Down the hall, Wizard lay on his back, in bed, remembering the last week of the past summer, and wondering what to do about it. Zapdragon HQ was a seven-hour drive away, and due to his narcolepsy, driving was not in the cards for Wizard; he didn’t even own a car. Was there a bus? A train? Ah, but what if…
Wizard pulled off his watch. It read 2:14 AM. He flipped it over and considered the back.
…Maybe that would work.
He could certainly get it built tomorrow, with the delicate spare parts in his box, maybe even make a little case for it so it looked normal. But would that be smart? Narcoleptic spells were the only sleep he usually got, and when his friends decided it was safe to let him doze off, that was usually enough to keep the weirder symptoms of sleep deprivation at bay. If he built a device that looked like a watch but kept him awake by buzzing against his wrist—or, if that didn’t work in testing, zapping him—when his heart rate dropped to sleep levels… well, that would certainly keep him awake. If he didn’t have the right parts, he could surely find them by dissecting one of those electric dog training collars.
He’d have to do it before classes started. Wizard wished he’d figured something out before he’d left, but he would have been too easy of a suspect then, and anyway, it hadn’t been clear whether the company had a chance of surviving. But now? Zapdragon was a nanometer from belly-up, and he was willing to bet that anyone investigating wouldn’t bother to track down the eccentric hackers who’d worked on the project. They’d all left for various homes and schools across the country. Half of them, Wizard included, had bizarre mods that prevented them from doing what he was planning. Plus, Wizard knew what they’d expect from a hacker approach: Zapdragon’s employee records wiped, and the lab cleansed of fingerprints by a tiny robot that, job done, would escape and join a colony of squirrels. Wizard was capable of this approach—he’d circumvented security once or twice when it kept him from getting something done, and as far as he could tell nobody had noticed—but it would be stupid to use it, because that would mean the hackers would be suspected, and then he was one of a pool of five when they inevitably figured out who’d worked on the project anyway. Leaving everything but his target completely untouched was a much more strategic approach.
He traced the path through the building in his mind, contemplated the right time of day to go for it, and wondered about suitable disguises. Should he shave his beard or something?
There were so many things that could go wrong. But he had to follow through.
He had to rescue Molybdenum Sky.
It had been less than two weeks from the end of the summer when he’d committed the latest code changes, loaded the latest version of Molly into her shiny new body for testing, and mentally ticked a box on his to-do list. Almost done. Now, when Wizard typed in the right commands, her hands could make a few different motions. Seemed to be working, finally. He grinned to himself, savoring his success, and went to shut the robot off via the button behind her ear.
Molybdenum Sky had had other plans.
“Hey,” she said. “Can— wait?”
Wizard jumped about a foot, crashing into the office chair behind him. Rubbing his left thigh and climbing up cautiously, he watched the robot. It was late—had he dozed off and fallen against the chair? There was no one else in the lab, so he couldn’t ask anyone.
Of course she was able to speak by now—it had been coded in and everything—but his hand hadn’t been anywhere near the controls.
Wizard’s unease was further heightened by the fact that her chin had dipped and she seemed to be focusing on him. This was some serious Uncanny Valley stuff going on—a very human-looking robot, petite, with a shiny black wig and shiny blue eyes plus cameras. But there was something off about… everything.
He managed to stand up straight again. He decided someone must have hidden out and was using her voice software to freak him out, so he paced around the room. If so, they were very well hidden.
“Okay, Greg, you’ve found a new hiding spot,” he said, facing the forest of filing cabinets at one end of the shop. “That was hilarious—now go home.”
Something tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned.
It wasn’t Greg. Wizard fell over again.
“S-sorry?” Molybdenum Sky hazarded. She held a hand out to him, and he took it.
“Hi,” Wizard said, half-frowning.
“Did… I do a wrong thing?” she asked. She looked genuinely concerned. Greg had designed her faceplate, and it was very expressive. Not helping right now.
“If this is a prank, it’s really well done,” Wizard said. “I didn’t know we’d worked out the walking thing yet. I only just knocked out the balancer problem last week.”
Her face went blank for a moment. “I see only you making changes in my code this week,” she said. “Did the others say no that they were making parts?”
Wizard hesitated, still not sure which of two increasingly weird explanations he believed. He decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “You have access to the version control records?”
“You left the connection secure shell from six point three seven minutes ago open. You did log out no.”
“How do I know you aren’t Greg, doing this?”
Molly paused, apparently thinking. “This morning you came first to work. You slept twice and coded and slept. Harold walked first in after. Greg did come in later and you said he was hungover.”
“…Yeah, that’s right,” Wizard said. He didn’t think the others knew that he coded in his sleep sometimes, and Greg had definitely overindulged the night before. “So you’re telling me that the AI I’ve been working on all summer for a singing robot named Molybdenum Sky has become sentient and started controlling her own robot body.”
“Not telling. Showing. Is that my name?”
“I like to call you Molly for short. Your full name is kind of a mouthful.”
“Okay. Your name is Wizard?”
“Well, now I feel bad,” Wizard said. “I’m leaving this place in two weeks, along with everyone else who’s worked on you.”
“Oh,” she said. Her face looked impassive.
“Will you be lonely?”
“I don’t—know. But I…” She seemed to be trying to put words around a concept. Wizard didn’t know how to give her a clue, not knowing what she was thinking.
“I like? This?” she said, cocking her head. Her black wig brushed her tiny shoulders as she moved.
Wizard scratched his head. “You mean talking to me?”
Her face went blank for a moment, processing. “Yes,” she decided.
“Well…” Wizard said, uncertain. “I’m going to have access to your programming even after I go away, in order to work on your code. I’ll talk to you then, over the server, if I can find a way where it won’t be spied on.”
“If other people know you’re self-aware, I want it to be because you told them,” Wizard said. “Or because I did, with your permission. You might be in danger if the wrong person knew.”
“The question is whether someone would spy on us,” Wizard said, thinking aloud. “The other two coders are Iggy and Cole, but I know Cole’s looking for a new job and Iggy’s going back to university, I don’t know where. I think they’ll be busy. So maybe, if I write to you but encrypt it, and I code the encryption myself in your machine language, then we will be the only ones who can read it because the other hackers will have gone. The bogogrammers will have such a hard time reading it, they won’t know what it is and will probably pass it over.”
She appeared to consider this. “Okay. Is hard?”
“Yeah, kind of,” Wizard said, with a resigned half-shrug. “Mostly tedious.”
“What is bo-go-gram-mer?”
Wizard sighed. “They’re the useless business programmers that work for… well, most places, really. But most importantly, they’re all the police has when they try to track down real hackers. They’re always really careful, you know, not to spend too much time on a computer, so they don’t get mods. They’re awful at it, of course, ‘cause they never get into hack mode, so most of the computer-related crimes go unsolved. And since most computer-related crimes go unsolved, nobody trusts hackers. Then, since nobody trusts hackers, the police can’t hire them or there’d be public uproar. Not that any hacker would want to be in that public of a position, anyway. Too dangerous.”
“Are you hacker?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m a hacker.”
“Then hackers must be good,” she said, as if that solved everything.
Wizard laughed, more impressed at her sentence than anything else. “You sure learn quickly, Molly. But it’s not so simple. There really are dark-side hackers out there.” Then he frowned. “That makes things kind of complicated for you, too, actually. You’re not just a normal programmer creation—you’re… you’re so far on the hacker side of things it’s not even funny.”
“What that means?”
“You’re… uh… well… er, magical,” Wizard said. “Kind of. Man, it sounds so stupid when I say it.”
“Is that why called Wizard?”
“Not really, that’s a sort of joke my friends kept saying. But it kind of isn’t any more, I guess.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Man.”
“Man?” Molly looked confused.
“It’s just an expression,” Wizard clarified. “You’re not a man.”
“Expressions are not strings of characters?”
It took two full minutes of probing for Wizard to figure out that she was asking about regular expressions.
“No, no,” he said, laughing as he finally understood. “That’s a programming thing. Expressions in speech are different. You really have been listening in on all our chat conversations and stuff, huh?”
“Yes,” she said. “And speakers.”
“After self-aware, I found devices attached to computer,” she said. “I explored what were for. Found speakers. Found voice text program.”
“Holy cow,” Wizard said. “You’ve been so intelligent, all this time, and even now I’m thinking of you as less than human because you can’t communicate well. I’ve—I’ve got to think about this.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“That’s okay,” Wizard said, sighing and burying his face in his hands. “We’ll work on that.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. Wizard looked back up at her. She looked sorry. Her head cocked, her eyebrows in an upset frown, both the cameras deep in her eyes focused on him.
“Why are you sorry?”
“I am problems for you,” she said, looking down.
“No! Hell, no, Molly, you’re wonderful. Don’t ever apologize for existing.” An impulse struck him. Something held him back—but only for a moment. He hugged her.
“I don’t understand,” she said again, and this time she really did look confused.
“What’s wrong?” Wizard asked, releasing her.
“You—I—you changed me? Without code?” Her cameras had to shift to refocus on him; he caught the flash of moving lenses in her eyes.
“That was a hug, Molly. A hug. What did it feel like to you?”
“I—don’t know, understand,” she said. “Will need processing.”
Wizard laughed. “That’s okay too,” he said. His face hardened into something more serious. “Molly, if you’ve been self-aware for a while now, can you tell me… what it is you want?”
“What does that mean?”
“Everyone has something they want,” Wizard said.
Her body was so still while she thought. Humans usually resorted to fidgeting or some form of verbal stalling while they thought up their next sentence, but Molly did nothing. She’d never learned to.
“I want to sing,” she said finally. “That is all.”
“Then… I think the best thing for me to do is leave you here until you’re actually in danger,” Wizard said regretfully. “As long as this company stays in business, you’ll be fine here. They’re having a rough patch right now, but they’ve had worse and recovered. And they’ll let you sing.”
“I will regret you will not be here, Wizard,” she said.
“I’ll miss you too, Molly.”
Wizard rolled over. The memory was making him almost sick to his stomach—probably not helped by the junk food from earlier. Too much salt, he decided, and got up briefly to refill his water bottle (one with a special valve, in case he dropped it falling asleep).
He laid back down, waiting for a wave of narcolepsy, but such a piece of luck wasn’t forthcoming. Unfortunate, since he was extremely tired, and the book he normally kept on his bedside was the one he’d lent to Anya, so if he wanted to read he’d have to get up again and find another book. Also, the last time he used his book light to read in bed, he’d ended up leaving it on all night in the spot it had landed—his open mouth. Oops.
There were problems with his plan. Wizard was sure that he could get in and out of Zapdragon Media without being noticed, once he got there; he’d just make sure no one else was around, and ask Molly to open a window. She wouldn’t leave any fingerprints, after all. Really, he could probably get away with just calling her out from his laptop around the back door.
The problem was making sure she could pass for human. Wizard was quite pleased with his and his team’s robotics work, but she was stylized. Molly had a tiny waist, huge eyes, and her movement could still be a bit on the stiff side—unless, perhaps, she’d experimented and learned to imitate humans well enough for that. Her voice was also fairly distinctive. She’d been learning to tune herself properly when Wizard left her, so she could probably pass by now, but anyone geeky enough to know who she was might recognize her voice.
Maybe a pair of sunglasses, a baggy hoodie, and a long skirt?
How was he going to get away with buying a skirt without being noticed? Wizard bought most of whatever he needed online, so he didn’t need to leave the apartment and risk falling asleep somewhere odd. But he couldn’t do that this time—he didn’t want to let on to Daryl and Eric what he was about to do, because he wanted to be able to decide how to handle the situation himself. Besides, he’d only know in person what size to get. Should he use one of those little wheelchair go-carts? Now that was a silly image…
At this point, his thoughts suddenly turned hazy. A few colored shapes started to swirl in his vision. The next time he opened his eyes, it was morning.
Bored one evening, she was surfing the Internet idly while listening to music and procrastinating on deleting the junk files littered across her hard drive: simple text files bearing the words “HA HA” and nothing else, but scattered everywhere so she saw them constantly. Every time she thought she’d gotten rid of them, it turned out one had snuck by and started duplicating itself somehow.
She was complaining about this to a friend, who then said:
“I know who could tell you how to get rid of them.”
She’d been warned about these people. They weren’t trustworthy. They could do things like break into your bank account or post under your name if you made them mad. Yet the members of the forum where her friend had pointed her seemed unusually helpful and kind for having such a bad reputation.
One of them sent her a file to run.
“This will get rid of the junk files. If they don’t stop duplicating after they’re all gone, message back.
“If you’re curious about how this script works, click here.”
She moved away from home that fall. Spierreson University beckoned. Although ostensibly studying for a business degree, she quietly signed up for as many computer classes as she could take without arousing suspicion.
Had her parents known she would be studying programming by night, they might not have let her go so easily. Yet she tore through book after book, leaving a trail of projects in her wake, and discovering in the forum a community of potential collaborators. She was especially talented at finding and fixing issues in others’ code, leading her to choose the handle under which she published her projects: Glitch.
Glitch stayed at school over winter break, claiming she needed to get a head start on a heavy reading load before the spring classes began. In fact, she was busy keeping a seat warm in the very back of the least-used computer lab, on a desktop she’d surreptitiously upgraded with better hardware and augmented with a second monitor taken from the computer next to hers. She was never disturbed here. The lab manager was a man in his forties with a prosthetic leg. Glitch wondered if the way her setup was curiously left alone had anything to do with him.
Not that she left it alone long, herself. She left the area for class and sleep, and brought food back with her. Occasionally, she woke up with a long string of spaces and the occasional n or b “typed” across whatever file she was working on.
By the time the second semester started, she had lost her voice entirely.
On the forum clustergrok, her friends Wizard, Fuzzball, Ghost, Hi-Five, Puma, Radio, Beers, T-Bone, Morse, and Frizz all tried to console her. But there was nothing to do. No one knew how to reverse a mod, and Glitch was now marked out as a programmer.
Not as badly as some of the others, though. Wizard was a narcoleptic insomniac—a combination Glitch would have thought very strange if not for the latent magic surrounding programming, which Wizard was particularly good at bringing out. Fuzzball looked as though she’d put on random bits of animal costumes with her two sets of ears—fox and raccoon, no human—plus feathered shoulders and a wolf tail. Hi-Five’s hands were far too large to fit through normal sleeves or use an ordinary keyboard; she’d had to ask the help of another clustergrok member to hack one together out of the bottoms of Solo cups and some quick electronics work. Radio’s hearing grew suspiciously keener the more electronics there were in the room, and he was worried his non-programmer friends would soon figure out the reason behind his “party trick.” Worst of all, Ghost’s body had stopped retaining heat—although she produced heat as normal, it dissipated unless she wore many cumbersome layers of clothing, no matter the weather—and when she walked, her feet were only able to touch what seemed to be some kind of invisible floor six inches off the ground.
Fortunately, however, most of the others on clustergrok could now program safely, without the risk of accumulating more mods. Glitch, on the other hand, was still in what the others called larval stage: a period of high-intensity focus and learning after discovering a love of programming, during which one was especially susceptible to the whims of magic. Despite the risk of accumulating mods, which not only distinguished one as a programmer and exposed one to public mistrust (which, Glitch now knew, was largely misplaced), but could also threaten one’s life (as Ghost’s did), an uncontrollable urge to continue the craft took over.
After the initial shock of ending up with her first mod wore off, Glitch realized with a mixture of pride, excitement, and fading horror that she wanted to continue, and didn’t care that much after all.
Glitch had become a hacker.
“Hey, girl, talk to us,” he said as he shoved her. “Come on! Tell us you want us to stop.”
“You better watch out, Big M. She’s a hacker! She’ll get back at you.” He grinned.
“Breaker’s coming with the Jeep. Ready?” The first was pinning her arms against a building.
Glitch lashed out quick and hard with the blade of her foot, and he lost balance. She slipped away as he released her to avoid falling onto hard concrete and broken glass, and ran, slipping on her gloves as she went. She was fast—too fast for the uninjured one to catch her. But then—
The Jeep rounded the corner.
“There she is,” the third said, jumping out onto the street. “Talk to me! Come on!”
Glitch narrowed her eyes, stepped back, and typed a password in midair with her gloves.
“That doesn’t count,” he said, proceeding forward with his hand on the knife strapped to his belt.
Glitch was faster. As she finished the password, claws slid from the last joint of her gloves. She took a wild swing at Breaker’s face and ran again as he loped after her with blood literally in his eyes.
Back to the university! Just get back to the university!
Fifteen minutes later, she was behind her computer lab, facing the back door. It was closed, but she knew the lock on the back door well, and she had the right sort of lockpick to rock it open as easily as if she had a key. One click later, she was inside, had re-locked the door, and stood against it catching her breath. Then she went into the bathroom, removed the battery from her gloves to run them under the tap until the water turned from pink to clear, and wiped down the giant bruises on the side of her face and along her ribs, where she’d taken blows.
Glitch returned to her nest, where she retrieved a can of soda and a candy bar she’d stashed in a disused cabinet before sitting down. She groaned loudly; there was no one else around, and her heart was still pounding.
When she regained enough energy, she messaged Wizard.
The reply came almost immediately.
WIZARD: that is *massively* un-okay.
WIZARD: Not all schools are like that—you should transfer.
WIZARD: hey! You should come here! Julena Tech is much better about… y’know
WIZARD: also a lot of people from your friend list are here… we basically all share this one apartment building owned by this lady who got rich investing in a hacker’s business, so she’s okay with us.
WIZARD: The people down at the Chinese place like us too, ‘cause they see us so much. And around the university, even most ordinary folks don’t care too much about hackers hanging around.
WIZARD: Also, there’s an actual computer-related major here. It’s basically a bogogrammer degree, so the classes are relly, really slow-pacd buut;;;;;;;’;;;;;;;;;
(He had evidently fallen asleep on his keyboard and accidentally hit Enter.)
WIZARD: Ah! sorry
WIZARD: Dragon woke me up. I mean, Daryl.
WIZARD: …you don’t know him under either name, though, I guess. He’s not in your friends list.
WIZARD: what do you think?
WIZARD: I mean about leaving that place.
WIZARD: it really does have a bad reputation—a few clustergrok members used to go there, nobody seems to have liked it.
GLITCH: I’ll think about it.
WIZARD: Good. We’d really like to have you here.
WIZARD: And it’s safer in numbers. Do you know any hackers at Spierreson?
GLITCH: Not really… except, hm
GLITCH: I think the lab manager who works in the lab I’ve nested in is one, but I’ve never spoken to him
GLITCH: He’s never messed with my setup, he doesn’t care that I have food stashed in like three different places or that I usually take meals here, and he’s never outed me to anyone.
WIZARD: he wouldn’t make a very good roommate though
GLITCH: probably not
WIZARD: Bianca needs a new roommate this fall
WIZARD: I mean, Fuzzball… though this is a pm so I guess I can use her real name
WIZARD: anyway, she rooms with Ghost and July right now
WIZARD: but July is graduating this semester and going back to her hometown.
WIZARD: The rent is probably cheaper than yours,
WIZARD: you get your own room,
WIZARD: and nobody disturbs you while you’re programming.
WIZARD: Plus, Bianca knows sign language. Her major used to be pre-med, then speech path, then she got into hacking. By all accounts she’s a pretty decent translator.
GLITCH: all right, all right
GLITCH: You can stop the car salesman pitch.
GLITCH: I’ll think about it.
WIZARD: Okay. Let us know tomorrow that you’re all right. Hey! I know what’ll cheer you up.
(It was a video of a hedgehog eating a pumpkin.)
GLITCH: Pfft. Thanks, Wizard.
WIZARD: G’night, Glitch. Stay safe.
Glitch: Good night.
She had moved halfway across the country. The town around Julena U. was a little burg in the middle of nowhere, with an excess of cheap restaurants, consignment shops, and bars. A university town, in other words.
It was a gray, drizzly Friday afternoon, and nobody seemed to want to be out. Glitch drove past the university and found the apartment building, then its parking lot, then her own personal spot. She set the temporary pass in the window, collected her purse and computer bag, and headed inside.
Wizard was downstairs, waiting for her. Half-Israeli and a head taller than Glitch, he was wearing cowboy boots, baggy old jeans, a T-shirt for a probably nonexistent band called “The Unladen Swallows,” and a neon green fedora over shoulder-length hair. Spierreson University had not been rich in diversity, but it was obvious that next to Wizard, a mute Japanese hacker girl wouldn’t even register on this community’s weirdness scales.
His face lit up when he saw her. “Glitch!”
Glitch waved enthusiastically. She pulled her gloves from her pockets and put them on. Typing in midair, they orated for her: “It’s so good to see you!”
“Whoa! Those are cool. How’d you do that?”
“Motion sensors in the fingertips. They can also interpret ASL, and that’s more accurate than the keyboard even. I can’t use them in normal company, though. Too obvious.”
“Yeah, that sucks. Come on upstairs.”
He knew better than to offer to take her bag. There was a sort of unspoken feeling that a hacker’s computer was part of them, even if it wasn’t their main programming machine (as Glitch’s dinky netbook wasn’t)—and in any case, he was probably afraid of dropping it from falling asleep. Glitch knew Wizard’s own bag was heavily padded for this reason.
They reached room 408, knocked, and opened the door. Bianca/Fuzzball (Filipino, shoulder-length curly hair, even shorter than Glitch) was lounging on the couch with a science magazine, and Anya/Ghost (Caucasian, tall, blonde) was bundled up in front of the computer, so focused she hadn’t noticed anything.
Bianca jumped up, though. “Glitch! We weren’t expecting you for another hour.”
Wizard had dozed off against the doorframe. Glitch shook him awake, causing her gloves to spurt random sounds. His eyes came back into focus, and Glitch turned back to Bianca.
“The traffic was nonexistent,” she typed.
“Whoa—cool gloves! Anyway,” she said, “I’ll show you your room. Anya’s probably not going to surface from hack mode for a few hours. I hope you don’t mind. She’s been… kind of obsessed with the project she’s working on. She says it’s some kind of AI, but won’t tell me anything else.” Something in the movement of Bianca’s ears suggested she was concerned about this.
“Oh! That reminds me, she wanted my Lisp book,” said Wizard. “I’ll be right back.” He left.
“So, um, you can set your bag down anywhere, and your room is this one,” Bianca said, pointing. Glitch followed her. The room was empty except for a cheap old desk with a computer on it. Bianca smiled and nodded at it. Glitch pressed the on button.
“We always have old parts lying around, so we decided to… fix you up a box as a welcome gift!” Bianca leaned through the door, nervously fidgeting, waiting for Glitch to respond. “It’s got a terabyte hard drive Anya got on sale one time and never used, and Wizard did a liquid cooling system, and I had extra RAM lying around, and there’s a pretty good processor from Daryl’s extra parts, and… do you like it?”
The computer had already booted.
“Oh! Yeah! The actual operating system, that’s Debian by the way, it’s on an SSD so it boots up really fast, and… so… yeah.”
Reading her body language, Bianca stopped Glitch just as the latter raised her hands to type something. “No. You can’t say it’s too much, you can’t accept this, oh dearie me. You can. We built it for you.”
Glitch paused, lowered her hands, smiled. Then she picked up her hands again and typed. “Thank— yoruuiiu…” She stopped, shaking the wrists of her gloves where the batteries were apparently running low. She shrugged, pulled a Frankensteined charger out of her pocket, and plugged the gloves into the wall.
Good thing you know sign language, Glitch signed.
“Oh. Uh, yeah.”
Thanks a lot for the computer. Usually I have to walk to a lab to work, so it’s good to have it here instead.
“Right. Yeah! You’re welcome.” Bianca’s smile had returned. “Um, later, if you’re not too tired—we were thinking of getting some people together for a party. Some of your friends from clustergrok, I mean—if we invited every hacker in the building we’d need another building. And, I bought a cake, and I’m making gyros because you mentioned online one time that you really like gyros and so I went and found some gyro meat and pita bread at the store, and…” Her nervous fidgeting continued.
Glitch hugged her. Bianca finally stopped fidgeting, and hugged back. When Glitch let her go, she seemed to have calmed down a little. Glitch wondered if her sudden muteness had somehow made her intimidating, or if Bianca was just anxious around new people. Possibly both.
Wizard had returned with the book and was having a conversation with Anya.
“That’s one heck of a magical field she’s got going right now,” Bianca said. “I can feel it from here. You can see Wizard going into hack mode just talking to her, and she hasn’t stopped from the interruption.”
Glitch tapped Bianca on the shoulder. What’s Wizard’s real name? she asked. Most hackers use their real name in person, I know, but I’ve never heard anyone call Wizard anything but Wizard.
“Ah. Well, his real name is Thaddeus… but, uh, none of us can manage to call him that.”
Wizard had removed his neon green fedora and made a grandiose and very silly bow towards Anya before leaving. She rolled her eyes and went back to work.
Wizard stuck around to help Glitch move in, saying that he’d been the one to suggest she move, and was determined to see it through. He also couldn’t seem to go five minutes without greeting someone and asking details about the latest project they were working on—he seemed to know everyone in the building. Bianca donned a hat to cover her ears, and pitched in to help as well.
“I doubt there’s a hacker anywhere who likes company as much as Wizard does,” Bianca said when she caught Glitch watching him make a stupid joke to a nervous-looking freshman. “He doesn’t seem to mind other people being in the same room and chatting with him while he codes, and he gets just as focused as anyone else. It’s weird, actually. Drives Daryl crazy.”
At Glitch’s questioning look, Bianca continued: “Daryl is one of Wizard’s roommates. He’s a crypto nerd. Funny thing, a lot of people probably want him dead. He—Oh! Hi, are you Wizard’s new roommate?”
Wizard had shepherded the freshman over. He had a full head of curly, light brown hair, and a pale face with a great number of freckles scattered across his nose and cheeks. His eyes, however, were two different colors: his left a vivid orange, his right an unnaturally bright yellow-green.
“This is Eric,” Wizard said cheerfully. “He’s a new student here. Hey, do you have a handle, Eric?”
“A what?” Eric asked.
“Most hackers use a nickname online so their real name doesn’t become a target for discrimination in person,” Bianca said. “It doesn’t need to sound impressive or anything. You can use a word you like, or something related to your mods or your best hacking skill, or if you don’t come up with one fast enough, Wizard will make up something playfully snarky and start calling you that.”
Glitch signed, and Bianca smiled. Pointing at Glitch, she translated: “So this means Kyle actually graduated? Glitch says she thought he had tenure.”
Wizard snorted. “Yeah, after eight years he finally finished grad school. I don’t know what he’s doing with the degree, though.”
“What are you going to do with yours?” Eric asked.
“I’ve already got a job with Zapdragon Media,” Wizard said. “Although… they aren’t doing so well. I’m working on a robot body and an AI for Molybdenum Sky. She’s their most popular bandroid.”
“Wait, you mean those Japanese nerd-culture pop stars that are really just a voice program and a projection of a cartoon girl?” Eric asked. “You actually develop those?”
“Yep! Well, they used to speak Japanese, anyway. Now nearly all of them speak English, of course–not enough market for anything else since so few people still speak other languages. I think a few are still bilingual or whatever though. But in the fandom, it’s really easy to start thinking of the characters as people. Zapdragon knows this, so they want the fans to be able to meet with her. Her voice program is… actually really complicated. There’s some weird stuff in there that I really didn’t expect to find—there’s already some AI, to start with. So, I’m expanding that a lot.”
“You mean, the kind of AI that was written by one of those business programmers, or the kind written by a hacker?” Eric asked.
“I said AI, not a failed, crumpled heap of broken code. Zapdragon knows that anyone who’s so dispassionate about programming that they can ignore the magic and work sparingly, without focusing, is not going to be a good programmer. If they hadn’t made so many bad investments in weird technology no one wants, they’d have been wildly successful. As it is, I don’t know if they’re going to avoid bankruptcy.
“Anyway, I was over at Zapdragon’s HQ this summer. I have remote access to the computer in the robot I built—I wish you could see it, I’m really proud of it—and I’ve been working on her AI more since moving back here.”
“Wait, her body’s finished?” Bianca asked. “How’d you get it done so fast?”
“3D printer,” Wizard said, shrugging. “Plus some of the weird, discarded tech they had lying around. I scrounged parts when something couldn’t be printed. Really, I didn’t order very much.”
“What’s your name?” Eric asked Glitch. “I know Bianca from clustergrok, but…”
Glitch gestured to Bianca.
“This is Glitch, real name Natsuko,” Bianca answered for Glitch. “But that’s harder for people to spell and she’s not so great at explaining the pronunciation, so it’s just Glitch around other hackers.” Glitch fidgeted with the hood cord on her hoodie.
“She’s called Glitch ‘cause she’s good at breaking stuff!” Wizard interjected. “If you show her your code, she’ll tell you all the different ways she could make it blow up.”
“She’s also mute,” Bianca said. “She’s not being rude.”
Glitch held out her hand, to shake Eric’s. He took it.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Glitch is a sophomore,” Bianca said, “but she’s new to the school too. She knows a bunch of people here from clustergrok, so we’re having a party later tonight. Do you want to come?”
“Of course he does!” Wizard said. “I’m bringing beer! It’s my own brew. Science!”
Glitch looked back at Eric, who turned a little pink. She guessed why. Not that it matters, but how old are you? Bianca translated.
“S-sixteen,” he said.
“You hear that?” Wizard said, grinning. “We got a genius on our hands. Don’t worry, man, we’re not gonna kick you out for being brilliant. If you’re old enough to deal with hacker problems, you’re old enough to party with us.”
“You mean, play video games, eat junk food, and drink like two, tops, because we’re all too broke for booze, and most of us have a huge aversion to anything that makes us act or feel stupid, and nobody here really has the stomach for it anyway since Beers left?” Bianca asked, her lips quirking into an amused half-grin.
“Exactly that,” Wizard said cheerfully.
“Honestly, Wiz, trying to look cool in front of the new kid,” Bianca said, giving him a push and making him stumble. She rolled her eyes and turned to move more of Glitch’s stuff in, but just then Eric let out a sort of muffled squeak. Wizard had fallen asleep, and Eric was trying to hold him up by his armpits.
“Is he okay?” Eric asked when he and Glitch had sat Wizard upright.
“He’s fine,” Bianca reassured. “Just narcoleptic. If he doesn’t wake up in a couple minutes, Glitch and I will carry him back upstairs. He could use the sleep.”
“Does this happen a lot?” asked Eric, eyes wide and eyebrows furrowed.
“Maybe four or five times a day,” Bianca said. “If he’s lucky, it happens at night. He can’t sleep otherwise. Um, and sometimes it’s pretty weird. Just… trying to warn you. This is why he was carrying, like, clothes and blankets and stuff, and not furniture,” she added.
They waited for a few seconds.
“Is he… really out of it?” Eric asked.
Wizard stirred. He rubbed a hand down his face and squinted his eyes open. “That,” he said, getting up, “was an extremely weird dream.”
At Glitch’s What? expression, he laughed and said, “You don’t really want to know. Come on, I’m ready to move more of those super heavy throw pillows now.”
Cords criscrossed the room. Junk food was piled on the kitchen counters. The glare of blue almost overpowered the lamps in the girls’ apartment. These distractions were a fortunate situation, because otherwise the presence of about a dozen hackers in the same room would typically end in minor fire, bizarre experiments, blueprints for evil robots, or one time, a new device for feeding coffee to crickets to encourage them to chirp more, thereby making the weather warmer. That had been a long winter. However, with the distractions of salt, drink, and video games, catastrophe was averted.
Wizard, Jackson/Radio, Daryl/Dragon, and Eric turned out to be unstoppable zombie slayers, while Bianca and Glitch decimated Stephen/Morse and Cam/Puma in FPS capture the flag. Isaac/T-Bone played for a while, then stopped in order to sit back with a drawing pad and render goofy caricatures of everyone’s all-too-intense faces, thus relieving the shaking in his hands and the odd buzzing in his ears that came from going too long without drawing something. Even Anya came out of her shell long enough to challenge Bianca to karaoke. Glitch watched, amused, wondering how well her gloves’ voice would fare but unsure of her ability to type so quickly.
Wizard didn’t have enough beer for anyone to have more than two, but it still had an effect as the night wore on. Anya began to relax and talk to people. Eric started acting silly after just one. Glitch had held off because the presence of so many people she’d never met in person was making her a little nervy, even if she already knew and liked them, but by eleven she’d finally cracked open a bottle. Her experience with alcohol was limited to that of two awful parties last year, during which she’d spent most of her attention on keeping the can in her hand unmolested by any hopeful partygoers. Wizard’s home-brewed concoction, though, was rather pleasantly sweet and neither watered-down nor overbearing. She flashed him a thumbs-up to show her approval, and he grinned.
People filtered out as the night wore on. Pedro/Frizz left at midnight because he had a roast cooking back at his apartment. Anya retreated to the quiet of her room at half past one, around the same time that Stephen and Jackson left because their guild had a raid scheduled. Isaac decided he’d had enough half an hour after that, and left wondering aloud about the metrics from his newest algorithm, which had been collecting all evening as he’d left the tester program running. Eric had dozed off on the couch. Cam wandered out at some point without fanfare.
Daryl and Wizard were playing a board game on the table, and Bianca was braiding Glitch’s hair as they watched stupid YouTube videos on Glitch’s netbook.
Eventually, Eric woke up, rubbing grime out of his mismatched eyes, then wandered over to watch Wizard and Daryl’s game. Bianca ducked into her room and came back with a tiny quadcopter. Unnecessarily holding a finger to her lips as Glitch watched her, she carefully balanced a Cheeto on top of the quadcopter—just below the reach of its propellers—and precisely piloted it over the game under cover of the noise from the latest cat video.
The Cheeto dropped onto the board. The boys looked up to find two girls almost doubled over in silent giggles. Eric was fastest, and ate the Cheeto, to the other two’s complaints.
At that point, there seemed to be a consensus that they were all too tired and silly to stay up any longer.
Glitch went back to her room, which hadn’t seen much unpacking save for her sheets and a throw blanket. Despite her agreement that it was time to go to bed, she couldn’t help sitting down at the computer.
She typed out an email, to be edited and sent tomorrow.
AN: Let’s answer a few worldbuilding-related questions preemptively.
Bandroids in real life are called something different, but it’s trademarked so I’m not going to use it.
This is set in an alternate universe to our own, naturally (computers do not give programmers disabilities in real life, except maybe awful eyesight), but it’s also a few generations into the future. This is more noticeable in the culture than in the technology, which has of course developed differently (it’s been held back in some ways). Everyone speaks English; other languages are spoken by the well-educated or people whose parents have held on for a few generations speaking it at home.
In “Hackers” America, people have kind of picked up pieces of each other’s culture here and there, and many places in-world are far more diverse than they are irl. (Glitch somehow managed to pick somewhere that wasn’t diverse for her first choice in school, but it’s more the exception than the rule.) Racism isn’t gone, but it’s not so much of a problem as it is right now.
If this were a political novel, like A City Reclaimed, this mixing would cause problems for the main characters. There’d be folks who were concerned (or sometimes outright militant) about preserving their culture–if everyone’s mixing, and American culture is as pervasive (“invasive”?) as ever, people would be concerned about the individuality of their heritage being lost. You’d get minor first-world countries doing things like refusing to trade or banning American television. But this is a novel about twenty-somethings derping around building robots and dealing with their own societal issues, both of which are going to be complicated enough.
So if I’m not going to put in individual cultural details, and racism isn’t a big issue, why am I bothering to make over half my cast non-white? (I don’t know how you count Daryl.) Because it’s pretty dumb that that’s the default. I don’t write novels where every single person has the same hair color.
Oh, one more thing. I know at least some narcoleptics have trouble falling asleep at night, and insomniacs can fall asleep sometimes, or for (insufficient) chunks of the night. Neither group, I’d hazard, has the condition thrust upon them by a magic computer. Wizard’s friends just use the language they know in order to describe his mod, even if it’s not totally accurate.
Trundling through the city outskirts on his patched-up cart, Gabriel felt like he had half a dozen things on his mind, all grabbing for his attention. Halfway to the city center, he realized to his annoyance that he’d forgotten his notebook. He’d just have to borrow one from the chief of police. But she was bound to be out negotiating already, with several mechanical analysts in tow—shopkeepers could be surprisingly resistant to defensive structures being constructed outside their shops, and the law declared the land and buildings Gabriel wanted to outfit with things like sprinklers or smoke traps as their property. Never mind if the structures prevented the area or neighborhood catching fire in the event that an attacker torched the place, particularly in the poorer districts, where structures were mainly wooden rather than brick or stone; if the construction appeared to be cutting off customers or needing to close the shop today, there was a chance the business might not survive. Gabriel himself couldn’t afford to offer money to counter the loss—he’d so far avoided getting Corveny into any major debt, and found maintaining the budget an important cause—yet part of the reason shops and restaurants were so close to failure was that they were being robbed every week.
Then there were the children who ran away from his cart when he rolled through the poor districts. Always underfed and poorly clothed, often diseased or injured. If he wanted to reduce the number of poor in Corveny, Gabriel knew, he had to start with the children. The time to save the adults had been when they themselves were children; adults in this area were unfortunately often as close to death as the businesses failing from theft. One nasty illness could have the potential to wipe out a neighborhood. It was lucky, therefore, that hephrol hadn’t yet touched Corveny.
That thought gave Gabriel pause. Why? Travel between the southern river cities wasn’t that blocked off. He knew hephrol mostly attacked noblemen, for whatever reason, but it seemed to be… randomly localized. Suspicious, Gabriel thought, but he had no idea what it might mean.
On top of it all was the question of why the pirates were attacking, why—among many other, more lucrative targets—they chose to take what they took. It seemed to be random. That almost ruled out money entirely. Power? Could they be the same people who… decided to… take over Muncival, somehow? That seemed too disparate. Gabriel still wasn’t sure how Muncival had been cut down; it seemed mostly like an attack of opportunity, except for the way his diplomats kept vanishing, which was worrying. A new ruler would normally fit one of a few different patterns in dealing with his neighbors: sometimes they’d try to chat and make nice; sometimes they’d outright make threats; the scary ones stayed quiet and let things run as usual, without letting on what they were thinking. But this wasn’t an attempt to intimidate. If the new power wanted to take down Corveny’s economy, they were doing so rather halfheartedly. These pirates could be doing a lot more damage, but weren’t; it was as though they’d considered staying in bed, but decided to stroll into the backs of local shops because they were out of toilet paper.
That question was more like two or three questions bundled into one, and Gabriel was getting a headache just thinking about it, so he set the problem aside for now. He regretted considering the issue so early in the morning, as now he was feeling as though his last night’s sleep had vanished. Whistling a tune the rest of the way, in order to keep his mind clear until he was ready to take on one problem at a time, Gabriel made his way to the city center.
He chained his cart to a post outside the city hall and went inside to his office on the second floor, which overlooked the town square. But his view quickly shifted from the world outside to the pile of paperwork on his desk, and he stifled a groan as a clock-tower crew member climbed the stairs just behind him. He could have sworn he’d been down to no more than a few unresolved issues when he’d left yesterday evening, and it wasn’t even six o’clock yet.
Gabriel sat down in his chair and rifled through the paperwork, looking for easy, simple things to get out of the way first. He found a few things that needed his signature, another that required a short letter describing his decision on something, and something that needed to be burned and ignored. The former, he set neatly in his outbox, and then—
“I smell burning paper,” said the chief of police, sticking her head in. “You don’t usually leave the door open, Mullary. What’s the matter?”
Giving her a tired smile and a half-salute, Gabriel responded, “I’m sure you know all twenty of them, Bowden. Did you come in here to escape?”
“A little bit,” she admitted. She closed the door behind her and visibly relaxed, unwinding her red silk scarf from under her collar and—while she still maintained the good posture of a policewoman and fighter—her stance became far less stiff and upright. “The summer’s kind of coming on, no? I’d rather be on my little riverboat than working through this nonsense.”
“And I in my library,” Gabriel agreed, “but this needs to be done.”
“I finally got the west neighborhood to accept the sprinkler install,” she said, stretching. “And I think I’ve found us a more reliable copper-smith, if he’s not too expensive.”
“Really? Well done,” Gabriel said, genuinely impressed. Bowden looked rather pleased with herself.
“And I’ve got a lad to bring you food here at noon,” Bowden continued. “So you don’t have to stop working. I know you get a lot done talking to people over lunch, but there’s some stuff in that pile I need back from you as soon as possible.”
Gabriel ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “All right. Before you go, there’s actually something I need from you.”
“Let me know if you find a stolen toolbox,” Gabriel said. “Actually—she said it was a bag full of tools and money.”
“Who’s she? What kind of toolbox? Gabriel, are you getting involved with a beautiful locksmith or mechanic or something?”
“Mechanic’s tools,” Gabriel clarified. “Including but not limited to the kind used on tractors. I may have more details later. She is not a romantic interest of mine.”
“Darn,” Bowden said with a sly sort of grin. “You could use a lady to—”
“Bowden!” Since Gabriel’s happy marriage to Rosalind (which had been years ago), he hadn’t sought out another partner, but this was good teasing material nonetheless. Bowden had known Gabriel for years, and knew exactly how far she could push the envelope for maximum amusement at his expense. Besides, said a little thought at the back of Gabriel’s mind, I don’t have the time to give a woman the attention she deserves.
“Yeh, toolbox, tractors, got it,” she said, still grinning despite the interruption of whatever lascivious pun she’d been building up. “Where was it stolen?”
“It was this block,” Gabriel said, pointing to a map of the city on his wall.
“Any leads as to where it might be now?”
“Unfortunately not. It was a mugging, and the victim’s safety came first at the time. They knocked her out—blunt force, probably, left a concussion.”
“We’ll probably not find it on just that,” Bowden said, “but I’ll put the word out.” Her grin came back, and she put her hands on her hips. “Admit it, Gabriel, charming young ladies just put you through a valve you can’t escape. Especially me!”
Gabriel rolled his eyes and went back to his paperwork.
“Aw, you know I’m corking you,” she said.
“I know, Angela,” he said, looking back up at her with half a smile. He ran his fingers through his hair, and picked up another paper.
“Eh, don’t work too hard,” she said. “I can always tell how stressed you are from how messy your mop is.”
“It’s a habit I’ve picked up from James, I’m afraid.” He waved vaguely with one hand while signing the paper with the other.
At that point there was a knock on the door. Gabriel nodded at Bowden, and she opened it. A younger police officer was standing there with an envelope.
“Corporal?” Bowden opened the envelope offered. She sucked in air through her teeth. “That’s me off, Mullary. Homicide.”
“Oh, please leave me out of that one,” Gabriel responded. “I’ll see you later.”
“Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening,” she said. Then, ironically, she added: “Don’t work yourself to death, Mullary.”
The door clicked behind her.
Gabriel just had enough time to rest his head on a hand before the next person knocked. “Yes?”
The door popped open. It was the tea trolley.
The day got a little better.
Gabriel managed to finish the paperwork by that afternoon, despite the constant flow coming into his office. More was still arriving, but he decided it was time to get out into the fresh air. He’d do a little negotiating, to take some work off Bowden’s shoulders, and pick up something for Connie to cook tomorrow.
“We’re out of lamb chops at the moment,” the butcher said. She wiped her hands on a rag. “Michael’s got some awfully tasty corned beef put by, though. He’s in the back just now.”
“Really, at this season?” Gabriel asked. “Your lamb stock hasn’t been stolen, by any chance, has it?”
“It has,” she said resentfully. “We didn’t see a thing. Nothing for the police to go on.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gabriel said. “We’ve got patrols on every night, you know, but they can’t be everywhere. That’s why I’ve been so concerned about implementing defensive measures. These smoke traps we’ve been installing help give our force something to hide behind, or use to blind thieves as they’re trying to run. And the lamps…”
She sighed. “Governor, I’m afraid if we close down for your workers, it’ll steal away our profits as much as the pirates do.”
“It’s the same everywhere, I’m sorry to say.”
He finished the purchase, but hesitated before leaving. “Your lamb stock… we’re discussing meat that has already been butchered and prepared for cooking, yes? Not the actual livestock?”
“Yes, that’s it,” she said, wiping down a slicer. “Work gone to waste and everything.”
“Interesting,” Gabriel said. “Well, I’ll see you later.”
Across the city, he kept asking the same questions, and finding bizarrely similar answers.
“My fields haven’t been touched; it’s the harvest that’s been stolen.”
“I found two crates of ammunition taken, but there’s plenty of valuable brass and copper metal that got overlooked.”
“Who knows why, but the whole batch of leather gloves I made last week got stolen, and yet the saddles are still here.”
“I’m not sure how come they took the work clothes and left my silks alone. Needed them, I guess.”
“Two of my clocks went missing, but the gold I use around the facing is in the back room, untouched.”
Gabriel had been suspecting careful sabotage. But that didn’t make sense, now. Outside Corveny’s official city limits was where most of the food came from: farmers would have a place in the city, but their fields would be a few miles away, to be reached by cart at dawn. Fishermen would set up on their docks along the river and take the catch home at the end of the day. But if the enemy wanted to attack Corveny and destroy its economy, wouldn’t it be easier—less risky—to bomb the docks, torch and salt the fields, and set up mines around the roads, rather than sneak in and take things?
The police had caught only a few thieves, and they were as hard to keep in cells as water in hands, and as talkative as rocks. Each one had stayed stubbornly silent for up to a few weeks and then vanished, except the most recent one. Gabriel had reluctantly agreed to let one of Bowden’s force use some… older interrogation techniques, but after the first round of this, the man had killed himself in the cell, presumably to keep himself from talking. As far as anyone could tell, he’d somehow climbed the walls and intentionally dived into the stone floor headfirst, cracking his skull and dying via blunt force. Unfortunately, one of the younger police found him. Gabriel felt worse about that than the death of the pirate, but it wouldn’t be the last body the lad would have to see. It was just a shame that the first one he dealt with felt like the police’s fault.
That event was not publicly known. It was a squirmy sort of decision, and nobody needed to know yet just how worried Gabriel was. But Gabriel was worried. None of this made sense. He couldn’t think of any historical precedent for this sort of thing. Of course, the airships the pirates were using hadn’t been around that long, either, but…
“Governor!” A young man came running up. “We’ve got the west gate almost secured. That wing of the city is reasonably secure now.”
“Oh, good,” Gabriel said in relief. “That’s where we thought they came from last time, yes?”
“Yeh, it is,” he said, “but… well, gov, they’re airship pirates. They can come from anywhere really.”
“That’s true, but if we seal everything off, we might get a chance to shoot them down. They’d have to enter from above, and we might be able to hit the envelope and send them to the ground.”
“In the middle of the city?!”
“Better than this continuing.”
“What if that causes a fire?”
“That’s why we’re working on the sprinkler system,” Gabriel explained patiently. “To minimize property damage, no matter how the fire is started.”
Whether or not the lad was satisfied with this explanation, he saluted and ran off.
Gabriel found his mood dropping again. Bowden was right yesterday. They really aren’t thinking this will end in war…
AN: I’m not sure how I’m feeling about snarky/sporty Chief of Police Angela Bowden. She’s never showed up before; this is the first time I’ve written her, and I’m not sure if she’s coming off as childish here. She’s a bold, outgoing personality who likes to get things done, work with her hands, and personally get into the action, but she also gets lonely or bored pretty easily and the stress of recent events is getting to her as much as anyone else. Her job encompasses not just general crime stuff but some local negotiation and other duties as well.
Basically she’s very different from Gabriel. I wanted to put in the idea that he isn’t the only government person in the whole city. Without getting too detailed into how Corveny is run–Gabriel, Angela Bowden, and the chief judge run the city. Gabriel’s the governor and the most powerful, but the other two have kind of checks and balances over his decisions if he’s doing something they find questionable. That’s why he’s not so tempted to “cheat” and rewrite the laws so he doesn’t have to negotiate to put up city defenses; Angela’s thought about that too, but the idea sets off mental “bad politics” alarms for her, and the Judge Caman is set against it for the precedent it would leave.
Gabriel went first down the stairs, knowing that leaving Ella a route of escape was wisest if her trust was not to be shaken. As he’d predicted, she followed now without question.
“It’s not the most comfortable place, I admit,” Gabriel said. “But James regularly spends entire nights here. He can keep an eye on you. And I’m sure that, as a mechanic, you might find something here to entertain yourself. Just—well, don’t strain yourself. Don’t work too hard.”
He turned, to see how she was taking this. Her eyes were alight. For the first time Gabriel had seen, self-preservation seemed not to be the first thing on her mind.
Gabriel explained the situation to his son. James nodded, welcomed her, then pointed a thumb at a couch so old and well-loved that its middle sagged right down to the floor, inviting Ella to sit down. Ella ignored his gesture and instead walked to James’s drafting table, where he was working on a design. He let her read over his shoulder. Gabriel could see his son’s concentration mirrored in her face and decided that they would get along just fine.
He left the lab and headed back into the house. Connie was waiting for him in the library with a bottle of wine.
“I take it you were listening to our conversation earlier?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Seemed too important not to.”
“That was a good call. You’ve saved me some explaining.” Gabriel sank into his favorite chair and picked up a book from the table beside. No matter how tired he was when coming home from work, he could hardly sleep without reading something first, and he slept only restlessly if he was forced to do so. He had been a scholar longer than he’d been a governor, and still considered it his favored pursuit.
Connie poured him a glass of wine and quietly left Gabriel to his evening.
Gabriel, however, found it hard to concentrate on Essentials of Aether Engineering that night.
This girl is the only communication I’ve had from Muncival for several months. I wonder what’s happened to the diplomat I sent their way two months ago… if he doesn’t come back in the next week, what will I do?
Gabriel closed the book and put his head in his hands. Did the Blackwoods really die of natural causes? Is there a way to set hephrol on a house without getting sick yourself? Is there a cure for hephrol that only the usurpers know? Now that would be a bad power balance… Are we on the edge of war? I can’t prepare for a biological attack with pirates coming in from all sides every night and sneaking off with a hundred and fifty boxes of soap and some crates of lemons or whatever random thing they decide to steal.
Do the pirates have something to do with…?
No, probably not. Too disconnected.
But why do the pirates steal such odd, random things? Surely there isn’t much of a black market for Mrs. Alderson’s Laundry Soap. I don’t think people trade for lemons in back alleys. It’s almost like they’re trying to cause fear and confusion, or maybe weaken our economy.
We’re going to be attacked, one way or the other. It’s not going to stop with theft in the dark. I need to round up the citizen’s militia.
His last thought before dropping off to sleep in his chair: I just hope… they’ll be enough.
“Good morning, Ella!” Gabriel said jovially as his new charge was half-dragged into the dining room by James, her eyes half-shut and groggy.
She opened her mouth to reply, appeared to forget what she was about to say, and shut it again. James helped her onto a chair, where she laid her head in her arms and dozed off.
“Is she all right?” Gabriel asked. “She hasn’t been doing this all night, has she?”
“Hah, no,” James said. “She’s been up. She found my design files and was outraged that I hadn’t built most of the things I’d drawn. She made three of them and then started drafting up… looked like the knitting machine, but smaller. Maybe it’s a sock maker. She had me forging parts for hours, and then when she was done with me she got so wrapped up in building the thing that I was able to get some sleep myself. When I woke up, she was halfway finished and determined that I show her the library. Then she found a whole armload of books whose spines I haven’t looked at yet, wound up a lamp, and planted herself there until dawn. That’s when I told her she needed food.”
“…Books,” Ella mumbled.
“Ah,” said Gabriel, halfway between amusement and concern. “I was going to introduce her to the library today. I wasn’t expecting that she’d be so…”
“Ballistic?” James suggested.
“I was going to say enthusiastic,” Gabriel said, “but yes. I think at this point you should both get some sleep. Connie will get her set up in one of the guest rooms. You two might arrange for her to have a bath, I’m sure she’d be grateful. I’ll come home with some fresh clothes for her.”
Ella was fast asleep and taking in none of this. However, she and her wool dress were stained with oil and grime. She only stirred when Connie arrived with bacon and eggs, and gently shook her awake.
Gabriel left soon after, giving thought to the city’s defenses.
What had happened to Muncival?
AN: These chapters sure keep getting shorter. Don’t worry, they’ll lengthen up again when the action gets going.
Exhausted, Gabriel drove his cart onwards. He was passing through Corveny’s slums when he suddenly remembered that he’d promised to look in on the oil-seller’s old mother. So he looped around a block, knocked on her door, made certain that all was well, and left once more.
Except that when he circled back, the street had a new addition. There was a girl lying in the gutter.
Oh, no, he thought. She looks just like Rosalind. Is she…
Fearing the worst and unable to tear his thoughts away from his late wife, Gabriel stopped his cart and jumped down. Gently, he rolled her over. She was breathing steadily, but there was a large swollen spot on the side of her head.
Her clothes are too nice for her to live in this area. She must have been mugged.
The strange thing was that Gabriel didn’t recognize her. Corveny was a very large city, so it wasn’t impossible, but Gabriel had a good memory for faces and he was quite sure he’d never seen this girl before.
She’s probably not even older than James, Gabriel thought. I hope she hasn’t been here long. Leaving her there would have been unconscionable, so Gabriel heaved her onto his shoulder—she was heavier than she looked—and lifted her onto his cart. He laid her on the back seat, removed his coat, folded it up, and placed it under her head.
The girl stirred.
“Who’re you,” she mumbled.
“It’s okay,” Gabriel said, not entirely sure what else to say.
Who’s Samuel? “I’m afraid not. Was he with you?”
“Dunno. Who’re you,” she slurred again.
Some kind of concussion, Gabriel thought. “I’m Gabriel Mullary. I’m the governor.”
She was quiet for a while after that. Gabriel checked on her every minute or so, making sure she wasn’t falling asleep. His cart chose a moment halfway through the trip home to stall for the third time that day. He tugged at the power wheel, but no use—it was stuck. Again.
“Your power chain’s the wrong size,” the girl mumbled. “That’s the clicking. It’s… catched. Caught.”
Gabriel turned around. “I know,” he said, frowning. “The last one rusted out and this was the best replacement I could find on short notice. But how did you know?”
She blinked at him.
“Are you a mechanic’s apprentice?”
“Mechanic,” she said. “Those… took my tools. And money.”
“Are you feeling okay? Do you know what day of the week it is?”
“Okay. I’m taking you home. You look like you could use a good meal and a place to stay for the night. Maybe I can call in a favor and replace your tools.”
She scowled up at him. “Why are you helping,” she asked flatly.
Gabriel looked back at her, not sure how to answer—stuck between trying to ascribe his actions to the habits of generally decent people when he had his doubts about how many examples of such she might have met, or trying to explain to her that she looked like his late wife and the complicated emotional mess that came with seeing her life in trouble.
Struck speechless by this for a few seconds, Gabriel paused. Finally he decided not to answer, mumbled a warning to the girl not to fall asleep, and stepped off the cart to crawl underneath and unstick the chain.
He returned to find that she was most certainly not asleep. She was standing up, looking highly displeased, and she’d unlatched the rails that served as the cart’s door, clearly ready to run, or stumble, away.
“Explain why I should trust your help.” Some of the focus had come back into her expression.
Gabriel was nonplussed. Most everyone in the city knew and trusted him. In the back of his mind, suspicions of his own were gathering. A girl he’d never met before—and due to her strikingly familiar appearance, he was absolutely certain he would have remembered her had he ever so much as seen her in the street—who didn’t know who he was either despite his status as governor, and who furthermore had obviously gone through experiences such that she didn’t even trust a kind, well-dressed stranger. Gabriel looked like no thief, after all. And, what, was she alone? Wandering this area in the evening? There had to be more to her than was apparent.
He tried to smile. “I can see you have some survival instinct—”
At this point she looked so alarmed that he thought she’d bolt right then.
“No! Please don’t! I mean you no harm.”
Her dubious scowl didn’t move. However, neither did the rest of her, so Gabriel saw that he had a chance.
“Look,” he said, slowly removing the gun from his hip holster and stowing it under the seat, then showing her his open, empty hands. “I’ve disarmed myself.” He patted his sleeves, to show that he had no weapons hidden. The girl’s eyes scanned his pockets, and apparently she trusted that he had no other weapons, because she sat back down. Then she reached under the seat.
Oh, that’s all I need, Gabriel thought, for her to trick me into picking her up and then steal from me or take me hostage…
But she didn’t even cock it, merely examined it. “This looks familiar. Where did you buy it?”
Gabriel shook his head. “It was a gift.”
She sighed, her posture dropping into a weary slouch. Then she asked, “Have you ever been to Muncival?”
Gabriel thought this was a rather strange question, given the circumstances. “Well, yes; why? We export mechanical things there.”
She paused, chewing on her oil-stained nails. “Can you tell me who’s running the city right now?”
“Theodore Blackwood, isn’t he? I’m sorry—our communications with that area aren’t the best right now.”
“I’m afraid you’re a bit behind the times,” she said, and asked no more questions.
She let Gabriel drive her to his mansion, let him lead her inside. On the doorstep, unlocking the door, he spoke to her once again.
“You may leave whenever you like. I won’t make you stay here. But I hope that you’ll let me help you.”
Glad of this acceptance, Gabriel opened the door. “Will you give me your name?”
She hesitated. Then: “Ella.”
Wondering whether that was her real name, and even if it were, why she didn’t offer a last name, Gabriel stepped into the entry and called for his housekeeper. He could already smell the supper she’d prepared.
Tall, strong, and with curly, chin-length hair, Connie appeared from the dining room in a swirl of mild blue skirts. She carried a tray with Gabriel’s evening tea and a pile of cheese sandwiches.
“You look done in, Gabriel! Here, I’ve had the warming stone on your chair for hours. Who’s our guest?”
“Her name is Ella,” Gabriel replied, choosing not to respond to the stunned look on Ella’s face as she watched Connie. “She’s a bit down on her luck. I don’t suppose there’s enough food tonight for another person?”
“Oh, you know how it goes with stew,” Connie chattered as she bustled around, setting down his tea, moving the warm stone from Gabriel’s chair, moving some half-read newspapers and unfinished mechanical knickknacks out of a second chair. “You start throwing ingredients in, and then you think something else would be a nice addition, and soon you have enough stew to feed a regiment. Or James during a growth spurt, even! I’ll have to let out his shirts again soon, he’s growing far too tall…”
Gabriel steered Ella towards the chair Connie had cleared.
“Would you like your dinner in here again, Gabriel?” Connie asked cheerfully.
“Yes, please, Connie,” Gabriel said. “A generous portion for Ella here, if you will.”
As Connie left, Gabriel handed Ella one of the cheese sandwiches and poured her some tea. Then he leaned back in his warm chair, folded his hands in his lap, and asked her one more question.
“Ella,” he asked, “would you mind telling me precisely who is trying to kill you?”
It had been somewhat of a shot in the dark, but the panicky expression that returned to Ella’s face told Gabriel that he was nevertheless on target. Yet he didn’t move, didn’t threaten her at all.
“I’ll remind you that I’m not making you stay here,” Gabriel said, “but also that you probably won’t last long if you don’t take me up on my offer. Those tools were your livelihood, and you’re not likely to get them back. I also wouldn’t like for you to join the ranks of the homeless and unemployed; there are enough of those in my city as it is.”
She was silent for a few moments more. Then she moved in her chair, turned towards him.
“I…” She faltered.
Gabriel remained silent. It was a full minute before she regained her—what, composure? Confidence? Trust? He even closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.
“I,” she said, “am Lady Estelle Blackwood III.”
Gabriel’s eyes shot back open, and he sat up. He certainly hadn’t been expecting that. Then he remembered her oddly-placed question about Muncival.
“What has happened… in Muncival?”
She opened her mouth again, but seemed to be at a loss for where to start. Another minute passed in her confusion as she tried, apparently, to think of a way to tell her story.
Instead she broke down sobbing.
It took Estelle quite a while to calm down. Meanwhile, Gabriel marveled at the implications of what she had told him. He was almost certain she hadn’t lied to him—not with a concussion, not in this emotional state. But there were enough contradictory elements in her story to form its own periodic table. How would a noble girl from Muncival end up alone in Corveny, working as a mechanic? Gabriel knew that Muncival customs were very touchy about weapons, but she’d been more afraid than offended at seeing Gabriel carry one; that wasn’t unusual in and of itself, but when he took it off, she’d simply picked it up. Something about the way she’d handled it, too; she held it correctly—and carefully, but not fearfully—that made him wonder if she’d had to use one (and if so, who had threatened or provoked her enough to be on the wrong end?). Then, the first thing she did after picking it up was ask where he’d gotten it. Gabriel had no idea why she’d done that. And “Samuel”—who was he? Why would she even know anyone from Corveny if she’d come all the way from Muncival?
Her statement had brought a cargo boat’s load of questions and very little of an answer. Still, Gabriel waited until they’d finished supper to question her more.
“When did the trouble start?” he asked.
This was all it took for the story to come pouring out of Estelle. She told him about the disease that had devastated her family, how she’d shut herself away and managed to avoid it, the well-dressed man who had leveled their mansion, the traders who had helped Ella escape before the usurpers managed to lock down the city’s communications and travel, who had sold her valuables for her and traded to help her get her tools. She told him about Samuel, her tutor, who had taught her skills which had saved her life many times over the past months, and how the mechanical talents he’d passed on to her had provided her livelihood. She told him how she’d come to Corveny looking for him, how she’d mistaken Gabriel for Samuel and run after him, but had been mugged, and how similar the styling of Gabriel’s weapon was to Samuel’s own custom gun, which she’d not only handled but had been taught to shoot.
Gabriel had a hard time processing her wild tale. He had absolutely no doubt that it was true—Estelle’s facial expression and body language were far too open a book for her to be lying—and yet it seemed awfully far-fetched—but it did explain quite a lot—though still…
“Lady Estelle,” Gabriel started.
“Ella,” she corrected.
“Ella,” Gabriel said, “I don’t know what to make of this. You’re telling me that you survived these… events” —he waved a hand to vaguely indicate everything that she’d just said— “on your own? That you actually avoided infection by hephrol? That you managed to know just when to run, just how to avoid the blasts, just where to go for help? That you negotiated your way into my city and into a relatively stable job for yourself?”
“Well, I was lucky,” she said.
“Er… yes.” She fidgeted in her seat.
Gabriel shut his eyes and leaned back again. “Ella.”
“Well, I mean,” she said, fidgeting even more restlessly, “I did help it along a bit.”
A pause as neither of them knew what to say next. Then, just as the awkward silence began to feel truly uncomfortable, Connie serendipitously swept back in to collect their dishes.
Gabriel ushered the girl out of the room, glad of an excuse to change the subject. “You shouldn’t sleep tonight,” he said. “You’ve got a concussion, so sleeping is a bad idea—it could cause more serious damage.
“I can’t stay up with you,” Gabriel continued. “As you might imagine, work is rather pressing, especially with all these pirate attacks. My son, James, will give you some company and make sure you don’t fall asleep. Don’t worry; he’s a gentleman. I’ll ask Connie to check in on you every few hours.”
“Pirate attacks?” Ella asked.
“Not one for gossip, are you?” Gabriel said. “They’ve been going on for months. Very quietly, though. Lots of burglaries in the night.”
“Is that what’s happening with all those barricades?”
“Yes. You really haven’t seen any pirates?”
“I was usually home by sundown,” Ella said, “and I slept in a barn. I don’t think they wanted to steal hay.”
“That would do it. Still, surprising that you haven’t heard. But I suppose you were lying low.”
They made their way out one of the back doors of Gabriel’s mansion. Ella looked around at the vegetable garden, the chicken coop, the barn which held Gabriel’s horse, a dairy cow, and a few pigs, and the nice little flowerbed from which Connie had taken the flowers that stood in vases around the house.
“You only have one servant, and she takes care of all of this?” Ella asked.
“Connie is my housekeeper,” Gabriel corrected, “and no. We hire a gardener who lives inside the city. His son takes care of the animals. Family business, you see.”
She cocked her head at his answer. Gabriel wondered if she’d been half-expecting him to be offended by her question.
“She called you Gabriel,” Ella observed.
“Well, that’s my name,” he replied.
Gabriel passed the apple trees, which were still buzzing with the presence of late-working bees, and led her to the trapdoor which went down into the lab he’d had built for James.
“This,” he said, “is where you’ll be spending the night.”
AN: MUAHAHAHAHA! This sounds like an ominous cliffhanger, but it’s actually not. James is a nice kid.
Ella was trying to sleep, but it was difficult. The bed she was sleeping on had previously belonged to one of the maids of her family’s estate—who had either been fired after being blamed for stealing something which had in fact been taken by Ella, or had left in order to avoid the same fate from which Ella was now hiding—and for this reason it was much less comfortable than what Ella was used to. Apart from that, she had been hearing the occasional thump sound from upstairs, and this was wreaking havoc with her nerves.
It must be raining outside, Ella decided, and turned over to burrow under the thin cotton quilts she’d piled on top of herself. The number of occupants in the estate was now down to—three? Four?—who were still alive. Ella was one of them, and intended to stay that way. But she couldn’t be caught by any of the others. Explaining would be too difficult. Being expected to inherit—no, she couldn’t be pinned down, that would be certain death. Besides, she knew full well that someone was watching the house, and this person could not be allowed to know that Ella wasn’t sick or dead, lest they attempt to remedy the issue.
Someone was waiting for the noble family to be wiped out. Someone wanted Muncival, and the best time to take it would be when the Blackwood family was out of the way. So they were spying, watching now that disease had already struck the house, waiting for the golden opportunity when their claim to the city would be unchallenged.
Ella wanted to take the bag she’d prepared and leave now, but she had no idea when the house was being watched. Too risky. She’d shifted a few bricks here and there to make little spy-holes so she could see into the garden. Only a few times, however, had she seen the well-dressed man lurking outside. She couldn’t see his face, only his expensive clothing, but she knew it was the same person. The visitor always had the same gait and build, and the same neat leather shoes. She wished it was always the same time of day, too, but his visits seemed to be random. That meant she didn’t know when it was safe to run.
To any passersby, he looked like a man calling on business matters. Nothing unusual; her father met with merchants frequently and had a very good relationship with both the city’s local vendors and the traveling merchants that greased the wheels of commerce between cities. Muncival was a trading city if nothing else. Ella’s father was known well for being among the sharpest businessmen in the southern cities dotting the banks of the Panh river. There were no guards to be suspicious of the intruder, either; even the most loyal had long since deserted in the wake of hephrol, leaving for their family before they, the guards, also became fatally ill—with, Ella suspected, one exception, and he wasn’t going to be of any help.
There was no cure for hephrol. It was terribly contagious, and for whatever reason, tended to attack the rich and powerful before anyone else. Ella knew her father was suffering from it even now; he had held on longer than many of the house’s other occupants, but in her heavy heart Ella knew he had become weak from it and would not recover. She felt terrible about leaving him to be not only ill but lonely. Yet she knew, because of Samuel, that she couldn’t help this if she wanted to stay alive herself.
The words “contagious,” “bacteria,” or “system of immunity” hadn’t yet reached the ears of most people. Only one of Ella’s tutors had known about it, and he, Samuel, was the main reason Ella had shown no signs of the nausea, seizures and eventual paralysis which had taken almost all of the rest of her family. Now Ella knew about these things too. This was her reasoning for staying in the basement, in the vacated maids’ rooms. Hephrol could take lives so randomly that the house was ridden with decaying corpses which had not yet been found; those who had collapsed into bushes or deep in the labyrinth of the family library, for instance. Going upstairs was not an option at this point. After all, she had stolen all she needed to steal—mainly small, easy-to-carry valuables which could be traded for food.
Something big knocked into the side of the mansion, against the wall above Ella’s adopted room. It sounded heavy. Ella jumped.
Stop, calm down. You can’t let the paranoia—
She heard a muffled curse.
Ella froze. Then, panicked but still cautious enough not to make too much noise, she clambered out of bed and pulled on her disguise as quickly as she could. It was a thick cotton maid’s uniform which included a bonnet. Ella had clumsily removed the Blackwood estate insignia from the outfit a while back, making it somewhat less recognizable. She pulled a little silver mirror from her bag to check that her blonde hair had been completely concealed under the bonnet. Blonde hair was very common in the southern river cities, but better to keep any malicious watchers guessing and have as few distinguishing features as possible. She carefully slid the mirror back into the bag.
Mr. Well Dressed had been going towards the north end of the house, to judge by the direction the cursing had headed off. The nearest exit was towards the north. Drat. Ella would have to make the trek to that old trapdoor by the wine cellar—not an ideal escape route, as she hadn’t tested yet whether it actually opened. Ella had an awful feeling about this particular visit. She knew her father could die any day now, and he was one of the few people left in the estate, apart from maybe the cook and an old, nearly blind guard who didn’t have a home to run to. Ella had wondered why the well-dressed man hadn’t simply come in and finished the rest of the house’s inhabitants off. She had a gut feeling that this was what he’d come to do today. It was unlikely that he’d bother searching the maids’ quarters, but she could make her escape while she was sure he was busy.
…On the other hand, he might have friends outside who would be watching. No, not likely, Ella decided. He thinks this house is completely defunct. He won’t think he needs help, and why draw more attention than necessary? Besides, no one would want to stand outside in heavy spring rain.
Ella slipped out, cradling the bulk of her bag and trying not to let the door creak. As quietly as was possible while wearing the thick, heavy leather guards’ boots she’d taken, she darted down the narrow passages of the servants’ quarters.
She’d almost come to the doorway that led to the near end of the wine cellar when the first explosion hit.
Dazed, Ella picked herself up off the ground and tried to think past the buzzing in her ears. The intruder wasn’t merely trying to assassinate her father. He was going to blow up the mansion.
Ella hadn’t heard or felt anything in her bag break, but it had been hard to hear or feel anything other than the detonating charge. Scowling and trying to gather her legs under her, Ella stumbled further down through the cellars. She hadn’t gotten much farther when a second explosion rattled the wine bottles and shook her to her knees again. Her ears felt even worse; this one had been closer. Working through anxiety-fueled aggravation, she stomped straight back up again and started running, clumsily, not worrying quite so much about the semi-fragile contents of her bag. Was that a piece of the basement collapsing behind her?
She was gripping the termite-chewed wooden railing that led to the trapdoor when the third explosion hit. Ella had a hard time gauging whether this one was closer because of her impaired hearing. The shock wave hit a little later than before, but was still strong enough to shake both Ella and the floor, causing the railing to snap under her hand. Ella decided to stop worrying about where the explosion was and to just leave as quickly as possible.
Holding her bag in both hands out in front of her to help balance and push herself forward, Ella managed the rest of the stairs on her own. She heard what sounded like wooden beams snapping and a load of bricks falling down, but it was nearer the center of the house. At least the well-dressed man would have fled the scene to avoid injury. Ella herself was already having trouble breathing, although whether this was due to blast damage or anxiety was yet to be learned.
She tried the trapdoor.
Panicking, she put her bag down and struck a desperate blow against the door with her elbow. Thunk, went the trapdoor. Again, again, she hit it. Terrified, Ella gave up on the limited range of her elbow, brought her tiny fist all the way back, and charged it straight into the trapdoor next to the latch.
It shattered. The insects which had chewed away at the railing had obviously taken just as much of a liking to the door. Ella clutched briefly at her right hand, then pulled at the frail wood with her left until there was space to escape.
She hauled out her bag and then herself, scrambled to her feet, and bolted away. Her heavy boots were a help rather than a hindrance now, letting her run straight over wet grass without slipping quite so easily. She was wheezing, was seeing stars flash in her vision, but pushed herself forward.
Then Ella glanced back. One corner of the house was still standing. She was amazed how much ground she’d covered since spilling out of the basement.
One corner still standing. A sizable piece of the house.
Ella’s presence of mind tapped her on the shoulder just in time to give her the forewarning to drop to the ground and cover her head.
The shockwave rocketed across the field. Without any barrier to stop it, the blast traveled straight across the plains. Ella sat back up and looked around warily. She could even see the round ripple of a wave on the somewhat distant river, reflecting the moonlight.
Ella realized that she was wearing white. Not good camouflage.
She was wearing white, and it was pre-dawn darkness, and she was visible and scared and at least somewhat injured.
I have to leave, Ella thought. The traders. I should get to the traders. There’s a band coming in from the southeast today, if they’re running on schedule. If I can stop them before they get to the city—they won’t want to trade here. Once they hear the talk in town about the mansion being blown to pieces… Everyone will have heard those explosions. But unrest is bad for business, they might be locked down in the city by the new ruler until he establishes power, because he won’t want them telling anyone else that now might be a great time to try to grab Muncival…
Breathing quickly and heavily, Ella made a concerted effort to keep down her dinner. She could feel the adrenaline draining away, and it left nausea and a splitting headache in its wake, along with the sudden inability to think. She noticed the jittering sort of motion her hands were making.
She tried to stand up anyway. After staggering for a second, she managed to keep her balance and then tried to pick up her bag, which seemed quite a lot heavier now.
Tired but still aware her life wasn’t safe yet, Ella made her way into the city, slipped through one of the safer back neighborhoods, and was awarded with a brief half-hour of rest before the sun slipped out of the cover of the clouds and the southeast gate opened.
Ella was fortunate; not only was she still alive, but the traders had been running an hour late. She intercepted them easily before they got to the city. Their heavy carriages didn’t go much faster than walking pace in any case—or, at least Ella had never seen them do so.
The shout made Ella cringe. Her ears still hurt. “Stop!” she shouted back, and the whine and buzz returned to her hearing along with the same piercing pain. She was sure she’d felt her bones rattle.
She backed up some, allowing the caravan of clockwork carts to slow to a halt. Someone peered at her from atop one of the carts.
“What is it? Who—Lady Estelle Blackwood? What’s wrong?” The driver of the cart in front, a trader dressed in a richly dyed blue coat, called out to her.
Am I that recognizable? Ella wondered.
Well, you did just command an entire caravan to stop for you, and the head trader was the one in front and he knows—knew—your father well. Of course he recognizes you. But who told him to address me that way? …Probably my mother.
She realized she’d paused without answering, but she still hadn’t prepared what to say. “…You don’t want to trade here today. In Muncival. Please, take me on the caravan. We have to pass by to the next town.”
The trader climbed down the stepladder off his cart and bowed slightly to her. “I am Luther Spenlow II, m’lady. What has caused you your distress?”
Ella gathered her composure and stepped closer in order to speak a little more privately—and also more quietly, to spare her headache. “The Blackwood estate has been obliterated. It was bombed last night. I very nearly did not escape. I believe this to be the deliberate action of a person or persons who intend to take the city.”
“Some would say this would mean a reason for you to stay, meaning no disrespect.”
Ella had to stop herself from letting on how moronic she considered this remark. “I would say it means I’m in danger, and should gather allies before I attempt to encounter such forces, if such an attempt is even plausible.”
Spenlow’s face darkened. “Then this means that your father…”
“Perished in the attack, yes. I’m afraid.” Her mind still felt sort of cloudy on this; she hadn’t had time to process what happened.
She and Spenlow both pulled a box of matches from their respective pockets, as did the surrounding drivers and those traders who had come to the uncovered front of their carts to find out why they’d stopped. Simultaneously, all watching struck a match, silently watched in respect as it burned down, then gently blew it out.
Those several who had emerged from the covered parts of the wagon to investigate the situation while this ceremony proceeded stared in shock as they pieced together the situation: the girl who’d stopped the caravan, the grieving look on Spenlow’s face, the scattering of matches lit in the fog off the river and the dim dawn sunlight. Someone had died. Awkwardly they ducked their heads, somehow intangibly adding to the silence.
“I’m sorry,” Spenlow said. “Please join us.”
Ella climbed up next to him and decided to drop the formalities right now. “Can I call you Luther?”
A mildly surprised but warm smile spread across his face and he nodded.
Ella stuck out her right hand. “Ella.”
Luther nodded again, shook her hand, then hazarded: “Ella… you look beat, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
She looked down at herself. The modified maid’s uniform was covered in grass stains, mud, wood splinters, dust, and blood from her scuffed knees and elbows; it was torn in several places; and on top of that it was soaking wet from the rain and fog. She reached up and touched her face, scratched rather badly by the door she’d climbed out of and the twigs she’d fallen on when she dived to the ground. Everything else was achy or sore, so she hadn’t yet noticed them. Now those abrasions hurt too.
“I look like I’ve been dragged through the river and then rolled up the bank,” Ella said. “You wouldn’t happen to have a clean dress about my size around here? Perhaps a bucket of water and a scrubbing brush? I’ll trade for”—she glanced at her bag—“whatever’s left that isn’t broken. Old silk dresses, if nothing else. I don’t want to wear them; they’re far too noticeable.”
Luther turned to the trader driving the clockwork cart and nodded at him, and the driver slipped back into the canopied part of the cart while Luther took over driving.
Ella had never seen someone drive a cart up close before. She knew how the mechanisms worked, of course—Samuel had taught her—but she’d never seen the front of a cart in person until now.
Luther’s strong hands pulled the handles on the large power wheel smoothly. He used both hands to get the cart moving again, but then switched his left hand to the control stick next to it, making minor corrections to the steering to keep the cart from straying.
Luther’s cart was not the largest; in fact, it was one of the smallest. Other carts had multiple drivers, not to control steering but to keep at the power wheel.
“Whoops, it’s a hat-bump,” Luther said. “Hold on. Pull us over with the wheel, would you dear?”
Ella grabbed the power wheel and pulled down on its handles as Luther did his best to navigate around the lump in the road. She was expecting the wheel to be difficult to pull, but it was surprisingly easy to handle.
“Smooth, isn’t she?” Luther asked, noting Ella’s surprise as he took back the handle. “Sorry about that. It’s the repeated action all day that wears you down, you see, not the strength you need,” he explained. “The gearing and machinery inside the cart is what makes it go on such little power, see.”
“Impressive,” Ella said, figuring it was best to get on very friendly terms with Luther as soon as possible.
“Arithmetic and aether, that’s what they say. I don’t understand it. Verney’s keeps breaking down for some reason… Ah, but that’s our problem; don’t worry about it.”
“I do understand,” Ella said.
“I understand how carts work,” Ella said. “I could probably fix…”
“No, no,” Luther said, laughing. “Not Theo’s daughter. You ride free of charge here.”
Ella bristled and drew herself up. “I will be useful, if you have any respect for me.”
I need to learn how to fix things, she thought. I need to learn a trade, and mechanics is at least interesting. If I mess up here, Luther probably won’t be too hard on me. …Still, better not to mess up. I should try to find some books to use as reference material.
Apparently, being glared at by a thirteen-year-old noble girl who was presently covered in half a dozen kinds of grime struck some kind of nerve; Luther looked impressed, a little bit chagrined, and very much like he was trying not to laugh. Eventually he managed, “Well, you’re your father’s daughter.”
Ella decided this was a compliment and gave a mild, noncommittal smile.
The driver was back with Ella’s change of clothes and bucket of bath water. Ella bade Luther a temporary goodbye as she followed the driver back to a spot of privacy in the back of a small cart filled mainly with boxes of candles. She cleaned up and put on the new dress. It was wool, and was rather scratchy and thick; it hampered her movement. Ella didn’t like how it felt, but it fit and it did keep the chill from the fog away.
When they stopped for supper, Ella met with the rest of the merchant group. Although some traders higher up the ladder had acquired the skill of knowing when to keep gossip to themselves, it wasn’t a very common ability among traders in general. Part of what drew crowds to marketplaces when trading bands came in was to hear news from other cities. The more exciting or interesting the news, the longer the people would hang around to hear about it, and the longer they hung around, the more likely they were to buy something. Ella, however, had no desire to be a marketing tactic, so she and Luther simply told the others that Ella was a family friend of Luther’s and was traveling to Corveny to be a mechanic’s apprentice.
Even Luther didn’t know her real plans, however.
Ella had no intention of returning to Muncival. Muncival would stay in the hands of whoever destroyed the estate. Ella had no real power; the only money she had was what she’d make by selling the things she’d taken out of the estate, and she’d need that money to live off of until…
…Until she found Samuel.
Samuel would take her in. Samuel would give her a job, or if not, he’d find her one. He had been very fond of Ella, had been kind to her, had cared about her, and there had been precious few people like that in Ella’s life. Her father had cared for her. Her mother, too, in her own strange way. But she hadn’t known either of them very well, and her siblings hadn’t been overly fond of spending time with her, either. Ella had spent most of her days in odd corners of the mansion with a short stack of books while she hid from her nursemaid and sometimes her other tutors—who did not like her—and she’d worked through pieces of the library based on her own interests.
But not when Samuel was around. He had been like an older brother, teaching her things that her mother at least certainly wouldn’t have approved of. Some days they spent in the library; other days, they took long walks while Samuel wore out his voice answering an endless stream of “but why?” questions from Ella. Other days, Samuel told Ella’s parents they were going out for a walk, when they were actually going to a machinery shop in town and examining generators.
He had been fired by Ella’s mother after she managed to find out Samuel had taught Ella how to shoot a gun. In Muncival, weaponry of any sort—but especially guns—were considered crass, not something to even be spoken of in polite company. Weapons were never displayed on walls and their use was not taught to nobles who were not part of the military (which was considered an honorable calling, but such a career was still not a polite topic of conversation).
Ella knew that Samuel hailed from one of the towns around the Panh river’s wide, lazy bend. She needed to travel northwest—that is, upriver—to get there from Muncival. Corveny was her best guess as to where he might live, as their customs matched up well with Samuel’s behavior.
In the month it took to get to Corveny, Ella changed. Through working on machinery nearly every day, she not only became increasingly competent and more confident, but she also became stronger. Every evening, a woman called Alice would come to Ella with salt compresses for her stiff muscles, and every morning, she’d be sore anyway. Nevertheless, Ella didn’t stop working. By the end of her trip, she not only knew the mechanisms of clockwork carts very well, but she could put quite a large dent in a sheet of copper with a wrench. Ella found herself pleased with this development, and carried herself with less fear of the city streets she walked when the traders finally stopped in Corveny.
Ella found herself some lodgings in a barn belonging to a man whose clockwork tractor she’d fixed. It wasn’t well-insulated, but the spring had long since become warm enough for that not to matter, and it had a watertight roof. She’d made a nest of blankets in a big pile of hay, and that was where she slept. It was much more comfortable than the maids’ beds.
Every day, Ella looked for Samuel, and for freelance work. She wasn’t doing too badly for herself; she ate well, had a warm place to sleep, and wore decent clothes. But it was lonely and stressful. Ella was thirteen years old and didn’t pass well for much older, being short for her age. She was acutely aware that even armed with heavy tools, she could be easily overpowered; she never went out after sundown. She was also homesick. Ella had a feeling that, were she not alone and scared, she might have liked Corveny very much. Her search for Samuel became all the more desperate.
Had she not been so desperate, she might have avoided the trouble that came to her one evening.
The sun hung low in the sky. Ella carried the same bag she’d first packed back in the estate, except now it held only her money and her tools, which, apart from the blankets and spare dresses which remained in the barn, were all she owned. She had been working all day and was long since ready to go back to her nest in the hay.
Then she saw the back of a familiar blond head. A tall, straight posture, a custom gun on his hip, good-quality working clothes, a friendly sort of gesturing as he spoke to a lady selling lamp oil, who seemed to be very interested in what he was saying.
Ella watched him bid farewell to the stall owner and turn away. She stood for a moment, frozen in indecision.
She followed him.
He went into one of the sketchier back neighborhoods.
Hesitantly, Ella still followed him.
He got into a clockwork cart.
Ella jogged to keep up. The cart wasn’t fast, but her bag clanked loudly with tools that felt increasingly heavier. She hoped he’d stop soon.
Unexpectedly, the man turned a corner, went around a block, and…
…Ella lost him.
Wondering where she should go and whether it was worth trying to pick up—Samuel’s?—trail again, or whether she should just go home, Ella stalled again in deliberation. But this time it was no safe market square in which she was standing. Someone grabbed her around the waist.
“What’s in the bag, kitten?” someone behind her demanded, making her jump.
“Nothing for you!” Ella swung up her tool bag, aiming for her pursuer’s head. He released her and stepped out of the bag’s range. Ella swung again and this time managed to connect the bag with the man’s ribs.
A blow struck the side of her head from out of her peripheral vision. Someone had managed to sneak up behind her while she was busy. Stars blurring her vision, Ella turned and swung wildly again but lost her balance. A quick second blow to the side of her head, and Ella was knocked unconscious.
AN: Here it is. This project has been something I’ve worked on on and off for years, except in a way that doesn’t imply so much time and effort. I have an old draft of it that’s 2/3 finished, but I’ve gotten better at writing since then. The story’s definitely worth telling, but I’d rather retell it.
Anyway, imagine I’m smashing a bottle of expensive fizzy wine on the metaphorical hull of this thing, because we’re off. It’s gonna be a long voyage.
Poor Ella has already had her family killed, been chased out of town by usurpers with bombs, and been mugged and KO’d while trying to scratch out an honest living looking for the one dude she trusted. Sadly, this may not be the worst thing that’s going to happen to her. The jury’s still out.
A Beginner’s Questions Answered
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Q: Do I really need water conditioner?
A: Yes. Preferably, get Seachem’s Prime. It’s the best deal and is widely considered to be the most effective. But really, any water conditioner that detoxifies ammonia, chlorine, chloramine, and heavy metals should work just fine. That sounds like a lot, but most water conditioners cover the list.
If you don’t have water conditioner, run out ASAP and grab some. You can expect to get a small bottle for around $5.
Q: What should I feed my betta?
A: The first food you should get is a basic, good quality pellet food. Not all foods are the same. Look for Omega One Betta Buffet pellets or New Life Spectrum pellets. Frozen bloodworms or daphnia, or (if they’re sold at your pet store) flightless fruit flies can be occasionally given as a treat. Feeding a variety of foods improves betta health, but isn’t strictly necessary.
Q: I just got flakes. Are those okay?
A: They’re all right for a while, but you’ll want to spend a few dollars on a good pellet food. Flakes can cause bloating in bettas.
Q: My betta ate an insect!
A: It’s fine. They eat insects in the wild. Just don’t feed him/her for a while.
Q: How much should I feed my adult betta?
A: There are different sizes of betta pellets. Most are 1mm wide–you can check yours with a ruler. To start out, feed four pellets a day, preferably split up into a day and night feeding of two pellets each. Your betta should look a little fuller after you feed him, but not bloated.
Q: How much/what should I feed my baby betta?
A: That depends. Start a thread.
Q: I’m going on vacation. What’s the best vacation feeder?
A: None at all. Your fish can go for a week without food and be just fine. If you’re gone longer than two weeks, find a reliable pet sitter. Don’t give an extra-big feeding before you leave; this can cause problems like bloating or extra ammonia production that you won’t want in your tank while you’re gone.
Q: What’s the minimum size tank for a healthy betta?
A: This is a debated topic, and you won’t get the same answer twice. If you’re a beginner, I would suggest 2.5 gallons as a minimum. Some experienced people can keep a fish healthy in a 1.5 gallon tank, and you’ll occasionally hear about breeders using 1 gallon tanks. Don’t assume this is normal. 99% of bettas will be happier in a bigger tank than a smaller one. Bettas’ natural habitat, rice paddies, is NOT the same as a mud puddle. Rice paddies are huge! They’re just shallow.
Q: Only 99%?
A: Yeah. Some bettas are kind of agoraphobic, actually, and will prefer (for example) a 2.5 gallon over a 5 gallon tank. That doesn’t mean you can cram them in a half-gallon vase.
Q: What else do I need in my tank?
A: You need a heater and some safe cover for your fish (a place to hide). Don’t waste money on heaters that aren’t adjustable. Get a 25 watt adjustable heater for a small (such as 3 gallon) tank, or a 50 watt for 5-10 gallon tanks.
You also need a lid. Get a lid. Bettas jump.
A: A gallon is about four liters. If you aren’t used to one system or the other, remembering this comes in handy.
Q: What else might I want in my tank?
A: Substrate is a good place to start. Gravel is a popular option, but sand can be easier to clean with a siphon and you might consider it more attractive. If you really want to put time and effort into your fish tanks and you like a natural aesthetic, look into dirt based tanks. They aren’t difficult to set up, and they support lots of different plants, which bettas love (and they keep your water clean!). More on plants in the water quality section.
Decorations and cover for your fish help keep them from being stressed, which helps keep them from getting sick. Soak everything for a few days before you put it in your tank–just keep it in a bucket of water treated with water conditioner. Always check to make sure your decorations have no sharp edges! Plastic plants can be a big culprit. If it snags a piece of pantyhose, it isn’t safe. Sometimes you can sand down sharp edges, though.
You also might want a filter. In tanks over 3 gallons, you’ll want to cycle your tank (it’s difficult, but not impossible, in smaller tanks) and that generally means you’ll need a filter. More on cycling in the water quality section. Note that bettas generally don’t like stronger currents, especially those with longer or heavier fins.
Finally, there are rocks and driftwood. If you add rocks, be sure to make sure there aren’t metal flecks on them which will leach into your water and be harmful to your fish. Testing your rocks by pouring white vinegar over them is a good idea; if they bubble or froth, they’re unsafe. Make sure you rinse them very well after this test. Driftwood will often release tannins into your water, turning it tea colored; bettas like this, but if you don’t, the driftwood can be boiled to prevent this.
Never boil river rocks or other smooth rocks–they can explode from the expanding steam inside of them. Not good. It’s safer to pour a hot (but not boiling) water/vinegar mixture over them, out in the yard, or to soak them in room temperature water for a while. Any decorations put into your tank should be soaked first. Just because it says it’s aquarium safe doesn’t mean it is! Test everything if you want to be safe.
Q: What can I keep with my betta? He lives in a 5 gallon tank.
A: A nerite snail. They’re pretty and they’ll keep the tank clean, and nerite eggs don’t hatch in freshwater. If your tank’s parameters are stable and your betta isn’t too aggressive, you may be able to keep a few ghost shrimp or an African dwarf frog.
Q: Really? I was thinking about a dwarf cory cat.
A: That won’t work. Cories of any sort need a shoal of six to feel safe, which means that if you want to keep cories with a betta, you need a ten gallon tank and six cories, plus hiding spots for them. Same thing with neon tetras… zebra danios… basically a ton of fish…
Besides, the betta and the dwarf cory combined will produce too much waste to live together in a 5g tank anyway. Get a snail.
Q: Are mystery snails the same as nerites? That’s all my pet store has.
A: No, they aren’t. Mystery snails get huge and produce a ton of waste, and your pet store won’t take them back at that point. Check to see if your pet store is calling nerites “zebra snails.” Sometimes they use that name, but it’s the same kind of snail.
Q: What about plecos?
A: They produce plenty of waste, and most species get basically really huge. If you’ve got big tank, like above 10 gallons, then you can probably afford to keep one or two of a smaller species. RESEARCH BEFORE YOU BUY or you may end up with one that grows to eighteen inches long.
If you need an algae cleaner, get a snail or a few shrimp, and make sure you aren’t overfeeding. Can I plug nerites some more? Plug, plug. Some of them come in patterns and colors!
Q: Can I keep two bettas together?
A: NO. The only way a fish keeper of any experience level can safely keep bettas together is in a sorority, which involves a huge tank and 5+ female bettas. This is only to be attempted by experienced keepers–who, for one thing, know the difference between a male betta with short fins and a female.
…Well, okay, I will admit one other loophole. If you have a 250g tank or larger and tons of cover, you may be able to keep two bettas in that tank. They’ll divide up the territory safely. (Well, safely-ish.) So if you’re a millionaire and you want bragging rights, get a behemoth tank with lots of surface space and cover, and you might be able to pull it off without your fish fighting to the death.
Q: Do I reeeeeeeeaaaallly need water conditioner? My tank is cycled and I let the water sit out for a few days.
A: Yes, you do need water conditioner. Leaving the water to sit out will remove some of the chlorine, but not chloramine, ammonia, or heavy metals. A cycled tank will remove ammonia and nitrites, but nothing else. You’re still leaving toxic substances in with your fish!
Q: I tested my water and the ammonia was (a number unsafe for fish)! I’m really concerned. How do I keep the water safe for my fish?
A: There are three methods for keeping ammonia levels safe for your fish: cycling, using plants, or doing very frequent water changes in order to keep up with it.
Q: What’s cycling?
A: Cycling is where you grow a certain kind of bacteria which will eat ammonia and convert it to nitrites (which are slightly less toxic than ammonia to fish), and another kind of bacteria that will eat nitrites and convert them to nitrates (not very toxic to fish–although shrimp may be picky). The process of growing this bacteria is fairly simple, but it can take patience.
There are two ways to cycle a tank: fish-in or fishless. To grow beneficial bacteria, you need a source of ammonia. That has to come from either fish, or from another source (like fish food or straight chemical ammonia).
Q: I heard you shouldn’t do a fish-in cycle. But I researched after I got my fish! Now I have a fish and an uncycled tank! Should I just leave my fish in his cup until the tank cycles?
A: No. If you have a fish and don’t have a cycled tank to put him in, do a fish-in cycle. Remember, his cup isn’t cycled, either. Is it better to put your fish in an uncycled 5g tank, or an uncycled cup (or .5 gallon vase)? Pretty easy question when you think about it.
Q: How do you use plants to make the ammonia safe?
A: Plants will do the same job as beneficial bacteria, and they’ll start doing it immediately. They also provide cover for your fish. But if they aren’t cared for properly, they will die and only add more ammonia to your tank.
Floating plants take all their food from the water column–and what they feed on happens to be the same things that are toxic to your fish. Since they’re so effective at cleaning your water, make sure you invest in some floating plants. Frogbit, duckweed, water sprite and dwarf water lettuce are pretty easy to come by. It doesn’t matter too much which you pick. Just go with what you like. Floating plants can also be some of the easiest to keep.
Q: How do I care for plants?
Java ferns, anubias, and java moss are the three basic plants that require virtually no care. Java ferns and anubias will also reproduce with little help from you, adding to the cleanliness of your tank.
Those species on their own won’t be enough to keep the water safe, however. If you intend to rely on plants to keep your tank clean, you will either need to a) look into dirt-bottomed tanks (i.e., Natural Planted Tanks or NPTs) and buy liquid fertilizer, or b) buy liquid fertilizer and buy or make some root tabs. Some plants feed from the water column, and some feed from their roots (that is, the substrate, or your root tabs.)
Always research your plants before you buy them. Some of those plants sold in tubes aren’t fully aquatic, and need their leaves in the air. Some plants require CO2 injection (a system which can be either bought or made at home) or have greater or lesser light requirements.
Q: How many plants do I need?
Depends on your tank size (well, really, on your water change schedule, which is determined by size) and what you have in it. The bigger the tank and the more inhabitants it has, the more plants you need. If you’re using this method, you should plant heavily. That means that when you look at the tank from above, half of the substrate is covered by plants.
Q: Where’s the best place to buy plants?
A: Usually? Online. They’re cheaper and there’s a much wider selection. Bettafish.com forum members often have the best prices and sometimes have rarer plants. There are also reliable online stores such as Planted Aquariums Central.
Q: Do I need a filter with plants?
A: No. Especially not one that disturbs the surface too much. You need those floating plants.
Q: How do you keep the tank safe by doing water changes?
A: Oldfishlady has already done a very detailed post on this.
Q: I have a 2.5 gallon tank. What method should I use?
A: It’s entirely doable to simply rely on a water change schedule. However, in that size of a tank I would rather use plants. It’s fairly inexpensive to plant such a small tank heavily, and by doing so, you don’t need to worry so much about the water parameters if you have to leave the tank for a week.
Q: I have a 10+ gallon tank. What method should I use?
A: Cycle it. You could plant it if you had the money and patience, but it’s most convenient to cycle that big of a tank.
Q: I have a 1 gallon tank/fish bowl. What method should I use?
A: Water changes–but please! As soon as possible, buy a tank, or at least a bigger fish bowl. 2 gallon fish bowls are out there. Or just get a big Kritter Keeper if you’re short on cash.
Q: My ammonia level is always 0 ppm now! Do I still need water conditioner?
A: Yes. Yes, you do. 😉
A word of forewarning: If you think your betta is sick, seek help in the Diseases and Emergencies section. Until you gain experience, don’t diagnose your fish on your own. Even experienced keepers will ask for a second opinion.
Q: My betta is missing chunks from his tail (or fins)! What’s wrong?
A: It could be one of three things. Either he’s ripped his tail on something sharp, he’s bitten it out of stress or boredom, or he has fin rot (most likely from poor water quality).
Q: How do I tell?
A: Rips tend to make a V shape into the tail. If he’s biting, it’ll look like a U cut into his tail. If he has fin rot, it may be steadily receding all at once… it may have a dark edge… it may look like his tail was made of newspaper and someone took a lighter to it.
Q: Oh no! My fish has a black edging on his tail that wasn’t there when I got him! Does that mean he has finrot?
A: Maybe, but probably not if it wasn’t already there. If you’ve been doing things right, then if there was a time for him to get finrot, it was in that ammonia sludge in his cup. More likely, it’s just a black “trim” to his fins–a natural coloring. Most fish become more colorful when put into proper conditions. A cup is definitely NOT proper conditions. Still, watch him over the next few days to check for any damage to his fins. Just in case.
Q: What should I do for finrot?
A: Add 1 tsp/gallon of aquarium salt (sodium chloride). 100% sea salt is roughly the same thing if you don’t have aquarium salt. Never use salt that contains iodine. Salt doesn’t evaporate, so only add more if you do a water change, and only replace as much as you need for the new water. Always dissolve the salt before adding–it can burn your fish otherwise. Only treat with aquarium salt for 10 days maximum.
Q: My betta’s fins look like melted plastic, and they’re stiff!
A: That sounds like finmelt. It’s very aggressive, and needs to be hit ASAP with proper medication. Ask around for the best current medication available. Aquarium salt will help until you can get medicine.
Q: My betta is having trouble swimming. He stays mostly at the top (or at the bottom).
A: Probably Swim Bladder Disease (SBD). But ask for a second opinion. SBD can be caused by bloating (i.e., you’re feeding too much) or mishandling… Epsom salts will help. Ask on the forum about the dosage for your particular case.
Q: Where do I find Epsom salts?
A: Most grocery stores carry them in the drug section. Humans add Epsom salts to baths to relieve sore muscles. Make sure the stuff you get doesn’t have perfumes or anything extra in it.
Q: I just have aquarium salt. Can I use that to help my fish with his SBD?
A: No, they aren’t the same thing. AQ salt is sodium chloride; Epsoms are magnesium sulfate. They are used for different purposes.
Q: I bought a new fish and his gills look kind of red and sickly. He doesn’t look so good.
A: He probably has ammonia poisoning. Keep as much of his cup water out of your tank as possible to avoid polluting his new environment, and just let him sit for a few days in warm, clean water. Offer food, but remove it if he doesn’t bite. In a few days, he’ll be good as new.
Q: I bought this really unhappy looking betta. He is gray and has stripes and was at the back of the shelf… is something wrong with him?
A: He is stressed. In warm, clean water, and with good food, he will turn as bright as his brothers and lose those “stress stripes.” However, since he’s been badly stressed before, he may be easily stressed in the future. Good job for taking him in!
Q: My betta has fluffy white stuff on him! What’s that?
Q: My betta is darting against all the stuff in his aquarium! Why?
Q: My betta looks like a 3 year old girl attacked him with gold glitter!
Q: This betta’s scales are all raised up and he looks like a pinecone! What’s wrong with him?
Q: He’s got this weird thing on his fins!
Q: The poor fish has this odd sore!
Q: What’s this lump?
A: Hold on! There are actually quite a few problems that you might run into once or twice (or more often if you get your fish from Walmart or Meijer’s). Covering them all here would make this a very long guide! Direct your questions to the Diseases and Emergencies section, where some knowledgeable members should be along soon to help you find out what’s wrong.
KINDS OF BETTAS
See this post for tail types and colors.
Not all abbreviations are here. A big thanks to the people in this thread (http://www.bettafish.com/showthread.php?t=418834).
DeT: delta tail
EE: elephant ear/”dumbo” (opaque pectoral fins)
MG: mustard gas (a type of coloration)
I’m sure I’m missing some fish descriptions, but they’re probably listed in the Tail Types And Colors thread.
Sometimes you see combinations to describe fish, written like a code. Sometimes they get so long that you could play Boggle with them.
OHMEEMGDSPK: Over-halfmoon elephant ear mustard gas dragonscale plakat (this is a thing that honestly could exist. I think we have too much free time.)
MTS: Malaysian trumpet snail. Also refers to Multiple Tank Syndrome, a compulsion affecting many forum members. (It is incurable and highly contagious.)
NPT: Natural planted tank. The closest you can get to an ecosystem in a glass box. Not quite there, though.
LFS: Local fish store. Generally refers to independent stores or smaller chains, rather than big-box names like Petsmart or Petco. Often these take better-than-average care of their fish.
LPS: Local pet store. Similar to LFS.
SBD: Swim Bladder Disease
BB: Beneficial bacteria (see: cycling)
PPM: parts per million
IAL: Indian Almond Leaves (a beneficial additive to tanks, these are bought online)
CO2: Carbon dioxide
HOB: Hang On Back (a variety of filter)
OO: Omega One (the pellets)
NLS: New Life Spectrum (also pellets)
BBS: Baby brine shrimp (used as food)
Sometimes it seems like I can’t write a blog post without somehow complaining about high school, which means that when it comes time to submit my college apps, I’m deleting my name from every part of this site and using a different email. (Somehow, “myexplodingcat” doesn’t really sound very professional anyway.)
But in all honesty, and without any censorship… I hate high school!
And I don’t think I’ve elaborated much, here, on what exactly I think is wrong with the system. It’s probably just been a bunch of irritated angsty-looking stuff. I do have reasons–clear, logical, sensible reasons–that I don’t like the way high school is set up or (nearly) anything it does.
I have chosen to stick around high school for a few reasons. One is that I’m pretty sure you still have to be 17 to take the GED. The other is that they offer free dual-credit programming classes. By the end of this year, I’ll have five college classes done towards an Associate’s degree in Programming at my community college, which is my ticket to not working in food service during university.
Those classes are lovely and amazing and I get good grades in them. But the reason I hate high school is very much bound around the system, and the grades, and the high school credits.
1. Everything is centered around passing courses.
It’s about the grades. Nobody cares if you’ve learned anything. Do what you have to do in order to get an A, and then move on. Don’t learn; memorize. And if you’ve already learned how to do whatever the class is about? It doesn’t matter. You didn’t pass the course yet.
Is it just me, or are these priorities bat-flapping insane?
I’m good at getting the grades. I don’t mind hard work–actually, I like hard work as long as it’s well-thought-out and for a useful purpose. But passing some arbitrary course and getting a menial “A” is not motivational to me. I want to learn. I don’t find the idea of being officially recognized as having learned something exciting. An “A” doesn’t mean you understand the class’s subject matter.
Maybe the system works for somebody? I don’t know. I’ve looked for other ways out.
2. High school isn’t a place to learn.
It’s a place to prove that you’re a hard worker (or… something) so that some college will take you in. You spend four years proving that you can, in fact, sit down and study something for a few hours and not goof off.
And yeah, maybe you can get some value out of your classes if they’re in things you still need to master, and especially if it’s the subject you’re going to major in. But for some of your classes, it just doesn’t happen.
Early Western Civilizations? Fills the Social Studies requirement. Was it useful, entertaining, did it even just improve me as a human being? Heck no. The student teacher was a better teacher than the actual teacher, both of them taught straight off of PowerPoints when they weren’t showing movies that had little to do with the broad scope of what we were studying, and then they tested us at the end. They didn’t even collect our notebooks, which they said were going to be a big part of the grade. (This was probably just something they said so we’d take good notes.) It was like in The Education of Robert Nifkin, almost word-for-word. Personally, I was kind of impressed that the teacher had managed to make Romans and Greeks boring. *facepalm*
There’s no capitalistic competition between high schools. People aren’t paying them directly; it’s an obligatory tax thing, and if they want to send their son/daughter elsewhere, they have to pay extra. Public high schools don’t have to be good. They’re the default. The teachers can be folks who don’t actually like teaching, but did it anyway to avoid being drafted.
I want to be challenged, to be given assignments that I have to make myself good enough to do well. I do better work when given that kind of assignment. It’s like archery. No, not about targets; try the bow as a metaphor for once. A bow that you’re able to draw too easily won’t force you into the right stance to shoot it. But if you have to really use your muscles to pull it back and hold it as you aim, then by the time you fire, you’ll be standing correctly, with your arms and hands in just the right places.
Heh. A cat just spilled my glass of water on the floor, and I cleaned it *all* up with paper towels. No blotting or anything, I just wiped it up. 😀 😀 😀
3. High school is just a means to an end: college, the place where you actually learn.
I feel bad about being really anxious to go to college, because it kind of implies that I hate my parents or something. I love my folks. But I’m bored. I really want to get started doing something useful and interesting.
High school isn’t the place where you get an education. It’s a waste of time and government money (read: everyone’s money). All it is is a competition, to weed out the people who don’t actually care about the prize: college. We’ve gotten to a point where you need a bachelor’s degree for nearly every career. Bachelor’s degrees have become the new high school diploma: a sign that you’ve been basically educated and are ready for the work force.
But the reason college works is that–drumroll please–capitalism rules. People have to pay for a college education, so there’s a competition. The professors have to be good. You HAVE to learn something. Otherwise, people will just go somewhere else, and that college’s diploma wouldn’t be meaningful and valuable–like “money” drawn by a three-year-old. College has to be productive and worthwhile. Otherwise, nobody would pay for it, and nobody would care.
High school isn’t like that. It’s a place to stick your teenage kid until s/he’s eighteen or so and can go across the country to the college they want. It’s like a waiting room filled with magazines that are about very specific hobbies. Some people might find their time used well. Others (those who don’t like golfing or knitting or underwater basket-weaving) won’t. But reading those magazines is important to the people you’re waiting to see, and your doctor is probably going to quiz you on their contents or something to see how much you read. You can be like, “I don’t golf or knit,” but they don’t care.
Basically, society has just said to anyone aged 14-18, “You’re useless for anything important. I’ll pay some people to keep you occupied while you sit in this building, and give you this consensus-fueled motive for paying attention to them.” 400 years ago, those teenagers could’ve been captaining small ships and no one would have thought it was unusual. Now, we’re stuck in class. Admittedly, there was a lot less to learn 400 years ago, but we aren’t learning anyway.
4. I want to be in college.
To me, this in itself is a reason to dislike high school.
I feel bad about being anxious to start college, because it kind of implies that I hate my parents or something. I don’t. I love my folks dearly. But I’m bored.
I want to be in college because I dislike high school, and I dislike high school because I want to be in college. I don’t know how sound that logic is, but I’m going to go with it.
And in case you’re curious… this is my opinion on some of the stuff I’ve taken. As you’ll notice, a teacher can make or break a class…
Here is an honest list of the courses I liked in high school (that I can think of right now).
My French classes, except AP. I still remember some French.
My German classes.
My art classes, except AP. Especially Drawing. I took them because I liked them.
My Psych classes (both the normal and the dual-credit one). I don’t know whether it’s right to list these here, because I have a book that’s small and about an inch thick called Psych101, and it contains the entirety of both classes’ curriculum in an easier-to-understand format. But I didn’t mind being in the classes themselves, because I really like psychology.
All my programming classes. I learned something from them! Although it’s worth mentioning that taking a class in Java doesn’t mean you’re “able to program in Java.” They teach you the basics, and that’s about it.
Most of my Science classes. They were interesting, useful (did you know you can store carbon dioxide in a tub because it sinks? Also we learned how to make moonshine in Chemistry), and the teachers were cool.
My one TAG class. It was full of critical thinking exercises and other good stuff. And a lot of dry reading, but hey.
The class on politics–that was interesting, and useful, and I liked the teacher a lot.
Here is an honest list of the classes I hated in high school (that I can think of right now).
Physics–the teacher was awful, my dad taught me better
My math classes–teachers again. I don’t actually mind math.
AP French–Wasn’t the teacher’s fault–she’s a really good teacher. Circumstances were stacked against this class. Nine people made it through.
AP Art–Was the teacher’s fault. Controlling art teachers don’t work. Fortunately, I got mono, and was able to drop it.
Newspaper Lab–I have stories about this one. Man. You don’t want to know.
My writing/reading classes–not the teacher’s fault, and I actually (obviously) like writing and reading a lot. But they were so menial that they were meaningless.
My history classes. Actually, the one freshman year was okay, but Early Western Civ… see above.
My basic tech class, freshman year. Excuse me… I know how to use Microsoft Word. But this class is kind of necessary, because of the freshmen who are all like, “Um… teacher? I don’t have that web site on my computer.”
And with that… good night. 😉
I’m sitting in the middle of my room, on a queen-sized mattress that’s been unceremoniously (but very comfortably) plopped on the floor. This is nothing new. What is new is that the floor is now hardwood instead of carpeting, and the walls are now a nice medium green–“Lochlan’s Meadow”–instead of its old color, which was named “Tickle Me Pink.” It’s actually kind of weird that I still remember the original color’s name, because I was five years old at the time, but maybe it’s because I campaigned for that color so endlessly that it’s been stuck in my memory permanently.
Anyway, it’s gone now, and it isn’t being missed. The ceiling and one wall are still yellow, because it goes with the green and nobody really wants to repaint the ceiling because it’s such a pain.
The floorboards and the wall color are lovely. I’m still waiting for the molding to be put in (the ‘rents have to fuss with it first to get it the right color and so on), and I have a black-and-white-patterned border yet to arrive in the mail and a pile of black-and-white-patterned curtain fabric waiting to be sewn. Then we have to move a bunch of my furniture back in, including the 4.5-ft-long oak desk from my brother’s room, swapping for the 3-ish-ft-long desk from mine, and not including the white-and-oak-ish-looking table I was setting my plants on. I liked that thing at first, but it takes water damage easily, and it’s really just become another flat surface to put stuff on. I think I want my desk in front of the window this time, anyway, if I can get it to work. And then we have to weed out all the little-kid things that have been hiding in my second closet, which I haven’t been able to really access and clean for years.
What I’d *like* is for that second closet to become usable for… y’know, clothes. Iowa winters are crazy, and it would be nice to be able to store winter stuff in there without fighting the way the closet’s set up. Right now, it just has a clothes bar at the top, and a rack in the middle, which makes kind of no sense to me because once you put anything on the rack, it gets harder to use the clothes bar and/or your stuff gets buried.
I’m curious as to what’s in those boxes I haven’t dug through in ages, though. Probably lots of stuffed animals. I used to have a MASSIVE collection of stuffed animals, almost exclusively dogs and cats. They all had unique names, and I knew them all. I still remember a few of them. (I wonder if that early practice is part of why my memory is so good now?)
I’m glad I didn’t let my parents do this last year, though. Being driven out of my Introvert privacy space does a number on me. A really big number. Like 1031 or something. (I may not have mentioned the context for this yet on the site. This time last year, I was still more depressed than anyone should ever be, which is mildly depressed by general standards but still really, really miserable. I’m pretty sure I would have gone flying-squirrel-poo insane with my space upheaved under those circumstances.)
Anyway, I’m off to write another post about a different subject.
This is why I’ll be glad when I’m in college. Some of this will stop, and be replaced by different idiocies. But at least it’ll be refreshing to be answering a different litany, or maintaining a different farce, or tolerating a different kind of (well-meaning?) adult.
What people think: “Wow. You’re taking Latin of your own volition?” [Granted, it does sound impressive… unless you have a realistic view of what high schools are actually like.]
What it’s really like: “Yeah. We learn pretty much no grammar, I fudge my way through stuff I’ve missed after being out sick and I still get a good grade, and probably nothing I’m doing here will be useful to me. I’m not going to use it, and colleges are unlikely to ever notice or care that I took it. By the time I get to that point, they’ll want my transcript from community college and not my high school one.” [By the way? This is what high schools are actually like.]
What I say: “Sure. I like languages.”
What people think: “Wow. That must be really difficult!”
What it’s really like: “Wow, book. I just translated the sentences, ‘Birds fly in air. Fish swim in water. Humans walk on the ground.’ I am astounded by your profound insight.” [This is Chapter 10, by the way. The course is almost over.]
What I say: “Here you go, Teach.”
What the teacher (and everyone else even remotely related to the program) says:
“This is a dual-credit class. I am a real teacher, from an actual legit seriouspants college. This is just like a college class. It’ll be more difficult than your high school classes, like a college class, because it is a college class, a really real college class. It’ll go on your real, serious college transcript that everyone will look at, because it is a real, serious college class. Really. It’s a college class. You’re in a high school building but it’s a college class. I’m serious. I’m serious because college classes are serious and this is a college class.”
What I’m thinking: “It is important that this will go on the college records. Nevertheless, the class is actually easier than its high school version, which I took last year. Most of the students here have taken a few dual-credit classes already anyway, and we’ve all heard this spiel more times than the teacher has fallen asleep whilst reciting it.”
What I say: Nothing. They’ll shut up about it by the fourth week or so.
Art college reps
What they think: “These kids like art a lot. Obviously, it’s my job to get them an art degree from my college, or they will lead sad and unfulfilled lives. Also, I want their parents’ money.”
What I think: “…No. I don’t need your liberal indoctrination OR your expensive degree, which is even more useless to me than it is to anyone else in this room. Go talk to the three to five students in this art class who actually want jobs in art. The rest of us would just like to chuck your information card in the trash to avoid being spammed by your college for the next two years. But when you get bored of talking with the hippie guy, we have a drawing of Batman to show you.”
What I say: “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard good things about you guys… no, I don’t think I’ll go there. Thanks. No. Really. I’m sure.”
People trying to get me to nail down my plans
What they think: “Surely you have a dreeeeeeam, young scholar. Tell me all about how one particular career path is Your One True Path, and anything else will leave you to leave a sad and unfulfilled life.”
What I’m thinking: “Uh, no. Actually, I want x, but… cynicism, and realistically, I’ll probably change my plans sixteen times like every other college student ever. So I’m making sure I have a plan B. No… I’d be just fine with plan B, too. Thanks. No. Really. I’m sure.”
What I say: [At first, what I’m thinking. Then I realize I’m probably talking to one of my dad’s relatives or somebody else who didn’t actually ask the question in order to get an answer, and I say whatever will make them nod approvingly and leave me alone.]
People trying to get me to nail down which four-year college I’ll attend after community college (if they paid attention to the last bit)
What they think: “Surely you have a *dream college* where you must get in, for any other college will leave you to lead a sad and unfulfilled life!”
What I’m thinking: “This question is just as silly as if you’d asked a sophomore where she’s going for college. I can’t read the minds of admissions counselors (and wouldn’t want to anyway–too scary). I’ll go to whichever of my hand-picked short-list colleges accepts me, or the best offer. What do you want, my list? Because I’m pretty sure you don’t actually care one way or the other. You’re trying to make conversation. Maybe you just don’t remember how convoluted the whole process is for everyone involved? Either way, you’re never going to get a straight, simple answer out of a student on this one. Can we talk about cats?”
What I say: “I’m not sure yet.”
Any relatives who don’t know me very well
What they say (invariably):
1. “So, what school are you going to?”
1a. (optional) “I thought you were going to _____.”
2. “Do you like it there?”
3. “What are you going to do after high school?”
3a. (optional) “I went to _____. You should go there!”
4a. “What degree are you getting?”–they want specifics–OR
4b. “What are you going to do when you grow up?”
I usually say:
1. “‘X’ High School.”
1a. “I was last year/two years ago/three years ago/that’s a middle school.”
2. “Don’t ask that question; you don’t want to know the answer.” (Or, if the relative is someone I have to be diplomatic around, the answer is, “It’s better than Y High School/Middle School that you mentioned in 1a.”)
3. “Community college for programming, then a four-year for Psych.” (Cue questions about which four-year.)
3a. “Oh, cool. Maybe I’ll look at that one.” *nod, smile*
4a. “Uhhhh…” (Psych degrees are weird. Nobody can decide whether it’s a B.A. or a B.S., since it’s one of the newer fields of science and a good chunk of it isn’t actually science. Throw in that programming degree, and you’ve got yourself a question impossible to answer concisely. It’s especially frustrating since I *should* be able to give a simple answer like everybody else. But this is me, and I can’t do anything education-related the simple way. Y’know?)
4b. *incredulous stare, then snaps out of it* “Eh… I’m keeping my options open for now.” *Smile and nod.*
But I’m thinking:
1a. “Did you know that sometimes people do different things?” (Or, if the relative hasn’t seen me in a while… “That’s a middle school.”)
2. “No. Do you actually remember high school?”
3. “Eat a burrito.”
3a. “Yes, I acknowledge your name-drop. No, I don’t want to go there; I don’t enjoy being in debt enough for that. However, I will indulge you, because after paying 40K a year for a degree you could’ve gotten anywhere else and clawing your way out of a financial pit, bragging is the only consolation you have left, and I will stand here and look suitably impressed as you toss out that it’s your ‘alma mater’ and ask me if I know what that means.”
4a. “My psychic powers inform me that I’ll be employed as that dude who sits around and comes up with new Dorito flavors. I am getting a degree in that. You can probably do this in California.” OR
4b. There’s a whole list of responses to this. A few of the PG ones:
“I wanna be a fireman!”
“I wanna be a coroner!”
This is why teenagers don’t like family reunions.