Based on feedback I received when this ebook was free on Amazon, I’ve decided to release an expanded version as a serialized novel. The original story, listed below, is now the prologue for the serial. When Amazon allows, I’ll have the prologue listed for free (99 cents when it has to wait between promotions).
Join the discussion, leave me feedback, or just follow along. Thanks!
Fall of the Preserver
The Preserver Thal Vanders knew there was something magic deep inside the caves. Even if his detection spell hadn’t confirmed it, he would have known. He felt it in his bones, a kind of throbbing itch that he couldn’t ignore.
He had come to these caves as part of his research. Local lore had all the signs of an Ancient vault. And wherever the Ancients have walked, so must a Preserver.
Little Kapalti had warned him about going off on his own. Kapalti had a warning for just about everything. The man was afraid of any sort of confrontation. But Thal had to give the man credit, what he lacked in backbone he more than made up for in knowledge. Few Preservers knew more about the Ancients than Kapalti.
Thal was one of those few.
He cast a light spell on a small ball that he pulled from his backpack, then tossed the ball down the rocky corridor, illuminating the darkness in a bouncing trail. When nothing showed itself, he started down the corridor himself. He didn’t like surprises, and he had learned his lesson. The stirges back the way he came had been a major problem, but also a major revelation. They had made their nests in Ancient cargo pods! They were all long empty, of course. Whatever perishables had been stored had rotted away thousands of years ago. But the pods themselves were in great shape. He would have to mark the spot for retrieval later.
But first he had an itch to scratch, somewhere deeper in the caves.
He readied his scythe, using the soft glow from its blade to light his way, and started down the gently sloped stone path. As he walked he noticed sections of the wall weren’t completely stone, but mixed with some dull metallic substance. He felt his pulse in his throat as he realized these caves were not caves at all, but stone that had formed over the years on top of something else. Something of the Ancients. He was so close to discovery that he was almost giddy.
It had been hard for Thal. Joining the Preservers hadn’t been easy, as secret societies tend to avoid traditional recruitment programs. But he knew there was something he had to find, knew it his entire life. It was in his blood, something different. Somethingalien. It gave him his secret powers, the Sorcerer skills he kept hidden from the rest of the Preservers. He didn’t really know why he kept his talents hidden. Why he pretended to be a fairly inept Wizard instead of what he really was, an aberrant half-elf with fire in his veins who could track Ancient artifacts by feel.
And he felt something big, something wonderful. It called to him like music in his very tissue. He was so close.
The corridor opened into a large, square room. The walls were mostly of that metallic substance, with only a few spots of stone appearing like some sort of fungus. The floor was covered with broken furniture, some piled into little heaps out of the way. That concerned Thal. Rubble doesn’t pile itself.
The floor had a mushy texture, like think soup or very loose moss. At one point it may have been carpeting, but now it was a pool of goo. In places it seemed to ripple. Plants and vines twisted their way through the debris. The air was stale, but not as stale as he would have expected from such a long abandoned place.
He took a hesitant step forward, and then another. At the far end of the room were steps leading down to a smaller chamber. The room seemed disgusting, but that was about all.
He looked down as the floor began to swarm around his feet. Spiders, hundreds of spiders, possibly thousands of them, each the size of a gold coin. They were swirling over his feet, biting at his boots and trying to make their way up his legs.
He smacked at the spiders, dancing through the decayed carpeting and causing even more spiders to join the swarm. Fire shot from his hands and he fanned the flames around himself, catching as many of the little bastards as he could. He half ran, half jumped across the floor to the stairs, where the carpeting ended and the spider swarm seemed unwilling to follow.
Even after all the spiders were burnt or crushed, Thal swiped at himself, trying to get invisible spiders off. It took him several minutes to calm down enough to realize he was relatively bug-free.
He turned and looked down the small set of steps to a room that made his heart shake and flitter.
The room was completely metal, with no signs of the encroaching earth. The walls, although not at all clean, were still smooth and without imperfection. Writing on the wall was clearly in the Ancient tongue, and some he could even read, although the meaning was unclear to him.
“Restricted Access indecipherable These Doors. Indecipherable Requires Secure Card Level Indecipherable.”
Under the writing were two metal doors, sealed shut and with no visible handles. Only a thin slot next to the doors above a round glass disc. On the floor in front of the doors, in a black blast mark, were two bodies. They were both burned and blackened, and probably had been that way for many years. They were clearly not as old as the rest of the…place. But they were far from fresh as well.
