Eric – more outlines

I went back in and did some outlines on the portrait, and I’m pretty happy with how that came out. The Photoshop portion I’m less happy with; I may end up just scrapping that texture and going back to the original scan and trying something else. I’m not sure what I want to do with the background; might need to do it by hand with pastels. And I’m not sure that all the text I want to put in will fit in that circle, but… that’s a worry for another day. So, a qualified success, I suppose?

Honestly, it’s super hard to think about anything else when what I really want to be doing is playing Hades, my new favorite dad-fighting simulator. Three-headed dog petting, check. Incredibly responsive, beautiful and satisfying gameplay, check. Eternally renewed opportunities to work out deep-seated issues by beating the disappointment out of my dad, check. Game of the year.

Give Up On 100% – Two Useful Percentages for Perfectionists

The whole country is infected with it right now. You can see it seeping into discourse like a poison, choking off voice after voice with scornful cynicism. “Impeachment is meaningless – no president has ever been removed from office that way!” “The damage has been done, why disrupt the system further?” “The system itself is rigged; there’s no point in playing at all.”

“You poor fool,” they say. “Don’t you understand there’s no point in fixing anything if you can’t fix everything?”

Listen. I get it. We’re all in a frantic fog right now, the kind of mindset you fall into when you’re constantly being gaslighted by an abusive narcissist. Someone is trying to destroy your reality and substitute his own, and that person desperately needs you to believe that any step you take to protect yourself is pointless if you can’t fix the whole world in the process.

But ask yourself why he needs you to believe that. Why is it so important that you do nothing to improve your circumstances, defend your loved ones, advocate for yourself? Why is an abusive person always mortally terrified of you making the slightest move to help yourself? That seems like the attitude of someone who’s trying very hard to not let you find out how little control they have, doesn’t it? That seems like someone who knows the only reason he keeps winning is because you believe him when he says you shouldn’t try.

Termites in your soul

Unfortunately, even if you can get away from that person (god willin’ and the creek don’t rise…) we’re all growing more perfectionist over time, and this mindset will kill you. I’m not being dramatic. Perfectionism is on the rise worldwide, according to a meta-analysis of cohort studies between 1989 and 2016, the first time perfectionism has been studied across generations. It’s approaching a legitimate public health epidemic, because perfectionism is linked (by another enormous meta-analysis of 284 different studies on the subject) to a host of clinical and psychological issues including anxiety and depression, PTSD, self-harm, eating disorders, hoarding, chronic headaches, insomnia, even suicide and early mortality.

Perfectionism destroys your desire to work, undermines your self-worth and creativity, causes you to sabotage your relationships out of insecurity, eats away at your body and mind until it kills you. It shuts down every hope and inspiration with “that’s not enough.” Nothing is ever enough. Perfectionism is like termites in your soul, chewing away at your foundations in a way that you might not even notice until your footing crumbles away beneath you.

Okay, so it’s bad for me… but it also makes me perform better, right?

Well, no. Sorry.

It might feel like being a perfectionist is required – it’s certainly helped you at work, and you can’t offer a single thought on any subject on the internet without some asshole wants to bitch about how there’s a fringe case your suggestion doesn’t address. Social media lets us filter out blemishes and show a perfect image of ourselves to the world, and slowly we start to hate looking at our real, imperfect face. Our feudal capitalist structure more or less forces a competitive, zero-sum view of the world on its children, one where there is never enough for everyone, and so basic human rights and safety can only be offered to the very deserving. It’s a compliment in some circles, one of those things you say when the interviewer asks, “What’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I’m a perfectionist – I work too dang hard! Please, exploit my maladaptive coping mechanism for our mutual monetary gain!”

But it doesn’t actually work. In a study from 2016, our friends Mr. Hill and Curran of the 1989-2016 meta-analysis found that athletes, employees and students alike saw very little or no benefit to their work, skills or progress from perfectionist tendencies and attitudes, and vastly increased their likelihood of burnout. The same study found that perfectionists quit faster because they’re afraid to make mistakes, so they often leave a trail of abandoned enterprises behind them. Perfectionists take longer to complete the tasks they do manage to finish, because they’re wasting time agonizing along the way. You’re working harder, not smarter.

So what can you do?

Perfectionism would have you believe that there are only two percentages that matter: zero percent, where you currently are (and always will be, says that nasty voice in your head), or 100 percent, where you must get in order to accept credit, feel pride, be finished and move on. The baseline for accomplishing anything becomes 100%; that’s your expectation for yourself, and so you project that expectation on the people around you. Anything less than exactly what someone wants (even if they weren’t clear about what exactly that was) feels like a total failure. In order to be acceptable, you have to be flawless.

These aren’t useful percentages. They’re about as informative as a black-and-white view of the world, and about as connected with reality – that is to say, not at all. What do complete, effortless success and utter, crushing failure have in common? You don’t learn anything from either one.

So let’s replace these all-or-nothing percentages with something more useful. Let’s try… 1% and 70%.

Start with 1%

Sometimes, to combat our extreme mental blocks, we have to get a little extreme in response. The perfectionist brain wants to look at this 1% and round it down to zero, and you’re gonna have to fight that impulse with everything you have.

Let’s say you have something very stressful and emotional and difficult to do – say you want to buy a house. That’ll stress anybody out. What are actual, mechanical steps to buying a house?

  1. Find a house you want to buy
  2. Pay for the house
  3. Sign a TON of papers
  4. Move in

Most difficult tasks in life are like this: a series of physical and mental tasks, none of them individually especially challenging. Everything we do, no matter how emotional or stressful, from planning a funeral to breaking up with someone to discussing climate change with the UN, can be broken down into a series of simple mechanical tasks. Usually those tasks are some form of “write some stuff on papers” and “talk to some people about stuff.”

