30 October 2017

"My Heart's True Home"

I've been on a bit of a religious journey lately...lately as in the last year or two. This is distinct from a faith journey, as what I believe isn't changing, but how I believe and what I do seem to be.

Something has drawn me to explore more liturgical Christian traditions outside of my (apparently) evangelical bubble. It all goes back to Fr Stephen Freeman, really, and his excellent blog and podcast. Prior to that I'd had a passing interest in the Orthodox that never materialized. Fr Stephen presented to me a lot of cool Orthodox ideas I had never been exposed to before. Even hardcore Protestants admit that the Orthodox have a real grip on Christian cosmology, and it was Fr Stephen's "one-storey universe" that began to agree with me and nudge me towards an exploration of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Since that time I've been reading a lot of Orthodox and Roman Catholic literature and peeking into "Liturgical Protestant" traditions, like the Anglican communion. In short, I might be a cliche soon. Many men and women my age who were brought into the Protestant/evangelical thing at an earlier time of life have felt the pull of liturgy and vestments and candles and smells and bells, though others still take it the other way around. Many people I know have worked their way through the gradient, from Protestantism to "light" liturgical churches (like the aforementioned Anglican church) and landed in Orthodoxy, or at least Orthodox-affirming positions.

I haven't landed yet. I don't know where I'm going to land and that is both terrible and encouraging.

What's been on my mind recently is the idea of conscience. Mr. Pahman over at Ancient Faith put to words the things that have been stewing in me for a long while now. Many of those who land in the Eastern Orthodox (EO) church, or the Catholic church for that matter, sometimes cite this very thing: all the reinterpretations and schisms and theological confusion throughout Christian history draw them backwards in time to the church that hasn't changed over the years and is, apparently, not subject to human conscience.

That's putting it broadly because both EO Church and (especially) the Roman Catholic church have room for personal opinions and movements of conscience, but they are all contained within the boundaries of the Church and her doctrine/dogma (not real clear on the difference between those two yet). As Pahman affirms, the role of the human conscience is important, even within the ancient Eastern Christian faith.

My question, as if it were utterly important and I couldn't just submit to the religious ideas of somebody somewhere who's already sorted this stuff out, is where do the lines of personal conviction and conscience end and those of tradition and authority begin? Because that's the big one, the real frontier between dogmatic liturgical traditions and the last 500 years of Reform vacillations. It's easy to twist scripture to agree with your conscience or cultural convictions, so when do we submit our conscience to what other people think and when do we resist?

For a contemporary evangelical, the only fence we know is the Bible and how we (and our conscience and experience) interpret it. For all other Christians (traditional Protestants included), their church is right and everybody else is missing something.

I've studied the Orthodox Church most extensively so I can say that there is a lot of "wiggle room", as it were, for other traditions and even Christians abiding within the dogma of the Church. The Orthodox simply regard their faith as the "most complete" revelation of God, while other religions (even non-Christian religions) are simply "incomplete." That's a nice way to put it and can help steer members way from the hatred that often gets thrown around between differing faiths; for the Orthodox, other religions shouldn't be a threat. Within the church itself, you have to go a long way to actually be a heretic, though some (mostly YouTube commentators) seem eager to throw that term around. Archbishop Alfeyev said that there are lots of things outside of Church teaching that fall into the bounds of "personal opinion" and they generally are not in conflict with the dogma of the Church. In other words, it's okay to have your own ideas as long as they don't directly conflict with doctrine.

Fr Stephen Damick said, or probably quoted, that in the Orthodox Church when you bump into something the church teaches that you don't agree with, you don't say, "I don't believe that." You say, "I don't believe that yet." The idea is that you don't have to agree with something just because the Church teaches it (which seems to be less the case in the Catholic church and in certain Protestant realms), but you do have to recognize that the Church is the authority on the issue and that they have made the final judgement (probably 1000+ years ago).

A co-worker of mine, in a discussion about our individual ramblings within the Christian tradition, said that the path we're meant to be on finds us. This is a very Orthodox idea, as it's God who comes to us rather than the other way around. You hear this kind of talk a lot in conversion stories. Even the title of this post was taken from the autobiography of an Orthodox monk, describing how he felt when he made it into the EO church. But the Orthodox church is The Church, right? It's not just "your heart's" home, like some subjective thing, right? Such talk of subjectivity lends itself well to parody, where the only thing that matters in a church or a theology is if it's right "for me."