One of the bodies wore a strange metal cap, which was – equally strange – unaffected by whatever had burned the two bodies. It was this cap that sang to Thal throughout his being. It was this shiny little helmet that called to him like a lover long denied.
Whatever it was, it was of the Ancients, and Thal needed to find out why it called to him.
It came off the corpse’s head easily, although the rest of the head collapsed in on itself as he removed it. It was pliable, like a cloth hat, but cold and hard to the touch like metal. Small lines and runes were etched across the entire outside.
As anyone versed in even a small amount of dungeon lore will tell you, things you find on the dead are often the reason those people ended up dead. Above all else, you do not wear those things, if you desire to remain healthy and fully functional. Thal knew this as much as anyone else. He knew more about secrets than most. And still, still he slowly put the helm on his head. Any voices in his head that would normally be screaming at him to at least cast Identify on the thing, better yet, take it back to town and have some experts look at it from many feet away behind protected circles of power, these voices were drowned out by the call of the Ancients. The call screamed at him through every cell in his body, sang to him at the top of their ethereal voices, and shook all reason from him.
The hat fit comfortably on his head like it had always been meant to be there. It tightened a bit, just to ensure a proper connection. And the singing changed.
The singing turned to a roar. Thal didn’t realize he had dropped to his knees, his mouth open in a silent scream. The helm (and now he knew what the Ancients called it, many thousands of thousands of years ago. It was a Helm of Thoughts) tried to create the pathways it was trained to make, to transfer the knowledge of the Ancients that had been stored in it to a new Ancient.
Thal Vanders was many things. Sorcerer, Preserver, human and elf. And he also carried just enough of the blood of the Ancients to allow him to survive wearing the Helm. But the taint of the Ancients was not enough. The Helm was expecting something pure, and failing to find it, acted as if it had anyway. It forced the knowledge it had into Thal’s mind, breaking through the walls and foundations like flood waters through a town. As strong as the urge Thal felt to wear the Helm, the urge the Helm had to tell its secrets was even stronger. It pushed and pushed at the fragile fibers of Thal’s brain like nothing he had ever felt before.
And then it was over.
Thal lay in the dust staring up at the ceiling. He had a score of new urges, new plans he had concocted, or had been concocted for him. He knew it was his destiny to bring the Ancients back. They had started everything, all life that walked or flew or sludged across the multiverse owed their beginnings to the Ancients. They needed to return. They had to return. And Thal would be the one to bring them back.
He wasn’t sure how, exactly. Patterns and formulas danced in his head, in and out of clarity. Words he didn’t know, like “clones” and “genetics,” and words that he did know, like “vivisection” and “experiments.” Resources he would have to find. Flesh he would have to tear apart and reshape.
Thal wiped the blood from his nose and sat up. He reached inside the pocket of the headless corpse and pulled out a red square that he knew would be there. A square like a thick playing card. He knew it would open the doors. The elevator doors. He knew where he would find many of the things he would need.
And the rest…well, people disappear all the time. Raw materials were just that easy to come by.
Thal Vanders, formerly of the Preservers and a pretend Wizard to many, had a new goal. He would change the world. He would bring the Ancients home.
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So we’ve changed some things, updated some other things, and reverted back to our original name. Otherwise, still awesome!
Over two thousand years have passed since Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War,” arguably the war-monger’s bible. Sun Tzu wrote down simple strategic truths in order to clearly define how war must be fought if it is to be won. Because, as we all know, even the most obvious of strategies can be overlooked. Especially if they’re written in Chinese.
Sun Tzu’s observations were so practical that extrapolations have been used for everything from managing employees to opening flower shops. He was, after all, stating the obvious. As I read through the Art of War, I began to realize another area where Sun Tzu’s work could be applied: Managing an Information Technology shop. It may not be exactly the same as waging war on the Huns, but given enough Mountain Dew, it’s mighty darn close.
So, with a nod to Sun Tzu, here are my equally obvious observations on managing IT in just about any business or government agency. Except I’m not writing it in Chinese. Feel free to translate.
Sun Tzu said:
“There are six situations that cause an army to fail. They are: flight, insubordination, fall, collapse, disorganization, and rout. None of these disasters can be attributed to natural and geographic causes, but to the fault of the general.”
An IT shop, just like an army, needs a good and functional command system. It takes more than having talented employees, it requires leadership that is able to pony up to the bar and get the job done. Slapping a title on someone and thrusting them into fire is no more effective in leading employees than it is in leading battle. A leader must know how to lead.
Sun Tzu addresses these points, of course, and so will I.
