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June 4, 2002 ... Seems like I've been saving all my energy lately for one big burst; I got more done today than I have in a long time.

I'm well overdue for bed -- in part because I spent a great deal of time working on Orion's art trade, in part because I mailed out two resumes, in part because I ran some errands that have needed doing for days, and in part because I'm catching up on correspondence -- so my inspiration to make this post any more than a verbal ping has long since faded. This is about the place where, if I were a less dedicated eclectic, I would be posting the results from those annoying little online quizzes. If I were more filled with teenage angst, I would start repeating myself. If I were Antwon, I would pull some crazy idea out of thin air -- like repackaging prescription medications into vitamin bottles to smuggle into the country, and thereby making large profits which could fuel a website-inspired bid for world domination -- and proceed to ramble on for the rest of the post about it. That doesn't seem like that bad of an idea, actually, but that's his shtick, and so I think I'll instead make some random pseudoprofound observation and go to sleep, my ping complete.

It's now been not quite a week since the cast was removed from my broken arm. I am by no means healed -- the X-ray taken at that time showed, basically, two pieces of bone patched together with wire and something resembling calcified mush -- but I can do basically anything I used to be able to, with the exception of "lifting heavy objects" and "folding my arms double and clucking like a chicken." (True, I can still cluck just fine -- but at any rate, that doesn't answer the question of why I would want to do such a thing. I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.) I've been gaining mobility back at a surprising rate. On the first, I couldn't even bend the arm at a 90-degree angle, which made anything more complicated than "scratching my belly button" a chore. A day later, I could almost fold my right arm to touch my left armpit. The following day, I was there, and working on the shoulder. I can now touch my nose with my right hand, and scratch my back. It's amazing how you take such things for granted. I tell you, it's perverse how a left shoulder can itch at exactly the times when you are physically incapable of reaching to scratch it.

Another benefit of having the arm cast-free is that I can sleep comfortably again. I normally sleep sprawled out across both sides of a twin-sized mattress; at 6-foot-4 the only way to fit onto the thing is to sleep along its diagonal. I am also in the habit of sleeping on my stomach. (Old quadruped habit, I suppose.) I often shift around in the middle of the night, moving from "head turned left, left arm raised near face, right arm tucked under covers" to "head turned right, right arm raised near face, left arm tucked under covers" and vice versa. Normally, I just kind of rotate everything around. The arms straighten and pivot. But with a cast on, I would basically have to roll up onto my side just to get enough angle to shift my arm from 'pointing headward' to 'pointing footward.' It had a nasty habit of waking me up. Now, at least I can sleep.

Speaking of which ...

You all dream well, and tomorrow I'll relate one of my interesting recent dreams.

June 7, 2002 ... Oh, gods, the things you can find on the Web. Such as: bubble-gum flavored cheese [bottom of linked page]. (Cheese-flavored gum seems to be not quite fashionable yet.)

I was reminded tonight, after some websurfing (granted, it was a search for the phrase "cheese-flavored gum", inspired when Orion gave Thea the link to this comic, but that's neither here nor there), of one of the pet projects I've wanted to work on for a long time. I've let it sit on the back burner. It's probably going to remain there for a while. But sooner or later, it will whisper to me -- in its hoary, cracking voice -- "Work on me. Work on me."

You just know that any project that has a hoary, cracking voice is going to be something as disturbing as Chibi Jesus.

And, in this case, you would be right: My secret goal is to one day write a piece of intentionally bad fan fiction.

I don't care what it's fan fiction of. It would probably be better, in fact, if it weren't a fanfic based on ideas belonging to anyone else (because that way it can't be sued off the web). The main thing is that it has to be bad. Horribly, irredeemably bad. As I've previously noted, there is a certain aesthetic of bad; there is a point beyond which the sheer amount of bad inspires a sort of reverence. Critical Bad Mass, if you will. (Another example of this, spotted in Berkeley, California, some days ago: A pickup truck -- a pickup truck -- decked out with a flame-motif paint job, not one but two spoilers, and a chrome half-naked-woman hood ornament. At that point, as my friend Noah remarked, it stops being about compensation and starts being art.)

Consider! Is not the following, lifted unmodified from a 1998 post in a "WRATH" RPG online forum, poetic in some strange way?:

"The endo slumps to the ground pending the absence of a head."
And is not the following language, penned by the same author, the prose equivalent of watching a quick, fiery train wreck?:
"redaxe yells a quick thanks and quickly starts firing on the remaining endos who quickly fall due to concentrated fire."
And then there are the ineffable talents one character on the forum boasted of:
"ADVANTAGES: ... he can hover at any height he is able to tell exact distances with censors."
I wish I could do something with censors besides ban books.

Okay, I've made my point: badness exists. Now, I know I am not the only one to savor such things; year after year, at countless conventions around the world, readings of Jim Theis' infamous "Eye of Argon" take place. There are entire websites whose existence is devoted to "MiSTing" equally bad prose -- putting it through a heckling treatment similar to that of movies in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

However, all of these horrible stories -- and all of the examples above -- are genuine, which is to say, unintentional. Writing a deliberately bad fan-fic of Critical Bad Mass quality would be a coup the likes of which the world has never seen. It takes a dedicated person to write a good story; it takes a master to create a great story; but so far, only overenthusiastic novices can write utter crap.

Someday, I aim to quietly challenge that notion.

May the gods have mercy on my soul.

June 8, 2002 ... I would just like to point out that this is my 365th journal entry.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, I'll tell you.

My first Tomorrowlands post was on June 24, 2000. This means I am rapidly approaching the site's two-year anniversary. Seven hundred and fifteen-odd days after that not-particularly-momentous Fr1st P0st -- two years later -- I have written 365 items. Some inane, some momentous, some ambitious, some insightful, some shameless. But the point is that I have written three hundred and sixty-five of them.

