Sunday, April 3, 2011

Moar Mechanix Plz

What sort of gadgets can I make?

You can gadget all you want, but lightning and electricity behave differently in the real world so I may alter gadgets that involve that effect. You should also try a couple gadgets based on wacky shit that doesnt exist IRL. Things like Invisible Color Radiometers and AEther Flux Rifles and the fearsome Psionic Conundrum Gun. I dont have any idea what any of those do, but that's the kinda thing average folk dont even blink at when they see it in a store window.

Remember that arcane magic is generally looked down upon. Even if a wizard cooks a bad guy with a fireball, most folk will assume he had a Finnigan's Fine Flame-Gun tucked up his sleeve.

Are there any changes to everyman skills?

I think I'll be removing Drive as an everyman skill and replacing it with Craft: Mechanics. Everyone lives in a giant floating fortress with lifts and trains and moving sidewalks. Not many wheeled vehicles around as in ages past.
Common folk dont pilot aircraft or walk around on the ground. You know how most people never (or rarely) go further than 50 miles from their house in their whole life? Most folk in this world never leave their giant floating city-state.

What is the occupation of most folk? I can see a subset being members of the service industry. Some I am sure are manual labor. How much non-city state industry is there?

Most technologies are mechanics-driven, but to earn a decent living most people specialize. A good analogy is the IT industry; the desktop support guy is significantly different than the firewall/security guy, but both have Science: Computers to some extent. So Average Joe might have Craft: Mechanics specializing in Slidewalk Maintenance and Average Jane might have Craft: Mechanics specializing in Lifts.

Farming is a huge industry with more status than in the real world. Cheap, mass-produced food is mostly hydroponics while higher-end stuff is produced from old fashioned farms on the top levels of any city. As you would expect, the higher up you live, the higher your wealth and status. Angus McMoneybags might own a large farm and have a palatial estate nearby, but most of his workers take a lift from 50 or 60 levels downcity to get there.

Each city-state has it's own ecosystem that can run indefinitely. Of course, everybody has something they do better than someone else so there's still lots of trade, even between nations that may have been at war last month. Now that I think about it, a likely occupation for a starting character may be Smuggler. During wartime, rich folk in the NuNu (New NewYork) or Detroit will still pay top dollar for cigars smuggled in from Nawlins or Atlanta.

Industry outside city-states is mostly mining (metals, coal, and V-gas) and scavenging. Both are dangerous business, because they involve staying on the ground for long periods of time.
Vision Gas/V-gas mines are essentially a giant umbrella/filter built over a dead city. Once they are built, it takes a company of bodyguards/maintenance workers to keep them running. Dead cities give off V-gas that is used to make TVs work. It floats upward where they catch it in the filter and siphon it off. Dead cities are full of strange, horrible, and wonderful things that may just take your head off if you're not careful. Someone would have to be running the right kind of character to make more information about dead cities "public."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Game Mechanics!

Are Sky Madness and Sky Blindness real or just flavor? What kind of game effect does it produce? Is it something similar to the Sickly flaw? Something worse?

Normal people (with normal eyes) exposed to unfiltered sunlight over long periods of time will start to experience headaches and irrational behavior. Continued exposure leads to insanity and eventually blindness. The onset of symptoms depends on the intensity and length of exposure per day. A shipwreck victim stranded in the Arizona desert may go mad in as little as 2 days and blind by the third day. A survivor in the rainy and heavily-forested Seattle wilderness may not manifest symptoms for weeks.
A person may recover their sight, if rescued in time. Common perception, however, is that nobody ever fully recovers their sanity.

Exposure is instantly noticeable and slightly painful. Different people experience different symptoms, but it is never pleasant. Any character without eye protection suffers a -2 penalty on any sight-based skill or action.

Characters that are blind for any reason are immune to these effects. Some wizards, priests, or mutants may also be immune. Immunity to sky blindness/madness may be bought as a talent.

Are Doctor Gotraynes' Glare-X Goggles common items? Can they be purchased with money? Should they be equipment rather than a Rank 0 or Rank 1 gadget?

Goggles that prevent sky madness are common equipment, available in several levels of protection. Most offer standard protection, and most people will never need anything better. Cheap knock-off (or broken) goggles will offer inferior protection with various side effects. Heavy duty goggles (that someone exploring the Arizona desert would need) are available at a much higher price. Goggles in general are such a ubiquitous accessory that even folks that rarely ever venture into open air will own at least one pair. Rich folk will have a pair for every occasion.
Goggles that let you see into the 8th Dimension or have some kind of binocular ability would be a gadget.

No electrical equipment works anymore or just some things like TVs and computers? I believe that radios were mentioned. Are aircraft currently completely mechanical?

Electricity as a power source is a nonviable option.
The TV mentioned in the Brass Nail runs on V-Gas. A V-Gas TV set is essentially just a box with V-Gas and a dialer in it. The gas reproduces the sound and images recorded with a V-Cam, and can be broadcast city-wide on a V-net.
The Flying Monkey and the Toreador (most aircraft, for that matter) fly by a combination of a Repellium panel on the fuselage, perpetual motion drive, and old-fashioned wind-up gears. Many civilian or sport-craft lack a PM drive and use wind-up turnprops or even sails. Aircraft that dont use Repellium for upward propulsion are very rare.
Radios work via sonovert resonance technology. In game terms they are identical to a standard radio. They are more likely to get interference from noise between the transmitter and receiver, but they are unaffected by storms or other atmospheric activity.

