(reading time: 1 hour, 10 minutes)
Request in the Public Interest
For all the talk of Pluto of having opinions, of it styling its population’s civilization, against their will, after the early half of the 20th century, probably because that was when its own planethood was most aggressively speculated and it was nostalgic, the truth is that it was much more of a natural reaction.
If opinion came into it all, it was likely influence from human possibilities. Everyone past the dawn of plastic pines for the good old days of wood, paper, metal, and glass. While they want the smell and look of those things, in the end they’ll happily give it all up for the conveniences of the 21st, computing prime among them.
In its demotion to theoretical planet, Pluto was caught in the middle of these desires, sometimes winding up a lot closer to one side than the other. When fabricating a reasonable scientific history, it could be argued that Pluto did the most bang-up job with computing. The electroglass cards owned and operated by almost every civilian were themselves little more than receivers, television screens capable of resonating to pick up and emit audio.
The actual number crunching happened in massive dedicated public facilities, the computer banks more than rivaling the size of the early machines in the 1to1 world. A request made from a card within an area covered by the public radio utility was transmitted to one of the banks, processed, and sent back out all in a matter of seconds, with all traffic treated equally under the fairest kind of constitution: one that no person actually wrote.
The Atrium City Information Inventory was the largest such facility serving the Heartlands, its services largely automated but for a few technicians and custodians who spent most of their time sleeping in their offices or skittering about them, pretending they were part of the radio serials as they listened.
Despite the emptiness it was far from silent, as the banks themselves generated a constant sound that most people found soothing, hence the soundness of the Custodians’ naps: Fithupthupthupthupthupth….
Thousands upon thousands of cards glided through the air, shot out of slots in one bank only to land perfectly in the slot of another. This flight was most easily achieved by traditional paper card stock, so the majority of these computing employees were made up of it. They held the same dimensions as an electroglass card, allowing the latter to be used, but the reduced physicality of the data they displayed could lead to errors.
Certainty was just as much a force as gravity or a 3 drink limit in probable space, and there were few things more certain than whether or not a punch card was punched. Over the course of one evening a freshly loaded and unpocked punch card could be fed into the request bank, given its first scar, and spat out in an arc over a catwalk, perilously close to the extremely high ceiling.
It could land in records, get its next wound, and be shot out again, spinning just an inch off the floor, across the main hall to the indiscriminately munching maw wheel of transmissions. After being passed back and forth for a while in this manner, helpfully informing the people of the city when the trains ran, when the symphonies were scheduled, what the weather forecast was, and all sorts of other things, it would be handed off to utilities.
At this point it would be more hole than card, eaten through by moths that preferred precise incremental bites, but there was still room for a little more service. Too holey and ragged to elegantly fly in the spawning salmon stream of its younger brethren, it was dumped into the lower levels, where it drifted like an autumn leaf into a pile that would be automatically shoveled into the industrial banks, where it calculated valve pressures, water salinity, light bulb cycles, and all the other muscle twitches of the bustling metropolis.
Near the dawn, or dusk or midday, seeing as the curiosity and forgetfulness of Plutonians never slept, the wispy husk, barely rectangular, would be shredded, pulped, warmed, and pressed into a familiar reincarnation, ready to ride the roller coaster of data processing all over again.
Now to see all these facts and queries whizzing through the air in overlapping streams and falls was delightful, and it drove away what would otherwise be the first question a layperson might ask: why did they have to fly at all?
The answer tap dances once again on the forgiving but unbreakable tarp that is probable space’s foundation. Just as every man, woman, child, spotted Dalmatian, translucent tree frog, and pine cone of probable space could never achieve ‘sure thing’ status, so cursed were its data points as well.
In the world of 1to1 data was binary, coming only in the flavors of one and zero. When you hit 2to1 a 3rd variable pops its head up and scratches at it. Pluto ran on trinary data, its holy trinity being one, zero, and you-know-I-can’t-quite-tell-if-that’s-a-one-or-a-zero.
This 3rd unit, poorly understood, needed some life experience in order to settle on its identity. After much experimentation, or none at all if you think all the catching up Pluto did was unfair or illegitimate, it became clear that flight, without all the pressures from within the machine, helped end the indecisiveness and move things along.
So when Vermont Red, newly ascended to the right hand of the prince of Pluto, and his lesser associate Brody ‘Body’ Shotz walked in that evening, well past the please do not cross this line line, they saw information figuring itself out by the tons in beautiful arcs back and forth like fountain streams outside a casino.
He’d been there a few times before, and so knew to head straight for the bank that handled census and employment data. Pluto considered some personal pearls of wisdom private, but it was easy enough to pop open a clam with a pliant shell of rubber. No government meant no security. Nothing more than an unlocked door and the polite line painted on the ground to keep them out.
“It’s not bad luck to walk under these things, is it?” Body asked, nervously watching the punch cards that made up the roof of the tunnel they walked through. He had his deck at the ready, even though his measly 52 couldn’t do much against such a swarm if they actually decided to attack.
“Nothing’s bad luck yet,” Vermont answered. The whole place smelled like a playbill held in a hot sweaty hand until the ink ran, and the slight breeze from the cards was taking off his cologne rapidly. The sooner they had the names the sooner he could get back to his girl. She was only using him for access to the brazen head, she needed life advice like a snake needed a tail, but damn if she didn’t use him well.
Body, on the other hand, his bones already feeling like they pushed 6to1, wanted to get back to the reassuring lights and music of Saturnalia. This stuff wasn’t going anywhere, but the party definitely was, and it wouldn’t wait up for him. The women would figure out he was even less than a face in the crowd when Antichthon got there. No more sipping rum out of his navel. No more sweltering possibilities as their hands disappeared under his clothes.
He was a muscular man, balded by Pluto from day one, with a meaty head like a ham in need of aging. When faced with the mirror he knew he was one of those faces that would disappear outside of big happenings. A bouncer. A butcher who never left the backroom. Something like that. It wouldn’t matter at all that he was so slick with his cards, which was why he felt the need to prove himself to the prince. Get ahead while the party raged, throw people out out of passion rather than for pay.
“Do you think we already got any of them?” Body asked, able to breathe a bit easier once they exited the tunnel. There were still cards in the air, some spinning and curving like boomerangs, but they were sparse and more than 10 feet over their heads. “I haven’t met anybody yet who’s better at Over the Moon than me.” He flicked out one card, he kept all of them displaying a color like gold foil, and watched it spin diagonally over his shoulder, across his back, and then around again.
Even as he walked it would keep orbiting him thanks to the program his deck was running. One of the few calculations they could make was where to store electrical charge on the card, and with the right tweaks they would interact with other fields they sensed, like those generated by the human Body. It took a precise throw to give them something to work with though, and Body’s personal best was over 100 revolutions before it destabilized and fell.
“Not likely,” Vermont said, not caring that the man was fishing for compliments. “We’re not just looking for the best of the best. We’re looking for the transcendent my friend. Warriors who can turn a bad hand into a winning one. Sharks smooth as velvet. My money’s on them all having big personalities, no offense.”
They rounded a corner and saw what Body interpreted as a dead end. 2 tent-shaped computer banks, 25 feet high, stood on either side, passing information back and forth with such density that they could only see the other side as if looking through the wicker of a basket.
Vermont hadn’t gone the wrong way, but they were at the wrong height. He dropped down to his knees and then to his belly, crawling with his elbows and knees across the never-swept floor of gray and cinnamon tile. Those 2 banks almost never rested, and the custodian couldn’t be bothered to get down there himself, allowing Mr. Red to follow the lizard trail he’d left in the dust the last time he was there.
Body opened his vest at the perfect angle, orbiting 6 of wheels depositing itself back in the deck. Then he followed his fellow Eudaemon to the floor. If it wasn’t bad luck to walk under them it had to be bad luck to crawl. He held his tongue until they were halfway through, when he noticed a patch of silence above them.
