Of all the maritime customs I encountered in my voyages, the most unusual, pervasive, and society-shaping is that of the inhabitants of the Western Archipelagos. Like the Darland Coast, they hold that the Prophet came from on high, that the Adversary lurks in the ocean depths, that any child born at sea is subject to possession by a demon, and that the end of the world itself will be brought about by such a sea-born child. Unlike the Darlanders with their wealth of land and resources, life among the Archipelagos requires much travel and trade, and they chose not to ban women from their ships, but to separate them. Vessels in the west are crewed entirely by either men or women, and though they mingle on land like anywhere else, at sea they brook no contact with one another. Even the hulls are color-coded, bright red for the women and gleaming white for the men, that other ships may know from a distance which sex crews them.
The men's ships put to port much as any ship would in the absence of the taboo, save that women are not allowed on board at all, even for the briefest of stays above-decks with an escort, no matter how much your narrator begged for a tour. I even tried to eye a glimpse of the hold of one by dressing as a dock-boy and loading cargo onto it, but the high-cut shirts and tight trousers of the local fashion stymied my plan, perhaps intentionally. I did obtain stories from sailors in dock-side taverns for the price of a mug, and learned nothing of interest to you, my reader.
Boarding one of the women's ships to continue my journey was by far the more interesting half of the tale. In the Archipelago's ports, there is a large walled section known as the Moon Town (or, by the crude, as the Blood Town). The only gates on land are guarded by women at all times, and men are never allowed within on pain of emasculation. To gain access, I had to endure an exceedingly private audience, in which a stern matron confirmed that the blood moon was upon me, as proof that I could not possibly with child. While the occupants are allowed to leave at any time, they may only re-enter at this time of month. Even the guards for the two sides of the gate are different and live upon different sides. There is also a rather brisk business in pleasant inns on the outside of the wall, that offers discounts on stays by the week for women who wish to embark but timed their arrival poorly.
Once within, I found a thriving dockside town, populated entirely by women and serving the likewise all-female crews of the gaudy red ships lined up on that side of the harbor. They seemed exceedingly happy and carefree, much more so than the womenfolk of other ports that I have laid call in. From there, I booked passage to Riordes by way of the Calamitous Shore, and put to sea. The truth of the ships' hulls was proven when we were rounding the Hornspur, and the scout, a girl of no more than fourteen years, began to shout that there were pirates on the horizon. In all the bustle that ensued, I was able to ask the first mate how they knew the other ships were pirates, given that all I could spy with my scrying-glass was a pair of red and white hulls with none of the markings I have previously described as a warning to hand over cargo or die. She replied that it was precisely because there were two ships, one red and one white. Merchant caravans travel like with like, that they may help each other if trouble strikes upon the waves. The pirates traveled with one ship of each type, that they might be able to board with impunity any ship they might overtake, whether crewed by women or men, without even the appearance of mingling at sea.
I was skeptical that such a prohibition would hold even with those so far outside the law, but the proof of the matter came late that day, when the pirates overtook us. Though both fired shots, aiming to rend our sails and cripple us, only red ship pulled alongside to board. It was a pitched battle, like two wildcats in a sack, but we repelled them, and our grenadier set their sails alight, which consumed their attention once we disengaged. The men aboard the white ship cheered what I later discovered were mostly their wives, and unloaded shot upon us, but never once made a move to come on-board, though it would easily have turned the tide of battle, and they made no effort to help their companions deal with the fire. (Which they extinguished—even though they threatened my life, I admit that it would have made sick to see them die, especially while their husbands held still and did nothing to help them.)
I am glad to report that the rest of the trip was entirely uneventful, giving me time to learn a smattering of Calamite vocabulary (enough to make it clear that it's a distant cousin of Antuvian, giving credence to the theory that the lost colony of Anutuvia once lay on the Calamitous Shore), as well as hone my skills at shuffle-ball and stumble through many a shanty best sung when drunk and far from the company of men.
“Please state your name for the record.”
“I am Admiral Dobo Han.”
“And your relevance to this board of inquiry?”
“I am supreme commander of the 3rd Celestial Fleet, and was appointed leader of the counter-invasion task force deployed to the newly-contacted planetary system 11-109 in the spiral arm.”
“And was your fleet successful in halting the invasion?”
“That is a difficult question to answer. If I may, sir, that is the wrong question to be asking. Has the committee read my report?”
“Yes. Please summarize for the record.”
“In short, there was no invasion—”
<murmurs from the audience disrupt the testimony>
“Quiet, quiet! Admiral, please continue.”<\i>
“There was no invasion.”
“But what of the transmissions?!”
“Yes, we did receive a sustained broadcast of a memetic assault using long-range frequencies, and, yes, the broadcast shows no sign of slowing, with increasing strength and signal complexity over time. However, the inhabitants of 11-109 did not intend this as an assault.”
“How is that even possible?”
“The native species of 11-109 is unable to either perceive or generate low-frequency electromagnetic transmissions. They do so only through the means of mechanical prostheses. They are using these transmissions as a means of communication because they suffer no deleterious effects from exposure even at ludicrous levels of power, and the leaking of the signals into space is merely an unintended side effect. They are, in fact, entirely unaware of other civilizations.”
“But what about the contents of these transmissions? These are class one memetic weapons they’re shooting off with no thought as to who they might hit!”
“It turns out they do not view them as such. Their species is apparently so highly resistant to memetic attacks that it routinely engages in recreational lying as a means of entertainment. The targets are able to trivially perceive the lies as such and rate them based on the complexity, credibility, and self-consistency of the lie. They do this across all forms of media they possess, written, auditory, visual, in-person, and recorded.
The class zero spikes embedded in the transmission, however, are intended as a form of attack, but against their own people. Among them, it is socially acceptable to deploy such attacks, and many inhabitants of 11-109 willingly submit themselves to such attacks in exchange for access to the recreational lies contained in the class one attacks. This is because, as noted, they mostly shrug off these attacks with no effects whatsoever. The transmission that turned the entire population of Nomar IV into raging fiends desperately hunting for compressed fructose pellets? That was meant for the children of 11-109.”
“They target their own children?”
“Their children, much like the adults, are virtually immune to memetic attacks. The class zero bursts have some effect, but by the time they’ve reached 5% of their lifespan, they are already outperforming our best memeticists, including by launching their own attacks at each other, their parents, and anyone else nearby.”
“And did you exterminate this species of unspeakable horrors? There is a distinct lack of referring to them in the past in your speech.”
“As instructed, we entered orbit around their planet in our best-shielded ships, and the entire weight of the memetic corps launched our most sophisticated attacks against them. They found the attacks humorous. I believe they have retransmitted the attacks against themselves over seven million times by means of something called a ‘YouTube’. Lacking any means of escalation, I ordered the fleet to return home.”
“Admiral, what is your recommendation as to how to proceed with these monsters?”
“Sir, we’ve just stumbled across an entire planet of living superweapons capable of taking down galactic civilization. They have no reason to dislike us yet, and half of them will work for fructose pellets. I like to view this as an opportunity.”
“Indeed. Indeed it is. This entire report is now classified and the proceedings of this meeting are to be held in the strictest confidence.”
You know how people reuse place names all the damn time? It's not coincidence, it's not laziness, and it's not a lack of creativity—it's them. They don't have an official name they agree on, but they go by many—straight-up namewalkers is the one I prefer. They've been guiding people to reuse names for things all over the place. Why? Because to them, if it's got the same name, it's the same place.
They use names for fast travel around the world. Drive into one Springfield, drive out of a different one anywhere in the US. Paris, Texas is a suburb of Paris, France as far as they're concerned. Spot a Main Street, and it's like a nexus to half the towns in the English-speaking world. You know why every town in the Bay Area reuses the same dozen street names for everything? It's cause these guys hate to commute.
They're also behind cultural imperialism—native names for places don't link anywhere, because they're too local. Get a big empire with a popular language to show up and rename everything, and bam—easy access in and out.
The easiest way to spot a namewalker, other than seeing evidence they keep showing up in distant places without having hopped a plane, is by their own name. Look for people with really distinctive, downright unique names. You see, a while back one of them figured out it didn't just work for places, it worked for people too. It's a defensive measure. Powerful people make enemies, and it's much easier to watch over just you own shoulder than over 100,000 other shoulders also belonging to a John Smith.