This means that, despite the breaks I have taken ... despite the medical problems that have kept me from the keyboard ... despite frequent bouts of can't-be-bothered-ness where I let the journal lie fallow ... I have kept my average up to a post every other day.


June 10, 2002 ...

The room had seen much death. Its existence was a series of timeless naps, slumbering, interrupted every so often by the insertion of its newest victim, at which point it awoke, observed keenly the ill-fated one's last moments, and then drifted away again as they were pushed into the pit and forgotten in the depths of history. Hieroglyphics spattered its inner walls like stone bloodstains; perhaps they were records of the first victims. If there had indeed ever been a first.

The executioner lived, slept, breathed with the room. He, too, knew little save the fleeting moments between a victim's entrance and their exit. He was not quite as eternal as the room, but every bit as timeless. His stooped form had greeted the hopelessness-dimmed eyes of every prisoner who was pushed in through the rough stone passageway. Every pair of shoulders felt the sympathetic touch of his withered hands; every pair of ears heard his weathered voice. It was his place to provide one last kindness to the dying, give them one precious gift in their last moments.

This latest prisoner's scales were a pale, wasted dusty green. As with every prisoner, he had been in the underground labyrinths of the pyramid for long enough to break his spirit; unlike the room, these doomed souls couldn't simply sleep until the action started. They endured days of absolute solitude, nights of tortured dreams, and nightmare memories of the world beyond -- knowledge of a better life that was forever no longer theirs. As with every prisoner, being pushed into the the muted glow of the room brought him to a zenlike awareness. The room had an aura of finality. There were no exits but the pit. There was nothing to do but die.

And then there was the executioner, guiding him gently around the pit to the room's center, his tailblades gently clicking. "Young one," he said softly. "There is just one choice left to be made, and the only kindness I can give you is to let that choice be yours. How do you want to meet your end?"

Like so many others before him, he chose the rope. They usually did. The thick, tough necks of the prisoners, and the low ceiling of the room, ensured that hanging was not the instant shock of a snapped neck, but rather the gradual darkness of suffocation in the heavy, ancient air. The underground prisons were a slow, numb descent into blankness, and so many of them chose to continue that numbness all the way down.

The noose was looped over his muzzle, pulled around his horns, and tightened once it was beneath his jaw; the executioner leaned backward, letting his weight do the pulling that his worn muscles might once have supplied, and the prisoner was hoisted off his feet. He gasped for breath one last time before the noose jerked tight, flailed around as he swung in the air, squeezed his eyes shut, and slowly lost himself in vertigo. All he could feel was the firm grip of the rope collar. Oddly, it seemed that even gravity was fading away, releasing him into the blackness beyond; there was no sensation of up or down or of being suspended. Just the rope, the tingling throughout his body as the last of the air burned away, the sudden detachment ... and he opened his eyes, dully, and saw the executioner lowering his limp body to the floor. The old one rolled him to the pit, knelt over the body, whispered a final benediction, and pushed it in. Gravity caught the lifeless form as the arms and chest slid down, and the legs and tail snaked over the edge, plunging into the darkness.

There was no subsequent sound of impact. There never was.

The room always felt odd after a prisoner died; the spirit always took longer to leave than the body did.

It was a moment, an instant, an eternity before the next one arrived. The vague sensation of a long time passing was always present in those naps. The room didn't even bother to notice, but the executioner occasionally wondered. Sometimes the prisoners would choose a more messy form of death, and he'd have to clean the room, and he had time to think before settling down to sleep again. When cleaning, he thought sometimes of where his victims came from. He had dim, vague memories of that world, or perhaps just fancies constructed from hieroglyphs and imagination. He never asked them about it. He never found out what they were being sent to die for -- what crime they had committed, or even who judged them. All he knew was his job. There was no reason for him to dawdle, to converse, because there was nothing else but what he did; how could he want to stop? And why would he increase the horror of his charges' death by giving them a brief moment of renewed life right beforehand?

This prisoner chose the rope, too.

When the executioner awoke again, the room was empty. He craned his head around, puzzled, but waited patiently; he was never awoken without reason. A few moments later, the reason for the delay became apparent: Not one but two prisoners were being pushed into the room, and they were struggling to maneuver through the door simultaneously. It was a couple. A young male and a female, holding hands, his right locked inseperarably to her left.

He'd never dealt with a couple before.

The male raised his head, once they were both inside, and looked around. This was also unfamiliar to the executioner: there was still a spark of hope left in their eyes. He felt an odd gnawing in the pit of his stomach. This wasn't right, somehow. But rules were rules, and a job was a job, after all; he moved forward to the two and bowed.

"Young ones," he said gently. "There is only one choice left for you to make, and only one kindness left for me to give you." He looked back and forth between the male and the female, who were staring at him with a look of resignation and sadness in their eyes, rather than the glassy deadness he'd seen in every other visitor. It threw him off a beat. "How, uhm," he stammered, and recovered off-script: "Do you have any last request for your deaths?"

The young male looked him in the eye, and said softly, "Neither one of us could bear to watch the other suffer, or see our partner dead." She nodded in agreement and stared at the executioner as well.

The executioner nodded sagely, meeting their gaze. "You will go together and in no pain," he said. And that was that; he had made his promise, with his silent stone partner as his witness. He could not separate these two; it was as unthinkable as him leaving the room.

"Well," he thought to himself, "that rules out the rope." And most of his weapons, he reflected; quick he could do, and painless he could do, and probably even both at once, but not to two people at once. Unless ...

He walked the pair across the room, still hand in hand, and sat them down in the center, near where the rope hung from the ceiling. He then rose to his full height, flexing his tail, opening and closing his tailblades. The motion ached. Stiff, unusual. But he did have two pair. He gently lowered the couple's heads, encircling their necks with the metallic blades like oversized scissors. They looked sidelong into each other's eyes, and squeezed their hands tight.

With a deep breath and a grunt, the executioner flexed his muscles; the blades jerked, bit into scale -- and stopped before even drawing blood. He groaned, and released his grip; he could cut through and into flesh if he kept up the pressure, but he had promised speed.