Vermont twisted onto his back and looked up. He saw the ceiling instead of the air traffic. Curious, he stood up, Body following suit. The bank slots on both sides had ceased firing and catching completely, making a clear strip of about 12 feet for them to stand in.
“They’re not supposed to do that,” Red said, unbuttoning his vest. Out came 2 full decks in red and black trim. Specializing in Big Fan style cardistry, he took up a stance, both decks fanning out into complete circles in his hands. That took enough grip strength to choke an anchor, but he had a feeling all hands were needed on deck.
“What do you mean?” Body asked.
“I mean somebody else is here.” There was no need to elaborate, for that somebody else announced their presence with loud footfalls. The individual was at the end of the banks where the air was clear, pacing back and forth. Under the cards they could see tan pants and polished black men’s shoes, and even the tops of the socks, stitched with a black pattern of ones, zeroes, and zeroes with strikes through them.
Above that the details were obscured, but he was probably wearing a suit that matched the pants. The data density should have hidden all parts above the knee equally, yet his head was even more out of focus. Nothing but punch card staring back. His hands were at his sides. Search as he did, Vermont couldn’t see the bulge of a deck in his pocket or anywhere else.
“You gentleman are trespassing,” the mystery man said plainly.
“Who are you?” Vermont asked.
“A longtime and dedicated employee safeguarding the computers of the Plutonian people.”
“You got something that fits on a name tag?”
“Since you’re the intruders I see no reason to give it to you. Consider it private information, like every tidbit flooding around you.”
“You said longtime. This place didn’t have any guards 2 weeks ago.”
“2 weeks in a world that’s less than 6 months old is an age.”
“Nobody could’ve hired you except Pluto, and I don’t think it did,” Vermont accused.
“Your thoughts don’t compute, and so are of no concern to me. You still have to turn around and leave.”
“We have a request in the public interest. We’re just going to get our answers and then leave. We’re not tampering with anything.”
“Oh, had your fill of sabotage last time?” the guard asked sarcastically. “All public information is available at your local library. There’s a lovely little one called Aleatory Books by the waterworks drain.”
“Sabotage? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Body picked up on the undercurrent of their exchange. They both knew Vermont was guilty. This was a fight. They were in the ring, but hadn’t decided who was going to strike the bell yet. Mr. Shotz was no coward, but without any pretty girls to cheer him on he was less bravado and more preparation, flicking cards around his back and catching them on the return to warm up.
“No?” The supposed employee took a step forward. It should’ve ruined the information he was trying to protect, punch cards piling up on the floor after smacking into him, but the flow was undisturbed. A perfect gap in the frenzied flights around him. Molded to his shape. “Don’t you work for the prince himself?”
“Yes we do, so we can’t possibly sabotage anything. He’s the head of state by royal bloodline. We’re here lawfully on his order.”
“Tell me, how many generations back does Pluto’s royal bloodline go?” Vermont was silent, if you didn’t include the gritting of his teeth. “There’s no king for him to be the son of. No queen who birthed him. No siblings or cousins to bicker with him over the throne, and no actual throne now that I think about it.”
“He’s getting one special made as we speak.”
“As artificial as his title.” 2 more steps forward. He was so close they could count the square buttons on his suit now. His arms were hairless, golden and smooth, as if every last one was cut by the flight of the punch cards as he waded through them and they even put a nice buff on his skin. “That was the sabotage. With nobody to guard these facilities, any sinister force was free to enter and alter the public records as they saw fit, like changing an out-of-the-gutter mister into a prince.”
“What good would that do?” Body asked with a snort. This fellow had to be fresh out of marbles. Body had met Roman several times, and he was the sharpest tool in the shed. Whatever method he’d used to cut his way out of that shed and land on Pluto’s throne was surely too clever for him to even understand.
“I don’t imagine anyone would take it too seriously,” the stranger said, taking another step. 2 more and he’d be in the eye of the data storm with them. “Unless of course this prince also had an object renowned for having all the answers. A thing that was never wrong no matter what you asked it. If you ask it who the prince of Pluto was, after scribbling the title into the public records of course, it would be forced to answer with the name of your choice.”
“No…” Body grumbled. “That’s ridiculous, right?” Vermont didn’t turn to look at him. “Right?”
“Listen, it doesn’t matter how he became the prince,” Red explained. “What matters is that he’s the first person to become something other than what Pluto made him.”
“Oh I don’t know about that,” the employee said, coming through the last of the cards. Body shuddered, all his orbiting cards colliding with his arms and falling to the floor. He nearly slipped on one stepping back, and only stopped because he heard the wall of fithupthupthupthupthup behind him.
The man’s face above his nose was gone, replaced by the same industrial materials making up the shells of the computer banks. There was a slot on each of his temples, feeding a bent punch card in and out, making up a visor. Dotted punctures, vaguely in the shape of calm eyes, centered over where his pupils should’ve been every few moments before feeding back into the slot and vanishing into the compartment that should’ve housed a brain.
“He’s crazy8!” Body spluttered. His fingers practically knotted as he struggled with his cards, trying to find a combination of their probabilities that would allow him to strike someone 3 whole units of likelihood away.
“That’s not how it works,” Vermont reminded, holding his ground. “Since he’s got that thing in his face he was crazy8. The second you put your mask on you crash back to 5. He sure picked an ugly one though, that’s for sure.”
“Never carried a proper emergency mask,” the employee admitted. “I was so lost, odds so long, that I didn’t even know what building I’d wandered into. All these requests,” he ran his hand through the stream of punch cards, “felt like conversation to me. I thought I was at a party, that the guests would help me find myself.
One of them struck my face at the right angle, and had holes in the right spots, and then suddenly we were one, and the old 2 were both gone. I don’t know if I should miss them. Whoever made this request,” he tugged on the curve papering over his expression, “probably never got their answer… but I got mine.
Punch Hawaiian’s the name. That’s the gossip I overheard at this shindig. I also learned it needed a bouncer.” Between 2 airborne queries, nearly invisible thanks to its display of the exact color of the paper surrounding it, an electroglass card emerged. Punch snatched it out of the air and whipped it, spinning like a saw blade, at Vermont.
His fans were at the ready, so a snap of Red’s wrist generated enough of a gust to destabilize the flung 7 of lights and send it slicing through the cloud of paper data. Cut corners tumbled to the floor.
Pluto, what’s the chemical symbol of arsenic?
Your answer is unavailable at this time. Please hold.
Punch snapped his fingers, ending the peaceful pocket. A wall of punch cards shot out and broke over the 2 intruders. They weren’t even stiff as coasters, but the endless stream was still plenty distracting. Body couldn’t use any orbiting tricks with the air around him so occupied, so he instead fanned his cards out like Red’s and crossed his arms defensively.
Their opponent glided through the maelstrom with ease, disappearing whenever he felt like it. His feet slid gracefully, so they couldn’t even follow the sound of his steps. Vermont realized this couldn’t have been so well planned in advance. Whoever this man was, his mind was connected to the computer, undoubtedly an effect of absorbing one of its parts into his identity to save himself from the oblivion beyond 10to1.
He didn’t even need to throw his cards, the many slots on his partnered computers willing to do it for him. Hawaiian’s deck was evenly distributed through the inner workings, something that became clear when a jack of drinks struck Body in the shoulder even though its owner was smirking in front of him. The card left a gash, blood oozing out when he flexed his arm to block the flow of punch cards with one of his fans.
Pluto, what percentage of divorced couples remarry? (pre-swing vs. post-swing please)
The computers in your area are experiencing technical difficulties. Please hold or contact an operator.
The senior Eudaemon considered trying to talk their way out. All they wanted this time was names anyway; they really weren’t going to alter anything. He scrapped that strategy because he could barely hear anything over the fithupthupthupthup now, let alone hold a swaying conversation.
Punch tossed another card he didn’t have a second prior. Its trajectory was so in tune with the data flights that it skimmed across the paper cards, closer than 2 simillions making love in a wallet. It got even closer with Red when its corner stuck in his knuckle. He plucked it out, which was unwise, as it delivered a mild electric shock that made his hand cramp and drop a full fan.
