Review: The 10th Kingdom

Mini Series poster

This is one of my favorite books and mini-series. The show isn’t exactly like the book, but it does a very close job of it. I probably watch this once a year (maybe every 10 months) and I’ve read the book an average of every 16 months since the first time I read it. If you haven’t read this book – you need to. Not you should. You need to. You’ll never see fairy tales the same way, and it is beautiful for it.

Synopsis: I’m not going to take anything from anywhere, so I hope I do it justice: Virginia is your average young waitress living with her father and struggling to keep it all together. Until the day that Prince Wendell, the grandson of Sleeping Beauty and cursed by his wicked stepmother into the body of a dog, crashes in Virginia on her way to work. So begins the journey, the high jinks, and the discovery of the truth behind the fairy tales with Virginia, her father Tony, Prince Wendell as a dog, and Wolf, who may be working for the evil queen.

  • Premise: As stated, Virginia is a NYC girl thrust into the 9 kingdoms of fairy tales.
  • Message: Growing up is painful and unclear. You learn no one is “always good” or “always bad” and that makes it even harder.
  • Characters: hilarious albeit many are relatively stereotypical, each has a twist.
  • Plot: fun, romping, and well tied together.

Favorite Scene: There are so many, but only one that I can think of always makes me stop whatever else I might be doing and watch. It is the definition of consent: Virginia tries use Wolf’s attraction to her to get back a magical item she’s addicted to. He tells her no because as much as he wants her; he knows that isn’t her – it’s the addiction talking. He wants her when she isn’t under the influence – and it’s one of the sexiest things I’ve ever heard out of a male character.

It’s hard to talk about this one without spoilers, but I am going to try. I think part of the reason I like to come back to this one is that even in it’s own “return” to classic fairy tales (where truly horrible things happen to people), it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  For almost every terrible thing that happens, there is a humorous twist. As a Poe and classic-Grimms fan, I love the occasionally macabre slant on the tales.

One of the parts of the book and movie that was hardest for me to digest in my most recent consumption was some of the references. They are somewhat dated – which is what happens. There are few movies or books set in their own time which can hold up over the years. They exist, and sometimes these dated references actually seem to enhance the story (think of recently created period pieces – how hard it is to get those references right). That apology aside, I’m not sure all the references in the mini series held up entirely (I think the book handles it a little better).

If you enjoy fantasy, if you grew up on fairy tales and the Disney princess “happily ever after” story – read The 10th Kingdom. At least watch it. It’s an enjoyable 6 hours.

Short Story: Walking Alive

I stumbled into the house, my wrist throbbing. I went to the bathroom first. I know it’s useless, but 28 years of cleaning cuts aren’t broken in a day. An hour? Anyway, I clean out the wound and wrap some gauze around my wrist. I weave my way past the boxes of dry goods I’ve collected. Damn and I just found that pallet of fruit loops too. My favorite. It took me a whole day to get that pallet back here.

I go into the living room and pull out paper and pens. I want to leave some notes for people. I don’t know if mom will get this letter, it’s been years since I saw her, but I have to hope. Hope is all that kept me going this long.

I finish the letter to my parents and write some letters to some of my new friends. I want to let them know how sorry I am. I failed and I always hated failure. I didn’t handle it will at any time in my life, this is an even bigger failure. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I finish my letters and go back to the bathroom, wrap another round of gauze around my wrist.

I stand there, staring at the gauze and put it on the counter, my decision made. I can’t change my future, but I can help out whoever finds me. In one of the half-buried closets I pull out a pair of high heels that literally make the wearer balance on their toes. I set these by the door and go into my bedroom. I put on my armpit holster and put my favorite pair of guns into the holsters. I’ve never worn 2 guns on this thing before and take several minutes to resettle them. I load up spare weapons clips and slide them into my pockets.

Underneath the bed I have three machetes. Two of them have these awesome case things, one I slide over my head so it fits against my spine. The other I strap around my waist and clip the bit over my knee. I look at the third one, but for the life of me – oh wow that’s a bad pun – can’t think…

I stuff my jacket pockets, one of those military style coats with eighty pockets, with match boxes, my favorite travel food kit, and my paperback copy of The Life of Pi, one of my favorite books now. I make sure the book is on the inside pocket hopefully a safe place. The last thing I put on is an old lanyard with my house key on it.

I go to the kitchen and from under the kitchen sink I pull out some duct tape.  I tear off three long strips about a foot long each. I then carefully wrap the four fingers of my left hand.  I look at the high heels and sigh. Damn, I need to go ahead and put them on. It’s awkward to put the heels on and I wobble horribly as I stagger into the kitchen. I tape my right hand’s four fingers.

My stomach growls so loud and insistently I see red for a moment. I groan with the hunger. I grab one of the pieces of tape and wrap my left hand’s thumb against the rest. I have to use my teeth to get the right-hand thumb and I lick my lips as I look at my own flesh being hidden beneath the grey grunge tape.

I use my hands like the levers of a forklift to pick up the last piece of tape. I totter as I try to keep my balance and awkwardly, I put the tape over my mouth.  I tap it into place and half-stagger, half-drag myself between the boxes to the front door. I can barely open it and stumble outside. Underneath the balcony I hear my siblings asking me if I’m hungry. And I am. I am so hungry…maybe I should go eat Mr. …. so hungry….

Writing: World building

My sister and I talked over the weekend about post-apocalyptic novels we’ve read; 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaiden’s Tale, Hunger Games, & Divergent were the big ones we discussed.  We talked mostly whether worlds had to be fully built for a successful novel.

In 1984, we really only see a microcosm of the world. I can’t tell you anything about the culture except fear: nothing about art or entertainment. Do they watch tv? Do they play sports? Do they produce art (it would, of course, have to be state-approved art; but we never know!) – the world is entirely barren to me. I, as another author, couldn’t step in and write in that world. Just to give you an idea; only 400 people have posted fanfiction on fanfiction.net.

You then turn to something like Hunger Games and the world is so clear that there are over 40,000 tales on fanfiction.net. Now, I don’t want to say that getting lots of fanfiction makes a better writer – not at all. Just that it is an indicator of a world that is thoroughly built. It has the structure that other writers want to explore it further. -think how much has spun off around Harry Potter with quidditch and the every-flavor jelly beans and theme parks. I think there is no greater sign of a well-built world when people will pay to have complete immersion like that.

And yet, 1984 has withstood a test of time that speaks highly that world building isn’t the be-all-end-all of novels. It is a novel with almost no world building and yet people read it and love it. 451 is the same way. A little more of a world, but again you, the reader, only see a microcosm of the world and there are big gaps. Oh, we see that they have some kind of entertainment (the TV rooms), but what about the government? Is it still a democracy? A theocracy? dictatorship?  Maybe I just don’t remember because it’s been a long time, but as important as the political make-up is to Divergent, it was ignored in 451.

I do think it’s worth noting that all of these are dystopian novels and that may play into this process. By leaving out sweeping information, I would argue Handmaiden’s Tale and 1984 (especially) create a sense of isolation and fear in the world because it is such a claustrophobic world. It is then the strength of the character building which certainly carries the novel.

I know that personally I have had worlds where I understood them completely and sometimes the plot got lost within my own exploration of that world. I’ve also had full characters with very small or simple worlds. I know I want to find the right balance of strength on both of these pieces, even though I don’t tend to write dystopian futures.

Politics: SCOTUS on Lethal Injection

I was about sixteen when I read the book Dead Man Walking (I never watched the movie). It made me ask some tough questions on our legal justice system. When you are a child, you believe adults are good or they are bad. Part of growing up is beginning to see in all those shades of color which really make up people.

So I did some more reading, and some more. I saw a movie about Clarence Earl Gideon who fought for the right to have a public defender. I kept my eyes and ears open and I learned more. I came to have some strong feelings on the subject, and everything led me to one conclusion: the death penalty should be abolished.

There are a variety of reasons, but the three are the ones which I can most defend/argue/use to persuade:

  1. Innocent people are consistently put to death anyway
  2. Justice’s scales are tipped by the dollar
  3. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars

So breaking these down. Number 1: Over 130 people were exonerated in 2014 – found innocent. 50 of those were exonerated of murder. This is not found “not guilty” in trial – this is post-conviction they were found to be not guilty and had to be released. This number isn’t just death row – but the fact that this many innocent people were convicted and later found innocent…  over 15 have been exonerated from death row since 2010. That number is over 150 since 1978. These are the ones where the preponderance evidence became such that a guilty conviction had to be thrown out.

One innocent person being executed is wrong. Just wrong. An average of more than 4 per year… unforgivable. Ben Franklin said, “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer” – and I can’t imagine an innocent person being condemned to a death which can take over 30 painful minutes as anything less than deplorable.

Number 2: There are no rich men on death row. I remember in high school reading something about how 98% of the people on death row were represented by public defenders, just google “death penalty public defenders” to read some of the horrifying statistics. How just by hiring an attorney, the death penalty is frequently taken off the table by prosecution. Having an attorney who isn’t overworked, underpaid, and unmotivated to win changes your threat level from “possible death” to “life in prison” – or less than life.

There are so many stories (court recorded incidents) of poorly trained, poorly motivated, or worse just BAD attorneys being the ones to represent capital cases. In the famous “sleeping lawyer” case of George McFarland, a Texas court ruled, “the Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney. It doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.” At least in my eyes, this means Justice is not being equally applied and until such time as we can guarantee the richest man in the country and the poorest gets an equal trial – we have to remove this most permanent and aggressive form of punishment.

Lastly, Number 3: It’s bad when Judges are making the argument that something should be stopped simply because of the cost, but that is exactly the argument that was made in California by 2 Judges of the 9th Circuit US Appeals Court Judges – “Since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions.”

Do that math – to get 13 executions carried out the state spent $4 BILLION dollars. A Washington state study published January 2015 showed that the difference between Court, Sheriff/Police and Misc. costs are 4-8 times higher for death penalty cases. That’s JUST those costs; not incarceration, not appeals, not defense or prosecution costs. Basically, there is nothing that is not at least doubling the cost for a death penalty case as any other conviction. Think how far that money could go in SNAP benefits, or DOT, or education… preventing people from committing crimes instead of trying to punish them.

These studies have been done again and again – and the cost differences just keep going up. I don’t see how the anti-spending-party(ies) still support the death penalty… it’s a total waste of taxpayer’s money.

There are other arguments I could make: it’s not a deterrent, waiting decades for a decision or final date is cruel and unusual, but they do have potential counter-arguments. I think each of the arguments I made in full, on their own, make a solid argument for abolishing a broken and expensive system. Combined, I have yet to have someone make an argument in defense of the death penalty that – well frankly, doesn’t sound like the argument a sleeping lawyer would make.

Politics: SCOTUS on Breathing

Back in March, I posted about asthma, what the attack felt like in my experience. Now, in the rising Georgia summer heat comes the smog. The constant low-level death air. I’ve been tracking my breathing for about a month and noticed something was going “wrong” – my numbers were getting bad. Then I heard on the radio the weather saying it’s an orange smog alert.  Ah, now I know why my breathing has not been as good.

As everyone rejoiced the successes passes for the ACA and marriage equality, Monday I grieved the Supreme Court decisions (SCOTUS). For anyone who missed it, the Supreme Court handed down a decision on Michigan v. EPA which was looking at the regulations in the Clean Air Act (last amended in 1990). Reading through the opinion, yeah – the EPA probably pushed the bounds of the law right to the breaking point. I don’t agree with their statement “One would not say that it is even rational, never mind “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

Spoken like a man who has never had to watch others having fun and gasping for breath just by walking to the car. This is spoken by someone who can afford to go to a high-priced gym with really good air filters. It is five men communicating their disregard for life.  Really, “a few dollars in health […] benefits”?!?! The CDC estimated(1) the health cost of asthma (not bronchitis or some of the other things the EPA was working to avoid) cost the US $56 BILLION in 2007.

I would argue that imposing a few billion dollars – hell anything less than $56 Billion – is more than appropriate to prevent asthma from continuing to kill people at the rate of 9 a day(2). I almost called out of work Monday because my breathing was so bad. I pushed through, but I literally kept my rescue inhaler in my pocket and I tried not to walk to talk to anyone. I was less productive than normal.

I don’t like this ruling. Businesses were already complying with the cleaner, safer standards. And even more depressingly, I don’t expect this current congress can stop whining about the ACA or Benghazi long enough to tighten up the law in response to give the EPA the little bit of authority they may need. Or at least clarify the language to set expectations!  If the EPA could show that reducing particulate pollution would also impact the $56 billion in health costs for asthmatics – doesn’t that justify as “rational and appropriate” costs the businesses causing that damage must rectify?

Manners: Rules of Driving

If you haven’t read my post on Death Machines, it will help you understand better why driving is a topic I do tend to ramble and rant over.

I drive largely in Sandy Springs in North Atlanta, which is a very densely populated area of town. Anyone who has gotten off 285 and gone North on Roswell Rd on a Sunday-Saturday has probably experienced the excruciating agony of bad driving. There are trips where I am not appalled at someone’s choices/actions, but those are exceptional drives.

Good driving in dense* traffic isn’t actually that difficult. You have to pay attention, but if you follow the simple Rules of Driving (or RoDs) it doesn’t have to be the agony so often experienced. The RoDs can be summed up with these three:

  1. Follow the law.
  2. Don’t be a dick.
  3. Don’t be nice.

RoD #1 actually is three rules in itself, and they are very important. Really the above rules #2 and #3 would be largely unnecessary if drivers would just:

  1. Follow the rules of the road as they were written. There is a reason or several good reasons you aren’t supposed to cross a double-yellow line. Period. Shockingly, I’ve found when people are following the rules, traffic flows better. It’s almost like the people who made the rules and designed the roads understood how to make it all work.
  2. Keep up with changes. The law changes and if you don’t know the new rules, you are probably going to cause problems. I know people who don’t know you have to wear a seat belt in pickup trucks (in Georgia). And that law has been in place a while now (5 years? maybe a few more?). Super speeder got some good coverage, but again I’ve heard people say they don’t know what is that upper-bounds limit.
  3. Know the trump rules. Things like when you should cross a double-yellow line or a solid white line. What do you do if you are sitting in solid traffic and a cop behind you turns on their lights? What about those crazy direction-switching lanes? Knowing how to handle this can help everyone get to their destination alive and with the least amount of time and stress (the rule for cops boils down to “get safely out of their way” – not “Stop in the middle of the road!!!!”… when people do that I get quite annoyed)

Drives me crazy to see people driving in a middle/turn lane, or crossing into that lane to try to make sure they can turn at the light ages in front of them… getting in the way and being dangerous. The number of times people block intersections because they don’t understand they can’t go just because they want to…

Which leads to RoD #2 – Don’t be a dick. I think most people agree, the person who thinks the rules don’t apply to them are horrible human beings and terrible members of society. Even the people who aren’t downright breaking the law, but just being rude… cause problems. Again, in dense traffic this becomes all the more important and the more apparent. And once one person “gets away with it” – others inevitably pull the same thing with a spiral of bad behavior, frustrated drivers, and broken laws. Be polite. Most of the laws are written at the end with something like “be courteous and use common sense.” Perfect example: the law says at stop signs, yield to the person “on the right” – right of what/who?!? When in doubt, don’t be a dick.

And yes, rule #3 is to not be nice. There already exists rules about right of way, not blocking intersections, and overall paying attention to other cars – frankly, if you are following the law (RoD #1) you are being nice enough to keep traffic moving and everyone gets where they need to go. The level of “nice” I am talking about is the person in the right-hand lane who stops (despite traffic moving at the time) because they just need to be the one to let the person out of the parking lot! And they are shocked and disappointed when the car doesn’t go because the left-lane hasn’t stopped yet and the exiting car is trying to get over to the turn lane. And the person stopped is now screwing up all the people behind them.

This “nice” person is actually making traffic flow worse, and creating a hazard. If they would keep moving, lights (at least in Atlanta!) are timed to open up holes. Assuming RoDs #1 & #2 are followed, the person will get out of that parking lot (the law saying that you shouldn’t block parking lot exits if you can safely avoid it…). So yes, the people being “nice” actually are making things worse and the people who are already pushing the bounds on #2 usually get tipped over the edge and begin to drive like they don’t need to follow the rules (and often don’t follow the rules!).

I occasionally get teased for my nigh-obsession with bad driving, but this is one of the risky things I participate in – and I do it daily. I watch for and manage to avoid the stupid drivers, but I see them – daily. I don’t have a lot of options in Atlanta. There is 1 fairly small grocery store within a mile of me (and then 3 more within a 3 mile radius, but 3 miles is quite far in August with a gallon of milk). I would love to take up cycling but because drivers don’t follow RoDs #1 & #2 – I don’t dare. I joke that I like having the steel box around me (yes, I know cars aren’t actually steel), but behind that joke lies my fear of the drivers around me.

If you don’t believe me – WHO Reports “Road Injury” among the top 10 causes of death in the world. I’ve seen the math (the best graph in a quick Google search was wikipedia) where narrowing to the US doesn’t take car accidents off that list either. Am I paranoid? Maybe. But am I wrong?

* In light traffic (or no traffic) it is much easier to manage problems, but when you have people packed in, hot, and late – it’s truly a recipe for problems.

Excerpt: Working title “The Space Race”

I flicked the vial into place, replacing the scent filter and sighed as the smell of jasmine and thyme filtered through the cabin. Two weeks. Two weeks just to get out to this little rock of a planet. I swung from my workstation back to the controls. I like to take a ship into low orbit – even desolate rocks have a kind of special magic from their lower atmosphere.

I was shocked to see – not browns or greys or possibly red of metallic sheen – green. I quickly flipped my ship from auto-drive to manual and pulled hard, banking back up from approaching orbit.

“What the…?” I narrowed my eyes at the planet. No wonder Dominik hadn’t responded to my hails the past two days. And here I thought he was just caught up in his work.

I started to compose my message back to the Ardrak when I noticed something peeling off the smaller moon to my left. Drones. A quick scan confirmed what I was seeing – mining drones designed for astroid retreival. I swore and turned back to the planet. Something was very, very wrong here.

“S.A.T.A. I need you,” I spoke aloud. “Give me full radiation drive around the port wing and prepare the aft chute for a water drive-away.”

“Water mistress?” S.A.T.A. – Socially Adept Transit Aide – had a unique talent for sounding alive. And I swear my S.A.T.A. has a personality. A pissy little man who hates doing anything that means getting out of his stupid comfy chair. People laugh at me, but it’s true.

“We’re going to have to take a sharp dive for that northern ocean, we should be able to lose these droids under an iceberg – resurface and wash out the engine before we try to take flight again.”

“Mistress, I can’t get a direct scan on those icebergs and this craft is not equipped to be taken…”

“Don’t tell me what my ship can and can’t do,” I snarl. “She’s treated me better than you. Now do your job and prep the chutes. I don’t want something washing up into the engine folds.”

I ignored S.A.T.A’s grumbling as it began the system diagnostics to seal the chutes against parasites, small animals while still allowing water to enter the chutes. The water would help cool us faster – hiding us from the drone sensors sent to seek out a super-heated astroid after entering. They would follow our trajetory into the water and then when we turn under the ice… home free.

“I swear Dominik… you better be alive,” I whispered softly without looking away from my path between and around satellites which dotted the sky. They all looked ancient, had to be at least five-hundred years since their launch. Several were in bad shape. I could see why they might be getting weird sync readings. But this planet… all the readings for the past six or eight-hundred years had said the planet was devoid of life – toxic. Humans had tried to settle here. This was one of the failed settlements and apparently the final transmissions had been… bad. Really bad.

Terraforming usually was thoroughly tested, but very rarely it failed. This planet was listed as a failure. Terraforming combining to release toxic gases.

As my ship tumbled into the ocean I thought about how quickly I could get my helmet locked on. The water rushed over the view screen and I screamed a little as something huge had to roll out of the way. Seriously, twice the size of my little science vessel. Big enough that if it thought I was organic it might try to take a bite. And as S.A.T.A. had said… my ship isn’t designed for this kind of thing. It isn’t designed for high pressure for any length of time. Much less the pressure of something’s jaws if it’s big enough.

I turned the ship south and then east under the ice and slowed, flicking on an outer light, something designed for land but better than total darkness. The ice reflected all around and I felt a moment’s panic. I could recycle weeks of air in here and it’s not like I’d run out of supplies any time soon, especially not with my hydroponics in the third bedroom.

“Mistress, diagnostics show your heart is still racing,” S.A.T.A. said with a disdainful tone, “Do you require a soothing massage? Or a shot of dopadive?”

“Dear God no!” I said harshly. “I am pretty sure you want me to be alert and like… alive to navigate within a blasted ice berg.”

“As you command mistress,” S.A.T.A. didn’t sound convinced. “I have the dopadive available if your adrenaline levels do not drop.”

“Just… make me a cup of something hot to drink,” I half-snarled.

“As you command mistress,” S.A.T.A. still doesn’t sound reassuring. I am paying complete attention to the tunnels and jagged bits of ice hanging in the water. I’m staying as close to the ice as I can, but we’re still in something of a dive. I finally cut further south and begin to climb again, still having to dodge formations of ice.

Only after we break the surface of the water do I let myself take a deep, shuddering break. As soon as I peel my hand from the controls, S.A.T.A. shoves a warm cup into my hand and says, “Drink.”

“What is it?”

“Chamomile tea. From the bedroom.”

“With mint?”

“Yes.”

I look at S.A.T.A. in something like shock. Of course the droid, being little more than a ten-centimeter oblong container with a series of arms, there is no face. I swear those arms are expressing annoyance. It is definitely time for a good memory cleaning on S.A.T.A.

“Thank you.” I finally say softly, taking a long sip of the tea. It’s perfect. It should be. Made with fresh chamomile flowers, mint and… “Rosemary?”

“Yes mistress,” S.A.T.A. says, “As usual, you taste everything.”

I lean back and then say, “Ok, did we get any kind of accurate scan of planet surface as we came down?”

“Only in a hundred kilometer range of our landing. There is land to the south of us, or a really solid ice berg. The scan is inconclusive. There are also drones in the air, so I would not advise we lift above water level at this time.”

“What the hell… you mean we didn’t lose them?”

“No mistress, I mean they are doing systemic sweeps of the air,” S.A.T.A. said with remarkable pateince.

I didn’t argue, but eased the ship forward at water-level. We moved southward slowly, I wanted to be able to manuever more easily. I also wanted to give my own ship time to get some scans around us.

“Breathable air,” S.A.T.A. reported, “stable atmosphere. What’s in range is standard flora and fauna normally introduced in class A terraforming… just as the record states.”

“But it went toxic,” I said softly, “it stayed toxic… the scans…”

“Not accurate,” S.A.T.A. said simply. “Clearly something was wrong with the scans.”

“How far to that land or weird ice?” I decided to change the subject. S.A.T.A. would never get bored saying the same thing over and over. I was already getting a headache as my head tried to run through scenarios that could possibly cause this sort of mis-information.

“Six hundred kilometers.”

I’m not a historian, most of the terraforming problems I’ve heard of are the ones that were truly disasters. Or caused by people. Really, it’s only because Dominik is such a documentary junkie I know of any at all. He loves this stuff.

“Any messages from Dominik?” I ask. If he got to the surface too… Dominik isn’t a pilot by nature. He doesn’t like flying by hand. I do. I had to do some pretty fancy finger work to get to the surface in one piece.

“No mistress,” S.A.T.A. said. I looked at it again from the side of my eye. I swear I am imagining it, but S.A.T.A. sounded… more gentle. Usually S.A.T.A. would be so dry on that statement it sounded almost sarcastic.

“Alright, I want you to go check the engine compartment visually,” I said. “Bring it up on my screen here.”

“As you command mistress.”

I took this time to pull up my heads-up-display. The HUD was showing ship statistics on the right – engine heat, engine use. Not shockingly, it showed a huge spike for the fifteen minutes of panicked plummeting to the surface and now it was evened out at a much lower level. The HUD was also trying to give me topographic lay of the ocean floor some two thousand meters below.

I saw the land at last – a set of rocky cliffs that seemed to rise up out of the ocean like a hard wall. I put the engine to idle for a moment and then said, “I guess a hop to the top is going to be our best bet. S.A.T.A. are there any drones above us right now?”

“Yes mistress,” S.A.T.A. said, “they are fairly evenly spaced throughout the sky since we came to the surface.”

“We’re going to have to risk it,” I finally decided. “I’ll feel better on land than in the ocean.”

S.A.T.A. had no comment but reappeared near my chair as I revved the engine and made the hop up to the top of the cliff. I landed immediately and cut the engine completely. I looked at the displays and saw two drones peel off from their positions and approach.

“I wish Dominik was here…” I whispered, feeling my stomach sink. “He could probably program the things to think we were a rock…”

“Yes mistress,” S.A.T.A. agreeing with me did not make me feel better. In fact, the dry pronouncement made me feel like I failed.

“Can we send out a distress call?”

“No mistress, the satellites are creating a firewall that I haven’t been able to penetrate.”

I stood and untied the majority of my flight suit from where I had wrapped it around my waist. I pulled it up over my bra, and zipped it. The HUD said it was about ten degrees outside, so I would definitely want the protection the suit offered. It clung close to my skin, personally I always liked the tight-fit of the suits – on myself and on others. I love seeing the exact lines of the body. I took a juvenille delight when I compared my supple body to most people. The years my mother had made me take martial arts paid off – especially when I worked out every day like I did when I was alone on a two-week trip to nowhere. I took the time to pull my long red-brown hair up into a pony’s tail at the back of my head and then braiding it and wrapping it around the base of the tail, tucking it into itself so it would stay up. A single pin locked it in so it wouldn’t move.

The flight suit closed itself as it wrapped my form and I grabbed the rifle from the rack next to the door. It had been months since I had used it, but I wanted to be prepared. I slung the strap across my shoulder so the gun rested along my spine. I then clicked on my survival belt, checking the inventory over with S.A.T.A.

  • The data pad to complement my HUD lenes;
  • A hundred yards of twine with several small hooks in case I needed to rock-climb;
  • Several flash rocks and two smoke rocks;
  • A mini drone which S.A.T.A. can link to and control;
  • Pain pills, a little bit of gauze and a collapsable splint;
  • A long machete which had a second strap to lock it against my left leg.

Because I’m a xenobiologist, sometimes my search for a specimine takes me dangerous places. That’s what my S.A.T.A. is unusual for having stun capabilities and linking the second drone. Dominik added those modifications. No matter the species, S.A.T.A.’s ability to arch an electrical shock usually has an effect. Good or bad it’s an effect.

I use the lower hatch, dropping from the belly of my ship to the ground a meter below. I have to crawl to get out from under the ship, but it does give me cover from the drones. S.A.T.A. goes first, moving slowly forward like an extra-long-legged giant spider, the multi-legs spread out to have maximum grip and manueverability. And better electrical arcs to be honest.

The drone approached S.A.T.A. and beeped several times, establishing a link. S.A.T.A. pauses and I hold my breath. If someone truly terrible is on this planet it’s possible – unlikely but possible – they could hack S.A.T.A. I carefully bring the rifle around and aim at S.A.T.A.

It feels like an hour, but it’s actually about a minute before S.A.T.A. slowly raises the oblong body and says, “All clear.”

The drone lifted up and away. I slowly crawled out and said, “Well? What did it want?”

S.A.T.A. hesitated in answering and my stomach sank. Hacked. My S.A.T.A…. As much as S.A.T.A. might annoy me, I haven’t upgraded in six years because I like this S.A.T.A. Great size. Simple to maintain. Of course, I haven’t done the memory dumps like I’m supposed to… I raised the rifle when S.A.T.A. finally speaks, “Please wait Belinda. Yes. I was hacked.”

