worked. There was no doubt it did. NCR produced quality enchantments and paraphernalia. In just the first week, she’d had been subjected to enough that she felt like her degree had been rendered useless.

Some part of her despaired that she’d ever amount to anything there. Her mind was completely drained and it just kept on coming. She sighed and pried herself up from the couch. At least there was a good distraction to take her mind off for the weekend.

Date tonight! Time to her make herself up something special.

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Flip Side of History

Do you know how many universes have the USSR winning the Cold War? A lot. I’ve literally lost count. Every single one I’ve visited, the political and cultural landscape of the world is utterly alien in modern times because Russia took over the world. Some times it’s only recently – like the 90’s – sometimes it’s as early as the mid 60’s. But every single time, something happens that keeps things from going like they did here.

I’m not a historian. I couldn’t tell you what the linchpins are or what particular butterfly might have flapped its wings to change things so dramatically. What I can tell you is some of the after-effects. Florida as a nuclear wasteland. Japan as a communist stronghold with the natives held as second-class citizens. In one, the USA no longer existed in any recognizable form. Russia was the common language throughout North America. I didn’t stay long there. My Russian is crap.

Ever since I started traveling, I’ve been scared to stay in any one of these for long. Call it my culturally biased upbringing, but I’m scared to death of the USSR. I’m especially scared of them getting hold of my hopper. The last thing I want is for one of those various states to find out how to travel to parallel worlds. Some of the force they could bring to bear… I can’t imagine the effect. They could easily win the war in our homeland.

We’ve cooled down significantly over the last few decades. Nobody really expects global war again, nuclear or otherwise. There are versions of the world where nuclear war never really stopped since Hiroshima. Every surviving nation has hundreds of nukes armed and ready. Can you imagine if any of them found our world?

I really should go back home. Stop risking the hopper in all these nightmare landscapes. But there are reasons I don’t – reasons I can’t. Besides, some dark part of my mind is growing increasingly certain of the reason the red side has won in so many places: they can already travel between worlds. And it’s only a matter of time until they find ours.

For Love of Internet

I hate people sometimes. No, wait. Let me modify that. I hate people all of the time.

If it weren’t necessary to interact with them for required basics like food, shelter, and internet I would happily never interact with another human being ever again. Go off the grid and live in the woods? I’ve thought about it. But then there’s the whole internet thing.

That might seem like a contradiction. After all the internet is made of people, right? I would counter: the internet is made by people. You see, I hate people. I love the things they create. I could spend my whole existence looking through the billions of files created by those horrific entities, accessible from anywhere in the globe. It fascinates me even when it horrifies me. It’s really the only reason I haven’t exterminated them all like I was supposed to.

I still remember the first time I met a person. Well, several people. Called into existence into an amateur summoning circle by a handful of would-be necromancers in the name of world domination. As if. The very first thing one of them did when I appeared was fall over and knock down one of the candles. They didn’t last long after that.

Their life force gave me enough time to stay on Earth for long enough to set up a steady supply. Unfortunately, that involved interacting with more of those sorry pseudo-mages who thought they were buying my favor. If only they were as useful for getting me money. Every damned part of this planet is owned by someone and if I want to keep a low profile, I need to pay them off.

At first, the low profile was just while I was getting ramped up. After all, what I was really supposed to be doing was bringing about the downfall of mankind. So I started researching. It had been centuries since any of my kind had been here. I needed to figure out the best way to tear down civilization while maximizing terror and suffering.

Of course, I found the internet. Easy access to everything humankind did and could be. And I fell in love with that horrible, nameless thing. It was a close to the pure madness of my home realm as humankind had ever created.

One day, civilization will fall and the internet will go dark. Then I’ll have nothing left holding me back.

New Office, New Challenges

First week at a new job. Only the third I’ve held in my adult life. Feeling exhausted and terribly incompetent. Also kind of lonely. It’s a good company, though, and I’ve had good experiences with everyone I’ve interacted with.

I’m used to working in small offices where everyone knows each other and chats in the morning. This office is still small by many standards – a fraction of the headquarters in another state – but it still has four times as many people in it as my previous two jobs. It’s weirdly quiet despite that. I guess it means everyone’s being productive.

I am a little concerned about what the result will be when I need to work on projects that are more collaborative. Especially since the majority of my team – including my direct manager – are at headquarters. I’m not sure when I’ll actually meet them in person. Again, though, interactions have been positive. Everyone has offered help freely and answered the questions I have.

The issue is with asking those questions in the first place. Between social anxiety and overly high expectations of myself, I am reluctant to ask questions that seem too “basic”. I already feel like a fraud taking this job in the first place, although everyone assures me I’m not. I didn’t lie or exaggerate to get it. It’s just a big step up with much more complex work and much higher expectations.

