Tuesday, May 24, 2011

This excerpt comes from the opening of Katherine the Average, a short story which takes place around a century and a half before the events of the Course Books, and concerns some of Jason Bur’I’s ancestors. Just a few generations back, unlike some other stories. This particular story has already been published in the book GavelGavel!!! by the Camarillo Writer’s Club.

Katherine the Average
The 734th Year of the Sixth Age …

“The tallest blade of grass is the first cut down by the lawnmower.”

Princess Katherine’s eyes shot open as the piercing ring of her alarm clock drove her from a sound sleep. She was positive she’d been dreaming this time, but as usual the exact nature and contents of the dream escaped her, along with her temper. There just had to be a better way to wake up than this.
As was the way of royalty, she sat up and took three deep breaths to regain her countenance, then swung her legs out of bed and began brushing her long, dark hair in front of the stand-up antique mirror. It was seven o’clock and she did not want to be awake, but it was time to begin another day in the lap of luxury. How could anyone possibly hope to be happy in a huge castle surrounded by opulence?
Princess Katherine Bur’I was a princess in every sense of the word, except for the small fact that she wanted more than anything else to be something besides a princess. She had a well trained, calm countenance, long practiced graceful movements, and a first-class education in etiquette.
What she really wanted was to loose her temper every so often, trip a couple of times, and belch in a fast food restaurant. She wanted to be normal, to be a part of the world she would one day rule.
Of course ‘rule’ was a relative term in this case. Firstly, she would never ‘rule’ in her own right because someday (probably soon) she was going to be married off to some wealthy aristocrat, who would one day become king himself and Katherine would be queen, and all her little sisters would be duchesses, and everything would continue on the way it had for so many centuries.
Well, not really, because in slightly more recent centuries the aristocracy had been forced to give up more and more of its power to the democratic side of the government. Today the king and queen were little more than figureheads, puppets to rally the masses.
No one, not even Katherine’s father, really had a problem with this. No one should have as much power as the kings of old had, and the bureaucracy wasn’t about to do away with the royal family. After all, the royal blood-line had been preserved for more than ten millennia. Katherine, being the first born and, therefore, the crowned princess, was in point of fact the nine hundred ninety-fifth consecutively air to the throne of Bur’I. It was a proud symbol of the nation’s heritage, and a terrific rallying point for the people. While the royal family possessed no ‘official’ political power, no one would support a law that the king did not favor, and so the bureaucracy that actually ran the country still had to maintain the royal tradition.
Katherine didn’t much look forward to being queen. She was the eldest of five daughters, and in accordance with Bur’Ian Law, the crown passed from eldest to eldest.
As she finished brushing her hair and began the arduous task of dressing for the day, she imagined her one wish. She wished upon everything mythically held to grant wishes that for even one day she could be with someone normal.
The day’s lessons proceeded and Katherine realized she hadn’t been paying attention for over an hour. She had wanted to go to a university for her higher education, but her father wouldn’t allow it. ‘You don’t need college,’ he said, ‘you’re a princess.’
So all day long under the eye of highly paid private tutors she learned language, history, economics, law; all the things that would help her when she was queen.
Fortunately, the little old man who was apparently the fore-most expert on economics couldn’t see past his own cataracts and didn’t really pay much attention to whether or not she was paying attention.
“All right, I think that’s all for today,” the crotchety old man mumbled as his shaking hands left the chalk board. “Wait—no—wait—no—wait—yes, yes that’s all for the day.”
He dropped the half-stick of chalk deftly in the tray and shuffled out of the room. Katherine sighed with relief. She’d had enough of personal tutors, of gowns and receptions and the life of royalty.
She left the study and returned to her chambers to sulk. There was certainly plenty to do at the castle, but she wanted none of it today. Her whole life had been in the public’s eyes, and today she wanted to be in private.
Back in a secret room hidden behind a small closet at the back of a larger closet in her chambers she had the one thing that gave her the ability to feel normal. Her mother had shown her this secret place once when she was young, and Katherine had bribed servants to smuggle in the rest of the equipment. It wasn’t as though anyone would be angry if she was caught with it; she just wanted something of her own, something that wasn’t going to be on the evening news.