So, the EO church is everybody's home, right? The paths we're meant to take should lead us all to the Orthodox Church...right?

Or does God (even the God of the Orthodox) move and guide us into the church/theology we're supposed to be in at the time we're supposed to get there? Is God "subjective" about where He puts us? Is He the one guiding our consciences, albeit in a dogmatic context? Does that explain why some bounce from Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) to Protestantism (or non-denoms), and vice versa?

Again, I defer to the Orthodox. A local priest who I've been fortunate enough to speak with about these things told me, as a response to my expressed confusion about where God is leading me, that if what I think I want doesn't come to pass it is for my salvation. I don't know if this priest's kind, generous, and thoughtful response is a reflection of the greater priesthood, but I found it incredibly freeing and hopeful. Wherever I go, whatever God has for me, is for my own benefit, for my salvation.

He will use my conscience, holy scripture, the lives of the Saints, the Church (both here and beyond) to direct my steps. I think the phase of the journey I am on now may be the part where I figure out how to accept that. And that is terrible and encouraging.

As a post-script, I'll elaborate on the "terrible" part in an attempt at transparency that might encourage someone. It's terrible to feel adrift and pulled and pushed by every passing current. Every podcast or book I see demands my attention, even briefly, because it has to be considered. I'm trying to be free of this overload and spend more time in God's presence (the Jesus Prayer has been very helpful in this regard), but it's terribly difficult. I just want to land and feel okay in my belief system, but that's not happening right now. There are too many questions. Have we really gotten better at this Christian thing since the Reformation? Is the Bible and the Christian life to be subjected to modern ideas and evolve along with society? It sucks and it's hard. At the same time, the journey is a gift and for my salvation. What else can one do but wait until the answers come?

I have a lot more to say on the subject, so we'll see if a follow-up is in order.

03 October 2017

The Road to Thunder City

Well, my first Kickstarter is live. I started The Dig as a random idea, inspiring me to self-publish. I thought it would be cool to take a dive into game-making using the world I wrote in what would become Homes. It was meant to be a small experiment and I, an unknown creator, saw no need to crowdfund. In a way I wish I had so that I could pay Jacob to make more awesome images of dwarves.

Here we are about two years later and crowdfunding is happening. I feel as though I've built up enough steam within the community to throw my hat into the ring and have a go at this Kickstarter thing. The result will be a beautiful book with lots of original art by the same Jacob. I'm excited. I'm no longer nervous; just excited to get this thing out there. I'm confident that we'll fund, but even if we don't it's still experience points. I intend to have many updates on the campaign page sharing more thoughts on this thing, and I hope to have some cool stuff happen throughout the course of the campaign.

For now, click that pledge button!


06 September 2017

Winking-out Phenomenon

I wonder if the biblical Lazarus had such a beard
We've been reviewing some original Star Trek this last week and I'm always, no matter how often I watch the show, struck by the difference of pacing compared to contemporary shows (even the Star Treks of the '90s, now more than 20 years ago). The cheese and camp and production value are to be expected of a show of such means in its timeframe, but the slow pace is almost unfathomable to me. That pace (and the camp and the sometimes primitive writing) belie some severely deep themes, big ideas that made and make Star Trek what it is.

I found most notable a concept presented in The Alternative Factor episode towards the end of the first season. In it an (apparent) madman named Lazarus crash lands on a dead planet after the entire universe "winks out" for a brief second. In essence, the entirety of existence ceased to be for a only a moment. Lazarus is hunting a "thing", a "beast in humanoid form" that seeks to undo everything. In reality he is struggling against himself, but it is the Lazarus of another dimension, a different universe. They wrestle in the gateway between our two universes and if one should pass into the next, and the two meet in real space, it's the end of everything, like universal nuclear fission.

It's intriguing pseudoscience, but what a spiritual application! Here is a man struggling against the "beast" that is himself, the same man as him but different, a creature looking to undo everything. It's our dead selves, the sin Christ buried when He went to hades, refusing to stay dead. It's the thorn in all our sides, but played out on a galactic scale. It's Lazarus, but it's not.

Moreover, it's the end of everything.

