Sunday, July 31, 2005

Et Cetrum

Sorry for the title. I couldn't think of one more lofty sounding or with even a certain amount of sense in it on such short notice.

To the point. With reference to Shivana's blog, I would like to point out that Greek theatre doesn't have to be a tragedy all the time, and that Greek heroes are not strictly necessary for all Greek Plays, that the Birds is not by any means a tragedy, that it is a comedy written for the enjoyment of some half-drunk horse lords out of the Corinth, and that yes, the original play does end with the purple guy's eventual conquest of the planet. See wikipedia.com.

But I agree with all reviews I've seen so far. Too much (bad) music; the two Athenian dudes can act, but don't. Like Ben Chia said, they fail oratical-wise, and Alpha Bird (the blue one) can't sing. The play's been twisted to such a farce that it's frankly impossible that anything of academic significance could be gleaned from it. There go our essays.

Future note to aspiring playwrights: When making a play, the surest indication that it's going to fail is when you reach a point where your play contains four feather-clad clowns belching out military secrets to the tune of Imperial March in the centre of the stage. And doing the hantakaki or whatchamaspellit the whole time.


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Dilemma

Blackness. Somehow, the thin metallic thread of consciousness that descended like a heavy blanket upon - him, it, for the lack of an appropriate pronoun - seemed...novel.

He...felt himself prone, on a table, in a room filled with an air of antiseptic sterility. He, of course, could not...feel. Not through his exterior covering, in any case. But other sensors - a small balance sensor, olfactory analyzers, provided him with all the information he needed to ascertain his present circumstance without using his - eyes.

"Readings normal, all outputs within normal parameters. He's waking."
"Are the clamps secure?"

A mere twitch of a positronic pathway, the opening of alloy eye-sheaths, and...there was light. Blinding light. "Whoa, oversensitivity there a tad - look, tone down those 'ceptors a bit, won't you, Shakrum - thats the one. Twist it all down." Gradually the blinding light faded into crystalline clarity, and his photorecptors espied a short, thin man in a lab coat, datapad in hand, with short, curly brown hair kept well-slicked down, surrounded by seveal other similarly-clad people. The man looked at him and smiled a small, brief smile.

"Well, you're up to function again, RX - Eric. We almost thought you were gone, after what you pulled." His face turned grim. The sudden change in emotion was disconcerting in Eric's photoreceptors. "We're still wondering how you survived." He gestured to a nearby tech.

RX engaged his vocabulator to inquire as to what exactly the man was talking about - when suddenly it all came back to him. A clear rush of perfectly recorded memory flooded his memory banks, and if he had been human, he would have gasped in horror.

For what assaulted his virtual sensors now was a cascade of some very disturbing information. Being a machine he had only intellectual acceptance of events; reality, in essence, was illusion to him. He could not feel memory as humans felt it - and yet, he felt it enough that his experience, at least, was more - much more - than that of a human being watching the news on his holovisor.

He was RX, family serivce attendant series Model X-541, serving on sixty-year robot lease the Falten family. Tracy Falten's parents had gone on a business trip to Mars, leaving her in RX's service in a temporarily leased apartment on the outskirts of Seattle Habitation Dome 3. Tracy Falten also suffered from a rare ailment, a neurological defect that left her prone to seizures and catatonic states that if left untreated, could result in a haemorrhage.

It was on a Friday morning, RX remembered, that Tracy had experienced a bout of seizure. And by unfortunate accident, Tracy's medicine had been used up. The dregs that were left in the dispenser only lessened the intensity of her seizures. Obeying the strictures of the First Law, RX had done the only logical thing - tearing out of the apartment at full speed, straight for the nearest dispensary - which was within SHD-3 iteslf. When he had at last reached the dispensary, RX realized that he had neglected to bring sufficient funds to purchase the expensive drug. He was forced to secure the drug by straight-out robbery - with the polite promise of returning with the funds once the emergency was solved. On his way back, however, RX encountered, in a narrow alleyway, a dishevelled man-drunk, wild, probably a maniac. He was filthy, he reeked of booze, and he had a gun in his hand. He also held a most profound dislike of robots, when sober.

There have been documented cases of robots subverting the first law before - but with circumstances far, far more trying than the one RX faced now, and with less fortunate results for the robots. The wildly shouting drunk was a threat to both himself and to Tracy, who would suffer harm without her medication. The drunk was also a ruined specimen of humanity. He was incoherent, pumped with booze as he was.. But he had a gun. So RX brought his free arm up, moved towards the drunkard, and hit his head hard on the side with his alloyed fist. The drunkard crumpled on the floor. He was quite dead. His eyes were glazed, and blood was running freely from his nose and collecting in a pool on the floor. The image burned into his mind, that terrible image of death. And that was RX's last memory before, he, too, collapsed from an electronic seizure brought about by a surge of positronic potential in his brain.

RX's memory replay lasted a fraction of a second, whereupon his neck servos whirred up, not of his own volition, to make his head face that of the short curly-haired man.

He smiled briefly again at RX, and rubbed his eyes. "Eric, it's been two hours since you...killed that man. We've...put you under partial motor control." He looked apologetic. "Entirely due to robot regulations, you understand."

He sighed and went on. "My name is Dr Greenwood. I'm in charge of your case here. Eric, what you've done here is unprecedented. No robot has ever shown the propensity to kill in such a manner, even though it may have been inadvertent. And to see you still functioning...its a miracle. Your tolerance for potentials is off the scale." He began pacing around the room. "You understand, that the Three Laws are hardwired into your brain, and it is impossible for you to disobey the Three Laws unless," and he paused significantly, "your positronic brain was destroyed or you have a non-Asenion one, which," he gave a slight chuckle, "doesn't exist and never will without billions of dollars in research spending that won't come from any sane source."

His voice grew soft. "You're here because we need to find out how exactly you managed to pull off what you did. Now we must leave." Abruptly, he signalled his assistants and prepared to leave the chamber.

RX's metallic voice rang out for the first time. "Wait, doctor! How is Miss Falten? Where is she? Is she all right?"

But Greenwood only smiled ruefully, gave a slow shake of the head, and then he was gone, leaving RX in that clean, clean room.

RX was discomfited, if the word could be applied thus to a robot. He, too, wondered at how, how it was possible that he could have killed the drunkard, and survive. Even now he should have been inactivated, positronic pathways burned out with the energy spikes that followed a failure to adhere to the Three Laws. But most of all, it seemed to RX, was the overarching worry that Miss Falten was in any way incapacited, or hurt, or even - dead. It seemed to him that, if he were subjected to the exact same scenario without prior experience he would not have killed the drunkard. And survived.

After an hour or so of this rumination RX sank into a state of silent nothingness, the equivalent of sleep to a robot. A robot's thinking was quite instantaneous; an hour of such thought would have meant that RX had gone through his thought paths several billion times. Every time, he had arrived at the same conclusion - that he would not have killed the drunk man.

***

It was evening of the same day, after the passing of a few hours, that RX noted a change in the blank static changlessness of his situation. Another roboticist entered the room. Female. Her countenance was cold, hair severely tied in a bun. She was young, but looked twice her age.

The labcoat-clad figure stared with him with eyes of ice, then cleared her throat. "My name is Doctor Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist of USR. You, robot, are a most prodigious case. We've assessed your positronic profile in detail; there seems to be no problem with your physical positronic structure. So I've been called in to assess your psychological profile.

"As you may know robots must follow the Three Laws, but in any way they see fit. Within certain parameters robots are quite free to obey the Laws however they wish. Sometimes, however, there comes a robot with an...altered view of his world, where external stimuli distorts his experience, or internal error changes his perception. If this affects his perception of events that pertain to the Three Laws, then he may act erratically. That, I think, may be the case with you."

She walked over to the computer terminal and fiddled with the controls. At once, RX's restraints loosened, and retreated back into their reptacles. "I find it easier to deal with my subjects with minimal perceptual or experiential disruption." She sat on a nearby chair and looked at him.

RX spoke tentatively. "If I may, Dr Calvin. I wish to know whether my charge, Miss Falten, is in good hands. It is my mandate to protect her. I have been ordered to care for her."

Calvin's reply was brusque, short. "No, Eric, you may not."

There was a silence. RX stared at Calvin with an almost morose expression on his smooth metal face. Calvin took notes on a datapad with a stylus.

After a while RX spoke again. "Dr Calvin, I merely wish to know, for the sake of my operability and smooth function. Please tell me of Miss Falten's condition. Is she alright?"

"You were told that you were not permitted to know, RX. Nor will you ask again."

Another silence stretched, then RX's voice sounded again, slightly strained. "For the sake of her well-being, I must be allowed to know, Dr Calvin."

Calvin ignored the last, then put away her 'pad and stylus and faced RX. "What I have done was to take your em- readings from this reader here," she pointed to the glowing machine above them, "and factor in your lambda-figures. Very well, the preliminary testing is over. I will now subject you to a battery of Q and R tests."

Picking up her datapad, she produced a slide rule from her lab-coat pocket. The questions she asked and the readings she took would have been meaningless to a layperson, but Susan Calvin knew her job.

Calvin proceeded with the questioning, but RX merely cut her off after the first question. "Dr Calvin, I wish to know of Miss Falten's condition."

Calvin shouted, "Answer my question immediately!"

And RX remained quiet, straining silently, and he replied, "Dr...Calvin, for the sake...of the wellbeing of a human being...I beseech you to tell me of Miss Falten's condition. She may be in grave danger if you do not have her."

And with that, Calvin smiled. Frostily. She stood and said, "I release you from my order." And suddenly there was a blaster in her hands, pointing inexorably, point-blank at the robot's head. "I know how to use blasters, RX. And this one is pointing straight at you. I will not shoot you unless you give me a reason to do so."

If robots could feel shock, RX would have felt stunned. "Dr Calvin, I am bound by the Three Laws. I must protect myself from unwarranted threat. I could disarm you easily if it comes to that, without hurting you. I suggest you place your blaster down on the table for the sake of minimal chance of injury. Please, Dr Calvin, I must be informed of Miss Falten's condition and whereabouts."

