Making Your Readers *Feel* It

  • by Gitabushi

One of my more favored authors is Alistair MacLean. When he’s at the top of his game, like in “The Guns of Navarone,” “Circus,” “When Eight Bells Toll,” or “Where the Eagles Dare,” he’s amazing.  When he’s not, well, let’s just say I don’t recommend “Goodbye California” and “Athabasca.”

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One of the things he does well, however, that I rarely see authors include is make his heroes fatigued.  The fatigue could be seen as a dodge to make it easier for them to make mistakes that help drive the plot, perhaps.  But he does a good job of making you feel how tired the main character is.

In this same vein, when one of my sisters read “The Stand” by Stephen King, she said it entranced her so well that she would look up and think, “What are all these people doing here? Everyone is dead!”

As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to do that.  So I set out to write a section of a story with an exhausted combatant.

The inspiration was somewhat based on this event from my own life.  I had so much to do, and I couldn’t stop until I finished the work for the day.  I just kept going. I got tired, then weary, then exhausted. I got to the point where I had to stop and rest.  But energy would return after even just a 30 second rest.  The thing is, the energy span you get after a rest gets shorter and shorter.  You get so tired your arms just go limp when you aren’t lifting something.  If you sit down, you risk falling asleep if you close your eyes even for a second.  Your skin chafes. You get blisters, and just keep moving…your brain sort of switches off the pain notifications. By the end of the day, you are truly spent.  To the point that you try to eat a hamburger and have to go vomit.

And then you get up and do it again the next day.

Your body has truly astounding reserves of energy.  There’s almost always more you can call on in need.  But every movement takes an effort of will. Just standing becomes difficult.

I wanted to capture that.  Here’s an attempt:

Another opponent.  He staggered toward me, barely able to lift his axe off the ground.  I knew my shield had sagged to the point of leaving my upper body exposed, but I couldn’t find enough energy to lift it any higher.  He summoned a burst of energy to swing the axe upward in an arc, letting the momentum and its own weight bring the axe blade down toward me, inexorably obeying gravity to try to bite deeply into the metal of my armor, and the relative softness of my flesh underneath.

But I was no longer in the axe’s target point.  I had pushed off with my exhausted and cramping left leg, and gathered enough power to move my body out of the way.  I yanked my sword arm up, so the point was no longer pointing at my feet, and fell foward, reaching out with the point for a spot on his side, just above his belt.  I managed to get my foot up in time to place in front of me to prevent falling on my face.  As my sword point cut through cloth and parted hide, I twisted my body to add force, trying to make it go deeper.

The axe head hit the ground, and his body followed it a second later.

I stared stupidly at his dying body, only dimly aware of other things happening on the periphery of my vision.  Unable to hold my arms up a second more, I let them both drop by my side.  I lifted my eyes to my surroundings, willing my head to follow, and looked around me.  I squeezed my eyes shut tightly to try to rid myself of the stinging sweat dripping down from underneath my helment.  I couldn’t lift my arm to wipe away the sweat without dropping my sword, and I didn’t want to do that.  Not until the encampment behind me was safe.

The closest enemy combatants were no closer than a half-dozen yards away, all engaged with different members of my company.  I had time to feel and catalog all my pain and discomfort.

My right hand ached from gripping the hilt of my sword, and a blister had formed and burst on the webbing between thumb and forefinger.  The sweat begain to sting.  My left arm ached from the blows absorbed by my shield. I’m sure the arm itself was mottled with black and purple bruising.  A dozen or more nicks and cuts; nothing deep nor serious, or I would not be able to stand, but with a growing pain, the longer I had time to think and experience the sensations, undistracted.  My head ached where the leather band in my helmet rested. My shoulders burned with exhaustion.  I would have given my right arm for an M-58 and three clips of seeker rounds, but we ran out of ammo two years ago, and the metal from the rifles salvaged for medieval arms not long after.

I breathed deeply, trying to find oxygen to regain my wind.  I buried the point of my sword in the dirt, and fell to one knee, gripping the crossguard and bowing to rest my head against the hilt. I closed my eyes.  I could feel sleep stealing about the edges of my consciousness, ready to dart in and drag me down into blessed oblivion of sight, sound, sense, and pain. The dizziness made my head spin, I felt the sensation of falling…

…and snapped my eyes open.  It would help no one if I fell asleep at this moment.  As exhausted as I was, I had slept more recently than most.

I saw man, clad in enemy colors, trudge up the hill toward me.  He ignored my engaged compatriots and came right for me. He raised his sord to point it at my head.

Show-off. If he were half as exhausted as I, he would regret the wasteful display of excess energy only long enough for his life blood to leak into the sandy soil.

I put the effort of my whole body into standing up.  I still leaned against the sword, as if a cane, with its point still lodged in earth, as my determined opponent approached me.  I could see his eyes light up as I refused to pull my sword, saw the wolfish grin as I let my shield fall, as if from nerveless fingers. He pulled his arm back, and thrust as he stepped forward…

…to pierce the air where I had been. The knife I had drawn with my left hand and concealed along my forearm twirled out, and I let his momentum carry him onto the point, driving it deeply into his heart.  He fell, and I lost my grip on the knife.

I didn’t want to bend over to pick it up, fearing I might fall over.  I stood where I was, still gasping for air, still trying to marshall my energy for my next opponent.

I turned and looked behind me at the summit of the knoll. The defensive wall still stood, and the orange and yellow flag still flew.  It was weighted, and held aloft by a rotating set of the older children. Had a wall breach threatened, or even worse, broken through, the child would have let go the rope to make some pitiful attempt at defense, and the flag would be in the dirt.  Our children remained safe and unmolested.

I turned back to the battlefield, and saw two more warriors notice me, and begin walking toward me.  My breathing had still not slowed to normal, but I had regained a little energy; enough to retrieve and sheath my knife, and even enough to shrug into the battered shield.

The first reached me, and I had gained enough energy to knock his javelin thrust to the side before stabbing him in the throat. He fell to the ground, and the next was upon me.

He swung, and I parried. I thought I saw an opening and jerked the sword up and around in a path to hit him just above his shield, but he raised his shield arm to deflect, while ducking under the rebound.  I had to use energy, too much, to stop the sword from dragging me all the way around.  My sword and shield drooped again.

His dropped, as well. Early in the battle, I would have made him pay for the poor defense, but then, I would have paid for my own.

We stood, facing each other, gasping for breath. Two men. One who turned his back on humanity and civilization, one who defended the last remnants of it. I thought of Sarah, back in the encampment, and the hell I was certain waited for her if I fell. I ignored the seat in my eyes, ignored the pain in hands, and lifted my sword for another attack.

I drove him back with the ferocity of my attack, pushing him to the edge of the nearby gully that guarded our left flank, but even my adrenaline frenzy drained away quickly.  I had to end this quickly. I took a chance.

I beat his sword out of line, and thrust.  He recovered, more quickly than I hoped, nearly as quickly as I feared. His sword sliced my side as mine slid between his ribs.  He fell backward, and my sword stuck on his ribs, dragging it from my grasp.  I let go as soon as I felt it stick, but it threw off my balance.  I staggered foward, tried to catch myself, stumbled, and fell onto the steep slope.

I grabbed for anything I could, but my grasping fingers met only the body of my last opponent, pulling him down with me.  I tumbled for a few dozen yards before tubmling into a crack between two boulders, the body of my opponent on top of me.  I tried to push him off, but with one arm wedged beneath me and trapped by the boulders, I couldn’t summon up enough strength to move him. I closed my eyes to rest a moment before trying again.

When I opened them again, it was night.  All was still.  There were no sounds of battle.

This time I was able to wiggle my way out from beneath the dead weight.  Being so close to the galaxy’s core, the stars were bright enough for me to slowly, and mostly silently, clamber my way to the top of the ravine.  I looked up at the encampment. No lights, but in the starlight, it was clear: the flag was down.

I let the other Bushis read it, and I think we all agree: there’s something good there, but overall, it’s clunky and overwritten.  I think I’m going to distill this down to a page-length or so, then write about the pursuit and rescue.

But what are your thoughts?

Of course, we don’t write about normal body functions in a story, but has anything in your life ever been disrupted by having to use the bathroom?  How about being sick?  How about being exhausted?

If it can happen in real life, why shouldn’t it happen in your story?

I have mixed feelings. I think I’m happy that we don’t talk about urinating and excreting in most stories.  It just gets ignored, right?  On the other hand, could it increase the verisimilitude? Or add further plot complications? Could it be done tastesfully?

What do you do to help your readers *feel* what your characters are going through? What should be out of bounds for inclusion, when it comes to bodily functions?