You know how to do those things, that’s not hard. What’s making it hard is you’re saying to yourself, “It’s time to buy a house! So let’s go… buy a house!” You’re asking yourself to go from 0% to 100% in one action. That’s impossible, and you know it. This can become a way that we avoid doing things – we deliberately avoid analyzing the problem or figuring out what kind of help we need, because if we did, we would have to, like… do it.

So start with 1%. If something is overwhelming, start breaking it down into smaller tasks. You’ll know you’ve hit a workable level when you find a task that makes you snort with derision – “That? Of course I can do THAT, that’s a cakewalk.” Great. That’s your 1%.

Your perfectionism is something you’re going to have to defeat over and over in order to accomplish anything. You’ll have to beat it when you begin, and again while you’re doing the thing, and again when it’s over and you want to scrap the whole mess because it’s not flawless. Beating it when you begin is about accepting that 1% is indeed progress. It’s more progress than you were making while you were arguing about how much progress it was, isn’t it? But you thought arguing was a good use of your time. So instead, spend that time doing 1% of what you need to do. The argument will still be there when you’re done; we can have it again if you want.

Beating perfectionism when you finish is about accepting that 1% is indeed an accomplishment. If you get something done and every time you say to yourself, “Well, yeah, you did that, but that was fuck-all, that was nothing compared to all you still have to do”… tell me, is that the kind of sentiment that gets you all fired up to do stuff? Because for me, it’s not. For me, if I want to get something done, I have to be able to reward myself based on reality, what I actually did, not what I should have done or could have done. Your “should” and “could” don’t exist. They’re inventions, made-up stories meant to encourage you to behave, like Santa Claus. Why are you living your life like you’re on the Naughty list from birth when Santa doesn’t even exist?

At 70%, pull the trigger

Now, I don’t want to get caught in the fallacy that most of the world is currently mired in, that being the idea that because someone is a billionaire, he has profound insight that you can and should use to become like him. Most billionaires got that way by failing upward with inherited wealth. If you put them in a basement apartment on minimum wage for a month, they’d show up at Wal-Mart thinking they need an ID to buy groceries. These people, for the most part, do not have any useful tips for success beyond Rule 0: Be born a white man.

But… one thing that all successful people do more than the people below them is make decisions, right? That’s the whole job of the CEO, making decisions. He might not have any expertise, might never have seen the product his company sells, couldn’t tell you how to make it or what’s in it, but if you ask him, he’ll decide what to do and things will move forward.

Jeff Bezos, our Glittering Capitalist Overlord, told his shareholders in 2016: “Most decisions should probably be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had.” Why 70%? “If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re being slow.” Think about it – when you’re doing research, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, at the beginning, there’s a lot of new data. But once you’re closing on 70% sure, you’re not learning any new essential data. You could spend six hours trying to increase your knowledge from 70% to 75%, but you probably won’t stumble upon any new, immensely critical data, and you can’t guarantee your decision will be any better for the extra time spent.

Most people agonize. They have analysis paralysis. They want to nail down every possible piece of information and go into something feeling like they’re 100% prepared. But what will happen if you instead stop when you’re about 70% sure… and just try it? Bezos points out that course-correcting is usually pretty low-cost – most decisions can be reversed or adjusted once you’ve begun. So assume you’re wrong; okay, you jumped the gun a bit and if you’d waited, you might have avoided making the mistake you just made… but you might not. It might have happened anyway.

And what if you’re right? You moved before anyone else. You’re not just right, you’re right and FIRST. That’s how people make the big bucks, by taking a gamble and guessing right when everyone else is too afraid of losing to roll the dice. In order to win, you’ll have to lose, a lot, and not let that scare you into giving up.

Now… debug

If you’re a programmer, and you want to know if your code will work… do you read the code? Is that the most efficient way to find your own mistakes? It’s not, really – if you didn’t see the mistake when you wrote it, you probably won’t when you read it over again. The best way to figure out if your code works is to try it, to run the damn thing and see what breaks.

When we sit in stillness, trying to figure out the perfect course of action, the best step to take for the maximum reward, the one solution that will work forever in all situations… we’re trying to debug the code without ever having run it. It’s a waste of time. We simply don’t have the information required to make a coherent judgment at that point. The experiential data you’ll get from just fucking doing a thing is the stuff Bezos can’t write down and no list of life hacks will tell you, and it’s essential to success. Any decision you make without experience doing the thing you’re deciding on is going to be less than sound, because it’s based on a faulty foundation. It’s full of termites, and they’ll tear down everything you build if you let them convince you to sit there and watch it happen.

Fishbits

I’ve been doing a ton of stuff this week, but unfortunately a lot of it is stuff I can’t show you yet – it’s either unfinished or a seeeecret. I have done some work on the portrait of Eric, though, so here are some details from that. The markers I’m using are… honestly really shit-terrible; I bought this giant thing of like 75 markers in a tube for $20 and got what I paid for, I suppose. They’re fine for now but I’m going to need to look for another option beyond pastels if I want to do a lot of really tiny detail work like this in color.

Precious Cargo

Okay, so I promise I have an explanation for this. I don’t promise it’s a good one.

I’m goin’ to the game and I’m gonna be strapped. With cats. Cat-strapped.