Touching a foe’s cards with your bare hands was an amateur move, but he could hardly think with the thoughts of others crashing into his cheeks and piling up around his ankles. He fanned the onslaught away, just to get one moment to breathe, but the worst damage he did was directing some of the cards into the wrong slots.
Pluto, what fish do I pair with a dry white?
Pluto, what are Wednesday’s show times for the new Hedy Broo picture?
3:40, 6:00, 7:777777777777, and the year 3452
Pluto, pencil prices.
3 magic beans
Body and Red stumbled out of the flurry the way they’d come, covered in scratches, patches of hair sliced from the latter’s head. The insistent public servant that had bested them just stood among Pluto’s thoughts like a stalk of kelp in the current.
“Don’t come back,” he warned the Eudaemons. Vermont counted his blessings, but tallied up a few other things too. They could’ve easily been killed. There were 1,000 spaces behind the paneling in a place like that where you could stash a few bodies and let the hot dry air of the racing computers mummify them.
“Let’s go,” he growled at Body, turning his back on the banks and stashing his drained deck away. Mr. Shotz didn’t have to be told twice, or even once for that matter, and only followed for a moment before taking the lead, large body looking like a waddling penguin as he tried to rush out with some dignity.
Body didn’t need his namesake bag because Punch understood some things. 2 dead underlings was bound to make the prince a lot angrier than 2 bruised ones. He was an employee alright, but not of Pluto, of someone playing the same game as the fresh royalty. Someone spiking the drinks at Saturnalia.
“How are we supposed to find the best cardists now?” Body asked.
“Ask every last schmuck walking these streets,” Vermont hissed.
When the Eudaemons were gone, and when he remembered he was mostly a person and not a fixture on a municipal wall, Punch stepped out from between the banks. A slot on one of them returned his complete deck to him. No sooner had he taken it than it vibrated. A call. He flicked one of the middle cards up, just a little, so the tiny strip of electroglass showed nothing but a pair of eyes, as strange and artificial as his own.
“√Mezuadoo** besdingterik ez$bada zu&ten lortubee,” Punch told the eyes. You people, you fine real people, thankfully have no idea what he said, because he was speaking √Permillion: the hardluck language. It doesn’t have a history, so it’s less of a tongue and more of a tongue-tied hitch that stuck out too long.
It never sounds quite right, or quite like a person should be able to make a few of those sounds. Its nature is a mystery, with some saying it resembles the code the universe is built on, the notches in the music box of all our lives. What is known is that you can only understand and reproduce it if you’ve personally been 8to1 or worse, though you retain the knowledge if you return to healthier odds.
As it so happens I’ve ridden the long odd runaway train that had to jettison its full cargo of marbles. Its tracks look like a bird’s nest I assure you, but I can translate regardless. Punch told his at-hand handler: ‘They got nothing but the message.’ I’ll slide some sense into the exchange, free of charge.
“√L*angilee koa@zee zinela% usteyo alska@ zuteedoo?” the eyes asked. Did they believe you were a public employee?
“√Ez$ dakidoo.” I don’t know.
“√Jabada@rrai erne%. Buruadoop skaeta ordenading a$iluakzee badituyoztedo inoiz*bee ezwo gogara errotukoyo. E#zin% dugudoo lekoobee horibop galdudeedoo.” Keep watch. If they have both the head and the computers we’ll never take root. We can’t afford to lose that place.
“√Buruaroo daudendoo dat&udib guz$tiakgo diraba, baibana lasdeetoo batetbopeik sartzeadoo lortudee be%har deeda. Bopedeedoo Zeebeedek aban$tailee dudub.” The head is all the data there is, but it’s got to fit through a straw. Survivor Function has the advantage.
“√Ikusi@boop hodeerrela# jarrai*tzen duelalee.” See that it stays that way.
Punch pressed with his thumb, submerging the eyes back into the deck. The game was on, and as far as he was concerned, no one ever beat the computer.
The bars and clubs stayed open as long as they could, buoyed by the automation of their custodial work, but Saturnalia proved too encompassing for their rigidity. The drunk, in wobbling all over the place, managed to toss food and belongings into corners the machines couldn’t reach. Olives smoking and going from green to black in light fixtures. Lipstick smeared across curtains as kisses missed someone wrapped up in them.
When these establishments closed in order to locate and clean these amazing messes, the parties that made them, splitting like protists, had to find somewhere else to go. The park was already more confetti than grass. They’d heard tell of some 30th floor affairs that simply moved up every time they defiled one, but joining them now meant climbing through their trail of destruction, and who knew what might happen once they hit the roof.
One group kept their ambitions firmly on the ground floor, though the building they invaded technically had 2. Even if they’d wanted to ascend the stairs there was an ornery ladder whizzing back and forth on its track, threatening to crush any fingers that got too close to the shelves.
“Excuse me! There’s to be no food or beverages in here,” Minty snapped, snatching a green wine bottle from a woman who had just fallen through a shelf she was too unlikely to lean on. The woman just giggled and reached for it. It was clear she didn’t care about anything but where the next sip came from, given that there were streamers in her hair that had been draped over her forehead so long that she pushed them aside as if they were her bangs.
Turning away wouldn’t have done any good; Minty was sure the drunk would just lunge, put her arms through her chest, which was considered extremely rude, and snatch the bottle anyway. Instead the librarian took a few steps away before examining it.
She wouldn’t have been able to touch it herself if not for the composite textured handle around the neck. While the glass and its contents were 7to1 the inner layer of the handle was 6 and the outer layer 5, probably just to facilitate transportation and sale. The label read: Sundered Land’s 7 Sud Surprise.
Her concern over the invasion of Saturnalia paused, as that name tickled her mind the same way the suds tickled several of their throats. Minty waded through them, sometimes literally when they gave her no choice, and found the shelf she was looking for. Out came a book about spirits, the liquid kind rather than the 10to1 variety.
On page 105 she saw it, right where she thought it had been, the name Sundered Land. It was a vineyard specializing in unlikely grapes. They were shuttered before the swing of things, so the half empty bottle she held was vintage.
“I knew it,” she muttered. “Do you even know what you have?” she asked as she whirled around, but the person she’d taken it from was lost in the celebratory mass. “I’ve been making educated guesses as to the agency of every author in here since we started. Who was really holding the pen versus who was taking Pluto’s dictation?
Some of these people died before ever getting started, so they’re little more than noms de plume! If they never made it to the here and now, their books are universal truths just gifted to us!
Now I had wondered if this vineyard was ever meant for our consumption, and I see now that its bottles are out there. I bet that means that the author that sampled them, a Mrs. Rutherford, is surely as real as you or I. I’ll mark this one down. Not to disrespect her, but I want to hear Pluto speak, and we can’t hear it if everyone’s talking over it.”
“Quiet everyone!” a man with a bottle of his own shouted. His necktie was tied around his forehead, with 2 joker cards tucked in it, their harlequin faces animated in laughter. “Pluto wants to give a toast!” In a remarkably disciplined commitment to the bit, the library was back to its usual silence for a moment. “Beautifully said!” The laughter burst out of them even as they tried to pour booze past it.
Embarrassed and frustrated, Minty nonetheless returned to her desk and made a note about the book. In the process she set the bottle down, but it sank down to its handle in the wood and tipped over. All 7 surprising suds disappeared, not into the carpet as a stain, but somewhere much deeper thanks to their unlikelihood.
The same fate would’ve befallen some of the invaders if most flooring and topsoil didn’t have a small percentage of low likelihood material in it to hold them up. Minty knew, from yet another printed whisper of Pluto, that there were a few deserts around Pluto with sand so pure and consistent that anyone 7to1 would drown in them immediately.
When she looked out at the merrymakers again she saw a few heads of hair sticking up, their locks flowing and moving as if their bodies were already sinking in the sea. That was an unmistakable sign of being 8to1.