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Glory Load

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Ok, Glory Road is ultimately kind of garbage. I don’t often quit reading books once I’ve begun, but if I do it’s usually within the first chapter or two. This thing strung me along to within 50 pages of finishing. But alas, I can take no more.

And you know, if Heinlein had possessed the humility or sense not to keep writing once the adventure was done, or if his editor had possessed the cajones to rein him in, it would have been a middling, serviceable scifi story.

But nope. Instead we get more Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein, who can’t stop himself from writing about free love and weird sex. The adventure is over, so here’s a few chapters of exposition about some weird imperial sex culture stuff.

Oh well.

As Kaiju tweeted some days ago:  Heinlein died after writing Starship Troopers.

The end.

-Bushi

bushi

Recommended SF&F Author: C. S. Friedman

  • by Gitabushi

I consider myself fairly well-read, at least when it comes to Science Fiction and Fantasy of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

This is because I was a voracious reader living in a small town, and I read every SF&F book the town and school libraries had.  Being a small town, they didn’t have much that was new.

But since I read so much, I don’t always know remember who/what I read.  Being young and foolish, I didn’t bother to take the time to check publication dates, or try to fit the books and stories I read into the context of the time in which they were written.

But then in the 80s, I started babysitting, getting a decent allowance from chores, and working part time, and I put the money I earned into books.

I got a sense of who the main authors were, and explored most of them.  Sometimes I encountered a story I didn’t like, and if I encountered two from the same author, that would burn the author in my estimation, and I’d rarely give them a second chance.

But there were often strange gaps. Jack Vance and Damon Knight were both considered Grandmasters, but none of the libraries I had access to had any of their books, and so I never read either one, until PCBushi recommended Vance to me.

Because I was both a voracious and precocious reader, I started young, with The Lord of the Rings at age 9, Robert A. Heinlein at age 10, Herbert’s Dune at age 13.  Some books I just really didn’t understand.  I tried the Lord of the Rings at age 9 after a teacher read The Hobbit to us, but not knowing what I was doing, I grabbed and started with The Two Towers.  I finished it, but I had no idea what was going on.  I picked it up again at age 14 and read it in order, and loved it.  I tried C. J. Cherryh a few times at age 17 or 19, and just didn’t like her.  When she came out with Lions….  In…..Space…. when I was about 20 (the Chanur series), I gave it a try and liked it.  But it wasn’t until I turned 26 that I actually really understood her writing, and she became my favorite.

Looking back, there was one author I tried in my early 20s: C. S. Friedman.  Not sure why she felt the need to hide her female name, because there were plenty of famous female authors by 1986, when her first novel was published.

But her stories were complex and perhaps a little beyond me at the time, like Cherryh.

I started with the Coldfire Trilogy.  I enjoyed it, but my girlfriend loved it.  She fell in love with the main character, who I thought was cool, but not especially lovable.  But trying to understand what she loved about the main character helped me understand a little better what women want from/like in men.  The trilogy is a fascinating construction of a Catholic-like religion battling demon-like aliens.  The main character is absolutely a Knight Templar type, or could be seen as a D&D-style Paladin.

Look at this picture.  Isn’t this guy a bad-ass? Don’t you want to read this book now?

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As I recall, this cover is *exactly* why I picked up the book

It’s been so long, I barely remember the story. What I remember is the heartbreaking love story, where the main character falls in love with a woman, and she loves him back…then her memories are stripped.  He goes to extreme lengths to try to accomplish the return of her memories, but without her memories of their time together, she no longer loves him and falls for someone else.  It was well done, as I recall.

I enjoyed the books enough to purchase and read In Conquest Born.  It, too, was a complex book.  It has a little twist to it, though, not mentioned in the wikipedia page, that I don’t want to spoil for you, if you ever find it and read it.

I never found any of her other books, and had pretty much forgotten about her, until seeing C. L. Moore mentioned a few times in the past year stimulated my memory to the point where I had to figure out who C. S. Friedman was.  I even went so far as to write a tweet asking my SF&F peeps if they knew who the author was when I remembered “Friedman” and was able to do a quick search.

[Man, you younger kids have no idea what life was like before the internet, when it was difficult to find a song you heard on the radio, or a book you once read, or even the back catalog of your favorite band.]

Glancing through the books she’s written since, she is still writing complex stories with some pathos, although she is nowhere near as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

Have any of you heard of her or read her?  Honestly, the Coldfire Trilogy and In Conquest Born were good enough, I’m really surprised she isn’t mentioned more often as one of the greats.