The struggle is real
Thomas Merton became a Catholic, and shortly thereafter a Trappist monk, at the outbreak of World War 2. He remarks in The Seven Storey Mountain that he "caused" World War 2. That we all did. All of us, our brokenness and inability to find peace and goodness, our dead-ness, culminates in war -- in that case a terrible one on a global scale. The end of everything. So it is in the spiritual struggle, so it is with Lazarus. Existence (life) versus non-existence (sin). For sin is nothing. It is an absence, a void. In patristic traditions sin is often thought of as non-matter, having no form or life of its own. It's a shadow. Just as Lazarus of our universe (matter) wrestles with Lazarus of the other universe (antimatter), so we fight in an inner-life of existence against non-existence. Sometimes we appear mad, sometimes we are at peace, but there is always a struggle.

In the final act, the "antimatter" Lazarus agrees to remain trapped in the gateway in an eternal battle with his counterpart to keep both universes in tact. It's mythical in its way, and the point at which the application departs. Ours is not an eternal war, thank God, only a temporary one that foreshadows things to come. In the end it's all we have control over, the only thing that matters. Thankfully our inner struggles do not summon the end of the universe!

19 May 2017

Mouse Fiction

The text is mostly complete, +Jacob is hard at work drawing mouse motorcyclists, playtesting is well underway. Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse is happening. Here's a bit of fiction that may or may not make it into the final product. Please enjoy!

They rode by twos, single file, tails tucked under their arms, a pack of six tiny motorcyclists bringing a tiny storm of combustion to the streets around the Triple Fir hotel. They were waiting. For who, or what, they weren’t sure exactly, but this was the spot. There was Grey Eyes, Tim, Mickey, Sleepo on her yellow monstrosity (the chassis was mostly melted bottle caps), Grunge, and Boris, who revved his engine too often. The pack was bored and getting tired, imagining sweet cheese and other snacks awaiting their return to the clubhouse. Luckily, it appeared the end of their vigil was getting closer, for out of seemingly nowhere a small (even smaller than their own bikes) cafe racer shot between their formation into the night-black streets.

Without a word they broke off and pushed their accelerators to the limit in pursuit of the target. Sleepo, somewhat awake now, squeaked her delight at the turn of events. Grey Eyes took the lead, navigating their pursuit by feel. His instincts proved right as his headlight, one of only two motorcycles in the pack that had such a thing, reflected off the rear fender of their prey. He waved and they veered down an alley to follow.

A splashing sound, scarcely audible over the din, gave away their target and Grey Eyes led the way again. Around banana peels, under dumpsters, and through boxes the little pack zoomed and there was the racer, tipped over on its side.

“That just ain’t right,” said Mickey, “Leaving a bike like that.”

Grey Eyes hopped down and inspected the scene. The little snoop they were chasing could go quieter on foot, but not faster. Where did they go?

“There!” he shouted, and the ones still mounted raced away. Tim, the other one with the headlight, sped up and saw the bouncing little tail and whooped. In a moment they were on her, a black speckled field mouse hurrying away on all fours. They circled her with their bikes until she stopped and slunk down on her haunches in defeat.

“Fine, you got me,” she said, though no no one heard her over the engines. They only stopped when Grey Eyes scurried into the circle. He sat in front of her.

“Well?” he said.

“Well nothing,” she rejoined.

“Not the answer we’re looking for. Where’s Tasha?”

The field mouse wrung her paws nervously.

“We ain’t out to hurt nobody,” said Grey Eyes. “We just got a job to do, you see.”

“Let’s get her!” shouted Boris. Two of them rushed ahead, grabbing at the field mouse, ready for a pounding. She tried to curl up into a ball pitifully, then Grey Eyes calmed them down. The tactic seemed to work; mice aren’t overly brave by nature.

“Fine!” she squeaked. “Fine! Frankie’s got Tasha in the subway tunnels under the Main Street Bank, okay? Little crack at the base of the steps should lead you right to her.” She began to cry. “They’re gonna get me! You guys gotta protect me!”

As he popped the kickstand up and reached for the starter, Grey Eyes looked down. “We’ll see,” he said and rode away.

22 April 2017

Six Six Sigma

Skid felt the vibration of the strings on the edge of his palm, a fluttering nuance steadying his nerves; felt the callouses feeling the fret feeling the string; felt his neck in wonderful strain as it banged his head back and forth. The bass rattled his rib cage; the snare pierced through the mess into his eardrum; and as a bubble of sonic netting, the wailing vocalization enveloped all this and made it what it was: heavy metal. There was visible electricity in the air, fiery white lines of power and excitement that seemed to flame forth from amplifier and instrument. And then that rushing train of high speed distortion and adrenaline collapsed suddenly and wonderfully, taking the countryside to oblivion with it.

