[Fiction/roleplaying] Cults and culpability

The following is a tale from my Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in the Sunless Shores. It is the first-hand account of a group of poor cultists who suffered an ignoble fate at the hands of my monstrous players.


“You alright to clean up here, Merkel?”

Erkel’s brother looked up from scrubbing bloodstains off the summoning circle. Nearby, the Null Censer fumed silently, just in case.

“Should be. Stronger than usual, wasn’t it?”

“A little. Guess our time’s coming up fast.” Erkel ran his hand through his tousled brown hair, slick with sweat from the hastily aborted summoning. He’d changed into his casual robes, but would need a hot bath later to really wash the slime off.

“Anyway, I’m off for a bit. You need anything?”

“Couple years, maybe,” Merkel said wryly, holding up his left arm. The black watch on his wrist was, as always, totally featureless. They both laughed, but it was laced with uneasiness. “What happened to this city, brother? It wasn’t so long ago we were freewheeling, summoning spirits, indoctrinating starry-eyed commoners without a care in the world. Now look at us!”

Erkel sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. He’d been having trouble sleeping lately – the curse of dabbling in divination magic. What had that instructor said… multiclass in thirty days or your money back? What a joke. Well, it was too late now. That one level of wizard would never go away.

“We got old, Mer.”

“Hell, that’s not it, and you know it!” Merkel tossed his washcloth back in the bucket, which sloshed dirty red suds onto the floor. The filthy water dripped sluggishly into the narrow trench cut around the circle.

“Okay, okay!” Erkel said, holding out his palms placatingly. “It’s not worth fighting over. We’ve got the Gathering in less than a week, and then -”

“And then what? No way will it go back to how it was. Not after Justin’s scheme.”

“Look at it this way, Mer,” said Erkel. “After this, we’ll all be exalted, or dead.”

Merkel grunted, staring at the floor as if ashamed. He’d been acting strangely too, but then, everyone in the church was on edge. These were harrowing times to be a Dweller’s Disciple.

Erkel exited via the secret door into the vestibule, whistling tunelessly. Out in the main hall, he saw Raff and Vee preparing the afternoon service and chatting with Gracie, the head of their chapter here in the city of Fortune. Vee was a delight, but Raff scared Erkel more than a little – he was a shade too close to madness for Erkel’s taste. Sure, the Disciples may aspire to Dweller-touched insanity, but there was something to be said for polite conversation and civility, too.

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[Fiction/feminism] The Truthtellers

me at Vees house

I am a Truthteller: doomed to insinuate certain facts about the world with words and motion.

Sartorial truths are among the hardest of all. My existence in public spaces is mediated by ineluctable subtext draped across our perceptions like a shroud. It’s impossible for me just to be, save in those dark and dusty spaces where society’s tendrils have begun to rot: dank music halls with shitty speakers; my friend’s bedroom (where the rent’s gone up the owner grins unable to hide their glee at a housing bubble that will not burst); Newtown and dim indie theaters in cancerous symbiosis with more successful mainstream venues. The Truthtellers always have existed in the interstices, tolerated or not.

These interstices are cramped and overwhelming, packed already with the moldy human crusts society has thrown out with childish pique. Thoughtlessness is always far worse than intention.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ella Enchanted, that patriarchal wet dream of feminine subservience. Cursed at birth to always obey orders, no matter what they may be and no matter who has issued them, she is tugged through life by puppet strings dangled by a mother who only wants the best for her.

Always these orders are couched as what is best for us, but society’s real success is in its subcontracting out (what a triumph of capitalism!). Its manifesto is absorbed by osmosis into human immune cells guarding against invasion with homophobia, racism, intolerance. They repel attacks by Truthtellers that threaten to undermine the whole. It’s an allergic reaction, leaving the skin of our society red and swollen in self-destructive violence.

Humans pine for change only in abstractions.

To become a Truthteller is very easy. Simply undergo years of social conditioning and allow yourself to be molded into the ideal worker drone: anxiety-ridden; sleepless; always yearning for something better so long as that happiness can be purchased or stolen from someone else. Then wake up one morning and realize – naked and shivering before your mirror – that dressing yourself has become a political act, that leaving your house has become a political act, that your existence in a public space has become a political act against your own volition.

Cultivate a voracity for veracity. Wallow in it. Congratulations!

Safe spaces are a threat, not a luxury, and our society will not tolerate them. The upper-class white blood cells, aged as they are, must be allowed to wander where they will. Otherwise the Truthtellers will think themselves accepted and poison our society one mind at a time.

[Fiction] They come in bags

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Image credit Dessins-Fantastiques on DeviantArt

They come back in bags.

