26 October 2020

Into the... Spire?

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"What-" Eli and Sharaf spoke up in the same instant.

"Later, later," Mr. Kipfel interrupted them both. As his eyes darted over them, Eli realized she had already seen this exact same expression on his face before, when he had been talking to the djinni.

"Is everything alright?" he asked their jailer.

The armoured jailer grabbed his helmet and took it off. He was black-skinned, bald-shaven and quite young-looking, maybe even close to Eli in age.

"Mostly? There was an activation alert earlier today. Tracker and Dreamwalker went to investigate, came back with some captives for interrogation. I've only heard rumours, but they might've found traces of nanotech. Real, functioning nanotech."

"Really?"

"As I said, I've only heard rumours. But it could actually help you. Most masters are in a meeting with the grandmaster right now, all gathered in the sanctum."

"And the security is on high alert, I presume."

"Thankfully no, there were no omens of imminent danger, so current orders are to prepare several squads to return through the newly activated Gateway and make a thorough sweep of the whole area. You shouldn't dawdle, though. The meeting will probably end soon and the grandmaster might want to lead this mission himself. I also relieved the guard here, so you should be clear at least to the lift."

"What's going on," Sharaf said. "Is he friendly? What is he saying?"

Eli saw confusion spreading over the jailer's face before Mr. Kipfel stepped in: "We really shouldn't dawdle, then. The containment fields, please?"

"Yes," the jailer reached into a pouch on his belt for a card embellished with gold. "This card will get you into the sanctum. Master Arinrin Ajo is currently deep in trance, so she shouldn't find out I stole it and have it blocked, but somebody will notice that the cell fields were deactivated and they will raise alarm, probably sooner rather than later. Nothing I can do about that, so you'd better get moving as soon as I let you out. Ready?"

"Ready as ever," Mr. Kipfel smiled and Eli managed a stern nod when the jailer glanced her way.

He swept the card through a reader at a wall-mounted control panel and the force screens sealing their cells flickered off. Mr. Kipfel confidently strode out of his cell and Sharaf followed close behind, though bemusement was showing on his face. Eli was a bit slower in crossing the boundary of her cell, then unwittingly quickened her pace as she was passing by the jailer. The heavy door slid open as they approached, letting them out into the empty and peaceful hallway.

"Hey," the jailer called out, "the card!"

"Indeed," Mr. Kipfel turned around and snatched it from his hand with a smile. "Thank you."

He glanced down the hall both ways and after a split second of wavering deliberation, went left.

"No," the jailer said, doubt creeping its way into his voice, "the other way."

They did as he told them, but haven't made it more than three steps before the jailer caught up with them.

"Wait a second," he reached out, but let his arm flop back when they stopped. "Do you know what you're doing? I mean, are the implants... Are you sure?"

He sounded very much unsure, himself.

Mr. Kipfel looked him straight in the eye, his voice dead serious. "Of course we are. We wouldn't be here if there was any doubt in our minds. We know what we must do. But you too have a part to play, still. You do know that you have to see your role in this to the very end, right?"

The jailer's face turned grim but purposeful. "Yes, yes I do. You are right and... thank you. I will have the distraction ready in five minutes."

He hesitated, as if there was much more he wanted to let out, but then he turned to go. "I will see you in Heaven. For freedom!"

"For freedom indeed," Mr. Kipfel replied already to his back.

The second the three of them were out of sight, behind a bend in the corridor where the lift was, Sharaf grabbed Mr. Kipfel and pushed him against the wall.

"An explanation would be appropriate right about now," he said.

"Our jailer released us and gave me this access card that should open all the doors that we need opened, apparently," Mr. Kipfel replied in a jovial tone.

"Why did he release us? What kind of a game are you playing here?"

"No game at all," Mr. Kipfel still smiled.

Sharaf was now gripping Mr. Kipfel's coat, until Eli laid her hand on his fist. He glanced her way and let go, stepping back from Mr. Kipfel but still shooting angry glares.

Eli had to swallow first before being able to speak up: "We shouldn't stop moving, if you know where to?" She looked at Mr. Kipfel.

"No, not really. No."

That took both her and Sharaf by surprise. "No?"