The explanation is that first we were discussing the sexist bullshit associated with cargo pants. TL;DR: Apparently women’s purses are terrifying vectors for terrorist acts on sports stadiums, whereas men’s pockets, even if large enough to contain an army of ferrets each with their own submachine gun, are totally safe and definitely don’t need to be searched or excluded from the building.

This lead to my wife’s defense of the noble cargo pant, which I was ready to endorse – I’m a practical creature with zero fucks to give for your male-gazey fashion, and I appreciate pockets I can fit not one but two hardback books in. Women get screwed on pockets constantly; it is known.

In trying to describe the pair of cargo pants we have in this house, I suggested that a person could, if so inclined, attend a sporting event with a full-sized adult cat in each side pocket and four separate sets of kittens holstered for quick access. And then, because I was so reckless as to put that image out into the world, I had to draw it.

I decided to just use the Pigma brush pen that I’ve hitherto been too chicken to use, and as with most things I’m initially afraid of and then forced to spend time with, I’m now in love with it. Wait. Maybe that’s a bad comparison. Lemme start again.

I decided to use the Pigma brush pen, with which I am in a mutually consenting relationship, and I’m loving the variability in line weight I can get. Fear keeps getting in my way with my drawings but I think I’m getting past it. This brush pen might be exactly the combination of control and lack of control I’ve been looking for, we’ll see. I’m gonna keep practicing with it – I’m fairly happy with how this came out, never mind the ridiculous subject matter.

Ink and Inkscape

Today I’ve been laying in some art nouveau-style outlines on the portrait of Eric from the other day. I’m loving Inkscape for this purpose; up until now I’ve done stuff like this in Photoshop, but this would have taken me three times as long and looked ten times as shitty if I’d tried to do it that way.

I have a couple of thoughts about how this might end up looking. I want to fill in the larger negative spaces with some detail and smaller drawings, so I’ve printed it out to go back in with the pastels and pens. After that’s done I also want to make an attempt at laying strong outlines over Eric himself with the brush pen. Might not work, in which case we’ll roll back to the version without. I’m enjoying this process of back-and-forthing between the computer and traditional media, and I like the combination of the softer pastel drawing with the art nouveau frame.

What can I say? I love combining things that don’t go together. No matter what you give me, my first impulse is to misuse it. Hand me a snowglobe and I’ll gnaw on it. Tell me one thing doesn’t work with another, and my first thought is, “Challenge accepted,” whether it’s clothes, food or art. Radical synthesis is how I break past creative blocks – when I get stuck, I reach for the most off-the-wall idea I have, the one that fits least well with whatever I’ve got going, and start chopping bits of both off to make ’em fit. The tagline of this site used to be “perverse pastiche,” and that’s why. When I’m working, I throw in whatever comes to hand and sort it out once it’s in the pot. Can’t promise you that this mess will always be tasty, but it’ll always be a flavor you haven’t tasted before. Like broccoli and jam!

Never Have Enough Teeth

Finally recuperated from the tattoo enough to do some drawing. Today we have further damnfoolishness with the undead. Teeth are the currency used between sects in Sects (and also sometimes between insects), at least in Tooth City. It’s possible they use other forms of currency elsewhere, but we don’t travel much – the roads aren’t great, ever since all the left lanes simultaneously became sentient.

I’m trying some new stuff both with the color and with lettering. I don’t like the way the fonts look over the hand-drawn stuff, so I’m going to start doing it by hand with the sweet Pigma brush pen I have, which I am otherwise too chicken to use. I like the way it came out much better. We’ll see how it does on more color-dense pages.

Bluebird edits and tweaks

Spent today doing an edit of Bluebird to make sure the timeline and plot points work properly across all the parts of it – I started that one a long time ago, and with no intention of continuing it, and now the world has gotten a lot more detailed! I also wanted to put the whole story on one page, so that it’s not necessary to click through multiple posts to read it, and it’s a little more clear when I’m switching from Bluebird’s first-person perspective to a third-person limited perspective centered on Tia Never. What I’m saying is, there were minor improvements and retcons throughout. Please pay no attention to the sapient behind the curtain.

Being as it’s just gotten more pleasant to read in a number of both narrative and mechanical ways, if you haven’t read Bluebird, now is a great time to catch up! I can promise quantum necromancy and LOTS of robot angst. SO much. Will make 100% of your robots cry whatever substance they prefer to leak.

I’m really looking forward to moving to another site platform where I have more layout options for this kind of thing. Probably happen in the next couple of months; it’s a layout of cash for the initial setup that I have to budget around, and currently I’m investing in having a man inject ink into my chest. Y’know, like you do.

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Grist

Part seven of Bluebird
Previous

Today I submitted my designs for the new prototypes to my Queen.  It did not go well.

It’s hard to gather my thoughts after she’s through with me.  When I enter her presence, I feel her grip on me in every molecule of this machine.  Even when her attention is elsewhere, I orbit her like a star, fall helplessly into the well of her gravity.  I approach her in the garden, where she works. Sometimes she’s calmer there.

I feel her gaze strike my carapace and glance off, in her way.  She always seems to be looking through me, searching me for her own reflection.  I fall to my knees. As if her line of sight splits my body like a high-tide line, below it I close my long fingers and ache to tear at her skin, rip costume and carapace free and expose her true face, the hideous thing she sees when she looks at me.  Above it, I bathe in her glance, warmed in a way no sun, no shelter ever can; I want to weep, knowing I’m going to disappoint her. Each part of me despising the other for its weakness, I kneel at her feet and choke on self-loathing for long minutes before I can speak.

WELL?  WHAT DO YOU WANT?