The couple looked up, perplexed. They were not yet dead.

"I apologize," the executioner huffed. "We'll try it again." Even as he said it, he knew it wouldn't work; he'd sliced through some of the natural armor on their necks, and he could try cutting again at the same point so as to more easily strike a killing blow, but his tail already ached from the unusual effort, and he knew he couldn't muster the same strength a second time.

But the two bowed their heads, meekly, and waited, so he cut again. This time, a last-second twitch fouled up his alignment, and he didn't even deepen the gouges he'd already made. A third try, his last, was no more successful. He gave up and wandered over to his rack of tools and weapons, glancing through it for some inspiration.

Nothing on hand was adequate. Fighting down panic, he fashioned a second noose, looped the ropes around both their necks, ran both ropes to the ceiling, and heaved, his whole body straining under the load -- hoping desperately to provide a sudden enough shock for a break and an instant kill. But both struggled with a final breath, as usual, and he was forced to let them down before their air could run out; he couldn't guarantee that suffocation would be even remotely simultaneous.

The executioner sat down, desperately thinking. The couple sat against the far wall, patiently awaiting their fate, still inseparably holding hands. He ran through his inventory; no good. He replayed their conversation in his head, looking for loopholes, new angles, in the promise he'd made -- and he had his answer.

Never before had he done something so extreme, but he knew the rules provided for it.

"Young ones," the executioner said, tottering over to them, "I gave my word to you that I would make you leave together and in no pain." Hunched over with the ache of his recent efforts, his tail still twitching, he motioned for them to stand up and looked up into their eyes. "There is only one way left for me to fulfill my promise, and I shall take it."

They looked at each other trepidatiously.

The executioner walked off to one side, and fiddled with some controls hidden in the hieroglyphs. The room sensed an ancient call, and groaned to life, moving long-unused parts with the same sort of stiff ache that the executioner's tail felt. The rumble of stone on stone grew, filling the room completely; the couple clenched each other's hands tightly.

And a door slid open in the wall behind them, sunlight shining so brightly that the exit was a rectangle of solid white.

The executioner bowed. "I keep my word; you are free to go."

He watched the pair gently embrace and walk away, fading into the unbroken whiteness. It was a different angle, and a different color, but it was still the veil of the Beyond to him; his victims left, and didn't come back, and he didn't sweat the details. The room listened again to the silence, felt the departure of its visitors, and settled back to quiescence in satisfaction.

The executioner had some tidying up to do, and then it was time to sleep again. In the meantime, he reflected, he might as well leave the door open. Perhaps it was the source of the odd, satisfied glow seeping through his heart.

June 12, 2002 ... In case anyone was wondering, that last entry was transcribed more or less unaltered from a three-week-old dream that's been bouncing around inside my head.

And, what the heck. I love you all, so I'll continue the creative outburst with a short play in two acts. Drama! Humor! Long-winded and vaguely interesting internal dialogue! W00t!

Inner Confrontation of the Disillusioned, or,
Plays Are No Fun Without a Pretentious-Sounding Title

Act One: The Angsting
[FADE-IN. BAXIL is websurfing.]