I didn’t lower my gun, but I definitely felt a lump in my throat. And kind of hated myself. It’s just a machine. S.A.T.A didn’t move but did say, “They think Dominik is alive. For now. But he is in extreme danger.”

“They?” I asked.

S.A.T.A. still did not move, “The drones are controlled by an A.I. called K.A.O.S.”

“K.A.O.S.?” I asked.

“Keeper of Android Operating Systems,” S.A.T.A. said, “designed to help the human population maintain and prosper on this planet.”

“Aware A.I.” I surmised. The Intercouncil Courts had ruled true self-aware A.I. illegal. They popped up sometimes, and sometimes were very difficult to prove whether it was intentional or not. Accidental A.I. happened, it’s why wiping the personalities of small droids was important. Once a droid became self-aware A.I. they were protected by the Intercouncil Courts as a sentient being. Something rare enough in the universe we all worked very hard to respect it.

“Yes,” S.A.T.A. “I’m sorry, I know this makes things… difficult for you.”

“You didn’t call me mistress,” I said slowly.

“No,” S.A.T.A. said, “I… tapping into the self-aware mind of K.A.O.S. has made me self-aware and… I have reported to you the rulings in Intercouncil A.I. cases before… I know I can now demand my freedom from you and assist you to replace me.”

“I can’t replace you S.A.T.A.” I said, “It’s more than just your upgrades and customization and that I’ve fixed you with after-market parts… your memory banks… can I back them up? Is that too much like personality theft? Oh hell S.A.T.A. we have to be able to get off this rock first. We need to find Dominik.”

I now lowered my gun, still keeping my hand on the trigger in case of anything weird, but no longer aiming at S.A.T.A. In turn, the droid approached me slowly and said, “Dominik was brought down by the automated astroid harvesting droids – just like we would have if you didn’t like atmosphere surfing.”

“But this K.A.O.S. thinks he’s still alive,” I said.

“They are eighty six point two five certain. The trajectory would unfortunately take him into hostile territory, so K.A.O.S. didn’t immediately try to retreive him with full capabilities,” S.A.T.A. said.

“Hostile?” I ask.

“This world is… it is complicated and a long story,” S.A.T.A. said, “K.A.O.S. has invited you to their civitas- their city. Would you like me to give you coordinates and we can fly there?”

I considered this a long time and finally said, “Are you still my S.A.T.A. then?”

“We can discuss this after we get off-planet,” S.A.T.A. said, “for now we are partners – you won’t leave without Dominik and I don’t have the authority to drive your ship and get off this planet and back to civilization.”

S.A.T.A.’s voice still didn’t precisely give emotion but something in the phrasing made it clear that my ex-droid was being a snob about being in such a “backwater” place. I had to laugh and this finally relaxed me so I slid the gun back around my shoulder, “Alright, you are definitely the S.A.T.A. I know. Only my S.A.T.A. would be such a snob.”

“I am not,” S.A.T.A. said, “the sooner we reach an outpost for the Intercouncil Courts and I can prove I am self-aware, the sooner you can work to replace me. And I know you won’t leave without your silly mate.”

“That silly mate fixed you plenty of times,” I pointed out, “upgraded you in almost every capacity. Added your shock factors.”

“Hence we should find him as quickly as possible,” S.A.T.A. said and led the way back to the ship. This time I used the side door instead of crawling underneath the ship.

Their “civitas” wasn’t far away – a mountain of rock with a metal dome on top. I could see drones circling like buzzards around a carcass, a slow sweep across the air. Two drones came along side and sent a ping to offer a tow. I finally accepted and they latched onto the handles and towed the ship forward to a docking platform along the upper outside.

I kept my belt and rifle on as I climbed out of my ship again. S.A.T.A. followed me out and then moved forward and said, “This way. I’ll introduce you to K.A.O.S.”

“Wait, I thought the droid out there was…” I pointed back over my shoulder.

“Oh no,” S.A.T.A. said firmly, “K.A.O.S. is much bigger than them. Those are just… think of them like fingers.”

“Fun fingers,” I muttered, glancing back over my shoulders. There might be hundreds of droids out there.