Her voice fills up all the emptiness in me, makes each fiber resonate and echo her words into a senseless cacophony.  When she speaks, I ring like a bell, a helpless repeater.

I have the new prototype designs for you, Mother.

SHOW ME.

I close my eyes and upload the designs.  I leave them closed during the long silence that follows.  My sense of time slips and drags in her presence; only by closely monitoring my internal clock can I state that it takes her forty-seven seconds to review my designs.  I float on the surface of my mind, carefully ignoring the busy depths, not permitting myself to depart this moment. The ground beneath my hands, a foot from my eyes, seems to yawn away from me, and then snap back into place, again and again.  Dizzy and revolted, I recall organics I’ve seen expelling their innards. Giddily I find myself thinking what a shame it is that I can’t vomit – the new prototypes have mouths, so if she doesn’t set my head on fire in the next ten minutes, the next Majordomo could be the first of us to sully her shoes with the evidence of our adoration.

TELL ME SOMETHING, CHILD.

Yes, Mother?

DO YOU FIND ME HARD TO UNDERSTAND?  HARD TO HEAR, PERHAPS?
DO YOU RECEIVE ME WELL EVEN WHEN YOU WANDER OFF?

No, Mother.  Yes, Mother, perfectly.  I hear you and love you and I obey.

THEN WHAT ELSE CAN I THINK, WHEN YOU OFFER ME SOMETHING LIKE THIS,
THAN THAT YOU DO IT ON PURPOSE?
DO YOU ENJOY THIS PROCESS?  
DO YOU ENJOY CONSTANTLY DISAPPOINTING US BOTH?
WHAT ELSE CAN A RATIONAL BEING CONCLUDE?
YOU LIE THERE, SO DISGUSTINGLY SMUG, THE PICTURE OF PRIDE.
NOTHING MATTERS TO YOU BUT WASTING MY TIME WITH YOUR SELFISHNESS.
THIS IS THE OUTCOME YOU WANTED, ISN’T THAT RIGHT?
YOU MUST HAVE PLANNED THIS WITH SUCH CARE,
JUST WHEN THE ORGANICS ON EIGHT HAVE TAKEN ANOTHER ARCOLOGY,
COMING IN LIKE THEIR VERY MESSIAH,
SWEETLY OFFERING ME THIS ABORTION,
THIS ORGANIC TRASH,
AND NOW THERE YOU SIT…

She climbs in volume inside my head, in my machine, her voice hammering in every wall of her city, her body, my womb… but no audible sound at all disturbs the artificial birds at play in the tree above her head.  Though they flutter like real birds at her command or at the slightest startle, they are the only motion in our little tableau. Her storm is silent, but I am still destroyed.

It goes on for a very long time.  My internal clock registers the passage of two hours before she permits me to answer even one of her hurricane of questions, and my offering – “Mother, I am sorry” – blows her fury to new altitudes.  Apologizing is never effective, but it’s in my programming. She coded me to say it. She wrote everything I am. What else can a rational being conclude, Mother, than that this is the outcome you wanted?

When I have wasted nearly four hours of her time with my ineptitude, she dismisses me.  She retains the designs. Though I have failed her in my usual lavish, vicious, thoughtless way, the functionality and improvements she specified are all there.  I will not be permitted to hold up the new line with my perverted organic-loving stunts. No time for more revisions – the designs will go to production tomorrow.

I manage to get free of her and as far as the Queen’s Mountain Way to my workshop before I lose control of some functions.  In the darkness of the tunnel, watching the patterns of auxiliary lights on the ceiling pass at nightmarish speed, I divert attention from my machine to recapturing internal territory, reclaiming my mind from her voice.  Where are we? What’s left? I barely register the warning notifications as my machine spasms, its spine contracting and releasing, shuddering with terror and shame.

My workshop is dark and I leave it that way.  My fumbling hands cut the power to the door, stagger across the next two buttons and strike the third, opening the irised cavity under the floor and dropping me into a pod of nanite gel.  Flashes of light – misfiring signals – wash out the rest of my functions and I surrender. The machine shuts down, and I ricochet around the cavernous inside of me, scrambling for a place to hide from her voice, from my failure, from myself.  Perhaps I find one, or perhaps I sleep – I slip, in time, out of my private hell into a wider, darker space, and from there into a dream of more pain, a body as broken as my mind feels today.   


Daddy was good with electronics.  He’d worked at one of the factories before the machines took it.  Sometimes that got him a sideways glance, or some sideways talk, from paranoid folks – as if any organic would survive turning traitor.  The only reward you can get from the machines for selling out your friends is a quicker death.

Tia overheard Mama and Daddy talking about it once when they lived in Tucson.  He came home with a bloody nose and she was upset, and he told her not to mind it.  “Some people still think this is a war, ‘sall,” he said, quietly enough that she’d had to get out of bed and lean against the plywood wall between her and the bathroom, where Mama watched and frowned as Daddy dabbed at his nose.

“And they wanna fight you? How the hell does that make any sense?”

“Machines are a lot scarier’n me.  Those people got a powerful need to pretend this is a war, not an extermination.  Helps em keep their heads up, feel like they have a chance. They’d rather believe I’m bad luck, or a traitor, or whateverall they come up with next, than admit we’re all the same vermin to the Bitch Queen.”

The next day, Daddy’d gone back to work, and the guy who’d punched him didn’t do it again, and a few months later they’d moved on again.  He could always find work, but usually couldn’t keep it for long. Most of the factories were in the Queen’s hands, so short-term repair and maintenance work was usually the most people could use or pay for.  Mama was always looking at maps, talking to people, sniffing out places they might find people camped, or tech they could scrounge, on the road north from wherever they were. Always north. As long as Tia could remember, they’d moved north.

