Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Entry in the Parenting Journal

That's right... it's the shocking account of how December tried to kill us. Thrills! Chills! Spine-tingling terror! Also, coughing. Lots and lots of coughing.

Oh, and presents. Lots of those, too.

Read it here!

Squirrels versus Salamanders

Here's what you need to know:

Salamanders are the source of all Evil in the Universe. They are vicious, cunning, and cruel. They are also extremely hard to see. Very often, when you have a particular run of bad fortune, it's because one or more salamanders are actually clinging to you.

Squirrels, on the other hand, are the sworn enemies of the salamanders. They may or may not care for goodness, nobility, and humanity, but they definitely oppose the salamanders and all their works.

So when you're walking under a tree and a squirrel throws a nut at you, he isn't trying to hurt you. He's trying to knock the salamanders off.

This is the kind of religious revelation that comes to CoSci Majors after a long night in the computer lab. (And yes, that's exactly where it came from - I can't claim credit for this one.) It is best explained in a tone of wide-eyed sincerity, preferably on a Saturday morning when someone has come knocking on your door to find out if you've heard how wonderful their particular religious beliefs are.

Seriously, try it out the next time you get the opportunity.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections on Christmas

First of all, yes: we do celebrate Christmas. From a religious angle, it's practically a secular holiday (and from what I'm told, it has been for a long, long time); so there's no problem there. From a practical standpoint, it's a simple matter of fitting in. Not celebrating Christmas is still considered unusual, if not actually wrong, so even if we didn't celebrate it, we'd still have to pretend.

But we do celebrate it. At least, we celebrate it in about the same way as the general population does here in Texas: put up the seasonal decorations, throw in a few pious platitudes, then move on to the presents. And if you're wondering, that does mean that some of us celebrate Chanukah, or other things. Hell, Mbata actually celebrates Kwanzaa. It's basically a question of your cultural background, and none of it has much to do with our true worship.

(The one place where it really does make a difference is in our childhood education. I've mentioned before that we're generally raised in isolated locations: rural farmhouses; "survivalist" - ha! - compounds; little-known orphanages - some real, some fake; and the like. It's about the only way to teach us about the Ancients and their ways while still preserving our secrecy. So you can probably imagine our confusion when our teachers started telling us about the birth of Jesus Christ - which they did, because we had to be able to fit in once we leave the compound. There's a story or two there, but I'll have to come back to that later.)

So... Christmas. While the rest of the country was snowed in, we wandered around in jeans and T-shirts, because Texas weather is like that except when it isn't. Work was crazy right up until the last minute, and actually a little after that - we wound up staying open a bit later than the schedule dictated. There was a steady stream of customers, and several odd little problems that we had to resolve before the holiday weekend.

As of Chistmas Eve, I am officially Moved In With Claire. Her parents either didn't mind, or politely ignored the matter - it helped that they'd gotten a hotel room. My parents claimed prior commitments and stayed away, though mainly they were just worried that too many of us together (at a family holiday, with outsiders present) might give something away. We'll be doing a combination Christmas / New Year with them this weekend.

All in all, the holiday went well. We kept it down to a few presents, but they were nice ones: Claire got me a Kindle, for example, and I got her a new laptop. Her parents bought her a set of new tires for her car, which I thought was extremely generous (and really, really helpful). Claire's dad turns out to be the cook in their family, and despite the closet-sized kitchen in our apartment he put together an amazing Christmas dinner. So we all ate too much, and then went for a walk afterwards - because, hey, nice weather.

Spending the better part of a week together hasn't changed my impression of them at all. I like them. They're smart, funny, and a little eccentric; I felt right at home with them. When I took them to the airport yesterday, I was actually sorry to see them go.

This has been a really good week in other ways, too: no strange dreams; no new deaths; no murderous assignments from the Elders; no inexplicable weirdness. It doesn't seem likely that all that will be left behind with the coming of a new year, but it sure would be nice if it worked out that way.

Obligatory Disclaimer for F.B.I. and N.S.A. agents who might or might not be reading this: the Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction, and is in no way intended to bring about the end of the world.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Privacy Policy

The first truly honest privacy policy:
At COMPANY _______ we value your privacy a great deal. Almost as much as we value the ability to take the data you give us and slice, dice, julienne, mash, puree and serve it to our business partners, which may include third-party advertising networks, data brokers, networks of affiliate sites, parent companies, subsidiaries, and other entities, none of which we’ll bother to list here because they can change from week to week and, besides, we know you’re not really paying attention.

We’ll also share all of this information with the government. We’re just suckers for guys with crew cuts carrying subpoenas.
Go read the whole thing. I'm sure it's getting plenty of exposure, but it deserves to be passed along.

Virtual Housekeeping

Okay, so... I'm rearranging the links on the Virtual Neighbors to better reflect my actual, y'know, reading habits.

I've changed it from a straight alphabetical list to one that sorts by recent updates. I'm not sure whether I'll keep it that way, but I figure it's worth the experiment.

I've also added a bunch of new links. Some are people I've only recented started reading. Others I would have added long ago, except that I didn't want certain elements of my readership to go and crap on their blogs as well. (Incidentally, if you'd prefer not to be listed on my sidebar, let me know and I'll take you off the list, no questions asked.)

And hey, if there's someone I've neglected - or even someone you think I should be reading - feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Monday, December 27, 2010

For A Story vs. About A Story

Kit Whitfield, author of Benighted[1] and In Great Waters, has a fascinating piece on how to tell the difference between an idea about a story, and an idea for a story.

I'd really recommend that you read the whole thing - especially if, like me, you're an aspiring writer who tends to get a little over-ambitious with your writing projects - but the section of the article that really stood out for me was this:
"Ideas about stories can drive you to distraction. Their fatal flaw is this: because they're not confined by specifics, there's no limit to how good they can sound. ... Usually you'll delay writing it, mostly because you don't actually know how to start (because you don't have anything to start with), and the longer you delay, the better the story can look because the further into fantasy it retreats. In the end you can find yourself delaying writing it precisely because any pinning down of specifics will be a reduction of the grand idea: no concrete rendering can be as all-encompassing and full of vague potential as an abstract idea."