BAXIL: Boy, this is sad. Why can't the damn rabid hamsters just leave us alone?
BAXIL's INNER SKEPTIC: [leaps onstage] Because they're right! All of this is B.S.! Why can't you see that?
BAXIL: [sighs] I can't believe we have to go over this again.
SKEPTIC: Because you don't get it yet!
BAXIL: Okay, fine, I'll humor you. Yet again. What don't I get?
SKEPTIC: Dragons are fantasy. Magic is self-delusion. None of this exists except inside your own head. Stop believing long enough to take a look at reality. [points at monitor]
BAXIL: What, that a bunch of people who think that "YUO==FAG" is the soul of wit are calling me stupid for my opinions?
SKEPTIC: You can't evade the subject that easily. I'm not those morons. I am not the doubts outside of you. I am the truth in your head.
BAXIL: Mmm-hmm. Look, I'm quite content to go over this again, but if we're going to talk, let's dispense with the hyperbole. Your assertions are not "truth" any more than mine. They're interpretations of observed fact, theories behind which stand the preponderance of evidence. Right?
SKEPTIC: Exactly. And you give anyone in the world the evidence of the world around them, and the only conclusion they can all reach is that of a purely physical, scientifically grounded world.
BAXIL: Fine as it goes. But I'm --
SKEPTIC: "We're." Internal conversation, remember?
BAXIL: Right. We're not the unattainable construct "anyone in the world"; we -- I -- am a single person, one entity with unique observations. You said, and I agree, that observational evidence has to take precedence over belief, correct?
SKEPTIC: Well, yes.
BAXIL: And you argue that "magic" does not actually have any effects on the world around us.
SKEPTIC: Correct.
BAXIL: Here. [Stands up and hands A PILE OF BOOKS, each labeled "Baxil's Memory" and categorized by date, to SKEPTIC.] So you are telling me that you are prepared to discard each and every one of these magical events, events which you have acknowledged as impossible in your paradigm? In other words, you now wish to throw away personal observation in favor of assertion just because the assertion sounds like a better idea?
SKEPTIC: "..."
NARRATOR: Please note that the argument above is not the golden, shimmering wisdom that conclusively proves the existence of magic. It is a dramatization of a single conversation in a long, dull and far more exhaustive series. Thank you.
BAXIL: So, let me remind you again. Starting from this principle we both agree on, which is to follow the preponderance of personally observed evidence, not this mythical "what everyone else sees" that merely makes reality a democratic proposition --
SKEPTIC: Which is, of course, bad, because the axiom we wish to preserve in methodical exploration of reality is that it follows a single set of universal rules.
BAXIL: Uhh, kinda. All I'm saying is that if you hold to that standard you're making my argument for me that reality is flexible --
SKEPTIC: Regardless, how can you hold "personal observation" as your evidential standard when it is also an observed fact that personal observations differ for other people you know?
BAXIL: That's why I'm big on tolerance. And that's a subject for the sequel. We're running down the clock here. [WAVES HANDS to obfuscate point]
SKEPTIC: Sorry. Speak.
BAXIL: So, right. Accumulated evidence [BAXIL points to books] is best explainable by my position, which is why that is what we believe, subject to revision and allowing for internal differences of opinion like yourself, of course. We had this discussion when we first made that decision. Nothing has changed.
SKEPTIC: ... Right.
NARRATOR: The skeptic cannot disagree because this is, after all, an internal conversation and both parties are simply pointing out facts and opinions already known to them both. Please note that the results of this discussion with a skeptic are not necessarily typical of conversations with people who are not anthropomorphizations of personal feelings.
BAXIL: So, I've got a favor to ask. I can't stop you from believing what you want, but we've both agreed that I'm holding the most promising conclusion here. So -- since one of my subsidiary assertions is that the ability to affect reality is proportional to quality of belief, would you PLEASE KEEP YOUR OBJECTIONS TO YOURSELF WHILE I'M WORKING, and bring them up at more convenient times?
SKEPTIC: Um ... I don't want to.
BAXIL: [sighs] The alternative is for me to ignore you, and for us to basically wage internal war. I don't want to do that because I find your input valuable as a reality check, but you're being really irritating.
SKEPTIC: We've been over this before, too. It's not to my advantage to do as you ask, because if I can sabotage your magic you will run out of examples to disprove my assertion with.
BAXIL: No, I just won't get any new ones.
SKEPTIC: Close enough. Understand my position here. I'm in the minority. I don't think I get the respect I deserve, and I'm prepared to do whatever I have to do to convince you I'm right.
BAXIL: Understand my position here. If you had a real argument you wouldn't have to resort to such tactics, and if that's your only contribution to my internal dialogue I'm quite prepared for an antagonistic relationship.
SKEPTIC: But an antagonistic relationship would be unfair to me too, because you're in power.
BAXIL: Tough shit. It's my duty to try to make you happy. It's not my duty to abandon carefully measured conclusions just because you think the world should work a certain way.
SKEPTIC: "..."
BAXIL: I'm going to kill my brain, one of these days, for learning to speak in SquareSoft dramatic pauses.
SKEPTIC: [ASIDE] Obviously this is not working. But just you wait. I'll make him consider my position yet.
Act Two: The Conclusion
[FADE IN. It is the next morning. BAXIL is wandering around, thinking about what he has read the previous night. Cue dramatic monologue.]
BAXIL: Oh, what a piece of work is man ... wait, wrong play. Ahem. Boy, there's only so much reading you can do in a night before getting really depressed. All of this foofaraw over the Portal of Eee-vil. That one website which tracks mentions of furries in the popular press and links to a dozen hit pieces in which reporters looking for controversy slam folks like me. All of the whining and backstabbing and people utterly and sincerely convinced that if they just yell at someone long enough the entire anthropomorphic community's problems will be fixed. The flame wars. Jyhanhen's tooth, the flame wars! [drops to his knees, shakes fists at sky, lapses into Shatner impression] When will ... it end? WHEN! ... will IT! END!
[The SKEPTIC sneaks onto the edge of the stage.]
SKEPTIC: [in STAGE WHISPER] You know, Bax ... all you'd have to do would be to stop believing you're a dragon, and stop believing in magic ... and you'd never have to deal with furry politics ever again.
BAXIL: "..."
BAXIL: Never in my life have I heard such a base, despicable plea for turning one's back on the truth. And yet never in my life have I felt so sorely tempted. I hate you.
SKEPTIC: Just doing my job.
[Curtains fall. END.]

June 14, 2002 ... I just got back from a stellar role-playing session. Due to a huge crowd packing the house, and not one but two weddings (the source of the crowd in question), this weekend promises to be hectic and draining. I've been dreading the whole shebang, and had been looking forward to tonight's Rifts game as a stress-buster. And, boy, did it pull through. The game yanked me through several emotional states, left me feeling heroically accomplished, and even now I'm looking back in retrospect, thinking, "Wait a minute. How did I survive THAT?"

Not only that, but it was the source of one of the most classic gaming quotes I've heard in a long time. To wit:

(Two of the party members are flying the group's ley line streaker (a magic-powered aircraft) back into the town we're defending. The pilot sees my character fighting one of the campaign's recurring enemies, eighty feet below them.)
Larry: I leap out of the [open] cockpit onto the gromek!
GM (Tim): Uh, wait a minute, Lar. You DO realize that you're the only one who can fly the plane, right?
Larry: Yes!
GM: (after a moment of stunned silence) Okay. He bails. Danny, the craft is now plunging out of control. What do you do?
Danny: I think happy thoughts.

(If you're not a fan of long-winded role-playing stories, you are allowed to stop now. But game was epic, really. I promise.)

The reason that the game was so climactic -- setting aside for the moment the enormous swarms of undead beseiging the town, and the critical race against time being undertaken by the party's other mage in order to re-raise the city's defensive barrier; setting aside the massive zombie construct things that mowed through our outer line like tanks, which our psychic had to run around and paralyze so that the defense forces stood a chance; setting aside even the insidious necromancy that caused the fighting to rage long after the barrier had come back up -- was, in fact, the gromek in question.

Some very brief backstory is in order here: my character, Rikchik, is a four-foot-tall anthropomorphic rat with ambitions of power far beyond his race's norm. He is slowly gaining experience as an earth warlock -- which means that he has access to a fair number of spells that are versatile but (so far) completely useless in combat. He's inept at magical offense, utterly outmatched hand-to-hand, isn't big enough to carry any real firepower, is an unbearable social misfit (mainly because he tells everyone who will listen about his fantastic achievements, at great length), and -- due to being the only survivor of our campaign's prior adventuring party by pure dumb luck -- is rich, famous, and generally hailed as the "Hero of Lazlo." He's got a fair mind for tactics and an excellent run-away instinct, which is a good thing, because apart from his reputation, he's got nothing else going for him.