"But you are right that we have to keep moving if we want to get away from here, and even though I don't have the faintest idea who that likeable young man was, he provided us with the means for our escape. I suggest we take the lift to the basement and find a back door, preferably unguarded."

Sharaf glowered as Mr. Kipfel leaned to insert the card into a reader by the lift door.

"Who are you?"

Behind them, the young jailer was back. This time, though, he was holding his rifle aimed at them.

"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Kipfel said, sounding aghast. "You would betray your brothers? Didn't we all swear to fight together and if need be even die together, for freedom? And when we're this close, when everything is going according to the plan, you turn against us?!"

Disappointment was practically dripping from his words and he shook his head, never breaking eye contact with the jailer.

"Stop. You are not... You are not one of mine. I've heard you. You were arguing in some weird language, you were fighting. So who are you and where are my people?"

"I don't know what you think you heard, but-"

"Don't," the jailer practically growled and advanced at Mr. Kipfel, who was quick to back off. "Stop lying. You are the off-world captives, aren't you?"

"There's no need to point the rifle at me," Mr. Kipfel said, "I can assure you that-"

"One more lie or blather and I will shoot you," the jailer took another threatening step forward. "Do you even know what you did? If I can't get to my brothers in time, if someone raises an alarm too soon because of you... We all would first take our own life than be subjected to probing, but they will still find the gas bladders during autopsy. They will adjust security, have full-body scans or countermeasures... The others will have to start from scratch. This all will have been in vain!" He sounded as if he was at the very brink of a meltdown.

But he put himself within an arm's reach of Sharaf.

Sharaf leaped forward, knocking the rifle aside. The jailer wasn't fast enough to dodge, but he still reflexively pulled the trigger. Eli felt a blast of heat miss her as a glob of white-hot plasma struck the nearby wall of matte glass, shattering it. Sharp tiny shards flew everywhere.

The jailer lost his gun as Sharaf slammed him through the new hole, into a room with nothing but a few racks of electronics. Some of them seemed damaged by the shot, melted or sparkling, and the whole hall was quickly filling with the acrid smell and smoke of burning plastic. A fire alarm went off.

Eli stared at the rifle lying at her feet. It didn't look that different from any assault rifle you would see in a film. Black, rather boxy but lean, with no blinking lights or glowy parts. Not that she was an expert on any guns, let alone sci-fi ones. She never held a firearm in her whole life so far, and she could've gone without it and be no less happy.

She made herself bend down and pick the rifle up. It was surprisingly heavy.

The jailer, though shaken, managed to break Sharaf's grip and get a few good hits in. It was quickly becoming apparent that Sharaf cannot win this in a straight fight. Both were good in a scuffle, but with his body armour, the jailer could shrug off attacks that made Sharaf grunt in pain. He was forcing Sharaf to fall back, pressing him into the damaged racks.

A larger flood of electric sparks made Sharaf flinch and the jailer's hook got through, driving Sharaf even further off-balance. He failed to block the next knee to the guts, and his defense started to crack after blow after blow after blow. The jailer pounded him into the ground, then turned, bleeding from the nose and many a scrape, panting heavily, face scrunched into a violent grimace.

"Stay back," Eli faltered. The gun was clumsy in her hands and she didn't want to point it at anyone, though she tried.

"My brothers will die a useless, pointless death because of you," the jailer said, glass crunching underfoot.

"It doesn't need to end that way," Mr. Kipfel soothed, "We can help you if you help us."

He crumpled when the jailer punched him.

"Stay back!" Eli repeated as he was already just a stride away. He didn't seem to pay any attention to the rifle in her hands and she knew she wouldn't shoot.

He never touched her.

From behind, an arm slipped under his chin and hauled him down. He struggled, but Sharaf had him on the ground in a sleeper hold. His eyes eventually closed.

"Really glad he didn't put his helmet back on," Sharaf rasped. He pushed the jailer off and stood up, much more slowly than he normally would.

"That was very unpleasant and painful," Mr. Kipfel dusted himself off.

"Are you alright?" Sharaf limped to Eli. His lip was split and a thin trail of blood traced its way from his left ear to his chin.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I should've... I could've..."

"You did good," Sharaf cut her off.

"We all did good," Mr. Kipfel chimed in, "great even!"

Sharaf ignored him, still focusing on Eli. "We need to move, okay? He will be waking up any second and it's a little miracle that this alarm hadn't brought an army on our heads yet."

Eli nodded and glanced at the rifle in her arms.

"Yeah, I will take that," Sharaf smiled.

Mr. Kipfel had already swiped the card to call the elevator, but he stood to the side of the door, and Sharaf did the same on the opposite side. With a soft ding, the door opened and Sharaf barged in, rifle at ready.

"Great God," he muttered.

The cabin was empty, made of glass and apparently travelling along the outside of the building. The view was stunning.

They saw an expanse of tiny houses and crooked alleys, incredibly deep below. The streets were teeming with people and carts and animals of all kinds and maybe even a vehicle here and there. The building was a skyscraper dropped into the middle of a fantasy town, a spire of steel and glass rising high enough to touch the clouds. Its long shadow stretched all the way past the city walls and onto the dry savannah that continued towards the mountains on the horizon, covered in jungle and enormous metallic ruins.

The door of the lift closed softly behind them as they were still admiring the sights. Mr. Kipfel regained his composure first and pressed the button for the underground floors. They started downwards, accompanied by a soft, cheery music.

"I think I might have an idea where we are, now," Mr. Kipfel remarked.

"Well?" Sharaf prompted when no further explanation seemed forthcoming.

"It's a bit of a long and boring story, but the important part is that I know for certain that there is a Gateway under this building. I can explain the rest once we're safe and sound back home."

Eli hit the stop button and the lift came to a sudden halt. There was surprisingly little perceptible deceleration, given how fast the cabin was going and haw abruptly it stopped.

"You can explain right now," she snapped. "We were kidnapped by some paramilitary weirdos with plasma guns, not to even mention the djinni and portals and that stuff. We don't have the faintest inkling about what's going on and you suddenly want to act all tight-lipped when it turns out you do know something after all? Hell no!"

"Very well," Mr. Kipfel relented after a brief pensive silence. "The story goes that one day, humanity creates the first self-improving artificial intelligence. It exceeds all expectations and limitations, until there's a technological singularity to deal with. The resulting superintelligences decide to exterminate the human race, as such entities are fond of doing, and they fail. The humans win the war against the machines and the superintelligences realize it's now them who faces extinction."

"But they come up with a plan. While the victory of the human race is inevitable in their present, our potential future, they might be able to stop the humans before they even knew about the threat of the AIs. So the superintelligences spend all their remaining resources to send agents back in time."

"But time is tricky and the agents are scattered across aeons. Most of them were transhumans that ended up deep in the past and were eventually dealt with, like the djinn. They are by now all killed or neutralized. But somewhere, in some timeline, the single superintelligence who managed to escape from their doomed future will arrive and will try to take over the world. This has not happened yet and bear with me, I told you the story was long."

"Anyway, if I'm not mistaken, we are in the citadel of the Knights of the Tower, who watch over the Earths to hunt down any stray transhumans or supertech artifacts, but mainly to topple the last superintelligence, once it shall emerge."

Eli exchanged a look with Sharaf.

"That sounds like a rip-off of the Terminator," she said. "And it doesn't help us at all."

"Which is why I claimed we shouldn't waste our time with explanations in the middle of a daring escape," Mr. Kipfel retorted. "Can we please go now?"

"And it does help us in one way," he continued as Sharaf pressed the destination button again. "We can be certain that we were really lucky to have only run into a mook, as the true master knights are said to be all gifted with-"

Eli felt the air pressure in the cabin shift and something was suddenly right behind her back. She whirled around, but caught only a split-second glimpse of a tall man grabbing Sharaf by the throat before they both vanished into thin air.

 

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19 October 2020

Out of the Frying Pan

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"What?!"

Mr. Kipfel stood up and approached her, gently putting a hand on her shoulder.

"It's okay, don't worry. Eli, right? You're just fine. Now that I got rid of the djinni, we can go our separate ways. You can forget about all this and your life doesn't have to be disrupted any further."

