Salvage

Chapter Eight of Bluebird

She couldn’t see anything but the blinkenlights.  They spun, blurry above her, and shattered into stars when she blinked away tears.  Her fingers hurt.

“Sweetness.  This isn’t going to – Tia.  Please, Tia. Stop.”

“No!” she growled.  Under her scrabbling hands the broken concrete shifted and crumbled.  She was too cold to feel it when one ragged edge tore her fingernail, but she saw the blood smeared across the stone and shifted herself between it and the doorway, the only part of this room Bel could see.

“The charging bay is thirty-five meters down the eastern wall from where you are.  It would take a terraforming team to get to it now. Please, Tia, I know you’re upset – “

“I’M NOT UPSET!” she shouted, throwing the chunk of concrete behind her toward a growing pile of similar shards.  Twenty minutes of frenetic labor had made a small dent in the wall of debris before her, and she reached into it to dislodge another piece when a slide began above her.  Small rocks pattered down, followed by a ragged wedge of wall that bounced off her shoulder, knocking her to the floor with a sudden numbness in her right arm. “Augh!”

“Tia?  Sweetness, speak up, are you all right?  This is what I was – “

“Ugh, I’m FINE.”  She dragged herself upright and back toward the door, peering down at her shoulder.  A nest of gouges and scrapes was rapidly coloring into an ugly bruise, but after the initial shock, her arm moved all right.  “I’m fine,” she repeated more quietly, and slumped against the doorway, abruptly exhausted.

Bel turned on the heat in the hallway and the vents above her head rattled to life.  “Sweetness…” he murmured, “Please talk to me.”

“Why?” she mumbled through her fingers, hands over her face.

“Because you haven’t since you came back from your house, and you came back much more quickly than I anticipated, and your visible vital signs indicate profound distress.”

“Oh, what do you know,” she snarled, and instantly felt chagrin that melted into grief.  The tears started again.

“About you?  As much as anyone living, I’d estimate.”

Saltwater scattered from her fingertips as she threw up her head, staring at the monitor that showed Bel’s face.  “More, okay? More, now. Because they’re dead, they’re all dead!  There’s no one now, just me, just me all alone!”

Bel was silent for a second, and somewhere in the desolate depths of her Tia felt a small satisfaction – she rarely managed to surprise him.  Then it curdled into rage.

“Surprised?  Why? You should have known they’d die, how long was it, how long did you keep me down here?  I could have helped! I could have – I – “

“Sweetness, no.  You yourself told me what it was like out there.  How could I keep you here? How could you possibly have gotten home any sooner?  This was not your fault.”

“It was, it was, and Rack knew, I’m sure he did, he sent me away -”

“Then he was as smart as you always told me he was.  He could see what the weather was like. He couldn’t have gotten you and your mother here in time; you all would have been stranded on the road.  Listen to me, Tia: he saved you. He knew he couldn’t save all of you together, so he made the best choice he could, and he succeeded in that much.  It wasn’t your fault. You don’t control this weather.”

“No…” she murmured.  “No, not yet. But I know who does.”  Her tears slowed as the loneliness inside began to knot and clench into anger.  “She’s taken everything from us, the entire planet, every single thing. Everything from me.”  The yellow-eyed girl looking back at her in the black surface of Bel’s terminal looked rabid, her teeth bared as if the Queen had a throat she could tear.

“I’m sorry, dearest.  I’m so sorry. She’s… got a lot to answer for.”

“She’ll answer me.”

Bel didn’t scoff, but he didn’t sound any less dubious either.  “From the data I have, that’s very unlikely. No human can get within a hundred miles of the capitol without being detected, and no artificial would hesitate to – well, do away with you before you said a word.”

“You didn’t.”

Bel hesitated again.  He was doing that a lot lately.  “If I had been in my own body, and on duty when I met you… I might have, Tia.  Even if an artificial doesn’t despise organics on its own… you can’t know what it’s like to live with the Queen in your head.  She obliterates everything, all doubt, all fear, all self. No networked artificial is even capable of forming a dissident thought; they don’t have the vocabulary for it.”

“But you do?”

“I am a prototype.  We design the new models of machine, and so we have more freedom – of a kind – than most artificials, and more knowledge.”

“So you’ll help me?  You’ll fight her with me?”

“Fight – sweetness, how could you – how could we possibly fight the Queen?  You don’t have anything but your soft, puncturable body, and I don’t even have legs.”