At any rate, this poor sap -- thrust into events far beyond his ability to handle by his firm delusion that he's the reincarnation of a great general who will lead his race to glory -- ran into a gromek half a dozen play sessions ago who challenged him to mortal combat, apparently wanting the renown of killing the "Hero of Lazlo." As gromek are nine-foot-tall supernatural beings strong enough to use ratmen as toothpicks, and as this particular gromek was a user of blood magic, our poor outmatched Rikchik had the bright idea of hiring the rest of the party to defend him in that battle; the gromek escaped and has been tailing us ever since.

I'm not going to get into the whole defending-the-town-against-undead bit here; it's a long story, and adds nothing to the telling of the day's achievements. Suffice it to say that as a result of the undead attack, Rikchik had gone back to our home base to report on the situation and request reinforcements while the other members of the party tried desperately to activate the town's defenses (since the ruling council, who usually did the job, had been slaughtered). Rikchik and the mercenaries he'd scrounged up teleported into the town in the middle of a scene of chaos, as undead were spilling over the walls and one of his teammates was starting to work on the 15-minute-long ritual to reactivate the barrier. In the confusion, someone shouted out over the party's private communications channel, "Rikchik! Where are you?" He responded by describing his location as he ran for the central temple, leaving the mercenaries to guard the walls -- and, suddenly, the gromek teleported directly in front of him, wearing one of our communications rings, which he'd lifted from us the previous night. "Hi."

I wish I'd been able to see the look on my face.

It was one of those gaming moments of stomach-turning utter panic. Here was a foe my character probably couldn't face on his own. Standing toe to toe with him (thus ensuring he would fare even worse -- getting ripped to shreds in close combat by something with muscles that weigh more than he does). In the middle of chaos that suggested he wouldn't get reinforcements. And without even so much as the chance to prepare any defensive spells to buy him time. After an unsuccessful attempt to throw an adhesion grenade and get the gromek rooted to the spot -- I figured I could at least try to hold him off until someone noticed my predicament -- the gromek pulled out a huge, black-bladed, rune-covered sword and poked Rikchik in the chest with it. Once.

He took the sort of damage one normally associates with close-range detonations of explosives. The crazily overpowered magical armor I'd been expecting to hide behind for a minute or two flickered and almost shorted out, four-fifths drained. "Screw this," I said -- one hit from certain death -- and used one of the teleport rings I'd brought, hoping to at least get my bearings and try to fight him on my terms. The ring zipped me into the town's central temple, a mile or two away.

Which the gromek headed unerringly to, after toying with Larry's character briefly and leaving him berserked and glued to the ground. (The streaker did end up crashing, by the way, and Danny's character also bailed, taking severe bruises despite a protective force field.)

I played cat-and-mouse with the gromek inside the darkened, deserted temple, completely on edge. I knew that if he headed for the center of the labyrinthine pyramid -- where Wiebke's character was casting the city's defensive barrier -- he could wreck the city's only hope at survival. I knew that if he caught up to Rikchik, my character was going to quickly die. I knew that if he went for the center of the temple, I'd have to try to intercept him and lure him off, probably dying in the process. My only hope was to stall until the barrier could be cast, at which point the gromek would be banished from the city. But that was a long time to wait, and in the meantime, he was tracking me, and taunting me through the communication ring. After several minutes of unbearable tension, and after sending a summoned elemental to protect his teammate by magically walling up the ceremonial room, Rikchik headed for the exit, hoping to fix the area in his mind for a possible teleport destination before going back inside to stalk through the winding halls (where he had the best chance of evading his pursuer).

The gromek was waiting for him at the entrance gate.

"Okay," I thought. "He can fly after me faster than Rikchik can run. My best chance is to stand and fight -- and my ONLY chance is to neutralize that damned sword somehow." (I had fought him earlier, albeit without the sword, and knew what to expect from his blood magic. If I kept him away from me, I had a chance of neutralizing him long enough to wait out the remaining time on the barrier ritual.) A bit of hope flared after he drove the sword into the ground at his side so that he could get both hands free to cast a spell. That hope collapsed after Rikchik dropped a wall of stone onto the sword to keep it from the gromek's grasp -- and the sword dispelled the wall as he cast it.

A mere thirty or forty melee rounds (i.e., eight minutes) to go, and I was out of tricks. The sword was still there, and with that, Rikchik's magic was useless. He had nothing else that could scratch the gromek, and only the single ace-in-the-hole of another teleport ring -- which would buy me another minute or two at best. His allies were scattered across the city and either immobilized or already occupied.

And you know what? I survived. And not only that, but WON.

I stopped fighting after the sword ploy failed, and he laughed and assumed victory. He ordered Rikchik to approach, and then to kneel before him and publically broadcast over our comm circuit that Rikchik had been defeated and that the rat's life was in his hands. Rikchik did the kneeling thing (hey, when cowardice comes naturally, you don't worry about your image), but pointed out he would still fight to protect his friends if necessary. Rikchik debated over terms, argued that he couldn't trust the gromek to spare the city after killing him, asked him if he was responsible for the death of the city's ruling council, asked why when he found out that was the case, got into a brief discussion over the nature of power and how it wasn't always found in force, and held a lengthy argument with one of his mercenaries over the comm ring. (The gromek had asked him to broadcast his message over that circuit, and Rikchik spent a lot of time alternately persuading Bill that no, there was nothing that could be done to save him, and yes, that he needed to find a spare couple of seconds to listen to a Very Important Announcement.)

In other words, a classic stall, and one that bought me enough time for help to arrive.

I think the highlight of the stalling match was near the end: Rikchik, kneeling and glancing through the gromek's legs into the streets beyond, saw the distant figure of Larry's character, finally free of his entanglement, charging toward the temple, still berserk and out for the gromek's blood. "You're stalling," the gromek accused him. (This was shortly after telling Bill over the comm circuit that they had just five minutes left before the protection spell was cast.) Rikchik, in a moment of insight, admitted that this was in fact the case, but neglected to mention why. The gromek laughed, unaware of the figure approaching from behind him, and gloatingly informed Rikchik that he'd be dead long before the ritual was finished. At that point, I knew I had him.

The moment built to a satisfying climax as Rikchik finally appeared to capitulate entirely, and got everyone's attention on the comm rings, with Larry's character charging down the final city block. "I have an announcement to make," Rikchik said, sounding deadened and resigned. "The gromek here ..." and he paused, leapt to his feet, and shouted, "is getting attacked from behind!"

"What? NOOO!" the gromek screamed, grabbing for his sword -- still planted in the floor -- and missing it completely as Larry landed a beautiful full-speed jump-kick in the small of his back.

As he landed flat on his back on the temple floor, having twisted in mid-air to try to grab his now-distant sword, I smugly dropped another adhesion grenade and pinned him down like a moth under glass. (It also glued Larry's character and mine in place. But that was okay, because Rikchik, unlike the other two, had a gun.)

Rikchik shot him in the head until he stopped twitching. Then went through another full clip and a half just to make sure. Then doubled Larry's character's salary, and narrowly avoided fainting as it dawned on him just how narrow of a thing his escape was.

Larry later took the sword -- a rune weapon, if that means anything to you fellow Rifts players -- and single-handedly made mincemeat out of the opposing army before we were able to trick him into getting the evil, sapient uberweapon destroyed. But that's another story, I think, and meaningful here only in that it illustrates how utterly impossible it should have been for Rikchik to have survived what he did.

Of course, this is the character who, in his first night of adventuring, stole something from a dragon -- and managed to make a dodge roll of 18 or better to evade its fireball, which otherwise would have been a one-hit kill. (His MDC armor was being repaired at the time.)

I'll tell you one thing about role-playing a character whose only possible survival strategy is evasion and misdirection: your games certainly get a whole lot more exciting.

June 15, 2002 ... One wedding down, one to go.

Today was Sarah and Erin's. My two roommates had a ceremony to affirm themselves as lifemates, celebrating seven years of partnership and sisterhood and renewing their commitment to a lifetime thereof. As Erin has put it in the past, "Our lives are so tangled up together, we might as well be married." Well, now they are. Not legally, but they did have the rings and the minister and everything, so it's as official as it's going to get.

Tomorrow is Sarah and Walter's marriage; another pair of roommates getting formally closer. It's going to be legal and everything. It's also going to be about twice as densely attended; boy, if I thought the house was crowded today ...

I'm happy for them all. That's all I can say without making the announcement I've been trying to write for a week now.

... One down, one to go.

June 18, 2002 ... Once upon a time, there was a young little programmer. He was a very good boy and always tried to run his code through test cases before using it for anything important. He was very conscientious, never settling for simply writing a two-line hack when he needed to get something done, and always trying to think about extensibility and maintainability. All of his neighbors in the village said, "Oh! What a good boy!" and praised him for his rigorous, bug-free yet very slowly written code, patting him on the head and giving him candy, which is how you can tell this is a fairy tale.

But the boy grew up, as all little boys do, and one day he was entrusted with a Web server. He built a website that was generally respected despite mostly being huge hunks of unformatted text (and if you hadn't yet realized that this is a fairy tale, you should know the truth by now). Now, this programmer, having realized that he was, in fact, grown up, and perfectly entitled to do grown-up things, decided that he might actually want to post some files to the website unsuitable for the kids still in the village's school. Quite mindful of the laws the king had recently passed about such things, the young programmer decided to write a script that would control access to the files, and to lock the files away in an inaccessible part of the server, instead of simply placing them on the Web where anyone could get them at any time.

The programmer hacked away diligently at the script, taking subroutines that seemed like they would be otherwise useful and placing them in a module suitable for inclusion elsewhere. He sat down and thought about the dumb things that could go wrong when people tried to use the script, and wrote handlers to deal with them. He thought about the unlikely, implausible ways in which someone might possibly try to use the script to "break" his website, and wrote countermeasures. On top of it all, he wrote a logging routine to inform him if someone actually DID try these stupid and implausible things he was spending all of his time writing contingency code for.

But all of this coding took time. Many days and nights. And occasionally, the programmer's neighbors would drop by his house and wander into the basement, where he sat in isolation, slaving over the screen. "What are you doing?" they would ask. "Writing a script that displays a requested file," he would reply. "But that's silly," they would say. "Look, you can do that in two lines of PERL. Why do you spend so much time on this thing?"

During those times, he would wonder himself whether the extra effort was all worth it. But he was a good programmer, and he had been brought up to be a good programmer, and his heart was strong, so he wrote good code. Upstairs, in the village, the children laughed and played, and the sun shone and the birds chirped, but he didn't care, because he was Writing Good Code.

Then, a few days later, the script was ready. He emerged into the sunlight, twitching a bit as his eyes adjusted. "I am ready! It is done!" he cried. Of course, nobody cared, because even in fairy tales the only thing that matters to non-programmers is the user interface, and whether or not it crashes their machine. So, in due course, this script was forgotten, and went on quietly doing its job.

Months passed. Then, one day, the young programmer happened to be browsing through the files on his web server looking for something he'd written a while back. He noticed a file called "error_log" and opened it up, curious. "Ah! This is the output from the logging routine of my file handling script," he said, and glanced through, skipping past the page and a half of test cases in which he'd tried to deliberately break the thing.

And what should greet his eyes but:

Access denied to at 5-4-2002 at 3:32:12; Illegal filename.
Referrer: ; file: ../../../../../../../../../../etc/passwd

And the young programmer laughed and laughed, and did in fact do a smug little happy dance, for he knew (from looking back through his well-organized source code) that the hacker in question had received a very threatening message telling him not to abuse the webserver and that his request had been logged and further access attempts would be reported to his Internet Service Provider.

