“Artificial”

Hey all, happy middle-of-the-week.

Growing up, in the war between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, also known as the ‘Great Conflict of Sci-Fi Nerds and Fantasy Nerds of Forever,’ I always had my flag pitched pretty firmly in the camp for Fantasy Nerds. That’s right, you science nerds can suck it with your “lasers,” and your “spaceships,” and “anti-gravity-whateverthehell,” I’m over here with dragons, immortality, ethereal curses, and all the rest.

And even now at twenty-seven, I still do kind of hold that stance, but am waaaay more of a mercenary now than married to either side. My heart will always be with the art of High Fantasy, but I’ve come to see the love for science fiction a great deal and have really become a sucker for things like the cyberpunk genre (R.I.P. CD Projekt Red). Movies like Upgrade, Blade Runner 2049, Ex Machina, Ghost in the Shell, and to a lesser degree of genre, Arrival, Inception, and Tenet.

As it turns out, Sci-Fi is awesome.

Alright, I was writing something out, but then I began to notice all I was doing was spoiling the story here today, so I bumped it to the bottom. Without further adieu….

“Artificial”

April 6, 2034

This day…just…keeps coming back to me.

You’d just died maybe two months before, and I’m standing at your grave. The headstone your family got for you is nice, nobody seems to go out for real marble anymore. Others have been by and left flowers too, I guess. But you didn’t tell too many people you liked sunflowers best, natural ones. The synthetic daises under your name smell right, the petals even bruise if you press them, but they never wilt. And they don’t bob in the same way when the rain drops hit them either.

I want to stand in the rain because with you gone at least it would feel like I have someone to cry with. But of course Lucille’s right there with the umbrella.

“Are you cold?” she asks me.

“No,” I tell her.

“Are you sad?” she asks after a pause.

I almost laugh, but there doesn’t seem to be a point in it. “Yes. Of course.”

“Barry,” she says again. “May I ask you a personal question?”

“Shoot.”

“Are you afraid?”

It’s hard to say what it was, but the question stopped me. I had to swallow a lump in my throat before I found I could answer. “Of what?”

“Dying,” she says.

All I did was watch the rain break against the marble and run along the letters of your name. She’d struck a chord.

I want to tell her I am, but am also not. After all, you’d done it, so had everyone in history, so it can’t be that bad. I think of all sorts of reasons to be or not to be, but in the end all I say is, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“May I ask you another personal question, Barry?”

I don’t say anything, but just nod.

“Are you afraid of me?”

This time I look at her, and she looks at me. It’s tough to say what it is – at first I think it might be because she looks like you – but I think instead it’s the way she looks at me. I look into her eyes and every second longer I do, I see something else. Her eyes aren’t steadfast, they flutter subtly, searchingly, minutely quivering like yours or mine. Her lips flex so slightly, the way they do when your teeth don’t touch and your jaw is uneasy, so subtle you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t locked in such an intimate moment with someone.

“It isn’t fair,” I say.

“What isn’t fair, Barry?” she asks.

“To be so unsure.”

And why shouldn’t I be? The small signals in her eyes, her face, her hands. The soft cues of inner feelings we all use, all wrestle with. Our emotional responses have outward signs, just because she’s different doesn’t mean they can’t come from the same place. And how is she so different, anyway? Because she has a production date? I have a birthday. She has a serial number? I’ve got a social. Because of her programming? I’m a creature of habit and education too, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a person beneath it all. And that “unique cipher” DigitalBio is so proud of each of their products having…

I look down at my hands and think of the countless times since androids were first announced that I’ve done that. The runic layout of our fingerprints, the ridges of those tiny lines, the creases in the palm – it’s hard to see how that’s really any different.

I look back at her and she looks at me. Just like you she’s beautiful. The way her hair rests on her shoulder, the way the blue of her eyes contrasts against the gray background, she reminds me of you a lot.

Two men walk past and I catch their sneers. “They let you bring that thing onto the grounds?” they mutter. Of course she hears them, I’m sure, but she won’t move.

1’s and 0’s. Plastic, carbon fiber, and alloys. A machine of intelligent design is what we’re supposed to see. Programmed responses, algorithms, protocols, functions, and nothing else. But why is it foolish to see more than that? Once upon a time, the animal kingdom was thoughtless and bereft of conscious intelligence, but look a little further and gorillas take up sign language, whales and dolphins speak, crows remember faces, elephants lament and mourn their dead – all just like we do. Hell, even mushrooms communicate with each other. It only took a small amount of respect to see humans aren’t as alone as we pride ourselves.