The computer had been a godsend. It was nothing fancy, just a small unit purchased more for its footprint than its capabilities. She wished now she’d taken the time to really learn about the machines before obtaining one, but she was happy with her little secret computer. She was also happy with her little secret five-mile wireless directional antenna, which allowed her to access an unsecured network at a gas station well outside the palace walls. From here she had unrestricted, unmonitored, completely anonymous access to the World Wide Web.
It was quite a place.
Katherine was starting to wish she’d obtained a desk for her hidden machine. She had it sitting on a shoe rack, which kept the monitor about a foot off the ground. The computer itself along with the keyboard and mouse sat on the floor, and she knelt in front of it.
Right now she was just surfing. Much of her time was spent on web message boards and forums, where she could interact after a fashion with regular people. She played many parts on the net; taking on and discarding pseudonyms and personas as she deemed fit. She usually passed herself as a boy in her mid-twenties; for some reason the online communities she frequented were more accepting of men.
She liked the gaming communities very much, even thought she didn’t get to play the games. Her little computer couldn’t run them, and she had discovered recently that she wasn’t any good at them anyway.
Still it was fun; the world was all anticipation and wild speculations and insults.
Everyone was beyond rude.
She really wanted a gaming system. With practice, she was sure she could play well. Not that skill mattered; they were just so much fun! But this computer wouldn’t run them, and she didn’t think she could smuggle in one that would. Worse still, her father would be most angry if he found out.
“Princesses don’t play video games!” he had cruelly stated. She was destined to be queen; she had no time for games.
But in truth, Katherine had plenty of time for games. Much of her life was spent either in lessons or sitting quietly alone in her chambers. Other times she slept.
Search engines were wonderful fun. She could type in whatever came to mind, and read everything about it. Definitions, explanations, backgrounds, people who were nobodies’ opinions, anything. But she wasn’t finding anything interesting today, so she decided to wander back to one site she’d stumbled upon some time ago.
Everyone had web sites these days. Everyone important at least, and a handful of unimportant people. She really liked the unimportant people’s websites. The World Wide Web was a free forum for the exchange and sale of ideas.
Here favorite nobodies’ site belonged to a twenty-one year old art student half way across Bur’I in the Province of Calto. He was an unimportant, unassuming individual who prided himself on not being anyone of note. He even had tips on not being noticed much in public.
But online, he was a very interesting person. He had all kinds of art and stories posted, and he was just… interesting. He was an average, every-day commoner, but he was special, and very normal.
The things he could do that Katherine could not must feel so simple to him. He could go to the store, eat fast food, walk down the street alone, and no one cared. He wasn’t important, he wasn’t ‘noble’.
As she read through one of his short stories for the fifth time, Katherine sighed and dreamed of what it must be like to be so normal. To walk down the street, without wearing ten pounds of makeup and twenty pounds of jewels.
Katherine glanced at the computer clock, then shut the machine down. There was one bright point in her week, and it was coming up soon.
The worst part, in Katherine’s opinion, about being a noble was the hordes of people who didn’t like nobles. Citizens who disagreed with the administration, people from other countries, terrorists, all kinds of annoying folk who would very much like to see the line of nobility end. Katherine would have liked not to be noble, but she also didn’t want to be dead.
To prevent death at the hands of these annoying people, the crown had for centuries employed ‘royal stand-ins’; members of the Secret Service who were trained to look and act like members of the royal family. In recent decades the technique had improved, to the point where volunteers were actually being surgically altered to perfectly match their noble counterparts.
Katherine’s stand in was a girl named Faye. Faye was the exact same height, weight, and build as Katherine, and was otherwise not a thing like her. She was a natural blond with blue eyes and a bubbly, outgoing personality. The princess meanwhile had very dark hair and deep green eyes, and was completely introverted. Faye was the closest thing she had to a friend.
As Katherine emerged from her secret room a knock sounded at the door and Faye sauntered in. She had this bouncy, swaggering walk and she was always incredibly graceful. Faye was a dancer, and someday when she was finished impersonating the princess she would be very famous.
Of course; Faye was already in Katherine-mode. She died her hair and wore it long, and had on contacts and a designer gown. It was always somewhat disconcerting when she walked through the door and confronted Katherine with a mirror image of herself.
“Hiya, Kitty!” Faye announced as she bounded into the room. Part of the program involved Faye learning to act just like the princess, and to that end they spent time together each week. This had to be done in strict secrecy of course; no one could know that the princess had a duplicate.
“Hello, Faye,” Katherine replied with a slight bow. Faye was an excellent actor, and had long ago mastered imitating the princess. She could turn it on at will, and not even Katherine’s father could tell the difference.
“So, do we need to practice, or can we skip that for the day?” Faye giggled. It was kind of an inside joke they had, both girls knew they didn’t need to practice, but Katherine just enjoyed spending time with Faye so much that they put on a pretext. Usually they just spent the evening sitting around talking and laughing.
“So, Kitty,” Faye began as they both collapsed giggling into overstuffed chairs. “What’s the news on the wired?”
Kitty was the nickname Faye had bestowed upon Katherine. It had started out as Kate, then evolved into Katie, and finally Kitty. Faye thought Katherine acted a bit like a cat, always slinking about quietly and gracefully, only making noise when she wanted something.
“The Nugen 3 console has been pushed back again,” Katherine replied, knowing exactly what Faye meant. Since Katherine was not allowed to play games, she lived vicariously through her friend. “Not that it really matters; they have already lost so much ground to the Context Collaborate Console Rhombus. Which, by the way, is an irritatingly long and completely random name for a game device.”
“You think so,” Faye grinned. “You know why they did it don’cha?”
Katherine shook her head.
“They did it so it would have the initials C.C.C.P.,” Faye explained. “Which in the Cyrillic Alphabet looks like S.S.S.R. Now, do you know which collapsed socialist nation that is?”
Katherine laughed out loud and nodded vigorously. It was a small inside joke that few would catch. But Faye, having begun her service to her kingdom as a linguist, was one of the few who would spot it. Katherine made a mental note to post Faye’s explanation on a message board later and see what others had to say about it.
“Now as far as that particular console goes,” Faye continued. “Dead Rising just briefly touched the shelves, and WOW is it freakishly great! I mean the graphics, the physics, not to mention the zombie-killing—”
“Oh that whole platform’s behind the times,” Katherine waved. “The physics and graphics on the PC platform have been that good for years. Stand-alones have only just started catching up!”
It was amazing how different Katherine saw herself act when she was alone with Faye. She could talk and laugh and not have to worry about ‘etiquette’. Faye didn’t care she was a princess; Faye was just a highly trained agent doing her job, and loving her work.
And it wasn’t an act for Faye; she really was passionate about what she did, and she would do anything for the princess. Even be the friend she needed.
A slow smile spread across Katherine’s lips as a thought flowed gently into her head. Faye was a secret service agent, and had always been there for her. She was smart, and devious, and had connections.
“Faye,” Katherine began carefully. “You’re supposed to be here to learn to pass as me, but do you think perhaps you could teach me to pass for you?”
“Well, that’s an interesting quandary,” Faye grinned back. “Precisely what are you planning?”


Three weeks later, in far off Calto-Province…

“Most fortunate ones, to be fast and free and young—”
Tom Alanor’s eyes fluttered open as the music pounded from his computer. He’d left the speakers on to loud again the night before. At first he simply rolled over and tried to ignore it, but it really was quite blaring.
“—We won’t be denied, we know that time is on our side!”
It was a good thing it was by now late morning, or his family and neighbors would have probably cause to complain. It happened from time to time, there were enough volume controls on his array of electronic-gadgets that sometimes something would be screaming.
“This generation, a fire in our eyes, strong ore the ties that bind us, we don’t need, no alibis!”
Fortunately, thanks to some expert zip-tie usage, the main volume knob for that computer was about seven inches from his head. He reached up and turned the volume down low, but not off. The alarm clock (also zip tied in place high above his head) told him it was now 9:01. Time to consider getting up.
“Like a breaker at high tide, we gonna take that sweet joy ride, we won’t be denied!”
‘Transformers’ was a good movie, and the original series had been a good TV show for a kid back then. There weren’t any good cartoons anymore; but fortunately, thanks to the magic of The Internet, he could still see all his old favorites when he wanted to.
“We’ve waited all our lives, and now we know, our time has come!”
One thing was certain; waking up to music was many large numbers of times better than the screech of the alarm clock. That noise always ensured he started the day in a bad moon. The MP3 alarm clock program woke him up to songs, which while eventually caused him to hate that particular song, made him begin his day quite a bit more pleasantly.
“Nothin’s gonna stand in our way! Not tonight! Not tonight!”
And usually with something by Stan Bushnell or Weird Al stuck in his head.
He sat up and reached down to pet the grey cat which currently inhabited the foot of his bed, and the animal obligingly sank her teeth into his hand. Good kitty, he thought sarcastically, then carefully avoided the beasts’ teeth and scratched behind her ears. Why he had chosen to adopt this particular grey fur ball from the cat shelter continued to elude him, but he never regretted it. She was the perfect companion; soft and cuddly, yet still very pointy.
Tom stretched and yawned and fought to keep his eyes open. He had never quite gotten the hang of mornings, and usually preferred to just skip them all together and start his day around noon. Unfortunately that made for a very difficult to accommodate work schedule, so for five days a week he battled the forces of the AM and swung his feet over the edge of the bed.
First things first, reach over and tap ‘one’ on the KVM switch. The cat which dwelt on his bed and enjoyed the taste of human blood also liked to sleep on his keyboard, so using the computer’s keyboard-video-mouse (KVM for short) switch as a lock when he wasn’t at the machine was a handy way to protect his work from cat typing.
There were upsides though; the pet had once discovered a brand new shortcut in Tom’s 3D modeling program that not even his instructors knew about.
In addition to keeping the cat from screwing up the host of rather sophisticated programs on the powerful machines, the KVM switch served as an effective way to turn off all the monitors without actually hitting the power buttons on them. This was helpful, since they were all secondhand and some of the buttons weren’t quite operational.
Why pay hundreds of dollars for flat panels? Tom thought to himself. CRT’s are just as good, and these ones were mostly free.
Well, ‘free’ was kind of a relative term here.
The one on the right had cost $20 in a thrift store, while the other two had been, shall we say, liberated from work? It wasn’t as if he’d stolen them, the higher ups had given him the go-ahead to ‘make the extra monitors disappear’, no one minded that a few of them disappeared into his room.
He slipped into the chair and tapped the keyboard, expertly hitting a few commands and bringing up the web browser. Refresh, super secret ultra secure (really easy) password, and there was his email. Three home loan approvals, to mortgage apps, eight porn adds, and about four score advertisements for genital enhancement later, and he was through to his precious non-junk email.
An eBay outbid notice; darn those snipers.
A mail Daemon, who’s server crashed this time. No, that wasn’t supposed to be a question; his online friend ‘Who’ had apparently suffered a server crash sometime in the night. Open source, you get what you pay for.
A few newsletters; time to file those away for later.
And that was that, email checked; on to bigger and better things, like brushing teeth.
As he walked towards the bathroom for his morning grooming routine, Tom took a moment to glance out the front window and check the weather. A beautiful Friday, touchingly overcast. And there was that black car again; didn’t the feds know the drug dealers next door had moved out?
Tom waved to the obvious surveillance vehicle through the window. He didn’t want to be flip—he had nothing but the utmost respect for whoever the heck was in that car, and he had no intentions of getting in the way of whatever obvious surveillance they were doing—he just wished they’d do a little better at being under cover.
It wasn’t like his spy characters. They always went above and beyond to disguise themselves. If they were on this job, one of them would be in a run-of-the-mill dirty minivan, and the other would probably be three blocks away in a tree with a telephoto scope and a high-gain antenna. No prizes for guessing who would be where.
But this was real life, and Tom guessed real people couldn’t be quite as inventive as fictional characters. Oh well, nothing for it, time for work.
He finished getting ready in the bathroom and returned to his familiar lair to dress. A slightly wrinkled polo shirt (better dust the cat hair off) and a pair of slacks later, and he was grabbing his bag and heading for the door.