Gunpowder automatic weapons do not work or work reliably. Do single shot weapons like revolvers work? What is the basis for the deck guns and gatling cannons?

The composition of gunpowder is radically different, preventing full-auto weapons from working. Things like Gatling guns with the rotating barrel have a much slower ROF than a real-world autofire weapon and are considered artillery or heavy weapons and take a different skill than Firearms. The deck gun on the Hairshirt is more like a mortar/artillery cannon.
Really, the main reason I banned auto weapons is for flavor. Modern firearms are blockier and heavier than their ancient counterparts. A fully-functional pre-AA (NOT autofire) firearm is worth double listed cost for the modern equivalent.
Exceptions to the no-auto rule will exist. A mad scientist could invent a rapid-fire AEther Shooter, for example.

Lightning still exists. Could "bottled" lightning be usd as fuel or ammunition?

Lightning still exists as just that--lightning. Common folk dont even use the word "electricity"--only scientists and other technical types.
The lightning farm that Reese and Emily fly near is essentially a grenade factory. Any city-state near a coast (and thus near the neverending electrical storm that blocks off the continent from the rest of the world) will have a lightning farm. Lightning is harvested and bottled in special glass containers the size of a baseball. They are stored in wire baskets and shipped out to the Air Force.
Lightning grenades hold a miniature living lightning bolt inside. The glass that Emily invented was suffused with electricity and held much more voltage.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Underground Righteous

Satan may have granted you diabolical powers, but they are no match for the power of faith!” the preacher crowed.

Zack didn’t move or acknowledge the fanatic. He was chained to the frighteningly well-equipped holding cell in the Atlantan passenger freighter Hair Shirt. There was a belt wrapped around his neck that made breathing difficult and speech impossible, and a burlap sack tied over his head that reeked of rotten potatoes.

The potato sack tightened and ground against his unshaven face as the preacher took hold of it and shoved Zack’s head against the bulkhead wall. ”We are leaving now, Child of Evil.” Zack was beginning to hate the man’s Georgian accent even more than his propensity for torture in the name of Jesus. “In just a few short hours we’ll be back to the holy city, and His Grace will burn your filth from the sight of the righteous!”

They were leaving now? Zack fought back a surge of relief. If they were leaving now it meant the preacher was worried about patrols from New Newyork. Had Racine made it to the rendezvous? He was alone in his cell—that is, he was the only prisoner.

The preacher lowered his voice. “There is yet a chance to save your eternal soul,” he wheedled.

Under the sack, he rolled his eyes. Here it comes, he thought.

“Take us along the path of righteousness,” he whispered. Lead us to the Fallen! Help us bring the Fallen back into the light and the Lord will surely grant forgiveness to thy stunted soul.”

In other words, Zack thought, give up your contacts in the Underground Railroad. We’ll still nail you on a big wooden cross and burn you alive, but you’ll feel better about it if you have company.

The preacher paused, as if waiting for a reply. Did he forget that he ordered a strangulation belt on me? He made a muffled choking sound—the only noise he could make. No talky, Father Jackass.

“Of course you can’t answer like a civilized person,” the preacher cooed. Zack gritted his teeth. The way he said it intimated that Zack was unable to speak due to some fault of his own, rather than the condition he was in. “But even low creatures such as yourself can be brought to the light!”

With that, the preacher ripped the sack off his head. He blinked furiously as his eyes watered. The light was much brighter than when he had been brought in, and he couldn’t focus. The preacher droned on. “A clergyman of my rank can see your stunted soul through your eyes. You can still be saved if you repent! I will know the answer from your eyes!” He took hold of Zack’s jaw and forced their gazes together.

Eyes still watering, vision still fuzzy, Zack’s first impression was the man’s smell. He smelled of excited sweat under an expensive aftershave. Then his vision cleared enough to fully take in the preacher’s eyes.

Zack knew madness. Any Undergrounder did. How many years had he walked among the Jesus Zombies, mimicking their platitudes and hyms and benedictions? But he also knew the truth: most Jesus Zombies hadn’t picked their faith willingly. That fanatical belief was forced on them by preachers. Insidious mind-control magic was cast in every sermon, every Sunday, from the time the people were babies. There was no defense—unless you were like Zack. Like Zack, or like the preacher that held his jaw in an uncomfortably tight grip.

As his eyes dried and he beheld the preacher’s clearly, he saw true madness. Both knew in an instant what the other was. They were both born with magical talent. It was why Zack wore a strangulation belt around his windpipe: so he couldn’t work is Air magic. It was how the preacher kept the “faithful” in line: by perverting the scriptures of an ancient religion into a twisted mind-control spell. But what doomed Zack to a fiery fate was another trait they held in common: belief.

The preacher believed that what he did was right and holy, that he did God’s work.

Zack believed that what he did was right and holy. It was God’s work.

The preacher backed away in disgust. Zack held his gaze until the preacher broke it off by closing his eyes and saying a prayer under his breath.

