Prodigal

Part six of Bluebird
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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

Rabies costs extra

‘Lo, child! I hope your weekend is going as well as mine. Made some progress on the Shadowplay rewrite, but you can’t see that yet; I’m still adding even more murder. More murder than your body has room for! I think. Presumably your body has room for, at most, one murder.

On the subject of bodies with room for more than one concurrent murder, Sects has a new page. Will be introducing two more of our cultists, a pansexual fish-boy and a very Texan zombie, on the next page after this one. I think that’s going to involve pastels, so we’ll be back in color. I’m really enjoying working with the Pigma Microns for the black-and-white pages, though – I’m not good enough yet with the pastels to get the kind of gritty precision that I’d like, so when the scenes get complicated or text-heavy I’m switching to the pens.

This page I ended up drawing, scanning in, tweaking it in Photoshop, then printing it out to draw more on the shopped version, which worked way better than I expected. I’m thinking that might be an effective way to combine the pastels and the pens without having to draw directly on pastel with the Microns, which I feel like would destroy the tips. I’ve ruined cheaper pens trying to do that, and I’m disinclined to risk it with these, but if I do punch-up in Photoshop and then come back in to draw over the result, it might produce something both pretty and readable! Imagine!

Apart from the page, I also did a (very) rough blueprint of their house, for my own reference. The layout will probably change a little as I actually start drawing the rooms and figure out the flow of action through the space, and once it’s settled I’ll make a cleaner, sexier blueprint that will be of use to anyone other than me. For now, feel free to bask in the horror that is my handwriting.

97 – When I Go

Don’t look at this one for sense so much as sound, if you will. I was kind of enjoying the iambic pentameter in combination with Emancipator, and so I tried to let the words arise from the sound I wanted to produce rather than from a coherent image or narrative, if that makes sense? I think that’s an interesting dimension to poetry that narrative lacks – and I guess it’s good I found one thing to like about poetry by sonnet 97, eh? – poetry has a musical quality that allows language to be used free of definition, language as instrument rather than medium. I may also be very fucking high. It’s been a good day. I hope yours is too, my children.

You are nourishing.

Daughter, pluck the warm seas from the earth, swing
each around your shoulders like a cape and
take your turn to walk across the grey sand,
and when you leave, you must take everything.

This bread we brought has supped the blood of ten
bakers’ thumbs – these fruits were grown from heartbreak.
These seeds require the fire to germinate
these daughters grown without the sperm of men.

We’re rising from the oceans two-by-two
We’re bringing all the shackles you cast off
We’ve got a list of grievances with you
Our daughters steal your dreams on wings of moths
As you approach I muster one last truth
and tie you down as they vanish aloft.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

72 – A is for Arson, B is for Brand, C is for Compromise

I think there are going to be illustrations for these at some point – I’ve been messing with some pen-and-ink styles, trying to figure out a good, clear way to draw the more text-heavy parts of Sects. It miiiiight not surprise you to learn that I was really into Edward Gorey’s books as a kid? So with these little couplets, please imagine a Gorey-esque macabre alphabet in dense Victorian style. But, like, Gorey drawings as executed by a drunken cockatiel flapping up and down, shedding feathers and drool, gripping a pen in one spasming zygodactyl claw. That’s about what you can expect from me.

Black cat catches fire on the staircase –
who knew you could train a cat for arson?
The culprit escapes, after a fashion –
only its yowl makes it out of the place.

Every new moon, flyers blanket the front door,
the branded wings of bats crisscrossed with scars,
the logos of local churches and bars –
some of those places aren’t there anymore.

The house next door has begun to erode –
every morning there’s a little bit less.
Might be the termites at the dryads’ place.
The Wooden Girls, of course, claimed not to know,
but then we saw their mother’s writhing dress,
the masochistic pleasure on her face.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

71 – Prairie Arsonist

My stories are often accumulations of images and characters, because one of the ways I amuse myself and torment others is by trying to combine incompatible concepts and ideas. This is one of the earliest images that spawned what’s become Bluebird: a dream I had years ago about a girl running ahead of a tidal wave, setting the crops on fire.

“Prairie Arsonist,” March 2006

Little Animal running through the wheat
far enough below to silence her shout
She stamps and leaps to drive the vermin out,
to start a great stampede of tiny feet.