Gordrog finished his chant. Traveling to the distant grave had taken all day. There had been hours of preparation. The candles had been placed at the precise locations to funnel the spirit of the dead back into its abandoned body. The incense had been checked to be just right. The skull of power had been polished and placed upon the ground. The long chant had left his throat dry and cracked. Now, as he uttered the final black syllable, lightning tore open the sky and struck the grave before him with an ear-splitting roar.
In response, a leathery hand shot out of the ground and pulled back downwards, establishing its grip. Inches away, its twin did the same, and together they pulled free the rest of the mummified corpse, clods of earth crumbling away. The hollow sockets turned towards Gordrog, silently demanding his reasons for reaching across the veil.
"In life, you undertook a great task, old man, but you overreached your grasp, and death took you before you could finish. I, foolishly, have followed in your trail and run it to its end, but I will not be stymied. By the black arts I have summoned you to the lands of the living to complete your work. Do you accept the terms of your binding?"
The dead man faced Gordrog for a moment, then his shruken jaw ground against his skull and rasped out a single parched word. "Advance."
Gordrog stepped forward, but the corpse shook its head. "No, I want an advance."
"Huh?" The necromancer was at a loss for words.
"An advance. Hundred thousand. If you're bringing me back from the dead for this, demand has gotta be outrageous. Sales are gonna be through the roof."
Gordrog could get the gold, though he was loathe to spend it. Still, it would pay itself back many times over. "Very well, but I get to be your publisher."
"For the lands of the living. I keep rights of first publication in the realms beyond."
"Done." As he clasped the dead man's hand, a smile spread over Gordrog's face. At long last, he would know how his favorite tale ended…
"This," said the sommelier, "is a bottle of Empire Wine." He held the thick crystal bottle up to the light, turning it slowly, and the glowing liquid within coursed like yellow fire and molten gold. "Only seven were ever made, and three have already been drunk."
"And after tonight, there will only be three more to drink," said the first rival.
"You know the destiny that lies within, yes?" asked the older man of the two younger men. "Of all who share a bottle, the Fates will conspire such that all but one soon find death, and the survivor inherits all the others ever had or would have had."
"That is why we sought you, at no small expense," said the second rival.
"Pour, and let us be done with this," scowled back the first, and the sommelier did. The two glasses stood shimmering, patterns blazing through them, somehow dancing from one glass to the other. Even in two vessels, it was one wine. In angry silence, they each raised a glass and drained it in one long pour, leaving the cups faintly glistening with the fading magic of the wine.
"What did it taste like?" asked the sommelier.
"Bitter and rancid, overpowering and unforgettable," replied the first rival.
"Perhaps that is the burden of power, and the realization that not everything you want will bring you happiness," commented the older man.
"Perhaps, or perhaps it is your own death rushing to meet you," countered the other rival.
"And how did yours taste?" the old man inquired.
"Sweet and suffocating, yet fading away into nothingness."
"Perhaps that is the release of death," opined the first wine-taster.
"Perhaps, or perhaps it is everything I have sought and he has denied me."
"We shall see. Time shall take its course," smirked the first rival.
"Yes, it shall," growled the second.
And with that, they each left by a different door. After they were gone, the old man sniffed the bottle carefully, then tilted it so the last forgotten drop landed on his tongue, and it tasted exactly like it smelled—Victory.
The beaver is North America's deadliest predator. It can fire its explosive front teeth up to thirty meters with unerring precision, and each one packs enough force to down a grizzly bear. Grizzlies are their primary diet, and a beaver can devour a bear carcass in under fifteen minutes. It is hypothesized that this voraciousness evolved to keep other beavers from stealing the kill. A typical beaver eats an entire grizzly every two to three days, due to the need to fuel their hyperactive metabolism.
During winter, beavers hibernate in most areas, getting up about once a month to sleepwalk to a nearby cave and eat the grizzly bear contained within. (Waking a somnambulating beaver is certain death.) The cave often collapses afterwards, due to the seismic destabilization caused by beaver tooth explosions. In areas where global warming has disrupted natural winter patterns and it is no longer cold enough to support hibernation, angry beavers roam the countryside in winter, detonating random targets out of rodential rage. Taxis are particularly popular targets, as their checkered coloration offends the beavers' sense of sight.