The spokesperson’s words rang in my ear. Of all the warnings he’d issued – fire hazards, mob mentality, grievous bodily harm – this was the most ominous. The bags. What did he mean? The phrase had been haunting me for the week and a half I’d spent at this crazy carnival called the Royal Easter Show. Royal. Ha! Like the monarchy was anything more than an empty throne invoked by our most callous of politicians.

The name’s Sam, Pyjama Sam. Two-time nominee for best presenter at a small community radio station. I don’t expect you’ve heard of me – fame don’t come so easy anymore, not unless you plop out the next big steaming pop sensation on 2DayFM or make it huge as a YouTube celebrity, critiquing the iniquities of our corrupt social system from the comfort of your bedroom. I was here at The Royal – as the locals called it – serving my beat as a two-bit student reporter for a pop-up radio station.

Hey, everyone needs a hobby. It’s never too late to learn.

Today I was the field reporter, forced bright-eyed and bushy-tailed out through the door of our sub-arctic studio to roam the 40 hectare grounds of Sydney Olympic Park, sifting for dirt. This wasn’t just figurative, either – a couple days before I’d found myself discussing soil quality with a passionate farmer from way out north. My directive this afternoon was clear: get me a story on pigs. My producer ordered, and so I obeyed. Tomorrow it’d be my turn. Pig pro quo.

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[Fiction] ACMA Attack

radio ACMA 2

Image by 600v on DeviantArt

“Shut it down! Shut it all down!”

Chelse burst into the tiny studio, arms waving wildly, a look of panic smeared across her normally calm features. Zed and Heather looked up from the equipment, surprised.

“Shut it down?” Heather asked. “But we’re nearly done for the day anyway. We’ve only got, what, ten minutes left to go?” Zed’s finger hovered uncertainly above the panel, a battered old Kreubsig 700 they’d bought third-hand from a junk dealer. Zed seemed anxious, but then, they always were. A legacy of a corporate past.

“Right bloody now! ACMA’s practically at the door!” Chelse shouted. Why weren’t they moving? 2PLY FM definitely did not have a license to do what they were doing. If ACMA – the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the broadcasting watchdog – caught them transmitting on an illegal channel, they’d not only confiscate the audio equipment they’d begged and borrowed over the past few years, but slap an injunction on them so fast it would make their heads spin. Hell, for all the talk that ACMA was a ‘toothless tiger’, Chelse knew better than most just how ruthless they could be. Just ask her Uncle Greg – if he ever made it out of prison.

Still, it seemed her urgency was getting through. Heather gave a terse nod and signalled Zed, who faded out the current song – Little Mix’s latest banger, Shout Out to My Ex – and flicked on the announcer’s mic. Heather remained cool and collected as she spoke into the cardioid, a picture of professionalism. She didn’t rush her words or stumble; it was important to maintain 2PLY FM’s brand even in the face of crisis.

“And that’s all for this afternoon. We’re ending a little early today, but tune in tomorrow for more fresh mixes and unsanctioned opinions from 10 till 2. I’m Hetch McKinnon on 2PLY FM saying: talk soon.” Heather nodded and Zed cut the signal, their pirate transmitter whirring strangely as it shut down. Like everything else in the room, it was old and failed constantly, but Chelse had managed to get it up and running again every time it refused to start. She might not have finished her physics PhD, but she’d still learned to navigate a circuit. Chelse spoke, flustered.

“Okay, the guy who called said a representative from ACMA’s due any moment to investigate a few complaints they’ve received from this neighbourhood. Obviously, someone’s ratted on us.” Heather’s face darkened.

“I’ll bet it was Mrs Logan. She never could mind her own business!”

“Look, pointing fingers at this stage isn’t going to help. Yes, it probably was Mrs Logan because she’s a nosy retiree who complains about everything, but it doesn’t matter. What we need to do is -”

The doorbell rang. Everybody froze, darting nervous glances at each other. Zed whimpered.

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[Fiction] Killing softly with sorghum

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Image credit purple-grey-fox on DeviantArt

In a rural town that had broken its bread and bad habits, bread had finally broken them. Amidst arid plains and a burst of health-consciousness, the town of Gumtree Flats in the Northern Territory, Australia, had taken the plunge and switched over to the gluten-free life.

No more would wheat darken their tables at breakfast or dinner. Barley, rye and oats were tossed in the trash and their suppliers politely informed further deliveries would not be necessary. Grains were swept from the pantry and scoured from the supermarket in an attempt to root them out before their determination faltered and they thought better of their plan. Perhaps hardest of all, fridges were thrown open and their doughy ales and bitter, brooding brews disgorged to general lamentation; Holly Robbins was spotted wailing upon her lawn as her neighbor Drew solemnly poured her latest batch of Hotchkins’ Malt Special into the thirsty grass.

Grain was purged, with all the word implies.

Little Calvin Quinn, the two Quinn dads’ kid, marveled at the town’s anti-grain campaign with all the wonder that a six-year-old can muster.