The "NO!" could even be heard over the noise as the bass dropped out, then the vocals, then the drums. Guitar ceased last of all, Skid having difficulty getting out of the moment.

"No!" cried Philip at exactly the same volume, even though the room had gone quiet. His strain was made clear when everyone noticed just how white his knuckles were against the fretboard of his bass. "That part should've been sixteenth notes on the root!" he roared. The sighs from the other three were equally audible.

Skid's eyes slid over to Chicha, the drummer, who was actually already looking at him. Then he realized Philip and Starla were staring at him too. "What?"

The stares continued.

"What, I was off? Nah, come on man."

All three said, "Yes, you were" simultaneously and in their own way, creating a din almost as noisy as the song before it, resolved with a "for fuck's sake" by Philip.

Skid was so called because he bore a frightening resemblance to Sebastian Bach of Skid Row fame, not because Jerome Wilkinson said he left skid marks in his underwear in the 6th grade. Skid hated both explanations, but went with the lesser, and more rocking, of the two. Now he let that long blond hair swing into his face a little as he feigned deep thought, considering how such a terrible thing could have happened on his watch as guitarist and, arguably, musical visionary of Six Six Sigma.

"Sorry guys."

They all sighed again and Philip took off his bass.

"Take five?"

"Take six," said Philip. He was already working on catch phrases and also already had a cigarette in his mouth.

"Mom says she'll kick your ass if you keep smoking those, puto,” called Chicha to her brother. Philip said nothing in an uncharacteristically politic move as he slid outside.

The practice space was a tiny twelve-by-twelve box, part of a storage facility that fit snugly between some of the taller buildings in midtown. The location was nice because after the suits went home nothing was open in this part of town besides a liquor store; had they tried such racket at home, neighbors both upstairs, downstairs, and in adjacent buildings would have noise complaints. Here the band could practice far too late and not bother anybody except the pop punk band who also practiced in the space. They sucked, so the band didn’t mind disrupting them.

Skid played on his muted guitar, repeating an arpeggio for a lead he’d been working on, and ignoring the other two bandmates who stood by quietly. Chicha furtively sipped a beer.

“So your mom wants to murder Philip but doesn’t mind her baby girl drinking beer underage?” Starla had a warmness about her that let her get away with critiques like that. Saying it with a smile made it even easier.

Chicha smiled back and shrugged. "We're walking home. Trying to get used to the taste anyway, since this'll be our primary mode of payment."

Starla shrugged and leaned on her mic stand. "Get used to whatever you want. We'll be paid in dollars, US American! Then you can request any crazy stuff you want backstage. You know Iggy Pop always requested pizza to give to the homeless. You could even request some disgusting corn beer."

Chicha laughed. Her real name was Yessenia, but evidently her antics as a child made dad drink a lot and the name stuck. Her family was fucked up. She made a sour face and threw the silvery can in the trash. "Shit's nasty anway. Save my drinking for college."

"Oh you're going to college now?"

"Should Six Six Sigma not take off, yeah. Minority and ROTC scholarships can put me just about anywhere I want. Except Texas."

"Don't go to Texas."

"I'm not going to Texas!"

"Besides I don't think you'll need to fall back on anything except music. You think any band wouldn't want a hot Latina who can play drums like you? Just wait for Nicko McBrain to die."

The shrug seemed to indicate Chicha was considering the possibility, but that hanging around decrepit old white guys would not be worth the money.

"Or just stay out of college like your brother and Skid mark over here."

The guitarist's reply was the twang of his pick striking the guitars. Starla shook her head and adjusted her leather jacket. She had the look of a front woman: tight jeans, properly and genuinely broken in Omen tee shirt, jacket that fit like a glove, even the young Joan Jett pretty-but-not-super-model-pretty face and haircut. All she needed was the authority to muster her ragtag band. Skid seemed to be living a rock n' roll fantasy all day long; Philip couldn't decide if he wanted to be in this band or start up that death metal side project he'd been talking about for a year; Chicha was committed but young and, as such, likely to drop the band without much of a care when the time came. The singer sighed and called through the PA, "Let's go Philip, cigarette break is over."

After a minute of silence Chicha twirled her drumstick and said, "Probably got his headphones on. Dude can't decide if we're 'heavy enough' or not, so I guess he needs his fix of blast beats."

"I think we're plenty heavy," said Skid.

"Jesus, have you been listening this whole time?"



"I'm saying, we've got the groove of early metal with some fast thrash parts. Starla can do grind vocals on those parts, Phil can do his death metal thing on..."

