A Perfect Blend of Function and Taste

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cold Perpetuity

I think this is how it always starts. Vague dreamscapes retract into a cold oblivion, and I am left. I have no reason to think that it has not always been this way.

I get up and sit on the edge of the bed. Right temple pounds from the sense-memory of what must have been a sharp blow, loud noise, or bright flash, but I cannot quite remember. No matter.

Part of the room's plywood wall looks like it has been painted over with gray. The thickness and pasty color-depth of the paint indicate multiple coats. A paper is taped to it, and on it my tasks are enumerated.

1. clean latrine

2. leave room

3. report to Sym

I am not sure what Sym is, but the name registers as having some importance.

The "latrine" sits in the corner of the room. Its despairingly full bowl perches atop a pair of cinderblocks. Closing my eyes in distaste, I dump its contents down the floor drain and clean it with the soap and water provided.

I leave the room as instructed.

Mounted sodium lamps infuse the hallway with the atemporal orange of maybe-night. I enter the only door at the end of the plywood corridor, and it opens into a spacious workshop. I look around for something that could be Sym, but the only thing that registers is the man-sized metallic egg fastened to the workshop floor. Power tools are arranged around it, but their owner is nowhere to be found.

I examine the egg more closely. Its shell is fused plates of sheet metal. One of the plates lies on the floor next to the tools, leaving a considerable tangle of circuitry exposed where it would otherwise fit among the other plates.

I kneel for a better vantage point, and regard the intricacy with which the circuits and wires have been arranged. The wires' surfaces contain tiny protrusions- the telltale resistors, inductors, and switches of circuit boards etched onto the wire itself. Closer examination reveals still more circuits within those circuits, spiraling down into such unfathomable depths of intricacy of design as to make any other man quake in awe and, perhaps, fear.

I stand up before I am lost in the infinite microverse in front of me, and snap back to normal spatial awareness in time to hear a door closing. A voice addresses me.

"Good to see you this morning, Doctor. I am Sym."

I turn. The voice belongs to a man of average, I think, height and build. His face registers recognition of me, per his eyebrows. His hair is light blue, which is, I think, unusual. I respond.

"Thanks. I am to report to you."

"Affirmative. You see before you the fruits of your efforts so far." Sym indicates the metallic egg. "You will likely complete your task within the next four turns, if you concentrate."

"Then I will get to work." I turn back around, kneel again, and gauge the circuitscape from a manageably macroscopic distance.

Sym approaches, does something to the back of my head. His hands are colder than I think they should be.

Clarity of purpose dawns immediately. I grasp a nearby spanner and continue my delicate work.

"You know, it is funny, Sym," I remark offhandedly. "If I did not have you, I would have absolutely no way to finish this capsule. The resets always seem to make me forget everything it is that I am supposed to be doing, but your reminders seem to bring absolutely everything into focus." He remains silent. I scratch around the antimicrobolene port in the back of my head. I can not get used to the notion of the implant, it seems, though I have the distinct impression that it has been there for quite some time.

Hours pass, and the wires blur before me. My hands lose their deftness. Ears buzz with the anxious puttering of low-efficiency lighting, and I am tired.

Work draws to a stopping point. The microcircuitry is taut and precise, but more manipulation is required before the final plate can be safely affixed. 

I stand up on wobbly legs, and the sudden haziness of the room seems a fit to the unexplained nausea I feel deep down. I lean over to retch, but cold arms intercept me before my knees splinter to the rough wood paneling.

Pain and the putter putter of lighting the color of rusting pipes is all I can vaguely make out as I feel myself dragged from the work area and over the rough hallway floor to the room I woke up in.

Involuntary coughs rack my weakening frame, and a gray substance spatters each time. I am alarmed at the sudden absence of pain. I struggle to turn my head, and I see Sym standing at the wall, accessing a panel I had not noticed earlier. Part of the wall opens, and I see an egg of a machine much like the one I have been working on, backlit and flickering. This one seems old and used.

The putter putter of lights punishes my reeling head. Sym withdraws a paper from somewhere, pens three vague lines on it.