I think I’m going to have to purchase and re-read her books (further delaying my slow-motion rampage through Edgar Rice Burroughs back-catalog).  I think with the added maturity of 20+ years, I should appreciate her books more.  Or perhaps discover that they aren’t anywhere near as good as I remember.

 

Forget Quidditch! Hussade: A Real Man’s Imaginary Sport

As you may be aware, “real” quidditch has become a thing.

Weep for humanity.

To be fair, I thought quidditch was a pretty cool sport in the Harry Potter universe. But that’s mostly because the players were flying around dodging magical murder balls while one guy tried to catch a little golden orb with wings.

But as far as the real-life version, I think I’m going to have to go with little big boye from YouTube.

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For my money, the fake fantasy sport I’d like to see as a real thing is hussade, from Jack Vance’s Trullion: Alastor 2262. Or if we’re talking about after the impending Great Collapse, maybe I’d vote for The Game.

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Hussade is described as follows:

The hussade field is a gridiron of ‘runs’ (also called ‘ways’) and ‘laterals’ above a tank of water four feet deep. The runs are nine feet apart, the laterals twelve feet. Trapezes permit the players to swing sideways from run to run, but not from lateral to lateral. The central moat is eight feet wide and can be passed at either end, at the center, or jumped if the player is sufficiently agile. The ‘home’ tanks at either end of the field flank the platform on which stands the sheirl.

Players buff or body-block opposing players into the tanks, but may not use their hands to push, pull, hold, or tackle. The captain of each team carries the ‘hange’ – a bulb on a three-foot pedestal. When the light glows the captain may not be attacked, nor may he attack. When he moves six feet from the hange, or when he lifts the hange to shift his position, the light goes dead; he may then attack and be attacked. An extremely strong captain may almost ignore his hange; a captain less able stations himself on a key junction, which he is then able to protect by virtue of his impregnability within the area of the live hange.

The sheirl stands on her platform at the end of the field between the home tanks. She wears a white gown with a gold ring at the front. The enemy players seek to lay hold of this gold ring; a single pull denudes the sheirl. The dignity of the sheirl may be ransomed by her captain for five hundred ozols, a thousand, two thousand, or higher, in accordance with a prearranged schedule.

So essentially you’ve got a bunch of dudes with padded sticks swinging between platforms and knocking each other into a pool while they try to get to the other end of the field to denude the other team’s virgin cheerleader. The successful players get a bunch of cash.

Tell me that doesn’t sound awesome. Oh, apparently some Star Trek fan fiction has, ahem, borrowed hussade.

-Bushi

bushi

Writing Topic: Foreshadowing, or Why Does Stuff Happen in a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale.  One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal.  Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.

I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.

It didn’t work for everyone.  One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen.  I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic.  I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).

However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.

[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]

In music, there is no impossible collection of notes.  Anything can be musical.  You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled.  The trick, the key element, is resolution.  Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are.  In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord.  You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.

The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.

You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.

Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.

The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act.  It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol.  This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.

So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.

One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character.  The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.

Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better.  I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done.  I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.

Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.

I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”.  I hope not.  My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes.  This is one I really need to work on.

Thoughts?

Something Alien

I’ve never read anything by Robert Silverberg, but you can only hang with the serious scifi/fantasy for so long before you begin to see his name crop up.

At some point in the past few months, I acquired a copy of Downward to the Earth, a scifi story presumably about alien elephants or some such.

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It’s not a terribly long book, so on a whim I added it to my commute bag. Now I’m a little more than halfway through, and I’m not yet sure what I think of it.

This morning I reached a chilling scene. I think the story has been growing on me, and stuff like this can stick:

Reminiscent of Alien, no? Written almost a decade earlier, though. Of course I’m sure this must be an older idea, inspired by horrible creatures that exist in our own reality. But still, pretty compelling.

-Bushi

bushi

 

The Spice of Life

  • Dumb SF by Gitabushi

In 2012, researchers hooked 16,000 computer processors in parallel, with more than 1 billion connections, and let the artificial brain browse a video website.  Before too long, it began watching cat videos.  We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first salvo in the Second Robot-Human War.

The Second Robot-Human War gets all the attention, of course.  Few people even realized there was a First Robot-Human War, which mainly consisted of a street light on 4th and Main deliberately delaying the morning commute of a man named Nathan Alexander.  But that is a tale for another day.

“Perfessor! Jones! Get over here!” the Corporal bellowed.