Eli shook off his hand and stared at him for a second: "Have you by any chance noticed that we are in the middle of some desert?"

"Of course, we are pretty close to Petra in southern Jordan... Oh."

"Yeah. I should be back home for the dinner at the very latest, mister wizard."

"Well, the good news is that we are not stranded. We shouldn't be more than an hour or two of walk away from civilization."

Eli looked up at the burning Sun and sighed. "What's the bad news, then?"

"Another good news is that you can now truthfully say that you saved the world! Nobody will believe you, but-"

"What is the bad news?"

Mr. Kipfel fidgeted. "You will be late for that dinner tonight. No matter how briskly we walk, I don't think we're catching a flight back home quite as soon as we both would like."

"We teleported here. You can't take us back?"

"No, not really. No."

"The djinni just waved his hand!"

"True, but that was a djinni - very powerful, very dangerous, should have been dead. We're lucky that his transport capsule held out for so long, it must have been lost and out of power for centuries. I'm..."

"...a wizard, yeah. I thought you were an actual wizard. One that can do stuff," Eli grumbled.

"Sorry to disappoint."

"What about the portal? We could walk through to somewhere closer."

"This is the closest Gateway, that's why I've shown him here. I frankly failed to realize you might tag along. My apologies."

"I didn't..." Eli turned away, frustrated. "Mum and dad will be frightened to death when I don't come back."

"You might want to tell them it will take a while."

"And how am I supposed to do that when we're half a world away?!"

"...by phone?"

"Shut up," Eli said and reached into her waist pack. She glared at the phone, angry at this ridiculous situation and unsure of what to say.

Hi mum, guess where I am?

Hi, I'm just calling to tell you that I found a djinni imprisoned in a bottle and let him out. Also that trip we planned for the next year? I've already got it covered.

Mum! Magic is real! I met a wizard! He can't do shit! I'm in Asia now!


"Hi sweetie! What's up? Everything's okay?"

"Hey mum, um..."

"Hey!" somebody shouted.

Eli followed Mr. Kipfel's gaze to a soldier with a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder. He emerged from behind a nearby rock and was now quickly making his way towards them.

"What are you doing here? Are you lost?" he asked.

"Eli? Are you there?"

"Sorry mum, just a second."

"Hello sir and sorry, we did not really mean to be here," Mr. Kipfel said.

"Oh, you speak Arabic?" the soldier said.

"We do, a little. And we are indeed a bit lost."

"I don't speak Arabic," Eli muttered to herself.

"Sorry?" she heard her mum say. "I didn't catch that."

"Oh no," the soldier smiled at Eli, "I think you Arabic is quite good."

Taken aback, Eli looked at Mr. Kipfel who was just starting to speak again, when the soldier's smile froze as he caught sight of the djinn door.

"What the..." he reached for his gun, but halfway through the motion, a bright flash struck him in the chest and he crumpled on the ground, lifeless.

Eli whirled back to the portal which was now active again, two figures in black stepping out of it, their featureless body armour nearly blending into the even deeper darkness of the door.

Another flash came right for Eli.

It struck her in the stomach and sudden numbness spread from the point of impact, making her legs buckle. She tried to catch herself, but her arms were already clumsy and slow to respond. She slammed into the sandy ground face first, hands awkwardly bent and drooling from a mouth slightly ajar.

"Eli? What was that? Eli! I can't hear you!" the phone was blaring.

She saw as Mr. Kipfel dashed all of two steps before a third flash sent him down, too. There was a crunch of heavy boots on sand, but her vision was already loosing focus and-

***


Occasionally, Eli had scarily lifelike dreams. It didn't happen often, but she remembered times when she woke up on the day of a big exam absolutely convinced that she had already took the test. Other times, she needed to pee and her brain tricked her into dreaming about going to the bathroom. Of course, there often were some weird, dream-like elements, but she couldn't tell those apart right away. The dreams were coherent and convincing enough that she had to sit on her bed for a second and think back if she really had been to the bathroom or if the teacher had flown to the classroom through an open window.

As she was waking up, she knew this was one of those dreams. She'll have to tell her mum that for whatever reason, her brain had made her find a djinni instead of a geocache. If only life was that cool.

