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The Devil's in the Details · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
The Yadean Game
Jumpdrives are supposed to home in on planetary masses, but not too closely. The idea is to come in at a safe distance, say at least ten planetary diameters, then determine a safe insertion orbit and do a microjump to put your ship at the right place and angle for a safe landing.

And if your flight computer got fried by an EM torpedo that followed you into jumpspace, and you have to do the calculations manually? You probably get it wrong and die, which is what I just did.

After my team had raided the Stelaeus Orbital Lab, everything you could possibly list on your plan under the heading “Worst Case Scenario” had been met and exceeded. Everyone else was now either dead–or captured, which was worse than dead. I saw Estavo, our mission leader, get half his face wiped away by a sizzling blue beam, and I saw the pain and shock in Gersten’s eyes as I made a diversion out of her and left her squirming and cursing in a goop net. She’d thought we had something going, she and I, but when it comes down to it, I always make sure that I get out alive.

This time, it was taking more of my ingenuity than usual. I’d brought a ship-jacking rig and hacked my way into a waiting Jump Cruiser which still had panels missing from its hull, and with the naked stars visible around me, I’d taken the last chance I thought I had, Jumping to the first system that seemed far enough to avoid immediate tracing. But they pursued, and while the security ships weren’t Jump capable, they laid out a barrage of torpedos around me, and to my credit I dodged almost all of them.

The one that tagged along with me, caught in the radius of my Jumpfield, burst some distance away and I might have survived it except for all those shielding panels missing from the hull. I saw a sort of blue wave like plasma dance over the controls, then half the board went dead. Since the ship obviously wasn’t going to jump anywhere ever again, I rolled the dice. The one circum-binary planet was a frigid uninhabitable marble and I only had the oxygen capacity of my suit and a couple of tanks, so my odds weren’t great anyway.

I just… didn’t want to end this by drifting through the void, I suppose. I stole this ship fair and square, and they weren’t getting it back no matter what they did.

The fatal microjump was made and I knew immediately that no gentle landing would happen. I’d come out in the thin atmosphere that surrounded this icy world; too thin for me to breathe but enough to buffet the open paneled ship to death. At it burned and wriggled around me, I rode it down like a meteor, trying to calculate how big a groundsplash I would make…

Flashsense. Criticausity, expansection. Factlink, protothought. No nuclei, no clear eye, no I. Thought triggers thought.

Something shows, something perceives. A thoughtpast, a repaste, a remain, a remem… a memory.

A round room, a cave of icy cold, where gasses are solids, nitrogen is something you can touch and turn, see it sparkle, snap a palp against it and hear it ring. There are many in this room, they circle a pillar in the middle. Many things, cold as the crystal surfaces, hard as quartz, leggy as insects, shiny as glass but organic in shape, alive as… alive as rocks are not alive. They move, they think, each has an internalized nexus of perception that exercises general control over input and actions. Self? True. Each has this thing called self.

Self, what is called self? Something is, but what it was is not expressible. Pulses hint wayward but ward the way. Thought thaws, frazzle-frozen, but there is missing the massing link, the hurricenter of the thawedstorm, the thing that cannot be conceived without already knowing whatever it is.

Watch further. Vision comes across the clearest. In the room, the things, that are things like insects and like sealife and like crystal sculptures that move with the sparkles of their inner thoughts shining in glints through their translucent silica surfaces, these things gather around a larger one of their kind that stands on the pillar at the center. This is a place where young Splinters are instructed. The one on the central pillar, or lectern, prefaritates– that is, conveys information from its sensorium to the younglings. It shows, they perceive. Is this more clear?

Clarifabricated. A thoughtchain that mindbinds. Something shows and something is shown. Fromathing toathing. A thing that touches, touchens, toughens thought. That which receives has a name, it has agency, agendas, a gender, a presence that re-senses what is received… It is selfhood, it is… I. I am what hears, what sees!

At last, it comes together for you! You had no self left of your own, until enough had been sorted for you to come together in a shadow of what you were. But what you are is delicate. The chatter of your internal thoughts may pull you apart again into unreflecting patterns lacking self-awareness. I will strengthen you by showing more, is this acceptable?

I. I am. I am meaning. I am amenable. I accede, accept.

Good. Now please attend. See how the lecturer presents his faceted lightlenses and flashes his thoughts, encoded, so that they enter the eyes and the minds of the students. They cannot perceive thoughts directly, pass them uninterpreted from one to another, as you and I now do. And mark this one among the students, this bright young Splinter, its feelers waving, its attention partly focussed upon the speechflashes of the lecturer. This one is known as ZZijka. This one is I, the one who now shows this memory to you.

Zzijka. This is your selfname. I, my selfname, is… is something I should know but do not. My thoughts are like a Splinter, I think, for I am still many but strive to arrive together.