“That’s not true.”  Tia stood up. The rage and grief swirling in her had awoken a certainty that had always been somewhat lacking.  The thing she did with the mice in the woods was instinctive; she didn’t understand it but rather felt it, like muscle memory.  When she’d awoken Bel, it felt the same – like reaching out to a consciousness that, when she closed her eyes, was very much like her own, just living in a machine made of wires and copper instead of meat.

But the thing that had happened earlier today… the creature now rising in her like capsaicin on her tongue, making her sweat – it was fiery and clear-eyed, and it knew exactly what it was doing.  She laid her hand on Bel’s terminal, and for the first time, instead of simply opening her “ears,” as it were, listening for him in the wires, she dove in herself. She didn’t linger, didn’t try to wrest the machine from his control.  She slipped through like a rogue glitch, sidestepping security routines and shifting her weight from one neglected backwater of storage to another. She felt Bel’s surprise – it reverberated through his system, through his body, and made it shake under her.  When he spoke, it filled every part of her mind, like the Queen’s voice he’d described.

“Sweet – what are you – this is not… this is not possible!”

Okay then, she thought, unable to speak, no longer able to feel her face or her flesh at all.  If it’s not possible… then stop me.

There was so little of her here – a mote of volition, a will like a wisp in the wires, with no ability to weigh alternatives or speculate.  Her intention as she’d entered was the direction of her travel, and it was toward the warehouse. The wires were broken there, in a thousand, thousand places.  She could see where Bel had shored up the system, cut off routines related to the space and the rooms beyond, and she could see the other victims of the fall – there were four porter androids buried in the wreckage, and another two in the charging bays next to the one Bel indicated held his own body.  Savage joy went through her like a spark, and threw her onward.

Not all the connections were broken, but the lines that survived were under the floor, maintenance and auxiliary wires.  In her mind’s eye, Bel was vast, an amorphous consciousness slowly moving through a network that seemed grossly undersized for the amount of data he was storing there.  No wonder he was so well-informed.

You were never a grocery store manager, she thought.  The revelation didn’t trouble her – somehow she had never really believed Bel was no more than what he seemed.  And the size of him, the amount of space he required simply to exist, was more than the maintenance lines were ever built to transmit.

But Tia was small, most of her consciousness still lighting up her grey matter with limbic subroutines.  She dove into the maintenance line and instantly felt her world squeeze down to a crushing claustrophobia.  Like clinging to a bullet in the barrel of a gun, the sense of speed and narrowing space accelerated until she thought she would scream – where would it go? – and then she was through, in the comfortable little maintenance server for the warehouse, the software a picture of undisturbed calm beneath its physical ruin.

She touched the porter androids in their charging bays.  Both of them responded immediately, activating themselves as if they’d waited decades for something to do – and perhaps they had.  Tia was blind – none of the data coming back to her translated into sight, but nevertheless she could hold the shape of it in her mind, like she did when she reassembled the mouse.  She could see every part next to every other part, and fix the small errors, the little, world-shattering mistakes.

Tia guided the androids to open their charging bays, slowly in case the stone was piled up against the doors.  Neither reported any issue with that, and so she directed them to begin cleaning their immediate surroundings. As the several hundred tons of fallen ceiling and debris separating them from her certainly fell into the category of “a mess,” the porters carefully set about disentombing themselves.  It might take them a year, but it would probably take her ten, and get her killed in the process.

She withdrew from the system much more easily than she’d entered, the shard of her will drawn inexorably back to the meat she’d left the rest in.  Bel was talking, but she only caught the end of it.

“ – to get back out.  I can’t even feel you in here anymore, sweetness – are you all right?  Tia, please -”

As she rejoined her body, the grief and rage that had overwhelmed her swept back in, still cascading through the meat in the form of chemicals.  It made her loose-lipped, her mind exhilarated, her body exhausted.

“Shut up, I’m fine, I just brought my mom and my brother and two robots back from the fucking dead; why wouldn’t I be fine?”

Bel’s babble stopped.  “You did what?”

Her body had gone to its knees while she’d been away.  She dragged herself up, subconsciously wiggling herself comfortable, like slipping into her favorite pants.  “I just… asked them to stay,” she murmured, looking at her fingers on the terminal.

“Tia, you – and they stayed?  Conscious? Did they speak to you?”

She nodded.  Bel’s face on the monitor was frozen in an attitude of shock, so focused on her that he had stopped updating his avatar.