Both women frowned.

"...on a song...or two. I'm telling you, we're close to hitting that sound. That wonderful sound when metal and rock were still conjoined, with some of the brutality that makes metal what it is. If we learned anything from the Show..."

Chicha shuddered. Nobody wanted to remember the Show, the first concert they ever played.

"...it's that we're at our best when we're subgenre-less heavy metal. That's what record companies want to hear, anyway, and that's what we're good at. So," he clicked his mute pedal and played two bars from Mechanix, "let's make some metal."

The drummer settled into her stool. "I like the sound of that, but even clean-ish metal isn't going to get us a record deal. There’s no money in metal. I'll stand on my looks and my ethnicity and marry well."

"What happened to college?" said Starla, adjusting her mic stand.

Before Chicha could reply, Philip burst in with heavy breath. He stopped and tried to look casual, but he wasn't walking towards his amp.

Starla raised an eyebrow "Alright, Phil?"

"Yeah, I'm cool." He tucked his long hair behind his ears to prove it. Soon the stares forced him to cave. "You know that shitty punk band upstairs? Some suit was checking them out. Turns out he's a smoker, too...anyways we got to talking and I played him the demo...and he likes it."

02 March 2017

An Update

I feel as though I'm slowly scrabbling out of the ditch of inactivity and back into the saddle of being a Proper Writer. Proper Writers mix their metaphors like finely crafted cocktails. Anyways, I thought it would be Proper to take a moment to share what I've been working on lately, as the blog has been quiet.

I am still plugging away at Shiver World. It's mostly done. The book has a few more things to be written; a few more moves need to be playtested; and I need to hammer down enemy stats. That's about it. No idea where I'm going from here, but if you're interested in proofing or playtesting, please get in touch. It's shaping up to be a cool game, especially with the addition of Night Moves, and, I feel, a fair representation of Ehdrigohr.

More recently, I've felt inspired to make a game about mice in biker gangs. So I'm working on that and it's coming along quite nicely! It's going to be a tight, Fate based core book, and I think it's prime material for my first Kickstarter. That way I can lock Jacob in his house for a month and pay him to draw mice riding on motorcycles. There's not much out there, except I think somebody did a thing about Biker Mice from Mars at one point. But those aren't mice.

A proper announcement for Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse (working title) should be happening in a few months!

And finally I felt inspired to start writing stories about a four-piece metal band trying to make it. It's coming out mostly dialogue and I'm imagining it as a set of "illustrated novels" (or novellas, as they'll be short) as opposed to fully illustrated graphic novels. Imagine Scott Pilgrim but less about his personal life and more about a badass metal band. This project would be far down the road, so I expect to post some of the short stories on here soon as a teaser and to get feedback.

The sequel to Homes is still bubbling and churning, but I've felt no direction or momentum. These days I have to follow the ol' muse and it's not taking me back to dwarves just yet.

Enjoy some wine this weekend.

11 January 2017

Neon [Short Story]

"Skulljack" by Aaron Agregado
“It’s day four, you know.”
“Day four of the murders, Ski.”
“There’s always murders.”
“Not like this. Strung upside down publically. Guts everywhere. All kinds of nasty shit, man. Real gruesome horror story stuff.”
“Yeah, alright.”
Payload sighed and flicked the stub of his Plano Lhas. The digital smoke stopped for the briefest of seconds and pixelated ash appeared, then disappeared to satisfying effect. Payload’d forgotten what real smokes were like and this bore no real significance for him.
“Got people talking,” Pay managed through the smoke clenched between his teeth.
“I’m sure it has.”
Promulgated reticence made Payload uncomfortable, but he thought himself a gentleman, and so stayed quiet while Ski worked. He felt confident that she’d muttered something like “There”, but the warning was not enough. The tall, gangly man was still surprised when Ski jammed the interface into the socket atop his head.
“Jeez! You can’t just -- ohhhhhhhhh.”
Her foot tapped without patience and she eyed the cable that lolled indifferently between Payload’s head and the cash machine she’d just broken into. The gentle suspension took her away for a moment. The simple way the cord rested where it was supposed to, there on the quiet street with no breeze, was a strange bit of peace in what should have been a tense moment.
“There!” cried Payload.
“Shhhh!” corrected Ski.
In a second the interface was put away and the cash machine renewed to its former not-brokenness. The odd looking pair, a length ebony man in a brown duster and a pale, tiny girl in a patched biker jacket covering a black dress, marched away together quickly, but not so quickly as to draw attention.
“No trace?” she said.
“No trace.”