Her frustration went sharp and icy in her throat. Low probability wasn’t exactly infectious, but crazy8 was always trouble. They were deep in the pool of mirth, fenced in by human energies, perhaps unaware how much the liveliness protected them from the negative effects of their condition. If they were shoved out, or if they dawdled, the confused souls might find themselves feeling thinner than broom straw, with every horizon looking dark.
That was when a sensible person would put on their emergency mask. Recovering from 8 was a difficult prospect as the mind was already sufficiently scattered in probable space to riddle its memory and will with holes.
Nobody could exactly quantify what made a person move up or down, but stability was the most concrete influence. Someone with adequate resources, with responsibilities that weren’t too grating, and with a supporting family rarely found themselves trending towards oblivion. Someone guzzling a long odd liquor on the other hand…
Objects kept their probability unless affected by external stimuli, so a mask was a heavy dose of identity a failing one could latch onto. Most masks were fixed at 5to1 on Pluto, so donning one from 8 brought you right to its level, at the cost of never taking it off again. Those wearing them didn’t mind of course, as they’d never known anything else.
Once it was on it was just one aspect of a new being. A mask crash was a form of death, even as it saved a heartbeat. Choosing the theme of the mask was crucial, as its characteristics would become character.
It was technically possible to make it back from crazy8 this way more than once, but a mask on a mask on a mask doesn’t leave much humanity visible. Someone wearing 2 would likely be an outcast. 3 would be a boogeyman. 4 the kind of monster living on Nemesis, plotting the downfall of civilization.
These guests of Saturnalia seemed terribly irresponsible to Minty, as she couldn’t spy a mask dangling from any of their belts or stitched to the front of their handbags. What did they think was going to happen? That Antichthon would show up and restore their odds with the instilling of a new order?
In adjusting her glasses Minty paused. Where was her mask? She reached into her pocket and felt the crystal teardrops Peachy had given her along with the cat who was currently seeing how far he could squeeze his head and neck into the 7 suds bottle. I never even got my own. I don’t need one though; I’m not like these people. There’s nothing more grounding than a good book. This might be the most surefire place on the planet.
“All of you listen!” Minty shouted, climbing up on her desk to stand over them. “I don’t know who told you Aleatory Books was a sympathetic roof, but unless you plan on checking out a book it is not. Shoo. Find somewhere else to pour yourselves out, the gutter perhaps.” A card whizzed by her ear and stuck in the wall behind her.
Shocked, she stumbled backward, fell off, and hit her head on the wall. She touched her ear, and her finger came back with a smear of blood. It was a small cut, but if tossed by a drunken hand they may have meant to hit her squarely in the face.
Violence had seemed like the furthest thing from their minds 5 seconds before. The beleaguered librarian could think of nothing else to do but snatch the card out of the wall and examine it while hiding under her desk. The party continued all around her, dancing feet shuffling by.
One corner of the card had a drop of her blood, so she wiped it away. Underneath was a glowing edge, indicating it ran a sharpening routine. It was a jack of drinks, but there was a message covering its default artwork. ‘Cat Steps could stop all the others.’ Cat Steps? The style I’m supposedly a master of, according to the brazen head. This isn’t bad luck crossed with an unlocked door. The Eudaemons sent them here.
Minty pulled out her card catalog, just to look prepared, and crawled out from under the desk. Slowly she circled the crowd, back to the wall, looking for the offender. With the crazy8 present she doubted they were all in on it. Their carefree shimmying and waving hair was naught but camouflage.
“What do you want?” Minty asked the blob of people. The only answer was another card, tossed expertly through a few elbows. She yelped and rolled along the wall as it stuck between the spines of 2 volumes about Pluto’s heirloom chandelier satellites. Minty plucked it out to see if there was another message, but it was a plain king of lights.
All this over what that silly head said. Oh by the moons, why haven’t I even tried tossing one? Even with her hands on her card catalog for a couple hours each day, she’d never done anything more complex than shuffling through them like flashcards. She couldn’t bluff her way out of this if she didn’t even know how to throw one more than 3 feet.
“I’m not joining your organization!” she shouted. 2 more cards flew in from opposite directions, sticking on either side of her head. Was there more than one in there? It was possible, but a skilled cardist could flick at a wide angle with each hand, so possibly not as well. “You’ve made a mistake. I’m no good to you. If I was I’d be diving in there to fight you, wouldn’t I?”
This is some kind of test, to see if I was lying. If I defend myself with any skill then they’ll keep on after me. Is it lucky that I actually am helpless? The best way to prove it to them was to prove it to herself.
Minty positioned her catalog the way she’d seen the professionals do it on television, at her hip, parallel to the floor, thumb flattened against the top. She flicked as hard as she could, the top card sailing all of 6 inches before it veered down and bounced off the floor. She scrambled to pick it back up, anxiety spiking as a dancing high heel got too close. She had organized the entries into categories by card, and might lose a whole day’s work if one of them wound up cracked or shattered.
“You see!? I can’t even get one of these damn things across the room! Now will you kindly leave and tell your boss I’m both incapable and disinterested!” The celebrants responded by huddling. They lifted one of their own off the floor and held her aloft. She giggled when they tossed and caught her.
Minty scrutinized her. Young, glowingly so, less of a person and more of a polished brass figure on a clawfoot tub. Likely 6to1 by how many hands could support her. Her giant eyes bulged, barely fenced in by thick eyelashes with even thicker mascara. Her white and gold dress had a transparent skirt. Her feet were bare but inexplicably clean.
“To the bakery!” the group chanted as they tossed her again, shuffling toward the door. Perhaps she was the star because she’d suggested the next place they weren’t likely to get kicked out of. She couldn’t be the one trying to pin Minty to her own shelves, surely. There wasn’t a spot on her where the dress didn’t hug, so there was nowhere to hide a deck.
Yet when the girl reached the door, the bell tinkling over her, she spun onto her belly and propped her head up on her hands, staring directly at the librarian. Smirking. She winked. With eyes like that a wink was more the snap of a bear trap. The door closed and they were gone.
Minty caught her breath and gathered up the cards the tester had left behind. All 4 of them had changed their displayed artwork. The king was looking dapper in red, and Minty was struck by his appearance. The art was stylized, but she recognized him all the same as the man she’d first seen hawking the powers of the head. What was his name? Monty Red? Something like that.
There was a queen of kisses, but she was gold and white, with eyelashes that were now unmistakable. Next to her the jack of drinks had gone green and donned glasses with lenses of the same color. Seeing herself on the card made her feel rent, like someone had dragged her across a chef’s mandolin and pasted the thin sheet of her onto the electroglass.
Last, and insisting it was far from the least, was a nonstandard ace. Thanks to flourishes in the artwork it stood above the king, though he was clearly a prince. Pluto, the size of a baseball, rolled back and forth across his shoulders.
Saying I wasn’t going to join them didn’t do any good. I’m the jack. He thinks I’m already working for him… and apparently I’m a face card.
An Excerpt from The Hand you’ve Dealt
Available at Aleatory Books
…which is why the firearms of 1to1 reality simply aren’t feasible in spaces of 2to1 or less. There’s just so much uncertainty once a bullet leaves the barrel, given that it’s too fast to see and the extent of each shot’s damage difficult to judge in the immediate aftermath.
We can make guns, sure, down to the last detail, but without the modifying power of observation they’re just paperweights. They’re terrible paperweights as well actually, because while we can’t reliably tell a bullet’s destination here we do know conclusively that it was fired with lethal force. It might hit a mile away, through a church window and into the wooden heart of the strung up Christ. It might bore through the top of your foot even if you’re pointing it straight at Nemesis.
Think about the results of gunfire in the reported history of Earth. It’s chaos. It doesn’t mesh with our already chaotic situation here. So if we want to fight each other properly, the way the real people do, we need a more observable tradition running through our weaponry.