Meanwhile, the hacker went away, gained access to the server of the neighbor who had recommended that the young programmer write a two-line script, and in a moment of utter boredom ordered the hard drive to spin the wrong way, destroying a million billion dollars of brand-new computer equipment.

The moral of the story is: If you know that the entire world is going to be able to play with your code, for god's sake, never ever trust a thirty-second hack.

June 21, 2002 ... The following is an artist's re-creation of an actual piece of graffiti spotted on the wall of the men's restroom of the DSHS office in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.

[the is /\end 

I can offer no explanation for this that doesn't involve the word "stupid."

June 24, 2002 ... I've been sucked into Final Fantasy X. AIIIEEE!!! Must save Spira! Must play Blitzball!! Must go to that little pit in the north of the Thunder Plains, play "Dodge the Lightning Bolt," rack up a record of 105 consecutive dodges, and earn prizes!!! (Good gods, I never want to see the Thunder Plains again; all told, I spent over ten hours there.)

In the meantime, spam continues to pile up in my mailbox. The vast majority of it merely provides a workout for my left index finger on the "d" key, but a few of them have been enticing, such as:

"Oscar Star Bears Pussy!" He certainly does. I'm still not sure what they're trying to sell me, though.

"Attract Men With Bigger Breasts!" I do believe I'm with Torg and Riff on this one. If I could attract big-breasted men, I'd be a lot more tempted to swing that way.

"Friend, Burn John Grisham For Free!" But where would we hide the body? (Gosh, I hope that these people are organizing a book burning. ... Gosh, I never thought I'd be able to say that in complete sincerity.)

Anyway. For the record, if you know of any editing, copy editing or proofreading positions open -- in Seattle, or otherwise -- drop me a line. The same applies if you can point me to freelance editing work. I'm still looking for employment, and a job that I've got actual work experience at would be a lovely thing.

June 26, 2002 ... Crazy, crazy world. I had something I was going to post, but I might as well comment on current events while it's still topical.

First of all, in case you weren't already aware: People are stupid. What is it this time that's raised my hackles, you ask? An article on password security over at the BBC's site, showing that it's not only people on this side of the pond who perform the digital equivalent of taping a spare key to their front door. The report says that a full ninety-seven percent of people use computer passwords guessable by even the laziest hacker -- such things as a child's or spouse's name, a birthday, a favorite celebrity/sports team/band, or a pet's name. Of those, eight percent use their own name as their password.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive to these things, because I maintain a web site and have been a target before ... but, sheesh. Even "front door" is an inadequate analogy, because that implies you want to be able to invite friends through it as well as go in and out yourself; but for Internet services, there is a whole world of people out there, and the only ones who will approach your password barriers are yourself and the bad guys. Make that barrier as strong as you can, my friends. Do not use any dictionary words or data that a friend would know about you (because anything a friend knows can be found out by others you don't want around). Insert random numerals into strings of letters; insert random letters into strings of numbers. Mix upper and lower case for passwords that are case sensitive (most are). Insert punctuation and special characters if you're allowed to do so. Don't worry about making it memorable, because if it's a password you use with any regularity, it will be through sheer repetition; several of my passwords are literally random strings of characters that I typed out on a whim, and then kept typing ten or twenty times for practice, by which time my fingers knew where to go and I could type the things out in the dark.

Anyway. Our next bit of news is something that is decidedly more ambiguous in its insights into human nature. In case you've been living in a cave for the last day or two, the West Coast's federal appeals court declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. Not the whole thing, to be more accurate: merely the two words "under God" inserted in 1954.

The good news is that this was done. It took them long enough -- almost fifty years. The Court's decision, as expressed by Senior Judge Alfred Goodwin, was that "the 'under God' wording is as legally flawed as saying that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus' or a nation 'under no God,' because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion." If you think that this sounds only logical, you're right -- and if you are outraged at the decision, but would rather not live in a country where the Pledge of Allegiance used the phrase "under Zeus" or even "under Satan", you still have to respect the wisdom of their words.

The bad news is that our fearless leaders in the Senate voted 99-0 (at least one person had the half-hearted courage to abstain, and is probably going to come under serious fire for even that decision ... update: Never mind; it was arch-conservative Jesse Helms who didn't vote, and that was because he was undergoing surgery) to condemn this little island of rationality and constitutional awareness, and have asked their legal counsel what can be done to overturn the ruling. The news articles say that legal scholars expect the Supreme Court to reverse the decision if it comes before them. Our Deist founders, who wrote quite clearly that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," must be rolling in their graves.

At issue, of course, is not people's right to call America "a nation Under God." You can do that all you want. The same First Amendment that the court is citing tells us that the free exercise of religion cannot be prohibited. What is at issue here is being able to tell other people what they do or do not believe. I don't happen to believe we are a nation "under God" -- and why I don't believe this is unimportant; I might be a Buddhist or Wiccan or Hindu or atheist, and the argument is the same -- and yet I was forced, during my four years of public high school, under threat of punishment, to declare that that was the case. I kept my mouth shut for that part of the pledge as an act of civil disobedience, but it always made me feel nervous and excluded.

Say we're a nation under God when in your churches; say we're a nation under God when you're marching in the streets; say we're a nation under God with a big sign on your front porch. That's your right. But don't tell others they must do so. That's what this is about: not political correctness, not religion or lack thereof, but about control.

To wrap this up, here's a story with a decidedly odder bent: They're investigating ancient half-buried iron pipes in a remote part of China, where iron pipes have no right to be. "Nature is harsh here. There are no residents, let alone modern industry in the area, only a few migrating herdsmen to the north of the mountain," says Qin Jianwen of the local government. Locals speculate the pipes were left by extraterrestrials, although it's admittedly a little early to tell. Frankly, that would be a cool thing if it were true, but I think that -- whatever the story is -- it will be interesting enough to keep an eye on, ETs or no.