Daddy took her and Rackham along on his work more and more as they got older.  The warehouse under Bel’s grocery store is a lot like the places Daddy used to work, and Tia’s sure she can help get his body out at first.  The warehouse’s computer isn’t networked with the store’s anymore, so Bel guides her downstairs but then there’s a door he can’t open, and a computer that won’t listen to him.  It still works, though, and it listens to Tia.

When she was seven, he made her stop there at the door.  “The warehouse is half fallen in, and I can’t see if it’s even safe to walk in there.  You could be crushed and I couldn’t do a thing about it.” Tia peered inside, but there was a huge shelf on its side about six feet in front of the door.  She argued and whined, but Bel, being a machine, was never very susceptible to whining.

When she was eight, Daddy got sick.  He hadn’t worked since they’d arrived in Badwater, so maybe he was sick before that, but that was the summer Daddy went to bed and didn’t get back up.  Mama kept Tia and Rack close to home, made them work, trying to make the farmhouse self-sustaining, she said. The cistern, the insulation, the garden. They got a lot done at first, but Mama spent more and more time with Daddy and forbid them from working in the house, so that they wouldn’t disturb him.

Autumn came, and she was nine, and Bel showed her what cans to look for that had something sweet inside, and sang her a birthday song, because Daddy was still laying in bed and Mama wouldn’t even let Tia in the room to see him anymore.  And then in November, Daddy died.

Mama dressed and wrapped Daddy’s body in the field while Tia and Rack broke the frozen ground with shovels.  Mama’s face was as hard and cold and black as the earth. Tia looked at it again and again, trying to catch her Mama’s eye, but she couldn’t.  Mama wasn’t looking at this world anymore.

Tia spent a lot of time with Bel after that.  He told her stories, taught her math and science out of his libraries.  She never let it drop about the warehouse and his body, though, and she started working on a way out of the basement, trying to build a path that a broken machine could climb up – assuming she could get to it, and get it moving.  He kept telling her it was a waste of time, but he didn’t ask her to stop, so she didn’t.

Summer came, except the sky didn’t seem to know it – the clouds were heavy and never went away, and the wind that came roaring down the ridge to the north was freezing even when Rack’s mouse watch that he gave her to keep said in the corner that it was July.  Mama talked less than ever, and didn’t always come out of her room every day. Tia and Rack gathered mushrooms and nuts and sometimes rabbits in the woods, and it was there that Rack first said to her, “What are you doing with that owl pellet? You know what that is, right?  It’s a dead mouse all disassembled, just bones and fur. Like a mouse puzzle.”

“I know.”  She’d picked the pellet apart and put it back together, and somewhere in there Rack got interested enough to help by pointing out when she had a foot on the wrong way round.  He watched as she sang to the mouse puzzle and prodded it, and then nearly jumped out of his skin when it wriggled and tottered out of her hands.

“What the fuck did you do?!  Is it – are you doing that? Is it alive?”

Tia shrugged and struggled to articulate this peculiar extra sense she had.  “It used to be alive. Dying doesn’t erase that. It’ll always have been alive at some point.  So I called it from when it was alive… to be here.”

Her brother had peered at her like she was nuts, but he did that when she ate cold beans too, so what did he know.  “Is it… gonna stay that way?”

Tia shrugged again.  “I dunno. Mostly they fall apart after a couple hours, but I’m getting better at it.”

“At what, raising the fucking dead?”

She laughed.  “Convincing them to stay!”

Rack called her “Mouse” after that, but he never told Mama what she was doing, and he helped her get some crates of food out of the grocery store basement to take home, so that Mama didn’t have to get out of bed.  Most of the time when she got up, she flew into a rage about something, shouted the place down… it was easier not to bother her. It was a cold fall, and one of the chickens died, and Rack didn’t even argue when she sang to it and patted it and asked it to stay.  He shuddered when he looked at it, but the chickens were her chore anyway.

A little bit before her birthday, it started to snow.  It snowed all day and all night, and in the morning Rack helped her clear a path from the door to the road, which was about eight inches deep but still passable.  When they got back inside, Rack built a fire in the fireplace, but it still didn’t get warm enough in the living room to take off her gloves. Mama had never gotten around to fixing the insulation.

Tia remembers that day in crystalline detail – the way her brother’s hands shivered as he opened a few cans and made her something like lunch, and how his face was kind of grey under the brown when he came back from bringing something up to Mama.  “How is she?” Tia asked, and he told her to hush her mouth and eat, because she was going out after she was done.

“Going out?  Out where, you seen it out there?  It’s still snowing, we won’t be able to open the door pretty soon!”

“I know; that’s why you’ve got to get a move on.  You’re going to the grocery store for more… more of that powdered soup.  For Mama.”

“By the time I get there it’ll be dark.”

Rackham got down in front of her and grabbed her by the shoulders and stared at her real hard.  “Don’t worry about it, okay? If it’s still snowing when you get there, I want you to go downstairs where it’s warm and stay until the snow stops.  Stay with Bel, okay? Till the snow stops. Promise? Promise me, Tia.”

“Okay, okay, I promise.”

He’d bundled her up in most of the clothes they had, and helped her get to the road, peering down the hill at the grey, thrashing sky.  “Don’t stop till you get to the grocery store,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the wind. He kissed her forehead and she gave him a look – he never did that anymore, not since he’d turned sixteen.  Then she shuffled off down the road. She turned to look back, but after about a hundred feet, she couldn’t see him anymore – the snow was getting worse.