Enter the fairness of what the eggheads call ‘game totems’. I try not to get too technical with my definitions, that’s the kind of inanity that makes Pluto colonize Nowheresville, but a game totem is anything that, if properly manufactured, can deliver you a randomized result that nevertheless feels fair.
If you roll dice and get snake eyes you don’t feel like the serpent was conspiring to stare at you. You were the one that rolled them after all. You watched them tumble, face over face, observing every single development of the action. Once it’s out of your hand it’s out of your control… but not really. It’s still your intent. You’re just nervous because you think you’ve changed your mind. Your path has veered some, but not the dice. They’re just following through. Reminding you of the decision you made. Fair. It’s fixed alright, but fixed in position, not rigged. Perspective. It shows you that you’re the inconsistent one, the one that’s always changing. Game objects teach you that people are just waves on the beach. A series of similar instances that are never exactly identical.
That’s why they told me I should never write a book. They said I’d wind up philosophizing for half the pages. You’re not here to read me insulting the Earthlings, easy as it is; you’re here to learn how to sling card stock and electroglass.
Right now ‘game totems’ that can be effectively weaponized are dice (becoming boxing dice), cards (a weaponized card might be called a trick, flick, edge, or a business card), and the rarely used roulette discus. We’re just covering my own area of expertise, cardistry, since my name’s the only one on this book. We’ll start with a rundown of the different schools and techniques.
Over the Moon: Often considered the flashiest, its moves can only be adequately performed with electroglass as your medium, as they require precise shifts in electric charge to maintain ‘orbits’ around the body or objects.
It’s also on the easier side to recognize. Wielders of this technique often have a ring of cards spinning around their trunk, either horizontally around the belt or diagonally across the chest like a bandoleer. These rings prevent foes from drawing too close and provide a supply of single cards that can be accessed quickly.
The foe’s bioelectric field can be used as well, with spinning tosses circling around to strike them in the back, though these maneuvers take tons of fiddling with the flying and sharpening routines you’ll be running. It’s a style best reserved for the most mathematically minded.
Cardistry has been around a hell of a lot longer than Pluto, and so have the most popular schools. Over the Moon was invented in the 60s on Vulcan not too long after the glass. The story goes that experiments with the first cards that held a charge were interrupted by the presence of some 9to1 ghostly wretches.
Their fields were very weak, but enough to alter the course of the card when it passed through them. Supposedly, a few of them ate the face cards up like emergency masks and started thinking themselves kings and queens. With no land to claim lordship over they annexed the Over the Moon style and became its royal family.
I’ve personally bested 2 people in duels who claimed they were in this family. The story says the family name was Froth, but the fools who challenged me were a Caruthers and a Zibley. If such a family actually exists I suspect it would be easier to know them by the quality of their Over the Moon rings than anything else. The best can make them rival Saturn’s, with multiple layers of varying spin and speed, sometimes with paths crossing over each other fluidly, like an X across the chest.
Big Fan: For most people this is where cardistry starts, as its basic techniques are the easiest to pull off and it’s the school with the least amount of throwing. All you have to do is properly cut a deck in half and fan each half out with the thumb, without dropping any of course.
This gives you 2 solid hand to hand weapons perfect for sweeping slices. If one wishes to stab or thrust it’s still advisable to use single cards between index and middle, but the fans have the further advantage of generating sufficient gust on swing to disrupt the flight of your opponent’s tossed cards. A block is just as effective, but if you don’t do it perfectly you can lose a finger. Foregoing actual contact with the card avoids that.
A skilled hand, even without the cards magnetized to each other, can toss a full fan from one hand to the other without it losing its shape. Other advanced techniques include full circle fans that can be tossed as spinning saws, 3 card minimum ‘shotgun’ tosses, and the strongman granddaddy of them all: redirecting. That involves using only the gusts generated from your fans to guide an enemy card’s momentum to a new trajectory, often back the way it came.
This style’s origins are impossible to trace; it can’t even be narrowed down to one planet. One thing I do know for sure is that it’s the number one style seen in martial arts films thanks to how well it meshes with a lot of stances. I once had a Chinese man tell me that, even without a China in probable space, he never connected with his heritage more than when training with hands full of card stock fans. Of course the proprietor of the Chinese restaurant we were sat in at that moment didn’t take too kindly to the statement.
Express Mail: This is also a good start for beginners, though few will ever strike its skill ceiling with any of their throws. Express Mail is the straightforward strategy of flinging your cards straight, fast, and accurately.
For a lot of people that means one thing: loads and loads and loads of cards. These are the folks you see wearing specially crafted suits and jackets lined with 10 or 20 deck pockets. They’ve got aces up their sleeves, jokers under their heels, something rolled up on their ear like a cigarette, and a suspiciously thick belt buckle with a latch.
This style gets much of the attention thanks to the ease with which people can compete and collect within its confines. Every planet has its distance and speed throwing annual competitions, and they all draw massive crowds. As of right now the record for highest speed on a card stock throw on Pluto is held by yours truly at 93 miles per hour.
Card stock with razor blade edges is preferred over electroglass here, because you’re treating the average card as an expendable projectile. There are 2 main throws based on intent. If your goal is to strike a distant foe and deal heavy damage you’ll use the curled index-middle grip to apply the spin and give it as much momentum as possible. Speaking from personal experience and a scar that turned my left eyebrow into twins, never assume you’re too far away for a good cardist sniper to hit.
The other technique is colloquially called the machine gun. I prefer to call it the empty tank; that gives people much more realistic expectations about how quickly they’ll find themselves out of ammunition and playing 52 pickup. Typically you fire from the hip, deck held parallel to the ground, with the thumb used to flick the top card and, quite often, every other card beneath it.
Cheater’s Welcome: Despite its origins in Phaeton saloon arguments of the 1850s, the modern practice of this style sees very little ‘cheating’, i.e. cards strung together or used to conceal another form of weaponry like more traditional blades or toxic irritating powders. Cheater’s Welcome is instead a focus on confusion, utilizing complex flourishes and cuts that put cards in unexpected places, ultimately in the flesh of your opponent.
You can use the charge on a glass card to adhere it to another rather than give it ideas about flight, allowing moves where one card is held onto and the rest of the deck flings out and strikes like spring snakes from a can before returning to your palm.
Expert ‘cheaters’ will often divide their deck into 6 or so piles, each one held between 2 fingers, and wave their hands about maddeningly. There’s no telling, unless you’ve studied, which pile they’ll shoot a card from, every attack obscured by literal hand-waving.
Often considered the most difficult to master, probably a letdown to actual cheaters everywhere, the school’s weakness is that it’s not very accommodating of errors. You so much as twitch and your deck might rain down on you, sharp corners first.
Cat Steps: I finish with this one because it not only has the most definitive origin, but people love the story as well. It all started in a rundown ballroom in a manor that had been converted into a recovery center for the old and wealthy. This was 1910 Antichthon, so surgery and anesthesia were still in their infancy, and physical therapy were 2 words that hadn’t been partnered yet.
Instead the patients were given dancing lessons as a way of judging the improvement in their coordination and range of motion. Their instructor, one Mistress Genevieve, former master of stage ballet, was famously strict and remarkably easy to frustrate. There’s no doubt she was the wrong person for the job, but she sure was a boon to cardistry if not the well-being of her charges.
If she didn’t feel their shuffle was close enough to a waltz she would motivate their feet to be in the right positions at the right time by tossing sharpened cards across the floor, barely a quarter inch off the marble.
“Come now you raisin! The cards are dancing better than you!” the famous shout goes. She weaved complex patterns that left only the appropriate steps at the right moments open. Those who didn’t pick up the waltz quickly occasionally had to pick up their toes instead.
Cat Steps as a style is about throwing your opponent off balance so they can’t focus on their own maneuvers. Its stance is usually very low, allowing cardists to put their cards on the floor immediately and make more precises adjustments.
This is also one of the only techniques closely associated with an item built specifically for it: the slide-shoe. Like any other shoe they come in pairs. On their soles you can find 2 rails that create a slot, allowing a cat steps cardist to ‘catch’ a card they’ve given a return trajectory with the toe. When there are enough cards underfoot to warrant reclamation they tap their heels, pushing them all to the back, lift the foot behind them, and slide the handful of cards out to be reused.
Other techniques include bouncing the cards across the floor on their corners like cartwheeling acrobats, catching them with stomps, and sticking them in the floor to act as caltrops, though if you ever did so to its creator’s marble floors she would probably have something to say about it.
My personal recommendation for defending yourself against a cat stepper is to invest in a pair of steel-toed boots.
…questions abound regarding card quality and which manufacturers deserve your simillions. Every planet has their own, and I’m sure the market will flood like a clogged tub once trade with the other marbles in our system opens up.
For now, if you’re looking for the best craftsmanship with traditional materials I recommend Persian Inlay. Their blend of strong yet flexible card stock and aluminum pressed edges is versatile and rarely rusts. If you’re buying electroglass, for fighting rather than computing functions mind you, stick with Charon Challengers.
The number one question I get regarding craftsman always asks who’s responsible for the platinum deck and if they’re available for commissions. Nothing gives you away as an amateur cardist more than wild fantasies about those cards, not even tossing one into your own cornea.
I’m no nutter who’ll tell you that it doesn’t exist, it surely does, as a few of its cards are kept safe in museums and private collections on other worlds. Another fact is that its makers are unknown. So, again for the dense and greedy, you will not be able to commission your own platinum deck.
Forged from something like electroglass, but metallic and better in every conceivable way, the platinum deck is the ultimate tool. Personally I think the central fire itself made it, casting them out into orbit as its real treasures before it even suspected theorized planets would get in the way and catch them.
A platinum card knows what you want and gets it for you. They throw like lasers, cut like everything is made of mallow cream, and assume a return trajectory even if you haven’t given it a thought. They’re compatible with all known computer systems and might just contain one of their own.
Sometimes they tell you things. Sometimes they leave you behind if you’re not good enough for them. Every single one you see, no matter how glorious, is going to be a counterfeit. Trust me. I’ve fallen for a couple, only to cut them in half when I thought I was an inch from death. Everything breaks before they do. No will can master them, evidenced by the fact that not a soul in recorded history has ever held onto more than 15 of the cards at any time.
I would be surprised to learn there was a single platinum card on Pluto. If there is it’s probably trapped in the core somewhere, having been in an unfortunate place when Pluto got canned. They’re for use by bigger spenders than any of us, by those who wager with sand from the cosmic hourglass and heirloom jewelry inherited from the last universe.
If there’s any greater legitimacy to the idea of ‘game totems’, the kind of legitimacy that makes eggheads assign it a symbol in their equations, then the platinum deck is the totem of the debtor gods.
Head’s a Net
Their name was the last piece of ballast they dropped, and after it went they couldn’t figure out why they didn’t toss it sooner. Flying was magical, and it was a different animal to being on a plane. Pilots weren’t really flying. They sat in sky chairs and kept their cautious hands wrapped around something.
The deep sea explorers of the Whale Ocean weren’t doing what they thought they were doing either. They were looking at the depths, but the only things they were exploring were a padded lining, the copper rivets on their helmet, and their own musk.
This was flying; this was exploring. It didn’t take any crutches. Atrium City was below them, most of its people glued to the pavement by gravity, the force that just stopped caring when you were 9to1. Was Saturnalia still on? They’d lost track of months, and all the other fiddly units of time as well. It was probably long over. Most things felt over, like life had been a radio serial and now everything was just the static at the end.
What was a background character, likely no more than a chirp of cafe small talk in one scene, to do when the show was over? Flying through clouds was nice, but you couldn’t fill eternity with it. There was always what the luckier and likelier still called up. They could leave the atmosphere.
At this probability the void was just fresh air, just stepping out when a few too many people were smoking in the vestibule. They’d gone close a few times, close enough to see just how many chose that. Just past the blueness of the air there were countless spectator specters, watching the weather swirl over the lands.
Why did they stay? Nothing held them there. The system was theirs to explore, though without the rockets of interplanetary instruments they couldn’t do so with any haste. They could get to Phaeton eventually, but with will as their only fuel it would take them more than a century. And that was if they didn’t get lost.
Some had forgotten they could talk, but a few communicated their plan. Antichthon was coming. The one we’re following didn’t quite believe it, they were sure the Counter-Earth had come and gone ages ago, but they listened anyway. The unlikely lingerers were awaiting their arrival, planning to stowaway or otherwise follow their trail all the way back to a bigger, older, more interesting pebble.
Our friend wasn’t interested in that, but they weren’t interested in the silent depths of probable space either. The people of Pluto also didn’t rouse their interests. They’d passed through some of their buildings and heads the same way they did clouds and found nothing of note.
What they really wanted was to explore, but they thought the planets had robbed them of that possibility. They all arrived with their histories already glued down and painted. There were no maps left to draw. The only other choice was the darkness beyond, and instead of everything already being found and flagged it offered absolutely nothing at all.
Our friend was flying, hands out like the wings of a plane because that was the pose they’d drifted into, wondering about the possibility of exploring Pluto’s core when they hit something. They didn’t realize at first because they were 9to1, so the possibility of collision was miles from their mind.
Almost nothing was manufactured or mechanically shifted to that probability. People that low weren’t contributing citizens; they weren’t even worth quarantining. They didn’t buy tailored suits or motorcars or espresso coffee. About the only thing they were good for was standing between a more respectable person and an eclipse so they could safely view it through the wretch’s transparent body.
But our friend was definitely stuck on something. Trying to twist free only made it worse. This was about when they realized their eyes were closed. They could still see thanks to the general thinness of their being, but they opened them to make the picture a little clearer.
A net. Who in their right mind put a 9to1 net up in the sky? All you’d ever catch was ghosts and hardly any of those were worth eating, though 8 and 9to1 squab was reportedly very low in fat.
The circular net, big enough to catch 2 or 3 more people, was suspended on something like a flagpole beside a chimney. Both led down to a dark manor, the only permanent building in the city’s park that wasn’t an information kiosk. Normally the trees surrounding it were even taller, the roof obscured by foliage from above.
Today there were nets above the canopy, 5 of them, 3 containing poor creatures like our confused friend, captured like lobsters that wandered into the pot. They were left hanging there until dusk, when the poles retracted, moving on tracks over to the chimney. Each one bent at a 90 degree angle, dumping their contents into the chute.
End to end they were stacked, like a series of chimney sweep boys sent in after each other. An unknown force built up behind them, pressuring them deeper and deeper into the ashy shaft. Our friend was 2nd in line, so they could only see the seat of the leader’s pants until they finally hit a polished fireplace that hadn’t seen wood for 50 years, or at all if you considered Pluto’s arrival to be day one of history.
It was big enough for 2 canoes to make port, so the pile of the unlikely unfurled and separated. They hadn’t walked in ages, but the ash from the chimney seemed to weigh them down, and the glossy hardwood in front of the fireplace was coated in something they couldn’t pass through.
A pair of gloved hands gently wrapped around our friend’s shoulders and helped them to their feet. With the fireplace cold and unwelcoming, despite their having entered through it, the chamber was very dim. They had a vague sense of people moving about in the shadows, of light footsteps, but none of them bothered to explain anything.
“Where am I?” our friend asked, barely a croak. They understood why nobody answered. They felt a little embarrassed having said anything at all, as if they’d coughed without a handkerchief. They decided they’d just wait and see rather than ask again. The other 2 that the nets had caught disappeared into other chambers, led by other gloved figures.
The next room could’ve been called a walk-in closet if not for it having multiple exits. Suits, for both men and women, lined the walls on wooden hooks, illuminated from behind. That was the only light in the room, like it was hiding from some home invader and holding its breath.