So why am I so unsure when I look at her? I’m standing there, in a city cemetery, and she just stands there looking back at me. I feel the first tears burn down the side of my face and I know exactly why: because I don’t know whether or not to feel alone there.

“Do you,” I say still wiping my face, “do you ever get that way?”

It would have stuck with me no matter what, but what really got me was that she didn’t answer straight away.

After a few seconds of silence, I look at her again and her eyes are in the grass. I see her squeeze the grip on the umbrella, barely, hardly perceptible but it’s there.

“Yes,” she says.

Arthur C. Clarke had this great quote once upon a time where he said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” He’d meant E.T.’s, I think, but here I was confronted by a one-word answer that scared me, relieved me, excited me, lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders, and settled a new one on them all at once. I’d never felt those words more heavily than I did in that moment. The rain began to pick up again and drum against the umbrella’s hood.

“Come on,” I say.

“Where are we going?”

“Let’s go get a coffee for starters. This talk should take a while.”

Maybe she’s more like you than I thought.

Funny thing since you named her, eh?

END

I’ve harped on it at length before, but the game Detroit: Become Human may have faults here and there, but I ultimately found it to be an incredible ride in narrative. The piece below (now above) started, I’m pretty sure, was born of inspiration from playing that game. It was a Mental Movie that featured a man and a woman in a hospital room, at first. The man would be older and sort of plain, looking sort of like Paul Giamatti, and the woman would be young, fair, and beautiful. She would be in the hospital bed, and he would be standing beside her, and all that would take place is a conversation about humanity. Slowly, it would unfold that one of them was an android while the other was human, and I felt the natural assumption would be that the woman would be the manufactured android, giving how beautiful she was, but in reality it would be the man – I don’t know, an attempt to show the separations of what we value, humanity, and how those things influence our assumptions while at the same time being intrinsically linked. Then, one morning, I sat down, slapped some keys, and we got the above little piece.

Anyway, something to think about, maybe.

Til next time.

Now, for Some Shameless Bragging

I want to be clear up front: this is for me.

I’d love to sit here and say this was something I put together for you, something I sat on and thought about and pored over and worked on for your enjoyment and betterment – but it’s not. This is about to be an anecdote for myself to come back to later and be embarrassed that I put out to the public.

This is about the time I caught…The Glow.

I started playing Magic: the Gathering (yup, and there goes anyone that made it even this far) back in the Summer of 2018. I’d heard the horror stories of how much people can just pour money into the hobby, how much it financially drains you, and I was determined not to be another statistic. I bought two little 60-card starter decks and said, “That’s quite enough for me. THIS will be my Magic collection and I’m happy with it.”

Suffice it to say, it did not stop there.

To date, I’ve built and dismantled more Modern decks than was ever worth counting, and maintain a rotation of eight Commander/EDH decks with themes all important to my heart and soul: Izzet Artifacts, Elves/Tokens, Blue-Black Mill, mono-Green Hydras, Jeskai Time Wizards, Rakdos Goblins, Boros Angels, and Liliana Necromancy/Zombies. With the exception of Time Wizards, who has yet to ever come through for me meaningfully and was probably a mistake, I love each of them dearly.

So, now that the stage is set, our tale…

I was over at my good friend Josh’s house for a day of cards with friends. These same friends, mind you, put me through a baptism of fire when I first started playing – which was good. As I was learning the basics, they beat the ever-loving shit out of me most games. But I persevered, learned, and took those lessons of brutality to heart. All for this day…

First game of the day was just against Josh, since I showed up first (a rare occurrence). I pulled out my ‘Selvala, Heart of the Wilds‘ Hydra deck and got to business. That said, Josh was using his pride and joy, a Sliver Overlord tribal deck that cost, probably, about two grand. Selvala, bless her heart, held her own valiantly, but was ultimately overcome (it’s okay, every hero’s journey needs to begin with struggle).

It was close, and to this day I’m convinced that if I hadn’t drawn into so much goddamn land, I could have taken him. Or, if I’d used my pride and joy, my first love, my Saheeli, the Gifted artifact deck, I could have had him up and out of there in no time. (She was the underdog of her Commander block in 2018, but together, we trained her up and put some real power behind her punches with practice, study, and plenty of steroids.)

Once our friends arrived, the REAL show began.

I’m not sure what it’s like with other people’s play groups, but it tends to be within ours, that when a person wins a game between four players, it’s in a single, fell swoop: an infinite combo (thankfully rare), an “if X, then win the game” condition, or a huge move like a surprise Craterhoof Behemoth stomping that takes out all other three players at once.

This day…this day was different.

We start off, it’s a table with FIVE of us, which is a lot of players for a game of EDH; not monstrous, but a lot. I pull out my Rhys the Redeemed elves/tokens deck for this one. His main win condition is either cheating out a Felidar Sovereign for a sort of cheaper win, or raising an army of saprolings, squirrels, and elves, then plopping out the ol’ Craterhoof Behemoth trick; either way, its quickest route to victory involves annihilating the table or the game all at once.

This day, however, I knocked out each of the other four players through combat damage, individually. It was a deadly dance of politics to incite a fight with only another player at a time to not draw any undue aggression, healing up my wounds with lifelink abilities after each skirmish, and maintain token numbers to be a reasonable presence without being a threatening one. It was kind of like a fight scene out of an action movie, where the hero is surrounded by henchman who come at him all-at-once-ish, but really one at a time, and by the end of it, it’s the hero who’s done all the ass-whoopin’.

It. Was. Glorious.

And it came down to a razor finish. I knocked out the third of my opponents, trying to leave enough defense to withstand my final opponent’s turn since I was the only remaining threat, when he equips a Colossus Hammer to one of his soldiers and swings all out at me. I had enough tokens remaining to block enough of the assault that it left me with two Life left…TWO. Then I was able to counter-swing on my next turn for the finish.

So I sat back, packed that deck away in its box, and contentedly notched my name in the win column for that night, feeling good. I’d gotten my win out of the way, and it was awesome. So, for the next game, I go back to my Selvala – Hydras deck, to give it another, Sliver-less try.

This time, there’s far more in-fighting at the table, with there being more aggressors than just myself, finally. Combat damage is being dealt back and forth among players, but no one is going for the knock-out yet, presumably so everyone can stay in the game until it ends; a noble gesture, but not a lesson my hard Magic upbringing taught me to embrace with them. I see an opportunity late game to flash in a Hydra Broodmaster on an end step before my turn begins. If I remember right, I had Unbound Flourishing on board, so I got to make her go monstrous where ‘X’ got to be something nice and big like ‘8,’ and then for combat on my turn, I throw down an Overwhelming Stampede and do exactly what one might expect…

…I…

…I stampeded the table.

Playful groans and gasps made their way around the table. And my proud triumph turned slightly to embarrassment….embarrassment that I was still inexorably proud of.

So I threw up my hands and said, “Woooof, y’all. Alright, my bad. I’ve had my fun for the night, had my fair share. Shit, I’m sorry,” all while laughing with them. “Looks like I caught The Glow tonight. I’ll change it up and just be a spectator for this next one.” I put away my Hydras, rolled up my foresty-colored play mat, and pulled out my Blue-Black Mill/Persistent Petitioners deck, headed by Phenax, God of Deception.

(My FAVORITE game ever of Magic is a story for another time if I ever again feel baseless enough to do another one of these posts, but I will say that what follows here might be my SECOND-FAVORITE ever game of Magic I’ve played.)

For the uninitiated, Mill-strategies in the Commander format are widely seen as a pretty unwise route to victory as, instead of the directness of combat damage, you’re trying to empty out your opponent’s 100-card deck. 1) It can be pretty slow, understandably. 2) It also usually has to be pretty focused, so with multiple opponents, your capacity for offense has a built-in cap. 3) To make up for its weaknesses, a mill deck usually has to be pretty focused on that goal, so defense can be somewhat lacking, leaving you kind of open. 4) Lastly, people, on average, fucking hate being milled and seeing their stuff get dumped into the graveyard, so it builds your villainy meter at the table pretty quickly (ie Players cheer when someone kills you in the name of public good, nobody mourns your loss, and they line up to poop on your grave).

This game was different.

Some brief stage-setting: It’s a 5-player game this time around, and since I don’t imagine any of them will EVER read this, I’m going to be using their real names. To my left, was my buddy Brent, who was playing mono-red Dwarves; to his left was Kopa, who was playing a Blue-Red-White ‘Voltron’ deck; followed by Woody, who was playing Blue-Red-Green elementals; followed at last by our illustrious host Josh, who was borrowing someones mono-blue artifact deck.