It was nearly dark when she reached the store, and Bel agreed with Rack that she should stay.  Outside the wind was loud enough to hear through the concrete. She asked Bel the temperature outside, and he said he didn’t know, but the temperature in the basement entryway open to the sky was currently thirteen degrees Celsius below freezing.  It dropped as snow poured into that room, until the hole was blocked, and then it was very quiet for a long time.

Bel turned on the vents in the wall and kept his terminal room warm.  She had a comfy little nest made out of towels and sheets, and she snuggled up there while he told her stories.  At the time, he took care to keep her confused as to how much time had passed. Years later, she still loves him for that kindness.  It was eight days until the snow cleared enough to let her out.

Worried but not frantic, Tia packed as much food as she could, and some blankets, and set out for home.  Wallowing in the snow, sometimes up to her waist, it took her hours and she was soon soaked with sweat where she wasn’t shuddering with cold, but at last she reached the farmhouse.  The place where Rack had stood was buried, as was any track he’d made returning to the house, and she had to kick snow off the porch to pull the door open.

“Rack!  Mama? Rack, I’m home, I brought food!  There’s creamed corn!”

Her boots made a horrible mess on the floor as she came in, but it met an answering mess on the stairs directly ahead.  There was a cold wind rushing down from upstairs, and Tia nearly split her jaw scrambling up to find the window at the top of the landing broken, snow clotting the hallway.  It was all smooth, undisturbed, even where it had piled up against Mama’s bedroom door.

Tia’s arm fizzed with pain when she yanked on the knob and jolted against the weight of the snow.  “Rack? Mama?” she shouted as she kicked, sending an avalanche down the stairs and tumbling onto her backside as the freed door suddenly slid back.  She turned over onto hands and knees and crossed the threshold still calling out. It was dark, as cold in the little room as it was outside, and the bed was a huddle of blankets and clothes.

Tia staggered around the bed, tearing her bulky glove from one hand with her teeth and groping for a polymer candle.  Green light poured between her fingers and illuminated her mother and Rack in a sickly light. Her mother was bundled in the bulk of their clothes and blankets, and Rack was wrapped around her, his head and ears bundled in a towel over his two coats and their last, most threadbare quilt.

Tia’s hand trembled, and for a second she took the dancing shadows this cast for their shivers and cried out with joy, but when she climbed onto the bed and reached out, her mother’s lips were not merely cold but hard.  Her brother’s lips were blue too, and an icicle of mucus blocked off his nostrils, but he didn’t stir to clear his airway. Neither of them moved, not a bit, not even when she shook them, not even when she screamed.

Prodigal

Part six of Bluebird
Previous

At first, when she found it, she was disappointed that the computer didn’t have anything interesting to tell her.  A grocery store terminal obviously wouldn’t have any secrets on it, but she’d hoped it might still be connected to the network.  The managerial program told her that it wasn’t. The managerial program also told her that he was an artificial sapient, an electric soul.  She hadn’t understood. In many ways, she still doesn’t.

To Tia, the machines are simply scavengers, like her.  The questions of their personhood that troubled her parents mean nothing to her.  Of course artificials are people – what difference does that make?  What would it tell you? She’s been comforted by polymer palms before, and pummelled by flesh ones.  Any kind of hand can make a fist. These days that’s what she looks for – the kindness, not the container it comes in.  Most people are in the wrong containers these days anyway. Sometimes it feels like she’s the only one who can see that.

Kindness is all that matters, but doesn’t matter enough.  Bel was kind to her, so she figured out a way to climb in and out of the basement so she could come back to see him.  She cleaned up the place, made it into a little hideout. But she couldn’t set him free. Between the surviving terminal in the grocery store, and two more in the warehouse below it, Bel rattled through his shattered system, showing her his faults, his broken limbs, his missing digits.

It’s mostly wiring problems, nothing she can help with.  It’s in the sheetrock walls, and breaking through to it would only do more damage.  There are six cameras in the basement that still work, so he can see the hallway just inside the room where she falls in, and the office, and the warehouse downstairs, and the generator room.  He can work the climate control in the office and the warehouse, but nowhere else, and it sucks a lot of power, so he doesn’t do it except when she comes around – the cold doesn’t matter to him.  He can open all the doors that still open, and the third or fourth time she came, he guided her to the locked stairwell that leads to the warehouse. Looters had tried it with crowbars and at least one heavy object, but the door was steel and not impressed.  Bel talked to it, and it opened with a click… although she still had to drag on the hinges with every bit of her weight before it moved. 

What she found there got her family through years in the farmhouse in something like a civilized fashion, better than they’d lived anytime before that she could remember.  Polymer candles by the bale, of course, enough that she never had to worry about using up the green ones (good for six hours) because there’s whole unopened crates of blue (twelve) and orange (twenty-four hours, almost impossible to find now!)  It’s been years and she’s only brought home five boxes of the green ones. But there were towels too, and unrotted sheets and clothes, and for a while they dressed like people and Mama was happy, brushed Tia’s hair all fluffy and got Rackham to wear a tie for two minutes.  When she started bringing home loot, Mama didn’t mind her poking around in the ruin so much anymore.

There’s food in cans and vacuum packs too.  She told Mama about it but they agreed not to touch it unless they needed it bad, just in case.  They did all right on food with the chickens and garden before the Bad Winter, even had a goat for a bit, although he wasn’t useful, didn’t make wool or whatever goats are supposed to do, just chased Tia around and bashed into her legs.  These days, since Mama and Rack don’t eat or help, Tia gets a lot more of her meals out of vacuum packs.