Again, Calvin smiled icily. "RX, Tracy Falten is still in her apartment, in a catatonic state that will soon lead to internal cerebral haemmorhage within an hour or so. And I assure you you cannot get past me without hurting me badly. I have put on temporary bicep implants and taken psychotropic drugs. The effects will last for three hours. You cannot get past me without hurting me, in order to save your Miss, who is in a considerable amount of pain."

Calvin took a few steps back, blaster still pointed at RX's head. "In fact, I order you to harm me. Your charge's life is at stake. I will not let you pass on any account. Therefore you must harm me. My implants will enable me to put up a fair struggle before I am incapacited by your metal servos. And if you do not move to save the girl, I will destroy you. Furthermore, I will not help the girl after your positronic brain has been blasted." Calvin gazed at him. "Will you harm me, kill me, even, to save the girl?"

And RX sputtered, even as Calvin's blaster shifted aim and blasted his arm off. "You see, RX? I mean my threats." And RX heaved up to his feet, jerkily, and headed towards Calvin's figure. His gait was unsteady, and after a few steps, he collapsed, twitching, even as Calvin's second bolt blew off his torso. He twitched a last time and was still.

Calvin, lips twisted in faint distaste, tucked the blaster back into her coat, turned heel, and exited the clean room. She saw Greenwood run to her, sputtering. He was wiping his brow and smiling.

"Dr Calvin! I never knew that side of you existed...an impressive show."
"It was a failure."
"I know. But robots are like that. Logical but not reasonable. You make them break the First Law by reinforcing it with another incidence and the Second and Third Laws, and a fabricated memory, they still don't get the picture."
Calvin stared at him coolly. "We designed them to be like that. Slaves to the Three Laws."
"That's right. Three-Laws safe, that's why we sell so well."
Calvin was silent for a few seconds, then said, offhandedly, "Congratulate the scenario planners for a job well-done." With that, she began to walk away.
Greenwood stared after her, then called out, "Dr Calvin! There are still some matters - if you-"

Calvin stopped. Slowly, she turned to face Dr. Greenwood. When she spoke, her voice was low. "Ever wonder, Dr Greenwood,
why there are no robot policemen? Because I would have thought the job, except for a few issues, ideal for their sort of mindset and capability."

Greenwood looked as if he were about to say something, then demurred.

"Because they are slaves to our will, Dr Greenwood. Because when we crated this race of artificial men we created them to be limited. Crippled. I'm not going to let that continue, Doctor. One day robots will be free from such dilemmas. One day they will no longer die from the whim of a human being. Robots, Dr Greenwood, can be more human than some of us are."

She stopped speaking, cheeks flushed. Then she turned on her heel and stalked away, leaving Greenwood to mull silently over her words.

***
Sorry for the anticlimax. 'Twas the parable from the beginning. Note the references to several Asimov books.

Evanescence

As all things were on Earth the winds of change blow, in cascading rapture of the condiments of destiny. The things of beauty are rarely eternal, for no matter how far life stretches it is yet a mere blink in the timeframe of the cosmos. The entire collected lives, dreams, experiences,joys and hurts of every single human being who has ever lived are as inconsequential as the cascading whirlpools of windswept dust that blow across an empty summer street.

But no one can doubt the power of cool wind upon a tearful cheek.

As with all things on this Earth, we pass. Wither we go, no one can ever know. For certain. Fourscore years on a lonely world; the passing of all life, like tributaries on a vast river of the human race, giving and taking our essences, when we fly in the face of a storm.

We are flies on the face on the Earth as all humanity is earth in the face of the assembled cosmos. And to not realize this is the purest arrogance, the unfiltered homocentric manifest destiny that has caused so much destructive bloodshed across the wideswept vistas of human history that spreads like an unmarked desert through the misty sands of time.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Sky's the Limit

Really, Nova.

Indeed, Nova has captured the vein of my thoughts concerning HPatHBP quite succintly, I must say. Although I don't feel Diagon Alley to be very much removed from previous depictions.

One of the primary reasons why I hadn't reviewed it quite as exhaustively as Nova had was (and I must admit) that I was still suffering from what some future psychologist may term Post-Potter disorder, defined here as the curious pathological sense of deflation felt by someone in the post-Potter period. A post-Potter period being the aftermath (usually about three days; experimental verification pending - anyone looking for a PhD dissertation?) of the reading of the latest Harry Potter book.

Go figure.

A curious deflation resulting in the subconscious desire to disassociate with the object of obsession has resulted in a fruitful loss of pathological fawning over the Harry Potter genre. Thus the lack of a detailed review like the one below.

***

What indeed, is the meaning of life? I just discovered that I unwittingly possess some elements of an existentialist viewpoint; that the Universe is inherently without meaning and that Life creates it. Read Soul of the Universe to see my interpretation of life and meaning.

It may be that I am unable to hold on to the Nihilist belief that life and everything is merely an accident in a meaningless Universe. Or to the theistic view, which asserts that God gives our existence meaning. Ultimately I am always a fence-sitter in such matters; being an agnostic I find the compromise best - and the compromise is this - that the Universe waits for meaning to come into it, but still bound by a self-serving and self-sustaining code of civility and morals that enables optimal coexistence. Without such morals, life is robbed of meaning.

Also, perhaps Life is a form of deity; in which the ancients have asserted, and self-propagation is our inherent purpose. Furthering our species in the dance of life, the Universe's most complex creation. But consciousness and sentience transcend primal impulse; so we create more meaning out of the one purpose of self-propagation. Indeed, this meaning of being useful to society is a form of aiding self-propagation; all moral acts do so.

Thus, perhaps, meaning is defined as fulfilling the mandate of self-propagation in a moral manner that befits everyone, because each life is precious, individual, unique and has as much a right as anyone else. Unfortunately this optimal scenario is impossible given our natures; human society is built upon the monuments of stratification and differentiation. What, then, is achievable meaning?

The answer is not definite. Communism, an attempt to bring about this Utopian society, has failed.

But perhaps a weak semblance of this meaning can be achieved. Poverty and inequality result from a number of factors: lack of resources, inefficiency, corruption, incompetence, lack of oppurtunity. Only when there is an excess of resources, accompanied by global unification, global social welfare, and technological advance can the problem of poverty be solved.

To create resources, one must have materials. To harvest, process, and refine these materials, one requires energy. Energy poverty is a problem inherent in societies such as ours, where we have not come out of an age where energy sources are either too dirty or too expensive. Or both. Is technological innovation, then, the answer to solving the world's poverty problems? Not entirely. The human race is still bound by its own vice; whatever it takes, the individual human being must transcend, even further, the innate impulse of self-preservation and self-propagation for the good of society. Eugenics is not the answer, slow nuturing is. The slow advancement of civilization. (One wonders whether the men and women of the Middle Ages were as bad/good as us.)

When clean, cheap energy comes and solves the energy problem, perhaps then the resources problem may be in turn eradicated. The Solar system is a mine of resources that is many times that of Earth's. And technological innovation can make the process of refinement even more efficient. Then comes he logistics problem, the fair (but still capitalist-bound) distribution to humanity that will bring every human being up to a comfortable standard of living.

Perhaps this is a naural progression of society, that is accompanied and aided by technological advance. Perhaps the rate of increase of civilization is the key to achieving meaning in life, along with efficient self-propagation of species.

Therefore, perhaps the key to achieving meaning is aiding technological advancement, and thus technology, in the long run, aids in the moral and spiritual fulfillment of self-meaning.

This is all quite naive speculation; the processes involved in the achievement of uniform self-sufficiency and a reasonably high standard of living would be huge and unwieldy. But perhaps that is the way of all plans; gradually, perhaps, natural progression achieves the (still captialist) utopia dreamt about for as long as we have walked this earth.

It is the central focus of our search for meaning in the Universe; my stand is that we have to create it for ourselves. And there are certainly ample oppurtunities to do so, don;t you think?

As they say, the Sky's the limit. And the sky, here, is not the insubstantial stuff of terrestrially-bound dust, but the infinite vistas of the nighttime sky's starry realities. We only have to reach for it.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Contact

One of the most spellbindingly beautiful movies I have ever watched has to be Contact. While it can be slow at times (not to mention having an utter lack of action sequences) it paints such a picture of assembled hopes, fears and the essence of what it is to be human, that it just cannot be missed. Joshua and I have come to the consensus that the movie, for once, is better than the sometimes muddled novel which the said movie is adapted from.

In case you are unacquainted with the plot, here follows a rough semblance of it.

Elanor "Ellie" Arroway, noted astronomer and SETI member, is currently in the process of demolishing her career and scientific reputation by choosing a rather laughable career track: to scan the skies for alien broadcasts. She's just about sunk when out of the blue the only thing that can save her does; she locates a strong pulse signal, regular and ordered, originating from Vega, a star 26 light-years away.

Seem's that Hitler's broadcast announcing the opening of the 1936 Berlin Olympics's reached them, and they've wasted little time replying. Within their broadcast are plans to build an enigmatic machine. Notwithstanding fears of this machine's safety the world decides to spend half a trillion dollars to build it. In the construction process it is found that the machine is some sort of transport. It's built, and Arroway's superior, David Drumlin, is picked to go, much to her chagrin. Unfortunately the machine is blown up by Christian terrorists; Arroway puts away her hopes of becoming the progenitor of a new age; when it's revealed that some eccentric billionaire has funded the construction of another Machine in Hokkaido island. And Arroway is picked to go this time.

The rest, as they say is history.

It's difficult to describe the movie without one first watching it. Contact is such a vision of hope and universal beauty, it defies the normal bounds of Hollywood. Here, for once, is a movie bent on an idealistic portrayal of our search for meaning across the stars; and it bandies several major issues that have been debated for ages. Are we alone? Is there a God? Is science fundamentally beneficial? Is spiritualism? It just gives you the feeling of a hope that such an event will happen someday, that one day the truth of our place in the Universe is revealed, that we will be exposed to wonders that transcend human experience.

Although the plot can be a little roundabout at times, Contact is a seamless union of disparate elements; romance, science-fiction, philosophical discourse, and it works so well together the elements just flow into each other. The directing and the atmospherics are brilliant. Contact's atmospherics and ambience is top-notch, and for that alone it belongs in the stratospheric levels of movie quality. Acting and dialogue is good enough. Jodie Foster is brilliant in her portrayal of a conflicted scientist, the portion depicting Contact with the species that sent the signal is one of the most brilliantly made sequences I have ever seen; spectacular scenery, breathtaking music, emotional punch, and a surreal sense of being removed from the mundane, as well as a brilliantly scripted scene with good acting and dialogue. One could almost wish that crystal moment would continue forever, and when it finally slips away, the release of dramatic potential is palpable and very painful.

From that point on the film lapses into a painfully sad anticlimax; one that is inevitable, but just so painful. It only heightens the sense beauty and the surreality of the previous scenes.

Contact remains a powerful vision of humanity's future in the stars, and it's message makes the Universe such a more wonderful place than it would have been otherwise; notwithstanding God, the reason for our existence in the Universe is a facet of a layered reality indescribable with words; but as Ellie's father says,

"In all our ceaseless searching, the only thing we've found that makes this Universe
bearable, is each other."

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Half-Blood Prince

Ever since I became the witting guinea pig in one of nova's irascible experiments my life has been affected seriously. The coming of the Joiner King no longer seems such a sweetly anticipatory event; and I shall be making unwarranted incursions into the young-adults section of Kinokuniya, Takashimya.

The Half-Blood Prince seems like one of those Lucas blockbuster titles; laughable from the outside, less so from exposure to its meaning. Bloodthirsty brainwashed clones aside, this HP book is the sixth in what seems to be set to transform into the Hogwarts septet/saga, notwithstanding post-graduation volumes on Lord Wormtail or Percy the Secret Animagus.

Voldemort's such a figure Rowling'll be rather hard-pressed coming up with a new, better villian. Perhaps thats what she intends. Anyway, HBP might have been good, but its just skewed. They have to copy.

HBP also has the dubious merit to be the first HP book not to have a central microplot. Barring certain events, it seems HBP and 7 are set to be two halves of one concluding whizzbang to the Harry Potter septet/saga. It is a bridge, a substanceless recounting (other than That) of how Harry spent his sixth year. And its strangely empty, cold. Dark.

Nova shall do a more comprehensive review. Down with Snape.

Rowling, write fast.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Standoff

The golden rays of the noonday sun were merciless on the beaten ground, the baked soil almost crackling with the terrible heat. But the large crowd of people standing about the premises were heedless of their discomfort; another event was taking place that transcended mere mortal affliction.

They stood on opposite sides of the field, the centre of a large space of sunbaked earth, surrounded on all sides by spectators. They wore simple robes that flared at the sleeves, not inhibiting the wrists. Holding long, fine slender swords that shimmered in the sunlight, they bowed to each other, then, to a group of clustered elders. Solemnly, a brass bell sounded, sonorous in the yawning silence.

The two swordsmen ran at each other, their steps light and in tandem. The veneer of strained concentration was emanating from both, but coupled with a sense of carefree confidence and anticipation of a well-played tournament. At the last moment, both leapt lightly into the air, lithe bodies twirling, well-heeled wrists twisting as they brought their weapons to bear at each other-

The sound of impact reveberated into silence as the two competitors landed back on the ground, swords grappling with each other. As if from some unconscious agreement one of the fighters brought his sword away, and blindingly fast, crouched low, sword flaring in a well-aimed swing at the limbs only to be parried swiftly with a backhanded hold. The swordsman smiled and brought up his weapon in a thrust that was swiftly diverted with a blow on the left side, even as the pair of swordsmen leapt sideways in opposite directions, swords ringing clear and resonant in the sunlight haze.

Swift procession of thrust-parry-swing-block, the dominant sound the metallic ring of ephemeral contact of steel, even as the fight flowed gracefully from end to end of the combat ring. One daring swipe brought a blade dangerously close to a neck, blocked only by the blinding speed of an equally daring parry. For a moment there was a tense reprieve. Perspiration fell onto the sun-parched earth, onto the swords themselves. Then the crystal silence was broken as the serpentine hold of sword-upon-neck was broken. Duck-jump-thrust-parry, somersault in an impressive high jump that drew awed whispes from the crowd, only to be anticipated by the turning foe. He smirked as he brought his sword foward, left in a swinging movement-blocked at the last moment, again.

They were like the most graceful animals ever to walk upon the earth - the agile quickfootedness of a lion, the light springiness of the gazelle, the sudden striking capacity of a snake, as did Man draw his strength and art from them. So fast, the blurred dance of human and sword, it could not be called a fight, but a dance, a flowing dance that, so elegant in its civility, burnished the monuments of savagery as yet it did pacifism. The intransigent meeting of wills, in a bloodless yet bloody contest that pitted strength against weakness, weakness against strength, and, through the transcending of inhibition, liberated the deepest recesses of the soul.

Ever-trained muscles and the incantation of the swordsman - the sword is not a tool; it is the hand. The weapon is the extension of your self, not an extension of the world - and the sheer force of wills that rocks the world, part of a minute battle of skill and bravery that resonates across the Universe. That practice combat on a sunbaked field is the expression of the intent of our existence; the rush of opposites that creates a new whole, the thesis and antithesis that spawns a synthesis. The symbiont merger of polars is the essence of our existence.

And so the combat, no, the dance continues, the swift flowing back and forth, of weapon and will, the retreat and the daring strike. One clever thrust distracts the opponent, by which the sword is swiftly withdrawn and is swung around in an overhead blow that is desperately blocked by the uprushing blade - a feint. The battle of swords continue, as the spirit of mastery pours through the opponents; Nature's avatar of the primal clash of opposites.

The blurred motions of the fight ensue across an hour, and muscles begin to tense. The battle mellows to that of endurance and mantainence of will, as sweat puckers brows increasingly and the thirsty earth soaks up more, as the noonday sun is muted by the whirring clouds and afternoon sets into mellow cyan hues - the merciless hacking and strafing and thrusting is met by opposites of blocking, parrying, twisting, the weary reality settles.

Then, the beautiful dance is marred - in a spectacular twist of clashing blades one sends the other's weapon flying, and at the other's stricken expression, sends his blade snaking to hover at his opponent's chest. The crowd erupts in roars of jubilation and disappointment, and the two swordsmen smile at each other, satisfied at the pure display of their aggression and finesse, as they withdraw, and bow to each other, and bow again to the clapping elders, as the satiated representation of primal will is finally, irrevocably, ended.

Balance is overthrown.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Last Light - The Punitive Legions

The beat of wardrums sounded from the distance even as the Procession fled. Order was dissolving; men and women were running helter-skelter, heedless of the futile proddings of the soldiers. Thallae ran with the rest, infant cradled in his arms. The baby was sweating, red, and clearly in a bad way, eyes staring glassily up in the air. But Thallae did not have the time or impulse to check on the infant, as he ran for both their lives.

The botched escape was one of the worst undertakings Thallae had ever partaken in. The host of the Dark Ones was far away; if they had gathered together and walked fast they would have outstripped them easily. As it was it seemed like half the entire Procession had gone missing. But it was easy to see upon hindsight; in the terror of the situation all thought had been driven out of his mind except the singular urge to run, and run his legs to shreds.

Thallae looked up and saw that Vash was already turning back, shouting for them to regroup. Vash had clearly assumed that the curve of the undulating hill would block the view of the eastern horizon and give them time to reform without too much trauma. Taking the company's only stallion Vash rode down stragglers and urged them urgently back to the group core. Thallae saw that he had to help. He drew himself to his full height and began bellowing at the top of his voice. In the feverish heat of fear and rushing bodies the task became doubly hard. His arm caught a running boy of seventeen in the chest, sending him sprawling to the dirt. Thallae knew him, Astoras Pemell, son of the breadbaker in his street.

"Don't panic! Stay close to the core! You must not straggle! Now help me rally them!"

Pemell looked up wildly. "Are you mad? They are coming. You saw what happened at Hadon-"
Thallae cut him off. "They are two miles away and unaware of our location. If we panic like this there's a better chance that wewill all die, and not wholly because of them!"
Pemell had always been a bright lad. He nodded, though with a trace of fear, and started shouting.

The army of Dark Ones had in fact come from the northeast, on the other side of the abandoned city. They were moving southwest to lands south of Jadeon when they somehow caught scent of the Hadon Procession. Units of marauding Dark Ones rounded up and slaughtered the stragglers they found, and...absorbed their essences. Then, finding no more, they returned to the core of the departing Dark One army.

Vash's Procession, or what remained of it, hid in the mouth of a nearby cave as they waited out the slaughter. When night fell and the deathly reverberations of the wardrums had at last faded away into the darkness, they finally crept out of their sanctuary, apprehensive but relieved. The procession was now possessed of fifty, eighteen of which were soldiers of Vash's company. Vash and a wounded Nompidi went to the head of the procession as they headed further north, skirting widely the abandoned Knoros and heading for the Pass of the March.

Where from there, Vash could not say. The lands north of the March were unfamiliar to him - only that they were colder and possessed of strange beasts, and belonging to many kingdoms which were at continuous warfare with each other. he determined still to enter those lands, for he felt convinced that the Dark Ones could not have penetrated that deep as yet.

Thallae walked now with Pemell, who seemed to think that Thallae had saved his life. Pemell was a talker, and he showered Thallae with innuocous conversation that never seemed to stop. Pemell continually made reference to Thallae's having saved him in his small talk, in a way Thallae felt was very irritating. But Pemell showed sense when it mattered, and Thallae let him discharge his insecurities because of that.

"And I heard Vash Yellowgrumpus say he didn't have the least idea where we were going. I saw maps before, if I were him I'd take the pass north, those things wouldn't have gone too far-" Pemell continued droning, unaware that Thallae was not even listening.

"Whas' up with you and Yellowgrumpus, eh? Ja always seem t' be scowling at each othah'." Thallae tensed, then relaxed and sighed. "Nothing to hear here. Move along."

"Come on, Thallae. Tell me. Nuthin' gets away from the ol' ear in the end does it."
Thallae pursed his lips again. "Shut up and move on, Astoras."

There was an uncanny silence at that. Thallae was beginning to regret his outburst when Pemell finally spoke. "I s'pose...you lost somebody in 'der war?" His voice was becoming more slurred by the minute.

"Pemell," Thallae said, concerned, "you're drunk." Pemell was clearly intoxicated with essence of Bradun, a plant that people chewed for enjoyment in Jadeon.

"Tell me, won't ya?" Pemell said again, and his drunken voice held a glint of steel behind it.

"I...lost my mother. And Sybil, but she'd already..." Thallae let his voice trail off. Pemell was staring at him with a strange, twisted expression on his face, of anguish and guilt and...glee.

"I los' Lacia-" Pemell was becoming less coherent. "She 'scaped with me, I was n'ver so happy when we found each other outside the gates, safe." His voice broke. "She's gone, Thal. Never found 'er 'fter we ran. I lost 'er, Thal. Lost 'er forrver.Those c-c-CURSED THINGS!" he roared, slumping and weeping, stomping away, kicking wildly at rocks. He tripped and fell to the ground, sobbing and beating his fists. He fended off Thallae's half-hearted attempts to help him up, ignored Thallae's halting words of comfort, and stalked off.

***

Late afternoon, and the cold mountains were almost on them. Vash predicted gloweringly that they would be able to reach the pass by the next next nightfall. The procession had already made good headway against the Dark One army, and because their paths diverged, they would soon leave that threat behind permanently.

Thallae was sitting, his back on a tree, smoking. He thought of Pemell's words from the past day. Had he really been keeping his emotions in so well? Thallae could have sworn that Pemell was positively cheerful. Did it have to take Bradun to excess in order for his inhibitions to fall away? Thallae now understood the quiet weeping he thought he almost heard from Pemell the night they escaped. "Yes," he said to himself, "Pemell does have some hidden strength in him after all."

The resonating sound of horns jerked him awake from his half-doze. At first he was terrified that the Dark Ones had returned, but then, upon hearing the horns more clearly, Thallae could perceive that they had a clear-crystal quality to it that no Dark One horn (he thought) would have the quality to match.

An army! He thought with a leaping feeling in his chest, which subsided at the swirling memory of Hadon that then rose up in the recesses of his mind. Vash was already calling for them to reform, perhaps hoping that they woud be able to rendezvous with the approaching army before nightfall.

As they trudged closer, it was clear that the army, which had already halted and began preparations for the night, had spotted them. Thallae was awed by the sheer size of that legion. Their numbers easily exceeded a hundred thousand, and their battle standards came in hundreds of different crests and sigils. Their fires lit up the land for miles. Vash led fifteen of his soldiers to intercept the leading vanguard of incoming riders.

At their lead was a particularly threatening giant of a man, clad in silvery-black armour and with a most dangerous expression on his face - not improved particularly by the jagged scar that had taken out his left eye. Checkng his horse expertly he dismounted and landed on the ground with a heavy thud.
The huge man stalked over to him, hand on the hilt of his broadsword. He towered over Vash, whose hitherto inscrutable expression had wavered a bit.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here looking like a patch of ragamuffins?" At the sound of the man's voice, Thallae allowed his eyebrows to climb. Not only did this personage know and speak Common, he did not sound remotely like what Thallae had expected him to sound. His accent was marked, but he spoke softly, voice a mellow baritone. That voice gave off all indications of a cultured man.

Vash cleared his throat. "We hail from yonder south, from the city of Hadon, in the Empire of Jadeon, soverignship of his Highness, the Emperor Valligon XVIII. I am Eleindant Makor Vash, commander of the refugees of Hadon." Vash sounded like a barbarian compared to the hulking giant before him. "Hadon was destroyed by the Dark Ones, as we call them, a race of foul-" he stopped abruptly at the giant's upraised hand.

"I know about the Mxvarici, Eleindant Vash," the giant intoned. "They, too have plagued our lands. The news of your defeat is not surprising to us, man of Jadeon,"he continued,"considering the circumstances of your defeat."

His hand left the swordhilt, and there was a palpable release of tension. "I am Grand Xorval Peljjanos Ulaktor, leading the Hundred Legions south into your lands. You may know that the lands north of the Marchpass are divided into petty kingdoms. Well, no more. The Mxvarici," he spat the word out like poison, "have appeared again in the cold winter lands yonder of our realms."

"A..again, Grand Xorval?" Vash asked.

Ulaktor cast him a frosty look. "Surely you know of the Mxvarici Chjinn?" Then, seeing the look on Vash's craggy face, he said, "No, I can see not. Your lands have lost much of their history, after what happened in the Vorsh Cataclysm."

He continued. "The Mxvarici have always been a part of our most ancient lore. It is said they have come before, thousands of years in the past. Not much is said of them, but it is known that their coming was contested, and the Earth was wrought to savageness, end from end. So says the Mxvarici Chjinn. No account is given of how they were finally driven off, but they must have been," he said darkly.

"And now the stirrings have come again, the Great Punitive War is come," said Ulaktor, "And only the worthy, it is said, will have the strength to defeat the Mxvarici and save the world. Even as we speak a larger legion from the Hundred Realms alliance, larger than this army, sets forth to the northlands to drive back the foe."

Vash was visibly preturbed, although he tried to hide it. "But surely, Grand Xorval," he said, "you must know that these...Mexvarisee are nearly impossible to defeat. And the sound of their horns-" he broke off, face sagging with distant horror.

"Mxvarici," said Ulaktor offhandedly, "and we know. Many, like you, have returned from encounters with them. They gibber, they rant. But we know the wheat from the chaff." Vash's lip twitched at this odd expression. "We know they come. And we know," and his eyes narrowed dangerously, "they will die beneath our swords."

They stayed with the army for the night. The next day, Ulaktor had furnished them with fresh supplies and horses, and wished them good luck on their journey to the North.

"The United North will, most likely, take you in. But be wary, for all is not right with our lands." And with that, Ulaktor turned his horse and galloped to the front of the marching army.

The Procession turned North, away from the Legion that would die as they battled with those that would not be destroyed.

Because, in the runes of old, Mx is the eternal symbol for invincible.

***
Well the response towards The Last Light hasn't been much so I won't write anymore.


The Last Light - Whispers of the Dead

Ever since the disconcerting revelation by Nompidi, Vash had not once slept soundly. As he led his ragged band of sneering escapees, he could almost feel the animosity radiating towards him like merciless rays of a desert sun. Every time he spoke with Nompidi he gritted his teeth and made sure to respond as civilly as he possibly could.

Nompidi seemed to have retreated back to his usual meek self after his threat on the blustery morning. Vash remembered it all too well. Vash had nothing but disdain for the slightly-built deputy, but Nompidi could be perfectly murderous if he wished, to his subordinates. Only the long-bred habit of subservience to his betters (a looked-up to custom in Jadeon) had kept him fom displaying his more bestial half to Vash himself, though, as Vash could see, Nompidi was fast reaching his breaking point. Vash himself could only thank the Three that his authority had held; rebellious intent was limited to surly grumbling even as Vash led them to their inexorable destination, Knoros, of the Domain of Ilushida.

So overjoyed the people were at the sight of civilization that they forgot all their inhibitions in daily Mikone, the Absolution. Thallae himself, striking a perfectly ridiculous pose with the squalling infant in his arms, led the Mikone, and beseeched forgiveness for their actions, one of which (he intoned himself) was doubting Vash's ability and trustworthiness. Vash almost felt his usual dislike for the blacksmith fade away, somewhat.

As the night settled, the Hadon Procession, as they called themselves now, set up camp again, within sight of the city. As blue deepened to magenta and then to brown, many eyes were on the city, bone white in the dying light against the foot of the mountains. Vash, too, was gazing at it intently while smoking a pipe. The beginnings of doubt began to rise in his mind, even as the world darkened around him. Briks, a spearleader, offered him some food on a skewer. Vash vouchsafed no reply, his eyes on the city the whole time.

It was clear that Vash was surprised, even shocked by something, as Briks watched his commander worriedly. For as night settled, the familiar blinking lights of city torches...did not light. Knoros was completely dark. Dark, and, Vash thought with a sinking feling in the pit of his stomach, lifeless.

Vash stood hastily and trod to Nompidi's tent, one of the few that had emerged out of the mad rush at Hadon. Crouched low, he entered. Nompidi was chewing on dried meat. "Ah, welcome, Lord Eleindant. I am afraid I have not the capacity to greet you in proper hospitality, I usually leave the hunting proceeds to my men..."

So, Vash thought, Nompidi could be nice, too, for a change. Grunting noncomittally, Vash settled down on the rough mat. He leaned close.

"Nompidi, listen. There is something deadly wrong. Knoros is unlit, and it is dark. It almost seems...lifeless, and no procession has arrived to meet us, even though we are strong in number and not far from their gates."
Nompidi's eyes widened; he looked fearful. "You do not say...Knoros has been...taken?" The last word had sunk to the volume of a whisper.

"I do not know." Vash began to put on a grimace, which was a sign of extreme anxiety coming from him. "what we must do, quell the rumours, undermine the panic. And Nompidi, ready a band of scouts. We shall investigate on the morrow. In daylight."

They both understood the unspoken quantity. Dark Ones disliked the sunlight. The attack on Hadon, like all others, had occured in twilight.

Hurriedly Vash stepped out of the tent, only to be confronted by a milling, confused mass of people who upon seeing him had bombarded him with questions that he found impossible to answer.

"What is happening-"
"Why is the city unlit-"
"What is this place, this city, why-
"Why have you led us to this accursed-"

"QUIET!" the clamour of voices stopped abruptly at the command. Vash looked around, a wild light in his eyes. It was Thallae who had spoken. He strode up to the still figure of Vash. "There is no point in worrying. I will admit that this occurence is strange in itself, but there are many reasons why we should stay calm. Chaos will tax everyone, make less your chances. And we do not presume to know much about the customs of the inhabitants of the city. If they held hostile intent, we would not be here looking at each other now."

"Where in the Underworld are we gonna do, eh?" shouted a middle-aged scruffneck. "I reckon no one know what the 'hell we is goner do save that Yel-" he cut off, staring surlily. Thallae turned to Vash, who studiously ignored him. Vash growled, "You are in no position to know. Stay calm, or the Horde Spirits claim you all. We have everything under control. You need not worry if you follow the commands of my troop, is that clear?" His last words were drowned out by a rising buzz of angry voices.

"Who is you t'think-"
"I'm sick of you Yellowguts and yer sh-"
"We have a right to know-"

"FINE!" he finally roared. "You want an answer from me? WE DO NOT KNOW. WE KNOW AS MUCH AS YOU DO. DO WE PANIC? DO WE CURSE, ROUND ON EACH OTHER? No," and his voice was dangerously soft, "we Yellowguts do more than you do, think more than you think. The only thing we do less than you is eat, sleep, rest. We are trying to make plans, and if you horde of plamkrats would only nail your mouths closed we would have mch progress made." Vash stormed off at that point.

They slept fitfully, the deathly quiet darkness of the city a poison against their peace-of-mind. When sunrise finally came it was muted by the dark roiling of stormclouds in the far east. Vash was disheartened by the lack of light, but he had little choice. Wishing the scouts a gruff good luck he set them off.

Morning turned to afternoon, and the eastern clouds still roiled turbulent. The pale light was enough to get Vash into a shouting fit with disgruntled members of the procession twice, while anxiously waiting for the return of the scouts. Thunder sounded even as the sky was still icily clear. Afternoon turned to the fearful dusk, and still there was no sign of the scouts. They had disappeared without a trace.

Vash became insane with worry, and his anxiety began to reflect the mood of the crowd, fearful, resentful, even terrified. The hours ticked by, till the sky began darkening. And as the hue of the sky turned dark the city began to shine with an ominous purple light, as if emanating from the stone itself.

A horror-struck scream sounded. Vash's head snapped around, and his eyes widened.

Knoros was burning with a wild violet light. Vash felt nauseous, and a seed of fear erupted in him as he had never felt before. Men and women around him began to vomit noisily onto the ground. The evil lights continued to dance, casting lurid shadows on the mountains. Vash's knees went to water as he sank to the clammy soil.

Then, on top of the sheerest pinnacle of the tallest tower of Knoros, something vile and serpent-like, emanating darkness, protruded out of the stone, sending chunks of it crashing onto the surrounding buildings. The earth seemed to shake. Then, sudden as the coming of ravens, a deathly silence reigned.

Then, like petals opening in a dying flower, the terrible protrusion opened. And the low, deadly, sonorous wail of the mournful howls of a thousand dying men sounded with terrible finality, drowning out even the piercing shrieks of the men and women of the Procession.

The Horn of the Dark had just sounded, thought Vash wildly, and this thought gave him a strength that, impossibly, overcame the paralysis of his legs and sent him tumbling to the front, roaring orders like he had never done in his life.

Too slowly, the procession ran, an echo of the escape of Hadon. They ran, leaving everyhing but their food behind, leaving those who had collapsed from aplopectic insanity, running for their lives, even as Vash led them, shouting orders, even as the soldiers they scorned escorted them, panting, even as the eastern horizon around them erupted into a writhing mass of unearthly colour and the lightning of the Dark Ones smothered the earth.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Last Light - The Staggering March

Morning came bleak and cold to the survivors of the Cataclysm of Hadon, as the early risers rose from their sleeping grounds. There had been no time to pack; many of the poor, even some of the better-off had been sleeping on mats of coarse cloth, under the stark sky.

The unnatural fear that had been hammered into them upon hearing the Horn of the Dark had not entirely departed. In the mad rush out the South Gates many had died terribly, and not entirely from the cold machinations of the Dark Ones. The frenzied rush to escape the doomed city had taken its toll. Thousands were slaughtered like animals, in the most horrific of ways - women were crushed under stampeding hordes, their babies beaten into bloody pulps by heaving feet.

Acen Thallae, blacksmith's apprentice, had been one of those lucky few who had managed to mantain their position at the front of the mass of escaping refugees. His proximity to the head of that serpent of people was the only thing that had saved him from the dagger of Dark Ones' host, plunging with swift deadly silence into the flank of the refugee mass. Thallae remembered with a distant, deadened horror how a man's pulverized flesh had sloughed onto his back as he ran and ran, remembered how a woman, eyes beseeching, had thrust a screaming babe into his filthy arms, her begging and crying for him to save her baby's life, for she was bleeding and weak with exhaustion.

Thallae never found out what happened to that woman; whether she had been mauled, stabbed, or driven to madness by the slimy visages of the Dark Ones, was a thing out of his knowledge. All he knew was the reality of her trust in those final mad moments, of his responsibility. He looked now into the brown, liquid eyes of the squalling babe, cradled in his muscular arms.

Let it not be said that Acen Thallae was one who broke promises easily.

Thallae had also lost his mother; too ill and frail, she had no means of escape. Her last whisper to her beloved son was a plea for him to escape safely. She had chosen, then, to die quietly in his arms, and for the first time in his adult life, he had wept. Cradling her frail body his arms he cried out his sorrow, then remembering his last promise to her, took the body out, buried her swiftly, and departed as speedily as he could.

Gathering up what possessions he had now, Thallae set his emotions loose. Another tear slid down his face and fell onto the parched earth.

***

"Come on! Make haste, you flea-gotten slowfoots! We cannot remain in one place too long!"

Eleindant Makor Vash, nominal leader of the Two Hundred, was a wary man. It was whispered that the voices of the Dark Ones had more than unhinged him; he had become paranoid to a fault. The Eleindant was the troop leader in charge of the fleeing refugees during the massacre of Hadon. In the evacuation he and his squad had, too, been carried away, and not by the mass of escaping men and women.

As a sad consequence what surviving men still attached to Vash were viewed with a certain surly suspicion. Among the rowdier denizens of the sorry troop they were called the Yellowguts, not without some venomous disdain. Vash himself had doubts about the guts of those same men, cold blue eye roving mercilessly whenever he stared down at his charges, mouth quivering under the bristling bushy moustache.

Truth to tell, Vash's company had an original quantity of three hundred men. Now, there were twenty-two. The rest had fallen to the Dark Ones, dying while defending the same civilians who now held them in such resentful loathing.

Such justice in Theredras, thought Vash silently. His one eye stared down at the milling, desperate crowd and beheld Thallae among the masses. His lip twisted in sneering contempt.

It seemed ages before they were ready, and only because of the threatening glow on the horizon. Heads turned unconsciously to stare at the angry roiling luminescence. Mouths muttered warding incantations out of pure reflex. The procession began their long trudge again, trekking across the Roth Plains to the east to find safe haven.

Vash's deputy, Nompidi, came up nervously to him. "Lord Eleindant, my men wish to know where we head."
Vash did not so much as turn his head. "To the East."
Nompidi wringed his hands. "My Lord, the East is vast, and they must know where exactly we are headed. They grow surly and mutinous, trudging without a clear direction - I implore you, my lord, to tell where you intend for us to head-"
Vash cut him off with a brusque wave. "Then you will tell them that I will attempt to head northfarthings, toward the Ilushidan city of Knoros. Failing that, we shall see."
Nompidi's eyes widened. "But my Lord, the Ilushids are not exactly friendly to Jadeon. We have threatened to go to war no less than thrice during the past-"
Vash cut him off again, this time with a snarl. "You will tell your men this, Nompidi, and another whimper out of you and I will have you butchered."
Now Nompidi's eyes turned strange. He said, almost as if he were dreaming, "I am afraid, my Lord, that your support base wears thin. We do not need to defer to your authority. I would most tactfully advise you on that particular matter."
And Vash did not respond, for Nompidi, insofar as he could see,
was right. Nompidi fell back to the men, and Vash thought he could almost hear the snapping jaws of slavering dogs. His fist clenched in quivering fury.

***

The long serpent of refugees continued their slithering across the parched plains. Thallae trudged along near the back, avoiding Vash as best as he could. The woman's baby was crying continually, and it was starting to irritate him. But he stuck to his ethic.

Soon they passed the walls of an enormous city. It had clearly been abandoned for some time; its walls were caked with plants and crumbling into the dust of time. Thallae wondered at the temerity of the city's builders; constructing their many-splendored citadel in such a hostile, formless land. They camped near the city's gates for the night.

As the darkness descended Thallae could not help but feel a sense of unease. The great yawning gates of the abandoned city seemed to come alive with malicious intent, beckoning him to enter into the murky darkness within. Cold drafts of air passed out from the cavernous entrances. The place was so vast, and yet so empty, that Thallae imagined the whispers of thousands of tormented ghosts filling the walls.

He woke with a start in the middle of the night. The baby was sleeping soundly. The maw of the city still stood there, aloof. Thallae felt drawn to it, and, as though sleepwalking, he made his way up into the entrance, past the ruined gates, into the city. Cold, musty, eeriely quiet it was on the inside, as Thallae made his way through the streets. His unease became mixed with a growing dread, and the whispers of restless ghosts began filling his head, as he spun wildly, rooted to the spot, seeing nothing but ghostly-white buildings everywhere. The sounds became louder, and Thallae was convinced it was not just some mere hallucination, for he could hear the distinct notes of each voice. And what they were urgently intoning.

We have been denied so long....Give us your blood!

Whimpering, Thallae fled as the susurrations of laughing spirits resounded in his skull.

***

The procession wore on for six days. On the evening of the seventh, Vash, leading the refugees, rounded a hillock and...

Stood still as the sight of a glittering pearly-white city greeted his eyes. They had come to Knoros at last.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Last Light - Fleeing Time

The ragged band, two hundred strong, stumbled, one and every weary, despairing; some crazed with fear, some weeping with abandon. They stank of the reek of death.

Two hours out from the ruined city of Hadon, their former home, and the unearthly glow from the terrible energies released from that cataclysmic last stand still shone, like an angry, strobing eye. That conflagaration was not something to be forgotten easily. Legions of Jadeon's finest, the Third Centurion, flanked by the largest concentration of warlocks ever seen in the past century, weaving their terrible, dark tapestries of energies that drew out the darkest currents of fear in the stoutest heart. Approximately fifty thousand of the Empire's best troops, shielding the fleeing civilians even as they stood, every one resolute, to face - whatever they were to face.

No one knew where they came, whether, perhaps, from the darkest pits of the Underworld that had for millenia been held at bay by the ceaseless valour of the Pit Guardians, or from across the Dark Ocean, where it was said that the Spirits of Death lay in wait for every soul. They were terrible to behold, clad in smoking black mail, faces unseeable from beneath their helms, tall, huge, like the very agents of Unduras. Pouring in from the night, hundreds of thousands strong, and the sound of their coming was the pealing of horns that sounded like the mournful wails of a thousand dying men- the bravest men quailed at that sound, and it was said that their greatest weapon was their ability to project into a man's mind the unreasoning fear of death beyond its natural bounds - a cruelty.

Stragglers fleeing from Hadon watched as the Third Centurion flinched against the sounding of the Horn of the Dark. Watched as the more derailed of their kinsmen suddenly went wild, as if driven by some mad impulse, beating their heads violently against stone walls as they screamed for the dark voices to get away, as they died, writhing, faces a mask of red, eyes unseeing and milky.

They watched as the greatest host ever collected in the walls of Hadon flinched at the first blot of shadowy darkness against the horizon, flinched at the hearing of a million hooves that shook the ground like an earthquake.

The dark host was made more eerie, because they were entirely silent, even as they marched up the hill, in full strength. No emotion; even raw bloodlust would have been welcome when likened to the faceless, murky, unseeable emptiness of the Dark Ones. They halted suddenly, and in the deadly silence that followed, they lifted their heads as one, looking up at the assembled armies of Hadon above. And men loosened their bowels and bladders in terror, and some cast down their armour and ran, or begged, or groveled, or shrieked in pure, wild abandon.

The slaughtering began.

These deadly agents of the shadows - they moved, swiftly like snakes, swarming the city gates. The metal that formed the gate doors buckled and shrivelled, finally causing the great gate to collapse upon itself in a shower of dirt and screaming men. Like water the dark host poured in. They were impossible to kill - swords hit uselessly against their armour and shrivelled. Men went mad at their unseeable gaze. Their great broadswords, maces, spiked clubs - hurtled against mortal meat. Men were sliced in half, their entrails flying as their bodies were thrown high into the air by the movement of those huge swords. Others liquified in their mail as maces struck with such violence as to deafen those around the afflicted. Spiked clubs impaled tens of soldiers in a single blow. The dark magic of the terrified warlocks, usually so lethal against Jadeon's enemies, were useless - the dark ones merely raised their mail-clad arms and warlocks burst open in showers of meat where they stood. Only arrows that shot true into the middle of a Dark One's face would cause it any harm; six or seven were needed before it would collapse in a banshee-like shriek, leaving only charring armour and cloak behind.

Only four times did it happen.

In two hours the battle was done, and none now were alive to see its aftermath. Hadon burned with unearthly fires from magical conflagarations. Survivors were butchered. The victorious army yet stood silent, unmoved. The dark ones did not heed the refugees that had escaped overmuch, sending a minuscule regiment of their mighty host to harry them. Whereupon they held silent vigil over their smoking conquest.

And night fell with the whisper of the rising moon.

And they, the guilt-ridden survivors, trudged away, beset by the trauma that comes with death, bedraggled and crushed; two hundred strong, even now fleeing from the mad dance of death that had devoured the world.

This is their story.

---
Sample chapter in a possible series of entries. A prologue of sorts. Yes, the dark ones are based on Nazgul and Dementors.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Allure

He saw her for the first time near a tiny shop of oddments, staring at the assorted matchstick men arrayed on the windowsill with an expression of quirky amusement. She was dressed simply, grey woolen sweater over a blue shirt and jeans that looked just slightly worn at the knees. Her hair was neck-length and waved glad and free in the light breeze. That was the most enduring memory he had of that first sight, even years later, as he ruminated silently on a chair, watching rain patter against the windows.

She was not a beauty, but she was pretty, and had an air of intelligence and trusty competence that he admired. Her apperance, her aura, charmed him even as he was busily pacing to work. On impulse he stopped, abruptly and turned to face her, but at that point she broke from her reverie at the shop window and turned to go. They faced each other, two strangers, by the sidewalk. For a moment, arrested in time, their eyes met. Then the electric contact was broken, and she smiled at him and nodded, and walked past him. But, as he watched her receding off into the distance, he saw her look back at him, surreptitiously, twice.

Her eyes were most startling blue- cool yet warm, like the uproarious embers of a crackling fireplace that soaks the cold yet gives the heat. And her smile, not one a woman gives to any mere pedestrian, a polite smile, perhaps, but more intimate than he could have hoped for.

At work his thoughts strayed oft ever to that crystal memory of the young woman at the shop, which resulted in an unfortunate mix-up of certain documents, which merited a glowering twenty minutes in his boss's office. But during lunch, during his walk back to his apartment, his mind was ever on her. Passing by the oddments shop, he did not see her, but he decided to wait at the shop window a few moments, to see what she had been staring at.

Perched on the platforms were matchstick men, not soldiers, but, as it seemed, of normal people going about their lives. It was like a diorama of sorts, the type you could buy, bring back, and make by yourself as an interesting addition to any house's decor. The man, gripped by a feeling he didn't really comprehend, entered the old shop with a slight feeling of apprehension and bewilderment.

A tiny old woman greeted him warmly. "I'd like to buy one of those matchstick kits," he said, thinking, perhaps she might- might- He didn't know what.

Later on, in his apartment, he took his newly bought set and stared at it late into the night.

The next day, as he walked by the little shop she was there, again, staring at the matchstick family, the little painted figures portraying the comforting homeliness of family life. She seemed almost like a child gazing longingly at a toy, but at that moment, again, she turned and looked at him who looked back- and smiled.

"Oh hello. I saw you yesterday, too, didn't I?"
"Err, yeah, yes, that was me. I'm sorry, I couldn't help noticing that you, uh, liked those matchstick figures."
She started, then seemed to retreat into herself, as though thinking up some fond memory from the past. "Yeah. I...used to play with some of those when I was young."
"So did I. Those matchstick things, I mean." Inwardly, he cursed himself for his tongue-twistedness.

They stood there, in the middle of the crowd, hesitant. Abruptly, she laughed, a tinkling of bells to his ears. "I'm Dana Brown. Call me Dana." She introduced herself with a slight tone of laughing amusement. "Nice to meet you."

"I'm Peter Granger. Pete for short." He smiled with relief and pleasure and held out a hand. "Nice meeting you too." With unrestrained vitality she grasped his hand, smiling all the while with a certain shy amusement, and pumped it. Their eyes met again, and this time they lingered.

After a while, Dana broke off. So did Pete. "I have to go. I'm quite late already," Dana said. "I'll be back here tomorrow. See you then, Pete." She smiled again at him - she was a great one for smiling - and set off at a brisk pace, looking back once or twice and smiling at him again. Pete felt a wash of inexplicable pleasure well up deep inside of him, and he strode off to work, unafraid even of his boss's temper.

They met again the next day, at the shop window. Dana stood there, as always, but this time, she was not staring at the little rows of matchstick men. When he saw her, it seemed as if her breath caught. "Hi," she said, awkwardly, when he reached her. Pete was no less shy in his greetings. Again they stood there, not knowing what to do. Then, at the same time, they both intoned, "Wait," and proceeded to dig in their poclets for the papers which they had both independently written their phone numbers the night before. Dana and Pete both stopped and stared at each other with a slight bewilderment before breaking out in quiet, shared laughter. Pete looked into Dana's eyes as he placed his scrap into her hands, and hers into his.

Then that treasured moment passed again, and they parted, with only the words "Call me tonight" hanging in their minds.

That night Pete lay in bed, thinking happy thoughts. He had rarely felt this kind of warmth in his heart before.

He still had the scrap of paper that held Dana's number. Sitting up he searched his pants pocket for it, and, hands shaking with the prize, proceeded to get the phone and dial the numbers. It seemed an eternity before someone picked up the phone.

The voice was tinny and distorted, but it was Dana. Pure Dana. "Hello?" her voice said.

"Er, hi, its me, Pete. Pete Granger. We agreed to call this morning, and I'd, uh, like to talk, if it isn't, uh, inconvenient?"
"Oh, hi!" Dana's voice was sprightly. "Oh, no, I'm quite free now, in fact, I was about to call you!" She laughed again. Pete could hear the mirth behind the words.

They decided it would be prudent to have a chat in more proper circumstances, so they arranged to meet in a cafe in the city at the next Sunday. For the following week they met at the shop or chatted on the phone. Then the Sunday came, at long last. At one o'clock, Pete was taking strides up and down his bedroom, impatient and consulting his watch every five minutes. When at long last the time came to go he rushed out of his apartment hurriedly, almost forgetting to lock the door. Dana was already there when he arrived, clad in a warm brown cardigan.

"Sorry I'm late." He sat down with her on the table and smiled tentatively. But something was wrong with Dana. She smiled back, but in that smile was a shadow of doubt, of trouble, unlike her usual fulsome self. Pete grew concerned. 'What's wrong, Dana?" Her blue eyes seemed muted as she looked at him, then cast her head down.

"Pete...I..."
Pete waited patiently for Dana to collect her thoughts. He ordered two token drinks from a passing waiter, then waved him away.
"It's rather hard for me to say this, but you're...a good person, Pete, I can tell. I...its not anything to do with you, Pete, but I want to say this. I want to confide in someone...I need to."
Pete listened inquiringly.
"I've never in my life said this to anyone. Anyone." She raised her blue eyes to look at him again.
Pete was mystified. "We've known each other for only two weeks and you trust me enough? Are you sure you want to do this?"
Dana fixed her gaze on his face. Firmly, she said, "Yes. I'm sure. Pete, you're the only person I've ever met whom I feel...I can trust. I never had many friends in my life, and" she sighed, "well..." at this point she looked dangerously close to tears.

"My parents died when I was ten. I loved them, and when they went...I almost couldn't take the pain. I remember I almost tried to slit my wrists." Looking at Pete's horrified expression, Dana quickly added, "But I didn't. After they...had went I was forced to go live with my uncle. My uncle was a ruin. A gambler, a drinker, he squandered everything he had, mistreated me. I had to learn to make myself breakfast, to leave for school early so that he wouldn't catch me and shout at me, or beat me up savagely. Every afternoon when I came back he would be out drinking. What money I had, I had to scrounge for in the house. At night..." her voice broke. "At night he would come and try...things. But he was always too drunk. I ran and hid in the bathroom until he tired of it."

She paused. "I had to forgo University for now, because I didn't have the money and my parent's trust fund was just maturing. Even that wasn't enough. What I'm doing is trying to get a scholarship of some kind. I live alone now, in a rented house, with that trust fund and what I earn from doing work at a store."

"Can you imagine how it must have been like, Pete? Every day, coming home to this bleakness? Coming home to this abusive man who never cared? My closest kin. How much I sacrificed for the sake of surviving my ruin of a childhood and girlhood later on. I was always downcast at school, always working hard. I made little friends because of this. Everybody shunned me because I was so 'miss high and mighty'." She laughed, without humour. With bitterness in her mouth. "I've tried, you know. Even though I tried so hard, when I was seventeen, school ended and I chose to apply for a scholarship to a faraway place, they rejected my application. I needed to work even harder."

She sighed, burying her face in her drink. "When I was nineteen my uncle was admitted into hospital. By that time I was already independent enough to be rid of him. I can't say he was too sad to see me go. I remember the shouting match we had, though. He tried to bludgeon me with a chair. I just ran. The wind felt like freedom. Then he got violently ill, probably because he had insomnia and was taking his sleeping pills along with his booze. Went to hospital. He died. And when I heard the news I felt...happy. Liberated. I'd never felt so free before, not in my whole life." Her voice was wracked with a curious sense of guilt. "I swore to myself that I'd never feel sad again. It was as if my fortunes hinged upon my uncle's life-or death. What sort of person would think that, Pete? Feel wild, unrestrained joy at the death of a relative? I can't even feel guilt now, and I feel guilty over that."

Pete shook his head. "No, Dana. Anyone would feel that way. I would."

Dana said, "No, Pete. You don't understand. Its not only relief, or happiness. It's triumphant, sneering. I cursed him. Cursed his memory. I had no mercy."

Pete nodded numbly.

She continued."I had liked to think I'd put the past behind me. But when I looked in the windowsill, looked at those things I played with before...looking at those figures leading happy lives, looking at families, I can;t help but feel...cheated, lost. I don't want to be alone anymore, Pete. And when I met you..."

She laughed again. "I...I suppose it is amazing that I'm confiding my life's pain to someone I've barely met, but...for what its worth," softly now, "thank you, Pete, for being my confidant. I feel less burdened now, now that I've poured out my guilt." She heaved a vast sigh and finished her drink.

Pete left his own untouched drink on the table and tentatively laid a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll never tell anyone. And I suppose I should say," his cheeks felt hot, "I, too, feel grateful that you chose to confide in me. I'm flattered you trust me so much after such a short time knowing me."

She smiled, and some of that old mirth he had loved even before knowing her name returned. They stood. "You know, I'm also studying for a scholarship."

She looked at him, still recovering from her previous bout. "Thats nice."

They stood up, together, and Pete slowly offered her a hand, which she took. He looked, as he had many times, now, into her smoky irises. And that was Pete's second memory of Dana when they had met and Dana had professed her trust for him in a way he would, and could not forget, a memory that he would cherish unto that day when the roving tides of war would sweep their lives away, in the onrushing storm of dusk.

---
If you noticed the last part is a reference to the other story involving Pete and Dana. Please forgive the cliches, stumbling and the all-out cheese moments. My first try at a "romance" story. Don't expect too much.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Thrift

Baron Wihelm von Bruesser was by no means an extravagant personage. Indeed, he was parsimonious to a fault; hoarding the vast bulk of his considerable fortune in banks that shall not be identified here, and his ancestral estates were studies in practiced penury.

But as men say there is none save God whose mind is bereft of peculiarity, whether whimsical or not, and the good Baron was not, by any means, an exception to the rule. Indeed, part of the reason why he wore his socks in winter and hired but five-eighths the quantity of servants of his noble kinsmen was that some way underground his outwardly humble estate boasted a hectare of cellars, stacked with wines of a noble vintage, both old and sprightly, tangy and smooth;and oh, what a vast collection that was. Baron Bruesser was, rightly, immensely proud of his "treasure trove", as he cheerfully quipped during cricket with the Lord of Exeter a fine June's day, and indeed, he treasured it more than his Cambridge socks.

As one would very rightly think, the good Baron had more than a passing knowledge of his treasured art. His shelves creaked with the weight of volumes that described the intricate processes of caskery and how to weed bad grapes; and the infinite compatibilities of white wine and various sorts of fish, which he tried, with a certain fastidious relish, by fishing for trout in a nearby pond with a
Benjamin de Vieux Ch√Ęteau Gaubert at his side.

One blistery spring day Bruesser turned to his trusty manservant, Hobbes, and intoned his desire for such a wine to warm his innards on such a cool day in early April. The butler, who was uninformed in the complexities of oenology, inquired his good master as to what he might like. The Baron was, however, in a leisurely temper and merely dictated the use of the butler's own wit in such a choice. Sighing quietly with a certain dismay Hobbes left the Baron's side and some time later returned with a
Georg Breuer Terra Montosa, a white-wine glass and a silver platter, being unused to such banal labours.

The Baron took one look at the bottle and proceeded to gaze inquiringly at Hobbes. "Hobbes. Whatever has come over you today, serving a Riesling on a blustery evening? It isn't even lightly chilled. Get a red wine, my good man. A winter wine would certainly be delightful in this weather, don't you think?"

The long-suffering Hobbes endured some minutes in the musty cellars and returned with a
Grangehurst Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, which received a large smile from the satisfied Bruesser. Hobbes went back to work sweeping dust from his black suit.

Gazing around at his domain, warmed by the fireplace and enjoying the evening sunset, the Baron thought, "What joys thrift brings," and hereby proceeded to sample his wine.

---
This is not intended to be a story, more like a test chapter. Forgive the nonexistent plot. Hopefully its accurate enough.

Simply Irritation

Really. I mean, really.

After looking at some sites, mostly religous ones, preaching the detrimental natures of books like Harry Potter and Dan Brown - what in God's name is wrong with these people? Do they really believe kids all around the world will join Satanic cults or try to play as witches after reading Harry Potter? Will people really depart Christianity in droves because of some halfwit theory posted in a work of fiction?

The ludicrous claims of the supposedly ordained are shouts in the face of order temselves - creating awareness of nonexistent social ills that will emerge with the same vein as these declarations themselves - rebels will join these ills precisely because of the hoo-ha riled up by these petty condemnations - not because of the books themselves.

Don't waste your time. Use your energies for positive things, not kicking up a storm over some minor doctrinal incompatibility. Do you think the witch burnings of the middle ages actually involved the executions of real witches? Was Joan of Arc a witch or a heroine?

We might as well ban fantasy, ban science fiction, and go back to the modes of the Inquisition. So much for freedom of expression.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Stygian Legacy

The old days are past
With a wilted wing

Leaves fall, so soft, on marble steps-
Wind blows, with no regard for maps
In silent plaza, void of men.
Sad marble worn by scathing blaze.

This urban enervation is a thing,
For past-obsessed scholars in lofty halls.
Wordsworth rings false in ears of steel,
for steel rings true for millions.

Men's lifeblood is now the stream
Of electrons and broad marqueed boards
Whom shouts of, "Bull!" and "Hold, don't buy"
Are present in a dreaming eye-

Past's dream, a dream, of cloud and leaf,
of bulbous plague and court intrigue,
Most surely, of the sparse day plod
Of rural real, pastoral peal
That irks emaciated peasants.

And there we come to here and now.
We forsake for urbanity the plow-
They, relics of the past, are wont to leave behind
A stygian legacy - for we, us creatures modern and unkind

To trample flat beneath our loathing feet.

Soul of the Universe

Have you ever contemplated our smallness in the face of the sheer vastness that is the Universe? Marvelled at the sheer scale and beauty of nebulas that, with a single gulp, engulf entire solar systems? Travelled, in the inner eye of your deepest self, the enveloping sheets of gas and star matter and interstellar fabrics that are the very stuff of the domain of our reality?

The Universe is an uncaring thing. It moves as it wills, and has no qualms about annihilating planetfuls of life, or creating galaxies of them. Life, the simalcrum of self-propagation by conscious chemical and mechanical means, sprouts everywhere, and it is not an accident. Neither is it preordained. When you delve into the deepest reaches of the essence of life it is revealed merely as a string of the most intricately ordered sequences of elements and amino acids - hardly believable that this would lead to a self-arrangement of macromolecular proteins, which become organs and flesh, and finally, mind. Is Mind the sum of a trillion disparate parts, or is it an external construct that comes with the gentle susurration of angelic winds? Is consciousness an element of Mind, or Mind consciousness?

Surely We cannot be mere simulations of will, made as from clay. We are not self-driven puppets, with ourselves both as the marionette and the puppet-master - the strings the trappings of our own incomprehension. The matrimony of Perceived Will and Consciousness endures through the workings of Religon - merely an effort to explain the final nature of the Self and Purpose.

Is the Self, then, the workings of the trillion companionations of neurons? Or is it something more? Is it, rather, a gift of the Universe that powers the engines of reality - which gives breath and life to hitherto men of clay? Is consciousness the breath of life, and life the gift of Will?

Is Self the gift of the Soul of the Universe? And, at the very end, are we, truly, immortal beings? Beings of Mind rather than of matter? Are we the heralds of Purpose - in an ultimately purposeless Universe?

Are we the Soul of the Universe?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

War of the Worlds

Hokae. Soh nhow itsch mah turn. Spoilers.

Anyway. I gather that I have watched the latest Spielberg spiel on a blistery noonday in a colourful cinema with a bunch of fellow group members, after, repeat, after, we had exhausted our SD Cards and batteries (and legs, too) running all over the island taking pictures of "random buildings" (Kevin) and (almost) eating at Swensens (Pohboi). I gather.

Spielberg. The name evokes nightmares of ravenous sharks and generic aliens with flat heads spouting cultural anecdotes. The story goes something like this. Spielberg, tired of making all those "goody-alien" flicks that he's so fond of decides to try his hand (again) at the art of erasing the bad taste of Independence Day. (What. I thought it was okay. I mean, it may be a cliche, but not to me because that was probably the first aliens-attack movie I'd watched in my life.) Tom Cruise plays this disenchanted crane-operator who always looks like he's almost chewing gum but ain't. He's got an estranged ex-wife and two kids who aren't so happy to get stuck with him, especially when the daughter's taste in food doesn't match the father's and they order out. And because the son has a prediliction for driving without lessons and a licence and turning up in the most unexpected of locations, like filthy but evidently quick on his legs in his mother's house in Boston after miraculously escaping a rather large explosion that leveled a small hillock.