People have the authority needed to achieve objectives, except for that which is expressly forbidden. This reduces the need for micromanagement and complex control structures, and frees the time of managers at all levels. Every leader commands his own unit, and every employee knows where his orders are coming from. This is especially important in this day and age, with terrorism and homeland security so much in sight. Take out the head and the body falls, take out the body and the head falls. This is the biggest vulnerability to the trend to centralize IT to the nth degree. A single point of failure that can cripple a state or a business. Spread it out, and it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Freedom to function must be delegated through the entire chain of command. Often the breakdown comes in the middle manager level, as middle managers become obsessed with their own feelings of power, and refuse to allow freedom to their subordinates. This isn’t to say middle managers should be removed, although at budget crunch time this is often tempting. Just make sure the middle managers are as well trained as other employees and familiar with what is expected of them.
When senior managers give up control, they must also give up a certain degree of information flow. If they insist on knowing every bit of information available, subordinates will be too busy creating reports to properly get anything done. Senior management’s job is not to approve the use of every nail and each line of code, but to enhance the speed of the work.
People relationships and informal systems give stability to the structure of the command system. Despite their faults, “good ol’ boy networks” and “back room bargaining” exist for a reason; they work. Not to say you should standardize your business model around these systems, but water cooler discussions often instill a sense of tradition, continuity, and permanence in the workplace. In IT shops where many employees are the equivalent of migrant labor, such stable foundations are important. Which leads to the next point, mutual trust.
Long-standing relationships create strong mutual trust. The Human Resource system that brings in new employees should be designed to create familiarity and bonding which is so important in mutual trust. Just as in war, in an IT shop – or any business – you want the person watching your back to be someone you trust to do the job.
A Willingness to Assume Responsibility
A decentralized command system leaves much to the discretion of the individual managers, and puts responsibility equally on their shoulders. Authority must be delegated. This not only serves to make a more flexible organization, but it allows employees throughout the command structure to experience ownership of their departments or units. Such ownership creates loyalty that money can not buy. Or at least not cheaply.
The Right and Duty of Subordinate Commanders to Make Decisions and Carry Them Out
Managers at all levels must be able to utilize their resources in whatever manner they feel is appropriate to achieve their objectives. If they must continuously worry about covering their butts or getting approval for every aspect of every duty, the system will rapidly become clogged with paperwork and doubt. A general can’t be on every battlefield, and a senior manager can’t have his hands in every piece of code and every minor problem.
Expect the Unpredictable
Expect that plans will fail, preparations will break down, scope will creep, and when you least expect it your primary and redundant systems will become engorged with grasshoppers. As the t-shirt says, “Expletive Happens.” Don’t try to overcome confusion by pausing to regroup after each breakdown. Instead keep everyone marching in the right direction. A properly trained team will land on their feet, even if they have to get there from their backs.
Every manager manages the training of his or her employees. The manager doesn’t have to personally train, but they have to ensure that training is taking place. The better trained, the more likely an employee is to remain upright when adversity slams into them. Like any group of professionals, IT employees are constantly learning new things in their fields. They enjoy the challenge. If you, as a manager, can ensure them that they will receive the training they need and want, they will be far less likely to desert for a tastier position.
The choice is yours. You can manage your IT shop like a well-trained wall of marching power, or like a third grade field-trip to a candy factory. Just don’t say you weren’t warned; you were. Over two thousand years ago.
DO NOT open the bottle.
DO NOT touch the tabs; the slightest abrasion releases particles that easily become airborne.
DO NOT under any circumstance, inhale or ingest these particles.
Journal Day 1, 30th November 2028
Right, here goes, one message for posterity. My name is Michael Canarven; I’m thirty-nine years old, and live close to Cairns, Queensland, Australia, but if anybodies reading this you’ll know that already. It’s hot. It’s dry, and there’s only me left now.
I guess by the time you read this you’ve already worked out what happened, and probably don’t need me to tell you: but just to make sure you have the whole; the real story I need to get it all written down.
The bottle contains Serene: probably the most insidious substance we as the human race ever had the misfortune to happen upon, and it’s because of that, that I can’t just assume you already know how dangerous it really is. You need to understand that it’s not me just being selfish and laying it all out: as if this journal is to be some kind of an obituary. We; you can’t make the same mistake twice.
Now after what I’ve written about Serene your gunna ask the question: why something found pretty much everywhere; least if you know where to look: from a naturally occurring source, and that has been proven to be non addictive; has only the most minor physiological effect, and to all intents is perfectly harmless; so deadly? Well the fact is that it’s us; mums, dads, kids; people; it’s the users and takers that are the ingredient that makes it dangerous, and to get you to accept that I have to take you back to the real day one.