I have done this. I had an idea about a story that I mistook for an idea for a story. I spent years working on it[2], and the results were... bad. Even more telling was the fact that the longer I continued, the worse the results became. If it had just been a bad idea, I might have dropped it much earlier; but I really, really wanted to have written the sort of book that I wanted this to be.

I finally just quit writing for a while. When I started again, I picked a fresh idea and ran with it. That project had its own problems[3], but it worked. I finished it.

My advice? Save yourself the grief. Learn to tell the difference between an idea for a story and an idea about a story.

[1] Which is also Bareback, depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home.

[2] Or, more accurately, years trying to get it started.

[3] Primarily, it suffered from Kitchen Sink Syndrome: I tried to include every cool idea that I'd had about that world. This had fairly predictable effects on the plot: it became unfocused and meandering. Now, some writers can get away with meandering because of the strength of their prose (c.f. Tolkien, Robert Jordan); but I am not one of them. Similarly, there are plenty of fantasy/science fiction stories which exist primarily to show off a particularly interesting world (e.g. Gulliver's Travels) - so that can be done, it's just that I hadn't structured my story to do that. And if I'd been writing in a more serial format - an ongoing monthly comic, for example - it might have worked anyway. A novel only has so much room.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Not The Christianity I Remember: Christmas

"Keep the Christ in Christmas."

I remember that admonition from my youth. We heard it in our church, preached from the pulpit. Don't let the world distract you. Don't get so caught up in buying presents and celebrating the end of the year that you forget that we're also celebrating the Birth of Christ. For us, as Christians, that is the Reason For The Season.

I'm not a Christian anymore. And after decades of silence, I'm hearing the admonition again. "It's okay to say 'Merry Christmas'." "Keep the Christ in Christmas." "Jesus is the reason for the season."

But somehow, here in America, the meaning has changed. What I remember is an admonition from Christians, to Christians. "Don't forget why this season is important to us, as Christians." It was the remembrance of the Savior's coming, and the hope for His coming again.

When I hear it now, it is neither of those. It's not just okay to say "merry Christmas". To a certain mindset, it's mandatory. Anything else is not Politically Correct. If I say, "Happy Holidays," it's not because I hope you'll have an enjoyable New Year, too. It's because I'm part of a vast and vicious conspiracy to rob Christmas of its true meaning.

"Keep the Christ in Christmas" has become, not a reminder from Christians, to Christians; but rather a way to bludgeon non-Christians, or not-sufficiently-Christians, with the idea that this is a Christian Holiday.

It isn't. It never was. Look at the Bible. Jesus wasn't born in December. He wasn't born in the winter at all. Look at all the other imagery associated with the midwinter celebration: evergreens, mistletoe, the holly and the ivy, exchanging gifts... these are fundamentally (and originally) pagan things. And these things have been part of the celebration for centuries.

Yes, Christmas is the Holy Day when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. No, it isn't purely that. It never has been. Relax. The term "Xmas" has been in use since at least 1700, probably longer. It goes hand-in-hand with the use of "Xtian" (or "Xpian") for Christian. There's no modern conspiracy to remove Christ's name* from Christmas by substituting an X. And if it's an ancient conspiracy, it's been failing for hundreds of years. Why worry about it now?

If you're a Christian, then I hope you have a merry Christmas. If you're Jewish, happy Chanukah. If you're something else - and there are a great many people with very ancient traditions who are "something else" - then I hope you have a happy holiday. If you're celebrating new traditions, then my ardent desire is that they work for you, that they bring you together with Kith and Kin, and that all things work out well. And if you're a nonbeliever, as I am, then I hope you have a good time regardless, as I plan to do.

For the love of all things holy, these times are meant to unite us. Using them to sow division, or demonize the folks who do things different from you, is a particularly vicious sort of sacrilege**. So whoever you are, whatever you believe, I hope the coming year is better than the past one, and I hope you can celebrate without the need to make others feel less.

* Or title, really.

** This line originally said "as close to purely evil as you can get", but upon re-reading I decided that that was seriously overstating the case.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflections on Possible Future In-Laws

Claire's parents are here.

Her father is - well, I don't want to give too much physical description, for reasons that should be obvious; but he's extremely thin and tall enough to be intimidating in spite of it. Some people, because they're thin, look frail. He doesn't. He just looks lean. He was dressed in a white button-down shirt and navy blue slacks, both neatly pressed... but no tie, and I thought I saw the edge of an interesting tattoo behind his collar when he turned around.

Claire's mother is not so tall, and more heavily built. I'm not sure quite how to describe it, except to say that she's big boned - and that I mean that as a compliment. She's darker overall, too: hair, skin, and eyes. I'd say she was an Autumn, except I can't remember the colors for the seasons, so I probably shouldn't. She wore a black shirt covered with a pattern of lighter swirls, and lightweight tan pants. (It's warm here - in the seventies - despite being mere days from Christmas. It's enough to make me wonder if Texas got moved to the southern hemisphere and nobody noticed.)

I mentioned earlier that they're still married to each other, unlike all of my immediate family and most of my extended family. It showed, too - not as casual displays of affection, but as a sort of comfort in the way they stood together or moved around each other. Claire charged down the stairs and practically leapt into their arms, and I was both warmed by and slightly jealous of her obvious affection for them. My parents stuck me in a compound in west Texas, where I could Learn Our Ways. I knew who they were, and I came to like them later, but this kind of intimate knowledge and family solidarity was both strange and touching. Claire obviously grew up loving these people. By contrast, I might as well have grown up in an orphanage.

Claire's father studied me for a long moment, while I stood and waited. I could have moved forward, made polite gestures, but that didn't seem appropriate in the face of that cold, Nordic regard. And after a moment he nodded, and offered his hand. I offered a firm grip, and got one in return. For a moment, I was intensely glad that the kid who had tried to kill me outside the pharmacy hadn't had this sort of build, but I forced that image out of my mind. Hey, it's only natural to be intimidated by someone who might one day be your father in law, right? (Actually, that's a serious question. I have no idea. Is that normal?)