I do not understand. What is the purpose of this? The understanding and certainty I felt earlier at Sym's touch has shifted to the inescapable realization that I have been tricked somehow, used maybe, but by whom?

My breaths grow shallow. My eyesight fades rapidly. The egg buzzes, the lights that once puttered now flash. A panel opens to reveal the blur of a familiar body. The body collapses and Sym lays it on the nearby bed and begins to dress it in loose-fitting clothes identical to mine.

I remember the capsule and I think I understand.

"Not when I've come this close! It is almost complete," I manage, crawling to Sym.

Sym turns to me. He remains silent, grabs me by the back of my shirt and lifts me with surprising force.

"No, no, none of this is right..." I gasp. "This is not the function you were made for..."

From my new vantage point I look over at the unconscious figure lying on the bed and my fears are confirmed. I frantically grab for the paper Sym is holding with his other hand before he sends my body crashing against the wall. More gray stuff comes out, in thick splotches this time.

"Your increased level of struggle is an aberration that threatens the continuation of the cycle. You must desist." Sym's speech synthesizers deliver the words with a weight that outmatches my futile pleas.

I crumple down against the wall, blind now, and deaf. I use a little of the strength I have left to raise my hands in a sign of submission. I feel him draw close and levy a metal object against my temple.

In one last appeal by my fading musculature, I manage to seize the paper and rip off a piece. Something different... anything different to break this sterile infinity.

Sym does something to the back of my head. His hands are colder than I think they should be.

And all is well with the world as I feel a push and then dissolve.


I think this is how it always starts. Vague dreamscapes retract into a cold oblivion, and I am left. I have no reason to think that it has not always been this way.

I get up and sit on the edge of the bed. Right temple pounds from the sense-memory of what must have been a sharp blow, loud noise, or bright flash, but I cannot quite remember. No matter.

Part of the room's plywood wall looks like it has been painted over rather sloppily with gray. The thickness and crustiness of the paint indicate repeated coats. A paper is taped to it, and on it my tasks are enumerated.

1. clean latr

2. leave room

3. report to Sym

I am not sure what Sym is, but the name registers as having some importance. I take stock of the room for cleaning supplies, as it is evident from the first enumerated task that I will have to use them later in the day. Presumably, this Sym would direct me further.

At the corner of the room, above the soap and water, sits a bowl perched atop a pair of cinderblocks. I am not sure what it is for, but it is quite full. I peer deeply into the unknown container, and see gray shreds of something along with what appear to be teeth.

I nearly forget to exhale.

I approach the closed door carefully, and hear the puttering of sodium lights outside.

Something is wrong.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Slated for Deletion

NOTE: Scant beginnings of a new dystopian chapter. My goal is to slowly weave the tidbits of stories I write into one epic timeline (barring Fan Fic, obviously).

The overarching story- taking place over centuries- will take shape once the implicit connections in disparate "chapters" are discovered by the reader.


In the years of the Global Reprieve, that uneasy detente after the First War (but before the Second War and subsequent Great Atrophy), a child was born.

His parents were living off the grid, adopting the subsistence lifestyle that Deletes had been forced to resort to in those days. Squatting in the city's enclaves was common practice, but that was no excuse in the eyes of the Directorate. Like so many other things, vagrancy was punishable by permanent relocation. No one knew this better than those who skirted the margins of the law, having heard stories of loved ones dispatched under night's open sky by gloved hands, disembodied and swift. Much like the occlusive smog that often rolled in from the hills beyond the harbor, days were clouded by anxiety over the inevitable raids to come.

Compared to the others in their enclave, the mother and father lived in comfortable obscurity- the ambiguity of their stock had allowed them the freedom to interact with outsiders, members of the other castes. They had grown accustomed to "passing"- an easy feat but for the prominence of the "D"s etched in kohl that lay beneath each eye like twin klaxons of social irrelevance. Generous applications of riverbed clay muddled the marks of their station, for the most part. For some of the more scrutinous individuals with whom they traded goods, this deception landed above notice, but still shy of concern. There were risks to their ventures, of course, but, like fresh water and flour, options ran scarce in this city.