In that moment, Zack was able to regard his cell. It was lit by torches (yes, torches… Medieval Housekeeping, anyone?) normally but four focused gaslamps had been installed on the opposite wall to shine directly on him. Two Zombies flanked the doorway, and he could make out two more on the outside. One was an older woman, and the other a short, stocky young man. Both wore identical fanatic’s smiles.

He looked back to the preacher, and saw the Bible.

It was an artifact. It was a Bible printed before the Atomic Apocalypse. Zack knew as surely as he knew himself. If he concentrated, he could see the radiating lines of power that connected the book to the preacher and the Jesus Zombies. If he could somehow take that Bible, he could use it to break the spell—

And who was he kidding? He had sacrificed himself so Racine could get her refugees to the NuNu. There was no avoiding the burning cross in Atlanta for him. It would take an act of God.

“You will burn brightly,” the preacher growled, finishing his prayer. Zack tore his eyes away from the Bible and did his best to wheeze contemptuously in his general direction. The preacher clutched the Bible to his chest and turned to the Zombie on the right. “Be sure he eats.” He looked back at Zack. “Force feed him if you have to.”

Everpresent Zombie smile on his face, the man nodded. “Praise Jesus,” he murmured, looking at Zack.

“Praise Jesus,” the preacher replied.

And a golden bolt of light punched through the ceiling and vaporized the Zombie on the right.

Everyone—Zack included—looked stupidly from the hole in the ceiling to the now-vacated spot where the Zombie guard was. There was a smoking hole in the floor where the light had passed. Harsh sunlight poured through the hole in the ceiling, causing everyone but Zack to squint and panic. Zack was immune to Sky Madness.

“Get your goggles on!” the preacher bellowed. “We’re under attack!”

As if to illustrate his point, the sunlight was blocked by a man in paramilitary gear that dropped through the hole and stabbed the lefhand Zombie through the heart with a shortsword. “And the Lord shall reap…” she murmured, sagging to the floor.

The preacher backed away, stumbled and fell to the floor. “Help! Help in the holding cell! We’re under att—“

The intruder drew a large revolver and shot the preacher in the chest. The shot seemed unnaturally loud in the small cell. Through the ringing in his ears, he could clearly hear the preacher’s death throes. He watched in horrified fascination as the man choked, twitched, and lay still, clutching his Bible all the while.

The intruder’s gun boomed again, pulling Zack’s focus away. He looked back in time to see one of the Zombies that had been posted outside the cell crumple to the ground with a hole in his chest. He looked up at the intruder just in time to see him pull his sword out of the remaining Zombie’s belly and shove it up under the man’s chin. He pulled it out and cleaned it on the dead woman’s shirt as he checked outside the hall in both directions.

Very efficient, Zack thought. Good soldier. He was an inch or two over six feet, and although he carried himself as a soldier Zack couldn’t spot any insignia on his gear. His goggles were one-way tinted, so he couldn’t see his eyes, but he assumed they were Standard brown like the rest of him. He wore a pilot’s leather cap and kept his hair short enough to hide under it. He put away his sword and revolver—a bubble of fear Zack wasn’t aware of popped—and stepped over to examine the chains.

“Wrong cell, Doctor,” he muttered. Zack noticed he was wearing a collar-mounted radio set. His accent marked him from Detroit, not the NuNu. What were Detroiters doing this far south?

He heard a tinny reply from the man’s radio. “I dunno, but they got him half-strangled for some reason.

The man reached out and undid the belt that constricted his throat.

Zack gasped. For a moment, he didn’t think he would stop inhaling. Tears swelled to his eyes and he thought he might black out from the sudden influx of sweet, sweet air.

He realized his rescuer was talking. “…like he needed that. Hey, buddy,” he addressed Zack for the first time. “Don’t try and talk yet. Can you tell me who’s got the keys to these chains?”

He nodded to the now-dead preacher, and his eyes fell on the Bible again. The man quickly rifled through the preacher’s pockets and produced a set of iron keys.

“I’m Captain Reece,” he said as he undid the shackles on Zack’s ankles. “My partner is Doctor Wilson.” He unlocked the shackles on his wrists, which allowed Zack to rub his ankles.

“I’m Zacharaiah—“was all he managed, as a coughing fit seized up his throat.

“Easy, Zack,” Reece said, thumping him on the back. “We’re looking for another prisoner; a woman. Tall, thin, Standard, with a scar on her neck?”

Cough subsiding but still unable to talk, Zack shook his head and gestured to the walls. “Only cell,” he wheezed. “Only prisoner.”

“Shee-yeh,” Reece cursed. “She’s prolly been Taken.”

Zack felt a chill. “Taken” was a term used for forcibly converting an adult into a Jesus Zombie. Most Zombies became what they were after years of magical assault. His eyes fell on the preacher’s Bible and he was nearly bowled over by the presence of it. He stood—standing took effort, he had been chained down for at least two days—and made his shaky way to the holy book.

Reece continued to talk into his headset. “It means she won’t want to be rescued, Doctor. She’s a Zombie now. She’ll fight us just like any other Zombie.”

Zack grabbed up the Bible and nearly dropped it from shock. It was ancient. He could almost hear the ancient sermons it had witnessed. It was thick and worn and heavy, and it felt good in his hand.