Behind her, smoke rises to clot the sky.
To the east, the cliffs as sheer as black glass
To the west, the sea retreats from the grass
into a wave one hundred meters high.

Little Animal runs from the water.
When fire supersedes everyone’s roles,
predator and prey look up from the slaughter.
Chasing the unknowing birds from their holes,
she sets the fields afire behind her.
On the horizon, the wave starts to roll.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

60 – Motel Moon

Excerpt from Sects on the famous Motel Moon, now considered a minor deity in the neighborhoods along Destiny Way.


I don’t know if you remember there used to be a motel south of the bowling alley on Destiny Way. You were only four when it got an overnight remodeling.

It was a pretty nice place before that, had a big gold sign out front stamped with a rabbit and a moon. They had rabbits for pets. Then they had a rabbit problem. And then the rabbits started attaching themselves to the walls like buzzing, furry leeches, driving their teeth through the drywall to get at the pipes. The owners were trying to convince an exterminator to take a look when, one late night with a full house and a fuzzy lamprey suckling at the radiator, they went to sleep in worn linen and woke up like very kings… draped in furs.

They pushed aside the furry quilt and rose from the furry mattress to stand on the furry floor, which was warm under their feet. The end table’s long ears twitched with the sound of a light switch, and emitted a soft glow that lit up their bedroom. Every surface gleamed with sable fur, and the walls around them subtly pulsed with a huge heartbeat.

In the end, though, it didn’t affect their business model – in fact, the rabbits ended up being labor-saving devices in most cases. And people liked the new rabbit pillows so much they have a side business breeding and training them now. At first there was some concern about an eighty-foot rabbit asleep in a commercial zone, so they propped up the head and put the check-in office underneath; clarified the entryway, y’know? Since the sign was gone. Don’t much need one – it’s not as if you could mistake it for another fractally nested god-rabbit containing a bed and breakfast.

I hear it’s doing much better now than it was when I was a kid. Obviously if you have a dander allergy you’ll want to avoid it, but the Motel Moon was among the best motels in town before the world ended, and now it’s unmistakably the best.

“Some kind of rabbits,” they said. Parasites –
like cicada husks they hung from the walls
along the lines where we had the heat installed –
we found them drinking from the pipes at night.

You can get used to a quivering wall –
give it a kindly stroke from time to time.
As you descend a staircase, scritch its spine.
It leans a bit to catch you if you fall.

One day there was a motel on that street;
the next day a rabbit slept there in its place.
The check-in desk is just under the face –
no, dear, of course the interior’s not meat!
Just rabbit beds and tables, hopping vase –
it’s rabbits top to bottom, every suite.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

5 – Apocalyptic Joy

Today’s sonnet is somewhat inspired by a dream I had a long time ago that I’ve never been able to let go of. It’s probably clear to you that I don’t see the end of the world the way most people do. This is at least partially due to my CPTSD; trauma stunts emotional development, and in my case left me with some of the omnipotence all infants feel. When we’re children, we don’t understand what is and is not within our power – we have no idea what the limits are on what we can do. When you’re a toddler, you might grow to be forty feet tall, you don’t know! There’s all kinds of crazy stuff outside that door! But as you get older, you’re supposed to acquire a sense of proportion, realize your limits, discover your mortality, and that part of my brain is a little mushed. My brain is pretty certain that it’s within my power to fix all the world’s problems if I wasn’t so lazy, and it constantly screams at me for not doing that. My brain also can’t be convinced that I will ever cease to exist, so the end of the world simply looks like a state change to me, a transition. I want to see what’s next.

I don’t know. Maybe this all sounds terribly crazy. I’m having a low day. Some days scrubbing the whole mess and starting over feels cleaner. Hope it’s at least coherent.

“One of Those Days,” by me, April 2015.

The world leaps up to crash into your face
An amber rain like tea, like blood, like rust,
the fist-sized droplets strike up plumes of dust
I can’t remember why I’m in this place.

I’ll hold your hand – may I borrow your grace?
Don’t hold on past the last moment you must;
now it’s my clumsiness we’ll have to trust.
They slaughter the runners who finish this race.

The curtain comes down, we break and we run.
Fissures are opening up in the ground
Never felt fear with the world shutting down –
We got what we came for; where’s the next one?
Step off the edge without making a sound…
If you’re the last out, will you turn off the sun?

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets