Vultures

NOTE: This story is a fan work for Friends at the Table, and was originally published in the COUNTER/Weight Fan Zine, edited by Quinn Milton.


The door was open, and a ghost emerged. It was a raptor. Ibex watched as Detachment sped toward him, screeching pain and fear and joy. A still-open hatch in the Divine’s side offered him a view to the picked-over bones within. Something caught in his throat. He had not seen it, not that moment, and yet the memory burned within his mind as vividly if he had. A metal hand, reaching out…

* * *

The hatch was open. And there his younger brother, Jerboa—no: Quentin. Always Quentin. Lifeless. Floating. Ibex stood on the bridge of the Seventh Sun, choking down his pain and keeping his face a calm, stoic mask. The monitors of the ship flared with Righteousness, a brief, burning expression he could not allow himself to give. His nails dug in to his hand, bleeding…

* * *

“The door was opened,” Ibex said into the comm of the old Rigger. The thing belonged in a museum. Perhaps he did too. Time had picked them both clean. Ibex gripped the controls of the machine; it had no grace or order to it—modern OriCon tech couldn’t, why would something so ancient? Now he had to wait for the others. He touched the console, willing a righteous purpose he didn’t truly feel into his hands.

* * *

The ghost ripped at him. A fragment of Liberty, a memory of Quentin. The decaying husk of Detachment was still a raptor, and its circling talons tore an impotent arm from Ibex’s Rigger, then another, then another. Desperate for some last action, he launched a blade from the ancient mech, but Liberty or Detachment or whatever it was now batted it effortlessly away. “Damn it!” he shouted, slamming his fist down on the console. He had relied on Righteousness for so long; without it, how could he trust his own frail hands?

Something else was coming through the door. Something massive and undeniable. Rigour. Liberty relented in its assault, darted off and away, leaving only memories to rip at Ibex. “One last close call,” he muttered into the comm. They heard him, the gathered forces of the Golden Branch. Years in the making, one last hope for the sector. “That’s all this was.” He touched a few buttons on the console, diverting all his power into the thrusters, surrendering the Rigger’s useless arms. He didn’t make it far before his comm sprang to life and a familiar voice filled the cockpit. Another memory. His hands trembled.

“Maryland?”

Rigour approached him. It was close now, he could see inside. Ibex—no: Attar… it had been so long since he allowed himself to be Attar Rose—looked into the face of Maryland September, the woman he had loved. But the thing from beyond the door that looked back at him was only a skeleton, like everything else he had left.

Her metal hand, reaching out…

I’m sorry, Quentin.

Flensing his flesh from the bone…

It’s like I told you…

Attar, floating…

It’s a fucking vulture.

Not Built For It

Son, are you okay?

I am thirty-two years old, and my father has walked in to the house to find me furiously sobbing. His immediate instinct is to offer me comfort. I shake my head, wave my hand at the cellphone on the small serving table in front of me, and manage to choke out the words: “It’s a stupid radio show.”

It’s actually a podcast, but there’s no way I’m going to detail the differences to my father in my current state. Potential danger to his offspring averted, he nods, offers up an “Okay, then”, and goes to change out of his work clothes and probably wonder just where he went wrong as a parent.

The podcast in question was the season finale of COUNTER/Weight, the second season of Friends at the Table, “an actual play podcast about critical world-building, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends.” I had spent most Thursdays of the last year of my life tuning in to several strangers playing a role-playing game, and having a wide variety of intense feelings about the lives of their fictional characters.

I’m such a big fan, I help edit the wiki.

The COUNTER/Weight wiki was started in January of 2016 by my now-friend @ice_cream_jones. I leapt for the opportunity to help out. I had already been kicking around the idea of making a guide to the ever-increasing number of characters and relationships in the series. I hadn’t had an audience in mind for the guide, it was more of an exercise for myself, but here was this wiki for this great series I listened to and why shouldn’t I help put some detail into it?

Shaun Joins the Counterweight Wiki
My first day on the job.

What would become the “Counterweight Wiki Council” formed pretty quickly. There were six of us, each eager to contribute. A Slack channel was set up, and we established some tentative plans for what the wiki would entail. Episode synopses, character histories, plenty of links to figure out just who was related to whom. We discussed how to feature fan art, and I recall sending a nervous e-mail to Carey Pietsch, who is a professional comic artist and one of the more prolific fan art creators. 

One of the intentions behind the wiki was to create a resource not only for fans, but also for the creators of Friends at the Table. You get enough characters and situations in your game, it starts getting difficult to quickly connect the dots. Wouldn’t it be great if we had all the characters, their affiliations, their physical appearances, and notable connections all in one easy-to-access place?

Those were the days.

SPOILER ALERT: we talked about spoiler alerts. There was a bit of a debate on how to deal with them, or if we should deal with them. After all, people were starting to listen to the show more and they’d surely want information about who all these fictional characters were. At the same time, wasn’t the wiki supposed to be an easily accessible resource to connect the dots between characters?

Spoilers were the first sign of impending difficulties. The allegiances of factions or characters changed; did we make separate pages for each of those, include those all on a single page, or what? Did we display the most recent information about a character, thus spoiling things, or only show the initial data and put everything else behind spoiler tags?

Austin is very cruel to Orth and Orth doesn't deserve that at all. Shame on you, Austin.
We never shied away from the hard truths, though.

Those episode rundowns were a lot of work, too. An episode of Friends at the Table runs anywhere from 1–2 hours, and that’s not counting the rather epic holiday special (and eventually the massive finale). The point of the wiki was to be a comprehensive guide, and so it was important to capture all the details. That meant listening a lot. That meant taking notes. It meant hitting the rewind button again, and again, and again. I made a detailed outline of the first episode, at some point. It was nine pages long. I think I listened to nothing but Episode 01: I Would Like A Bribe for four days straight.

On the 25th of February, 2016, I made two tweets that were a portent of things to come:

On some level, though, it had felt like work, hadn’t it? You don’t put in four days of effort on cataloguing a single episode of a show and say, well, no effort on my part really. Hell, we’d been mentioned on the show! What a thrill!

The members of the wiki had grown closer and started to get to know one another. I ran a Fiasco game with @ice_cream_jones and @Hadrian, and it was a blast. I wanted to do more. I’d been in a roleplaying drought for years, and it felt good to be back in the swing of things. Helping out with the wiki had me hungry for more than just listening.

In April I started a game of The Sprawl, which had become available for public purchase. It was great listening to it on the podcast, how great would it be to actually play it? Fan artist Emily Blau caught wind of my tweets and asked if she could join, and so we invited her in to our little circle.

Playing The Sprawl was great. It still is great! It was everything I wanted. It felt good to be back in the saddle after so many years of not running a game. Here were people I connected with, who weren’t the bickering players I found myself encountering time and again during the past few years I’d tried to play offline.

More and more, we were doing less and less on the wiki. Every now and then we’d bring it up. It was something we were behind on, something we needed to buckle down and get back to. Then every other Friday would come along and we’d get wrapped up in the messy cyberpunk world of the Southern Florida Metropolitan Area. Or we’d share YouTube videos, or photos, or art, and we’d cry about the latest episodes together and we’d talk about our lives.

I’d feel a pang of guilt on occasion. The cast would go to look up something and I knew it wasn’t on the wiki. We hadn’t put it there yet. Most of it still isn’t there yet.

I am thirty-three years old, and I am worried about my roommate walking in to the apartment to find me furiously sobbing. I have no idea what she would think, here at two in the morning as I huddle over my laptop writing. There’s a new episode of Marielda coming out today, the lead-in to the third season of Friends at the Table, and on the FatT Discord server people are discussing how to best manage a Hieron wiki.

In an interview on First Person Scholar following the season finale of COUNTER/Weight, Austin Walker said:

But the phrase, “the continuing adventures of the Golden Branch sector,” makes me feel like a failure in that the thing I want to get across with Friends at the Table is the joy of collaborating with your friends and building a world that’s yours. That’s interested in the problems that you’re interested in. […] I don’t want to publish the encyclopedia, to come back to that. I don’t want to give you the catalogue because I don’t want you to be satisfied with the catalogue.

So here I am, part of the Counterweight Wiki Council, presiding over a site that is devoid of activity, but we ourselves are absolutely brimming with potential and life. As Austin said, “we have escaped the pull of the encyclopedia.”

I don’t think I will ever stop listening to Friends at the Table. I love it too dearly. But nothing will ever quite compare to the very long day I spent with the COUNTER/Weight wiki. And I’ll revisit those memories, and relisten to them time and time again to laugh and to cry and just for the hell of it. But I don’t think I’ll ever write down another word of what I hear there.

I’m just not built for it.