“Buddha Christ, kid, I dunno,” Reece continued. “We didn’t bring any tranqs. I could prolly knock her out and tie her up, but we gotta whole boat full of Zombies to fight through to do it.”

The Light seemed to come on in Zack’s head. He had needed an act of God to be set free, and God had sent him this Northerner and his partner. There was more of God’s work to be done this day.

He straightened his spine and turned to face Reece. “I can fix her,” he said clearly.

His face darkened in disbelief. “Really.”

He nodded slowly. “Yes. Furthermore, I know how to lead you through a ‘boat full of Zombies’ to find her.”

Reece paused. Zack could hear his partner—it sounded like a woman—chatter at him through the headset. “Well, our options are slim, Zacharaiah. What’s your plan?”

Zack smothered his relief. Getting a pair of skeptical Northerners on board was only the first part. “How are you at play-acting, Captain?”

Reece frowned. Just then the hall filled with sword-bearing Jesus Zombies. Zack stepped in front of Reece, brandishing the Bible. Brothers and sisters!” he called out, showing a well-practiced Zombie smile. Praise Jesus!”


“And He shall make a path, and so the righteous do walk it!” Zack crowed.

“Praise Jesus!” the Zombies answered. Zack suppressed a shudder of revulsion. It was almost like a hive mind when they did that.

He looked over the deck of the Hair Shirt and off to low starboard, where the Toreador lurked out of sight to those on deck. He could see the sun shine off of something metallic far up and port. Reece had told him it was a sun cannon and that his partner had invented it. That sounded a bit too fantastical to him, but as an Air Wizard he had been on the receiving end of enough disbelief to give someone else the benefit of the doubt. There was also the matter of the four foot wide hole it had made in the Hair Shirt with pinpoint accuracy.

Zack’s plan was simple: he would call up all the Zombies to the main deck and sooner or later the woman Reece was looking for would surface. Zombification seem to suck about half the intelligence out of the typical victim; as long as you waved a Bible at them and sounded like a preacher they would say or do just about anything. Even cheerfully die. Zack had seen it happen his whole life.

The Hair Shirt had a built-in pulpit that had a commanding and sound-carrying position overlooking the main deck. About time someone put it to good use, he thought. As he preached, he caught Reece out of the corner of his eye, helping another Zombie onto the deck to join the rapturous crowd. Reece looked up at him and shook his head slightly. Zack hid his frown and continued to sermonize.

The problem with his plan was that not everyone on board was a Zombie. The intelligence drain affected their ability to perform complex tasks like navigation or mechanics. He was certain that the preacher had performed the role of captain on the Hair Shirt but there had to be a second in command and probably a dozen regular crewmembers on a ship this size. They had to find their target and be away on the Toreador before a regular crewman broke the spell.

“With mine own eyes I have seen!” he continued, looking rapturously upward. Everyone else on deck wore protective goggles. Since the Atomic Apocalypse, the daytime sky was filled with a type of radiation that caused insanity and eventual blindness. Zack hadn’t been bothered by the open sky since he was twelve. Claiming his goggle-free state was a divine gift to wow his captive audience was almost too easy.

He suppressed a chuckle as the ensemble crowd of Zombies went “aaaahhhh!” at the sight of him grinning and naked-faced. He saw Reece standing next to one of the deck hatches with a tall woman that had long black hair. Reece gave him a thumbs-up.

“But what the Lord hath shown me, must now be shown unto his flock! Let one amongst you come to be—there!” he shouted, pointing at the woman standing next to Reece. “Brothers and sisters, bring her to me, so that she may see.”

Gleeful and zealous, the crowd of Zombies quickly ushered the grinning woman and the frowning Reece to the base of the pulpit. They shouted encouragement as the woman quickly scaled the ladder and leapt into the pulpit next to Zack. Zack gave thanks that Reece had enough sense to stay in the crowd and not try and follow the woman up.

“Well done, child!” He took up her hand and held it victorious to the crowd. The Zombies cheered enthusiastically. He turned back to the dark-haired woman. “What is your name, child?”

“Veronica, Father!” she squealed. With his magical awareness, Zack could see desperation and horror behind her joy and zeal. Somewhere under the preacher’s spell was the real Veronica, sobbing in terror.

“Everyone, give Veronica a hand!”

The crowd gave a deafening roar. It occurred to him that he might be overdoing it.

“Now, Veronica,” he said, clutching the Bible. “Gaze upon the good Lord’s book! Focus on it, for His word lives within!”

Veronica obediently studied the worn book, waiting for the word of God to be spoken.

Zack sought out the line of power that ran from the book to the woman, and snapped it. Her knees buckled and she slumped to the deck, sobbing. “Behold! The power of Jesus!”

Thunderous applause. Somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind, he was a little frightened of how easy this was. He knelt and stage-whispered to Veronica, out of range of the megaphones. “Veronica, honey, we’re getting you out of here. There are people sent here to take you home, but you have to work with me.”

He took her hand and stood to face the crowd. “My friends! Let us bow our heads and pray for our sister Veronica! Bow our heads and pray for her to see!” He scanned the crowd and immediately found Reece—the only one not praying. Reece pointed to starboard. The Toreador had drifted up to the Hair Shirt, nearly level with the deck.