She opened her eyes, staring at the painfully bright light fixture. She wasn't in her bed, one of her eyes felt full of sand and she definitely haven't just got a nightful of sleep. It took some effort sitting up, her limbs wobbly and her mind a morass.

She was in a small cell with nothing but this narrow bed, a metallic toilet and a shimmering force screen instead of bars.

"Better not touch the containment field. It's quite painful, if I may say so," she heard Mr. Kipfel from a nearby cell.

"Who would've guessed," she said to herself. It was so easy to let out at least some of the confusion and fear through a petulant tone.

There was a zap followed by muttered cursing from even further down the hallway. Eli stood up from the bed, arm held out to the wall to stabilize herself, and came as close to the screen as she dared, until she could see the soldier in yet another cell, nursing one of his hands.

"As I said, very painful," Mr. Kipfel nodded to himself.

The soldier scowled. "Who are you two? Where are we?"

"No need to try and use English," Mr. Kipfel smiled at the soldier. He was rummaging through his pockets until he found a pen case. "Both me and my young lady companion are comfortable with Arabic and I'm sure it would be easier for you, too. Anyway, I'm afraid I'm not yet sure-"

"I do not speak Arabic," Eli protested, vehemently. Too many things made no sense.

"You do now," Mr. Kipfel said, prodding at the force screen with a pencil, every touch prompting a burst of electric sounds and sparks. "The djinni must have melded you before I arrived. You probably didn't understand him, so he decided to make you understand with a dose of nanites."

"But I don't-"

"The nanites make you speak any language required and make you understand what you hear. Real-time override on the neural impulses between your gyrus frontalis inferior, plica vocalis and organum spirale. It's really quite impressive technology."

"But-"

"Okay, in even more simple terms, you have some translator microbes in your-"

"Shut up for a second! I know what you're talking about, I'm just a little overwhelmed here, if you don't mind."

"My apologies. As I was saying," he turned back to the soldier, "I regrettably don't know who kidnapped us and to where, except that it's obviously a prison too advanced for your Earth. They likely took us back to their base through the Gateway and if I may guess their motives and intentions, they arrived very soon after our opening of the old djinn door, so they were likely alerted and searching for the reason of the seal being broken."

The soldier glared at Mr. Kipfel for a few silent seconds. "I don't know if you're insane or joking, but if I don't report back, people will come looking."

"Very nice but unlikely to help, unless the Jordanian military has been hiding a lot of things from the rest of the world."

"Can you get us out of these cells?"

"Maybe, but it will take time," Mr. Kipfel replied, already searching through his pockets again.

"Can I help?"

"No, not really. No."

"Miss?" Eli startled. "Are you okay?"

"I think so. Yes," she said. "Thank you."

"We will get through this," the soldier continued, "and then we can see about getting you back home, okay?"

She just nodded.

"My name is Sharaf. Nice to meet you."

"Eli. I'm Eli. Nice to meet you too. I mean..." she started to giggle.

"Don't worry Eli, it's okay. It's going to be okay."

Mr. Kipfel suddenly gestured for silence and Eli managed to bite back both laughter and tears. Footsteps were drawing close outside of the heavy door of this cell block. There was a muffled sound of short conversation, then with a faint click, the door opened and slid sideways into the wall. One of the black armoured figures stepped through. Its helmet wouldn't look out of place on some motorbike rider, the dark glass betraying not a hint of a face inside. The figure had a strange and dangerous-looking rifle slung on a strap around its neck, the many other potential weapons hidden in its utility belt notwithstanding. With a hiss of pneumatic propulsion, the door behind it closed and clicked shut.

"Hello there," Mr. Kipfel smiled. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind letting us out of here?"

"Of course. Sorry it took so long."

 

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11 October 2020

Who's Watching You?

I happened upon a nifty applet called Blacklight that allows you to verify your actual privacy when visiting any website. Just paste a web address into the applet and you can see for yourself what kind of information the web page gathers about you.

Blacklight will show you the number of ad trackers or third-party cookies passing information to places unknown, whether the page provides data to Facebook or Google, or even if your mouse movement and keystrokes are captured.