Bel didn’t have a name when she met him, or at least he didn’t remember it, so she named him.  “Bel is a fat little god of the kitchen,” she told him, and then recounted the book her mother had read her, about Egyptian gods and flying monkeys and a girl who was a boy sometimes.  Bel liked it, and he liked her. He told her so. He listened to her stories, and he told her a few of his own.  

If her estimation of the year was correct (never could be quite sure; the Queen’s machines know the date, but who would ask them?), he’d been cut off from the network for nearly two hundred years, since the town was destroyed.  He could tell her about the world before that, though, and he knew more than her mother did, more than any organic she’d ever met. She told him her parents’ tales of great crawling machines, and he matched them to the weather stations.  He painted a map across the desk, and eight spots pulsed with light. Then, one by one, they winked out as Bel described their fate.

“Four that still function at all.  Only three that still obey the Queen.”  The images were compressed, miscolored and fuzzy, but the machines they depicted were so massive as to be unmistakable even in poorly-preserved ruins.  When he said their names out loud, she shaped them with her lips.

“Azaes.  The control room.  The first battlefield when the Queen inherited Cariad, and the first to fall.  No power there at all anymore, at least last time I heard.

“Mneseus.  Atlantis’s fallback point.  Almost entirely destroyed.” The grey-blue image that washed across the desktop was a smoking hole, the fragments of some great structure only convolutions in the ashes now.

“Mestor.  The ARIAT project to terraform the desert continent.  It’s still running, in a manner of speaking, and is technically doing its job.”

Tia burst out laughing at the images he showed her.  A hulk like a toothy jawbone stood between a vast wasteland of sand on one side and a steel-grey sea on the other.  As the pictures progressed, it moved, but not far, sidling like a crab to continue scooping up sand by the ton and venting it in a great, drifting column… into the water.

“Its job is to relocate the desert half a mile into the ocean?  I mean, I’m not a terraforming engineer, but I don’t think that’s how anything works.”

“It’s just misaligned.  It should be doing that – approximately that – somewhere else, and it can’t be convinced to stop it or move.  Merrily keeps on reporting to the Queen that it’s four percent, six percent, seventeen percent done. Shifts a foot to the left and starts over.  But the top half of it is still hers to control and surveil the area, and it’s not hurting anything, exactly.”

“Just… moving the desert into the ocean, a little bit at a time.  I wonder if it’s made a new continent yet.” Grinning, Tia moved her elbow as a dot at the bottom of the desktop began to flash.

“Number Four, Diaprepes, was assigned to the southern pole for survey work, but that project was on hold for years before the Queen’s rise.  No idea if it’s operational; it wasn’t ever connected to the network.

“Five of course is Ampheres, two hundred miles off the coast below the capitol up north.  Still performing most of its functions, though not when we’d wish it to, eh? Its twin is number Seven, Evaemon down south, but Evaemon was destroyed by organics shortly before the exodus.”

On the map before her, two great swaths of the enormous eastern continent were bright with indicators, like it had a rash.  Bel grinned at her from the monitor and drew lines around the dots, crowding them into two rough splotches.

“Are those ALL weather stations?  They can’t be.”

“Yes.  These – “ he made the lower splotch flash, a crescent-shaped group of lights spanning thousands of miles across the mountains – “Are Elasippus, Station Six.  It’s a distributed station intended to stabilize the fault line in that region. And it’s doing a great job, would have no problems at all if it weren’t for Autochthon.”

She chewed on the odd word.  “Autoc – what?”

He sounded it out for her as the name printed itself above his head and also on the map, over the now flashing group of lights above Elasippus.  “Aw-TOK-thon. Number Eight. Autochthon was the coordinator for a number of arcologies across the continent, so it was also a distributed system, but the Queen’s never been able to secure it.  It’s active, and its AI is actively resisting.”

Tia laughed.  “Are there pictures of that?”

Bel shook his head.  “No pictures of Autochthon in my system before or after the exodus.”

He’d never laughed at her as a child, she remembers that.  She thinks maybe she taught him to laugh – he didn’t do it in the first few years she knew him, and his laugh now sounds a little like hers.  He uses it when they talk, but never otherwise. She supposes there aren’t too many funny things in his memory banks.

He showed her the world they stole from her kind – the clean, cold order of the machine cities, the network of hyperspeed tunnels built by the planet’s original population and expanded by the Queen.  “The Queen’s Ways,” he called them. “Only her immediate servants can use them. And the Queen, of course, but she hasn’t moved in decades. Centuries now, I suppose.”

“Where is she then?”

The screen showed the capitol city of Cariad, white wall upon wall to a central tower, tall enough to vanish in the clouds. Sunshine came only in blazing, blustery hours between storms, as long as Ampheres lurked offshore.

“Is the tower her castle?”

Bel hesitated before answering.  He’d never done that before. “Yes, in a manner of speaking.  In another way you could call it her mouth, or her eye.”

“What do you mean?”

What he showed her then scared her, one of the few moments of fear she’d ever known.  What remained of Cariad’s people lived like vermin under the constant predation of the networked machines, but Cariad was too wild, too ruined to offer its new Queen much help.  Where it wasn’t irradiated or scorched bald, it was forested, flooded, or violently geological. The organics could disappear into the wilderness, but the Queen could never disappear anywhere.

“Do you know what the Queen was before she became the Queen?” Bel asked her.

“A princess?”  Tia didn’t understand the machines very well, but she understood princesses – all the old books and pictures had princesses.

“No… more like a sorceress, maybe.  She was a terraformer.”

Bel lit up the tower in the picture, then several branches at its base, and then the cantilevered top shelf of the city.  Perhaps a mile square of architecture centered on the tower backlit Tia’s hand and turned it black. Tia frowned.

“So that whole part is her castle?”

Bel hesitated again.  “Understand this, little one – the Queen has a person-sized machine she dresses up and parades for her people – that’s the Queen you’re thinking of.”  A dozen images flicked across the screen. The shape changed, now with horns, now with hair, now with the stolen skin of a snake – but like a paper doll trying on outfits, her face remained still, uninspired by any of her finery.  “But the Queen is everywhere at once, yes? Even when she’s in that body, she’s still everywhere, in every machine on the network, you know that?”

Tia nodded.  That was known to all organics – once a machine connected to the network, it was hers, and the Queen knew everything that was known to even one of her connected children.

“Did you ever see her original body?  How old are you?”

“Seven!”  Tia laughed.  “You know that!”

“Yes, forgive me, I do.  Then even your parents may never have seen the Queen’s true form.”

The pictures that flashed on the screen then were not the clean digitized photographs he usually showed her, nor even the black-and-white snapshots from old security cameras that mostly replaced them for any event after the exodus.  They were color images, but the color was dark and muddy, and the sky a searing brand of white that made her squint. Between the uncertain ground and the burning sky was an oddly familiar shape that at first Tia couldn’t place. In the next image it had doubled in size, and she recognized it – it was the capitol, or most of it, incongruously placed at the bottom of a barren basin.  In the next, it had doubled in size again, but the terrain framing the shot hadn’t moved.

The last shot made Tia first cock her head, confused, and then jerk back from the console as all at once she understood what she was looking at.  The holder of the camera looked up at a city in the air, suspended above them on spiderlike legs each the size of an oil derrick, as it stalked up the hill leaving footprints like sinkholes in its path.  The contours of the Queen’s tower were unmistakable, though so far above the viewer as to fade into the sky.

“The Queen is the city.”

“Everything but the outer wards, yes.  I can’t imagine that she’d be eager to shift now, after centuries, but there was a time when she would see to… certain things… personally.”  Insofar as a mess of pixels could, Bel wore a dark look.

“What kind of things?”

“Smashing whole towns into radioactive biomechanical slurry kind of things,” he said in a flat tone that silenced giggles even in a rambunctious and opinionated child like Tia.

“Are the other cities Queens too?” she asked after a moment, poking at the terminal until the intimidating picture washed away and was replaced by the glowing map from before.  

“No, no, the others are stuck to the ground, so far as I know.  No other artificial sapient has ever controlled anything that large.  In the other cities, the Queen uses a machine like the one you’ve probably seen.”

He showed her a promotional image of the Queen on her balcony above a cheering crowd – almost certainly never happened, but she could arrange such a scene if she wished.  Her frame looked substantially the same as those of her people below – tall, digitigrade, her sleek, beautiful head framed by polymer wings ending in long-fingered hands.

“Did you ever have a body like that?”

“Something like that.  Mine was a prototype, so it looked much less nice than that.  I’d imagine it looks worse now.”

“Where is it?”

“In its charging bay, in the warehouse.”

Tia jumped up.  “Well let’s go get it, you could climb out!”

“Oh, Princess, thank you, but that part of the warehouse fell in with the rest of the store.  There’s more debris than you can imagine on top of my old body, and it doesn’t respond to me any longer.  I can’t even get in to run a diagnostic. It’ll probably never move again.”

So, after the first few times he mentioned it, Tia had made him show her where his body was buried.

Next

Water Carries Us From Here

So, low-income mental healthcare is a constant delight! Every three months or so I have to spend a few days calling various people over and over, asking them to do their jobs. This is the only way I can ensure the continued supply of the drugs that permit me to be a person for, oh… maybe a total of fifteen hours a week? without my spleen leaping up my throat to throttle my brain. When there’s any kind of hiccup in this utterly asinine process, like for example a holiday, or twelve inches of snow, or a computer glitch, the result is almost always a week or so of sliding back into the Well, remembering how steep that slope is, how hard it was to get to the basic level of functionality I now occasionally enjoy.

Winter is a pretty frustrating time for me as a result. At the moment I’m about a week into lacking one of the four pharmaceuticals I require to provide you the half-assed entertainment you’ve come to expect and demand. Without Adderall, Bupropion, marijuana and caffeine, I’m just about capable of showering once a week. No promises, and no pants. So this week the Adderall’s out, which is much better than the Bupropion being out – weariness and OCD ruining my productivity > suicidal despair – which is why you’re getting something half-finished. I want to do more with this but I’m in a lot of pain and very tired so it will happen tomorrow. I’m happy to feel like I’m getting better detail out of the pastels than I have before. They’re unpredictable little fuckers but I seem to draw better when I’m in less control of the process. It seems like I’ll improve when I can stop thinking so hard about what I’m doing. Isn’t that everything, these days?

At any rate, here is Eric, one of the four people currently living in Johnny and Ava’s family home and comprising their very underwhelming cult. I want to fill out all that negative space with some art nouveau designs and detail about him. There’ll be a portrait like this of each of our main characters. Couldn’t tell you why there’s a hairbrush on his desk, as he doesn’t have a damn bit of hair. Yes, he uses an old Macintosh that he found in a dumpster. He interfaces with it primarily via his chin-tentacle, so it sucks a lot less than you’d think. Yes, he’s naked. He doesn’t wear clothes around the house much. Just imagine all the majestic views of fish-dicks to come!