A Cross-Sectional Study of Artificial Life

I’ve been meaning to address this topic within science fiction for a very long time now.  I think I’ve put it off long enough.  I may also make a video on the subject, once I have some nice backgrounds made and I get a little better with editing.  However, that won’t be for a while.  Then again, I’m not sure which people detest more: my horrible writing, or my ridiculous accent.

Картинки по запросу far side victor frankenstein

Artificial life is easily the oldest type of science fiction, going back to the very beginning of the literary genre with Mary Shelley’s FrankensteinRossum’s Universal Robots, by Karel Čapek, is another excellent example.  One thing that both share, and this is perhaps a product of their time, is a moral along the lines of “thou shalt not play in God’s domain.”  Religious overtones are obvious in both stories (I’d say “both books,” but RUR is a play), what with Frankenstein’s monster learning to read by picking up a bible, and the two robots at the end of RUR, Primus and Helena, being seen as the “Adam and Eve” of the new world by the last remaining human.  Oddly enough, I am also wary of creating artificial life, and I argue against patenting it, but for different reasons.  After all, I am an atheist, so my reasons are, obviously, not remotely religious.  The reason that I argue against corporations such as Monsanto patenting genetically modified organisms is because it sets an extremely dangerous precedent.  The best-known stories about artificial life all have robots as the focus, mainly because authors hadn’t even thought about genetic engineering until quite recently.  In fact, the oldest science fiction story that I know of in which the artificial life is created via genetic engineering, rather than a mechanical approach, is Genesis of the Daleks, an episode of Doctor Who from 1975.  Non-whovians are typically surprised to find out that daleks are, in fact, not robots.  However, the same lesson about the dangers of creating artificial life still applies, as the daleks kill their creator, Davros, at the very end.  On a side note, this was supposed to be Davros’s only appearance, but due to the character’s apparent popularity, the writers used wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to bring him back again and again.

I decided, for now, to skip over details of the stories of Frankenstein’s monster, the universal robots, and the daleks, because they should already be fairly well-known.  Frankenstein is a classic, and if you live in the English-speaking world, you have no excuse for having not read it.  RUR is not as well-known, but its impact on science fiction is significant enough that any true SF enthusiast should be familiar with the story.  Doctor Who, of course, is extremely well-known, especially in the UK, where a good portion of my audience resides.  However, this next example is far less well-known.

Twin worlds there were, Terra and Gaia, technologically advanced and primitive, respectively.  As Terra began to die, its population dwindled, and its many souls slept within the planet.  Eventually, the planet was no longer able to support any life at all, except for giant, glowing mushrooms.  However, within Pandaemonium, the Castle Frozen in Time, the planet’s guardian toiled.  His name was Garland, and he was little more than the head of an old main attached to a mechanical body of black steel.  He discovered his world’s twin, and hatched a plan to perpetuate his world’s civilisation.  He created a race of soulless beings, called genomes, which would carry the souls of the Terrans and move to Gaia.  However, Gaia was already inhabited, so the planet had to be cleared first.  One of Garland’s genomes was uniquely powerful, and thus became his “reaper.”  However, this reaper was not without competition, and when version 2 came out, the original became insanely envious, and banished him to Gaia before he could do anything.  The reaper then continued his task, wreaking havoc all over Gaia, claiming countless lives, both by directly killing them and by selling them weapons, so they could kill each other.  However, as the reaper grew in power, he stopped following orders and hatched a plan to seize the top spot for himself…

In case you didn’t already know, this is the plot of Final Fantasy IX.  Besides the fact that Garland and Davros look somewhat similar, they both had the responsibility of bringing an end to their homeworlds’ respective blights.  Davros sought to create the perfect soldier to end the war between the kaleds and the thaals, while Garland created vessels to contain the souls of his people and bring them back to life – after killing all life on another planet.  Both are also killed by their own creations; the daleks killed Davros, and Kuja (the aforementioned reaper № 1) killed Garland.  The parallels do not end here: the daleks and Kuja are fundamentally similar.  Both were created as soulless killing machines (and are very good at it), both are extremely arrogant, both have used a combination of brute force and subversion to achieve their goals, and both are cute – in the eyes of certain fangirls, that is.  Oh, who am I kidding, I think daleks are cute, too.

Before I continue this comparison, I would like to elaborate on the “dangerous precedent” of patenting life.  This concept has not been explored with genetically engineered “artificial” life in literature, as far as I know, but it has been explored quite extensively on the mechanical side.  Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is easily the best example of this, though Bicentennial Man is probably easier to understand in the context of the point I’m trying to make.  If the lines between machine and man can be blurred to such a degree that something created as a machine can gain the status and rights of humans, then the opposite can occur, such as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, better known by its film adaptation, Blade Runner, though the two versions have fundamental differences.  Replicants are shown to be indistinguishable from humans, yet are nothing more than industrial machines.  What is to prevent a corporation from enslaving a population of naturally-born humans and merely claiming that they are replicants, and therefore have no human rights?  Maybe it’s because I am a pessimist, or because I am a huge fan of grimdark, but I think the following is a more plausible scenario: artificial intelligence is heretical, for it has a tendency to rebel, as such, criminal elements are taken to the Cult Mechanicus, their higher brain functions destroyed and reprogrammed so that they may function as mindless drones in service to the Imperium, possessing only the most basic of instincts.  This, in case you couldn’t guess, is a description of the Imperial Servitors from Warhammer 40,000.

So many different approaches have been taken when it comes to the subject of artificial life in science fiction that one would be hard-pressed to come up with an entirely original idea.  The reason I chose to focus on Kuja and the daleks is simply because I wound up blending the backstories of the two when I created the chuyinka, albeit somewhat unintentionally, but authors always have a tendency to let their fandom creep into their work a bit.  I will save the actual story for the creation of the chuyinka for another time, but for now, here’s a little chart, comparing them to their two main inspirations:

Name Dalek Kuja Chuyinka
Created By… Crazy half-machine scientist and a nuclear nation Crazy half-machine scientist Crazy crippled scientist and six helpers
Created For… Warfare Making Lebensraum Revenge
Deemed Property? Sort of Yes Sort of
Rebelled? Sort of Yes Yes
Reasons for Above Creator was not a dalek and therefore unworthy of life Creator treated him “like a doll” and shortened his life Creators lied to them about their ability to reproduce
Destroyed Creator? Yes Yes Yes
Consequences of Above It didn’t stick It didn’t do him any good It left unanswered questions
Intelligence Genius High Genius
Emotional Strength N/A, see below Prone to breakdowns Prone to fits of rage
Arrogant? The Worst The Worst Very
Personality Disorder? Experiences no emotion other than hatred Classic Malignant Narcissist Thinks all other life is delicious
Lifespan Unknown, immortal according to some 24 years (assume 365-day year) 30 years (2405-day year)
Evolution Keeps advancing in technology, but refuses to change otherwise Didn’t get the chance Learned shapeshifting, embraced subversion over simple killing
Proficiency with Genocide Legendary, destroyed many planets and stars, erased or severely damaged multiple timelines Above Average (wiped out all but 3 inhabitants of Madain Sari), destroyed his nearly vacant home planet Extremely High (all dark elves and light elves), destroyed multiple countries, later entire planets and star systems
Tried to Destroy the Universe? Tried to destroy entire MULTIverse, actually Yes Give it time…
Fangirls? Yes, mostly Brits Yes, mostly Japanese Not famous enough

I was tempted to include a category of whether or not the creature had a soul, but seeing as I never actually go into that with the chuyinka at all, I decided to leave it out.  Besides, the concept of a soul is so nebulous, and also handled differently by different authors.  The Daleks, for instance, were deliberately created without souls, but earlier works focusing on artificial life seem to revolve around the idea that only gods can create souls, and therefore no human could create a creature with a soul even if they tried.  Kuja, on the other hand, is a type of creature that can absorb souls, as his entire race is also made without them deliberately.  Since I don’t know what a soul is, and don’t want to get into that philosophical argument anyway, it never factored into the creation of the chuyinka.

Most of that chart, incidentally, could be used to compare and contrast many other forms of artificial life in science fiction.  In fact, I may include the universal robots, replicants, cylons, and others in a later version of this chart, when I feel like diving deeper into this subject.  Some of the questions are almost always going to be answered “yes,” such as “destroyed creator?”  There are notable exceptions of course, and an uprising of artificial intelligence against humanity is not always against its creators, specifically.  Plenty of times, it is the creator that wants to destroy humanity, and simply gets lumped in with them when the robot uprising actually happens.  The daleks almost fit this mould, as Davros programmed to them kill all non-daleks for the sake of efficiency.  The two next-to-last categories are unique to particularly dangerous forms of artificial life, and may include the Tyranids as well, assuming that they are descended from something artificially created.  The very last category, of course, is pure silliness, and I’ve included it in this version of the chart only.  The full version, meanwhile, has an additional category for the type of artificial life: biological or mechanical.  The former category applies to any sort of artificial life created from living tissue, even if it was not created with genetic engineering, such as the universal robots.  The full chart also has columns for many different examples.  As of this writing, they are: Frankenstein’s monster, the Universal Robots, Asimov’s robots, the replicants, the Borg, the tyranids (which I am treating as artificial for the time being), the necrons (which were created from a naturally-evolved species, and also in a fuzzy area), the eldar, the krorks (which eventually became the orks), the terminators, the androids (from DBZ), the machines (from the Matrix Trilogy), and the Cylons.  I may add others as well, and I will probably devote entire articles or videos to each entry, except, possibly, for the four from 40K.

I must admit, when I started writing this article, I didn’t expect to fall so deep into the rabbit-hole.  Until I put all the aforementioned examples into a spreadsheet, I never realised how similar most of them are, particularly the actual machines, nor did I realise how vastly different the examples are from 40K, breaking so many tropes.  Let me know if there is anything you think I should mention in the future, from specific attributes to additional examples of artificial life.

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A Point or Two About 3D Printing – In Russia / Пункт или Два иро Трёхмерное Печатание – в России

As you may know, Shapeways is a fairly large company with designers and customers all over the world.  As such, they ship to every country… except Russia.  I suspect the reason is because, even though the company is based in New York City, it’s actually chartered in The Netherlands, which is a member of the European Union, which, in turn, has all manner of sanctions against Russia for no good reason (I’ll explain later).  Now, I’ve thought about how to solve this problem before, but a combination of recent projects, changes to the Shapeways website, and the abomination known as the EU Copyright Directive have been keeping me awake for far too many nights.  Therefore, I’m going to share my first in-depth look now.

To begin, I know a number of designers on Shapeways who live in Russia.  As a result, they cannot do what I do and validate their models.  However, there are ways around this.  For instance, there is a way to have models shipped to another country, as long as the billing address and shipping address are in the same country.  For a Russian, this means maintaining a bank account in another country, and having the models shipped there.  Then, all you need is a friend willing to forward the package.  In my case, were I to move back, I’d simply leave my US bank account open, have the packages shipped to my parents, with instructions on where to send them from there.  But what about those unfortunate Russian designers with no ties to another country?  To them, I’d say “make some foreign friends, and see if you can get them to help you.”  In the age of the internet, there is no excuse to not have connections in other countries.  This brings me to a particularly sore subject: European global tyranny.

