The introductory fiction for the Psionics rulebook was going to be called “Shut Up And Keep Running”. Those words are definitely gonna appear all over the Psionics rulebook. Going to be “a thing”, even a big thing, in Psionics, that phrase. Words to live by, certainly, but an attitude, too. Now it’s called “Tomorrow’s Starlight”. Or maybe “The Paranoid Style”. We’re not sure. But either way we go, the story will be named for the fictional post-punk rock band that acts as a front for the Zodiac Order, and as a bridge between them and pop culture.
The story is written and that’s a big deal. I agonized over it forever before starting it. As a writer, I never do that. “Perfection paralysis”, Mikaela called it. I never have that problem. Generally speaking, I just disconnect myself from the critical part of my brain that cares about “making something good” as a necessary first step to enable “making something” at all being a possible thing. This has worked so consistently well in the past that I’d actually recommend it, were I to write a book of advice on writing or something. But not this time, this time I really had a very specific idea of what I was wanted and I was scared shitless I wasn’t capable of meeting my own standards. I blogged about this before, as part of a procrastination process that lasted honestly since September and included the entire length and breadth of the playtest campaign. But suddenly, and rather inexplicably, the inertia was overcome and the story was written. I’m not entirely sure why but after six months of intense dread and impenetrable procrastination, I buckled down and fired off 22,000 words in two evenings.
I am very, very happy with it. Maybe more than is politic. I generally speaking have always held the vague impression with every other writer I’ve ever talked to that you’re not supposed to like your writing too much, that’s what the whole obligatory tap dance of humility and self-effacement is about. And generally, I support that. But I’m loving this shizz. Fo realz.
Over on the Psionics Kickstarter, I’m gonna share this good news with more of a focus on what it means for the march-to-completion of the Psionics rulebook, which is now thankfully back on schedule. But here let me share some fiction excerpts. One is the actual opening scene of what I’m presently calling “Tomorrow’s Starlight”, the opening fiction that I finally wrote. The next is a vignette from a cool-ass story Mikaela wrote, currently untitled, that will almost certainly appear in the rulebook somewhere, in some form. In fact, full versions of both stories will be available to you, reader, when our nearly-one-year-in-the-offing Kickstarter odyssey reaches its conclusion and the Psionics core rulebook is published. Enjoy!
Eight or so Black Russians having had a deleterious effect on my sense of balance, I wind up hitting the floor and sliding after I shoulder ram-my way through the rusted metal fire door at the back of the alley. Judging from the smell of frying MSG and the bushel of Asian guys in grease-stained chef’s whites looking up startled at the door I crashed through, I’m guessing the brown tile floor I’m currently sprawled on belongs to a Chinese restaurant.
A fall like that should probably be hurting pretty bad, but Did You Know? The popular party drug codeine has this weird side effect where it deadens pain.
Footsteps and shouts from out through the door, in the alley I came from. Coming after me. No time for takeout.
Quick now, pick myself up, dust myself off, smile apologetically at the shouting Szechuan chefs, and I notice Scott sitting comfortably on the burners of a big gas stove, his unlaced Converse sneakers dangling and knocking together, smiling like a loon.
“You used to be so good at getting out of things, Scott. How come you never taught me that goddamn trick?”
Not waiting for an answer, I’m shouldering aside kitchen staff at a run and away into the restaurant proper: lush red carpets, gold scrollwork, gleaming turquoise aquaria swimming with a rainbow of brightly colored fish. Weaving between tables at a jog I snatch a couple of 20s that some unwise waiter hasn’t collected yet as I pass.
From behind me comes a shouted “Hey!” and other yells of Cantonese anger but fuck it sideways, today clearly ain’t a day for making friends.
A very pretty coat check girl dives out of my way and with what I must look like right now I don’t blame her. I hit the front doors of the restaurant like a linebacker and I am oh so thankful that those push-bars were in fact push-bars and not pulling handles disguised as same, or I’d have felt pretty stupid.
I guess that’s why they call me Lucky.
Out on Canal Street, somewhere between Bowery and Broadway I guess, I foolishly take a moment to look behind me. According to the flashy neon sign, the restaurant I just came crashing out of is actually called Big Wong. My uncontrollable giggles at learning this tell me that the time I lost in exchange for this information was totally fucking worth it.
Look left and I see the angry mob has gone around the restaurant, lacking the agility to go through. A bunch of strapping dudebros in sports jerseys and muscle tees are pointing and shouting in my direction. Only if I was a sleeping coed would I be more worried about their intentions towards my person.
Look right, and I see a bunch of parked cop cars menacing the street around them with their aura of flickering red and blue light. No idea what that’s about, but I want no part of it.
I run straight as a swarm of enraged Asians erupts from the Big Wong behind me (Ha! Ha!). Straight, across the street, ignoring the furious honking of a taxi that has to stop short to avoid hitting me. Straight, across the street, to the mouth of another fucking alley. This one has been blocked by one of those heavy construction fences, topped with wire, and plastered with posters for restaurants, bars, strip-clubs, and shows, and Chinese graffiti spraypainted over that. I risk a quick look behind me, and I see that after some confusion, the pissed off Chinese waiters and the enraged white sportsfans are coming to an accord, merging their angry mobs into one multi-racially harmonious angry mob.
United in wanting to do bad things. To yours truly.
Oh, the humanity.
Scott, standing next to me now, hands in frayed jean pockets, sizing up the fence through his coke-bottle glasses.
Am I going to get over that thing?
“Don’t suppose you could give me a boost, Scott?”
Takes his left hand out of his pocket, shows me his left middle finger, looks nonchalantly over his shoulder as more honking horns herald the angry mob crossing traffic.
“Helpful as ever.”
I throw myself at the fence and make it nowhere. It’s chainlink but the chainlinks are covered in some plastic tarp shit so you can’t get a good grip on them with your fingers. The whole thing rattles angrily and I slide down the moist plastic. The fence has made me angry, so I glare at it really hard, and a little dagger point of bright flame appears at the center, and spreads rapidly outwards, the plastic burning and melting away until the chainlinks are exposed, naked and glowing with heat.
I scramble up, not thinking about how hot the metal is. As long as I don’t think about it, my fingers won’t get burned. Then I fling myself over the not-quite-barbed-wire on top like a lifetime of running from the cops has taught me. I land in a heap in a puddle of what I try not to think of as hobo urine, where soggy cigarette butts float like charming little islands. My good blazer is ruined. Pick myself off the ground and I’m running, Scott running ahead of me, laughing and looking back over his shoulder.
“This is another bizarre and thankless situation you’ve gotten us in,” Scott says.
“Oh, like you’ve never been in a fight before? Like you’ve never caused a scene? Anyway, shut up, Scott. You’re not even really here.”
And like that, he’s gone. Sulky little bastard.
For a ghost.
This alley is a dead end, of course, the narrow back of an apartment building latticed with construction scaffolding, the metal beams of the scaffolding covered in green tarpaulin wet from last night’s rain. I pull up short, panting raggedly, bent over my knees, trying not to heave. Looking behind me, the angry mob seems to actually be tearing down the fence.
Now, I have always had a gift for pissing people off, but this is just ridiculous.
I start climbing, telling myself, chin up. Remembering something I read in the Book, like a mantra, but less tedious than most New-Agey hippie bullshit.
This ain’t the worst we’ve seen, we’ve been through much worse than this, and we will live to laugh at this so shut up and keep running.
A hundred feet of monkey-climbing up the side of this building, and I’m sick of this scaffolding. I pull myself up to the lip of the roof, panting. Scott looks over at me from where he’s sitting on the edge of the building, legs dangling down. He flicks a cigarette butt down at the angry mob swarming below.
“I’m sick of it Scott, running,” I gasp, pulling myself up onto my side. “Sometimes win, sometimes my jaw needs icing.” I pause, spit some blood, self-assessing. “I do think that I’m funny, but one day it’ll be a bon mot too many.”
“You are so full of shit,” Scott says. “Giddy from all the trouble you’ve gotten yourself in, like usual, talking like anything will change. If you get out of this, you’ll just wind up pushing your luck again. And you know it.”
“And that’s why you love me,” I say.
The tender moment is interrupted by a shout from below.
“We’re gonna get you, fucker!”
The assholes are climbing the scaffolding. I feel like a cat, trapped his dumb ass up a tree. I run around the roof looking for a way out. There’s an access door—rusty and scarred with decades of scratched graffiti on the rust, exposing bright bare metal—but some charming young wit has taken it upon his punk ass to put gum in the lock. I wish as hard as I can that whoever did it was here so I could punch him right in the dick. I mean, gum in the lock? Really? That’s just annoying. Not to mention irresponsible. People need to use this door.
Honestly, it reminds me of something I would do. So yes, Scott, I guess you’re right, it’s difficult not to see how I got myself in this predicament. I go against the advice of everyone in the world when I step up to the edge of the roof I came up and look down. I count only about eight figures that are climbing the scaffolding after me, a mere fraction of the angry mob churning below—some of them looking for things to throw. But it’s still… slightly… more than I can take in a fight.
I briefly consider setting the scaffolding on fire. It’s the same wet plastic tarpaulin that was covering the fence, so I know that even I can burn it. And I don’t exactly burn with the best of them. Actually, I could use more practice. But ultimately, I decide against it. It’s a bit too much “mass murder”, a bit too little “wacky hijinks”. At least for this situation.
In other words, not my style.
But options are not in good supply just now. I fantasize about a giant, invisible hand pushing the scaffolding loose from its moorings and tipping it over backwards. That probably wouldn’t hurt anyone too seriously, and it would buy me time to figure out a way off this roof. But this is nothing but a flight of a fancy.
I can’t even move fucking marbles with my mind, let alone mountains.