“Look, Cal,” dad Brian said to him. “Everyone cares so much about your health that they’re chucking the grain so you don’t get sick!”

“Is that cause I’m a seal yak, dad?”

“A celiac, Cal. And yes! Isn’t it just swell of them?”

Of course, the true reason behind the grain purge was far different. A string of health-food ads on television had sparked concerns in the Gumtree Flats mayor’s office. Alarmed by the severe threat gluten posed to their longevity with scary things like gut inflammation and escalated intestinal permeability, Mayor Wrigley had called for a debate around a possible ban on the dangerous substance. Citizens from both sides had weighed in, arguing in circles until eventually, by some miracle, the town agreed to try it – just for a little while.

People streamed from the town hall that evening in chattering droves, but only one left in smug silence, smiling softly to herself.

She killed softly with sorghum.

Naturally, a substitute had to be procured – some of the residents of Gumtree Flats didn’t have much more pleasure in life than a good strong hunk of bread and a dark, cool draught out upon the patio. Sorghum was settled on as an alternative: a few farmers in the region already grew it, and it could be cheaply imported by some health-savvy suppliers who knew a sale when they saw one. Within a week, artisan sorghum beer was flowing at the taphouse and people began to joke that soon they’d go all the way and maybe be a vegan next month as well. There were even tentative, self-conscious jabs about gentrification and how it was really time Gumtree Flats got its own modern art gallery on the go.

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[Fiction] Lord of the Liferings: All Aboard the Fellowship

sauron-lighthouse

Image credit Jamie Smith – inksnow.blogspot.com

All characters property of J.R.R. Tolkien.

“The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the sand. I smell it in the salty air. Much that once was is now lost, for none now sail who remember it.

“It began with the forging of the great liferings. Three were given to the elves, immortal, wisest, and most buoyant of all beings. Seven to the Dwarf Lords, great miners who wouldn’t know the ocean from their aunt Nimli’s bathtub. And nine, nine rings were given to the race of men, who above all can’t swim without an instructor and years of intensive training. For within these liferings were bound…”

“Cut! Cut!” screamed Gríma Wormtongue, forgetting that the bullhorn he held magically amplified his voice many times. The resultant blast of sound had everybody clutching at their ears. One grip, a young orc named Bolg, was so startled he knocked the lighting rig he was adjusting into the ocean with a soft splash, where it promptly fizzed itself into oblivion.

Wormtongue winced, trying to calm the ringing in his own ears. “Sorry, sorry, everybody,” he said, more softly. “Stop the scene. And take better care of that equipment!” he barked at Bolg – half-heartedly, since he knew he was at fault. Moving the bullhorn aside, he shouted up at the lighthouse which loomed large above them all, in a far more deferential and nervous tone than before.

“What is it, my lord?” In response, a blinding beam of light shone down from the lighthouse, centering on Cate Blanchett, who lowered her script and shielded her eyes with a cloth-draped forearm. “Galadriel, lord?” The beam gestured angrily, jerking insistently and repeatedly to the left of where Cate stood, towards the waterline.

“Cate, go stand to the left a bit! That’s right, where the Dark Lord is pointing,” Wormtongue said. “Gorgol, how we doing on that lighting?”

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[Fiction] The Dystopian Philosophy Club

 

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“Okay, so a train is heading for an intersection, and if you don’t do anything no one gets hurt. But if you pull the lever…”

    “Wait, what? Why would I pull the lever?”

    “I haven’t even told you what it does yet! So if you pull the lever, the train gets switched to another intersection, where there’s a second lever…”

    I kicked absently at the shale while Lana went on, outlining her preposterous idea. Somehow, she would always come up with these convoluted ‘thought experiments’ that felt like they’d been run through a bad translator one too many times.

    “…and so the second man on the tracks ends up with quite an interesting predicament. Does he pull the lever and save the cows upon the tracks, or sacrifice the passengers to the canyon?”

    “Let me get this straight. If I don’t pull the lever, nothing happens. If I do pull it, I endanger everyone on board.”

    “That’s right!” exclaimed Lana, happily. “It’s a conundrum, isn’t it?”

    I sighed, staring hard at a tiny iridescent rock crab climbing out of a hole between two slates. It was gently raising its legs one by one over the lip, an eyestalk poking out like a quizzical periscope. I thought about Lana’s proposition, trying to see if maybe there was some clever philosophical angle I was missing. I came up blank.

    “What’s the incentive, though? Why wouldn’t I just walk away and save everyone the trouble?” Lana seemed unimpressed by this.

    “Because pulling the lever makes the whole thing more interesting! If you don’t, you’re being boring.” I groaned inwardly. These sort of ‘twists’ were typical of Lana’s philosophical offerings – her moral quandaries seemed designed more to keep philosophers from being sent to the Outregions than to pose any actual dilemma.