I can’t recall the actual date; or even the month, but I do remember the moment. For the record it was something over three years ago that I, and I assume most people first heard of Serene. A few lines in the section of the paper reserved for quirky, joke type news.
I guess that’s not how the scientist who had sought a cure for his daughters disturbing nightmares wanted it announced.
Just a few lines under the heading ‘choose your dreams’? More bullshit media, that’s what you assume, me too, but it intrigued me. Could we really do that? Could I do that? The thought fascinated me: okay, it filled my mind with, well lets just say not with the best of possible intentions.
But most of the tabloid column filler stuff was made up, or sounded like it should be, so I turned the page.
In a way it’s kind of amusing looking back now; not that what happened was funny, more that we spend our lives anticipating some event that will be significant, when the really momentous ones can slip by, and then only slowly reveal their significance. We know the ends; they come with a great big full stop; often in some traumatic event, but certainly we know something has ended. The beginnings, those almost irrelevant events that will fundamentally alter our lives, often pass us by unnoticed, and without fanfare. Just an observation, but if I had my time over, I’d make sure I stopped; morning, noon and night to think how our lives, mundane as they seem, are like mercury, constantly changing form and direction before our unseeing eyes. Anyway as I said, I turned the page.
Headlines, big or small come and go but this one buried deep, and while I didn’t do anything straight away something prodded me a couple of weeks later to Google a bit more. It seems the man had been a chemist and his daughter had, had some pretty horrific nightmares. Wikipeadia told me that he; as a father does, at least one with his skills: began researching. Apparently he read everything from serious to bunkum equally thoroughly, and with an open clinical mind. I don’t remember for sure if it was herb or toxin, but somewhere in the great mound of data that scientists create he found something; well actually he suspected something. A by-the-way comment some other chemist had almost absent mindedly added to the end of a paper, saying that maybe psychiatrists would like to do further investigation on its effect on the unconscious mind. No one had, until this desperate chemist began. Of course as a simple chemist he didn’t have the facilities or experience to really investigate, but through a friend of a friend, who happened to be a lab technician, who in turn had a relationship with a scientist who…. but that’s not the point, the point is that he got something underway. At first at his own cost, but they did find something, and the scientist offered to help for free; free being a cut in any success. The chemist loved his daughter so he was prepared to agree to anything; all that mattered was that he help his child. The scientist arranged some animal trials. It was at this line that I stopped reading. I don’t approve of testing anything on animals, and anyway how can we know what animals dream, do they have nightmares? Sure I know my dog used to run in his sleep but was he running away from a bigger dog in fear, or running to his food bowl in anticipation, it all seemed more pointless research so I clicked out.
Around a year later there was another article, this time in a much more respectable publication, giving a warning to parents of newborn’s and toddlers about a so-called sleeping remedy, named Serene. I don’t have any young kids anymore; they’re all….
What drew me in to keep reading was that it apparently worked, and the article claimed overtired mums and dads were cleaning out the herbalist shelves? That upset a lot of people, me too truth known. Now I aint got a problem with drugs, but feeding babies: no way.
Late as usual the government had stepped in to get a couple of researchers to do an emergency analysis. That didn’t go well; all they found was that everything was as natural as claimed, and worse still there seemed to be no side effects. So what’s the government to do, stop horses eating grass? Anyway this apparent endorsement made it even more popular, and several generic brands came on the market. This was when the big pharmaceuticals began to bring out their own variety, using all their clout to maintain it was as harmless as Aspirin. But as the journal concluded, Aspirin wasn’t always harmless.
The magazine also gave it its own unofficial medical classification; Pleasure Syndrome: and a new nick P.S, which on the street soon became perpetual sleep. I’ve often wondered if whoever came up with that, lived long enough to want to eat their words; it was probably all they did eat?
Things pretty much snowballed after that. Mums and dads started popping alongside their children. Teenagers began having what they called Serenity parties. I had to laugh when I heard that; some party, everyone laying over the furniture and floors fast asleep? But I was way off mark, these kids were still partying in their dreams, at least they claimed they were. If they took a tab and then fell asleep touching or even close by others, they had a shared dream. That really made me laugh; that couldn’t happen, it was illogical. Anyway imagine, a teen party without the next day tantrums and hangovers. Obviously the Serenity party was a dream.
Still the kids didn’t think so, and in the end I succumbed.