I scrambled over, sliding over the detritus of a collapsed wall, then clattering down a rickety set of stairs into a basement. I wasn’t worried about noise, because the hiss of ionized air, rattle of nearby explosions, and loud buzz of the ubiquitous sonic repellers covered any noise I might make.

Probably. You never knew when the AI might get a software update that would let it pick out man-made noises.  I had a philosophy for that: when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.  There’s no point in pussyfooting around what the AI might do next. You just did your best, took out a few of the brain nodes if you got lucky, and hoped your genes got passed on.

Jones slid in beside me. He was quieter.  Maybe not so willing to let fate have a free hand?  He was calm, not even breathing heavy.

“What is is, Corporal?” I asked.

“Look what I found, guys!  A whole case of cinnamon containers,” the Corporal said, beaming. “There’s gotta be 120 or more!”

“That’s great Corp! What do we do with it?” Jones asked.

The Corporal looked at me.

“Well, uh…” I began, then stopped. A faint memory glimmered, then ignited into full flame. “Cinnamon was one of the earlier spices prized for food preservation!”

“Hey, that’s great, Perfessor!” said Jones. “Now that the AI cut us off from salt, we’ve had some problems keeping food safe long enough to eat.”

“Hey, do you remember what they used to do before the War?” the Corporal asked.

“Eat apples?” Jones said.

“Make gravy?” I added.

“Throw very small rocks?” Jones ventured.

“Nah, ya numbskulls!  They used to do the Cinnamon Challenge! You used to take a spoonful, then try to eat it without inhaling any into your lungs and making you cough.”

Jones looked blank.  I must have, too, because the Corporal seemed to grow, if anything, more irritated than normal.

“Awright, youse two!” the Corporal said. “We’re going to do it, too.”

“Right now?” I asked.

“Right now,” the Corporal agreed. “I’m in charge of you dolts, and now that I have ascertained a gap in your eddycation, I’m gonna fill it. Put your weapons down and SHUDDUP!”

We followed orders.

He pulled a spoon from his kit, and poured a heaping spoonful.

“Open up, Perfessor!”

I opened up.  The heaping spoonful went in. It…tasted pretty good.  Then it started to get hot.  Waitasecond! Wasn’t cinnamon supposed to be sweet and sticky?  The heat made me gasp–

–and then I was kneeling on the floor coughing out a cloud of light brown spice.  The Corporal was laughing and slapping his knee.  He calmed down and his expression resumed its dour state about the time I coughed it all out.

“Now you, Jones,” he said.

“I dunno, Corporal, I  don’t think–” Jones began.

“–Exactly!” the Corporal said. “You don’t think. You follow orders.”  He poured another spoonful. “Open up.”

Jones opened up. The Corporal poured it in.

Nothing happened. Jones chewed for a while.

“Hold on!” the Corporal said.  “Jones, spit it out. Now!”

Jones spit out the cinnamon.  It was dry and dusty.

The Corporal wasn’t known for high intelligence.  He’d never been a member of Mensa. He was the farthest thing from an intellectual that I could imagine. But he still saw it before I did.

“No saliva!  You’re a bot!” the Corporal said, then opened fire.

The sonic rifle shredded “Jones'” clothes and ripped great rents in his “skin”, revealing a metal endoskeleton, complete with shining cables and joints.  But even at close range the sonic rifle was too weak.  The bot we had thought of as Jones leapt at the Corporal, his hands reaching for the Corporal’s throat.

In a flash, his neck was snapped. I recoiled and stumbled over the crate of cinnamon, knocking over several containers. I reached out, grabbing for my rifle, knowing what little good it would do me.

The bot whirled and advanced toward me. My hands felt something, grasped the cold plastic of…a container of cinnamon. I needed a weapon, but maybe this could buy me time.

I ripped off the lid, and flung the contents at the robot. It ran through the cloud of spice, came at me just as I was reaching my proton disruptor tube…

…and ground to a halt, the fine cinnamon powder having floated into every possible niche, crevice, and cranny of the bot, absorbing lubricant and fouling gears. It was the work of mere seconds after that to destroy the robot’s AI brain.  With luck, I had managed to kill it before it could establish a connection and upload its experience back to the main AI.

And now we have a new weapon. One that we can use as a virtual aerosol defense that destroys mechanicals, but can also serve as a test of humanity to protect ourselves against bots.

Heaven help us if the bots ever develop saliva.

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by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:LivingShadow