Boiling Water

“A pot of boiling water? Really?”

“Hey, don’t knock it ’til –”

“We have a horde of orcs, demons, and some unidentifiable sort of hexapeds bearing down on the keep. And you want us to start boiling pots of water.”

“Well, they’re not just pots…”

“Okay. Fine. Great, big, enormous kettles of water. Wouldn’t we be better off with oil?”

“Nah, the demons would just shrug it off.”

“But, what they’re scared of water?”

“No, not so much. It’s just that –”

“Are they afraid it’s going to ruin their manicures? Get their little toes all wrinkly?”

“Look, forget about the demons for a second.”

“Forget about the demons? They’re ten-freaking-feet tall and surrounded in an aura of despair. I don’t think any of us are going to be forgetting about the demons!”

“It’s not about the demons, okay? At least, not just about the demons. Look, we don’t have a lot of time. Can you just tell your men to get started?”

“Okay, fine. Order given. We didn’t have enough oil for those pots, anyway. Now are you going to tell me what this ridiculousness is about?”

“I’ve been trying to. You see, while we don’t have –“

“And make it quick.”

“Right. We don’t have combat mages. We do have weather mages. Really, really good ones. And a boiling kettle is just what they need to start a storm. The bigger the pot, the bigger the storm.”

“Okay, so it rains. The orcs and demons and whatchamacallits get wet. How does this help us?”

“You see Marvin over there? He’s become a pretty crack shot with lightning.”

“…well why didn’t you just lead with that?”

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Buzzing

Too much happening. Can’t get thoughts in order today. Generally good things, overall. But I don’t deal with lots at once very well. It tends to make me all buzzy and unable to focus. And I’m traveling this weekend, so I won’t have much of a chance to cool down.

It’s a funny thing. It might be part of my anxiety disorder, I guess. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad stuff happening. If there’s too much of it – boom goes the brain. At least the conscious part of it. I sometimes feel like it’s a result of my subconscious mind going into overdrive trying to process everything. I wish there was a way to assign some limits on its resource allocation. One way in which computers are superior, I guess.

As you can probably tell, I’m just rambling today. It’s a somewhat more coherent stream of consciousness than I’ve sometimes produced, but it is rambling nonetheless. Brain to buzzy for anything else. Buzz buzz buzz.

I also need to go to sleep soon and that will be an interesting venture. I have medication to help, but I very much dislike the effect it has when I’m wired. It works better as a supplement to existing drowsiness. I’ll take it anyway, though, because it’s still preferable to only getting my usual three or four hours that I manage naturally.

Woohoo! Five minutes! Off to buzz somewhere else.

Coffee Next Time

“This has… has been a lot of fun,” Kathy slurred. “Although… maybe next time, we should just get coffee?” One of her cultured curls had flung itself over an eye. She hadn’t bothered to correct it. One of her legs was also flung over mine. I hadn’t bothered to correct that.

“It’s just possible that… our jobs are a little too. Too stressful,” I said. “Or at least they have been.” I wasn’t really sure of the position or behavior of my own hair. Or my legs. Or any of my limbs, really. I was slightly aware of the analytical stare of the bartender.

“It’ll get better, right?” Kathy replied. “It has to, right? I mean… there’re people a lot dumber than me who’ve done this job. It’s gotta get easier.”

“Course,” I said. “Just look at me. I’m pretty damn stupid but a year in and I’ve got the hang of it. Sometimes people even listen to me.”

Kathy waved her wrist limply in my direction. “You’re not stupid. You got all that… on lock down. I’m surprised you put up with it. You should come do research, like me!”

I giggled. Yes, giggled. Probably first time in my life. “And how’s that working out for you? Better than midnight etching runs?”

“Well, yeah. It’ll get better, though, right?” Kathy smiled lazily and leaned in toward me, lips puckered.

I stopped and held up a hand, pulling myself upright. “Just a second,” I said. I pulled together whatever sloppy threads of thought I could. “Hold on that… that notion.”

“Oh, right,” Kathy responded, pulling herself away. She seemed to finally notice her leg and withdrew it.

“We are entirely too drunk to make rational decisions right now,” I said. “Maybe next time it… it should be coffee.”

“Yeah,” Kathy said, her eyes staring intently into mine. “I want to be stone sober for it.”

Change of Plans

It’s all up to me, they said. They knew they could count on me, they said. You’re the best we have, they said.

No pressure, they said. Right.

For some reason, when you succeed once in a big way, everybody expects you to do it again. Even if it’s just a fluke. Even if you couldn’t pull off that kind of miracle again if your life depended on it. Naturally, that just means they find a way to make sure that it does.

So there I was, on my third day in the jungle with nothing but a pack (with nothing but MREs), a satellite radio (on the fritz), and the clothes on my back. My body was one big mosquito bite and I had lost track of my only source of fresh water. All I could hope was that the rain would keep up long enough to keep me alive until I got where I was going. Assuming I could figure out where that was.

Did I mention that I wasn’t even supposed to be in a jungle? Yeah, that’s not the kind of thing that usually comes as a surprise. According to all the world maps, I was supposed to be on a mild, temperate plain. It was supposed to be a quick, half-day walk to the summit. Where, of course, I was supposed to negotiate a peace deal with whoever it was that ran this place. I mean, the island had just shown up a week ago, so we didn’t have the best intel.

Still, I’d expect them to get somewhere in the right ballpark on biome. What are satellites for, anyway?

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.

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.