I draw my opening hand to see that I have two Petitioners, three land, a counter spell, and Thrumming Stone. In case it’s confusing as to why that’s cool, here’s the break-down:
Since I can have as many Petitioners in my deck as I want, I run twenty-eight as a multiple of four per the card’s ability. That’s enough of a percentage that they come up commonly enough and have good odds at the Ripple ability without clogging up my draws.
Thrumming Stone basically says if you cast a Petitioner, you can look for another one to get played, which will look for another one to get played, which will look for another one to get played, yatta yatta, on until you have all twenty-eight of your Petitioners out – if you get lucky to roll on like that and provided none have gotten killed.

In my mind, I immediately see what I have to do: stall and be ignored long enough to drop Thrumming Stone and a Petitioner in the same turn – a seven mana cost – to hopefully let the Ripple effect take over. So if I can draw well and keep below radar until about Turn Nine, I have a shot at totally fucking over the table. Plus, hang onto that counter spell as an insurance policy.

So the game begins, and right out the gate Josh takes an aggressive lead. He rolls out artifacts and gadgets left and right, big equipment to buff his creatures, and throwing hot damage around the table. In addition, he starts lightly milling the table, which is where my Greatest Performance of Deception begins (Phenax would be proud).

We’re all getting milled for one or two cards at a time. With the rest of the table, I playfully and dramatically groan, pleading for him to maybe just forego the effect rather than having it go through, and commiserating with the other players at our misfortune, but inside I’m thrilled. Every card that gets skimmed off the top that isn’t a land card or a Petitioner is fantastic. He mills my Mind Funeral? Great, I don’t need the heat anyway. He dumps my Consuming Aberration? Super, I have something to jokingly “complain” about not getting to play. Every one of those is another turn closer to the land base that I need.

And so it goes, Josh battles and harasses the rest of the table while I draw, maybe play a land, pretend to have my hands tied, and pass. It comes to a point where I have six lands out and I’m just waiting for one more before I can pull my move, but I’m worried to death about something that would destroy my Thrumming Stone. Josh has become a huge threat at this point, in a night that’s twice seen a single player butcher the table (#humblebrag), and he gets up to go pee. Everyone else starts conspiring as to how to turn the tide against him.

“Hmm,” I ponder aloud. “Hey, do any of you have any artifact-removal? That way, we could get rid of his [insert specific dangerous artifact here that I’m totally blanking on].”
“No,” says Brent.
“No,” replies Kopa.
“No,” laments Woody.
“Ah, bummer,” I say, looking down at the artifact in my hand.

I play Phenax, just so it doesn’t look too much like I’m intentionally doing nothing. Josh comes back, then Kopa pulls a huge play that sees him kill Josh outright, but one that fortunately makes him become an even larger threat. So Woody follows that by detonating the board with an All is Dust (thankfully the turn after I used that counter spell to stop him playing an Eldrazi). With Josh dead, it comes to me, and I draw my seventh land. I figure if ever there was a blessing from the God of Deception that I’d played my role well and it was time to set the plan in motion, it was now.

So I do. I plop down that land, set out my Thrumming Stone, and play a Petitioner, which chained so marvelously well into all the rest that I exploded from a board state of absolutely nothing, into twenty-eight Petitioners out and proud (total milling potential of 84 cards, basically lethal at that point). Plus, with that All is Dust, everyone needed to rebuilding their boards to pose any threat.

Brent’s turn, he plays a couple of dwarves to reconstitute his board, and at his end step, I mill out Kopa. Playing Jeskai colors and the potential he had for out-of-nowhere kills, he had to go. So after that, it’s just me, Brent, and Woody. On Woody’s turn, he plays Nikya of the Old Ways to regain some board presence which, if you ask me, made my next decision really simple.

It came back to me, and Brent starts talking to the late Kopa that “if I just had one more land, I could blow up his entire fucking board.”

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Me, listening to my opponent spill the beans so brazenly.

With Woody self-handicapped and unable to cast non-creature spells – meaning no big bombs, no board wipes, no nothin’ – and with Brent openly admitting he might draw into a way to kill me…

…yeah, duh, I milled the shit out of him.

Final turn came down to just me and Woody. His turn comes up, he plays a creature that can’t attack on account of summoning sickness, swings all-out for about 11 damage which I readily greet headfirst. Turn comes to me, I mill him down to dust to make my bread and make it my third straight full-table victory of the night.

A feat of which I was so embarrassingly proud, I just spent the last too-many hours bragging about it on an internet blog.

Thank you, and goodnight.