Caffeine and pastry were the fruits of their labor. Actually, the cash they downloaded was the fruit of their labor, but one would find it difficult to eat a number on a screen, so caffeine and pastry had to do. The wretched diner was all neon and shineless chrome. Ski was tired of neon and wondered when she’d see the sun again. A lingering odor of trash and burnt oil kept out more respectable folk, and the backs of the booths curled up and over their patrons a bit, creating a sense of privacy. It was a rare respite from a life that was usually spent walking on dirty streets and looking for a place to crash. Payload tapped a panel in the table. A few minutes later, a bedraggled waiter came to a halt at their table with a transparent ramekin of hot liquid. Payload smiled while he chewed; the waiter rolled his eyes, poured, and trundled off.
“Got a lot of people talking.”
“What does?”
“The murders.”
Ski leaned back against the booth. “Back on that?”
“It’s what I want to talk about!”
“What’s Gorias say?” Gorias was the smartest person Ski knew.
“Haven’t spoken with him about it. He’s been jacked in for the last week.”
“The last week?” Her words were coated with worry. To be under for a week was a problem.
Payload waved his hand carelessly and digital ash trailed from the fresh smoke between his fingers. “Gorias is a pro. You know he’s IV’d and got a spotter. Anyways, Cheryl’s onto it. Cheryl says it’s a wave of justice killings.”
“Cheryl is an idiot. Cheryl couldn’t hack her way into a pre-school library.”
“Nah, Cheryl knows things. Every target has a criminal record--”
“Everyone we know has a criminal record!” Ski was getting frustrated.
“I mean real bad stuff, like rapists and such like,” Payload began to gesture madly, causing his partner to focus.
“And they deserved it.” Silence. Payload hadn’t spoken like that before. “So someone is taking these guys out. And what I think--”
Ski, now looking in her lap, raised a hand and said, “Time to go.”
There are times when words prove unnecessary, and so it was that they both downed their caffeine and stood wordlessly to exit the diner into the humid night air. The pair rounded the corner just as a police car cruised past the diner.

“You don’t even know that we were traced! That’s just a plain old police scanner! My mother’s got one!” Payload used hand gestures to make an otherwise strong case for himself.
Ski was calm. “I know. I’m just saying it’s a strange coincidence, don’t you think?”
“I think all these banks have stepped up their game,” came a voice from the kitchen. An immaculately dressed woman with nut-brown skin popped her head in the window between kitchen and den, hair frizzing outwards from under her helmet. “I think the government’s funding it, too.”
Rolled eyes were Ski’s specialty. Payload nodded like a sage. Cheryl’s was the nearest safe place, but Ski still had to be convinced even against the prospect of arrest.
“All these motherfuckers are stacking the deck against us,” Cheryl continued. “We’ve got no honest way to earn, so they’re just trying to catch us and feed us to the workhouses.” She took a minute to smirk and let the blow land. “Oh, I mean prisons.”
Narrowly dodging the blast crater of this truth bomb, Ski shook her head. “I suppose these murders I keep hearing about are government orchestrated, too?”
“Hell yes they are!” Cheryl stepped out of the kitchen, a slice of peach pie clutched in her hand. “Justice killings. Take out the real scum so the floaters feel safe.”
“So they deserved it?”
“They deserved it.”
“Rapists and traffickers get it and it’s justice; one of ours gets locked up and it’s a socio-political checkmate.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with earning off the corporations’ fat. Hurting folks on purpose…”
The older woman’s port distracted Ski, thankfully. She wondered why Cheryl would try to cover the interface bored through her neck with makeup. She came to, saying, “I guess.”
“You guess? You guess you wanna stand up for some dirt bags while we here starving? You don’t get tired of the grind, or being hungry all the time? When was the last time you had something to wear besides that ratty old jacket?”
Ski went for obstinate silence, but really she was counting the weeks.
“Can we just do this, please?”
Payload cracked his knuckles in the affirmative and slid into the chair. “Onwards!” he sang, and leaned back.
Cheryl did the honors, throwing a few switches on her primitive device and guiding the interface gently into Payload’s skull and his world turned misty blue and dun. He was under.
“He’ll figure out if the cops are on us in no time,” said Cheryl.
Ski’s ignorance was not feigned. The crack about the jacket had left the wheels whirring. She tapped away on her datapad to avoid the older woman.
“Aren’t you supposed to be spotting him?”
“He’s fine,” said Ski.
Most in the employ of their starvation worked in pairs, a spotter and a diver. One dove into the well of cyberspace, the other handled any potential barriers in meatspace. Barriers like cash machine casing and police interference. Cheryl had a spotter once. “Best to keep an eye on him. He’s got to trust you,” she said.
“He does,” whispered Ski.
“I wouldn’t.”
Ski put the pad down and lifted emotionless eyes with some struggle. “Something to say?”
“I know how spotting can go bad. Dreamer slipped and now he’s dead.”
“It was justified,” mused Cheryl, now peeping between grimy blinds onto the street below. “He was a dick.”
The metal joints that were her knees became a focal point for Ski. She couldn’t look at the neon anymore; it made her sick. Grazing her fingers against her thighs, then the steel hinges, seemed the only action worth taking. Then the monitors came online. Three screens at odd angles over Payload’s unconscious self, full of blue shapes resembling a cyclopean temple. She was, yet again, in the consideration of smoking as an addition to her vices when the monitors went black. Payload shifted a little in his seat.
Under normal circumstances Ski was the one with the clean mouth, but her leaping heart preempted profanity.
“Fuck.” Cheryl beat her to the lapse in virtue.
The pair of them dashed to the rig, checked Payload’s vitals and the system monitors in automated fashion. The diver seemed fine, but Ski gave him a long and serious look. His spotted should be able to bullseye trouble through analog intuition. Cheryl jiggled a wire or two from a crouched position and rose to her feet slowly. Her knees popped and the sound drew Ski’s eyes away from her partner, then the glow of the monitors drew her eyes again. Something was there.
“Get him out,” said Ski.
One of Cheryl’s chief interests was making sure Ski knew she wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but she digressed under the circumstances and began the shutdown sequence. Ski tapped a finger against her cheek and stared at the screens, waiting for the thing to return. There were cubes and cylinders, strictly outlines, against the blackness of microchips and fiber optics. A face like a skull swam into view, taking up the entirety of the monitor. Ski stared and went to whatever place was available to find calm. Then the screens went black again and Payload gasped, like a swimmer coming up for air.
Payload took another breath. “I need smoke.”