“Dear God, as you have shown me,” he began, pulling Veronica to starboard. “Show our sister Veronica the way to holy sight.” He unhooked the safety catches on the rope ladder and heard the ends slap against the deck of the Toreador. He put a finger to his lips and gestured for her to climb down. She paused to empty the tears out of her goggles, then disappeared over the edge. “Show her the light, so that she may become a beacon to show others—houff!”

Something large and heavy slammed into his back and he tumbled over the edge of the pulpit, into the empty air above the Toreador. He caught a brief glimpse of a rough-looking man with gray hair standing in the pulpit, then the world started spinning as he tumbled. He was granted several viewpoints in just a few seconds of fall: Veronica being helped onto the deck of the Toreador by Reece’s partner; empty sky with the metallic sparkle of the sun cannon; Reece leaning over the railing of the Hair Shirt, shouting; the crewman of the Hair Shirt again, looking smug—

Then a shrieking pain in his ankle as it impacted with the nose of the Toreador. He saw Reece’s partner—she was tiny, no more than a girl—with her face in an “O” of horror as he plunged out of her sight towards the earth.

He gritted his teeth. “Praise Jesus, that fecking hurts,” he cursed to no one in particular. It wasn’t the worst pain he had felt, but it was enough to delay the concentration on his flying magic. He took a deep breath, found his center, and called the wind.

”Unnf,” he cried as the wind snapped him upright. It was how he normally righted himself when falling, but he didn’t normally have a broken ankle. He straightened his legs and spread his hands, and let the wind bring him above the deck of the Hair Shirt.

The man who had knocked him out of the pulpit was shouting commands. A half a dozen men feverishly turned hand-cranks to bring up a Gatling cannon from belowdecks. The Zombies were confusedly milling about, getting in the crewmen’s way. Reece was struggling with two crewmen to get over the edge of the railing to the Toreador.

“Well, first things first,” he said to himself. A blast of wind knocked the commander from the pulpit, end over end onto the deck. He landed flat on his back, and Zack knew immediately that he had been winded.

The crewmen manning the deck cannon pointed in his direction and drew pistols. Zack gestured and a gust of wind knocked them all to the deck, clutching each other and the cannon.

He turned to Reece. He couldn’t blast his attackers without hitting him, and he didn’t have any weapons… except the Bible still clutched in his hand.

“Oh, I think not,” he said. The day he used the holy Bible to mind-control someone that disagreed with him was the day he became no better than a preacher. Hell, that would pretty much make him a preacher, now wouldn’t it?

He flew down and kicked the man to the right of Reece square in the back with his good foot. He went numb from toes to knee—and kept going right over their heads. He couldn’t bring up enough wind to compensate for his momentum and so landed in a painful heap in a passenger bay on the Toreador.

But it was enough. By the time he was able to look up from the deck, the man he had kicked was not in sight. Reece elbowed the other man in the face and leapt to the cockpit. The ship lurched as the turbines began spinning up. The Toreador began to pull away from the Hair Shirt.

”HALT!” The commander of the Hair Shirt had regained his wind and found a megaphone. “RETURN THE PRISONER AND SURRENDER YOUR VESSEL OR YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON!” He gestured to the deck gun that was slowly being cranked to starboard.

Reece didn’t even look up. “What are you, an idiot?” He flipped switches and pulled levers, and the Toreador swung to face the Hair Shirt full on. As it did, six Gatling cannons dropped into view from the wing mounts, whirling with menace.

Reece flipped another switch and began speaking through his own megaphone. This is Captain Reece of the Toreador. Shut your stupid face and toddle that fat pig garbage scow back to Atlanta, or I will broadside you.”

Zack couldn’t read the commander’s face at this distance, especially with goggles on. Nobody moved on the Hair Shirt but the Jesus Zombies and they didn’t do much more than fidget. The crewmen on the deck gun were frozen in mid-crank, waiting on the commander. Zack concentrated for a moment, stilling the sound of the wind around both ships. The whirling of the Toreador’s guns seemed to get louder, which was the effect he was going for.

“Work it out, shee-yeh for brains,” Reece muttered. Now that he was in the cockpit of his own ship, he seemed bored. He turned to his partner. “Get them strapped in,” he told her, jerking his head at Zack and Veronica. “That talking monkey will leave eventually but that’s no reason not to put a lotta sky between him and us.”

The tiny girl knelt next to Zack and began fussing with the straps in his seat. “Hi Zack,” she said. “I’m Doctor Wilson. You can call me ‘Emily.’” She was very young—seventeen, maybe—with pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. An Undergrounder to the end, Zack’s first thought was that she would be hard to smuggle out of Atlanta. Especially with her Detroit accent.

“Hello, Emily,” he said, raising his arms so she could reach a buckle behind his back. “I’m Zachariah Savoy. You can keep on calling me ‘Zack.’”

She giggled. Over her head he could see the Hair Shirt begin to lumber away. He sighed with relief—then choked back a scream as Emily bumped his injured ankle.

“It’s alright, Emily, but I think my ankle’s broken.”

“Oh no!” She cried. “I’m so sorry!”

He patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s a country mile from being burned on a cross.”

Friday, December 24, 2010

Of Soldiers and Scientists, P2

He frowned at her over his beer. “Well I did promise not to walk away.”