Our friend’s arms were so accustomed to being held like wings that they rose on their own, but that turned out to be convenient. The gloves that guided them suddenly produced a tape measure of white cloth. It stretched along one arm.
“21.” Our friend blinked a few times. Uncomfortable as it was, it was time for the brain to get off the hammock and pull a shift or 2. The thoughts had to climb down out of the clouds and actually take the lay of the land, as someone seemed to be taking the lay of them.
The gloves were worn by a woman. It was impossible to judge how tall she was, for our friend wasn’t sure of their own height, and it varied moment to moment as if they stood on deck in rough seas. They could tell that she had dark silky hair. A nose like it was pinched in a book. Cheekbones with little dimples like the curve in a piece of billiards chalk.
“19,” she said as she dragged the tape measure across the back of our friend’s shoulders. There was the scratch of a pen. Was there someone else in there recording her words? Our friend was about to undertake the arduous task of saying something when the woman swiveled around in front of them and wrapped the tape around their chest. “41.”
They got a good look at her face, except for the piece that was missing. Her left eye was gone. To put it more accurately, it looked like it had never been there. Flawless skin sloped from her forehead to her cheek. She didn’t seem troubled by its absence, or by the object tucked behind her ear on the same side: straight, smooth, formed of 2 pieces, and banded in a color like fool’s gold.
Her attire was strange, but it also looked right at home, like it slithered off a nearby rack onto her just minutes ago. Her blouse resembled the top of a simple kimono with muted colors, but it was mostly covered by her suit jacket. Her nails were painted the same brassy bronze as the thing over her ear.
“29,” she said after the tape stretched down our friend’s torso.
“What are you measuring?” they finally managed to ask.
“What’s left of you,” she answered.
“Jacket and pants.”
“What do I need those for?”
“You don’t even know what you need.” The pen scratched again. There could’ve been someone in any of the suits, just standing in the row with the rest of them. These people had paths; they could snag you and drag you along without ever looking your way. “You’re here to decide, and I’m here to guide your decision.”
“Not exactly,” a 3rd voice said, probably belonging to whoever had the pad and pen. “That will guide their decision.” They must’ve pointed, for the woman turned her head and our friend followed her gaze. There was a metal plaque over the door on the far end, words and symbols cut into it and filled with platinum filigree.
SY (y) = P(Y >y)=1 − FY (y)
√Biziridoo atera*dub zeebeegaradoo.
“We are only survivors,” our friend read off the sign. √Permillion stopped being a mystery to them a likelihood ago, but the equation on the top half might as well have been backwards Latin. “What’s that first part?”
“It’s what we are,” the woman said. “It’s the Survivor Function.”
“The mathematical expression of the idea that nobody lives forever. People use it to figure out the likelihood of survival in a given amount of time.”
“Is that the kind of thing that should go on a plaque?” our friend rasped.
“It’s a good reminder,” she said. Her hand went up to her ear and she flicked the object there; it flew open as the 2 sides split. It turned out to be a pleated paper fan, and once open it covered the anomalous part of her face. There was an eye painted on the paper, right where it was supposed to be, but the paint didn’t know it was an artificial replacement. It went ahead and looked around, blinking along with its neighbor. “The universe is keeping score even if you’re not, and it’ll catch up with you.”
The fan had been used as an emergency mask, so she’d known at least 8to1. Perhaps she’d come to that place the same way, snatched out of the sky just before she’d shed her last care in the world and drifted off into silent space.
“That doesn’t matter to me,” our friend said with the closest thing to confidence they could muster. “That’s for people with their feet on the ground and thirst in their throat. I’m a goner. Don’t know quite how I’m going to get gone yet.” She wrapped the tape measure around their neck and squeezed. Our friend swallowed and felt the lump in their throat hitch against the tape. All of a sudden they remembered what it was like to pay full attention.
“16. You feel that? That’s fear. If you’ve got that you’re still alive. Still scurrying along the shrinking edge of the Survivor Function. If the function says that only 10% of people would make it through Saturnalia, then we will be all 10 of those points.”
“We were all unlikelies like you,” the pen wielder added. “Having been that close to oblivion… it gives you perspective. Once you come back that perspective turns into drive. We will always be on the shrinking side of the function, and we will never hit zero. That’s the mission.”
The woman stepped away when she was done measuring, tape wound between her fingers and dangling at her side. She stared at the plaque. The other voice gently urged her to move things along; they had other recruits being processed. She flicked her fan again, opening it to a full circle, like a hat askew on her head. The painted eye climbed across the pleats until it was on the back of her head; it stared at our friend.
“Go through this door,” she instructed. “We’ll have your clothes ready by the time you find your way out.”
“What if I don’t want to?” our friend asked. “There was nothing wrong with the sky.”
“If you’re already gone then you don’t care one way or the other,” she said. “And if you’re afraid then I can tell you that you won’t fall into this door endlessly and be eaten by the forces the way you would out and up there. I can give you a push.” She stepped toward them but our friend decided they would rather do it on their own.
When they were in front of it they realized they couldn’t grab the knob. She pulled an electroglass card out of her jacket and told them the Survivor Function would open all the doors for them. She slipped it into the crack and slid it down; it clicked open. The room beyond was just as dim, but this time the weak lights were behind row after row of mounted masquerade masks.
Whunk! The door shut behind them. They were alone, and since they couldn’t touch the handle they tried to put their arm through the door itself. No good. The Survivor Function had thought of everything, crafting a corralling maze that could only land our friend in the shrinking percentage points they extolled.
The manor had seemed quiet before, but the utter silence of the mask room made them realize what a symphony of breath, shuffling, creaking, and whispering it had been moments ago. Maybe there had been 10 people watching their fitting. All they knew for sure was that their isolation was now complete.
Our friend walked straight as they could, wary of even a single step to the left or right. An emergency mask didn’t require intent to take hold; proximity was good enough. It was the main reason hardluck specters rarely floated through buildings at random; there was no telling if you’d accidentally come into contact with something so eager to be your partner that it would skip flirtation and go straight for physical intimacy.
Our friend couldn’t remember their own name, or whether they preferred suits or sundresses, but they somehow recalled stories of other crazy8 and 9 misfortunes.
Someone drifting through the wall of a clock shop and winding up with both hands ticking away on their forehead for the rest of their life, even growing back if they were clipped like they were just misplaced hairs.
Someone being tossed out of a bar and tumbling through the doorknocker on the way out, winding up with the brass snout of a lion and a heavy ring hanging from their septum.
A beauty mask of pale balm and eyes of cucumber, never to be peeled off.
Anything that looked a little like a face, or part of one, or for use on one, was a risk. The hardluck body would take them in reflexively, like a reverse of cellular fission. Our friend wasn’t sure if they wanted their fate to be dissolution in the dark void, but that option would be taken from them, at least for a while, if they got too close to the walls.
The next door permitted them to walk through, but it got them nowhere. The proportions of that room were identical to the last, and the walls were covered with masks again. They craned their neck to one side, not yet willing to commit a foot. Each mask was unique. The Survivor Function wasn’t manufacturing soldiers off a conveyor belt. They wanted personalities. Choosers. Those who clawed selectively when clawing toward the light.
Each one was crafted with a variance on a theme, with nothing left out. Many had enough personality to be assigned professions, like the wood and felt one that clearly belonged to an auctioneer, or could make an auctioneer. Shy masks. Sinister masks. Tawdry masks. Bold masks.
Our friend moved onto the next room through a side door and found the same thing yet again. Time was not their forte, nor counting, so they weren’t sure how many versions of the chamber they saw. The person with the pen, if it had been just one person, said they needed to move things along. There were other recruits, presumably undergoing the same trial. So where were they? The building couldn’t be so large that the unlikelies didn’t run into each while perusing new identities.
Now our friend was too out of it to think the way I would think, but were I in that situation I’d start wondering about the origin of all those hundreds of masks. The big question was whether they were made by regular old hands or regular old hands guided by Pluto before the swing of things.