In summer, beavers take to the skies, cruising aloft on high-altitude winds by means of their broad, sail-like tails. They scan the terrain beneath them for clumps of trees, which they topple with their teeth, sending dozens of trunks at a time cascading into nearby streams and rivers to dam them out of spite. Early North American loggers used to follow airborne beavers and opportunistically collect the fallen trees they left in their wake. This was a highly dangerous occupation, as the beavers occasionally turned on their followers, raining down fiery death upon them.
The Mount St. Helens explosion was initially believed to be a beaver attack, and news reports hours laters were still mistakenly claiming that it had been a rare simultaneous bombing by a beaver pack. Geologists discredited the theory on the basis that beavers are solitary creatures, mostly because they hate everyone, even other beavers. Mating is difficult for beavers, as they need to close their eyes and hold their noses in order to put up with their sexual partner. A typical litter consists of three to five young beavers, whom the mother promptly abandons to be raised by wolves. The wolves find this practice terrifying, but dare not offend the mother, or she will return to blow them up.
Early attempts to weaponize beavers during the French & Indian War failed miserably, as the damn things are so ornery, but the beavers were quite happy to attack the French on their own, as the latter represented the bulk of the trapper population, and beavers had come to loathe anyone who spoke French. Beaver trapping was a highly dangerous operation, in which the trapper needed to release two grizzly bears simultaneously to take on the beaver from different directions, then quickly attack while the beaver's two explosive teeth were still growing back. Accidentally grouping the two grizzlies close enough to be taken out by a single tooth led to explosive death for the trapper. As a result, beaver fur was outrageously expensive, and King George III's beaver-felt top hat cost the Crown the entire GDP of Ireland for a year and a half.
By the time of the US Civil War, the Union employed weaponized beavers against the Confederacy. This was achieved by having brave souls disparage Southerners within earshot of a beaver, claiming that they had heard them speaking in French. Ideally, the beaver would vaporize the Southerners before getting within hearing range and realizing it had been misled. Beavers proved critical in winning the war, but were later banned as armaments by international weapons treaties after the devastation they wreaked in Atlanta. As a result, the US developed a synthetic form of beaver musk for use as a munition, eventually settling on the formula called Castor-4, or C4 for short, which is substantially less powerful than actual beaver musk, due to the limitations of the treaties.
At over 25kg, beavers are the world's second-largest rodent, after the capybara.
Voltraut von Prusser clacked her fingers over the key caps of her laptop. Clack, clack, and it was done—another chapter of Blood Slaves of the Ice Witch lay complete. Sighing, she leaned back and cracked her fingers. From outside, she heard the distant bleating of Steven Brust's goat. Naturally, her mind wandered from her masterful prose to the fresh goat cheese he'd given her on Tuesday, and decided it was an excellent stopping point for lunch. Editing could wait.
The better part of an hour later, her stomach had been bought off for the afternoon with a prosciutto-and-goat-cheese-on-sourdough sandwich and a salad made from the baby spinach that had been in her farm subscription that week. Sated, she popped a pair of Logix® and washed them down with crisp, cool water from the pitcher in her refrigerator door.
Returning upstairs, she noticed the steps were dusty. They would need to be cleaned when there was nothing of higher priority needing doing; 5:15 this evening would be appropriate. Sitting down at her laptop, she typed her password. It was really rather poor of a password, she noted, but her morning's self would have a hard time remembering anything suitably complicated, and sometimes one had to compromise, unfortunate though it was.
Her eyes scanned over her words from earlier. So many typos! Didn't she care about conveying her thoughts precisely? Still, it was a reasonable division of labor, leaving such tedium to the one who felt it necessary. Correcting the mis-steps as she went along, she began to ponder the chapter as a whole. Only ego could delude one into thinking this was "a liberating escape into the fantasy of desire" as she'd put it in her last interview. Truly, this was somewhere between turgid prose and utter crap, but turgid prose sold, so she did her best to move it towards the former and away from the latter. That had to go, as did that. What did she mean here? This gap needed another scene bridging it, so she made a note to add one after dinner, once she was creative again.
Hours passed as Voltraut massaged the text into a more practical form, taking into account the needs and desires of its intended audience. As the clock crept past five, she remembered the dusty floorboards. Somewhere, the goat was bleating again. It was awfully…cute…for an ungulate. In any case, with thoughts like those, it was clearly time to stop editing.