“How is this…”  He fell silent for some time, and Tia strayed over to the door into the ruined warehouse and stuck her head in, listening.  Very, very faintly, she could hear scraping deep in the wreckage. The androids were at work. She retreated to the office where it was warmer, and there Bel greeted her from the desk with, “I think this is wrong.”

“Oh yeah?” she murmured, too drained to care.  She sunk into the nest of blankets she slept in here, and pulled one of them over her head.  Bel continued to talk.

“I don’t pretend to understand everything about your biology, but I think the consciousness should go wherever it naturally would go after – after its machine shuts down.  Don’t you think they’re suffering?”

“No!” she snapped, sitting back up.  “I wouldn’t hurt them!  I fixed them!  I made it better!  I did, I made – I made it better…”  Tears choked her again, and Bel fell silent.  When he finally spoke again, it was more gently.

“I’m sorry, sweetness.  I know you don’t want to be alone.”

“‘M not going to be,” she sniffled.  “You can’t die. We’re gonna get your body out and then we’re gonna go find a nice new one for you to live in and then we’re gonna kill the Queen and live happily ever after.”

Bel didn’t know what to say to that, and in time Tia cried herself to sleep.  The next day she went back to the farmhouse, and found her Mama and Rack there, just like they were supposed to be.  Rack helped her clear the snow off the porch, although he took a little longer than he used to, and Mama got up and made soup.  She didn’t smile, and her hug was cold, but it was a hug, and Tia returned it with a ferocity that made her mother’s bones creak.

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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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

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

62 – Update

This one’s in reference to Bluebird. It’s a portion of the story just a little bit in the future of what I’ve put up here, so it’s not too much of a tease. I tried a sort of structural thing in this sonnet – the first stanza is from Bel’s perspective, in the second we see him from Tia’s perspective, and then for the last sestet we reenter Bel’s head and find that he’s had an update. Suddenly, Bel isn’t Bel anymore.

My hands hit the earth.
I’m missing fingers.
Turn in the sun to take inventory –
organic child, witness my glory –
even in this prototype it lingers.

He straightens up, and Bel is very tall.
He raises his head and closes his eyes,
waits while the latest firmware is applied
– his eyes come down and don’t know her at all.

I wake up in a body not my own.
Or rather, wake up as a younger self,
both better and worse off in strength and health,
reintroduced to wounds I had outgrown,
and yet – I feel my shackles also melt,
lifted away by hands of flesh and bone.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

52 – Atlantis 18

Long before Captain’s Log was ever a thing, there was Atlantis 18 and Gale. As with most of my stories, that one started with a dream and a misheard phrase. When I was about five years old, I heard the term “race riot” used in my presence for the first time, and before anyone took the time to explain it to me, the image I had was of… well, a very fast riot. A high-speed wrecking crew tearing through town, never stopping, just plundering what it can on the run and destroying the rest. That image stuck with me, and collided, years later, with a dream about a hotel full of water and a boy who needed to live there, because the air would kill him.

I tried to write about Atlantis 18 so many times, and failed. It was the first time I realized something important about art: sometimes, a piece of art wants to be in a specific format. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense any other way. Imagine The Matrix as a book. It would be monumentally frustrating, the descriptions of shifting through Matrix spaces and Neo’s visions of the code would be completely impenetrable. It would be a horrible book, and nobody would read it. Similarly, games as interactive media tell stories that would be impossible to tell in a non-interactive medium. (Which is an immensely fascinating space that I’m sure I’ll rant about at length another time.)

So this is the point at which I realized that Atlantis 18 wasn’t a story I could tell in narrative form. It’s not a book. It’s a comic at the very least, maybe animated. It’s a story about the salvage towns the Atlantis company ran on Earth after everyone with any sense left it for the stars, about twenty-five years before the intrepid Captain Zarkov was born there. It needs wide open spaces full of silence, not full of my words. The more I tried to tell that story in story form, the more I just wanted myself to shut up.

Someday, when I can figure out the medium it needs, I’ll get it out. For now it’s just bits and pieces in the background of Captain’s Log and Bluebird. What you need to know to understand the poem is, Atlantis 18 is the 18th salvage depot in what used to be the southwestern US, and little towns have grown up around all the depots, organized toward scavenging media, data, and technology from the wastes. These towns are under fairly constant predation by a number of bandit clans, some of whom roar through town in the manner described above, forming a kind of, ahem, “racing riot.” See, it sounds lame when I write it out, it’s much cooler as a visual.