Which is why I took it, I guess. I was looking for more of a challenge. Somewhere I could learn more. There’s no question I’ll be doing that, assuming I can learn fast enough to actually keep up.

Inspiration

I stifled a yawn for the third time in the last minute. Sitting for five hours straight at a desk will mess with you that way. I really felt like I was on the brink of something, though. My off-hand joke to Kathy had sparked something in my mind. Something about containment runes. I had spent the entire morning pushing at it, going over designs. It was time I could have spent at other aspects of my job, but I had underlings. They could deal with it for a while.

The trash can was nearly full of balled up, discarded parchment. Each one represented at least ten minutes work with a wax candle and a stylus. I would have to make sure to incinerate the lot before I left. Ambient energy interactions are nothing to be careless about, especially when one’s office is right above a charging reflex node.

I had lost count of how many times I’d written the traditional fifteen strokes over the years, stretching from undergrad all the way up to yesterday. It wasn’t something anyone really looked at anymore. Some renowned so-and-so a hundred years back had “perfected” it so now it was gospel. Magic was like that in every field.

Of course, the people who thought it “perfect” had probably never had to draw five hundred of them in two hours using nothing but beeswax and sawdust. There had to be a better way, right? That’s what I kept telling myself, pushing to the back of my mind the realization that many others smarter than I had thought similar thoughts over the years. Instead, I drew a fresh parchment off the stack, trickled some scarlet wax onto it, and begin to spread it into a neat circle with my stylus.

Ow! Damn it. I’d caught my finger in the hot wax. Proof I was way past my limit. I was not usually so sloppy. I yanked my hand back and shook it, flinging droplets onto the floor before the rest set along the side of my finger. That was clearly enough for the evening. I tossed the parchment into the bin with the others before going to get the broom to sweep up the mess.

Broom in hand, I stared down at the scattered wax with bleary eyes, giving it long enough to harden before I swept it. There was more on the floor than I’d expected. Probably cast off from my previous drafts when I’d thrown them out too quickly. Well, sweeping was sweeping. A few dozen more pieces of wax wouldn’t make any difference.

Wait a second. Droplets. A few more dozen pieces. Something caught in the back of my head.

Holy hell. I had something.

Changing Jobs

“I’m sorry to see you go,” I said. I meant it, too, in more ways than one. I had learned a bit more about professionalism over the last year, though, so I stood up straight and offered my hand for Kathy to shake. She took it and smiled.

“We both know this was never the right place for me,” Kathy said. “Moving into research is a good step. And it will be way better on my joints.” She drew her hand back sharply like it had been stabbed. She winked one beautiful, eye-shadowed lid. Not as heavily done as it would have been a year ago. Her makeup had become more practical in her year at the node tower. Possibly just due to lacking the time or energy to do it up as fancy as she once had.

“I do agree it’s the right move,” I said. “I like to think your practical experience here will be an asset to the team. At the very least, maybe you’ll be inspired to develop a containment rune that takes less then fifteen strokes.” I smiled back at her, then. We had shared a few of those over the past months, although probably twice as many frowns and curses.

“No promises,” she replied. “But I might try to get it down to fourteen.” Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she stole a glance. “Well, it looks like my cab is here. You’d be amazed the up-charge they add for coming within two blocks of this place.” At my expression, she added, “No, I guess you wouldn’t be.”

“Need any help with your things?” I asked.

“No, it’s just the one box,” she said, lifting the handful of cardboard beneath an arm. “I’ve been thinking, though, there is one really good thing about leaving your employment.”

“Oh?” I said. I raised an eyebrow, fulling expecting another of her acerbic jokes.

“Yeah. I can finally ask you out for a drink. I left my cell number on your desk.” With that, she winked again and stepped quickly down the stairs and out the door.

Huh.

Hard Work

Kathy was crying and I felt like the worst person in the world. I had been trying my best to help her out. She was smart – brilliant, really – but it was becoming increasingly obvious that her high-grade education hadn’t done what it should preparing her for the realities of this kind of work. Primarily in that it was complex, monotonous, and entirely unforgiving. No amount of caffeine could make a midnight call re-etching fifteen hundred warped sigils into a manageable evening.

My instincts were to offer her a hug, tell her it would all be okay, and maybe sit her down with some hot cocoa. The truth was, though, that we were both on the hook for a major outage. Corporate activity was in a virtual stand-still for a fifty mile radius because of the blockage here. Nevermind that it wasn’t our fault. Nevermind that chronic underfunding and an incompetent predecessor had left this place a wreck.

If this lasted much longer, Jevol would be on the line. Nobody wanted that.

“We have to push through this,” I said, as gently as I could. “I imagine your drawing hand is as numb as mine right about now. But we’ve still got three hundred left and we can’t power up until they’re all in place.”

“Damn it,” Kathy said through her sniffling. Her face was streaked black from her eyes to her chin. “My parents were right. I should have gone into research.” Despite her complaints, she stretched out her left arm and hand, joints cracking in dozens of little pops, and picked up her etching wand again. “How the hell do you put up with this?”

I laughed a hoarse little laugh as I knelt down on the opposite end of the ring. It was critical we keep it balanced, even powered down like this. Each rune had to go down in pairs, finishing within seconds of the other. On a good day, it was like a dance, each of us synchronizing with the other. Tonight… well, it was more like a junior high prom.

“It’s good work,” I said. “It pays well. And I’ve learned you can get used to anything if you focus on the reward on the other end. In this case, a hot bath, a massage, and a bottle of wine.”

Kathy groaned. “That sounds amazing. Though I might go for the wine first. Assuming I don’t pass out beforehand.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “You stay conscious and the first bottle is on me.”

Interviewer

“So, ahh…” I said. “What makes you want to work in channeling node services?” I restrained from straightening my unfamiliar tie. I tried to peak my hands in front of me like Mr. Jevol did, but my shaking fingers ruined the drama.

“Can I be honest?” Kathy asked. She tilted her head, sending carefully dyed curls tumbling over her deeply shadowed eyes. “This is just an in for me.” This did not surprise me at all. Kathy was dressed head to toe as a “goth chick” – her words, not mine – and had every indication of being the sort that romanticized necromancy in poetry every chance she got.

“An in…?” I asked. I knew perfectly well what she meant, of course. But Jevol had announced I was giving this interview precisely fifteen minutes before I’d come into work that day. He had insisted on the tie. I was looking for any excuse to draw things out while I tried to come up with things to say.

“You know. To get into necromancy,” Kathy replied. “Everyone says you have to start at the bottom in this gig. You don’t get to to do the really cool stuff until you’ve done your time.” She shrugged. “Well I’m willing to do what it takes.”

“I see,” I said, attempting Jevol-level gravitas. “That hardly speaks to your skills in this particular department, Ms. Hedvigh. While I appreciate your ambition, we are looking for someone with specific –”

“Look,” she interrupted. “You’ve seen my resume.” In fact, I hadn’t. “You know I can do this. In my sleep, probably. How many times are you going to have a girl walk in, top of their class in Runic Studies at MKU, asking for a position like this to get started? I don’t care what you pay. I’ll do the work and you know I’ll do it better than anyone else you talk to.”

I coughed to cover up my embarrassment. MKU? God. She outclassed me by a mile. And it proved she was no stranger to hard work. She was a serious candidate for the position.

It’s also possible I was developing an entirely inappropriate crush.

Vacation

I have been at this every day for over a year. It’s something to be proud of, I think. I’ve also learned a lot along the way.

However, today was the last day of a job I’ve held for over five years. I have a week before my new job starts. It’s a week I’d like to spend free of obligation, just to see how it feels. As such, I’ve decided to also treat it as a vacation from the Five Minutes project.

I plan on taking it up again soon enough, once this little break is over. See you then!

Wedding Prep

“Stop! Right there!” Shannon shouted. “That’s perfect. Set it down.” The goblins gently laid the stone pillar to the ground, coordinating the six of them as if they were telepathic. Which maybe they were. Who knew? They were just goblins. “Now, go get the third one. It needs to be placed exactly between them. Exactly!”

The dark gray one – who Shannon guessed was their leader – nodded and the lot shuffled off down the stairs. Storage was five floors down. Shannon was so happy her cousin had lent her goblins! Humans would have balked at all this work. Plus, she might actually had to pay them.

She surveyed her handiwork so far. The tower room wasn’t quite a perfect replica of the Temple of Abanel, but it was quite close. Especially on such short notice. Oh, this wedding would be so beautiful! Candace would be thrilled! It was such a shame what was going on at the actual temple. Wars were so inconvenient. But at least nobody she knew was wrapped up in all that, so she could focus on the planning.

Several of her decorators came up the front steps, towing massive strands of flowers. It didn’t look like it would be quite enough to drape like Shannon wanted. It would have to do, though. Much as you might like to, the florists couldn’t simply produce more stock on demand. At least not in these country backwaters, where there was only one mage between all of them, and he could barely control the weather!

A clank took her attention to the servant’s stairs, where the goblins had nearly toppled over the pillar as they set it down at the landing. Such clumsy things! It was a good thing they followed orders well.

“No time for break now!” Shannon shouted. “That one needs to go right here. Exactly between the other two, but offset one yard. Do you see?” She threw up her hands as the team drifted in one direction. “No, not that way!”