I run the other way. This being Chinatown this rooftop is actually the roofs of numerous buildings which are mashed together without an inch of space between them. But I do eventually come to a gap where a street, almost as narrow as an alley but not quite, breaks up the buildings. Across on the other side is another rooftop, maybe twelve feet below me, and maybe eight or nine feet across.
If I was possessed of the cool dry wit of an action hero, I’d turn my running start into a running leap. Preferably in slow motion. But the fact of the matter ladies and germs is that jumping roof to roof is scary. I stop short, back up, check my shoelaces and hike up my slacks and try in vain to still my racing heart, which is a jackhammer in my chest. It’s not my first rodeo, as far as urban acrobatics is concerned, but some things don’t get easier with practice.
As much as I’d like to be, I’m just not the goddamned Batman. And I can see that beyond this jump will be a series of more of them, from rooftop to rooftop, to freedom, to safety.
“I really don’t know if I’m gonna make all those leaps,” I gesture up and across the street. A figure in a lit window waves hi. People are gathering at the window to look at the scrawny guy in the filthy suit jacket running around on the roof. Enjoying the show.
Next to me now, Scott furrows his brow, purses his lips, and says:
“There has never been a time when brains have not won over brawn, and we will live to see the dawn.”
It’s uncommon to hear him say anything, since he died, and rarer still that he say anything that’s not sarcastic. Something actually uplifting? Unheard of. For a moment I’m heartened, and then I remember he’s dead and my face falls.
“But Scott, you’re still not really here.”
I look behind me and fancy I see the concrete ledge on the opposite end of the roof sprout its first set of hands, hairy and white-knuckled, or so I’d imagine. It’s dozens of feet away and my night vision isn’t all that good. Either I run back over and start kicking faces one at a time as they appear (and again, y’know… murder), or I jump.
So I back up to give myself room for a running start. And I take a deep breath. And I launch myself forward, arms pumping, legs shortening the distance to the ledge at a truly alarming rate.
And I jump.
I’m screaming, flailing, sailing through the air. After I land, before I black out, I look up and see Scott smirking down at me, smooth arms pale against the black of his Dead Kennedys t-shirt. He finally asks me, almost in the manner of a by-the-way:
“What’d you say to make those guys so angry?”
What indeed? And now a thingy I ripped from Mikaela’s story.
Let’s talk about fire.
Everyone’s fascinated with it. I have a few theories about why. Bear with me. I’m going to be cheesy.
One: Fire is dualistic.
It’s the source of life and warmth and hot food and safe water, and we’d be fucked without it. But it’s scary as hell because as much as we need it, that shit can kill us and all the animals and the forests, and it leaves ruin and ash in its wake. It’s a concept that’s perfectly illustrated in nature. There are trees that can only grow after a huge fire that wipes out all the other trees; the heat causes their cones to open up and their seeds to sprout.
It’s power that we think we have completely mastered. It’s all these huge, sweeping concepts like life and death, and humans put it inside a palm-sized plastic container that you can buy at any gas station for two bucks. We use it and harness it. But it still has all the power in the world to completely wreck our shit. It’s under our control, and it’s completely out of our control. We’re drawn to it, and terrified of it.
Two: Fire is defiant.
I don’t exactly mean that literal fire is literally rebellious. Fire, being a force of nature and without will or mind, does not make a conscious decision to revolt – though, like I said before, once we make a fire, it can do things we never wanted it to. Start a gas cooking fire, maybe end up burning to death in your house. No, what I really mean is that fire is an emblem of defiance.
Think about it. There’s a story about an authoritarian sky-god that withholds fire from mankind; it’s too powerful for lowly humans, and it will bestow them with strength that will allow them to rise up from the muck. Enter another god, some tricky bastard who decides to revolt; he sneaks in and steals the fire, and brings it to the humans. It’s a huge fuck-you to the big dad in the sky.
The funny thing about this story is it appears all over the planet, from cultures that never interacted with each other in any way. Prometheus, Raven, Coyote. Ancient human beings from everywhere independently decided that this is how humans got fire – its genesis was an act of insurgence.
Three: Fire is beautiful.
Remember what I said about duality? This is kind of like that.
Take, for instance, the security guards in this room. Most of them were ugly fuckers before we rolled in: muscles they had in their prime of life transmogrifying into fat with the advent of their middle age; short hair cropped to hide the balding; lines on their faces drawn from years of hating their miserable fucking lives. Now they look even fucking worse. You ever seen a burned body before? Their tendons and muscles tightening up, balling their hands into fists, curling their arms into their chests. Flesh sizzling away – no noses, no lips, no eyelids. Everything bright, screaming red and char-black.
This is ugly shit.
But look at the fire. Burning hot blue, glowing red and orange and yellow and white. And the way it moves – it’s dancing, rolling, reaching toward the sky. People today, they’re blinded by their screens – Instagram and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or whatever’s the next new crappy thing. But back in the olden days, we humans used to sit around and tell stories and just watch this. It’s not just, you know, captivating because it’s dangerous or because it represents our autonomy as a species. If you don’t pay attention to all the people and things it’s eating up… man…
It’s fucking dazzling.