Claire's mother smiled and greeted me by name, and hugged me as if I was already part of the family. I found myself hugging her back, more by reflex than intent.

We all went back into Claire's apartment. Her parents looked around - noting, I'm sure, the signs of my regular presence. Thank the Dark Gods I haven't actually moved in yet. My lease isn't up until Friday, so if I need to I can sleep at my old apartment (on a one-inch mattress that's about as wide as my shoulders, left over from some very old camping trips, but what the hell). Mainly, though, they seemed to be making sure that the place was well kept, and that Claire was well and happy. Again, I found myself slightly jealous.

Well, to make a long story short, they seem to like me. Surprisingly, I like them too. I had really expected this to be an exercise in simply fooling them, but they're bright and enjoyable. I shouldn't be surprised; Claire is bright and enjoyable, too. I offered them wine, or something stronger, and they took me up on it.

Then we went out to dinner. I insisted on paying, just to show I could do it, and her parents let me - but they insisted that when we go out again, later in the week, they were going to pay. I'm fine with that. I think it's a sign of approval.

Hector the Cat, by the way, shows nothing but affection for Claire's parents. His fundamental and elemental dislike of me appears to be an entirely personal matter. Stupid cat...

After Friday, I'll be living with Claire in her apartment. Her parents will be visiting through the weekend, and I'll drive them back to the airport on Tuesday. (Claire happens to be working, and I happen to be off. I was a lot more bothered by the prospect before I met them.)

I haven't been given any more assignments from the Elders, perhaps in recognition of how busy I am already. Also, I haven't heard about any new assaults from the Snake Cult. Maybe that means that they've decided to back off, but probably not. So I'll stay wary until I have a reason to relax.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. No homicidal cats were slain while writing this post, not even in self-defense. The same goes for possible in-laws.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Santa really wants

You know what Santa could really use? A spell-checker for the e-mail submission form. The nine year old who wrote in entirely phonetic spellings was somewhat understandable - all I had to do was read it out loud.[1] But the kid who typed the entire thing in Textspeak and left the first five lines as one giant, unpunctuated, run-on sentence? I have not the words. I already have eyestrain from looking over the 2.2 billion names on my list. I. do. not. need. this.

Proofreading, people. Please. I'm begging you, here. At the very least, capitalize your name for me. And please, please double-check that you gave me a working e-mail address. I just know if you're naughty or nice; I can't pull your contact information out of the air. You want a letter from Santa, ya gotta give me something to work with.

And you know what? As long as I'm ranting, Santa does not grant any of the following Christmas wishes:
  1. A poodle, a pet fish, a chihuahua, and a parrot; if I put them in my bag, they get squished. No pets.
  2. A Lambourghini; you seriously think I can fit that under your tree? For that matter, do you know what that would do to your chimney?
  3. Alan Rickman; he squishes, too. You want to see Santa hauled in for kidnapping and negligent homicide? I didn't think so.
  4. A new boyfriend or girlfriend; that's Cupid's schtick, not Santa's. And again... squishy.
  5. To be an Elf; look, you're either born with pointy ears, or you aren't. Not much I can do about that.
  6. A job; here's the thing. There's a whole category of requests that I would love to give people. Problem is, I can't. I run a toy factory; I don't have the power to fix the world.
  7. An obscene sum of money; yet again I remind you that I run a toy factory. I don't run a bank, and I'm certainly not going to start printing money up here.
  8. A baby pig; no. No pets. Also... how disturbed should I be by this request?

C'mon, folks. Legible letters with reasonable requests and the season's greetings. Is that too much to ask for? I've got elves pulling double and triple shifts, reindeer who want double feedings even though they know they get too heavy to fly when they eat that way, and a wife who's started referring to herself as a "Christmas widow". Cut me some slack, here.

I swear, we ever get these toys delivered, I am taking that tropical vacation I've been promising myself for the last hundred and seventy-six years.


[1] This trick works surprisingly well when reading Chaucer, too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

...And a bottle of rum!

The ship pressed through the cold northern waters, driven by a powerful tailwind. Though the icy bite of the wind had driven most of the men below, the Captain was glad: if this kept up, they would make port half a week ahead of schedule. So long as the sails hold, he reminded himself, and looked up at the rigging.

Captain William MacDonald hadn't meant to sail so far north, but shortly after leaving Jamaica they'd stumbled into the path of Calico Jack. The pirate was persistent, and chased them up the coast for the better part of a week before MacDonald had managed to lose him.

He glanced again at the rigging, and for a moment he saw something else, hanging in the sky beyond it. The wind whipped spray into his eyes, and he blinked. Then he turned scanning the skies, squinting against the wind and the cold.

It was off to the starboard now, and no mistaking it: a tiny ship, the size of one of his own ship's lifeboats, and it flew. It cut through the frozen air just above the waves, pulled by creatures the likes of which Bill MacDonald had never seen. A chill went through him, colder than the winter wind. He looked for the flag, saw it mounted on a small pole at the front of the ship: a jolly roger, its skull-and-crossbones picked out in red.

The stories of Christopher the Red were true, then. Captain MacDonald could scarcely credit such madness, but already he was calling for his men. They came forth from belowdecks, scurrying to arm themselves and get the cannon into place.

It was already too late. The pirate had circled again, and his men sleeted the deck with arrows. Crouched low beside the wheel, the Captain saw that the stories were true on that account, too: Christopher the Red was full-grown man, but his crew was tiny, barely half his size.

Nobody knew where he had found them, or how. There were stories of an ancient map, discovered by a shipwrecked sailor; of the pirate who had taken the map and followed it to an ancient temple; of the powerful artifacts and servants he had found there. Now he preyed on the merchant fleets, striking and vanishing like a devilish ghost. No ship was designed to fend off an attack from above, and Christopher the Red took full advantage of the fact. His craft was too small, too fast, too maneuverable. He could take it in any direction, while the sailing ships were at the mercy of the winds. A lucky shot might end his reaving, but nothing else would do it.