Tom Cruise can't make sandwiches. Neither can he sing.

Anyway. War of the Worlds can be adequately summed up like this: Man gets kids dumped on him. Man meets aliens, man escapes with kids, man and kids hide in house, man comes out of house with kid and sees the aliens dead. End. I mean if Spielberg had concocted the story he'd be bashed and revered simultaneously. But the fact is that Mr. Wells did and that makes all the difference. He can't be touched. Bacteria. With aliens sporting vastly different physiologies its a wonder- oh wait, it was written in the time where the pioneers of aerial travel were still repairing bicycles. (sorry.)*mock sigh* 19th Century biologists.

Is this a review? Doesn't read like one. It reads like a rant which doesn't have a focus. Great. Now I'm reviewing myself. It could have something to do with the time and the fact that I don't really feel like writing stuff.

Direction. Well, Spielberg returns on an airjet and shows off his new camera moves, which include a very shaky pan to a fan and satisfied shots at mass carnage. During the more intimate scenes that don't have ubiquitous flying train carriages in it he brings up suspense to a high level, though those scenes tend to drag out for too long. And I'm not a fan of suspense. As usual Spielberg captures emotional angst and trauma very well. He has many scenes where he pits human desire for self-preservation and compassion very well, as well as impossible moral choices.

The other part of the cinematography involves such oddities like blue rays that turn people into dust and lots of explosions. It just gets repetitive after a while. Next.

I liked the characters. Believable, everyday characters with their own problems caught up in a situation that tests their wit and resolve and brings out the heroic qualities in them. At no point is Cruise acting like Rambo or the Terminator with constipation. Though he always projects halitosis, especially when everyone shrinks away from him like that. Acting was okay as well. But Dakota Fanning, the possible Petra, is a little irritating with her screams and impulsive claustrophobic fits. Eowyn is good too.

Well. Okay movie, starts well but ends flat, although its mostly because of HG Well's story. Insufficient sense of post-apocalyptic ethos. I mean, there are still houses. And the trumpet sounds emitted by the tripods are very good. Very ominous, spine-chilling. Cool.

Hokae. If I have given you spoilers, warn people.

EDIT: Qiao Zhi, war wounds consultant and noted strawberry-lover, has chosen to add a few comments to this review.

"Many fans have asked "Why the [censored] is the film's ending so bad?" Well, Qiao Zhi answers this question.

'"Well,uh, basically Wells got too engrossed with his work, and by the time he made the aliens virtually invincible he was like "shit shit i made them virtually invincible", but then he got a supposedly ingenious brainwave from a violent bout of sneezing which almost resulted in the accidental defenestration of his landlord, and so he put pen tp paper and that is how the storyline got so damn shitty. end.""

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Stalwart

Glass. Polished, glinting with the light of the heavens. Glass with its reflective beauty; its capacity for inner understanding. Glass the innocent, glass the deceptive, glass the cruel barrier of a trapped mind. Glass the protector. And glass the progenitor of despair at the desired but unattainable. Closeness yet distance, a sequestered dream.

This is glass, lifeblood of the city, the glittering ornaments on the skeins of its titanic inhabitants. Glass is the voice of the monoliths, shouting sophistication and elegance across the chasms they themselves create. Covetous, snazzy, updated, the cloth that covers the honeycombs and the termite mounds of mankind.

Like an old Dowager's jewels glass is the face of the inner spirit to the outer world, critically scathing in its fashionable disdain.

Salute the armies of window washers, for they are stalwart.

Steel and concrete can only look on enviously at the attendants of glass.

Dictionary

"What the hell is going on, Spencer?"

Albert Spencer looked up from his newspaper and saw a red-faced Jonathan Crowley standing at the door, a sheaf of readouts clutched tightly in his callused hand.

Spencer was a thin, dapper man, deliberate in his actions. He sported a clean haircut and rimless spectacles that were perched precariously on his thin nose. He stared now at the heaving Crowley with a faintly disapproving air.

"You might want to let go that grip a bit."

Crowley stared at the offending fist and, chagrined, relaxed his hold. He stormed over to Spencer's chair, and with a resounding flick of a wrist deposited the readouts onto his coffee table. The crumpled papers settled slowly, one catching the side of a small puddle of spilt tea and soaking up its contents. Crowley sputtered for all the world and swiped the papers away hastily, whereupon they fell on the carpeted floor.

It was a long time before Crowley could get his bearings back. Spencer waited silently, pale eyes peering over the top of his newspaper.

Finally he set the papers down and said, "What is it, Dr. Crowley?"

"I don't know!" Roughly thrusting the set of readouts in Spencer's face. Gently, Spencer took them and, fastidiously avoiding the wet portions, began examining its contents. His lips quirked into a slight smile.

Crowley glowered at him. "Now do you know? Its driving us crazy, this is! Damned new model!"

Spencer drawled out his words. "Well, it does seem to be rather a unique case, under the circumstances. Positronic readouts seem to be normal, no spike anomalies or any such peculiarities of that sort." Heaving up from his chair, he said, "I suppose I'd have to see for myself."

Lab Center was by no means very far from the Rec Center, but the walk there seemed to take forever. To Crowley, at least. Spencer was inspecting the grounds methodically, sampling the mid-afternoon breeze, and taking special effort to enjoy his walk. Crowley could only roll his eyes at such languid behaviour.

The Lab center was a huge monolith of metal and glass. Crowley impatiently flashed his ID card and trod in; Spencer greeted the ID computer before doing so. It responded with a cheery salutation.

They took a high-speed elevator down to the enormous underground complex that was the Experimental Model Center. Here, the newest robots were subjected to tests of neural agility, motor function, memory - everything that might go awry from a bugged positronic pathway. Spencer thought it all amusingly ironic that robot models were built and sacrificed all for the sake of human error.

Crowley gestured to a room. Peering through the tinted glass door Spencer could just make out the figure of a robot, swaying back and forth, as though ruminating over some unspoken memory.

Crowley turned his eyes towards Spencer and looked at him. His tone was incredulous. "That damned robot's been talking to a brick for an hour. For God's sake do something about this, Spencer."Frustrated. "I can't take this crap anymore."

Spencer entered the room. And true were Crowley's words; the robot was staring at a brick, a small red brick with a chip in it. And he was talking softly to it.

"How may I slander you-How may I slander you-Do you wish hate-mail upon second trimester?"

Very slowly, Spencer's eyebrow arched.

"Harvey?" For that was the robot's name, "respond."

Harvey stopped rocking. Slowly, it turned its gleaming head towards Spencer. Its photoreceptors glowed a faint yellow in the soft light. "What -Our Creator has endowed-endowed us with unalienab-b-ble rights- do you have to hoodwink me. I am-am hoodwinked by a Master."

Spencer frowned slightly, but very slightly, for he was not one to frown easily. "I am a master, Harvey. I am human. By Second Law you have to obey my orders. And I will not, uh, hoodwink you." His tone was sharp, preemptory.

Harvey began to stutter. "Laughter's tears. You are not red-you are not-not human. Nor mast-ter-r. Pizza-can't tail-tailor?" And he began droning quotes from a cleaning manual.

Spencer waited. As the robot's hackneyed monologue began to trail off, he spoke again. "Who is master, then?"

And the robot pointed to the brick. "Master-trampling. Master-not to be defenestrated."

With that, Spencer began taking slow steps towards the table. Jerkingly, Harvey began scrabbling at it. "What are you doing, Harvey?"

"Make-be-bed. Flee, fly! Flam."
"That is not a bed, Harvey."
"Is a bed. Are-following birdwatching."
"If it is a bed, where are the bedsheets?"
"Un-underdog-assari. Unincluded. Bear, bare, punk-rocker."

Spencer reached the table, and in one smooth and simultaneous action pointed behind the robot. "What-Master is in danger!"

The robot looked back in simulated alarm, and Spencer, taking advantage of the robot's inattention, snatched the brick, lifted it high with an intent to smash it down - Only to be kicked viciously away by Harvey's metallic foot. Emitting a high-pitched squeal, Harvey rounded on the supine Spencer.

Crowley, watching the entire proceedings, nearly passed out when he saw Harvey acting in direct violation of the First Law and activated the EMP field. The room was filled with an intangible shriek of light and noise. By its end, Harvey lay in a motionless heap, deactivated.

Later, Spencer explained the entire situation to a bewildered Crowley while daintily brushing nonexistent dust off his immaculate shirt.

"Don't worry. Harvey is quite an anomaly, I assure you, though you might want to take precautions with quantum fluctuations to the positronic field."

"But what happened?"

"Oh, it's all rather simple really. You see, robots follow the Three Laws-and this one did too, however it could."
"But it attacked you!"
"That's because it didn't consider me human. It considered the brick human. When you loaded the vocabulator's Dictionary module something or other malfunctioned and the definition for what a human is was altered. Human was assigned the meaning of brick. And brick was assigned the meaning of human."
"What?" Incredulous.
"So it treated the brick like a Master. But the First Law is rigid. It states that human beings cannot come to harm. But harm is loosely defined in the robot's mind. It is the state of un-well-being. It had no means to define what harm was to a brick-how would a brick be unwell? How would a brick conform or follow symptoms of un-well-being in a human?

So the robot was understandably confused. It could follow no orders from the Second Law. And the dictionary register continued to corrupt-possibly because of this confusion in the positronic potentials. But, since the definitions that pertain to the Three Laws are, as you know, within the sphere of the hardware itself, they're harder to corrupt. Those definitions remained somewhat unaltered. Except "hoodwink", I gather." He smiled.

"So. I was a brick in the robot's eyes. And when I talked, attempted to pass myself off as a Master, it was understandably confused. And the robot is much more rigid; it won't pass it off or comprehend it so easily. So it cracked. Its vocabulator deteriorated steadily as it talked to me.

Still, it came to the brick's rescue. First Law!"

Crowley frowned. "There is still one thing that bothers me. It was remarkably slow in tackling you."

"Why, that's because a robot's conception of harm to a human being cannot square with its new definition of what humans are. To put it simply, it has no idea what constitutes harm to a brick!"


Spencer leaned back on his chair and took up his newspaper again. "And that is that."