    “Call me boring, but I would choose to save people’s lives.” The rock crab had succeeded in levering itself out and was now stutter-step scuttling towards a little pink pebble perched upon a wide chunk of shale. My scuffling kicks sent little tremors through the rocks, tiny vibrations that made the crab pause before darting forward again, like a video that kept freezing.

    Lana screwed up her face, and I knew she wasn’t happy with my answer. I intervened before she could launch into another of her tirades about how lame I was.

    “What business do I have pulling levers, anyway? That stuff’s all automated by people in locked control rooms, you know. The real question here is do I break into a government facility just so I can mess with their train timetables?”

    “Hmm…”

    “See, now that’s a real hypothetical to consider. If you got caught doing that, they’d flush you for sure.”

    “Really? Yunsi tried something like that, and they didn’t flush her.

    “No, Yunsi tried to find out if any of her birth siblings were in her college by hacking into the university records. Now she has to attend a behavior program once a week.”

    “Oh.” We fell silent for a moment. Then Lana asked the question we’d been avoiding all morning.

    “Ally, do you think Niles is alright?”

    “I’m not sure.” Obviously, the pebble had been the crab’s goal, because now it was climbing all over it, clacking its claws. The pebble was twice the little crustacean’s size, and it looked funny clambering around with its awkward crab-walk. What do crabs eat? I didn’t know.

    “It’s a shame about their dad.”

    “Yeah.” One of Niles’ care-givers, Dad Warner, had been discovered harboring a collection of beautiful prints given to him by an artist who was neither a registered close friend or partner. Private gifts like that should only be given within your inner circle – to hide art of that caliber from the greater public unlawfully was to deprive them of a group-positive experience and a chance at bonding. They were shipping Dad Warner away to the Outregions today, and Niles was there to see him off.

    “I mean, it was his own fault, but still…” Lana’s voice lacked conviction – many people had such unlawful collections, treasure troves of valuables or stories given to them by people just outside their inner circle. Dad Warner had only been unlucky enough to be caught. We weren’t so stupid as to say that aloud, though.

    “Niles must be pretty upset. Imagine if it had happened to one of our own parents, like Mom Addison or Carer June-Bloom.”

    “Yeah… I hope they don’t take it too hard. At least they’ll have the two days off for emotional recuperation, since it’s one of their carers.”

    “And we’ll still be here for Niles when they return. They’re one of our close friends, after all. We’ll help them through it.”

    “It’s still sad. I liked Warner. He shared his baking with me, sometimes.”

    “Lana, it’s not like he’s getting flushed. It’s only the Outregions – he’ll be back before you know it.”

    “Will he, Ally? They could do anything, and we wouldn’t know. How do we know they’re not flushing him, huh? How would we know?”

    “Lana!” I reprimanded her sharply. Even though the stretch of beach we sat on was empty save for us and the inquisitive little rock crab, talk like that was dangerous. You never knew who could be listening in, or where the treacherous sea breeze might carry our words.

    “Sorry, Ally.” We fell silent again as the sea-wind picked up, beating up the water into short, choppy surf. It was turning cold – nowhere near wind-wrack levels, but enough to set us shivering. The hem of my long skirt flapped erratically, rippling and snapping against my bare legs and the stone embankment we were perched on. I was glad I’d thought to bring a jacket.

    Niles was the third member of our little group, which we’d whimsically termed the Dystopian Philosophy Club. The name itself was enough to suggest mind-expanding conversations and worthy self-improvement, and we’d been easily able to get the concept approved as a suitable hobby for each of us at Central Office. It wasn’t a complete fabrication, though probably no one would have cared if it were – we did often go on philosophical tangents, debating ideas of right and wrong, or discussing moral and ethical quandaries that had occurred to us the day before. It’s just that wasn’t all we did – the DPC had become a safety net for us, a space where we could air ideas that bordered on the controversial without too much fear.

    This semi-sheltered stretch of Pebble Beach served as both our headquarters and our meeting-place, secluded enough to offer some degree of privacy but public enough to defuse suspicion of subversive aims or dissidence. We were lucky that each of our officially registered passions or callings were sufficiently flexible to enable our irregular but frequent meetings. Over the past few years, the DPC had become a home away from home for each of us. I’d seen Niles upset before, but I could hardly imagine what they were going through. The most traumatic thing still to have happened in my life was the normal sibling purge at the age of five – I had never lost a carer, like Niles was now. Temporarily or otherwise.

    “Look, we should probably get going. I have to be at rehearsals by one, or my director will flush me. She’s mad enough I was late last week thanks to that train breakdown near Junction 11.”

    “Alright, Ally. See you Thursday?”

    “Yeah, Thursday.”

    “Hopefully Niles will be back then.”

    “I’ll send them a message tomorrow.”

    “Alright.”

    “See you.”

    “Bye.”