"Run up the white flag!" called Captain MacDonald, yelling to be heard over the wind. "Have the men get to the boats! We'll stand off, and let them take what they will."

This, too, was part of the stories. Ships that surrendered willing, whose men withdrew and waited, were left afloat. On ships that fought, all hands were slain and the vessel was torched.

"Sir?" asked the Mate, looking at his Captain.

"We carry bullion," said MacDonald. "How much can they take, in that little ship of theirs? How much weight before they cannot fly?"

It was done as he ordered: the sails were furled, and the surviving men went into the boats. Alone on the deck, Captain MacDonald raised the white flag himself. Christopher the Red must have seen what was happening, for he took his ship out and up, making a wide circle around the floundering merchantman. He circled closer as the boats spread out, and finally brought his flying vessel down onto the deck.

Captain MacDonald did not waste the chance to see the legend in person. It was all of a piece with the stories: the great, fat man dressed in red velvet, his belt and boots of heavy black leather; the little men spreading out behind him, some standing guard while others made a line for the hold; the strange beasts that pulled the flying ship, the beasts that now pawed impatiently at the deck, eager to be off once more. The ship looked little like any boat that Captain MacDonald knew, but then it never touched the water. A pair of silver runners along the bottom gave it a way to sit on land.

Christopher the Red moved towards Captain MacDonald without the slightest hesitation. His expression, if he had one, was hidden behind a thick, white beard. "I know what you must do," he said evenly.

Captain MacDonald yanked the pistol from his belt, but the pirate was faster. The impact of his ball skewed MacDonald's aim, and his own shot buried itself in the wood of the mast. MacDonald sank to his knees, and one of the little men took the pistol from his hand. He'd had no choice; he could not willingly surrender his ship. With luck, though, he had managed to spare his men.

The little men were moving quickly, or perhaps it only seemed that way. They raced from the hold to the flying ship and back, carrying the heavy gold bricks as if they weighed nothing. There was something on the back of the ship, a sack of some sort, that never seemed to grow full no matter how much they dropped inside. They were taking the entire cargo. Captain MacDonald's career would be ruined, but he doubted he would survive to see that.

And indeed, Christopher the Red was approaching him with cutlass drawn. The blow smashed into his shoulder, and he fell to his side on the deck as the pirate wrenched his blade free. Darkness was closing in around the edges of his vision, but he could hear - distantly, and growing ever more distant - the pirate laugh: "Ho ho ho!" he called to the little men who served him. "And a bottle of rum!"

* * *

The sleigh circled once as Christopher the Red looked down on his latest conquest. The boats were moving back in, the crew returning to the ship.

"What now?" asked the Elf at his side. "Another Merchantman?"

"No." For a moment, melancholy touched the pirate's expression. "I've had enough of piracy... and we've treasure enough to last us centuries. We'll find some place where nobody can reach us, and settle down there."

"But what will we do?" asked the Elf.

Christopher the Red shrugged, and patted his massive belly. "When I was young, I dreamed of owning a toy shop. I can certainly afford to build one now. Who knows? Maybe I'll atone for some of the wrongs I've done by bringing toys to children who don't have any. It would be easy enough. Our friends can take us anywhere."

The Elf fell silent. If his master was sincere, he would be relieved. There was no escaping his bondage, but a life of making toys for children would be far better than this. In time, he and his brothers might even come to enjoy it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

This is the way the world ends

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

"Fire and Ice"
Robert Frost

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

"The Hollow Men"
T. S. Eliot

I have a certain fascination with the end of the world. It's not an uncommon interest; in my youth, the specter of nuclear annihilation was very much with us. Then it was the end of the millenium, which was certain to either bring about the collapse of civilization (via the Y2K bug), or the end of the world (because God likes big, round numbers). Over the course of my life, the ideas of the Rapture of the faithful and the Tribulation of those who remain has crept from fringe lunacy to almost-mainstream Christianity, and made its way into alternative media. The Swine Flu[1] and the West Nile virus offered plausibly apocalyptic consequences, though in the event neither has proved especially deadly. Peak Oil and its attendant collapse offer another, equally credible threat - but again, so far we've managed to stave it off. Much the same can be said of Global Warming, though that may not tell us as much about the nature of the threat as it does about our inability (or unwillingness, it comes to much the same thing) to see it coming.

Literary considerations of the End of the World are even more varied and strange. Stephen King offers at least two: Captain Tripps, the superflu that wipes out civilization in The Stand, and the curious spectacle of world that has simply "moved on" in his Dark Tower series. Ayn Rand presents us with an economic apocalypse in Atlas Shrugged... and in the process, helps explain some of the appeal of the genre: the possibility of just burning everything down and starting over. The Zombie Apocalypse is now so much a part of the zombie genre that it's hard to cite specific examples; consider the Resident Evil movies, Romero's Land of the Dead, or Max Brooks' World War Z. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child presented a mutagenic retrovirus in their novel The relic, which was made into a decent horror movie. The sequel, Reliquary, has its heroes racing to prevent a refined version of that same virus from escaping into the ecosystem.

I have at least two apocalyptic stories going in my head at the moment. Apocalypse River owes its existence to that vision from Reliquary, which made its way into a particularly memorable dream. As a story, it is post(?) apocalyptic, set in a world where civilization has been torn apart by a widespread retrovirus that has radically increased the rate of mutation in the world. It is meant to be at least passably feasible in terms of modern biology, though I don't pretend to high-level scientific understanding.