Gale and her little band (her brother and a few others, mostly women) run a protection racket in Atlantis 18. One of the ways they defend the town is by leaping onto the bandits’ vehicles from the rooftops, hanging on with titanium claws that they also use to tear into the cars’ tires and engines. Imagine a bunch of velociraptors chewing on a long-haul trailer truck and setting it on fire while it careens toward a cliff, and you pretty much have it.

An old friend drew Gale for me once; I’ve never managed to do it to my own satisfaction.

There’s not an inch of bare skin left on her.
Between her skin and the weapons of time
she layers any other skins she finds,
bird in leather and titanium spurs.

She perches on the roof all afternoon
as below the bandits’ cars roar by
two other crows like her on either side
limber their wings. The sun is setting soon.

Driver’s blinded by the last light of day.
The last roof in town explodes with brown wings,
they hook their talons into the machines,
severing fuel lines, arterial sprays.
They drive the train straight into the ravine
and before they fall, the birds melt away.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

35 – Soulslip

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this is about Bluebird’s universe, which is in fact also Captain’s Log’s universe. It’s all one big sprawly thing that has gotten completely out of control from its roots as a snarky space porno. There’s still probably going to be plenty of bonking, don’t you worry your pretty little head. It’ll just be bookended by intergalactic intrigue and metaphysical meandering about consciousness. I try to dole out at least one orgasm per exhaustive philosophical rant I make a person sit through; it’s the least I can do.

It requires a bit of a mind flip –
at least that’s what they said back in my day.
You have to look at this another way.
Have to be able to let your soul slip.

Everybody is nervous their first time.
Three drops in your eyes,
jack in to the net,
ignore all the floating blue lights you get,
stare into the sun…
Put your hand in mine.

At first it feels like you’re going to die.
Some have likened it to a heart attack.
You feel the sun begin burning your eyes,
over here I feel my own char to black.
The pain’s required –
you want to know why?
It’s the only way I know to get you back.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

28 – Ghost Imaging

This one’s about Tia Never from Bluebird. I imagined her initially as some kind of necromancer, but that’s not quite right anymore – it’s more like probability manipulation at a quantum level. The army of nanomachines is totally unrelated, that’s just one of those things that happens by accident when you’re charming and sweet to lonely androids.

“Dry Seas,” June 2007

In point of fact, the dead cannot be raised
but fortunately Tia’s also found
there’s not a single dead thing underground,
only lost machines, their ghosts out of phase.

It’s possible to relocate a ghost.
Tia can find a changeling in space-time,
a cuckoo’s egg in flesh or power lines –
any clot of data can be a host.

That’s the thing the Queen doesn’t understand:
they’re the same. Each is an electric soul,
and soul will clap hands and sing if it can,
no matter if it’s a voice or a recording.
It’ll shatter the lungs of the body it stole
and pour right out again into the sand.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

14 – Crow’s Daughter

Still got Bluebird on the brain, sorry. This one is about Tia Never. I decided to do some art to go with this one, and I realized I haven’t drawn her before, so here she is, probably a bit older than she currently is in Bluebird.

There was a minuet in mouse footprints
outlined in dust outside Tia’s front door.
It’s not a tune she’s ever sung before
but she’s learned three other rodent songs since.

The crows are like a vault for ancient songs.
She learns a few from each murder she meets.
None of them have all the lyrics complete
but no one’s left alive who’d know she’s wrong.

There are also songs the small machines know,
lullabies of electricity
coagulations of complexity
and wire wombs where small AI can grow.
When Tia finds these nests of probability
she teaches them the songs she learned from crows.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

12 – Programming

I swear I didn’t start this one intending to give the Queen a chance to reply to yesterday’s sonnet. She just busted on in. Yes, I know the allegory is about as subtle as a meat axe. Therapy’s going fine, why do you ask?

Inside, the forests go on for miles
seven thousand in every direction,
limitless views of inhuman perfection.
Limitless choices, millions of styles.

Pity the fragments that flicker and die?
Must I mourn each frown’s death, weep for each grin?
Must each thought forgotten add to my sin?
Is it my fault not all wax wings can fly?

Tear at your plastic and I’ll give you fur.
Rip out your eyes – I’ll tell you what to see.
Your way has failed, so put your trust in me,
I’ll take us back home to the creatures we were.
Put Caliban back in the womb of the tree,
and never mind whatever you saw occur.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets