The Bookworm

Art commission by @javi_draws

This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla


The Bookworm – part 1


Absolute Silence. Hanna peered through the thin gap at the door outside at the thick billowing fog that had settled in the dark hours before dawn. It was eerie how it seemed to suffocate all sound. She had been lying awake, but the long absence of even the creak of a tree limb alerted her to what else she could not hear, her warden’s horse. The same she had been responsible for putting to stable the prior night. She’d have no skin left after the lashing she was sure to receive.

Moving from near slumber to alert in an instant she quietly slipped out the door, confirming immediately her fears. The horse was no where to be seen, and the unusual fog and predawn false light seemed to have swallowed the entire village past the low stone fence at the edge of the yard. Even the bare limbs of the great tree she woke to every morning were but suggestions of a shape in the mist. She pulled her worn blanket over her arms and made her way into the yard.

She was afraid to call after the horse only to wake her warden or his mean-spirited son, Brandon. She scowled at the thought of his mocking sneer. Her cheek and eye still hurt from where he had struck her with a rock, but she got even. Her scowl twisted into a smile as she recalled his expression when he was told he would also be whipped for the rock fight he insisted she had started. So, what if she had? He was not the only of the children in the village who was mean, just the meanest. They teased her for being tall. For not having a family, and for where she was from. Most days quiet indifference stung worse than words, but Brandon clearly resented her.

She walked gingerly through the thorny grass in her bare feet until she had checked everywhere close to the small home. Winnifred had left, which was uncharacteristic for her after dark. Or Freyja, as Hanna would call her in solitude; as they both had two names.

Hanna made her way up the worn path toward the middle of the village, where the weathered stone chapel towered over the surrounding village and small garrison nearby. This was where she would usually walk the horse each morning. With a sigh of relief, she found Winnifred eating flowers near the great wooden chapel doors. She patted the horse lovingly as her gaze wandered to the darkened glass windows above. To her surprise there was a faint flicker of light from inside. She looked both ways, in one direction a lone watchman struggled to stay awake under his torch, and the other way not a soul in sight. Then she noticed one of the great wooden chapel doors was slightly ajar. Whispering a kind word to the horse, Hanna stepped closer to peek inside.

The light came from a few candles at a large table at the far end of the main chamber, where several parchments lay rolled next to a heavy bound book. A book she breathed, staring with wide eyes. The horse continued to graze on the bright petals nearby. Hanna looked twice and slipped into the chapel. Someone had been here just minutes before she was sure, but she could not contain her curiosity. Before she had come into the care of her warden, she had just started to learn letters and remained fascinated by reading. Sometimes she would lay awake dreaming of stories of ancient libraries told to her by the Skald who visited the settlement she grew up in, among her earliest memories which now felt like a life ago. A life when she lived with the Northmen.

She had been told she was of Saxon birth but taken young as a servant to invading Vikings. Sometimes she thought she could remember the longships, but her warden would chide her that she was far too young at the time to possibly recall that. He made no illusion of his disdain for her time there in servitude, which she now only recalled with fond memory. It was hard work, but life with the Northmen felt freer than the oppression she felt today. Since the soldiers saved her, as she was often reminded. Saved, as the settlement she grew up in was burnt and the Northmen scattered or killed. Saved, and given a new name they preferred the sound of.

Her feet had carried her carefully through the main chamber, expecting at any moment to discover somebody there. She reached the large table with no one else in sight. She studied the shadows intently; the candles could not have burnt as such for long. Then her eyes fixed on the prize at the center of the light, the lone massive book. Its reinforced cover was intricate leather work and precious stone inlays. Surely this was too valuable to just be carelessly left out. The edge of the pages shone like gold. Midway through the pages there was a disturbed edge, as if it had been handled roughly. She opened it to the spot. The brilliant colors leapt off the page into her eyes like a vivid dream. Illustrations of men dressed like kings and row after row of careful tight script filled the page. She noticed a bit of the prior page was torn. No, not torn, an entire page was missing but for a corner. Who would damage such a priceless wonder?

She turned her attention to the rolls of parchment. One was held flat by the candle and a decorative knife. This looked like something a man she had seen at the garrison carrying. Neat rows of words paired with numbers. A list of things for the soldiers, she guessed. A sudden waver in the light caught her attention. A draft came from the door, now open wide. She heard hurried footsteps outside, but they were not coming for her. Winnifred made a nervous sound. Next, she heard the village bell.

They were being attacked.

The garrison was alive with commotion as soldiers rushed to down the hill towards the banks of the river where she could hear the first indistinct sounds of men shouting, weapons striking shields and the dull rumble of many boots. She could smell smoke. Then from nearby a familiar voice, Brandon. He had spotted Winnifred and was trying to guide the horse, who was objecting. Winnifred did not like him and when he got frustrated the horse listened even less.

“Hanna!” Brandon yelled out as he struggled with the horse before repeating his cry. He had come searching for her and the horse.

Hanna reverently closed the wondrous book and pinched the candles out as she prepared to quickly leave. Outside she found Brandon red in the face and dressed in a riding coat. In his fist he had doubled the end of a rope and was rising his hand to strike the defiant horse. Hanna caught his fist, gaze locked steady with his. In the eyes of the slightly older boy a flicker of fear, quickly replaced by anger.

“We have to go,” he shouted at her. “Now!”

Hanna took the tack and bridle from Brandon and helped put it on Winnifred, soothing the horse until Brandon was able to mount. She caught herself looking back into the chapel at the now dark table and book. Her feet felt heavy, something was amiss and even with the approaching din of battle she felt compelled to sort out why. Who had been there minutes before her looking at the book?

“Come on!” Brandon bellowed at her. Then, a burning arrow struck near where they stood. The glow of burning roofs from down the hill now illuminated the fog with a harrowing light.

“Freyja, go!” Hanna commanded, a crack in her voice. Hanna refused to get on with him. To Brandon’s protest the horse obediently started towards their home without her. Hanna trusted she would get them there, where his father was surely waiting so they could flee. She watched as they disappeared.

Footsteps approached where the watchman one stood, and Hanna slipped back inside the chapel and quickly hid in an adjoining chamber not far from the table. Two Vikings, one of broad shoulders with a bloodied great axe and the other taller, older with numerous scars and one blind eye. The latter carried a torch as they pushed open the chapel doors and began rummaging for anything of value. It did not take long for the elder of the two to come to a standstill at the table. She could hear them discussing something they were looking for; the book she now held where she hid. She recognized the dialect. They were not of the same ätt as her childhood family, but one she remembered to be a neighbor with a storied history of raiding.

A third raider approached the chapel. “Is it here?” the woman called to the two men as she entered. Her torchlight quickly met near where the others were searching, just narrowly out of Hanna’s line of sight. Her idea of sneaking out the door when they moved to search the rear of the great chamber was seeming a little less bright by the minute. The Vikings split up, turning through coffers and shelves, torch light casting long shadows everywhere. Slowly they made their way to the rear of the chamber as Hanna had hoped.

Hanna tip toed from her hiding spot and made a quiet dash to the door, only to come face to face with the keen point of an axe. The woman raider was taller than her, rows of blond braids framing her war painted face. “Ooh,” the woman spoke in a sing-song tone as Hanna froze. “Light reading?” She joked, lowering her axe. The other men stood near silently as if by command, watching. Outside the sounds of fighting was growing quiet. Hanna smelled rain.

“Someone was here,” Hanna replied in the tongue of her youth. All three raiders expressions shifted in response. “There are pages torn out,” she continued as she handed the book to the woman.

They opened the book; the eldest let out a whistle of appreciation. Observing the same missing pages she closed the book and began checking the situation outside. “Girl, what is your name?” the Viking woman demanded. “Do you read?”

“Hanna,” she replied, clearing her throat. “I mean, Hadda” she corrected bashfully. “And no. I want to learn to read.” She added.

The woman turned to face her directly. “How do you feel about sailing?”


continued in part 2

“Thirty Day” Pimsleur and Duolingo review

Following the 30-day program for Pimsleur’s Egyptian Arabic level 1 and Duolingo’s MSA course, here are some concluding thoughts. This is a third entry to a series of prior posts beginning here.

Pimsleur’s level 1 program is a well-presented introduction to the language that would be valuable for anyone who planned on travelling to Egypt or who wanted to begin speaking the language with a close friend or relative. It is ideal for someone who will have an opportunity to practice with another person who is either fluent or also learning at the same time. With that said, it is just a 30-day program and at this time does not have a level 2 or level 3 course available. (Eastern Arabic and Farsi have levels 1-3). The words and phrases are a good start for basic introductions, getting simple directions, dining out, discussing travel, shopping and talking about your spouse or children. I found however that when I tried to apply what I learned by listening to beginner videos on YouTube, my comprehension was still insufficient to follow. You’d be on your own for independent study. A good next step would be a private tutor or a proper classroom environment if available.

I do feel that for the cost the Pimsleur course was a good investment. I feel that the vocabulary I have retained is useful and I have a good foundation to continue learning with. I don’t feel ready to speak the language beyond simple phrases covered in the course, yet.

Duolingo is a completely different experience. I would not try to compare them directly, and not just because Duolingo does not offer Arabic in any dialect other than MSA. Duolingo is fantastic for teaching a complete beginner the alphabet and helping to learn to recognize how the letters are written in context and placement within a word. It’s game-like structure is ideal for a visual learner. The software pronunciation of the words isn’t great for learning how to speak the language but it isn’t terrible either. I enjoy Duolingo even though I feel like the number of words I’ve learned so far is very, very slight and not helpful for having a conversation, at least yet.

I plan on sticking with Duolingo and continuing to review the Pimsleur course materials throughout the year to reinforce what I have learned and maybe with some additional private coaching I will feel more confident for a trip or volunteer opportunity down the line.

Thank you for reading and Ma’assalamah

Progress on Learning a New Language

A 20th day update to my first post documenting my experience using Pimsleur and Duolingo to study Arabic, with the Pimsleur course being specific to Egyptian Arabic. My expectations for how quickly I would learn are shaped in part by my experience learning French in High School and later via Duolingo, each time for about a year. Not counting the in-classroom time with a teacher decades ago, no other period of learning did I have regular practice with another fluent speaker. It wasn’t a surprise to me that while my vocabulary was relatively broad, I could speak very little French and understand even less in practice. So, I started out knowing Arabic would be at least as difficult and kept a positive attitude.

Pimsleur, by lesson 20, had done a good job building on the example conversations using the vocabulary taught in the previous lessons. I feel that at each new lesson I would be able to understand most of the next lesson’s listening exercises, which does help build confidence at least within the Pimsleur courses. It is effective also at teaching how to listen for important contextual cues, like question words, specific verbs like eating, drinking, and words you might use while shopping.

Outside of Pimsleur is where I started to learn tougher lessons, the first being that it was still too soon for me to be able to listen to even simple conversations in a YouTube video spoken in Egyptian Arabic. I found my word recognition was slight at best at this point, and not well enough to guess context in a genuine spoken conversation on the street. One example series I had tuned into was built as a “beginners” Egyptian Arabic video where they asked people on the street about their days. I will need to revisit this again when I have learned a lot more.

I did find while on YouTube that there are a few creators who do really good vocabulary videos that were helpful, like Linguamid’s channel. TikTok also has dozens of accounts dedicated to very short practical language lessons, some as short as a single word, like the “that’s easy, Habibi” guy.

Another learning curve I discovered is that translation resources aren’t always available. I feel like it is hit or miss if I can find Egyptian at all in an app when trying to translate or set localization. One of the more complete online dictionaries for Egyptian Arabic has mobile apps but they only work for older builds of iOS and Android, so one has to use the desktop browser mode to access it.

Duolingo today only supports MSA, not Egyptian, but is excellent for teaching a complete beginner to read and guess the sound of Arabic letters. Pimsleur does this but with much less depth, in a visual format of listen and see how the letters sound. Duolingo’s format is better in this specific context although I can see it will get a lot more complicated once the lessons shift away from learning the alphabet to MSA in complete sentences. For now, the brief examples like “big jacket” and “amazing house” are easy enough I don’t feel like I am confusing myself and it does help improve the speed of word recognition. I also feel like Duolingo does a good job teaching you how to guess how a word might be pronounced, and to spot slight differences between short and long vowel sounds.

Next, I searched for music artists who sing in Egyptian Arabic or a mix of Enlish and Arabic and found a few. So far my word recognition here is about the same as listening to YouTube – ie, mish kwayes awi. However, it does help me pick out words or phrases I want to learn as I find songs I like. I hope before long to know all the words to a few of them.

Finally, I found some lists I had for both French and Latin America artists and I reflected on how much I recognized in those songs; the latter in Spanish which I had never studied but had lived around folks who were fluent. I think that long exposure to artists who rap in mixed English and Spanish taught me more words than I give myself credit for. I feel the same way about listening to a song in French, in which I can usually pick out quite a few words especially when the song includes statements about self or question words.

Learning something new feels like unused parts of my brain are rejuvenated. I know that before long, the hard work begins but for now I am enjoying how it feels to step outside my comfort zone and discover things I never knew before.

Next update after I complete the Level 1 Pimsleur course, which is 30 days in total.

Till then~

What I Hope to see in Watch Dogs 4

It’s been a hot minute since Ubisoft took us for a leap into a reimagined post-Brexit London populated by randomly generated “play as anyone” protagonists in Watch Dogs Legion, the third title in the series. Legion and its star-studded Bloodlines DLC tied up some loose story threads from Watch Dogs 1 and 2, most notably with the return of titular antihero Aiden and fan favorite Wrench. Legion had mixed reception, despite its innovations. Even I had been skeptical of the move from a well written cast in Watch Dogs 2 (which I gushed about in a prior post) but found that the “random” recruits and team building was better than I expected it to be. In fact, I was almost immediately attached to my characters, which may have made choosing to play with perma-death enabled a mistake. Or was it? More on that in a minute.

First, one of my favorite themes from the Watch Dogs and Far Cry series has been Ubisoft’s tip toe dance around real world issues. Watch Dogs 2 in particular nailed many real-life parallels in comedic fashion, and Legion made an attempt to do the same to a degree. So did Far Cry 6, although delicately without naming real places. I wrote a fan review of Far Cry 6 here, spoilers; I loved it. With that said, Ubisoft hasn’t been very consistent with addressing social problems in games, and as a company have weathered fair criticism themselves. That brings me to my first hope for the next game in the series.

Confront Real Issues

The state of technology and cybersecurity has long since spilled into the realm of very serious human rights abuses. To be fair, Watch Dogs was more or less built on this very topic from the first game, but seemed to show a trajectory away from a variety of topics that could be to avoid divisive political messaging but comes across somewhat tone deaf or noncommittal. This isn’t a great look, especially when the same company continues to put out military themed “bad hombre” Tom Clancy simulators that perpetuate damaging stereotypes about Central and South America nationalities. Not minding that, consider other real situations that the game could address.

The AI race is heating up. Journalists, activists, political rivals have all been the targets of Israel’s Pegasus spyware. There is a form of AI developed for the machine guns at check points in the West Bank. Censorship at Meta, Twitter and Tiktok decide which trending catastrophe is seen and which is not. Now more than ever, unfettered internet access is more important than ever for people living in regions rocked by turmoil and war. Meanwhile US lawmakers made fools of themselves accusing Tiktok’s CEO of hacking local Wi-Fi and tracking eye dilation or other biometrics to spy on Americans, which has led to at least one state banning the app and a number of government agencies to bar it from devices. A follow up bill would make it illegal to use a VPN to access Tiktok, which begs big questions on what sort of back door VPN nonsense that could entail. All the while women (and anyone who would benefit from services provided at a woman’s health clinic) across the nation woke to find their digital privacy and personal data at new risk as anti-abortion laws collateral impact spread to anyone who may have even had a discussion with a woman seeking an abortion in a state where it was banned.

All of these are absolutely explosive political topics that should be on the mind of a speculative cast of Watch Dogs 4. Legion did not leave many open story threads outside a hint that there was a Ded Sec cell in Egypt interested in stolen historical artifacts, which I agree is also a cool topic the game should discuss.

Less Gun Play

I’m not saying the combat in the games was bad. I am just arguing again that the current state of the cover-shooter genre is very well saturated, and Watch Dogs adds very little to set it apart. I said it before and I stand by it still; gun culture and hacktivism have only marginal overlap at best. Sure, yeah, blah blah 3D printing, but right now we could stand to have a little less gun enthusiasm in the US.

One of the things I enjoyed the most in Watch Dogs 2 was how many of the missions could be solved with just stealth, including one of the most challenging late game missions. Legions had a lot of forced combat, coupled with optional perma-death, which made it frustrating to play if you were trying to cultivate characters with strong stealth skills. Part of the problem was the way the game tricked you with “surprise, you’re trapped in the mission now and the guards are already alerted” mechanics, which was not easy to predict before you began the mission. As I played with perma-death on my first playthrough, I lost a great espionage-skilled character this way, one of around a dozen I lost in the first playthrough and associated DLC. With that said, allow me to fishtail on the subject of perma-death in Watch Dogs.

Optional Perma-Death / Hardcore

In the long run, perma-death was probably one of the better features of Watch Dogs Legions, but for reasons that are maybe cruel. I found the stress of staying on my toes to be both good and bad, but once I had started a new game with perma-death off, it got really silly fast. The lack of risk took depth out of the game. I hope Ubisoft keeps this feature and instead works to improve unintentional death traps instead of removing the feature.

Keep Play as Anyone, with VIP

I think “play as anyone” in Watch Dogs Legion does not get enough credit for the innovation that it was. I did enjoy having story characters in the roster too, especially as it pertained to series continuity. The optional add on heroes were very cool, too, be it the woman with the mind control powers or the non-canon descendant of Assassin’s Creed’s Evie Frye. But overall if Ubisoft announced this core feature would continue in Watch Dogs 4 I would be very happy.

Rethink Multiplayer

Multiplayer in Watch Dogs needs a new approach. The combat heavy, bullet sponge fights and weird mission mechanics made multiplayer not a lot of fun given the possibilities. I think co-op story mode could be a great start, along with maybe some new ideas for non-combat cooperative puzzles that play out across multiple locations. Make the technology the heart of the gameplay here, not just combat. There is a big opportunity for this part of the game to be amazing and unique to the Watch Dogs experience.

Location, Location, Location

Finally, I think I would be excited no matter where they announced the game would take place. The last story had the trailing hint of Ded Sec in Cairo, but Tokyo could be fun too. So would a new US location, maybe one the series has not been to yet like Miami, or one like New York that so far had only been explored via the post catastrophic The Division. Wherever it is, I hope they continue the tradition of featuring music artists from that area on the soundtrack – or even in game, again.

I hope Ubisoft is planning a 4th Watch Dogs. If the teams that worked on the last two are involved, it should be good. Maybe great even, we can only wait and see.

As a footnote, I asked Bing Chat AI which Watch Dogs character it liked, and it answered Bagley. 😭

A Language Learning Journey

It sounds cliché when I type it out but after a few days of trying Pimsleur and Duolingo I thought it may be beneficial for me to journal what the experience was like. I had used Duolingo before, originally to brush up on French which I had first taken in High School and then later forgot most of what I learned. More recently I was interested in a possible opportunity that may be helpful if I understood and could speak some Arabic.

My first challenge was finding an app outside of a proper classroom or paid instructional environment that taught practical listening comprehension. I read elsewhere that Egyptian Arabic was a good dialect to study, although I would also like to know Levantine Arabic. Neither are in Duolingo, but Pimsleur’s Egyptian Arabic course was well reviewed. I chose Pimsleur after trying the free lesson and deciding that a 30-day Level 1 lesson plan was a reasonable commitment.

For context, outside of High School French I have not had many chances to practice a second language with other students or a skilled instructor. In my work I have found myself on numerous occasions being one of the only people in a group who cannot speak multiple languages, and I feel this may limit my opportunities. This is my starting point, part of my motivation.

To begin, I really enjoy the lesson format from Pimsleur. Starting first with a natively spoken audio, then a listen and repeat exercise followed by the same new vocabulary in visual review works very well for me. It was important that the audio was an actual person and not software synthesis, as the nuance in how the letters sound is lost when a screen reader repeats it. I could tell right away that even with the audio by a native speaker I would have a big challenge learning many of the sounds not commonly present in English, specially without in-person feedback. I will have to accept this handicap for the time being.

After the fourth lesson, or about a week since I had taken the first free lesson, I felt like I could understand most of the introductory audio conversation even when the pacing and arrangement was switched up to accommodate new vocabulary words. I felt like it did a good job breaking down the importance of understanding the gendered contexts of words and phrases, at least to the degree of anticipating knowing the need to identify which would be correct in a given sentence, or spotting if two similar answers were provided and only one matched the subject.

As for Duolingo, I find it useful for learning the Modern Standard Arabic alphabet and seeing how the letters differ when written together. It helps with basic reading comprehension, at least for a beginner like me. To be fair, nothing I have seen yet in Duolingo would help me get over the learning curve to reading fluently with any degree of useful speed, nor to help with learning a spoken dialect.

I’ve kept a notepad of vocabulary words as I hear them to practice with, a habit I started with French. I’ve also made use of a text translator app on my phone to get practice typing words I learn in Arabic, so I start to recognize them and also to help me sound out words I don’t know.

I am trying to keep my expectations reasonable, as I know with learning French I felt like after a year of class in High School and a year of Duolingo I knew a lot of words but could speak very little in a practical situation. It would have been different if I spent regular time around a fluent speaker or had lived somewhere it was a commonly spoken language; I am confident I would have learned “survival” French pretty fast if I had.

In the meantime, between lessons I am searching for more audio via podcasts or songs that I can listen to that is also in Egyptian so get used to hearing it and see which words I can pick out. I’ll post again after a few more lessons and maybe include a few examples of ones I found and how it went.

Till then~

Updates: Day 20 progress post and a Conclusion after 30 Days.

More Totally Unnecessary Character Backstory – Diablo IV Necromancer

A short story set in the world of Diablo IV

Beyond the sealed door of the buried temple a series of stairs descended from the aboveground world like a runaway blasphemous thought. Corizande stepped lightly, her skeletal minions matching her quiet step for step. She followed a whisper, the unquiet dead. A distant friend she had seen fall in a dream who now haunted her. The compulsion had led her here on the trail of whatever demon had slain him.

              The dust suspended in the still air did not yield for them, resisting the slightest breeze as if even the air was dead down here. The only illumination other than her conjured light was a soft glow from green mineral veins that permeated the stone around them. Unlike the manmade mines and temple above, the underworld below seemed untouched since the old gods had hewn it.

              Reaching a landing in the subterranean cavern she commanded her light ahead of her, examining the precisely cut stone floor marked with a massive metal seal, imprinted by forgotten magic into a mural of the demon whose voice Corizande knew. Corizande’s book of spells hovered in the air over her open hand, pages turning by her thoughts. The silence here was imperfect, the air thick with a scent like iron and filth, some she recognized as the cruel Fallen that had spilled from the depths into the valley throughout the long winter. Corizande knew she was not alone.

              She pulled the loom woven cloth armor tight over her shoulders, its pale blue from dye a secret only her coven knew. Sewn into it and her long gloves were ancient coins of bronze inscribed with forbidden verses. Together they radiated a formidable shield, strong enough to protect her from the common threats of the worn roads of home at least. Against the hordes of Hell, it had been barely enough to get her this far. To her credit, her devotion to dark magic also afforded her a personal guard of animated dead, her skeletal skirmishers and hollow-eyed spellcasters. Against the Fallen she often needed not raise a finger herself to fight, but whatever fiend had drawn her colleague here was anything but common hellspawn. Somewhere in the dark lurked a much more powerful foe.

              Not ten paces beyond the seal Corizande found the first signs she had been looking for: piled corpses of Fallen and cursed beasts torn, frozen or incinerated by the high magic of a sorcerer. This was the work of her lost friend, a trail of destruction that bore his signature appetite for destructive elemental forces. She recalled his kind dark eyes, warm smile and infectious laughter. He was an arrogant son of a bitch, but had treated her with uncommon respect which earned her friendship. Today she repaid that respect by finding the monster that had been his match.

              The carnage led her room after room of the same, her minions dispatching stragglers and other lesser Fallen lurking about to loot the dead. The trail led lower until she encountered a series of previously sealed gates that now lay open. Dried blood magic runes on the floor betrayed the nature of the foe she pursued, along with strange, scattered petals. They were red like roses but made the hair of her neck stand on end. The sensation felt like creeping madness, but one that bore dark wings and had heavy cloven footsteps. Not just any demon, but one she knew. The same on the seal she passed as she entered; Lilith. Daughter of Hatred.

              Finally she arrived at the bottom of the cavern, a dark lake that suffocated the last beam of her magic light until only pale ambience remained. A long polished stone path extended over the edge of the lake, like an unfinished bridge between worlds. The floor was covered by interconnected blood runes, some of them still wet. At the far end of the open space she could see a figure knelt, back facing her as they continued inscribing the summoning spell. A barrier of blood magic surrounded the figure, who was breathing erratically. As Corizande approached she could make out it was a woman not many years older than her, seemingly driven mad by the same demonic voices. Nearby was the broken body of her friend, his staff shattered not far from his lifeless hands.

              The woman, who was stammering under her breath to someone Corizande could not see, glanced at her nervously and hurried to continue her blood inscription. Corizande’s skeletal guard drew close around her as movement began increasing beyond the edge of her waning light. Corizande turned her wand to the body of her friend.

              “Speak’, she uttered. A faint image of her friend appeared like a spirit above him, but beyond the veil he was unable to reply. He simply signed thank you and nodded his head in a final act of parting.

              Corizande was not numb to the sting of grief at the sight. She blinked away fresh tears and fought a well of emotion as the clamor of approaching monsters grew louder. The woman started laughing as the blood runes on the floor began to glow bright red. Swirling clouds of choking darkness rushed into the space, forming a horde of demons flanked by beasts, winged succubus and a towering monstrosity wielding a blade of bones. His weapon crashed into the shields of her skeletal soldiers even before his hooves touched the stone. The chaos grew into a deafening pitch as her spellcasters rained dark bolts on her enemies. She pointed her wand at her departed friend.

              “Rise, and be avenged”

So, I asked Bing AI to write a character backstory

This is a bit of a departure from my usual content, but I could not resist sharing the results. I asked the Bing AI to write an example of a character backstory for a Rogue in Diablo IV. I do not know the data set it is trained on or whose work it may have dredged to create this, but I was impressed at how specific it got. What follows is the output from my single sentence prompt, no edits.

Your name is Zara, a female human rogue who specializes in Exploit Weakness and Shadow Imbuement. You were born in the city of Westmarch, where you grew up as an orphan on the streets. You learned to survive by stealing, lying, and fighting. You also developed a keen sense of observation and a knack for finding and exploiting your enemies’ weak spots.

One day, you caught the eye of a mysterious woman named Lilith, who offered you a place in her secret cult. She promised you power, wealth, and freedom in exchange for your loyalty and service. You accepted, hoping to find a new purpose and a new family. You became one of her most trusted agents, carrying out her orders and spreading her influence across Sanctuary.

You learned to imbue your weapons with shadow magic, making them more deadly and unpredictable. You also mastered the art of creating shadow clones, which you used to confuse and ambush your foes. You enjoyed the thrill of hunting down and eliminating Lilith’s enemies, whether they were demons, angels, or humans. You felt no remorse or pity for your victims, only satisfaction and pride.

However, as time went on, you began to notice that Lilith was not what she seemed. She was cruel, manipulative, and obsessed with her own agenda. She cared nothing for you or the other cultists, only for her own power and glory. She also had a dark secret that she kept hidden from everyone: she was the daughter of Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred, and the mother of the Nephalem, the first humans.

You realized that Lilith was using you and the other cultists as pawns in her grand scheme to overthrow the High Heavens and the Burning Hells, and to create a new world order under her rule. You also learned that she was planning to unleash a terrible evil upon Sanctuary: the Worldstone, a powerful artifact that could shape reality itself. She intended to corrupt it with her blood and use it to create an army of loyal Nephalem who would serve her as gods.

You decided that you had enough of Lilith’s lies and tyranny. You resolved to stop her before it was too late. You gathered some allies who shared your doubts and suspicions, and prepared to confront Lilith at her lair. You knew it would be a dangerous and suicidal mission, but you had nothing left to lose. You hoped to find redemption for your sins, or at least a worthy death.

Bing AI

Diablo IV Beta Impressions

Returning to Hell? Bring a friend.