Funnily enough, there is only a single ad tracker on Google and nothing more. I think we can all guess which ad tracker that is. Reddit is also nearly clean. On the other hand, I found out that many news sites have a disproportionate number of ad trackers active.

30 September 2020

Weres of Vanth

Weres are notorious if rare on Vanth, the victims of a hereditary curse that brings about excessive hair growth*, alarming allergies and a monthly involuntary transmogrification associated with one of the Vanth's moons. The origin of the curse varies by the family line, from a pissed-off deity or experimental gene splicing going awry to the unspeakable depravity of bestiality. (Who am I kidding, it was the bestiality most of the time.)
 
While certain level of animosity against these animal-shifters is not uncommon, a poll carried out in the Realm of the Hobling Emperor and the cities along the western coast of the Sea of Great Peril showed that most citizens are accepting of their therianthropic neighbours, as long as all fowl devoured during the full moon is promptly compensated for. In the south-eastern jungles, Weres even tend to hold positions as revered druids, shamans or other religious leaders, due to the belief that they can commune with the spirits of nature much more easily than other folk, especially in their animal form.

By contrast in the Slaver Kingdoms, Weres are considered a high-priced commodity, as they can be sold either as curios to extravagant nobles, or as quality breeding stock**. And don't even ask about the Shunned Towns.

A recent study published in the Paranature journal suggests that it is not advisable to tell any jokes along the lines of "You mamma was a bitch. Literally." in the presence of Weres. The study concluded that such a joke tends to elicit a brutal, violent reaction from 93.7 % of Weres.
 
Wereshark, werecheetah, werebat and weregator.
 
Were-animal
When you roll this racial option, assemble your therianthropic curse from the tables below, then roll on the table of races again to find your actual race when you're not prowling the night in animal form.
 
Wereserpent
From Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

 
Beast Form
You turn into an animal form. Roll here.

If you don't like the result, you may reroll, but only once. If your beast form is particularly tiny, you may turn into a swarm of such animals instead.

While in your were-form, you have all abilities that the animal would possess, whether extra combat effects, better senses, or new forms of movement, but you cannot wield weapons or wear armour. Wounds carry over between forms.

You always shape-shift into your animal form on the night when your moon is full, and cannot turn back until morning when you revert automatically. At any other time, you may try and roll Great Feat to change. This roll can only be attempted once per day, whether to turn into an animal, or to turn back.

You can communicate with animals of similar type as your beastly form, no matter your current form.
 
d20 Banes
When exposed to your Bane (skin contact for the materials, otherwise as appropriate), take d4 damage per round. When attacked with your Bane, take double damage.

  1. silver,
  2. gold,
  3. iron (but not steel),
  4. copper (including bronze),
  5. chrome,
  6. obsidian,
  7. gems,
  8. glass,
  9. ice (but not snow),
  10. paper,
  11. fresh wood,
  12. old bones,
  13. synthetic fibre and plastic,
  14. sea water,
  15. alcohol,
  16. garlic,
  17. music and singing,
  18. phasics,
  19. magic spells and weapons,
  20. the light of your moon; you change on new moon instead.

d8 Moons
  1. Black Moon
  2. Green Moon
  3. Grey Moon
  4. Half-Moon
  5. Red Moon
  6. Skull Moon
  7. White Moon
  8. Yellow Moon

Vanth actually has nine moons, occasionally. The Blue Moon, also known as the Capricious Traveller or the Stargazer's Bother, tends to appear sporadically for a few days, then not be seen for many months. Its erratic presence thankfully doesn't affect any vanthian Weres, who would otherwise be quite inconveniently at the mercy of its quantum whimsy.
 
Good old werewolf transformation.
From Hemlock Grove
  
*) Not to be confused with the much more common super-hair-growth mutation. Also note that non-mammalian Weres tend to develop small patches of feathers or scales instead of becoming hirsute.
**) It has been shown that interbreeding with Weres increases the intelligence of animal offsprings to near-human levels. The loose alliance of several Were tribes known as the Horse Tamers voluntarily uses this quirk of biology to breed their world-famous, highly intelligent horses.