That "passing" was possible by any Delete, let alone a viable mating pair, was nothing short of remarkable. Many would say in the years to pass that this fact alone allowed for the even more exceptional birth of their unregistered, unmarked child. Circumstances shielded him from the Directorate's awareness, and decisive action spirited him away from its reach at the age of two...


The messenger entered.

"There is talk in the city about an unmarked child. They say that it is safeguarded away in one of the Delete holdouts, and that he is being raised to start an eventual revolution."

Protectorate Commander Wren narrowed his eyes at the unwelcome report. More rumors means more dissent. And more dissent, he pondered, means an emboldened insurgency. Their entire system depended on the continued existence of the Deletes as a marginal community- a people classified illegal by a law left unenforced by political necessity. Actual raids were rare checks on the potential power of demographics wielded by the lowest caste- but, paradoxically, their outright elimination would lead to a catastrophe greater than any insurrection.

There must always be a bottom rung. He recited the words noiselessly, and the ghost of this important reminder echoed in his head.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The End of Innocence - Foreword and Prologues

WARNING: What follows is fan fiction of the most dubious caliber. "End of Innocence" is based off of an old MMORPG by the name of Everquest that my friends and I played throughout middle school. While the settings and contexts are ripped off of the franchise, the main characters and their stories are wholly original. (And no, I have not made any profit off of this unlicensed work, for any Sony lawyers slavering out there who are late to the party.)

This was mostly written more than six years ago, over a period of time during which I attended high school and enjoyed some underclassman experiences in college. The tone of the writing is quite dark, but I was not as twisted a kid as some of the writing may suggest.. I promise. You're probably also wondering why this post is titled "...and Prologues." Suffice it to say that I had a mild flair for pretentiousness even then, and, not having been satisfied with the single prologue I contrived, I shot for an even three.

I always try to compare any current narrative writing I undertake with these fine examples, so I thought I'd share. Enjoy the following fruits of adolescent nerddom.


(Copyright Sony Online Entertainment)

Prologue I - Feast of the Crimson Moon

Seize your mates and claim their line,
Embrace the hate and start to feed.
Draw from youthspring’s poisoned well,
While roots decay and branches fall.

She felt its strength and sudden weakness falling limp and silent beneath her.  The tincture had worked on it exactly as it was meant to.  Its blood ran between her slender midnight fingers as she drew them from its back.  She removed it from her grasp and stood.  It was on its back now, weak, dead.  The human remained on the black ground, consumed of all its vitality.

She felt its primordial spirits still roiling inside of her angrily in displaced confusion.  For the dishonor of housing the orphaned seed she would be well compensated, she told herself, when the time came.

She and the others were arranged in an inward-facing ring, all doing the same as she had done, leaving their drained vessels discarded on the dirt before them as they finished.

“It is done, sisters.  Leave these.  The wolves and the winds will bear no memory of their passing.”

She placed her hand upon her stomach, still heaving sharp breaths from this, the first part of what was to be a nine-month ritual of sacrifice.
A seedling cuts off twice as sweetly
From within the shade of a piney husk.
Let echo cries while the birth-bloods run.
There is no dark like after first sun.

Prologue II - Dealing Death

-Neriak- Third Gate-

Neriak’s Third Gate shut with a sharp clank, bringing about the stifling silence of night in the tomblike Dark Elven city.  Now was the time when all cunning, underhanded activity of the daytime would cease, and the deep hours of slumber would commence.  Dragoons silently patrolled the streets with a watchful presence in these hours, breaking up any skirmishes and dispelling any disruptions in the city’s Foreign Quarter.  Any casually passing traveler would notice the intimidating Teir’Dal guards on duty at their solitary posts in their cold, black armor.  Perhaps also would be seen the Queen’s High Guards marching along with an air of dignity, elite soldiers on more specialized missions delivered from the Lady Thex herself.  But the true, ever watchful eyes of the city remained unseen behind shadowy crevices in the cavern rock, never to be suspected.

The Indigo Brotherhood had an unwavering grip on Neriak.  No man left or entered its domain without its absolute knowledge of his passing.  Its authority almost rivaled that of the Queen.  The residents, whether be they Teir’Dal or some other foul race from the bowels of the Underfoot, were completely oblivious to the Indigo Brothers’ claim upon their every word and every movement.  The solid walls of stone were their ears, and the wells of darkness were their eyes.  There were rumors perhaps, fleeting ideas of the evil shadow guild’s presence in the Queen’s city.  But none dared to find out for themselves, or press the matter farther than simple speculation.  Times were good in the city, and prosperity reigned for now.  Only when someone would stretch their neck out too far into the dark to see what lay beyond would things become unpleasant.

Gruftah, a particularly fat Troll bartender, was just closing up his shop in the Neriak Commons.  He scratched his bare, mottled scalp with grubby fingers as he squinted futilely into the darkness outside the tavern.  In the months that had passed since his arrival in Neriak, he thought he would have gotten used to the habits of daily life in the underground metropolis.  Back in his homeland of Innothule, there was no need for occupations.  What someone raked in from the swamp would be all that was needed for sustenance.  The Troll still had not gotten used to discerning night from day without reference to the sun’s journey across the sky.  In the deep underbelly of Norrath beneath the Forest of Nektulos, there was no sun, there was no sky.

The door behind him slammed closed as Gruftah squeezed his bulky frame through the jamb.  He widened his large, round eyes, their pupils dilating in the dark.  His heightened sense of vision allowed him to see things as if they were illumined by the absent sun, but even that quality did not come into use when it came to traversing the cold, dark streets of the City of Hate at night.  He ventured out into the desolate avenues silently, not wishing to disturb the silence.  His calloused bare feet trod on the cold flagstones as he quickly and quietly stole through the city back to the comfort of his inn.

The route was well remembered in the Troll’s mind- a right at this turn; a left here; straight down this boulevard.  This night was not unlike any other of the ones he had experienced thus far in his short time working the shop in Neriak.  He let his gaze shift upward as he moved swiftly across the cobbled pavements.  The cavern encompassing this section of Neriak was immense.  The ceiling was far out of sight and even farther out of reach.  Long, dangling tips of tree roots penetrating the cavern roof from the dark forest above was all that the Troll could observe.  One could almost sense the vast emptiness overhead, even when focusing on the cavern floor.  It was like a vacuum, an aspect missing of the Teir’Dal society that was present everywhere else.  Reflecting, perhaps, the bleak emptiness of the Dark Elven heart.

A sudden pang of nervousness struck Gruftah.  Paranoia mingled with fear within his head, prompting his shuffling feet to move ever faster.  Right; left; straight down the boulevard.  Home was but a few minutes’ walk away.

He remembered the words one of his patrons had muttered earlier in the day- something about an Indigo Brotherhood, an unseen connection through Neriak’s impenetrable gloom.  Was it a band of smugglers, rogues, thieves?  Or something more powerful?  An omniscient threat?  The patron had been unclear, but the latter seemed more probable.  They worked for the Queen once, but now operate toward ends known only to them.  Their eyes are the blank space before you, he remembered the man saying.  Their ears are those of the next person you speak to.  They are the room that you think is empty just because no one is there.  Gruftah held his thick arms close to his barrel chest, silently cursing himself for going to work without a club, axe or defense of any kind.  The Indigo Brotherhood- He had heard whisperings of such an organization before, and with every new rumor he found himself disliking his new niche within Dark Elven society more and more.  Neriak was unsafe.  Gruftah took on an all-out sprint as he rounded the final corner to his house.  Then he stopped.
He heard something clambering above the short, squat buildings to his right.
Indigo Brotherhood!
His muscles froze in terror for several agonizing minutes when silence ensued.  All he could hear was his heavy, labored breathing.  He glanced above the buildings he suspected.  Darkness, empty space.

After another moment Gruftah loosened his tense shoulders, and sighed, recognizing his baseless paranoia.  To imagine!  A Troll, lord of the swamp, marauder of Grobb, fearful of a few skinny, daylight-shy Inkies!  A deep laugh resonated from his Troll gut as he drank in the absurdity of his present situation.  He worked for the Dark Elves, did not fear them!  He clambered off a few more steps, shrugging off his ridiculous, paranoid thoughts without a glance into the night behind him.  Right turn; left turn; straight down the boulevard.
Indigo Brotherhood, Bah...

Lightning-swift and without another moment of anticipation, the Dark Elf cast aside his enchanted camouflage cloak and leaped out from the rooftop shadows.  The careless Troll did not have but a split-second to react as the keen steel edge of a blade bit into the back of his neck.  A second sword whizzed by, complementing the strike.  With an electric sting and a snap, the Troll’s body crumpled beneath the shadowy victory of his Teir’Dal assailant.  The final brutal twist of the Dark Elf’s jagged sword left Gruftah dead in the street, his unfunctioning eyes forever focused upward into oblivion.

Yiunu had performed his job, had earned his daily wages.  A slight smile of triumph flickered across his indigo face as he regarded his most recent kill.  The Troll Gruftah would not be missed, would in all probability not even be noticed as missing.  The bartender knew too much, had heard too many things from the frequenters of the tavern, and was therefore a threat to his employers.  The Dark Elf was a hired assassin, a ‘polisher’ for the Indigo Brotherhood ring, although he never called himself by that term.  He needed not any sugarcoated euphemisms for the plain reality his actions constituted.  It was no shame to him what he was.

Death was the only sure way to stop a rumor.  But from death come more rumors, more threats, and more people needing to be dealt death.  There would be more.  There would always be more.  He knew very well that it was a cycle, but it was one that, to his purposes, mattered not.  Yiunu thrust his twin dirks into the loops of his belt as his face contorted into a twisted mixture of ecstasy and irritation.

“This is getting far too easy.”

He removed his bloodstained leather gloves slowly, methodically, and inserted them into an unseen pocket of his black silk tunic.  He took one final quick glance at his most recent victory, swept his dark magic cloak back about his lean frame, and ran off into the night.  Right; left; and straight down the boulevard; awaiting the next one to die.

Prologue III - Fall of the Crimson Moon

-Neriak- Commons-

What had she done?  What had she been thinking?

She once again awoke to find herself on the verge of vomiting.  Violent dry heaves shook her body right down to her slippers as she stumbled across her bedchamber to the washbasin.  She dropped to her knees.  Facing the bowl’s dark waters calmed her convulsions slightly, and gradually they ceased altogether.

Still breathing heavily, she stood up and placed one hand on her swollen belly.  It had been going on like this for six months now- the nausea, the pain, the tenderness.  But now, as the time neared, it seemed to become ever more unbearable.  After the desiccation ceremony nine months earlier, the essence had been allowed to fester within, burning and pushing and squirming as it grew like a tumor inside her.  And the thing growing inside her seemed to be taking over her life- it ate her food, it made her sleepy, it made her sick.  She damned herself for bringing this upon herself.  In mere days, she would tell herself, it would all be over.  The ritual would be complete.  Innoruuk’s wrath, or at least her share of it, would be wrought.  This she would say, but by this she could no longer abide.

Exposure to those same drugs used to weaken the humans must have numbed my sensibilities, another part of her began to think.  This rationalization gripping hold of her as she stood before the basin, she finally vowed to end this charade of slow suicide masked as some ritual of vengeful piety.

“Innoruuk be damned,” she said.  “I’ve got to get this thing out of me.”

There was a stone hearth in the corner of her room.  She crept over to it, and, in trembling desperation, grasped the cold iron handle of a simple fire poker.

Footsteps approached the other side of the chamber door.  Someone banged upon it loudly and called for her to open up, but it was barred shut on her side.  She looked at the door in fear and got to the floor.

“This is Dragoon Drev’Tharn!  I’ve heard reports you’ve been engaging in heresy-

The guard’s voice was cut off by the quiet murmurings of another outside the door.  There was a shuffling of feet and brief muffled conversation, and the heavy footsteps of the guard retreated while this new throatier voice explained its speaker’s intentions.

“This is Agent D’Vinn of the Brotherhood...  I have been watching you, and I know what you’re about to do.  As a priestess of Thex, you need to open this door, or you will be charged with the highest treason.  Let me in now, and you will live.”

Her heart began to pace even more rapidly.  Turning away from the door, she lifted her robes and grabbed the poker handle firmly with both hands.  

A thin silver dagger slid between two vertical wooden slats in the door directly beneath the plank that barred entrance into the room.  The agent holding the dagger pushed upward, and the plank fell out of its hooks.  The agent D’Vinn barged into the room.

“Rintal T’Gere, cease!”

She gasped.

“In the name of Hate, put down the... ah.”

More agents filed in after D’Vinn to see the subject sprawled on the floor.  She was still breathing, but the blood flowing from her abdomen made it difficult for the agent to tell where she ended and the wound began.  In the puddle below her lay a tiny body, the discarded token of her ritual’s terminus.

“It seems that the crimson moon has failed to rise yet again.”  D’Vinn turned to the others around him.  Some looked at the scene before them in disgust, some in anger.  Still some, mostly those new to the Brotherhood, looked on in disturbed confusion.  “I wish I could say this was not becoming a trend, but this heretical desperation isn’t uncommon in this newest batch of priestesses.”

One of the newer members spoke up.  “But Brother D’Vinn, can’t it be argued that she carried through with her duty?  It... it was almost out on its own already-

“Her hand nullified all of the rite’s sanctity the moment it grabbed the iron, Tl’Rath.  She is a fool, a coward, and a spent woman.  By orders of the Queen, she is to be spared the honorable flames of hate, and set to the earth below our feet so that we may tread upon the wretched decay of House T’Gere forevermore.”

“She’s still breathing.  She’s not dead-

“To us, she is.  Throw her in a hole somewhere.  I will bring the remains of this... creature... to one of the high priestesses to defile.”  He knelt.  “Someone tell the guards that the Brotherhood is taking over from here.”

“Yes, master.”

D’Vinn muttered to himself as the others departed the room, priestess in tow.  “I must have a talk with Cristanos.  All these wasted bodies over an old ritual... the cleanup is getting to be quite a nuisance.”

The Clockwork Beyond

Pale burnt-orange reflections of a gaslight flickered amidst foggy Morrigan street. Chester could barely navigate the cobblestones before him as opaque, crepuscular tendrils chased away what little remained of a clear, starlit night.  The Doctor passed alleyways and alcoves on either side that threatened to engulf him in their cloistered shadows. The city heaved with a Stygian rhythm that matched his own creaking pace. He slowly fought through the misty gauze until he finally reached the appointed location.

The signpost appeared as it was described to him; it depicted a black hourglass turned on its side, white sand split evenly between its reservoirs. A few words of text had been printed beneath the image, illegible in the fog. Chester stepped to the otherwise-nondescript doorway it adorned. He consulted his pocketwatch. The appointed hour drew close. It was dangerous for him- and for anyone, for that matter- to wait outdoors for an extended duration in such weather as this. He looked around and stroked his chin, a tic of impatience he had developed over his many years of meticulous punctuality.

The muffled plea of a foghorn heralded the daily delivery of ore to the distant harbor, rousing the usual early-morning cascade of chimney swifts from their unseen urban roosts.

A man approached the meeting place just as wan stirrings of sunlight began to creep over the city.

"Lyndrew," the newcomer announced as he joined Chester on the stoop.

"Chesterfield." The Doctor extended a gloved hand by way of introduction, which Lyndrew promptly dismissed.

"Our mutual friend told me much of your work, Dr. Chesterfield. I am eager to retain your services, but I would like our discourse to remain in strictly the most professional of provinces." He turned to the door.

"Very well." Chester sniffed, withdrew his hand.

Lyndrew rapped on the door. They stood in silence for a few minutes before the door opened.

Inside a smallish man greeted them and told them to wait. The master would see them in a moment. The Doctor handed his top hat and gloves to the man in a bundle. To the chagrin of the insistent valet, Lyndrew remained decked in his coat and tweed flat cap. The valet shuffled off in an injured huff.

As Dr. Chesterfield adjusted to the low light of the building's interior, he noticed they were standing in a spacious residential foyer. A winding staircase before them opened up into a formidable mezzanine encircling the room's second floor. The mezzanine was lined with great mahogany bookshelves of countless tomes.

"Where are we? It is not often I make my way to the Westephraim."

Lyndrew sighed. "We are in the antechamber of Lord Byridge. Did you not read the dossier our mutual friend so generously supplied? This is where the device has been kept since its discovery. It is the most secure choice of quite a few poor options."

"Then my briefing differed from yours. Dunston told me that I was to apply my archaeological expertise to inspect the actual discovery site."

"Yes, and my exolinguistics abilities shall complement your more.. atavistic specialties."

Chester was grateful to have exercised foresight in handing his gloves to the valet, or else one surely would have struck Lyndrew's impudent cheek. Before he could formulate a properly affronted response, a voice boomed from above.

"Now, now, we will have no such belittling talk. You have both been chosen for your strengths in this delicate matter." A wide gentleman appeared on the balcony. He was clad in a garish yellow smoking jacket and held a long-handled cigarette. He gently puffed on his accessory as he regarded his visitors through a lemon-tinted pince-nez. "Though you have never met me, Dunston vouches for each of your respective qualities of character, and your published works more than speak for themselves."

Chester puffed out his chest and smiled. Lyndrew crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at the eccentrically garbed Lord Byridge.

"Dr. Chesterfield, your studies have taken you all across Colubus, exploring the sites of ancient civilizations. I followed your work on the clockwork nomads with particular gusto."

The host turned to his other guest. "And Lyndrew, your translation of contemporaneous accounts of the Great Atrophy has spawned entire fields of discipline concerning the birth of the modern world."

Chester's eyes widened. He turned to the man next to him and blurted, "YOU are the great J.A. Lynne?"

Lord Byridge roared with a near-deafening laugh. "Ha! Didn't expect a man so young, eh?"

Lyndrew rolled his eyes as he turned away from the dumbfounded Chester. "Yes, THAT J.A. Lynne. Please, spare me your supplication. It is foolish to focus on past accomplishments when there is so much that remains to be uncovered."

"And that, gents, brings us to the matter at hand." Byridge grunted with weighted strain as he managed to waddle down the staircase. "Your set of skills is ideal for understanding the origin and function of the device in question. I take it you folks have already met my homunculus?"

It took the Doctor a few moments to realize that the nobleman was referring to the valet who, in retrospect, did strike him as unnaturally small of build.

"Mark XX3, I presume?" Lyndrew inquired.

"XX3.4, to be precise." Byridge specified with a smile. "He will be as tall and as sophisticated as you one day, Lynne." Lynne silently glared at him in response.

"He will direct you to my study, where we have been holding the object for several months." He clapped three times, and the homunculus reappeared and signaled Chester and Lyndrew to follow.

The study was enormous. Its banisters of brass and teak framed a library that made the foyer's own collection appear quaint in comparison. A variety of globes stood at a man's height on the floor, fully equipped with the ocular assemblies needed to appreciate the meticulously depicted terrain ridges of Colubus.

But most impressive of all were the contents of a glass-paneled box on display in the middle of the room. Chester's jaw dropped upon seeing what was inside, and he even heard Lyndrew gasp quietly.

"It is... it is... organic," remarked Chester.

"It is alive," remarked Lyndrew.

"Its name is Roland, according to an analysis of the identifying documents that accompanied him," stated Byridge as he appeared behind the pair of academics. "And those same documents claim that this being is from the Century 21."

"Impossible," erupted Chester. "According to what little we know of the old-style date system, that is.."

"..before the Great Atrophy," finished Lyndrew.

The three observers drew closer to examine the specimen. "Object Designate: Roland" lay beneath the glass covering in a comatose state, its autonomic processes continuing to function at a slow, barely perceptible rate.

"Have you ever seen it before? Flesh and blood?" asked Byridge soberly.

Lyndrew removed his cap and scratched his head. "No."

As the trio leaned closer, the bright blue light from their mechanical eyes imbued the pale, breathing frame before them with a warm glow unmatched by the coldness of their own, fully metallic bodies.


Outside the house marked by the sideways hourglass, the morning's fog had dissipated. Beneath the image on the sign, words, in the modern tongue, came into focus: "01100111 01101000 01101111 01110011 01110100 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101101 01100001 01100011 01101000 01101001 01101110 01100101?"