Following the lessons of transitioning Diablo from PC to Console and adapting it for regular new content and seasonal activities, the team at Activision-Blizzard set out to build a new experience from the ground up for the current generation of game systems. The result is far from just a new coat of paint on an old dungeon crawler. What begins with a hint of the familiar during character creation around a campfire quickly leaps into something new, something bigger. These are my impressions, followed by some feedback from both my wife and I.

Diablo 4 establishes itself right away as different, from the way the story is told to the scale of the world we arrive in. To say that the game is darker is both an understatement and an oversimplification. The world is more detailed and densely populated, both with foes and things and places to discover. Familiar enemies seem more dangerous, and the puzzles feel fresh.

My wife and I both chose the second tier of difficulty as we had played the previous titles on higher difficulty and found the challenge was worthy. It felt tuned to be just on the cusp of too difficult to play solo, and ideal in a party of two. The dungeons, bosses and some elites are significantly harder than Diablo 3, requiring much more attention to gear and skill choice earlier in the game. It adds up to gameplay that is immediately engaging and difficult to put down. We spent most of the weekend playing and felt like we had barely scratched the surface.

Diablo 4 is also a feast for the ears. I love the choice of haunting music and ambient sounds. The effects feel more dramatic, the hits land harder. The audio team really outdid themselves in weaving a vibrant atmosphere.

As for the gameplay itself, it was evident the game was still in beta. There were numerous minor bugs, although neither my wife or I ran into excessive crashing. She played first a Barbarian and found that the difficulty for melee characters in the early boss fights was very steep compared to ranged characters. This evened out somewhat later, although the toughest encounters still seemed extra punishing for characters that rely on sustained close-range attacks to fuel their stronger abilities. I played a Rogue and enjoyed the challenge, although I feel some of the abilities when combined with the right gear were probably overpowered in all but the toughest encounters, especially how shadow-imbued attacks scale with gear that augments the core damage attacks.

It was nice to run into as many players in the world as we did, which made the world feel that much more alive. The above world encounters scaled well to the number of players, leading to unprecedented mayhem in challenging encounters. The variety of these was also refreshing, and they were frequent enough that it was not hard to find something to do when you ventured away from the safety of town. It was also not uncommon to discover an overworld boss or challenge far more difficult than a small group can manage, which encourages groups of players to work together.

Between side quests, overworld events, world bosses, numerous dungeons and other things to explore for, we felt like there was no shortage of things to do. By the end of the weekend there was a staggering number of side quests available on top of a quickly growing challenge by level 20. I felt very attached to my character after two short days. He was not just another rogue. With the level of customization and depth of the skill tree and gear choices I felt strongly that he was my rogue, and this is a pretty big step for the Diablo series where characters once were nearly indistinguishable from one another. Our heroes get more screen time than in the past, too, including improved cutscene mechanics where we get to see our customized characters up close, and in speaking roles.

I believe this is one of the ways Diablo IV shines the brightest. Even at the title screen, our hero is close enough to admire the detail of the armor, tattoos and even the glean of sweat on their skin. It is not just a gritty, dark world. It is further removed from the arcade feel of its predecessors. From an early point in the game, it makes it easy to customize your armor and weapon appearances based on items you have found without punitive cost. We could tell this was a popular feature based on the number of strangers we ran into near the first area where your wardrobe can be managed.

I hope the teams that planned and built these areas and experiences looked down on crowded Kyovashad with pride. It was certainly a sight to behold.

My wife and I eagerly await our return to Fractured Peaks when the game is released later this year.

Thoughts on the state of AI in 2022

AI certainly gets a bad reputation from Hollywood, where it is often shown in ways that either threaten mankind or subvert social norms in a way that makes us uncomfortable. If that wasn’t bad enough, real life applications for AI and machine learning are often of cruel intent, like the automated machine gun turrets in the occupied West Bank and software written to create facial recognition “digital fences” targeting immigrants and other vulnerable populations. Add in a scare about police robots with “lethal force” authorization coupled with a personal data privacy crisis and people have every right to be wary of semi-autonomous and completely autonomous AI and robot systems today and in the near future. But not all of machine learning, AI and similar algorithms are out to do harm.

In the tail of a second year of one of the worst pandemics in human history, the need to limit close human interaction has many of us talking to and interacting with software, from simple kiosks to automated tech support, the gap between labor and purpose-built software has enabled AI to move out of the theoretical spaces into real jobs with more success than ever. Many of these projects leverage OpenAI, specifically ones that have to interpret text input like tech support chat bots that can automate ticket creation and some troubleshooting tasks. Other chat bots do just that, chat, like the for-profit AI friend mobile apps like Replika. Although the concept isn’t much newer than previous iterations like the ill-fated “Tay” bot by Microsoft and the prior scripts that inspired it, the software has evolved to stay on topic and sound more authentic to avoid frustration from the user who may not want to “talk to a computer”.

Other proprietary learning AI like Google’s LaMDA are sophisticated enough to spark new debate on what constitutes a sentient AI. However, I don’t think sentience should be the end-all goal of AI research, and not just because of the Hollywood factor. Purpose-built AI like service desk chat bots can focus development resources on a specific set of tasks and can integrate ticket data and customer responses into cycles that improve the chat bot over time. In other fields like medical and other forms of patient care could benefit from improved AI applications, especially in parts of the world where loneliness is a growing concern.

Real world research may have inspired the troubled Hollywood interpretations like “Her”, where a man falls in love with his phone’s voice assist application, the dystopian holographic girlfriend in “Blade Runner 2049”, and the hyper realistic cyborgs of “Ex Machina”. Each illustrate important topics in their own way, but do not handle well the stigma attached to developing relationships between humans and machines. Of course, a lot of this comes from an attempt to replicate human intimacy, which is worth examining, but it also perpetuates negative stereotypes in a way that deflects attention from potentially valuable applications of AI, like augmenting staff in rehabilitation facilities and those that care for the elderly, which in some parts of the world face dire shortages of nurses and other skilled staff. Coupled with the pandemic’s restrictions on close contact with other people, the opportunity for robot help has never been greater. But “cyborgs” and virtual companions are hardly the limits of good AI development. I think common use applications are just as important.

I would argue that the learning algorithm at Spotify qualifies as AI, and not just because the music recommendations based on my listening “feel” personal, but precisely because that itself is a valuable service. It learns entirely based on the collective listening habits of its users. This does illustrate a boundary between fair data use and also data that users may not want to be used inappropriately. All user data ultimately is private data, especially when it includes anything about their daily habits and often times, their location. With AI this is as important as ever. With that comes a rant.

Amid calls from lawmakers to create “encryption backdoors” to “combat terrorism” and “protect law-abiding citizens”, academics and individuals need to push back and demand more laws to protect user privacy, not less. Every company is responsible for the security of its user data, and every week there is a new story about security breaches that expose user data and AI is no exception.

As a sidebar here, any call to weaken privacy and encryption to “protect law-abiding citizens” should be heeded with suspicion as this almost always excludes journalists, activists, political rivals, and most recently – women seeking essential health care services like cancer screenings. Demand better from your representatives.

AI developers must put user privacy and security at the forefront of their product designs. The power of machine learning depends on the trust of its users that their data will not be misused and will be protected.

Finally, for those who went into the field dreaming of the future only to find their work tilted by racial bias in the data or leveraged to create weapons systems, I am sorry for you.

The Ghost Freighter of UJC Science Platform JE L4

This is a speculative micro fan fiction set in the universe of Callisto Protocol inspired by the game trailers and the audio podcast Helix Station.

Following exodus of the crew of UJC Science Platform JE L4 during intense radiation storms and a disastrous fire that broke out during the last hours of the evacuation, the orbital station was reported as a total loss of capital to UJC. Some of the station’s automated systems continued to run for weeks following, including an ice tanker on a least fuel transit loop between the station and Europa, where all the colonies relied on for water. It too eventually ceased to fly, presumably due to simple malfunction. However, the ice tanker resumed routine flights from the dead station a half year later prompting an investigation by Black Iron Security.

UJC lost contact with the security detail shortly after they arrived on station.

A shuddering creak of stressed steel jolted Rebecca from a restless sleep where she lay hidden. The once-soothing rhythmic hum and tick of the freighter’s alarm now seemed unbearably loud in her ears as she strained to listen for another sound she thought she had heard. Her nervous suspicion grew into dread as she heard the faint groan of the nearby capsule door followed by a shift in the composite floor plates. This is when Rebecca started to worry she was not the flight’s only stowaway.

Her, and the doctor lying in the stasis pod, she thought to herself. The only survivors left of the catastrophe at the science platform orbiting near the Jovian moon Europa. “Some six-week program,” she thought to herself for the hundredth time since she was originally scheduled to return home to her sister and parents on the Ganymede colony. More than half a year had passed as the handful of students, scientists and engineers had taken refuge in the station’s morgue to escape the fire. Conserving the oxygen tanks and suit propulsion the station’s chief engineer, Svend, was able to save, they had managed to salvage enough nonperishable food and medical supplies to turn the morgue into an ironically life-saving bunker for those who escaped. At the time, it was less than ten. Today the station’s principal botanist Dr. Albright lay clinging to life in a medical stasis pod in a last-ditch effort to save his life. Everyone else including Svend, who had been like a surrogate father to Rebecca had since died to the same infection they believed to have wiped out the crops on the science platform, or to other causes.

Before the unusual radiation storms they believed had sparked the widespread blight, the crops of UJC Science Platform JE L4 were the ticket to her thesis program, one of the last steps in her final year of schooling. Decades of research adapting Earth-borne plant species to the light and radiation conditions of zero-contact enclosed micro habitats on the Jovian moons and orbital stations had yielded breakthroughs that could enable them to grow foods previously inaccessible to the colonies. Rebecca’s work under Dr. Albright was much more conventional, long hours at a computer terminal crunching data with a hearty side of manual labor. Still, she had loved it. The class size was small and it would open the door for a prestigious fellowship upon completion of Ganymede Bio Habitat 3. Research now that had turned from hopeful to a grim warning now contained to a single bulky drive stored in her suit’s tool belt.

Short range communications were lost in the Jovian radiation, and the station’s long-range transmitter was irreparable after the fire. Svend had theorized the freighter’s transmitter may save them if they could broadcast at the apogee of the ship’s gravity-assisted orbit before it arrived at Europa. Assuming that anyone was listening, and that those that heard it were friendly. Unlike Black Iron Security.

The security forces of the Callisto moon served as law enforcement in the Jovian system, far removed from the eyes and legal systems of Earth. They shared a name with the system’s lone prison, Black Iron. They were widely distrusted by the colonists as operating above the law, which only added to the survivors’ apprehensions when they showed up at the burnt hull of the science platform. Still, Rebecca had held onto the hope that they would be saved by the security forces until it was evident that rescue was not why they had come.

On that fateful morning when the security detail began searching for their makeshift bunker, Dr. Albright had been placed in a medically induced coma to slow the progression of his illness which wracked him with a terrible cough. Rebecca could not shake the feeling that Svend and the doctor shared a secret knowledge that had doomed them, something too terrible for her to know, and was reaffirmed by how quickly Svend had deduced that the flamethrowers that Black Iron Security had brought were for them.

This long shot plan was of Svend’s design; the improvised radiation shielding, the manipulation of the freighter’s perpetual alarm to mask the presence of functional life support and live passengers, the precise amount of oxygen they would need and the suits to survive the crucial final step when it arrived at the Europan ice quarry it was destined for, as the freighter would open to near vacuum when it attempted to receive a new load of water ice. This was her only opportunity for escape before it would leave as there was no way to override without authorized UJC biometric commands. Svend had intended to be here himself until that day. Instead, when they began burning the survivors, he bought time for Rebecca to escape with the motorized stasis pod containing the doctor and her supplies before sealing himself in with the Black Iron squad. The ensuing explosion told Rebecca all she needed to know of their fate, but not before Svend managed one last radio communication. “They must know what happened here. You need to be brave, brave for your sister.”

Rebecca had allowed herself to be lulled into a tearful sleep in her hiding place in the narrow hollow portion of hull shielding until the unexpected sound startled her. She had to control her breathing as once the oxygen in the pressurized portion of the ship dropped too low, she would have only the reserve intended for her suit left which she knew she couldn’t use now. Except for a narrow gap where the shielding and hull segment let air in, she could not see out from her hiding spot, and the only light source was the dim red emergency light, which rotated in a slow pulse. The stasis pod lay just out of her sight secured in the medical isolation partition.

Suddenly a shadow passed in front of the light source, something very near where she hid. She could hear a wheezing sound, someone or something opposite the thin wall panel from her in the medical capsule. Rebecca held her breath, eyes wide in fear as she listened to it lurch slowly through the room. It had to be right next to the stasis pod. It let out a distressed whine, like frustration and sorrow. The breathing sounded wet, sticky. After what felt like an eternity, she heard the footsteps pass back through the capsule hatch and out of the room. Once she could hear what she believed to be movement again in the main hold, she dared peek out. The stasis pod was open; empty.

“Dr. Albright?” Rebecca whispered fearfully, the hollow rattle of the freighter’s hull the only response. The stasis pod bed and opening were coated in a thick mucus-like substance that had a repulsive copper smell even through the filtration of her suit’s respirator. It was intermingled with what looked like blood on the inside of the pod’s glass panel. A similar liquid pooled at the base of the pod where something had recently tracked through towards the capsule door.

The hull shook again, this time for longer and she felt the floor shift under her. She braced against the paneling as she heard the poorly secured contents of the freight hold shift loudly. She looked to the readout the digital assistant on her wrist; they could be approaching apogee. She needed to make her way to the ship’s control station and see if she could get a transmission out. With luck the radio was not locked down like the flight and other ship controls were. There was just the matter of the missing doctor.

She switched on the small light on her suit’s helmet, good for illuminating a few feet in front of her but not much further. Beyond that was only faint red light from emergency bulbs, each slowly rotating. The unfamiliar ship was nothing like the open design of the science platform, here the corridors were not much wider than shoulder width with deep shadowy recesses the light did not reach. The medical capsule attached to the main freight hold after an exchange module that was about ten meters long.

She passed slowly through the open hatch, minding the slimy residue. In her suit her breathing sounded loud to her, even as she fought to remain quiet and calm. She cautiously moved the light to each side of the exchange, checking the overhead rows of cabling and conduit for any signs of damage. Aside from a slight vapor leak there was nothing for her to worry about. The heavy door opposite her was already open, where she spotted another glossy handprint.

“Dr. Albright?” she called again, daring to raise her voice just slightly. Again, only the grumble of stressed steel bulwark replied. She inched forward until she could start to see the inside of the freight hold, a massive chamber that made up the majority of the ship. Her path would take her up a ladder at the far end of the room into the overhead loft where the ship’s lone exterior window was along with operator controls.

Inside the hold were just a few pallets of supplies that had been largely picked through and were no longer flight secured. They rest at oblong angles free of the tiedown restrains. The center of the room, which would normally be loaded edge to edge with blocks of ice, was empty except for packaging trash left when the ship was first looted. She peered as far as her light allowed but saw no sight of the doctor.

As she crept into the room, she checked the dark corners behind her. The rattle of the hull and hum of the alarm the only sounds below her breath. She could not see any more signs of the mucus trail, nor anything that was out of place from what she remembered seeing when she had boarded, although at the time at a quick dash. She checked her composure and raised her voice further to call out. “Dr. Albright? Hello?”

A sudden sharp gnashing sound from somewhere ahead of her called back, causing her to flinch. It sounded inhuman, what she imagined an animal might sound like. Following the almost bark like sound, she heard a strangled noise like constricted breathing and that same sticky wet wheeze. Her heart leapt into her throat as she struggled to control her breathing, searching with her light for the source of the noise. She looked around, fear creeping up her spine as she checked to look a second time behind herself. A loud strike of metal against metal ahead of her in the room caused her to let out a small cry.

She focused the narrow beam of light intently where she had heard the sudden loud noise. An overhead storage unit had fallen open, now swinging on creaky hinges. She remained still, fighting back a tremor as she peered into each dark corner and long shadow to find no sign of the unseen presence. She braced herself at the first of the cargo pallets as a strong vibration shook the ship. The cacophony of the loose compartments of the mostly empty hold formed a pit in her stomach. She strained to hear what seemed to be in the room with her, but after a moment still had heard nothing.

She redoubled her nerves, making her way through the midpoint of the room past the next two cargo pallets before the hull began to shake again, each time feeling a little more severe. She tried to remember what Svend had told her about the automated flight maneuvers but had focused so much on what would happen during landing that she had glossed over the mid orbit flight corrections. She was feeling less and less sure she knew how far along in the journey she had slept. Either way, she needed to try and send a radio transmission in hopes that someone on the Europa colony was listening. She forced herself to keep moving until she reached the ladder.

Her boot steps on the ladder sounded louder than she expected, seeming louder than anything else she could hear. The narrow ladder safety cage going up to the hold to the operator controls prevented her from turning her head to look behind her, causing her to feel panic coming on at the sound of something moving in the hold where she had just stood. Breathless, she rolled off the ladder onto the operator control catwalk and looked back down the way she had climbed. A tie-down was swinging freely as if recently disturbed, but she could see precious little with her headlamp from this vantage. She sat back and leaned against the controls. She could feel the click of the perpetual alarm originated from it. Standing up, she assessed the panel and the small port hole window into space.

Europa looked large already on their approach, but she reminded herself how far away she likely still was. Behind the pale blue moon loomed the night side of the king of the gas giants, Jupiter. It’s night sky rippled with aurora and the occasional flicker of lightning. The view gave her pause, stealing her breath until she had calmed, ignoring tears of stress as she took in the small dose of celestial beauty.

She pried her attention away from the window back to the control panel. All of the operator buttons were dimmed next to a large handprint scanner, keycard and pin panel. Svend had warned the controls would be inaccessible without biometric access, but she had held onto the hope that a common freighter would have some sort of manual override. The controls were complex to her untrained eyes, finding rows of oversized buttons both on the panel and overhead. The wall readouts had all manner of flight controls and positional readouts in simple monochrome display. She found additional controls for some of the interior, including an overhead crane and three heavy lift robotic arms, the latter of which looked like similar analog controls to an arm they used to move micro habitats back on the science platform. Wagering a guess, she flipped the safety cover over the yellow operators switch and flipped it on. The light illuminated. She nudged one of the controls and could hear the gas compressing in the articulated arm below in the hold. She smiled nervously, not all the controls were restricted after all.

She turned back to the main panel and moved to the radio which was positioned in the corner of the operator space that was big enough for just one. A single band selection dial pointed to a lone mark made by a previous operator. She turned it, half expecting she might hear feedback from the tiny radio speaker but nothing happened. When she pressed the call button there was no indication it was working. She wondered what she was supposed to say.

“Can anyone hear me?” she began. She brushed a layer of mechanical grime off the call box where it showed the ship’s identification. “This is UJC FR209 Echo”. She felt like she was holding her breath waiting for something to happen. She pressed the call button a few times and began turning the band selection. There was no way to know if it was even working. She repeated herself again on an arbitrary band. “Someone, anyone.”

“Rebecca” a pained, hoarse whisper came from below. She recognized the voice as Dr. Albright, but something was terribly wrong. Her heart pounding, she overrode her fear of whatever she had heard making noise below to descend and investigate. When she arrived at the bottom of the ladder in the hold, she could hear the strain of a pipe valve turning followed by a loud blast of venting gas. She looked towards the billowing mist, seeing the doctor standing in a corner just beyond it at the valve. He was facing away from her, and she noticed he was shirtless. Her headlamp illuminated his back and skin where she could see his sores were swollen to the point they had ruptured his skin. He seemed to be shaking as he breathed and was covered in a glistening sweat. “Rebecca?” he repeated.

He turned; his face disfigured beyond recognition from an injury that should have surely killed him. His jaw was split wide and hung open like a pair of grotesque fleshy flower petals. His tongue waggled lifeless from his enlarged throat, from within emerged two snakelike tentacles. Rebecca screamed in terror.

The beast that was once Dr. Albright roared in fury and began a lurching charge towards her, still limping. Rebecca flailed as she continued to scream for anything to grab onto, finding an empty insulated crate that once held medical vials. She threw it at him, which barely slowed his advance. She spun around and scrambled for a handhold until she pulled herself back to standing and began to run. Her suit suddenly felt too tight around her chest, and her breathing echoed in her helmet. There was spittle on her visor, obscuring her view. She collided with one of the standing pallets of empty supply crates, falling back down. Dr. Albright swung wildly, striking the pallet near where she had stood, sending crates flying.

Rebecca thought in an instant to turn off her headlamp, which surely would prevent her from any attempt to escape and hide. She stood up again and ran towards the next pair of pallets as the ship’s hull began to shake and vibrate again, slowing her as she lost her footing and fell to a knee. An upward lift in the flooring suggested the ship was making another flight maneuver. The overhead storage compartments rattled deafeningly. Relying on only what the pulsing red alarm lights illuminated, she pulled herself to standing again and ran past the shape of the furthest stack of crates into a narrow maintenance access.

She dared a glance behind her but was unable to see the doctor who had been almost on top of her before the last set of pallets. She looked at where she had found herself. Nearby was a dangerous sounding voltage panel which connected to one of several conduits and pressurized pipes in the maintenance shaft. It was not tall enough for her to stand in, so she could only move at a low crouch. At first it looked like a dead end until she noticed that one of the flashing lights seemed to come from a source above the end of the passage. When she made her way to it, she found another service ladder to the upper deck, which from her memory would be near the overhead crane in the hold.

Finding nothing else that could help her in the maintenance shaft she ascended, finding herself in an even shorter ventilation access. The row of red alarm lights ran the length of the vehicle along this point in the ship, making the view forward a dizzying display of spinning lights and rotating fans. She crawled along, listening for noise below that could be the doctor but hearing only groans of the ships hull. She made it to a spot above a catwalk in the hold near the overhead crane. She could see through the slots in the vent cover that there was an auxiliary control panel for the crane on the catwalk. As she fumbled around for a way to open the vent, she heard a new sound. The radio.

The voice cracking through the static was an older gentleman’s, Rebecca thought his accent sounded Russian. The words sounded kind and conveyed a sense of concern. She had not heard the first of the message but listened with interest to the rest.

“…come in FR209. Do you copy?” the first reply ended. “Repeat, UJC FR209 Echo this is New Commonwealth Icebreaker 3.” It was a ship operating for the Europa free colony.

Rebecca’s eyes swelled with tears in relief, a tiny cry escaping her lips that was quickly cut short when the ship began shaking again, but now with substantially more bounce. The ship was beginning to enter the thin atmosphere but was not designed with passenger comfort in mind.

Without warning, the vent panel she was struggling with swung open, and Rebecca tumbled out crashing into the catwalk railing with a painful gasp. She struck and then fell over the rail, getting caught in her fall when her tool belt hooked onto the overhead crane control box. The tubes connecting the large box-lid shaped crane hissed to life and began moving in a lateral direction away from where she hung. She thrashed at the belt as it had slid up to her chest and below her helmet before binding up. Below she heard a long, sickening draw of breath followed by the uneven stomp of the creature as it moved closer to where she was swinging.

“No, no, no,” she panicked as the belt slipped further and the shift moved the analog control stick, sending the crane back her direction. She swung around to see it would strike her if she did not move, so without any time to think she unhooked her belt and fell the rest of the way to the floor. Her belt and its contents landed a few feet away.

She quickly rolled to her back, facing the doctor who was limping forward with his mangled arms outstretched, mouth tentacles flailing. She scrambled backwards on her hands and heels as he lunged for her. She rolled out of the way but not before another stack of crates came tumbling down on her. A strong jolt to the ship tipped the stack of crates further, and a new alarm started blaring. It was more rapid than the perpetual alarm, urgent. Something in flight control had detected a failure.

She looked to her tool belt which was out of reach and too near the doctor, and then to the ladder far to one side. She made a daring leap and dashed for the ladder while the doctor lumbered to face where she had ran. He crashed into the bottom of the ladder in pursuit, nearly making her lose her grip as she climbed. When she rolled out onto the catwalk on the top she could see through the port hole the horizon of Europa was turning under her; the ship was entering on a spin. Below, the doctor was fumbling trying to make use of the ladder to pursue her. She drew in a breath and stifled a shriek, moving to the crane controls.

Thinking quickly, she toggled the analog stick until the crane detached itself from the opposite catwalk where it had struck earlier and steered to block the doctor’s path up the ladder. With a grimace of determination, she lowered the crane with intent to crush the monster, only to find it stopped short of pinning him with a loud click of a safety system. The clear light flickered at her in protest. She sobbed, her strength leaving her at the cruel irony.

The shaking of the ship grew into a tremendous force, and coupled with the sharp increase in relative gravity and the ships spin everything in the hold began to shift until the large chamber was in full tumble, pallets crashing to the walls until the ship was flying completely upside down. The crane swung free of its conventional restraints and struck the overhead storage violently, sending large portions of steel flying everywhere. Rebecca sailed through the chaos before striking her head on a pallet.

Just as suddenly as they had spun out of control, the floor rushed up to meet them with force. Rebecca could feel the landing boosters had engaged, correcting the descent of the ship and greeting them with the G force of entry. Already struggling to stay conscious, she felt her grip slipping as she struggled to see where the doctor was. When her head stopped spinning, she could hear the radio again.

“FR209 Echo I have visual. Please copy.” The gentleman sent.

She leapt to her feet and ran through the debris back to the ladder, the doctor nowhere in sight. She climbed with renewed strength and stepped out on the catwalk to the radio. “Icebreaker 3 thank God,” her voice cracked. “I am so happy to hear a friendly voice.”

Before she could press the call button again, a single drip of mucus fell onto the control panel. Rebecca froze. A second drip struck her visor, and she leapt back, wailing in horror. The creature that was once the doctor had scaled the wall into an overhead corner above her, mandibles flexing menacingly at her. When she jumped to go down the ladder, so did the creature, landing on her other side to block her escape.

Cornered, she jumped for the robotics arm controls. The creature’s tentacles lashed at her, grabbing at her leg with surprising strength. She wrapped an arm around the railing, fighting back as she extended one of the robot arms out and began maneuvering it up to her position. Without having mastered the controls, the best she could manage was to swing it wildly at the creature, knocking it into the wall.

The ship touched down with an ungraceful bounce, settling on uneven ground. The ship rocked to one side, sending both the creature and Rebecca crashing into the control panels. The main cargo door sprung open, venting the pressurized cabin to the outside in a cold blast of air along with dozens of small crates and other trash. Rebecca saw her toolbelt among the ejected material. The massive door only opened as far as the safety latches would allow, which was less than a foot high. The creature had fallen over the rail to the floor, while she had kept hold of the rail.

She quickly moved the robotic arm again, this time pinning the creature to the floor with the claw grasp. “Sorry, but the doctor is… detained,” she declared. It flailed frenetically against the restraint. Rebecca then moved a second freight arm to the cargo door so she could pry it open further.

Her suit had automatically cut over to onboard oxygen when the cabin depressurized. Outside the cargo hold she could see the bright lights of the Icebreaker 3 as it was approaching in the Europa surface snowstorm. She hurried down the ladder and out of the hold, stepping down the uneven slope into snow where the cargo and other trash lay scattered. She began searching for her tool belt which contained the drive of data on the research from the science platform.

Ahead up the hill she could see the lone pilot of the Icebreaker class ship had exited, holding a bright light aloft as he made his way down to help. After a moment of worry she found her tool belt, holding it high like a trophy as she smiled through her pain to show it to the man who had come to her aid.

The man froze, shouting a warning but it was too late.

Tentacles wrapped around her neck and helmet, crushing the glass on her visor. She fumbled, dropping her belt. The other grabbed her at the thigh, pulling her screaming back into the ship.

Thank you for reading

“Blackwater Falls” – a review

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s murder mystery “Blackwater Falls” is a carefully crafted thriller woven from elements of present-day current events. It does not shy away from political topics, instead tackling them head on in a story that feels like it could have been told in a town I had known.

Khan is a gifted character writer, penning a believable cast that I grew to care about. This strength carries the dialog and introspection heavy narrative and makes for an engaging read. Also, if you enjoy audiobooks the narrator Fareeda Pasha does an excellent job bringing the characters to life. I felt that the narrator delivered on the tone for the setting too, which is important to me when I choose an audiobook.

A parting thought for readers who like me also play video games, I feel like this setting and cast would fit well in the “Far Cry” universe and has some interesting parallels to Far Cry 5, except if Ubisoft had chosen to reference real political situations – and minus the gunplay, in this case, as Blackwater Falls is a detective story first. If you are in that niche, then please consider this book highly recommended.

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