She nodded. “Good, good! Now we’ll need to outfit your ornithopter with conductive glass—I’ve enough for a standard Type Six chassis—and fly under the electromagnition factory. It won’t take longer than ten minutes! It’ll be the easiest four thousand you ever made!”

Reece hadn’t changed expression during the whole explanation. He put his beer on the counter and swiveled to face her full-on. “One,” he began to hold up fingers. “Flying under an electromag factory is suicide. That’s directly in the storm!”

“Yes, but—“

Two,” he shoved two fingers in front of her face so that she had to jerk back. “The factory is government-owned and patrolled by military gunboats. It’s a no-fly zone for fifty miles from the border of the storm. Unless you’ve obtained some kind of University permit, it’s illegal to violate that zone, and you can be legally shot down without warning.” While this was true, he knew it rarely ever happened. Most of the crackpots and thrill-seekers that flew craft near the border storms were harmless.

She pondered that for a microsecond, then said, “I know—

“Three,” he said, jamming three fingers in the air between them, “the sky under the storm is a great hiding place for scum like Jesus Zombies, flying mutants, mobsters, brood slavers, and worse.

“So what you’re proposing is that we avoid robbery, brainwashing, rape, and cannibalism—not necessarily in that order—and then dodge military patrols with the goal of getting ourselves fried to a crisp in a lightning storm. You need four million for a pilot to do that, kid. Four thousand is for sane people.”

He turned his hips back to the bar and reached for the fresh beer that Mike had put there, but she grabbed it away before he could pick it up.

“One,” she said, gesturing with the bottle. “The glass rig I invented will protect us from lightning and I can prove it. I mean, I’ve already proven it or the University wouldn’t have funded my project. I just have to prove it to you—which is good, because a scientist should prove her theory many times before—“ she broke off when he reached for the beer. “Two and three,” she paused, as if for dramatic effect. “I can make us invisible.”

She waited for that revelation to take effect and nonchalantly took a long swig from his beer, then made the most comical whiskey face he had ever seen. “Mmguahh!” she swore, eyes watering. That’s beer?”

He scowled and took the bottle from her unresisting hand. “It’s an acquired taste, Doctor. Looks like you never had any wild drinking parties in school, eh?”

“We had—I mean, um, we did fun, uh… stuff…”

He rolled his eyes at her and guzzled a third of his beer. The kid trailed off into silence and fidgeted while he regarded their reflections in the bar’s wall-mirror. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, she asked, “Well?”

He sucked his teeth and frowned at her. “Invisible. And immune to lightning.”

She nodded, wide-eyed and hopeful. “Uh huh.”

“Four thousand.”


He sighed heavily. “Alright kid, prove it to me and you gotta deal.”


The Flying Monkey had a standard Stinger-class chassis: two main turbo-prop engines on the wings and a half dozen “steering props” throughout the nose and tail. (Reece knew the mechanics and tech types had a real name for them, but pilots called them “steering props.”) The turbo-props were held in wing-mounted gyroscopes that allowed them to swivel fore and aft, enabling vertical takeoff. The gyros also connected to a Hearsten’s Type II Self-Adjusting (self-adjusting, my ass! I have to adjust that fecker every day!) Perpetual Motion Drive. Reece’s six-foot one-inch frame fit comfortably in the cockpit, while the aft-facing double gunner seat behind him swallowed up the kid—kinda like a great white shark swallowing up a guppy. Her feet just barely reached the push-pedals—

“What are these for?” she had asked while he was strapping her in.

“Backup drive.”

Her mouth had dropped open, part of a comical look of disbelief. Between snorts of laughter he had explained the Kinetic Motion Battery that backed up the PM drive. “If ya go up without a backup to your PM, you might as well butter yourself and crash-land in a mutant barbecue.”

Right now, though, they were invisible.

Guilt started to creep into his thoughts again. The kid’s invisibility gizmo had kicked in as soon as they hit the outer edges of the never-ending lightning storm that brewed a hundred miles east of Detroit airspace. “It reacts to the Aetherhydromagnetic fluxuations that permeate the air here!” the kid had beamed, waving a tangle of clockwork gears and glass tubes under his nose. He had zero comprehension about her explanation but he believed his eyes, which told him he was suspended in mid-flight without a thopter around him. The experience was eerie but thrilling once he got used to it. What he could have done, back in the Wars, with an invisible fighter-ship!

Then a bolt of lightning had struck the Monkey full on her nose—and harmlessly fanned into the glasswork lattice that the kid had installed over the chassis. “Haha, I told you!” the kid had crowed. “Glass blown from volcanic sand with entellium bombardment that—“ he tuned her out after that, and decided not to ask her for explanations about anything, ever again.

So the kid had been as good as she advertised, and this was turning into a milk run. They were near the edge of the storm and the invisibility was starting to flicker on and off. He let his hands do the piloting and watched in fascination. The Monkey, covered in the kid’s Aether-glass, backlit by flashes of lightning and flickering in and out of sight like some giant mythical dragonfly. It was a sight he would take to his grave.

He was pondering the merits of giving the kid back two thousand when the gunfire started.

He felt the kid shift her weight and guessed she had popped her head up from her science gear. “What was that?”

He snapped out of the reverie and scanned his airspace. Nothing on visual, but there went the crack of small weapons fire again.

“Gunfire, kid! Stow your gear and make yourself small!” He felt her frantically shifting about as he opened the throttle on the repellium panel and angled the props to gain altitude. As the Monkey shot upward he caught sight of muzzle flashes below. “Pistol fire, low starboard!” he called out.

The kid paused. “What?”

Inwardly, he cursed himself for an idiot. The kid was his client, not his gunner! “There are three fools in a civvie scooter below us on the right, shooting at us with their little pistols.”

“Shouldn’t we be worried?”

He shrugged, even though he knew she couldn’t see the gesture while strapped into the aft-facing gunnery station. “They gotta be Lotto-lucky to hit us with handguns, and even if they do, they gotta be double Lotto-lucky to hit anything important. We’ll just keep above ‘em and dodge a lot.”

“But we’ve installed Wilson’s Aetherglass Volcanic—“

“Allah-Christ, kid! Just call it ‘glass!’”

“But we’ve installed glass on the bottom of your ornithopter!”

He swung the Monkey to port as more gunfire cracked from below. “Yeah but it’s all separate panels, right? You don’t need them all to prove your thingy.”

“Reece, the glass is charged with lightning! We’re flying with approximately one thousand bolts of lightning strapped to your hull! If one is broken it will release the transelectrical—we’ll explode! In a thermoelectric—uh, like we’ve been struck by a hundred lightning bolts!”

He was silent as he swung them starboard side to avoid the suddenly ominous pistol fire. The guilt about charging four thousand for this job was a very small thing, dimly remembered, as if from a past life.

The reason there was a floating factory in a lightning storm was for the military to harvest the electricity to make lightning grenades—glass globes half the size of his fist, with living lightning in the middle. Big ships and cities had mesh screens and seeker clockworks to defend against them, but smaller ships like the Flying Monkey could only dodge. Just one was enough to kill both him and the kid if it hit amidships, and here he was, flying with a lightning superbomb attached to his fuselage.

“We have to get away from them! We can’t—“

“I know, kid! But we ain’t got teeth, so there aint much to do but juke and jive!” They had both agreed that leaving behind the Monkeys Gatling guns—and their highly explosive ammunition—was the best idea when going out to harvest lightning.

But wait… didn’t they have teeth? “Hey kid, I have a crazy idea.”

You have?”

“Yeah, you’re a bad influence. How big would the explosion be from one of these panels?”

“Um.” She was silent for a moment. Crack, cra-crack, went the distant guns.

He juked to starboard and gunned the throttle. Wind whistled through the sinister lightning glass. “Well?”

“Hush, I’m doing calculations.”

Crack! WHANG! One of the support struts over his cockpit took a bullet. He suffered an eternal half-second of mind-numbing terror as one of the straps holding a glass panel came loose and the panel started to shake and rattle against the hull. With practice born of combat necessity, he held the joystick in his knees while he reached out and removed a glass panel the size of a dinner plate from the strut.

“Take your time, kid. Only getting shot at here.”

“FECK!” she swore. “I estimate the blast radius would be one hundred feet!”

“Feck,” he echoed. This would be close. “Hang on kid! And uh, make sure you got that barf bag handy.”

A horrified groan was her only reply.

Not allowing himself to consider the merits of sitting on a lighting bomb, he made sure the glass panel was secure under his thigh, then angled the props to kill forward motion and gain more altitude. In his mirrors, he could see their pursuers inexpertly bank and start a slow spiral upward. Crack, went their pistols. Crack, crack.

He savagely thrust the joystick forward and released the safety catches on the aft steering props. The Monkey began a screaming power dive in a tight spiral toward the civilian craft.

Through the howling wind and the roaring turbines, he caught the kid moaning, “Buuuuuuuuudhaaaaaa Aaaaaaaaaaaalllaaaaahhhhhh Chriiiiiiiiiiiiisst…” in a pitch and volume that rose and fell as they dived. The civvy flier zoomed larger and larger into view. He could see three crewmen scrambling around the deck—did they think he was going to ram them? All good to him, then. If they were having an old-school freakout, then they weren’t shooting at him.

“Only one shot at this,” he muttered, digging the glass plate out. He waited until the Monkey was fifty feet away and flung the glass sideways across the empty space. With a shock, he realized their pursuers were the three rats from the Brass Nail. It was bright and sunny this far out from the storm, and he could see the whites of their eyes, even through goggles. He locked gazes with Louis the pickpocket. Louis brought up his revolver—

And the Monkey was hurtling past the three criminals, and he could only see them in his rear views. Louis continued to raise his pistol—shouldn’t he be aiming down? Reece’s mouth went dry as he realized Louis was aiming at the glass lightning-plate—

Bang! Went the pickpocket’s gun.

In his rearview Reece could see the sparkle of the glass turn into an angry maelstrom of thunder and electricity that completely engulfed the rats and their airship. The kid screamed then; a good honest shriek that abruptly cut off. He was sure she had jammed her fist in her mouth.

“Ruh—ruh—Reece! We’re out of lightning range!”

He continued the dive. “Ain’t lightning I worry about, kid! We’re covered in your glass, remember?”

“Then why—“

“Shrapnel!” As if to prove his point, he fought the stick hard a-port to dodge a still-rotating propeller flung from the criminal airship. “Come on, ya filthy son of a whore!” he cursed as he fought the stick, which seemed bound and determined to kiss the ground. It seemed a lot closer than it was when he finally won the battle and leveled their descent. He engaged the safety catches on the aft steering props and began a normal ascent to Detroit airspace.


“Hey Mike! A round for the house on me!” he called.

A ragged cheer went up from the dozen or so shady types clustered in twos and threes around the Brass Nail. A free drink or two never hurt when you were trying to create contacts and connections… even if it did mean it was more likely someone tried to mug him on the way out.

“Eh,” he muttered under his breath, “wouldn’t be the first time.” He looked across the table at the kid. She looked pretty down for someone that had just proven her thesis or theory or hypotenuse or whatever it was. She was absently fiddling with her soda bottle and muttering calculations.

“Hey kid. Whassamatta?”

She didn’t hear him. She continued to mutter “Hearsten’s Laws of Perpetual Motion as applied to practical use in Repellium craft…”

“Hey.” He leaned across the table into her field of vision. “Doctor Pony-house. What’s up?”

She blinked and straightened. “Oh! Sorry… just… uh, just thinking.”

“No sheeyeh,” he said. “Bout what?”

“Those men.”

Ah. Of course. She had probably never even been in a fistfight, let alone seen someone buy the farm. “The rat-men? Don’t worry bout them , kid. They got what they deserved.”

Face twisted with emotion, she looked him directly in the eyes. “I saw them, you know. I had a considerably better view than you did. Plus you were busy. I saw my electroglass shatter and the lightning release. It… it… devoured them. It made a lightning bolt for each man, and each man was shot through his solar plexus with a lightning bolt. Three more bolts hit their ornithopter and that made it explode and—and—and I was relieved that I didn’t have to watch them die and I thought—“

She balled her hand into a fist and pressed it against her mouth. He nodded slighty. “Let it out, Doctor.”

She shoved her hands flat onto the table and regarded them for a moment, then looked back into his eyes. “I thought: ‘I did that.’”

He frowned. “Kid—Emily, you can’t—“

She waved him silent and brushed a tear away from her cheek. “I know, I know, don’t think I don’t know. If I hadn’t hired you, if you hadn’t been here, if I hadn’t been a genius, if they hadn’t been so stupid and mean... if, if, if. Can’t second-guess any of it.” She poked an ink-stained finger on her temple. “Up here I know it.” He expected her to point to her heart next, but she tapped the back of her head. “Back here, in the reptile brain… that’s the part that thinks ‘I did that.’ And you know what, Captain Reece? That part of me liked it. ‘Ha, that’s what you get,’ it says.” She clutched her soda bottle with shaking hands. “And that is what’s scary.”

“Buddha-Christ, kid. You are a genius.”

She blinked back tears and looked up in surprise. “Wh… what?”

He leaned back in his chair and took a drink of his beer. “I joined the Corps when I was your age. Signed up for a five year tour. Minimum’s three year, but you get a way bigger bonus if you sign for five. In my five years, we had three wars and a dozen ‘incidents.’” Still holding his beer, he used his fingers to air-quote the word. “I killed a lotta men. The first one is the roughest—not the actual kill, but dealing with it after. I still remember like it happened five minutes ago; that Jesus Zombie look in his eye, how he was weak with his right side guard, how easy it was to shove my shortsword right up under his ribcage into his heart.” He looked down at a ring of condensation from his beer bottle and stuck his finger in the middle of it. “’Praise Jesus,’ he said, like I was doin’ him a favor.” He wiped his finger through the moisture on the table to make a line off the edge and let his hand drop to his thigh. “Praise Jesus.”

He looked up at her face. She had a sober look on, and the tears were gone. “For all the photographic memory I have, the one thing that sticks with me is the thought I had, right after he died. Do you know what that thought was?” She shook her head slightly. He leaned forward and said, “I thought, ‘huh, that was easy.’”

He leaned back and repeated, “’Huh, that was easy.’” He gestured with his bottle to the kid. “’I did that.’ What makes you a genius, Emily, is that you figured out in your head what was wrong right when it happened.” He downed half of his beer while she mulled that over. “It took me two years to figure out why I woke up every night with the sweats, scared to death.”

“Did it stop then? The night terrors?”

“Not that day. But I saw a Corps psychist and they got better.” He paused. “Not gonna piss down your back and tell you it’s rainin’ Emily. It’s scary, how easy it is. People die so easy. All you can do is live like your momma taught you—or Allah Christ or Buddha Christ or whatever. You know where your moral compass is and how it swings. Let it guide you.”

She pondered that for a moment. A sly look came over her face. “That’s it? You’re supposed to tell me a story that makes me feel better and wraps it all up, like on teevee. Where’s the wisdom imparted to the ingĂ©nue from the grizzled veteran?”

He was shocked for just a moment. He had seen men grow up in a matter of minutes and this kid had done it like a pro. He laughed. “Whatevs, Doctor. You are a horrible little girl.”

She straightened her spine and jutted her jaw out. “No, I’m not. I’m a scientist.”

He nodded and clinked bottles with her. “Best one I ever met.”