The other project is more surreal, more nightmarish. It owes more to the Dark Tower stories than to anything in the real world. It was born, in part, from a consideration of the movie Cloverfield as a case study in emergency preparedness over at Making Light. It was also part of a discussion in the comments on Slacktivist of how it was very nearly impossible to write a story in which magic suddenly started working - or, more to the point, science and technology suddenly stopped working - without creating the reasonable expectation that all life on earth would suddenly drop dead.[2] More than anything else, though, it owed itself to a peculiar vision - a sort of waking dream - that followed a particularly long night with a particularly sick child. The vision was, more or less, this: What if the Zombie Apocalypse was averted because the first zombie ran into a parent on the way to get medicine for a sick child? I loved it, this idea of a parent who was so perfectly exhausted that even the appearance of a zombie and the possibility of imminent apocalypse were reduced to another set of minor obstacles on the way to get meds. Since then, the idea has received a kick in the pants from two sources: primarily, Chris The Cynic's excellent A World Without God fiction, in which he explores what the removal of Divine Grace might do the the world around us; and Edges of Darkness (which was apparently adapted from a stage play). Though Edges of Darkness presents itself as a Zombie Apocalypse movie (and not a particularly good one, at that), it does have some interesting elements: two of the characters in this post-zombie-apocalypse world drink blood as a way of increasing their vitality.

So this second story centers around a group of people (certainly not your usual fantasy heroes) trying to preserve their families in a world that seems to be coming apart on a metaphysical level. I've alluded to the scenario now and again on this blog - most notably here - but perhaps the most prominent feature of it is that everything has gone strange.

This particular story, and this particular setting, has room for an awful lot of apocalyptic influences. The electricity-dependent ghosts of Pulse, the invisible-but-deadly ghosts of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (which caused a man's wife and child to drop dead beside him, while leaving him whole and intact), the poorly realized post-gasoline anarchy of The Road Warrior or Tooth and Nail, the pseudo-zombie plague of 28 Days Later...

What's your favorite apocalyptic scenario, and why does it appeal to you?

1. I'm told this is called something like "The American Disease" in the middle east.

2. The core of the problem is that even minor changes to physics-as-we-currently-understand-it have huge consequences not only throughout the world, but in essential human biochemistry as well. I wish I could find the thread again, as it was a fascinating bit of reading... but my reaction was immediate and perverse: of course you could write a story in which the nature of the world changed completely and still deal with those issues.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reflections on Trials and Tribulations

This is going to be a short, late entry. At least, it better be - we're awfully busy.

Let's see... following up from last week: Billy and Crystal are back in their apartment. They have a new, stronger lock on their door, and some extra watchdogs following them around. That's a risk - no matter how unobtrusive the entity, there's always the chance that someone will be able to perceive it, and the things that provide good protection don't tend to be entirely unobtrusive. The Elders approved it, though, so they're safe enough as long as nothing actually goes wrong.

The police are very confused about the whole incident. As I understand it, one of the neighbors called them. We'd already gone by the time they arrived, and Crystal did something to make sure that nobody saw us leave. (That reminds me: I need to ask her about that. It could be a very useful thing to know.) So when they got there, they found blood on the floor and bullet holes in the walls, but no bodies. That last part was very disturbing to Billy and Crystal, but didn't really surprise me. I'm guessing the twins took care of it. How and why are open questions.

We told the police that Billy and Crystal had been out with me, and had decided to crash at my place rather than drive home after drinking. Naturally, we had no idea what had happened in the apartment - they only found out that something had happened this morning, when they went home. No, we had no idea who might have been involved. Billy and Crystal don't even own a gun.

After the incident outside the pharmacy, that's still a lot more police attention than I'm comfortable with; but I think it'll be okay.

Since then, it's been... quiet. Well, no, that's not quite right. The snake cult seems to have backed off. At least, I haven't seen any sign of them, and nobody I know has been attacked. On the other hand, there hasn't been any word from the Elders, so I assume they aren't in the midst of delicate negotiations or anything.

But it hasn't been quiet. We're way, way too close to Christmas for that. We are, in fact, up to our eyeballs in Christmas shopping and seasonal idiocy. In addition to the store decorations and the incessant Christmas carols, we have a huge run of people coming in to make sure that they have enough medication to get through the holidays. It'll only get worse as we get closer to the last minute.

Most of my stuff is now in storage, and the rest is over in Claire's apartment. Claire has finished her finals, and it looks like she'll come out with two B's and an A. So that's a bright spot in the week, at least.

Oh, and it sounds like her parents will be coming into town for Christmas. That's... well, terrifying, actually, but also pretty cool. Here's hoping they don't hate me.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or things is entirely accidental and most certainly does not mean that I have betrayed the cult or its allies in any way, so please don't send anything to devour me.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ah, the Holiday Season

I just love the holidays...

One of the few advantages of living in Texas is that I can largely ignore the weather. It rarely gets cold enough that I'd actually need to know about it in advance. So we really don't need weather reports. What we need - especially right now, with the holidays fast upon us - is an idiot report.

"As you can see, today's forecast calls for increasing levels of idiocy through the end of the week. We're expecting scattered traffic accidents as the Stupid Front moves through, so drive carefully and use your headlights. You might want to consider using your turn signals, too. On Friday, there will be an eighty-two percent chance of people forgetting where they put things and rushing around the house in a panic. Look for a flood of rude customers in the stores, especially this weekend, and continuing into next week."

Seriously, it would be a lot more helpful.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Realtor Responds to Santa

So a realtor sent Santa an offer (probably by accident). Santa sent the realtor a letter. Now, the realtor has sent Santa a response:

Dear Santa,

This is delightful and made our day! Little did we think you'd notice our Christmas letter under the pile you must receive! Thank you so much for your lengthy response ( I know this must be your peak season), and please give my regards to the Mrs. and the elves for us here at LampLighter One. My daughter especially wants you to say hello to Rudolph, as she watches the two of you incessantly in your special this time of year. And that blond elf who wants to be a dentist...I hope he made it! After all, you must need a dentist from time to time in the far north!

And, listen, I know you'll be doing a lot of housecalls soon, so if you happen to find someone with a real estate need, or if, perhaps, they have a very big stocking and need an acre or two, please mention us to them. Or them to us. Either way, I can't imagine a finer referral! And if I might be so bold, you might consider a second home in a temperate climate during the off-season, because contrary to your impression, we have wonderful deals for people who own their homes as well!

I don't know if you've considered re-fi's as a little envelope to put on the tree, but it would be a gift most families would treasure--a couple hundred extra dollars each moth! If you still have a mortgage, I bet we can beat your interest rate and save you enough in a year to bring a gift to every child in Tanzania. Or maybe Zimbabwe. But you get the idea: you can make a little savings go a long way! In this year of deficit-consciousness, people want to know if Santa is pulling his own weight! If it gets out that Santa is government-subsidized, and you're dressed in Red! Oh my! And bringing a present to every boy and girl sounds a little socialist since they didn't earn it themselves. You see where this might go....

No, here at LampLighter One, we yearn for the good, old-fashioned Christmas. It's just that we don't think anyone should be born in a manger, except maybe a pig or sheep. If you're going to have Three Kings over for the shower, we don't think they should wind up picking hay out of their socks. You need to have some basic housing needs met, and that's where we come in! I haven't checked out comparables in Bethlehem, but I bet we could have gotten that young couple a home, married or not. After all, the interest rates are at historic lows!

That's what I mean by Keeping your eyes open for us. If you notice someone without a home, please put the thought in their head that we're here to help. It's what we do.

Merry Christmas from LampLighter One!
John Godbey
{phone # redacted}

PS Santa, if you don't mind, we'd love to share your letter with others!

So there you go. We write custom Santa letters (when it seems called for) mainly to let the kids know that yes, someone actually does read their letters to Santa. Every so often, though, we do it for fun. And every once in a while, the effort is rewarded.

(I have another story from this year's letters, but I'll have to post it later.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Santa Responds to the Realtor

This is in response to an e-mail Santa received offering special financing for first-time homebuyers.

North Pole Mail

Dear John,

Mrs. Claus and I were very happy to see your letter. We just knew you’d be on the Nice list again this year. We were so glad you thought to include us in your program. It really is very kind of you.

However, Mrs. Claus and I are not first-time homebuyers. We already own our home (and a considerable amount of the surrounding land), and have for hundreds of years. While we do have quite a lot of elves and reindeer in our community (not to mention the occasional snowman), real estate is generally not an issue. The elves are quite industrious, and generally build their own homes or expand existing dwellings to meet their needs. They’re also quite willing to pitch in for their friends and neighbors (which is wonderful, since reindeer carpentry leaves much to be desired).

So, while your concern is greatly appreciated, I don’t believe that the North Pole has any need for special financing or other real estate services at this time. Keep up the good work, and have a very merry Christmas!

Lots of love from
Santa Claus

Thursday, December 9, 2010

If Christmas Carols accurately reflected the season

God rest ye merry gentlemen,
Do not your nap delay.
You've eaten Christmas dinner,
So go and hit the hay.
The couch is calling out to you.
Upon it you must lay.

O snorings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy!
O snorings of comfort and joy!

Reflections on Near Death Experiences

I know, I know, this is going up late. It nearly didn't go up at all. I have now survived two separate attempts on my life, and the second one was about three hours ago.

The first one happened last Friday. I'd just left work, after a day that had gone on far too long. I reached my car, and was starting to unlock the door when something slithered out from under it and sort of swelled up into a naked young man. I have a vague impression of an open jaw and extended fangs, striking down at me from atop an unnaturally long neck. Everything else I know about my attacker (the small, thin build; the mop of unruly black hair; the pale blue eyes; and the fishbelly white skin) I picked up later.

I'd love to tell you that I blocked his attack with a quick bit of judo and hurled him to the ground, but... no. I panicked, and must have tried to hit him, only I was holding my keys and drove the car key into the side of his extended neck, just below the jaw. His head jerked back, and I stumbled away from him. I really don't know whether I hit something vital, but my keys were still in my hand and there was suddenly a lot of blood on his neck. He staggered, and... writhed... and suddenly his neck was shorter, and the fangs were gone. The blood was still flowing, though. I was on my back, but he was the one bleeding - and badly, by the look of it.

He turned and ran, crossing the street at a pace I couldn't have matched even if I had been on my feet. It's a wonder he didn't get run over, but he happened to catch the light just right: everyone was stopped.

I filed a police report. I had to; there had been witnesses. Still... a naked man assaults a pharmacist just as he's leaving a pharmacy? They assumed he was a junky. They told me I was lucky I hadn't been injured, and I agreed. And then I sat in my car until I'd finished shaking, and then I drove home.

To be honest, I'd never set up protections against direct physical assault. If the snake cult attacked me, I assumed they'd use something more esoteric, something that left less physical evidence. As a result, I'd very nearly died.

That wasn't the most disturbing part of the attack, though. The real twist was after I'd parked the car (I have no memory of actually driving home, but I must have managed), and climbed the steps to the apartment. There was a note under the door. It said:

"He should not have been a danger to you. Learn faster. Trust your dreams."

It was, of course, unsigned. I read it three times. Then I burned it.

I didn't like the implication that whatever was going on with my dreams might have... not just effects, but applications here in the mundane world. And for the life of me, I couldn't see any other way to read that. I already suspected that my dreams were doing something to me. Hell, if you've been following along, you know that I've feared that for months, now. Now I had the additional pleasure of knowing that someone out there knew more about what was going on with those dreams than I did, but didn't care to give me a full explanation. Fucking marvelous, that was.

And anyway, no. I'm not going to trust in my dreams to keep me safe from attackers. If my life is in danger, I'm going for solutions that I know will work. So on Saturday I went and bought a gun, and signed us up for a Concealed Carry class. That night I added a new invocation. It wouldn't offer as much protection as I'd really like, but the idea was to buy me some time if something like this happens again.

So that was Friday and Saturday. The class is actually this weekend, but I'm carrying the gun around anyway.

On Sunday, Claire and I went to church. Father Peter wasn't there, and the sermon was centered around the beginning of Advent and the importance of waiting for the arrival (or, in our fallen age, the return) of Jesus Christ. It... actually, it wasn't that bad, despite the unmistakable falsehood of the belief. As an allegory for the human condition, it works pretty well. The congregation is getting used to seeing me around; they don't have that really compulsive curiosity anymore. They're still friendly, but their desire to get to know me isn't anywhere near as claustophobic as it was at first.