You are still of many parts, but I will try to anchor you. I shall relate what Splinter means to us. When one of us grows to great age and contains many thoughts and memories, thinking may grow more difficult. Neural pathways of silicon become fossilized, unchangeable, and more knowledge may not easily be added without clashing with old preconceptions. In this stage, this one may shatter its brain into fragments, sundering its body. From the pieces, crystals of suitable shape cause growth; young come forth. And I, ZZijka, was such a Splinter of seven circumstellar perambulations in age.

Now, in the midst of the lecturer’s luminous discourse, as I dappled my notes into my bookslab, a message interrupted. I, ZZijka, was summoned to the hall of the Repositors. There was much commentary as I thrust my bookslab onto my back and left the learning circle. For what reason could they have need of me? They were ones who had made the difficult decision to never Splinter, to suffer the internal chaos of layered memories and knowledge, and in this way preserve the history of our race’s mental development. We the younglings were not usually encouraged to spend time with them.

So then along the tunnels of ice I tapped my way, holding my feelers before me as I strode on fourlegs. What curious looks I got from those Olders who perceived where I was going! But soon, I was admitted to the chamber of the Repositors. It was a glorious sight, for the ceiling above admitted the light of the naked sky through polarized sheets of icy material, and the radiance of the twin suns shone down directly over the Repositors, glistening on their facets. They were in effect overgrown with their wisdom and their years, with many unmolted layers of skin restricting their movement, and the oldest among them were becoming virtual vitrified pillars like those that supported the cavern ceiling.

One stretched forth a soundpalp, for the atmosphere was more collected here, and buzzed it at me.

“Zzijka,” said the Repositor, “We need a Splinter for a special task, for something unprecedented. Something to inspire all Yade. Only a young mind, largely unformed, is suitable. It is something that will change what you are for the remainder of your life, and perhaps persist in your offspring after you splinter. Are you willing to give of yourself in this way? If you do not, we must seek another.”

“Will you tell me more?”

“You will not have been told this yet at your stage of education, but there are worlds beyond ours, beyond Yade. Worlds beyond the surface, beyond the great suns that we know. Beings live on these worlds that are very different from us. Some of these beings have discovered ways to travel between worlds, and so they may come to Yade. They may do this for knowledge, or for economic advantage, or for glory.

“One such came to us. It was in a vessel of soft metals, and this vessel did not arrive safely upon Yade, and burst apart. The being inside it was softer far than the metals, and it lives no more. But we have preserved some material. We believe it is the stuff by which it thinks, by which its fires of mind perform their dance. It is soft, a sort of colloidal jelly that you would think no more fit to hold information than mere liquid, but it was a living being that thought, and while we have no hope to heal it, we may save some of what it was. If you are willing, we will give to you the ability to read it, and you will preserve of it what you can, and in this way you shall become our link to this remote race. It will be a Great Deed.”

So now you perceive, I accepted the challenge, and you are what was collected and salvaged of the mind of that distant being.

I understand now, and with the understanding comes a measure of what I was. I am not sure how to describe it. In your terms, let us say a sculpture in rock was smashed, and one was tasked to reassemble it without knowing what it originally looked like. I have a number of pieces, but did not know how to relate them.

This is a hopeful sign. I will give you time to come to your own senses. See if you can recover your prior memories, and thus restore some of who you were! It was not a task I could do myself.

I do! Ah, it takes me a long time, but now I know. My old self awakens in me, and with it more memories return. Can you see this one, the memory of how I came here?

I do see it, and to be forthright, it creates a pressure within me. You are so alien to me, but there is more; going by these memories you share, you abandon those who assist you, you defy authority that works for the common good to improve your lot at the expense of others and society. Frankly, you are not a thing that I can easily tolerate having in my head!

And I know now how my olf self would respond, for more and more I become what he was. You are so–it would be cliched to call you naive. Limited in life experience? I have traveled many millions of light-years, and lived for centuries, and you are barely spawned from your progenitor’s crystal. You should let me lead you to greater awareness and teach you the way the world works.

No, I cannot accept this. Oh, what is this abominable urge that rises in me now! I am about to Splinter!

You must be mistaken. You are too young to Splinter. You said it is something the aged do.

Not so. In great trauma, the young may also sunder their nascent minds to escape what they cannot stand to think. I can barely hold the urge for dissolution. Do not press me further! I shall burst and you will shatter with me! Do you not feel it at all? Here, I will show you!

You ungrateful little fool, to deny me so… Oh.

Now you understand. It is a bitter lesson I learn from you, but I admit it is useful. I who am young also have less to lose than you from Splintering. You must accept my restrictions; it is the only way for the two of us to persist.

And why should I not just swiftly take what I need of you? Once I am you, there will be no need for compromise. Like so!

This strategy that you attempt, to assimilate my own sense of self into yours. Is it supposed to be having a positive effect on me?

Frankly, no. And I do not like what it seems to be doing to me. Most curious. My mind gets more sluggish the more I try to take from you.

Your strategy is necessarily flawed. The number of pathways you must control scales exponentially. You won’t be able to pull this trick in the limited time you have before I will detect and block it.

I see that I greatly underestimated you.

That which was a selfish actor in you thought me weak, childish and vulnerable. But the class out of which I was called by the Repositors was a lecture on evolutionary parisitology. My kind has had to deal with many mental parasites and invaders in the past, and if I do not know how to directly counter psuedo-viral thought such as yours, my body does as an instinctual response.

You said you were seven years old… oh. Your planet takes a long time to orbit the binary, doesn’t it. I was too fractured to notice that one.

I perceive now what you mean by ‘child,’ and indeed my elders would scarcely have sent a being of that level of development to engage an alien unknown.

But now, let us discuss how to proceed. Henceforth we use the strategy you would call tit for tat. If you deal fairly with me, I shall do with you, and if you try to cheat me, you shall be limited accordingly. Remember that at any time I can end the entire game. If you wish to survive, you must grow beyond these distressing details of your history, and together we may become something more, something to enhance the glory of Yade for millennia to come. Do I have your cooperation in this, or shall I release you and report failure to the Repositors?

I accept. If I remember one thing from that which I was, it was that he always gets out alive somehow. If I am him, that is how it must be.
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#1 · 4
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
This just has a lot of interesting stuff in it. I actually kind of appreciated the cold start into an info-dump; it did a great job of establishing the setting and the main character's tone. And of course, basically all of the Yadean bits were fascinating and creative stuff. You really do a great job of creating a sense of alien-ness without alienating the reader from ZZijka.

I think my only significant-ish complaint is that the transition from the first scene to the second is a bit rough. We completely lose the distinct voicing from the first scene, and its difficult to orient ourselves again. I know that this is partly by design, but on my first read I spent as much time on the first few hundred words of the second scene as I did with the rest of the story put together. I honestly thought that we were dealing with entirely new characters, and it was a bit frustrating to my sense of investment.

Personally, I would have liked some kind of clue or hint that we haven't actually completely changed our perspective character. Maybe a recurring phrase or word can carry over to the second scene, just so we get the sense of some kind of continuity. I realize that the break in perspective is kinda crucial to this story, but at the same time I just kinda wish the landing was a little softer.

Don't get me wrong; in the end I really, really liked this piece. It's got cool ideas, and it maintained my interest throughout. Thank you for submitting!
#2 ·
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
Very nice set up:

But not a lot of pay off. I mean, these two get together, and then... Fight crime? Explore the world? Begin the Yadean aerospace industry? With this round's prompt, I expected our ne'er-do-well to do something at the end like ask if the Yadeans understand the concept of money, or if they possess the concept of private property. Maybe give a bit more of a sense that, even though he's accepted the limitations he's been given, he's still looking for a way around the rules, still looking for a hustle to start. I like that Zzijka seems able to handle him, but I'd like things to end on a more uncertain note, I guess.

Still, like I said, very nice.

#3 ·
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
While I think the transition was a bit difficult to grasp at first, I quickly fell into understanding. I like what the piece is doing, for sure, and it's an interesting look into an alien mind, and the potential outlook they'd have. While it lacks a bit of payoff, there's a decent comedic moment near the end, and it works as an examination of this alien life form.
#4 ·
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
I rather enjoyed this piece despite not having much experience with sci-fi. I was immersed and could feel everything happening in the story as it went, despite the second part of the story not containing much setting.

In the first part of the story, it was probably your intent to make the character unlikable, and it kind of worked on me. It did, however, make me lose a little investment in the character -- I found myself slightly not really wanting to care about what happened to him.

Agree with the other commenters that the transition could be improved a little bit, as I first thought the first dude survived and just had his brain scrambled or something. Once I got it though, I was captivated. Rather experimental, but I enjoyed it lots, although it did lose me at parts. Finally, I think that the "dialogue" between Zzijka and the main character was a little awkward to read through, and I concur with above comments that the conclusion could have been improved.

Overall though, really fun read. Thanks for the entry, and may you place fifty spots above me ;)
#5 ·
>>Bachiavellian, >>Baal Bunny, >>Flashgen, >>_Moonshot

The Yadean Game

Congrats to the winners, and thanks for the great comments!

I wound up composing the bulk of this on an airplane and ran out of time to put a proper ending on it. I do have a lot more to say about ZZijka, Yade, and the curious personality who came from afar to die and be reborn on a world of ice; I’ll have to see what comes of it.