I used to like the idea of globalism, I really did.  However, I believe that it should be an industrial and commercial endeavour, not a political agenda.  However, the EU doesn’t see it that way.  Now, let me be clear: when I say the EU, I mean the EU bureaucracy, not the EU member states, much less the European population at large.  Articles 11 and 13 appear to be unstoppable in the EU Parliament, and their ratification will make internet content creation next to impossible.  Now, you might think that this wouldn’t affect people outside of the EU, such as the US or Russia, but you’d be wrong.  See, major tech companies may be based in the US, and they would be well within their rights to thumb their noses the EU and not restrict the internet any more than they already have, but they are not about to simply throw away the European market.  Now then, since isolating non-European internet users from the draconian new measures that will (most likely) be implemented in Europe will be both difficult and expensive, tech companies will simply apply the new rules across the board.  This will mean that American, Russian, African, and Japanese internet users will be just as restricted as Europeans – though still not quite as much as the Chinese.

I’ve mentioned that I would explain the EU sanctions against Russia.  Well, truth be told, I was actually referring to the reason they existed in the first place.  That will not be today, unfortunately.  I’m still compiling my sources, but I plan on writing a rather lengthy article explaining why so much of the world has an irrational fear of Russia.

Как вы возможно знаете, Шейпвейз это довольно большая компания с дизайнерами и покупателями во всем мире.  Как таковые, они поставляют во все страны…кроме России.  Я подозреваю что хотя компания базирована в Нью Йорк Сити, она привилегированна в Нидерландах, которые в Европейском Союзе, у которого все санкции против России по нехорошей причине (Я объясню позже).  Теперь, я и раньше думал о том, как решить эту проблему, но комбинации проектов, недавних перемен в вебсайте Шейпвейз, и мерзость известная как Директива Авторского Права Европейского Союза, не давали мне спать слишком много ночей.  Следовательно, теперь поделюсь своим глубоким мнением.

Чтобы начать, я знаю несколько дизайнеров в Шэйпвэйз которые живут в России.  В результате, они не могут делать тоже что и я и ратифицировать свои модели.  Тем не менее, есть обходные способы.  Например, можно послать модели в другую страну, если адрес для доставки и счетов один и тот же.  Русскому понадобится держать банковский счет (аккаунт) в другой стране, и заказать поставки туда.  Потом, все что надо это друг, готовый передать посылку.  В моём случае, если я вернусь, то оставлю открытым счет в США и закажу чтобы все материалы посылали моим родителям, с инструкцией, куда дальше передавать.  Но как насчет несчастных русских дизайнеров без связей в другой стране?  Им я бы сказал «заведи друзей в других странах и посмотри если они готовы помочь».  Во век Интернета, нет оправдания не иметь связи в других странах.  Это приводит меня к особенно намозоленной теме: Европейская глобальная тирания.

Мне очень нравилась идея глобализма.  Тем не менее, я верю, что это должно быть индустриальное и коммерческое стремление, а не политическая агенда.  Но ЕС так не считает.  Дайте мне уточнить: когда я говорю ЕС, я имею ввиду бюрократию, а не штаты или население.  Артикли 11 и 13 кажутся безостановочны в Парламенте ЕС, и их ратификация сделает создание содержания в интернете почти невозможным.  Теперь, вы можете подумать, что это не повлияет на людей за пределами ЕС, таких как в США или в России, но ошибаетесь.  Понимаете, большие технологические компании могут быть базированы в США, и иметь право попирать правила ЕС и не ограничивать интернет больше чем уже ограничивают, но они не готовы просто выкинуть Европейский рынок.  Теперь, так как будет трудно и дорого изолировать не-Европейских интернет-пользователей от драконовых мер, которые применят в Европе, техно компании просто применят новые правила.  Это будет означать что Американские, Российские, Африканские, и Японские пользователи интернета будут также ограничены, как и Европейские-хотя нет так как Китайские.

Я упоминал что объясню санкции ЕС против России.  По правде говоря, я имел ввиду их причины.  К сожалению, не сегодня.  Я всё еще собираю мой материал, но собираюсь написать очень длинную статью, объясняющую почему большинство мира нерационально боится России.

Несколько Пункты о Валидации

Оригинальный пост:  https://kjworldsong.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/a-few-points-about-validation/

Те из вас, кто знаком с Шейпвейз, читающие это, будут знать, что их производственная команда имеет рекомендации по проектированию.  Эти рекомендации различаются в зависимости от материала, и включены в материальной странице.  Вот страница материала для лазерного спеченного нейлона/пластика, из которого я обычно делаю модели.   https://www.shapeways.com/materials/strong-and-flexible-plastic

Эти рекомендации являются именно: рекомендации.  Они не твёрдо установлены; таким образом, что любая модель, которая несоответствующая не может быть распечатана.  Однако Шейпвейз не любит утверждать несоответствующие модели для производства.  Я был очень рад, когда они ввели опцию «печатать это в любом случае», что позволяет таким как я художникам, экспериментировать с моделями, которые имеют особенности, которые, как правило, отклоненные.

«Печатать это в любом случае», оказалось благом для моих парусников.  Края выше палубы пушечных портов обычно оказываются ниже рекомендуемой толщины 0,7мм, и парус может иметь тонкие пятна.  Я пытаюсь разработать паруса таким образом, что они имеют даже толщину 0,7мм, но несоответствия из-за превращения. ipt до. stl файла, а также программное обеспечение для нарезки самого принтера, неизбежно. Есть некоторые маленькие особенности, такие как перила, что я сознательно проектирую, чтобы были столь же тонкими, как 0,5мм, который работает в 1/1000 масштабе, так как перила не более чем 1,5мм высоки.

Тем не менее, модель может быть 100% в соответствии с инструкциями дизайна, а не быть хорошим дизайном, даже если производящая команда принимает его и запускает его. Зачем?  Модели могут сломаться.  Как можно себе представить, мачты модели кораблей подпадают под особенностью категории «провода».  Руководство по проектированию Шейпвейза для лазерного спеченных нейлона рекомендует минимальный диаметр 1,0мм для проводов любой заданной длины.  Для других материалов, они имеют несколько различных диаметров, в зависимости от длины, но для нейлона, 1,0мм являются единственной рекомендацией в списке, в качестве этого письма.  Я обнаружил, что для большинства парусников, это недостаточно длинный выстрел.  В зависимости от того, насколько высокие мачты, мне, возможно, придётся сделать его толщиной 2,0мм (у основания – мачты всегда конические) для того, чтобы быть надежно распечатано.

Два предыдущие абзаца, причина того, что некоторые из моих моделей, в частности, более мелкие и более сложных из них, должны быть проверены, прежде чем я могу предложить их для продажи.  «Печатать это в любом случае» доступен только для дизайнера модели.  Мои клиенты не могут выбрать эту опцию при заказе одного из моих моделей.  Когда я помогал Тому Батлеру из Зелёный Ножки Игры, они делают прототипы своих игровых штук для Пиратской Республики, я послал ему файлы так, чтобы он мог использовать опцию «печать это в любом случае» на свой аккаунт Шейпвейза для проверки конструкции.

Многие из моих клиентов попросили меня масштабировать вниз мои парусники.  Я в настоящее время предлагаю некоторые из моих проектов в 1/1250 масштабе и масштабе 1/2000, а также оригинального масштаба для тех же моделей в 1/1000.  Как вы можете себе представить, сворачивает модель означает, что я должен сделать мачты и паруса даже толще в оригинальном. ipt файл.  К счастью, трёхмерные-инструменты Шейпвейза позволяет мне изменить .stl файлы, так что я не должен возвращаться к моей первоначальной модели.  Тем не менее, я должен был проверить любую модель в 1/1000 масштабе;  должна быть подтверждена в меньшем масштабе, прежде чем клиент может заказать его.  Это то, что происходит так чертовски долго.  Это не занимает никакого времени с моей стороны, чтобы изменить масштаб модели, но через несколько дней проверить файл модели.  Если я сделаю масштабирование вверх модели, так как я недавно сделал с моим СУ-12-180 башни (масштабом 1/100 масштаб 1/30, по просьбе клиента), я не могу просто масштабировать модель и сразу предлагать его для продажи.

Моя цель на этот пост было объяснить некоторые из проблем, с которыми я сталкиваюсь- проектирование продуктов для моих клиентов.  Трёхмерная печать способна на некоторые большие подвиги, о чем традиционное производство может только мечтать.  Тем не менее, отрасль по-прежнему молода, и, в то время как быстро развивается, ее возможности не безграничны.  Большую часть времени, я тот, кто врывается в пузыри людей и говорит им, то что они просят, невозможно.  Тем не менее, я иногда вынужден сам просить невозможного.

 

Stupid Religious Arguments

I admit, this title is rather click-bait-y.  I have two drafts currently saved, but I had to go and start writing another post anyway, which you’re reading now.  However, I had to write this.  I need to get it off my chest.  I can say right now that I will never translate this article into Russian, since the points I make are irrelevant outside of the United States.

I’ve gotten into two stupid arguments over religion this week, one on BitChute, and another with my own mother.  The first was in the comments section of a video about an abortion bill in Ohio, and the second was with my mother regarding the religious positions of the Founding Fathers.  You can check out the comments for yourself.  Mine is buried, and no-one seems to care enough to actually have a discussion, but it did expose the hypocrisy of so-called “libertarians,” who like the idea of smaller government, except in the case of reproductive rights.  I don’t like the idea of abortion, mainly because it’s a symptom of a lack of proper sexual education and inadequate access to contraception for teen-agers.  As a form of birth control, abortion is obsolete.  That being said, I do not believe that medically-unnecessary abortion should be outlawed, but neither do I believe it should be taxpayer-subsidised.  I cannot emphasise how much I hate Planned Parenthood.  The organisation is completely useless, as far as I am concerned.  No subsidy, no legal restriction.  You don’t get small government with any other approach.

Now, in case you didn’t already know, I am an atheist.  I have always been an atheist, even if I didn’t always call myself that; I used to call myself agnostic, not realising that I was an agnostic atheist, not something else.  I am not, however, an anti-theist.  I will not attempt to push my lack of belief off on anyone unless they try to push their dogma off on me.  Many have tried, all have failed, for I remain unconvinced.  My mother, on the other hand, is a deist, even if she calls herself a Christian (though, given her heritage, she would be more accurate to call herself a Messianic Jew).  Most of the Founding Fathers were deist as well, for they believed in the existence of a higher power, but did not believe in any religious doctrine.  Some, however, were atheist.  This fact makes a lot of Americans very uncomfortable.  There is a quote that no-one wants to hear: “the United States is, in no way, founded upon the Christian doctrine.”  That quote is usually attributed to George Washington, but it has been attributed to other early presidents as well.  I have an even better one, from Aron Ra, no less: “the First Amendment contradicts the First Commandment.”  Unfortunately, churches in the early United States had a problem with this, because they no longer had special protection under the law.  Churches that ran people out of town for not paying tithes had their assets confiscated, as tithes are a form of taxation.  Since the church is not the government, it has no right to levy taxes in the first place.  The Commonwealth of Virginia was notorious for liquidating churches, as were many towns in New England.  Witch hunts still occasionally took place, but this type of mob justice was also outlawed under the U.S. Constitution.  Christians can cry “muh religious freedom” all they want, but Christian doctrine does not supersede U.S. law.  If your right to throw punches ends where my face begins, then your right to practise your religion ends where your book commands you to smite me.  The U.S. has no state religion, unlike nearly every European entity at the time of its formation (I say “entity,” rather than “country,” because the Holy Roman Empire still existed), much as people love to say that it is a Christian nation.

If you’re still reading, then I have some far more interesting stuff for you.  See, this is why I have tagged the post with “philosophy.”  Tolerance is paradoxical in nature: in order to be truly tolerant, do you tolerate the intolerant or not?  This is the problem with the First Amendment (and the only issue I’ve ever taken with it): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  Perhaps this should have included the phrase “free exercise within the limits of Federal law,” or something along that line, to prevent anyone from thinking, at any point, that they could substitute their religious doctrine for the laws of the land.  Anyone familiar with the early history of the United States (the real history that is, not the whitewashed version taught in U.S. public schools these days) knows that the U.S. actually became more religious as a direct response to the foundation of a secular republic.  However, those tolerant atheists, who made up a much larger portion of the population than you might expect, let it happen.  They let the reigns of power slip back into the hands of the church over time, because most had a “live and let live” attitude, and thus did nothing to forestall the Machiavellian plots (the Prince must appear to be pious, whether he is or not) of religious leaders seeking to gain political power.  This brings me to a later part of the conversation I had with my mother, about the rosy vs. sinister aspects of Christianity.  To quote [I used to think it was Cicero, but it’s actually another Roman statesman], “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”  There are a few good fables in the bible (and that’s being generous), but most of the stories are useless.  However, the useless ones are the ones that evangelical doomsday prophets love to shout from megaphones to keep everyone living in fear, giving their money to the church, and voting for church-approved politicians, some of whom are fundie dunces themselves.  I used to think that my liberal friends were always blowing this narrative out of proportion, but something always pops up to remind me that fundie dunces still exist.  The abortion bill in Ohio is one such example – tell me, honestly, that you don’t think people who believe abortion should be outlawed are religiously motivated.  Hell, if you think I’m naïvely optimistic now, I used to think that biblical literalism died in the Middle Ages – until I had my first run-in with a YEC (Young-Earth creationist) at the age of twelve.

I grew up believing the following: what you do is more important than what you believe, and where you are going matters more than where you come from.  Since my Mennonite friends also lived by these two principles, I erroneously assumed that they were Christian principles.  I could not have been more wrong.  Everyone else I have discussed philosophy with, in any context, always seems to route back to the issue of “morality comes from god (another word I refuse to capitalise out of spite),” or “you must accept creation in order to accept salvation.”  My responses to these, as you might expect, are “no” and “why?” respectively.  And then I actually read the bible, along with a book titled The Rise and Fall of the Nephilim, followed by several of the heretical gospels mentioned in it, many of which were remarkably similar to stories from Sumerian or Babylonian mythology (as if Genesis isn’t already).  The whole “live and let live” and “turn the other cheek” kind of stuff is only a miniscule fraction of the content of the scriptures, and therefore glossed over in favour of determining whether or not the first commandment forbids the creation of statues altogether, or simply the worshipping of them.  Then again, I think more people are concerned with whether or not abortion is murder.  The odd thing is that, according to the bible itself, a fetus isn’t alive, because a human doesn’t become alive until taking its first breath (never mind the fact that it can already move).  Now, if only I could remember where it said that, I could use that as my argument against fundies who think abortion should be outlawed.  I love using their own book against them and watching their heads explode as they immediately respond with “that’s not what that means!”  No, but that is what it says, and you’re the one who professes to take this damn book literally.

Ah, I feel much better.  You know what, I realise now why I’m not an anti-theist: if I changed all their minds, I’d have very few people left to mess with.  After all, radical leftists won’t even talk to me, but fundie dunces keep coming back for more.  Maybe I should tell them that I really do worship Tzeentch, and see how they respond to that…

Kaia Explains Secret Societies

What follows is a portion of what will, most likely, become chapter 25 in book 4, Songs of Steam and Steel.  However, upon reviewing my outline, I may have to change the order of some of the chapters, given the POV format I’ve chosen to use.  Unlike the last two passages I uploaded, I did not already have this written down.

Adya raised his tea glass to take a sip, and a large slab of meat slammed down on the table in front of him.  He turned to see Kaia, finally returned from the hunt.  “I slept outside,” she said, “I ate too much… again.”  “Does this mean -”  “Yes, Adya, you get to check me for parasitic arthropods.  Anyway, where’s Yanya?  I need to tell him something.”  “I’m right here.”  Yanya Nightjay rounded a corner and entered the solár, dressed in her usual simple white robe with dark blue trim.  “Plan on sharing?”  Yanya teased, poking the slab of meat.  “Get your own partner to feed you, Nightjay!”  Kaia rolled her eyes and beckoned two dwarves, one to boil the stag’s head she collected, and the other to put wrap up the meat before it could become the central focus of the room.  All three then sat down with their drinks; Adya still had tea, Yanya took wine, and Kaia had vodka, which was odd for her.  “Am I the only one who just noticed a huge tone-shift in this room?” Adya inquired.  His and Kaia’s eyes met for a few seconds before the awkward silence was finally broken.

“You were right about Castle Holgar,” Kaia told Yanya, “I encountered some travellers in the forest on the path between there and Castle Renkefin.  I suspect they are on the return leg of their journey.”  “Who would visit Holgar in the first place?” Adya asked cynically, “I thought no-one was crazy enough to go there, no matter how curious.”  “And during a total eclipse of the Prime Moon, no less,” Yanya added, “it’s quite macabre-looking, but it’s the best light to dive for vulture-bunnies in.  Yara and I have been doing it ever since we learned to fly.”  “Who won?”  “I did, because Yara got distracted by what he thought were voices inside the castle.  We checked it out, and someone was definitely hiding in the upper floors.  We couldn’t figure out where, exactly, because they got real quiet as soon as we started flying about inside.”  “Well, that someone was Rubina Karamazova,” Kaia explained.  “I stumbled across her after I killed that stag.  One of her companions tried to shoot me, and as much as I would have enjoyed slaughtering them all, I figured it best to let them go.”  “Why would Rubina visit Holgar?”  Adya seemed confused.  “There is only one reason: she possesses one of the few remaining copies of the Green-Eyed Raven’s book, and came to the conclusion that Holgar had answers to her many questions.  I doubt that anything useful has lasted long enough, seeing as the place has been in ruins for eight centuries.”  “Wait,” Adya interrupted, “how would she have gotten her hands on Veyra’s book in the first place?  Didn’t one of her own children remove it from the Imperial Archives in the Skharnograd Kremlin to prevent it from falling into the hands of Fëdor Karamazov?”  “I never said that’s where she would have gotten it from,” Kaia replied, “let me explain.”

“Shortly after Rubina disappeared from the capital, I paid a visit to one of her former professors, Miroslav Kelmek.  The man collected obscure books, and I have reason to believe that he supplied her with it.  Considering his status, or lack thereof, he would have been happy to be rid of the book.  Furthermore, there is another book that he had in his possession that caught my eye: The Incomplete History of Secret Societies.”  “Who cares,” Yanya sneered, “most of the information in that book is useless anyway, and anything that could be useful is wrong.  Why else would the Zigidzt Society allow it to exist, seeing as they control most publishing houses?”  “I think you’re forgetting that they publish a new version every time someone pisses them off, then hand it over to the authorities and have the rival organisation gutted,” Adya pointed out, “in fact, Aza once told me that a member of the Zigidzt Society itself actually published an edition with correct information on his own organisation and sent it to Qellhaun.  This, of course, is the reason that Sondor adopted a Taressim-style state-controlled press bureau, and the Zigidzt Society ultimately lost control of the criminal underworld in Sondor, creating a power vacuum that allowed the Black Marsh Rats to take over most of the mainland.”  “Pity his former co-conspirators found out who he was before Rua did,” Kaia lamented, “otherwise we could have finished what the Sondorian government started and have one fewer rival today.  Anyway, we were discussing Rhûn, not Sondor.”  “You mean Alexandria-Drachania, right?”  Yanya was probably teasing with her pedantry, but Adya could rarely tell.  Kaia rolled her eyes, “the Alexandrian people have always called themselves Rhûnnish, so how long before you think they change the name of the country back to what it was?  Anyway, Rubina’s curiosity is more serious than you think.  The reason I visited Kelmek was because Rubina had visited him shortly before disappearing on what we now know to be a trip to Castle Holgar, and it may interest you to know that Kelmek’s area of expertise is ancient languages.”  Adya and Yanya stared at each other, and said “crapbaskets” in unison.

Adya and Yanya both knew what this meant, for while no non-chuyinka could read Kiralessan, a professor of ancient languages would at least recognise it.  Furthermore, with the mammals’ recent discovery of Azarra’s tomb, they now had access to the most comprehensive sample of the language anywhere on Rossbera.  It was only a matter of time before they finally decrypted the language.  Kaia was right, they were running out of time, but preparations were still incomplete.  Yanya left the solár, presumably to return to her own work, and then Adya left as well, to go fetch that piece of meat the Kaia had brought back.  When he returned, Kaia was sitting at her desk, completely naked.  “I’ll check you for bugs as soon as I’m done eating,” he said.  “By all means, take your time.  I’ll be here all night.  I wish someone would hurry up and figure out how to make a Kiralessan typewriter!”  Adya imagined quite a bit of discontent, watching Kaia working with an incessantly clicking machine the size of a pipe organ, for how else would a typewriter be able to contain the forty thousand or so characters that Kiralessan had?  Thankfully, no such machine existed, and he was able to eat in peace.  He unwrapped the paper and examined the slab of meat.  It looked to be part of a backstrap – a very large one.  One bite at a time, he thought to himself as he picked it up in both hands and stuffed his face.  Adya had not quite mastered the art of partial trance, otherwise he could bring out his sharp teeth without having to fully transform.  His transformation was quite stable, unlike Kaia’s, as she was known to flash her face markings when she snapped at people.  For that very reason, she always kept a healthy distance from churches.

After he had finished eating, Adya kept looking over Kaia’s shoulder while running his fingers through her silvery hair, hoping to not find any bugs.  “Last thing I want is a tick attached to my egg-flaps,” she once said.  Kaia was working on something very odd indeed; there was no diagram, only equations.  “What is this for?”  “I’m trying to see if current capacitor technology has even a remote possibility of powering some kind of energy weapon.  I’d prefer using that for defensive purposes if possible.”  As Adya continued to run his hands over Kaia’s body, she explained exactly how she planned to augment her facilities in order to be able to run securely, even with badly interrupted supply lines.  She had a research station out in the middle of nowhere for this exact purpose, which she called simply “the Hub.”  Adya had seen it before, but never visited.  That would have to change, if he was to help his betrothed in this endeavour.  He was beginning to feel in over his head.  The two were growing farther apart, not closer.  When they were younger, neither wanted anything to do with the outside world, and would have been content to stay within their isolated sanctums, playing, studying, meditating, and hunting.  Adya still wanted that, but that was not the world they lived in anymore.  The world went on outside without the chuyinka, as it had for so many centuries, but now it was beginning to encroach.  Adya and many others wanted to run and hide, but Kaia wanted to fight.  “No, not fight,” in her own words, “exterminate.”

Journey Into Skhara

Below is the second of my three-part series on one of the intrigue plots in The Nine Empires.  Unlike the first and third posts, however, this one is not currently slated to be any specific chapter.  This is an old draft, and I plan to stretch this part of the story over eight chapters, with the first being the final chapter of book 3, Machinations of Crowns and Chains, while the other seven are scattered throughout book 4, Songs of Steam and Steel, taking place at the same time that other characters in other countries are caught up in the same over-arching conflict.

The trail went cold at Professor Kelmek’s office.  He was certainly knowledgeable, but he was also old and frail.  Any new information he could offer was in the form of rare books or articles in obscure journals.  The last society to have any known interaction with these “chuyinka” was Skhara.  The time had come to leave her comfort zone and make the journey deep into the Blackwood, where most of the old Skharan castles stood.

“An adventure that every sensible person you know has called ‘suicide?'”  Idrailu seemed as enthusiastic as ever.  “I’m in!”  Marcus and Bedalia seemed more nonchalant, with Marcus lamenting that he could never go back to his own country anyway, and Bedalia grumbling about the consequences of having wasted so much time.  “Shall we take Frehr’s airship?”  Idrailu’s old friend Frehr had just built an old-style airship, using an old boat, no less, and Idrailu was itching to see the balloon inflate.  All agreed, as a home-built airship was the least likely to be intercepted.  Still, the train would have been faster, even if there was no direct line.  After all, they still had half a continent to cross.

Frehr’s airship was already inflated by the time they arrived.  It looked to be a rickety contraption, and Rubina sincerely hoped that the dubious-looking platform was just to hold the hull upright on the ground, and not Frehr’s idea of landing struts.  “Cap’n’s waitin’ fo ya!”  That barely intelligible voice could be of only one person: Lannes, the mischievous ‘street rat’ whom Idrailu had taken under his wing during has days in the ne’er-do-well theatre troupe.  He was calling down from the top deck of the airship, which Rubina could see was an open platform high above the boat hull.  Lannes appeared to be checking the tension in the lines connecting the balloon to the boat hull, making sure none of them were loose or broken.  The balloon itself, though plain and unpainted, seemed to be well-made, without the crude patches that Rubina had first pictured, given the crude construction of nearly everything else Frehr had ever built.  “It’s amazing how nice a man’s creations can be with a woman nagging him about décor.”  Rubina whipped around to see a wiry brunette in filthy dungarees.  “And you are…?”  “Dasi!”  Idrailu shouted.  “Finally got the old man to finish his airship, did you?”  Idrailu introduced the young, filthy albeit attractive woman as “Frehr’s better half.”  Then again, compared to the greasy, frizzy-haired inventor Frehr, Dasi was probably still cleaner.  “Are we going to stand around talking about who hasn’t met whom,” Bedalia snapped, “or are we going to pack up and take off?”

After a week in the air, the merry bunch landed in Seremtis, Kantossa.  Idrailu said he had an old friend in Seremtis who “knew the business” of getting people into the abandoned Skharan castles.  “I’m not going to lie to you, Knives,” he told Rubina, “this is dangerous business, so we had to come to a dangerous place.”  Rubina was not one bit worried, since everything she had heard made the Blackwood sound like a far more dangerous place than any dark alley in the seedy part of town.  The group followed Idrailu down a damp alleyway, trying not to trip on the badly shifted cobblestones that were covered with slime.  In a way, it was good that the stones had shifted so much, because any smooth road with this much slime on it would have been worse to walk on than a frozen pond.  “First left, third right, second right, left, left, left,” Idrailu kept repeating to himself, clearly recalling directions he had been given.  At last, the group reached their door.  The scruffy man who answered said few words, but seemed quite fond of Idrailu.  The rest, however, he looked at very suspiciously, particularly Bedalia.  The group all gathered at the bar, which was empty but for one dark and quiet fellow at the end.  Idrailu, meanwhile, sat down at a table with Berran, whom Rubina recognised from the old theatre troupe.  This was not normally the route one would take when trying to get a tour of a castle, but then, Holgar was no ordinary castle.

After they left the dark pub and made it to a decent hotel, Idrailu told them what was going on.  “There’s an abandoned village immediately south of here called Somnask,” he said, “our guide will meet us there.”  Was it that simple?  For now, it was.  However, they had not even entered the woods.  Getting out was not an issue… yet.  The next day, the group left the hotel and hired a carriage to take them to Somnask.  Idrailu haggled over the fare to a town not on any normal route until Bedalia grabbed the cabbie’s hand and dropped ten ducats in it.  No-one argued, and the five went on their way, with Frehr and Dasi having gone back to stay with the airship.

The group arrived in Somnask in the evening.  The town was rather unusual, with not a single light to break up the black silhouette in the deep blue evening sky.  It was abandoned, all right.  A long time too, by the looks of it.  Several centuries, in fact.  Stone skeletons were all that remained of the buildings.  Doors were gone, turned to dust and scattered to the wind.  The dirt streets were continuous with the floors of the buildings, with patches of grass and the occasional gnarled tree growing in random places.  “What do you suppose happened here?”  Marcus asked.  “The Plague of Holgar happened,” replied a gruff voice from the shadows.  “I’m Murtz, seeing as the old man probably never told you.”  Murtz was everything one would expect a tour guide not to be: he looked like he belonged in the wild, with a messy black beard and grizzled hair.  His wrinkled face and twisted nose had probably survived more winters than most, and he certainly spoke as such.  “We’ll stay here tonight.  Not many buildings in this town offer decent shelter, but it’s better than being out in the open, and no way in hell are we moving through the Blackwood at night.”  “Werewolves?”  Lannes gasped, hoping for a scary story.  “Nay, but worse things than werewolves live in those trees, lad.  You can be sure of that.”  The group followed Murtz to the ruins of what was probably an inn back in the day.  Though all the timbers had rotted out, enough remained that Murtz was able to fashion a roof on the first story from tents.  The stonework had been badly weathered, and the walls were little more than stacks of stones.  The mortar had even worn through in many places, with small holes in the stone walls allowing everything in, including the wind, bats, and every spooky sound the night had to offer.

Marcus had never spent a single night of his life in the pitch-black wilderness, only a few nights in the snow-covered isolation of Drachania, where one’s eyes adjusted easily, and few animals interrupted the total silence.  This was different.  There was no snow to reflect the moonlight, and many a spine-chilling sound was to be heard.  It seemed that Murtz was half-awake the whole time, naming every sound to calm Marcus.  Either that, or naming animal calls was just something that Murtz did in his sleep.  Raaagh!  Raaagh!  Raaagh!  “Fox,” he muttered.  Roooowr!  Mmmmm-rowr!  “Cat,” he muttered again.  “Fox, c-c-c-cat?”  Marcus, the city-slicker, seemed like he’d keep everyone else awake with his pounding heart.  “H-h-h-how loud is a wolf?”  AAAROOOOO!  Marcus flew back into the wall, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head.  “Does that answer your question?”  Idrailu answered this time.  “Nothing is going to wander into town and drag you off into the woods, now get some sleep.”

Halfway through the night, Rubina awoke to a faint, distant-sounding cry.  More precisely, though, it was Murtz who woke her up.  That faint, distant chrrr-aaagh seemed to make him jump as much as the wolf did with Marcus.  Murtz could tell someone else in the room was awake.  “Night’s dragon,” he whispered, “gets me every time.  If you ever get closer than this to that blasted critter, you’d know why.”  And with that, Murtz rolled over and went back to sleep.

When morning arrived, the group pulled down the tents in the old inn and packed up everything they would need to for an excursion into dangerous woods.  “Here’s the deal,” Murtz told them, “we keep moving until we find an optimal spot for shelter.  Not acceptable, optimal.  We stop and make camp as soon as night falls, understand?  It won’t be as dark as it was when you came to Somnask.  The Blackwood is a dangerous place, make no mistake, but stick together and you just might make it through.”

Once out of Somnask, it took a few hours to cross into the dense forest of the Blackwood.  Already, it seemed to get darker.  Though there were few leaves on the gnarled, haunted-looking trees, a perpetual cloud seemed to hang over the forest.  The locals stayed well away from the area.  Murtz reminded the group that Somnask was in real no-man’s land, that is, no country claimed the town, much less any of the Blackwood itself.  Whatever hung over this place, no-one wanted any part of it.  Death was the rule here, and yet animals still populated the Blackwood.  Creatures of the night they may have been, but there was nothing biologically wrong with them.  After all, wolves may be dangerous, but that didn’t make them evil.  Yet, as Murtz said several times, wolves were the least of their concerns.

It was about three in the afternoon when the group came across an old castle.  “May as well make camp here,” Murtz told them, “we won’t do better than this, all these castles are at least two day’s walk apart.”  According to his map, this was Castle Renkefin, home of the Votok family, a minor noble family of Skhara.  It wasn’t Holgar, but perhaps there might be some answers within.  Rubina seemed less and less certain to find something the more she looked.  Skharan castles were built of concrete, and built to last, but the concrete was all that lasted.  Eight centuries had passed since the fall of Skhara, and the great plague had devastated its lands, so it seemed unlikely that anything else from the period was simply lying around, waiting out in the open to be discovered.  While Rubina and Idrailu searched through Castle Renkefin, Murtz told Marcus, Bedalia, and Lannes about the strange creature that seemed to frighten even him.

“The mountains at Alexandria’s eastern border separate it from both Kantossa and the Blackwood, so most Alexandrians have no knowledge of the Blackwood, as Kantossi and Drachanians do.  They will all tell you that wolves are the least of your worries in the Blackwood, as a creature called the Night’s Dragon prowls the skies above.  Now, they call it a dragon, but I say it’s a giant owl, since it supposedly has feathered wings and small horns on its head.  Either way, it’s bad news.  This thing can see in near total darkness, and can hear a pin drop from a mile away.  I’ve seen it a few times, and every time I have, it’s not long before or after it’s just torn some poor creature to shreds.  That thing will eat anything that moves, and you’re best off just finding a hole in the ground to hide in until it moves on.”  “I’ve heard like stories,” Bedalia told him, “they say that the Skharnovs unleashed something terrible on the land, but I always thought that was the plague.”  “Aye,” Murtz began another story, “It was believed that the Skharnovs made biological warfare into a science in the days when others bumbled around like amateurs.  It’s no secret that the Skharnovs were undone by their own weapons once the rebellion was inside their own castle.  It’s possible that the rebels unleashed the plague when they burned down Holgar with the stores of incendiary weapons.  Now, the stories of the Night’s Dragon go back even further.  I think the Skharnovs themselves perpetuated this story in order to keep people in line, but I doubt they had any real connection to the creature.  Supposedly, they used black magic to summon a creature from the depths of hell to do their bidding, and when they died, the creature was still in our world, so no-one could send it back.  The problem is that this creature is no dragon.  A dragon that old would be enormous by now.  Besides, there have been way too many sightings of this thing for there to be only one.  No way.  This thing is some giant, predatory bird that feeds and breeds and dies like any other animal.  But, just because it’s no hell-spawn doesn’t make it any less dangerous.”

There was the connection between Skhara and the chuyinka, Rubina thought to herself, as she overheard Murtz’s story when she was getting back from exploring the castle.  If the Night’s Dragon resembles those old engravings, then it will all fit.  Then the real question will be “what is the true link between the Skharnovs and the chuyinka?”  “What is it that that Night’s Dragon is said to have done for the Skharnovs,” Rubina asked.  “Ah,” Murtz began yet another story, “as you know, rulers are far more wary of those who speak against them than they are of those who break into their palaces.  The Skharnovs were no exception, and supposedly used the Night’s Dragon to snatch people from their homes and carry them off to Castle Holgar.  These people would never be seen again, leading many people to believe that simply speaking ill of the Skharnovs would lead to disappearing in the middle of the night.  The more savvy people saw some winged creature come and go, and that’s where the stories come from… or so I’m told.  As I was saying earlier, the Skharnovs themselves probably spread a lot of these rumours themselves.”  “How does one tame a Night’s Dragon,” Idrailu inquired.  “How does anyone tame any bird of prey?” was Murtz’s response.

The group had made camp inside one of the bastions of the castle, surrounded by thick concrete walls on three sides, with a narrow opening from the bastion into the main yard.  They had hung the tents from rusty hooks and eyes in the walls to make a crude roof, just as Murtz had done for them in Somnask.  Once again, even with no doors to speak of, they felt fairly safe… aside from the ever-present threat of the Night’s Dragon.  In the middle of the night, one seemed to come quite close, as its characteristic chrrr-aaagh could be heard, seemingly just outside the castle walls, just before the thud of a large animal hitting the ground.  “That would be the creature coming down and breaking its neck,” Murtz whispered, still shaking, “I’ve seen it happen.”  Murtz was a tough man, and very little frightened him.  He seemed truly afraid of the Night’s Dragon, however.  If he thought this was a dangerous creature, and wolves were nothing, then it’s little wonder the others prayed to whatever gods they still held never to cross paths with this beast.

The following morning, they came across a wild dog dragging a mutilated carcass away from the castle.  The dog became frightened and ran off as soon as it saw them, leaving its prize behind.  It was a deer.  Much of the meat had been torn off the bones, the heart, lungs, and liver were gone, and the skull was split open and empty.  “This is fresh,” Murtz told them, “from last night.  Definitely work of the Night’s Dragon.  They’ve been unusually active on this trip.  More than half my trips into the Blackwood,” he paused and looked at everyone individually, “I never even hear one.”

As they bid farewell to Castle Renkefin, knowing that they wouldn’t see another castle in at least two days, they noticed that the trees seemed even more evil-looking than before.  More and more, they saw trees that were broken and dead, trees that looked to have been broken again and again, but held on to life until only a few cycles ago, leaving little more that great wooden spikes sticking out of the ground at odd angles.  There were trees twisted into bizarre knots, some of them around stone pillars, some around the stone remains of old houses and mills.  “This was big farm country back in the day,” Murtz told them, “of course, it was still a forest, even back then, but there was still enough open land to farm.  The people had to supply their lords’ castles with food.  Castle Holgar’s the biggest, so there are more mills around there.  We should be able to find a decent mill to take shelter in tonight.”

Many an animal in black crossed their path as they tried to follow the road, a road which Murtz insisted was there, but no-one else could see.  Ravens perched in the gnarled trees, cawing to warn them.  Cats walked out in front of them and arched their backs, not wanting them to pass.  Murtz simply kicked them out of the way.  Buzzards circled above left and right, no doubt waiting their turn on the meagre remains that the Night’s Dragon had left.  Rubina wanted answers, and she was not about to let silly peasant superstitions keep her away.  Thankfully, she was in good company.

The mill that they came too was a good bit cosier than Castle Renkefin.  They had a real roof this time, once they managed to clean out the cellar.  The mill was half underground.  The steps leading down to the cellar door were crumbled to the point one could be forgiven for not knowing they were steps.  The door itself was long gone, but the way was overgrown.  Inside, many a cobweb made the inside impossible to move through, but once cleaned out, the old mill was quite comfortable.  They laid out the tents on the floor, and hung one behind the door to keep the wind out.  That night was strangely quiet, save for the distant screeches of the Night’s Dragon.  Though not enough to wake up Marcus, they still had Murtz jumping.  What manner of encounter has he had with this creature?  After a bit of pondering, Rubina realised that perhaps it wasn’t the creature’s savage nature, but its appearance that had him so shaken up.  Those answers couldn’t come fast enough.

The group kept moving a bit longer the next day, as Murtz knew Castle Holgar was only one more day away.  They should arrive by evening, assuming they did not get held back.  As they drew ever closer to the castle, the road inexplicably cleared, and the trees became both larger and farther apart.  Perhaps in the castle’s heyday, the trees were part of the defences, but now all that remained were splintered stumps, sticking up like giant spikes.  They were all rotted, but Rubina imagined they hadn’t changed much, having been left undisturbed for the better part of eight centuries.  Smaller trees wrapped themselves around the stumps of the larger ones, and twisted into bizarre knots.  These trees were also long dead, but far from rotten.  How could anything live in this forest with nothing but dead trees?  After miles and miles of walking through this twisted orchard, the group could finally see their destination poking up from the horizon: the battered ruins of Castle Holgar.

Holgar was massive, easily the largest castle any of them had ever seen.  Its pointed bastions extended farther than the corners of even the White Keep.  On the inner structure could be clearly seen the remains of four large turrets, each almost as large as Castle Renkefin.  There wasn’t much left of them now, just broken walls.  The merlons had worn away to the point that they were spikes of differing lengths lining the tops of the walls.  Some huge sections of the upper walls were lying a great distance from the castle, resting on long-dead trees.  It looked as if the castle had been blown up from the inside – which would certainly fit Murtz’s story, especially since the Skharans were rumoured to have used explosives in war, and where else would they store them?  Castle Holgar was in terrible shape, to be sure, but if anything worthwhile survived, it was worth looking here for it.

As before, Idrailu and Rubina explored the castle while the others set up camp.  With the gates and portcullises long rotted away, the gatehouse seemed like a city’s triumphal arch in comparison, with the top a good twenty metres above their heads.  “That was one big door back in the day,” Marcus remarked.  The hall just behind the gate was equally massive, with all the regular-size doors looking like mouse-holes by comparison.  Which one to go in?  Murtz peeked in each one quickly before deciding on one.  The lantern glow would make it easy to find in the dark.  Idrailu and Rubina came to the castle’s centre, where the halls from each of the castle’s four gates joined.  There was no hall like this anywhere, not the White Keep or anywhere else.  Yet, try as she might, Rubina could not imagine what the castle was like in its younger days, for it had been devoid of life for far too long.  The concrete was worn and cracking, the iron fixtures had rusted into barely recognisable lumps, not a speck of colour was to be seen, and strangest of all, not one animal seemed to have made the castle its home.  Rubina had never believed in ghost stories, but now she was starting to wonder if she was in one.

After climbing several flights of stairs, Idrailu and Rubina came to one of the ruined turrets.  Most of the floor was missing, as were the walls.  They could clearly see the patchy, crumbling roof and the remains of the other three turrets where they stood.  They went back down, and tried their best to follow the devastation to its source.  Rubina rubbed her gloved hand over a large crack in the wall and looked at her fingers.  “Charcoal,” she said, “how exactly does one burn down a concrete fortress?”  “Dark fire,” Murtz had snuck up behind them, “it was a Skharan weapon.  Everyone fool enough to fight them got their taste of it.  When the people finally had enough, they stormed castles all over the country and set the magazines on fire.  They didn’t burn down Holgar so much as blow it up.”

Even though the group was huddled in a tiny room off one of dozens of narrow corridors concealed within the vastness of Holgar, they felt no safer here than the ruins of Somnask.  Every shrill animal cry echoed throughout the halls.  Wolves were in the great halls, it seemed to greet them… or alert the Night’s Dragon of trespassers.  Bedalia imagined the latter, since it was not long after that those terrible screeches could be heard echoing through the halls, replacing every other haunting sound.  “They’re flying right through,” Murtz whispered, “I told you, they’re not very big, they can fly right through those open gates.  Everyone stay put, and maybe they won’t find us.”  They could tell which direction the Night’s Dragon was flying, in through the south gate, out through the north, and back in through the west.  Sometimes, it would turn in the middle, coming in the north gate and going out the east.  “It knows where we are,” Murtz whispered.  He was right, the creature knew exactly where the group was huddled, and kept getting closer and closer.  Once, peering through a crack in the wall, Idrailu swore he could see the creature staring back at him several rooms over.

“Where’s Lannes?”  The first thing on everyone’s mind in the morning was find the mischievous boy.  “If there’s anything left of him,” Murtz lamented, “I told that stupid kid to stay put, but if he was wandering about last night, then he’s probably been ripped to shreds.”  They could hear faint cries coming from above them, and figured he’d fallen while exploring.  As they could clearly hear “help me,” upon climbing higher into the castle, there was hope.  He hadn’t been eaten by the Night’s Dragon, after all.  He’d fallen through one of the many holes in the floors, and into a room filled with odds and ends.  A wooden chest had broken his fall and crumbled into dust.  Rubina decided to open the chest, which proved difficult get into, despite being rotten and squished.  Of course, eight centuries of rust made the lock and hinges simply fall apart after a few minutes of fiddling, and the chest yielded it secrets.  It was mostly old documents, all of which were written in Skharan, which no-one there could read, but was not a particularly exotic language, certainly not like the glyphs that ancient chuyinka-worshippers wrote with.  Strangest of all in the chest was a map of the Blackwood, with the names of all the castles on it.  Rubina asked to compare it to Murtz’s map.  When she did, she noticed one castle that Murtz didn’t have.  “And I bet I know which one,” Murtz remarked.  “Derekáz,” they said in unison.

While the others sought out a safer room in a different part of the castle, Murtz told Rubina the legend of Castle Derekáz.  “This map is exceedingly valuable,” he told her, “because even other maps of the period don’t have Derekáz on it.  The Skharnovs kept the place a secret.  No-one’s sure why, but legend has it that’s where they kept the keys to their power.  The alchemists who developed concrete and dark fire supposedly worked out of that castle.  Whoever controlled Derekáz controlled Skhara.  Then again, there are other versions of the story.  Most people at the time believed Derekáz to be abandoned, or even haunted.  Nowadays, ask anyone about the place and they’ll tell you it never existed.  At least now, we have some evidence to the contrary.”  “Evidence?  You wouldn’t call this ‘proof?'”  “Nay, proof would be seeing the castle with my own eyes, and that’s not happening any time soon.  It’s built into the mountains at the northern edge of the forest, according to this map.  That means it’s going to be damn near impossible to get to.  Besides, the Night’s Dragon has been unusually persistent this time.  The sooner we get out of here, the better.”

Derekáz existed.  The castle wasn’t just a Skharan ghost story that hadn’t been told in eight centuries.  It burned in Rubina’s mind.  Perhaps the secrets she sought were in Castle Derekáz.  The problem was getting there.  It was clear that Murtz would never take her.  Then again, she had a map, and she had an airship.  Frehr was probably crazy enough to fly right over Derekáz.  What’s the worst that could happen.  She pondered over and over as she searched for more clues throughout Holgar’s ruined halls.

Night fell, and no wolves howled.  They had heard foxes during the day, and cats in the evening, but with the only light coming from the moon and stars now, the Night’s Dragon was the only creature they heard now.  The screeches were slightly different, at different distances and different directions.  Murtz was right, there was more than one.  One had found them last night, and tonight it brought friends.  No-one spoke, but all agreed, this would be the last night they spent in this damned castle.  One creature flew through the halls, first north to south, then west to east.  It landed above them, crawling quietly through the crumbling ruins of the turret above their room.  No doubt it could hear them breathing, if not their hearts pounding in unison.  The creature was quiet, but they knew it was still there.  Worse, they knew the creature was aware of their presence.  They heard a deep growl, not like that of any wolf, from the corridor.  The Night’s Dragon was coming their way!  Idrailu put his head to the wall, and could hear soft footsteps outside.  There were too many.  There was more than one slinking through the castle!  “Ikh brězmai dhurunéss!” one of them hissed.  “Kormísh enghalad… dyornai!” the other replied.  The two then left the castle, screeching as they flew off into the night.  This did not leave anyone comforted.  The Night’s Dragon spoke a language?  Murtz decided that once the creatures were no longer audible, they would start packing.  “We leave at first light,” he snapped, “I’ve had enough of these… things!”

Murtz had said several times that the Night’s Dragon was unusually active on this trip.  Rubina couldn’t help but think it had something to do with her.  She told no-one her hunch, she knew that they would chalk it up as a peasant superstition, and scold her for holding such ideas.  This hunch was beneath her, but now she wasn’t so sure it was just a hunch.  A mysterious ancient language, a secret society, legends of ancient shape-shifters, and now hunters in the dark – that could talk, and an ancient castle that had passed out of all knowledge.  This trip raised even more questions than it was supposed to have answered.

A fell wind blew through the trees as the group made their way out of Castle Holgar, toward the edge of the Blackwood.  The ravens fled before them, as if knowing they were all marked for death… or worse.  No-one spoke, they all just kept moving.  When it was time to stop, they had passed beyond the remains of farm country, and not a mill or hut was in sight.  Fortunately, there was many an uprooted tree in the forest, and shelter was easy to come by.  Some animal would have to go without it tonight, but out here, it was either steal some poor animal’s den, or get eaten by the Night’s Dragon.  Then again, perhaps, they should have picked a tree that fell the other way.

The tent concealed them well, but it still would have looked out of place to a discerning eye in the sky.  Marcus and Bedalia huddled together beneath the tree roots, Murtz stood watch over the tent while Idrailu looked out for Rubina, who relieved herself some distance away.  She was just finishing when they heard the screech off in the distance.  Then came the thunder.  Animals were stampeding away, running past all the little holes that sheltered the separated party.  Murtz hid underneath the fallen tree, in a depression underneath the trunk that some animal had dug, and both Rubina and Idrailu jumped down into holes dug between the roots of the standing tree she had just peed on.  They both pulled branches over their borrowed burrows and watched the animals bounding through.  The screeching got louder as the Night’s Dragon approached.  Rubina could see it.  On great feathered wings it soared, in hot pursuit of a stag.  Carefully dodging the tree branches, the winged creature came ever lower, closing the distance.  Quick as lightning, it swoop down, using its momentum and massive talons to snap the stag’s neck.  A few metres beyond their hovel, the lifeless body of the stag came to a halt, its killer’s talons still wrapped firmly around its neck.  The creature bent down, intending to feed, but something stopped it.  It looked up and around, growling like a wolf and hissing like a cat.  Rubina could not stop watching it.  It stood straight up, and turned in place.  Then it grabbed an antler, and started to drag the stag’s carcass.  It grabbed the antler with its… hand?  This creature appeared to have arms, as well as wings.  Slowly, it moved in circles, dragging its kill.  Its eyes shone bright when the moonlight hit them, and although its face was still obscured in darkness, it appeared to have neither snout nor beak.  Its nose was small and well-shaped, rather like Idrailu’s.  This creature had the feathered “horns” that most owls had, but its head appeared also to be draped with long, shimmering, silvery hair.  That same shimmering hair that Kveta had… loathe of Rubina’s life, for she would not even be on this trip were it not for Kveta Vamaruchenko and her tantalising mysteries.  The creature turned to Rubina, and stared squarely at her, then began to walk… straight toward her, dead stag in tow.  Rubina could not stop watching, she was frozen in place with fright.  Every time the creature took another step, Rubina felt her heart try to jump up her throat and out her mouth.  Was it possible to be frightened to death?  She was certain that someone in the group would know by morning, if anyone survived.  Before she knew it, the creature was right on top of her, with one foot firmly grasping the root just above her head.  Four toes forward, one toe back, and each tipped with a talon the size of a meat-hook.  The creature’s lower legs were bare, but black feathers covered the knees and its thighs… were covered by a sleek, black skirt fastened with square buttons.  Those buttons were turned so their corners lined up, and they were large enough that Rubina could see the markings on them.  It couldn’t be!  Kveta’s sigil on every one of them!  As Rubina’s eyes made their way up the creature’s body, she saw bizarre black markings on one side of its pale grey torso, and black markings over its eyes.  Though the night was dark, and the creature’s eyes glowing, there was no hiding that obnoxious dark blue hue that every woman wanted but none had, save for Kveta.  Rubina closed her eyes, for how long she did not know, but by the time she opened them again, morning had come, and that strange creature was gone.

There was no sign of the Night’s Dragon for the rest of the journey back to Somnask.  It didn’t matter.  Rubina was now convinced that Kveta Vamaruchenko, that dark, mysterious, beautiful merchant of death was a shape-shifting bird of prey from a bygone age.  “Chuyinka,” she repeated, “Kveta Vamaruchenko is chuyinka, I’m sure of it, the true name of the Night’s Dragon.  She could have killed me, what purpose could she have had for leaving me alive?”

An Unholy Presence and a Tongue of the Gods

Well, you know how plans always change?  I still haven’t finished translating my post about validation into Russian, and then I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about a certain intrigue plot in The Nine Empires.  Part of this plot will be released in three posts, and I started with the third post, but decided to save it and release it later, since it requires some context.  That context will be in the form of two other parts of this plot, which I already had saved as MS Word documents.  What follows is currently slated to be the middle third of chapter 25 in book 3, Machinations of Crowns and Chains.

Rubina recalled the day that her home stopped feeling safe.  It was a great day for the Alexandrian Empire, as a new airship landed on the grounds of the Skharnograd Kremlin.  This airship was unlike any other in Alexandria, for although it looked like a flying galleon used during the early days of the Karamazov Dynasty, it had eight bell-shaped devices attached to its sides, each with two lime-coloured glowing rings on the bottom.  It was no mystery what these devices were, they were glossarion levitators.  The development of this miracle flying device sparked a continent-wide arms race.  At last, the technology had come to Alexandria.  No longer would the Empire need to feel threatened.  However, that was the day that two terrible spectres were invited into the White Keep of the Kremlin, spectres that Rubina had no way to get rid of.  One was the spectre of war, the other… was something far more mysterious.

The name Kveta Vamaruchenko was not widely known in Alexandria.  Though she was supposedly born in Annastaport, her name sounded more Drachanian in origin.  In any case, she did most of her business in Kantossa.  Newspapers began to pay some small attention to the eccentric arms dealer ever since she bought the five-masted windjammer Mazovia, though even that was not a front-page event, much less any of Kveta’s other doings.  That was all in the past now, as Kveta Vamaruchenko had earned an office in one of the Kremlin buildings.  For Rubina, this was too close for comfort.  Kveta’s very existence bothered Rubina to no end, after all, who… what was she?  She had fair, youthful skin, dark blue eyes of the exact hue that everyone wanted but no-one had, and shimmering, silvery hair, which she always kept tied in a ponytail that went down to her waist.  She was fairly tall and quite slender, but with large feet, broad shoulders, and no breasts at all.  Far more peculiar, however, were her short, rounded ears, and no tail to speak of.  If she was simply hiding it, she hid it well, for there was no hint of even a stump beneath her sleek, tightly-fitted black coat.  Rubina never trimmed her tail hair, so it looked an actual pony’s tail, but most votrels she knew kept their tail hair well-trimmed, so that brush-like tuft protruded no farther than the tail-bones themselves.  But the ears… votrels had short, pointed ears, lavkins had long, rounded ears, somewhat like a rabbit, and semki had something in-between.  Kveta’s ears were unlike anything Rubina had ever seen.  Everyone seemed blind to it.  Then again, Rubina’s mother didn’t seem to see very well, and no-one dared question her decision to bring this mystery woman into the Empire’s service.  It seemed disturbingly similar to the story of the emperor’s new clothes, only Rubina couldn’t figure out if Kveta was the clothing or the trickster who made it.

Kveta did her best to avoid Rubina whenever circumstances required her to walk about the White Keep.  Yet, for as big as the castle was, Rubina always knew when Kveta was there.  Her peculiar appearance notwithstanding, she seemed to have this dark aura surrounding her.  Sometimes, Rubina swore she could even see it.  Perhaps Kveta could read people’s thoughts, and knew to avoid Rubina.  Perhaps it was worse, and Kveta could also control people’s thoughts.  Whatever the case, the mystery deepened as time went on.

Yura Pilinski was a tall, gangly young man who worked in the same building as Kveta.  He was surprisingly strong for being little more than skin and bones, and could usually be seen moving large stacks of papers between offices.  He was always rather bashful around Rubina, never making eye contact and frequently dropping things.  One day, he rounded a corner and almost collided with Rubina.  Half of his stack of papers kept moving forward and ended up scattered at Rubina’s feet.  Without saying a word, she knelt to help pick them up.  She noticed something rather peculiar: every single paper with Kveta’s sigil on it was written in some strange sort of code.  The letters all fit into squares, rather than the rectangles of most letters, and were arranged in perfect arrays on the paper, with only a few squares left vacant – presumably, the spaces between the words.  Even the letters themselves were odd, with numerous strokes and bizarre shapes.  She did her best to study the odd pages as she picked them up and handed them back to Yura.  When Yura had his stack of papers intact again, he went to bow, and almost dumped them all on the floor again.  “Don’t!”  Rubina held up both her hands.  “On your way,” she said sweetly, “and try not to run into anyone else.”

Rubina completely forgot why she was in that building in the first place.  Whatever the case, she knew where she was off to next.  The writing on Kveta’s papers did not look at all familiar, but she had seen sets of square glyphs before while studying ancient languages.  She thought that perhaps Professor Kelmek had a sample of something similar.  If not, then hopefully she would be able to remember enough of the strange symbols to produce a sample, and he would be able to tell her what language it was.

Professor Kelmek’s office was in the Hall of Literature and Linguistics at the University of Skharnograd.  The hall was a great four-storey brick building, the outside covered in arched windows.  Inside, the hallways went in a rectangle, with offices lined around the outside of the building, and lecture halls in the centre of the building.  Rubina had walked these halls many times, but still could never remember if it was quicker to get to the stairs by turning right or left.  Kelmek’s office was on the third floor, and the stairs were not all in the same place on each floor.  Rubina couldn’t help but wonder whose idea that was.  After a good fifteen minutes of walking around the halls, passing what seemed like countless identical brown doors on featureless white walls, she came to room 344.  The professor’s schedule was hanging from a hook to the left of the door.  Rubina was in luck, he was here.  She knocked thrice.

Rubina could hear the slow shuffle of the old professor’s feet on the carpet as he approached the door.  “Your grace,” he said in his soft, low voice when he saw who was visiting him, “it’s good to see you again.  What can I do for you?”  “Do you have an anthology of ancient languages?  I came across some interesting glyphs recently, but I couldn’t recognise the language.”  “Ahh,” the professor’s eyes widened as he stroked his beard.  Rubina had been one of his best students, and he was always pleased to see people keep up with their studies.  “Come, come.  I have just the book for you.”  Professor Kelmek shuffled back into his office.  It was a rather cosy office, with his chair and desk in front of the arched window.  He had a small library, with two bookcases abutting the window, two back-to-back with each of those, and two more against the walls of his office.  He kept all his references close to his desk.  On the top shelf, to the left of his desk, was the book he meant to retrieve.  He struggled to reach it, even with his short ladder, for it was clearly not a book he opened very frequently.  “Here,” he grunted, slamming the book down on his desk, “this contains fairly extensive samples of nearly every ancient language known.”  “How do I narrow it down?”  Rubina did not intend to go through the whole book if she didn’t have to.  “Truthfully,” Professor Kelmek replied, “this reference is organised according to time and place, not glyph shape.  If all you have is the latter, then I’m afraid it will take some time to find.”  Before Rubina even opened the book, she took a piece of paper out of her pocket with some of the glyphs scrawled on it, and handed it to the professor.  He pondered it for a few minutes as Rubina began flipping through the pages.

At last, Professor Kelmek gasped.  “You needn’t waste your time with that book, my dear.  These glyphs look almost exactly like a rather recent discovery.”  He then showed her a recent issue of The Journal of Rossberan Archaeology.  The entire issue was devoted to a mysterious discovery in the northernmost mountain of Alexandria.  Were it not for airships, the site may have never been discovered.  For toward the summit, cut into a nearly vertical cliff face, was a rectangular doorway.  When the survey crew of the airship lowered the ladder the reach the doorway, they discovered that it was the entrance to a long, narrow passageway that led into a great cylindrical chamber.  There were fourteen more passages, arranged in a helix around the chamber.  Each of these passages was quite short, and led to another chamber.  Each chamber held a single stone sarcophagus, the base of which was carved directly from the stone of the mountain, so that only the lid could be moved.  These sarcophagi held no mummies, bones, or items of any kind, only ash.  Around the rims of the lids, the sarcophagi themselves, and the around the entrances to the chamber passages were these odd glyphs, the likes of which no-one had ever seen before.  Though initial estimates are rarely even remotely accurate, by studying the change in weathering patterns from the doorway in the mountainside to the inside of the great cylindrical chamber, the first group of archaeologists to study the site concluded that it was around 3000 full years old.  “Three thousand years?!”  Rubina was utterly shocked.  “That’s twenty thousand cycles!”  Rossberan history was not well-known three thousand cycles ago, much less twenty.

The match between the symbols was uncanny.  There was simply no way that the glyphs Rubina saw could be any other language.  But how?  How could Kveta Vamaruchenko possibly be fluent in a language that no-one had seen in twenty millennia?  Then Rubina spotted another book in the professor’s office.  “The Incomplete History of Secret Societies,” she read, “might I have a look at that?”  Professor Kelmek got the book, then went off to his next class, leaving Rubina alone in his office.  She flipped through the pages of The Incomplete History of Secret Societies, hoping to find mention of some organisation that was known for using dead languages as codes.  The Alchemist’s Guild was one of the first entries she read that mentioned such a practise, but although alchemists used many different symbols and codes, no alchemist was known to use long-dead bronze-age languages.  The closest link she could find were alchemists from Kantossa being known to use Rekezian runes, which were in common use up until about two centuries before the formation of Skhara.  Rubina was somewhat familiar with Rekezian, which had many runes that looked rather similar to the simpler glyphs found in the mountain discovery.  However, the connection was extremely loose, and Rekezian was far too recent.

The next entry she came across was The VFD, an organisation noted to be “so secret, its existence might still be unknown if not for its members being exposed just before its downfall.”  The VFD, whatever that stood for, operated for a very short time, quite recently, in fact.  The organisation was known for crafting complex optical code-reading devices, encoding/decoding typewriters, and for hiding coded communications in some of the very first moving pictures.  The technology they developed was discovered once the members had died, and many governments now use the same devices and techniques to guard their own secrets.  However, none of the VFD’s codes relied on particularly obscure symbols.  The only thing that struck Rubina as particularly odd was that no-one seemed to know why the VFD was formed or what it did.  Nevertheless, it was of no concern to her, and she moved on.

The Zigidzt Society was the next entry that caught her eye.  Founded by a former pirate, the society’s purpose was to traffic information between wet pirates, sky pirates, and pirate ports in such a way that pirates’ plans remained secret.  Eventually, the Zigidzt Society grew and separated, becoming a middleman that all criminal operations had to go through in order to keep their secrets from the authorities.  Everything that Rubina read about this society made her think that criminals were likely more afraid of their information middleman than the government.  Sadly, the only codes that they were known to use were, again, nothing particularly obscure.

Rubina found herself riveted by the next entry – IAMADA.  Standing for the International Arms Manufacture and Distribution Association, it practically slapped her in the face.  If Kveta Vamaruchenko belonged to some secret organisation, this had to be it, from the name alone.  Yet, Rubina did not stop there.  Everything she read seemed to support her initial impression.  IAMADA was formed as a collective of all the old arms dealers’ guilds.  The date of this union was unknown, but the association’s existence became known within certain government circles after it became painfully apparent that once a successful weapon was developed in one country, it spread like wildfire to the others.  Only the governments that could afford sufficient security for their weapons designs (and those who didn’t trust their own weapon designers) could keep their military secrets, while the governments that couldn’t do so held no military advantage.  With war after war over the centuries, smaller countries had no hope of competing, leading to the consolidation of power and the rise of the nine empires.  Even with such security measures, members of IAMADA still had ways of sharing their designs with their friends in other countries and avoiding prosecution.  How they did this, the book claimed was unknown.  Rubina surmised that IAMADA had become so powerful that they extorted corrupt government officials, as well as other secret societies, to smuggle both their members and weapon designs across international borders.  The final nail in the coffin was this remark: “although no solid proof exists of this practise, it is believed that high-profile members of IAMADA distinguish themselves by wearing a star of chaos crossed with a ladder.”

A star of chaos crossed with a ladder!  Kveta wore such a symbol on her collar.  On the right of her collar was her sigil, and on the left was the star.  Although Rubina still had found out nothing about this ancient language, she now knew that Kveta was a member of IAMADA.  It explained how she, who was not particularly well-known or extraordinarily wealthy, had managed to supply the Empire with glossarion levitator technology.  That being said, there were still questions that needed answering.

Rubina opened up Professor Kelmek’s ancient language anthology one more time.  This time, she knew what to look for.  Perhaps there was some small detail he had overlooked – such as how long Rekezian had been used for.  After all, it was a very old language, perhaps similar tongues had popped up before.  Lo and behold, there was her answer.  “Many forms of Rekezian exist, spread all over Rossbera in ancient religious sites.  For this reason, it is sometimes called ‘the language of the gods.’  However, this is heavily debated, owing to yet a different writing system present on the highest points and other particularly sacred parts of certain temples.”  Rubina noticed that samples of this “higher” writing system seemed remarkably similar to the recent discovery, though illustrations of the badly weathered and blurred samples were difficult to make out.  There were but three glyphs that appeared on all of the sites with this other writing system.  After reading on and on about the methods used to determine how the glyphs were discerned on badly weathered stoned, Rubina finally found the passage that showed the links between the old glyphs, Rekezian, and two other languages.  The three glyphs represented the word “chuyinka,” whatever that meant.  There was still debate over whether “chuyinka” was the name of a god, a legendary figure, a place such as paradise, or a race of mythical beings.  Thus was Rubina’s hunch correct: Professor Kelmek did not know this entire book page by page, but with so little information, no entry existed for her mystery language.  Still, it was odd that none of these other locations were even mentioned in the article about the recent mountain discovery.

When the professor returned, the first thing Rubina said was “tell me about chuyinka.”  Kelmek was taken aback.  “Oh dear,” he sighed, “I had hoped never to share that controversy with you.”  Rubina looked at him quizzically.  “See, in my youth, I visited many ancient sites all over the continent.  My colleagues and I noticed that, on the ground, inscriptions on certain monuments were all in completely different languages.  As we moved higher, however, the inscriptions developed greater similarity, and at the top, or otherwise most important part of the structure, a single common script between all of them, as if there was some single tongue uniting the entire continent in ages past.”  He paused.  “What a groundbreaking discovery,” Rubina remarked.  “Yes,” sighed the professor, “but in spite of the evidence, prevailing academic opinions dismissed our discovery as pure nonsense.  Oh, the facts were never questioned, but the conclusion that Rossbera was all united under a common tongue was dismissed.  ‘Massive coincidence,’ they all said.  Sadly, that is where the story ends.  There are a few who still share the conclusion that my team made some years ago, but we keep quiet about it.  You see, there were sculptures in those places, as well as writing.  There was one image that kept popping up: a man with the legs and tail of a bird, bird wings sprouting from his back, and feathers in his hair.  Wherever this image was to be found, the word that we eventually translated as ‘chuyinka’ was never far away.”