The rest of this week went to sorting and packing. I've thrown out a lot of junk, and the rest is either being boxed for storage, or making its way over to Claire's apartment. My lease is up in two weeks; and then we'll have to do this all again, since Claire's lease ends six weeks after that. We'll end up in a larger apartment in my original complex, which suits me fine. The only real obstacle is Hector the Cat, who presents a mess of additional fees (and would cheerfully murder me in his sleep if he could). I'm not sure how we're going to deal with him; I wish Claire hadn't decided to adopt him, but it's too late to worry about that now.

So tonight after work I went to visit Billy and Crystal. Crystal was supposed to be fixing dinner, and I didn't want to miss that - she's a... really, really good cook. So I showed up at their door, and Billy called for me to come in.

I knew immediately that something was wrong. One of them always comes to the door. So I opened the door, but I didn't step inside.

Billy and Crystal were there, of course. So were three other people, two men and one woman, whom I didn't recognize. One of the men was holding a shotgun.

This wasn't a complete surprise. After Friday's attack, I was half-expecting a follow-up: that's what we would have done. So I stepped back, out of the doorway, and heard someone curse inside. There was a window in the front wall; I ducked under it and scuttled for the stairs.

Halfway there, I stopped. I was just at the edge of the window; the front door was still open; and the sounds coming from inside were... not what I expected. There were gunshots, and thuds, enough of them to suggest an antagonistic exchange. I had the gun in my hand, because I had half-expected the snake cult to follow me out. So I turned, and made my way back.

Inside the apartment, the three snake cultists were bleeding out on the floor. Billy and Crystal were still in their chairs, held in place with duct tape. I looked up, and saw one of the twins duck back into Billy and Crystal's bedroom. "Wait!" I called, but he didn't. And naturally, when I got to the bedroom door, nobody was visible inside.

I'd only gotten a brief glance, but I was certain: this was one of the same pair who had killed the snake cultist who was following me on Sixth Street. I wasn't sure where he'd gone - I wasn't even entirely sure that he wasn't still in that room - but I didn't have time to chase him. Billy and Crystal needed help, and I'd feel a lot safer when they were loose. So I grabbed a knife from the kitchen, and cut the tape.

They're sleeping over at our place tonight. I don't know what Claire will say about that - she had her last final today, and was asleep by the time we got back - but it seems safer this way. And if the note was right, and I dream of anything particularly interesting, I'll see if I can post about it tomorrow.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. No rival cultists were murdered in the creation of this post.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Christmas Kangaroo

Several of my iFriends have been talking about their Christmas-related memories and feelings. So, as my small contribution to the topic, I thought I'd share the story of the Christmas kangaroos with you.

First, some backstory: The night light in Firstborn's room had broken, and I didn't have a lot of options to replace it. So, I hauled in some Christmas lights and hung 'em over the giant stuffed kangaroo in the corner.

"Why did you do that?" Firstborn asked.

"Because it's a Christmas kangaroo," I replied, with tongue firmly in cheek.

"What's a Christmas kangaroo?" he asked.

There was a brief pause, while I built the shape of the story in my head and hung a few critical details to fix it in place. "Well..." I said. "Here's how it happened..."

It turns out that some years ago, they were having a very bad year at the North Pole. The Elves were running behind on making the toys, someone had misplaced Santa's List, and Mrs. Claus had just burned a huge tray of cookies. The real problem, though, was the reindeer. They were all sick - very, very sick. Too sick to pull the sleigh.

So Santa called up the Pumpkin King, and asked for some help. Old Man Jack agreed immediately, and sent over some ghosts. The ghosts were fast enough to go all the way around the world in just one night, but they kept slipping through the traces: they couldn't pull the sleigh.

So Santa called up the Easter Bunny, who sent over some of his egg-laying rabbits to help. Unfortunately, the rabbits weren't strong enough. They'd never be able to get the sleigh all the way around the world, no matter how many carrots Santa promised them.

Finally, in desperation, Santa called Cupid... but Cupid didn't have any helpers, and he couldn't pull the sleigh himself. He wasn't strong enough.

And just when all hope seemed lost, a group of kangaroos called the North Pole. They'd heard about the problem, and they offered to help. The Elves equipped the sleigh with triple-strength shock-absorbers, and the kangaroos took the reindeers' usual places. And they jumped Santa's sleigh from house to house all around the world, and Christmas was saved.

Ever since then, all kangaroos are automatically on the Nice side of Santa's List. And in this house, the Christmas Kangaroo is an essential part of the holiday decor.

Introducing Our New Mascot

I've decided that this blog needs a mascot. After long nights of thinking over what sort of animal would best represent the sort of discussion that goes on here, and further of weeks of experimentation in my secret laboratory, I am pleased to present...

Cuddles the Zombie Velociraptor
Art by Billy Browning

Cuddles is, of course, a prototype. I hope to have an entire army of zombie velociraptors ready in time for the next election. They also may be employed more discreetly: against people who tell you to smile when you're in a bad mood, people who can't manage to park their cartoonishly oversized vehicles, and anyone who's rude to legal secretaries or college professors.

At present, Cuddles lives... er, "dwells"... in a large artificial cavern off the southern end of the crypto-zoo beneath my lab. He shares this space with Dropgator (a genetically engineered crossbreeding of an alligator and a drop bear) and Deathscratch the Cybernetic Sloth.

On a completely[1] unrelated note, the position of crypto-zookeeper has opened up again, and none of my current minions will risk having their heads eaten feel qualified to take over. If you're interested in applying for the job, please feel free to post your resume in the comments.

[1] No, really, I promise, there's no connection at all. Hey, would an evil genius lie to you?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Santa is not a first-time homebuyer

I've mentioned before that I occasionally help Santa with his e-mail. It's time-consuming, but also kind of fun. Most of the responses are kind of generic, but then most of the e-mails that Santa receives are kind of generic. And every once in a while, someone will send in a particularly interesting letter to Santa.

This year, though, Santa received something that I'd never seen before:

Subject: New Downpayment Funds Available


If you are a first-time homebuyer, here are some of the programs that we have available for you:
  • Texas Grant - this program allows you up to 3% of the loan amount to be used for the down payment and the closing costs.