One often wonders what a twenty-one year old art student carries around in his shoulder bag. Well, actually one probably doesn’t, but if anyone did here’s what: he had his computer (well, one of them) a very nice and surprisingly inexpensive little laptop less than ten inches wide, its various accessories, blank disks (CD and DVD in this modern era), various odd tools, locking-blade knife, sewing kit (when the zombie invasion comes, Tom isn’t about to go through it with torn pants), flash light, chewable none-aspirin pain reliever, lighter (not for smoking, smoking is for losers; Tom uses this to burn stuff), pixie sticks (quick sugar on the go), spare change, and of course a Mage Wars deck.
He pulled his bike out of the garage, very expertly ignoring the surveillance car, and began peddling down the street. He then performed a quick U-turn and peddled back up the street, where he closed the garage and locked the front door. Ahh, the things you forget when your neighbors are being watched by the FBI.
It was neat being able to live at home for college. It was even neater being able to live at home with the house to yourself. Tom’s father had taken a consulting job in the sunny paradise of Injan; the contract was for two years, so Tom stayed home and took care of the fort while his parents enjoyed a very long semi-vacation.
The ride to work was short and uneventful. The streets were mostly deep in the outback of suburbia and aside from a few mothers walking with their toddlers and strollers and the odd mailman, he saw no one. It was maybe a four minute bike ride, about three really short blocks. Less, as the dragon flies (he had a wireless point-to-point antenna in his room eves-dropping on his work’s network), but unfortunately Tom could not ride a dragon to work, as much as he would have liked to. It was about eight minutes by foot if he was in a hurry, and probably only one or two by car. He didn’t drive; there wasn’t any reason to.
As he turned into the parking lot of the two-story private school where he worked, he mused about the bag he wore on his shoulder.
It was kind of a nice thought to be finally able to walk onto a school campus with a knife, even though he almost always carried one. Not the big locking blade of course, but a smaller folding tool on his key ring. It was technically against school policy for teachers to bring ‘weapons’ on campus, but he needed these; these were his tools.
Tom held down two jobs at the private school. He had started off as the computer technician, working one or two days a week at maintaining and upgrading the building’s haphazard network. Then, as luck would have it, he found his way into an interesting position.
Even if one does not wonder what a twenty-one-year-old art student carries in his shoulder bag, one should wonder what said art student is doing teaching. Without credentials or degrees no less. (Well, he had an associates degree, in Multimedia Development.)
Around a year and a half ago, one of the school’s sixth grade teachers had quit unexpectedly (Tom theorized it was the class); and the school’s then computer teacher had needed to take over teaching sixth grade.
Without someone actually teaching a class in the computer lab, the school was missing a vital area of education, and there simply wasn’t time left in the school year to look for a new computer teacher.
So the intrepid young network-tech had stepped forward and volunteered, for a reasonable hourly wage of course, and Tom found himself teaching. The original contract was just for the last two months of the year, but the administration had so greatly enjoyed the job he did that they asked him to come back next year. Now, he was in his third year, and still working out in his head just how he’d landed such a position.
It wasn’t that Tom really wanted to be a full-time teacher; in fact, he abhorred the idea. But teaching was something he had always kind of wanted to do, at least for a while, and this opportunity had been too good to pass up. It wasn’t going to be forever, of course, he would be finishing college soon and moving on in his real career. This was an excellent part-time job for the technically-minded art student.
As he began locking his bike up with the children’s bikes (hey, it was the only bike-rack on campus), he glanced up at the busy street which ran along one side of the school. There was that black car again, the one he’d seen in front of his house. This was just getting too weird.
In his mind, he began formulating a fantastic story about some secret government agency that desperately needed his unique skill-set to defeat some international plot, and resolved to write it down once he reached his classroom. Ideas like this were always floating in and out of his head; why, the night before he’d been working on one he’d dreamed up in high school about a princess who gets kidnapped by an evil witch, then escapes and becomes a knight so she can lead an army back and destroy the witch. Yes, well, it was Tom’s imagination and he could do whatever he wanted.
Tom, then, mused for a moment about Tom’s imagination, and about how Tom sometimes mused about himself in the third person. Then, he went on to recanting the old plot about the paladin who traveled between the body of a high-school student on Terra and a holly warrior on Arret, and quickly forgot all about the strange car and the government conspiracy. Tom had a very active imagination.

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