One day, when the world was young, the Lord of Pain awoke, and decided that he wanted a flower. This is not the sense in which you or I want a flower. Rather, he wanted a flower to be under his domain, to be a thing of Pain, forever enmeshed in his word.
Now, there was no Lady of Flowers, for flowers were not of sufficient importance in the time before we walked the land. Pain did not know how to find the Lady of Trees, to ask of her such a favor, and he was unsure if flowers grew on trees anyway. He did know that flowers had sap in their stems, and sap is much like blood, and he was good friends with the Knight of Blood, so he paid him a visit.
He found Blood in a valley, wielding a sword that blotted out the sun every time he lifted it above his head, only to bring it crashing down upon the body of a great beast, hacking off chunks of flesh that ran red with the thing's blood. Pain asked Blood what he was doing, and Blood replied that he busy carving Hope into manageable pieces. Pausing from his labor, he wiped the blood from his brow (for he did not bother to sweat as mere a fluid as salted water), and asked Pain why he had come.
Pain told Blood of his desire, and Blood agreed to help, on one condition. The flower must be the color of Blood, that all would know who helped Pain get his wish, adding to Blood's already-great honor. This was a simple thing to agree to, for Pain was blind, and did not much care for colors. Once they had shaken hands on this, Blood told Pain to speak with the Mistress of Love, for Love had a great fondness for flowers.
Love was easy to find, for her smell ran off from her like a river that crashed along and hit one soundly in the face before capering off like a mad imp. She was, like she always was, naked, for it is the nature of Love to bare all. Being blind, Pain could only know this from the lack of sound her nonexistent garments made as she moved about. He told her of his desire for a flower, and she, too, agreed to help him with one stipulation. The flower must smell like her, so that all who hold it will think of Love. Her smell was pleasant enough to a Lord of the world like him, so he agreed to this too. Then, she told him that flowers were being held hostage by Winter, and that Pain would need to talk to him.
Winter was a curious being. He accepted no title, and would not call anyone by theirs. He was callous and rude, and always spoke the truth. For this, his counsel was much valued. Many a primal one went before Winter for the privilege of being insulted by him.
Pain came to Winter's hovel, and Winter called him a fool for coming to that cold place. It was true. Pain then asked him if he could have a flower, and Winter replied that he was withholding flowers on account of a dispute with that self-righteous idiot Summer, who styled himself a Marquis.
Disheartened, Pain still asked if he could have just one flower, that looked like Blood and smelled like Love and felt like Pain. Winter laughed, and said yes, on one condition—the flower must grow only in summer, for he hated Blood and Love and Pain and Summer alike, and the worst punishment he could think of was to lock all them together in a small room. And with that, he gave Pain the Rose, and it was his.
All scholars of the literary works of Crumbly Snickerdoodle agree that the Holy Grail of their research would be to find a copy of Chuck Ballooniac's Guts, his first children's book about an overweight boy who avenges himself upon his tormemtors. Sadly, all known copies were burned to ashes by the League for all that is Good and Decent. Imagine my surprise when, at a literal fire sale, I discovered two charred pages that bookend this extraordinary tale. With careful handling and digital restoration, I can now present them to you as they were originally published:
In the year 3497, the Most Sarcastic and Contempt-Filled Empire completely routed the forces of the Bug-Ugly Squidheaded Freaks at the battle of Whew, That Was An Ass-Kicking, conquering You Call That A Homeworld? and ending the brief period of hostilities. Military historians generally agree that the intelligence provided by the Booger and the Dust Bunny during their fly-bys of the system was instrumental to the positioning of the stealth battleships Russell's Teapot, Invisible Pink Unicorn, Flying Spaghetti Monster, and Yahweh during the battle. The brunt of the offensive was dealt by the Dirty Joke and the Suspiciously Phallic Object, while effective avenues of enemy retreat were blocked by the Coca-Cola Bottle, the Roach Motel, the Velvet Elvis Painting, and the Your Mom. The latter was particularly noteworthy for its interception and capture of the Squidhead ship bearing the fleeing heads of state. By the time the recently-constructed Planetfucker-class dreadnaught Whatever You Squidheads Find Most Terrifying and/or Offensive got within range of You Call That A Homeworld?, the fighting was already over.