  • Texas First-time Homebuyer - this program allows you up to 5% of the loan amount to be used for down payment and closing costs.
Both of these programs have a limited amount of funding available, and is available on a first come-first serve basis. Both programs will allow for below customary credit score requirements for qualified First-time homebuyers.

We also provide Real Estate services to ANY one buying or selling a home.

For current homeowners, we are also re-finance experts.
This is... unexpected, to say the least. For one thing, Santa isn't really in the market for a new home. For another, he's hardly a first-time buyer; he's been around for hundreds of years. For that matter, he probably doesn't need to actually purchase a house; he can always have the elves build one, or just do some remodeling. (Elves are surprisingly handy to have around.)

The thing that really puzzles me about the e-mail, though, is this: does spamming Santa's inbox automatically move you to the Naughty side of his list, or is there some wiggle room there?

'Cause I think someone is getting coal in his stocking this year.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Faith for Unbelievers

I mentioned in a footnote to a previous post that I actually do think it's important to have faith. Now, I'm not religious, but that's okay: I don't think faith has all that much to do with religion anyway, which is one of the reasons why I tend to get confused when I hear people talk about faith as an aspect of their religious beliefs.

So I dropped that footnote in, with a vague thought that I might come back and do a post on the topic of faith: how I hear the word used, what I mean when I use it, and why I think it's important.

This morning, I found that Geds has more or less written it for me. Go read it. You can thank me later.

A Paradox Wrapped in a Tautology

Okay, so apparently the world is set to end on May 21, 2011.

I will tell you right now that I haven't read the whole site. I didn't even make it past the first section. Specifically, this section:
Now, at this time, information is coming forth from the Bible which clearly reveals God’s plan for Judgment Day and the end of the world itself. The Bible has opened up its secrets concerning the timeline of history. This information was never previously known because God had closed up His Word blocking any attempt to gain knowledge of the end of the world.
God is now opening up His Word because we have arrived at the time of the end. For this reason, it has become very obvious to the serious student of the Bible that we are now living in the last few days of earth’s history.

Which is just... my brain hurts. Finally, we can know for sure that it's the end of the world! We can know this at last because it's the end of the world! Previously, we didn't know when the end of the world would come... because it hadn't come yet!

I'm sure there's plenty more snark-worthy material on that site, but my brain can only take so much. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done: reading that left me picturing a scene from a particularly surreal time-travel story...

Elderly Professor: "Just remember not to go too far. If you reach the end of the world, you're sure to be destroyed."

Brave Young Adventurer: "How will I know if I've reached the end of the world?"

Elderly Professor: "You can't know that until the world ends."

Brave Young Adventurer: "You're not actually much help, are you?"

Elderly Professor: "Hey! I built this time machine!"

Brave Young Adventurer: "That you're sending me out to explore in..."

Elderly Professor: "I've given you the chance to explore all of History!"

Brave Young Adventurer: "Except I can't go back in time, because you're afraid I'll change something."

Elderly Professor: "You can witness THE FUTURE!"

Brave Young Adventurer: "...Where I'll be destroyed without warning if the world ends sooner than expected."

Elderly Professor: "..."

Elderly Professor: "Oh, just bring back something that will make us rich, will you?"

Brave Young Adventurer: "Now you're talking."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reflections on Thanksgiving

There are times when I wish I had a different sort of job - one with more regular hours, and actual holidays. Working at a pharmacy is... Well, I'm very much at the mercy of my employers.

But we did go and have Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and her boyfriend. It went pretty well - my mom is pretty sharp, but she seemed to like Claire, and did her best to make her feel welcome. (In other words, she made a truly heroic effort to keep from asking too many questions about her family, education, long-term plans, and personal beliefs. I was frankly amazed.) Her boyfriend is a CPA; he mainly wanted to eat food, drink some beer, and watch the game. I wasn't too interested, but Claire joined him in the living room and used Mom's computer to surf the Internet. That actually worked pretty well, since it gave me some time alone with Mom.

Then, on Saturday, we went out to eat with my Dad and his wife. He took us to the P.F. Chang's downtown, which was really nice - and a bit more expensive than we could usually afford on our own. So all in all, it was a good holiday, even if I couldn't entirely escape from work.

It was also, in a strange way, very relaxed. The snake cult just about has to know where I work, though I suppose they might not know where I live. But with the holiday, Claire and I were heading out to new places at odd times, which felt a lot safer than staying with our usual routine. So all in all, it was a good holiday (well, and holiday weekend)...

...Until the Elders contacted me on Sunday. They had another target. They wanted me to take her out. They didn't care how.

I used the same combination of rituals that I used on the first target: one to make the kill, another to observe, so that I knew what had happened. And it worked fine. The ball of darkness went to suffocate its target, and my observer followed. This was the second real attack that they'd had me launch against the snake cult, and I wanted to see what was going on.

I was suspicious that the first assignment was a test of loyalty. I still am. Only now I'm doubly suspicious, because this target was a woman... and she looked like Claire. Oh, not precisely - longer hair, a somewhat lighter build, but the facial resemblance was so startling that I nearly called off the attack... which would have been disastrous. I can't believe that the Elders wouldn't have noticed. Were they testing to see if I'd kill Claire, if they commanded it?

Would I?

Let's go back to reflecting on Thanksgiving. I'm thankful, enormously thankful, that the Elders didn't decide to have me kill Claire. I don't know how that would have ended, but I can safely say that it would have ended badly. (And yes, if you're wondering: I express my doubts and uncertainties here because I can't express them anywhere else. Even when I have my foot right on the edge of the cliff.)

This is something that I'm going to have to think about. Because the way things are going, it might actually come up. And if it does, I can't be caught off guard. I have to know what I mean to do.

If I were a Catholic, I'd pray that the Elders never pushed me into that position. But I'm not a Catholic, and I can't count on Providence to protect me... to protect us. I'll have to act more directly. And that means I'll have to hit the archives again. Happy holidays.