I never found out the reason, but I never did see any marketed directly to adults: maybe it was some advertising ploy, maybe kids doses made it look safer. I don’t know, but the instructions on the bottle were aimed at children and recommended the child be in a safe environment, and surrounded by toys they loved. Then place one of the tabs under the child’s tongue. It would dissolve in moments and the herb, or whatever it was, would be absorbed. I had no idea how many tabs I would need, and I aint suicidal, not even now, so I put the bottle back on the shelf, and instead asked around the younger staff at work. Sure enough one got me the party size, but it didn’t look any different. Whatever I gave it a go.
The tab came without any directions, so I followed the advice I’d read on the bottle, especially about making sure I was in a safe environment.
The guy who had supplied me had smiled as he said. “Don’t try any Superman dreams. A couple of weeks ago someone sleepwalked right off a fifteenth floor balcony.” The smile faded as he rolled off the possibilities. “Other than that just lay down and think of a dream. Any dream. Like eating? Then dream of the finest meals, in the best restaurants. Like sex, well….” he smiled again, “It’s up to you. Travel, fast cars; anything, just go to sleep thinking of whatever you want to happen.”
So I did, but it was no dream. It was a nightmare. I was in a clear glass box, around me people were having a great time: the time I had wanted for myself, but I was a voyeur, watching without experiencing. Next day I saw the guy again and he said there were people like me, people who the experience had no effect on. There weren’t many of us, hardly any at all, just a tiny percentage, of a percent.
I heard they called people like me the excommunicated; outside, but watching people in heaven; course the other name was looser.
Then at last the government banned the sale. It caused an outcry, but I thought that was great news; if I couldn’t enjoy then why should anyone else? It came out that the government had forced the pharma companies to do in depth, overdue clinical trials. But I think what had finally got the government to act was that so many kids were missing school that classes were being cancelled: and adults were pulling more and more sickies; not just the odd one now and again, but lots, and in rapidly growing numbers. In fact companies sometimes didn’t have enough staff on hand to open up. It didn’t take a science degree to see that people preferred to live in the ‘other’ world they frequented more and more; and in preference to the one we do live in. Trust governments to only care when it affected the tax rake.
It was almost too late now as people slept rather than living. Then the deaths began.
At first, and most disturbingly it was the young and healthy that literally starved to death. Their calorie intake had fallen dramatically as their bodies adjusted to the almost continual at rest, sleeping state; some, the really hooked ones didn’t stay awake long enough to eat, so the government was forced into more action and made taking Serene a criminal offence.
But by now it was far too late, as the drug gangs replaced the legitimate suppliers, forcing ordinary mums and dads to join the illegal trade, just to get those few hours in blissful sleep they relished, and had come to believed was so desperately needed.
I aint no expert so I don’t know what definition makes something a drug, or not a drug. Can something be neither, yet still hook you and make you a slave?
As PS tightened its grip there was no shortage of so called experts throwing around their opinions; but it all came down to the same options. Addicted or weak willed, Serene filled a space in everyone’s life. It didn’t create a craving; instead it created a place where everything in the world was right, even if it wasn’t. A place where the good did win, a place where we could live the dream, and forget everything else, but we were too obsessed to see the consequences of spending our lives somewhere that could never exist.
And that’s about it. Towards the end even the cops and pollies were joining in; then in hopeless overwork the doctors and nurses began wasting away.
The last I read about Serene, before I lost the feed into the net, was that it changed the neurons in the brain; creating loops where there should have been none, and once started it kept on reconnecting. It don’t leach out or get watered down, it just carries on twenty-four hours a day, isolating and plugging the pleasure zone into the areas of our brain that live in fantasy; at the exclusion of everything else. It didn’t create a dependency, it did something far more dangerous, it actually changed they way we think and act: the way society functions. It gave us a choice we were never meant to have, a choice we cant handle.
Chrissie Hynde used to sing about pleasure and pain. Given that choice; pleasures is what we choose every time; and we did, but life aint all pleasure, there’s a fine balance. We have to have a little pain; I know that now.
That was the last I heard of Serene: it was the last time the newspapers were printed and the last time the web was updated. For a while after there were still a couple of radio stations going, urging people like me to go to places where we could be together and maybe start again. I did try, but the stench of rotting corpses made me come back home. The solar still works, least it does during daylight, so I’ll stay here now until the end, though I do go out now and again to kick a few doors down and release the pets.
The dogs have begun to form into packs and have started cleaning up. I guess dogs do dream, and they’re living their dream right now.