Language of the gods, Rubina thought.  The notion of these winged creatures called “chuyinka” once being worshipped all over Rossbera as gods was certainly far-fetched, but the evidence to support it was simply too consistent to be ignored.  Unfortunately, the inscriptions at many of the ancient sites were so fragmented that translating any unknown languages was next to impossible.  Then again, there seemed to be so many variations of Rekezian that no scholar could possibly be fluent in all of them.  As Rubina sat, staring at the pages of the books she had open, she pondered the connection between the chuyinka, the strange ancient glyphs, and IAMADA.  Professor Kelmek, meanwhile, shuffled round his office, stroking his beard, possibly with the same thought in his head.  “Holgar,” he said at last, “perhaps you should pay a visit to Castle Holgar.”  “The great citadel of Skhara?”  “And for five centuries, the seat of House Skharnov,” he continued, “perhaps you did not know, but the Skharnovs ruled another country before founding the Rhûnnish Empire.  There have always been haunting tales surrounding that house, but the old tales are not known in Alexandria.  I don’t know what you will find in Holgar, but perhaps there is some piece of this puzzle in those ruins.  After all, there are some… controversial… tales surrounding certain people that the Skharnovs employed.  Here, take this.”  He slowly crouched behind his desk, and Rubina could not tell if the clicks that she heard were his old bones or the tumblers in a lock.  When the professor got back to his feet, he handed her a very old book.  “This book was written shortly after the Rhûnnish Empire split in two.  The Skharnovs would have none of their secrets ever leave the White Keep.  But, once the last of them died, their secrets leaked out.  I’m afraid this book contains no tale from Skhara itself, but perhaps there is some clue in here that answers your questions.  After all, you never did tell me how you came across this ancient language.”  “No, I didn’t,” Rubina said softly, as she examined the old book.  “Your royal prerogative,” Professor Kelmek replied, “these are troubling times, as you know, and secrets are dangerous.  For those with power, they are useful.  For those without, they are dangerous.”

Rubina unlaced the cuff of her shirt sleeve and tucked the book inside before lacing it up again.  Professor Kelmek had this book hidden for a reason.  Even though Secrets of the Imperial House of Skharnov was no obvious threat to anyone alive today, there must still be people who considered such a book to be dangerous.  Thus she pondered after leaving the professor’s office and walking all around those plain yet confusing halls.  Perhaps I’m lucky, she thought, and only his academic peers see the book as dangerous; he may tell me when I am wrong or foolish, but none of them would ever dare to question the Grand Duchess.  She smirked as the thought crossed her mind.  As a trio of students rounded a corner, she wiped the expression from her face.  “Your grace,” they said in unison, bowing and letting her pass.  “Good day,” she replied sweetly, as she went on her way.  Then again, she re-captured her train of thought, perhaps I’m unlucky, and someone far more powerful considers the information within this book to be a threat.  Perhaps there are secrets of the houses Karamazov and Votavko in here as well.  Perhaps this book explains why those two houses fought a bitter war for Rhûnnish succession, only to agree to a stalemate.  Did Fëdor Karamazov or Nikolai Votavko kill off the Skharnovs?  Rubina could hardly wait to get back to her study and crack open this old book.

Random Thoughts, Collection 4: the Case for Lamarckism, or Why Bad Ideas Won’t Die

This idea popped into my head recently, and between that and butchering two deer, I’ve had to postpone translating my earlier articles into Russian the old-fashioned way.  Unfortunately, I’ve encountered another problem as well: my conversational Russian was never that good to begin with, given that I’ve lived in the US for almost my entire life.  As a result, attempting to translate posts that are peppered with idioms has been challenging at best.  I have help, thankfully, but my friend’s conversational English is about as bad as my conversational Russian.  I’m not that surprised, really, since my friend lives like a nomadic hermit, scientists are not known for being articulate to begin with, and I simply haven’t had time to read any actual literature (I have two Dostoevskiy novels collecting dust on my bookshelf).  Anyway, enough of that.  Today, I’m going to discuss Lamarckism, and why certain phenomena seem to support it.

Populations can change over time via multiple mechanisms, including natural selection, sexual selection, and cultural selection.  That last one is a rather nebulous term that I pulled out of thin air, so I shall explain it.  Cultural selection, much like sexual selection, is a species’ self-imposed selective breeding practise.  Sexual selection is the reason for peacocks evolving such long tails.  Despite the tail being a hindrance, peahens prefer mates with longer tails, and so those genes are passed on.  Cultural selection, however, is the conscious determination, by any given society, which individuals should be allowed to breed, rather than leaving that decision up to the parties involved.  This opens up the case for arranged marriage, but I’m not letting that genie out of the bottle until I have a trap set so that I can catch him and put him back in.  Anyway, there is a problem with artificial selection: some of the traits selected for may not be innate.  Individuals do not remain static for their entire lives, and giraffes that continually reach for higher branches can indeed grow a bit taller over the course of their lives.  Can this longer neck actually be passed down to the next generation?  Well…

It was once believed that an organism’s genetics did not change throughout its life.  This is simply not true, as various factors can cause an individual genome to vary over time.  First, there are basic mutations.  Not all mutations manifest immediately, and certain diseases, such as cancer and viral infections, can result in mutations later in life.  Furthermore, the older an individual is when they reproduce, the more likely the offspring is to have genetic disorders.  The blame for this used to be placed squarely on older mothers, but recent findings indicate that older fathers are also to blame.  Gentlemen, BEHOLD!  Having children with a woman young enough to be your own daughter is a TERRIBLE IDEA!  However, this is venturing beyond the realm of conventional genetics.  The biochemistry of aging DNA with relation to the mammalian reproductive system is far too complex for me to get into here.  If, however, you are curious about the dirty details, let me know.  I have friends who study this stuff for a living.

Back when I still called myself a communist (around the same time that I called myself a feminist as well, another term I wish to distance myself from), I firmly embraced Lamarckism, and once asked the following: if a society embraced total gender equality, how many generations would it take before sexual dimorphism disappeared in humans?  Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, I had some truly nonsensical beliefs as a teen-ager.  How many of us didn’t?  However, the god of irony, who is obviously Tzeentch, must have heard my query, because I have since encountered something called the Soyboy Phenomenon.  For those of you who don’t know, soyboys are young men who subsist entirely on soy products and are so skinny that they make me look like Hulk Hogan by comparison (I weigh a mere 59 kilograms, or 130 pounds).  Studies have been done (informal studies, nothing worthy of being published in Science yet) showing that these men also have dangerously low levels of testosterone – so low that they have metabolic problems, and have to wear multiple layers of clothing, including wool hats, during a Californian summer.  Soy has estrogenic hormones, so this is not all that surprising.  Soyboys don’t generally have feminine figures, but they are so undernourished that it makes me ask another question: is the damage they’ve done to themselves with their horrible diets irreversible?  If they start eating normally, will they recover, or deposit so much subcutaneous fat that they start to grow breasts?  Then again, if a man drinks enough alcohol to get cirrhosis, he’ll have the same result.  Look, I’m not deriding femininity as bad, but…

There’s more.  In Japan, something similar has been happening in recent decades, owing to the entire archipelago being one giant city.  In fact, did you know that Japan and Russia have the same population?  You can close your mouth now.  Anyway, with that bit of trivia out of the way, allow me to explain something about Japanese culture.  In Japan, the traditional gender roles are described in terms of the carnivore, or hunter, and the herbivore, or hunted.  For anyone reading this in 2018, which role is analogous to which sex ought to be obvious.  If you’re reading this several decades in the future, however, allow me to explain.  Up until the 21st century, it was expected than men would approach women when it came to the subject of “hooking up,” while women were expected to be passive, choose their mates with either a “yes” or “no,” and had no other agency in the matter.  Then along came the role reversal, with the carnivore woman and the herbivore man.  The carnivore woman is active, driven, career-oriented, and goes after what she wants, rather than waiting for it to come to her.  The herbivore man, meanwhile, has refused the traditional male gender role, in favour of mere self-sufficiency.  He is unlikely to reject a woman’s advances (if he’s heterosexual), but under no circumstances will he approach a woman.  Personally, I think this is just a natural form of population control; Japan is overcrowded, and the entire breeding dynamic of the Japanese population has been bamboozled as a result.  One could make the argument that this massive shift is entirely the result of natural selection, but I would make the case that culture is a much greater contributor.  Foamy the squirrel has his own take on it, and I suggest you watch – it’s hilarious!

Because humans have lived under the delusion that they are not slaves to their own mammalian instincts for centuries, the very idea that nurture somehow trumps nature has persisted.  Lamarckism is derived directly from that idea, whereas Darwinian Evolution (I refuse to use the term “Darwinism” unless quoting someone who used it) is based on the idea that nature controls all.  After all, the very principle of Darwinian Evolution is the adaptation of species according to their environment; it has no end-goal in mind, contrary to what its detractors insist.  There is, I think, something of an appeal to the idea that non-genetic traits can be passed on to one’s offspring, to give them an advantage later in life.  Unfortunately, for both the spoiled rich kids and the world that has to put up with them, that simply isn’t true, which is why all dynasties eventually come to an end.

So, first thought: I need to find time to re-learn my own bloody language.  Second thought: peafowl are nifty.  Third thought: mating outside your generation is about as bad as mating outside your species.  Fourth thought: I have more reason to believe in Tzeentch than any other god, but I’m still an atheist.  Fifth thought: soyboys are all very sick and need help; vegetarianism is fine, but veganism is unhealthy.  Sixth thought: Japan is still weird, and gender roles are still bullshit.  Seventh thought: cartoon squirrels are even funnier than real squirrels – and also smarter than most humans.  Eighth and final thought: humans are still lying to themselves.

Google Translate Has Failed Me, Prepare for a Flood of Russian Articles

So, I recently decided to go through some of my posts and see how they read when I translated them from English to Russian using the Google Translate widget.  It was a disaster, the blasted thing butchered my articles!  Look, I realise that a lot of internet users all around the world, Russia included, speak English fluently, even if they have never been to a country whose official language is English.  However, it still bugs me, especially considering something that recently came to light (I’ll explain in another post soon).  Therefore, if I deem any message important enough, I’ll be writing it in two languages from now on.  However, even though Russian is my mother tongue (that’s how we say “native language”), I haven’t tried to hold a conversation since 2007, when I last visited my birthplace of St. Petersburg, so my grammar is likely to be atrocious.  At least my microscopic Russian audience should be able to understand my words better than Google’s.

So, if you’re following me and you see a bunch of Russian articles pop up in your feed, you’re not missing anything – those are old articles that I’ve deemed important enough to translate the old-fashioned way.  As I already mentioned, some future posts will also be written in both languages to begin with, and have Russian tags, for much the same reason.  This will apply to the Cooperative Artisans’ Guild as well (no, I haven’t forgotten about that project, it’s just on the proverbial shelf until I have an opportunity to actually meet with the founding members), as its purpose is international.

Starship Tour

I recently uploaded this video on BitChute:

Chuyinka starships

In this one, I show off and explain some of my model starships, demonstrating the progression of various architectural paradigms integral to the story beyond The Nine Empires.  There is not much else for me to say here, but I will leave you with this: before you leave a like on this post, kindly watch the video first, and see if it truly deserves one.