I admit that the thoughts aren’t entirely mine. Minty inspired me to think this way when I learned about her. Still, what are we to think when a history we haven’t personally experienced becomes our entire life? When you have the weight of civilization’s roof collapse on you I think you go into a kind of shock. You doubt whether any of it happened. Whether you admit it or not you consider the possibility that all of the people, and even the raw materials of the world, have conspired and are lying to you just to get you to stop wriggling and align.
As you’ve noticed, there are others of the hardluck I could’ve told you about. The Survivor Function was practically running a fishery, hauling in 20 or more of these people with the nets each day. So why our friend here?
It’s because they penetrated deeper into the manor than anyone else in the process. Pluto called the building Nth Degree Hall. While on the surface, which is where Pluto would prefer its people keep their thoughts stored, the hall was nothing more than an edifice of excess handed between rich families over the course of 2 centuries, it actually served a more utilitarian purpose.
While Pluto and its people were shoved out on stage simultaneously, there was still technically a transition between existence and likely existence; it just couldn’t be assigned a unit of time. During that period, whoops, there I go calling it a period, Pluto formulated its history. All of the human possibilities it was assigned, from the nearly infinite wellspring of people who barely missed their own conception, had to come from within Pluto’s substance, like water pouring into a freezer and coming out ice cubes on the other side.
This emergence occurred on specific fissures across Pluto’s rind, but since it wasn’t exactly a physical process you couldn’t really mark them on a map without people calling you a liar when they investigated it for themselves.
The land under Nth Degree Hall was one of these points that spewed history. There was residue in its being, something that disrupted expected behaviors, like, say, the dimensions or number of the rooms, but it was only observable if it was difficult or impossible for that observation to spread and become knowledge.
So our friend went deeper and deeper into something undetermined, each room nearly the same as the last yet more and more lacking in a feeling of designed purpose each time. I should stress again that sensation would be that alone, a sensation, akin to perhaps digging deep in a closet and finding ever more mysterious and useless items without being able to deny that they belonged buried in a closet.
Some that were sent in alone were blasé enough to try on a mask in the first room. Many were hungry for a return to what they’d lost, snatching one off the wall as if it was a rabbit about to disappear down its burrow. They were ready to let anything at all become the whole of their reality just for a chance to get back in the game, just for some damn stability. Our friend slowly realized they were more discerning.
“Head’s a net,” they whispered as they stared at the dimly glowing eyes of mask after mask after mask. “Every bit I lost is a hole… so many holes now that they’ve joined up. Almost everything slips through. You don’t have anything big enough for me to catch, you silly old house.”
The silly old house vehemently disagreed. The room after that statement offered something new, or at least offered it in a way that our friend finally noticed. The masks were cluttered now. They overlapped on the walls, partly buried or pushed outward. It was dimmer, owing to the extra layering.
The trend continued. They were startled enough to actually jump and gasp when a mask to their left finally fell, slipping off its hook and landing, wobbling, on the wooden floor. Our friend stopped for a moment and raised their hands. They clapped once. At 9to1 they barely disturbed the air, but 9 masks fell in response anyway.
“That’s big… but not big enough. I’m not coming back for parlor tricks like that.” They turned around, tracing their path back through several rooms, but things seemed rearranged. The masks only became more numerous until they were the walls themselves. Until they were great bulges leaving only a narrow path between. Until they littered the floor.
Our friend was wading through them eventually. The objects were 5to1, so the piles didn’t slow them down at first. It was only when they reached chest height that each step had to be taken carefully. Now if one of the taller piles shifted a mask might tumble right to their face.
“I was going to be an explorer,” they scolded the chambers. “One of the ones that died looking for Nemesis, but definitely exploring in the process. You’ve just got me going in circles. You’ve seen one part of a circle you’ve seen all of it. Knock it off.”
Nth Degree Hall didn’t listen. The light was all but gone. Our friend had taken their feet off the floor and was hovering with their back to the ceiling, barely room between their mouth and the masks to breathe.
Thousands of identities stared. In another room or 2 all those eyes would be inside them, and the decision would be made without any say from them. If they were going to participate in their own radical return it was now or never, but which one to settle on?
A riveted mask of sheet metal? Too industrial, too confined. They’d wind up a robot. One of them had an hourglass theme, with a functioning one set in a rotating circle above the nose. Certainly not that one, unless they wanted to be the kind of person who thought there was nothing more important than arriving on time.
So many themes that all seemed wrong, even without much of a self to compare them to. Streetlamp, ancient scroll, phone booth, automobile headlights, entryway mirror, billiards table, planting pot, potpourri, electrical turbine… none of them spoke to the explorer’s still heart.
“Jeez!” they blurted, fingers dragging across the ceiling to stop their momentum. One clever mask had outsmarted the others, taking to the air itself. Its eyes were thick sturdy wicker that turned into an elastic fabric around and above the eyebrows. Striped with bright colors, the fabric was inflated by hot air, the whole thing themed so strongly after a balloon and basket that it actually functioned as one. The nose was a perforated canister of heat-breathing metal topped by a chugging orange flame.
It stood out. It went places. It could inflate until even the most forgiving net had no choice but to capture it. That was an explorer’s mask. Our friend rotated, drifting like a body ritually set out on a river raft, positioning their eyes just below those of the dangling mask. Then they lifted their head.
The door opened and masks flooded out under their own weight and the weight of someone who was definitely not our friend any longer. They were a he now, and so light on his feet with his forehead at its most pronounced that he touched down in the next room on the toes of one foot, like a ballet dancer.
A member of the Survivor Function kicked masks aside to get behind him, putting on his jacket. A perfect fit. They handed him a fresh pair of trousers, which he hung over his arm. The flame between his eyes receded, the forehead reducing to something more like a painting, striped with burgundy and goldenrod.
“Got a name?” the woman with the fan eye asked. She stood there, impatience tilting her hips and tapping her foot. She knew which room he’d spill out of, but apparently not how long it might take.
“I sure do,” the handsome man that used to be our hardluck friend said. “Plucked it right out of the sky. Call me Toddy Hot. And you are?”
“Behind schedule.” She walked up to him. Toddy extended his hand in a friendly fashion. She put a deck in it. In response to her expectant stare he took a step back and demonstrated his cardistry skills, informing himself of his talent as well.
His hands tumbled over each other, cutting the deck in half, 4ths, 8ths… The juggling routine he shifted to was impressive enough for somebody sitting at the end of a bar as they attempted to flirt, but not for a member of the Survivor Function. The fan-eyed woman tested him further, pulling out her own deck and making it into 2 fans.
“Big Fan? Really? Is that just to add to your theme?” Toddy asked with a smile. She waved her weapons rather than answer, trying to ruin his juggle. He chuckled and let her do her work on his cards. It was all just wind, nature taking its course. He was happy to see where it swept him.
His cards were chaos in the air, tumbling end over end. With a single extended finger he found each one’s middle, pushing it with such perfect precision that it could only wobble. He stacked them, body and arms weaving around the stragglers. None reached the floor, and when he was done he stood there with his hand and finger held out, deck just as organized on its tip as the moment she’d handed it over.
Then he blasted it with an arrow of fire from the canister of his new nose. Flaming cards fell everywhere. The person who’d handed him his clothes groaned and started stomping out the cinders to keep them from catching the masks. Toddy just stood there, ready to go up in a blaze if that was how the cards fell.
“Good enough,” the fan-eyed woman said. Apparently she had seen better, perhaps even earlier that day. “You’ll be on the front lines.”
“Of Saturnalia?” he asked. “I wasn’t aware it was a war.”
“Begira&toodoo berriroo deebidee. Gerodub etadoo txikiatap doopskiyo, bizir*iyoo jarra&itzendeep dugudoo. Betidep gerride@ep deladoop,” she explained in √Permillion. She told him something that no friend of mine would ever embody: Look at the formula again. We’re ever-shrinking, always surviving. We’re always at war.