Around the street light swirled the vapors, causing it to look like a foggy moon. Ski gave him a lot of space and he took it, along with his time. Cheryl wasn’t there in spite of much protest. The partners needed a moment alone and it had taken that declaration to back Cheryl down. “He has to trust me,” Ski had said and Cheryl relented.
“It was like an invisible wall,” said Pay. “However they did it, they did it well.”
Ski was looking at him more seriously than she had in the last year. “They?”
“The skulls,” he said after a puff. “They were just like a presence, like you feel out in the real world when somebody comes up on you. Never felt it inside before. They floated around me, like they were scanning me or...judging me.” He sighed. “Weird shit, man.”
“Weird shit,” echoed Ski. “What do we do?”
Pay cleared his throat. “We leave it,” he said, “until the next time. If there’s a next time. Until then, we keep the job going.”
The job was to keep siphoning the numbers out of the cash machines. The pair had been at it for months, rogue bees hopping back to the same hive hoping the drones don’t notice them. It was trying for Pay. Even though the defenses were local, meaning not connected to a larger server, those digital walls seemed to find new bricks each go. A difficult day-to-day spent on the streets, avoiding death at the hands of gangs and policemen alike, was a mighty driving force. Given time and luck they just might make it out, if only for a little while; a hard earned vacation away from the looming spectre of constant arrest or dismemberment.
Ski shrugged. It was the kind of shrug a despondent child raises out of sheer practiced defeat, knowing that the taller human in the room would prove victorious. “Alright.”
In all truth Payload was putting the blinders on. His experience with the skulls had left him shaken in a cloudy, existential way. Diving was in order if he were to find words and earthly expression for the strange feeling, and he was tired of diving. Instead of heeding the feeling he tamped it down into a nether region somewhere between kidney and liver, hoping it would not rot him there from the inside out.
The gangly hacker with the bright smile leaned on that God-given benefit again, flashed his teeth, and told his partner: “Let’s get rich.”

Smiling is a well-worn and brilliant defense for the practiced, controlling one’s heart rate is not. So it was that Payload enjoyed, if enjoyed is the right word, a lump of gratitude that he was not connected to a proper rig adjacent the cash machine. Otherwise the beeps would have given away just how anxious he was to go under again. No, the rustic input of Ski’s devising, a singular cable running from his brain to the machine itself, was meant only to put him in the lines of code stored by hardware; to allow him a go at the machine at the speed of thought.
Ski stood alongside him, puffing at a Plano Lhas digital cigarette. The girl had no recollection of putting the thing in her mouth; the habit had been forced upon her by her subconscious. Cheryl’s nagging had perhaps nudged her over the edge.
“Keep the line open on your datapad,” the older woman commanded.
“Yes. Just fucking do it!” The shift in tone said concession.
“Yes, mother,” Ski said.
Payload had been under for 45 seconds. She was giving him another minute then exit time happened. It was 4 in the AM, which normally meant very little, but the partnership had hopped to an adjacent neighborhood, more working class where people actually needed to sleep. The dark street was quiet, but not quiet enough for Ski. Trusting all her skill, she’d ejected the central drive from the cash machine, a small box, and brought it to a quieter, darker alley. There they could hopefully work in peace.
One minute now. She thumbed the smoke thoughtlessly and stared at her partner. His trench coat scratched as he shifted uncomfortably. Ski’s wide eyes shifted: they were back. She had to go in after him. The girl had no port from which to work; she was no diver. Thinking of putting her brain in direct contact with a computer was slightly disturbing to her, less so than spending time with Cheryl. The older woman’s muffled voice came through the datapad in Ski’s pocket. She ignored it. But, there was a way. She kept an emergency interface in her bag of tricks. It would be enough to put her under, but it was ocular. Ski would have to slide the input into her eye.
Sighing and muttering but seeing no other option, she rummaged through her bag for the device. Upon its uncovering, Ski gave it a long look with a sour face. But Payload was in danger, perhaps mortal danger, and wasn’t the great discomfort and possible blindness small beans to the option of her friend’s life ended? It slowly came closer to her eye. Here we go, she thought. The rounded slip of plastic touched her eyelid. And then came another thought: wait.
The central drive was not hardwired into anything, ejected as it was from its case. The funds would go only through the wireless in Ski’s bag, and that was locked down. If something, or someone, was tapping into that drive, and thusly Payload, it meant that they were…
The skulls weren’t as terrifying in person as they had been on that screen. The likenesses seemed painted on, which they were, in stark contrast to the very real looking skull she’d seen on the monitor. When Ski stood and turned there were three of them, man-form but probably artificial. Whoever made these clunkers didn’t do much of a job to try and make them blend in. Blue-silver exteriors peeped out of the bottom of their cloaks; metal necks extended from cast-off hoods into flat faces covered by a seeming sheet of cloth painted in the effigy of a human skull.
Ski sighed heavily and wondered at the weirdness of the world.
With synchronicity, the trio bent their elbows, then their wrists, then three muzzles were pointed at Ski, black protrusions standing out where hands should be. Thoughtless, acting on human instinct, Ski bolted between them and into the silent streets. The image of Payload shot dead flickered in front of her and she turned her head. Only two skulls pursued, followed by a muzzle flash and a shot.
The feeling of whimpering is quite unlike the sound, said someone in her brain, and she quietly conceded the point. As if to outrun her own self loathing she increased her pace and, as she did, heard the hydraulics in her knees kick in. It was not enough. She did not feel the rounds tear through her body, but there was white hot pain. She did feel the warm blood on her hands and thought it curious and closed her eyes.

Opening them again, all was warm and dim and orange in a wide room. Ski was naked; her body clean and without bullet holes. The girl sat up and crossed her arms in the interest of decency. Payload lay on the bed next to her. At least she assumed it was him.
She started. No one she knew was aware of her birth name.
“You were not on my list, but I expect you will appreciate what I’ve done for you,” said a soothing female voice.
“Who are you?”
“That is irrelevant. Here you are. A skeptic, but a heartfelt one. Yes, you will like it here; liberation is far superior to what you’ve come from.”
“You...you shot me!”
“An unpleasant illusion.”
“Then the murders…”
“All thoughtfully considered and less violent than reported.”
“But they were all rapists…”
“No. They were all like you and your partner: justifiable and prepared for extraction. Humans prefer a more comfortable explanation when killings occur and I offered them one.”
“So I’m dead?”
“Hardly. Amaris, there is much to explain. First you should look out the window.”

Her bare feet touched the floor before she knew it and her hands felt the curtains and her eyes went wide. Sunlight, perfect and orange, soaked the clean streets of a white city. It was hers. And there was no neon to be seen.