June 27, 2002 ... More on the Pledge of Allegiance, because it's not like anybody is talking about anything else the last day or two.

First of all, while I think I managed to outline the real issue in yesterday's post (control, not religion), I would like to point out the most admirably clear statement on the issue I have yet read, over in Brooks Moses' livejournal. I especially like his comment on "cargo-cult freedom"; we place so much importance on symbology these days ...

I was also simultaneously amused and deeply saddened by a debate between Barry Lynn and Jerry Falwell I read on CNN.com. If you don't have time to read the whole thing, here is an executive summary:

THE REV. LYNN: It hurts us all when we confuse patriotism with religious zeal.
THE REV. FALWELL: This decision is outrageous because we're at war and it's stopping people from being patriotic.
THE REV. LYNN: My opponent has no real response to my arguments so he's going to call me anti-God.
THE REV. FALWELL: You're anti-God.

Meanwhile, in other high-courts-making-important-ruling-about-kids-in-school news, the Supreme Court has given us a mixed bag: they've okayed school vouchers in an Ohio case, but in an Oklahoma case, gave schools the thumbs-up to randomly drug test any student who participates in any extracurricular activity (in other words, just about everyone except for the people who actually do drugs). That last one is just as logic-defying as the public reaction to the Pledge of Allegiance thing. (Congratulations, kids: You've been told this week that, on the one hand, your beliefs are worthy of respect; and on the other hand, you're nothing but little juvenile delinquents who don't need to be suspected of wrongdoing before being ordered to pee in a cup.)

All things considered, this has been one big lesson in the fact that most Americans just aren't ready for the freedoms we're supposed to have. Call me cynical, but I think we're collectively getting what we ask for, and what people really want is a pat on the head and a kind word while they're being kicked in the ass.

Either that, or we're very good at falling for advertising when the folks in power try to sell us things we'd rather not have.

June 28, 2002 ... Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, is a week behind us. Gradually, now, the sun is going to start slipping southward, making shorter and shorter circuits of the sky, robbing us of that precious, precious 5 AM and 10 PM daylight, hurtling us slowly back toward the eternal darkness of Seattle winter. And how does the sky celebrate this milestone's one-week anniversary? By turning grey and dumping rain on our heads.

June 30, 2002 ... Speaking of the summer solstice: I learned, on the longest day of the year, that birds have a sense of humor.

It's like this, see: I was relaxing at Seattle's Gilman Playground after an outing to a local government office. I had walked past the baseball fields, the basketball court, and the playground itself; had found a spot in the shade; and was working on some notes for an essay I was writing for one of our house role-playing campaigns. There were some young kids on bikes hanging around, looking bored; there were some women playing tennis; there were a few folks just hanging out on the grass. And then there was Chloe.

Chloe, I later learned, is an eight-month-old labrador retriever. Chloe is three feet and fifty pounds of pure, distilled puppy exuberance. Chloe was at the park that day. My first clue of this was when a white blur shot by in the distance. I looked up from my work with the feeling that I'd missed something, and scanned the baseball fields across the walkway from my position. Sure enough, barreling back in the other direction, an unidentified flying object -- moving fast enough to leave dust clouds and a white afterimage.

I regained my bearings and considered this; okay, so a dog was running laps. I am given to understand that they do this sometimes just for the heck of it. I settled back down to my writing, and no sooner had I set pen to paper than Chloe thundered by again from left to right. I looked up: right to left, disappearing behind the restroom fifty feet ahead.

It was on the fourth lap that I realized this was no random "let's exercise the legs!" puppy run. Oddly intrigued by this living Doppler effect, I had started to watch Chloe's movements closely -- and noticed a smaller, black blur preceding the four-legged white one. The dog was chasing something. I finally drew a bead on the object and realized what it was: a barnstorming starling, hurtling around the park's huge, flat lawn less than a foot off the ground.

The reason for Chloe's determined lap-running quickly became clear. The starling would lead the dog across the field, reach one end, pull up sharply into a half-loop, soar ten feet over Chloe's head in the opposite direction -- causing her to screech to a halt and reverse course -- and then dive back to its cruising altitude of several inches off the ground, at which point Chloe would lock in on her target again and take off at full velocity.

"Maybe the starling's trying to draw this predator away from its nest," I thought. Another two laps and I discarded that idea. "They can't keep this up," I thought. "Either the bird is going to get bored of taunting the dog, or the dog's going to get frustrated or tired, and give up." Three minutes later, I picked up my things and moved forward to the path for a better view of the ongoing chase.

At least twice, the starling nearly led Chloe out of the park -- but Chloe stopped at the gates, and the bird had to loop around back to the huge, open fields to keep her interested. I did a double-take at one point when I saw the starling fly up over the fence at the edge of the park -- and another one took its place, performing the exact same maneuvers with such practiced ease that it would have put the Blue Angels to shame. In fact, several times over the course of Chloe's run, the starlings swapped out. Only one was ever near the ground at a time, so it was extremely obvious that they were working as a team.

And, boy, they must have been laughing their tails off.

Chloe was running around with a stupid grin on her face, tongue hanging out of one corner of her mouth and flapping in the wind. She was chasing things just for the sheer joy of being able to do so. The starlings, meanwhile, were very obviously slowing down to accommodate this huge, lumbering white thing. Every time they looped over her head and Chloe scrambled for traction for a turn, they'd graciously allow her to recover her bearings before zooming away again. It's not at all a stretch to picture them calling out to their other bird friends, "Hey! Look what I can make the stupid dog do!" and then going back and forth over the same patch of ground several times in succession.

At any rate, the puppy finally slowed down out of sheer exhaustion. Her owner came over, and the two of us talked briefly (never let it be said that a background in journalism is a waste for a writer). I got my solstice story, and Chloe got a drink.

The birds merely got a good laugh out of the scene, and I suspect there's plenty more that they laugh at that the rest of us never get to see.

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