In Which I Get (Not Go) Viral

It’s time for a sequel update! While many, many things have been coming at me (COVID, house problems, new car!), I have indeed been making time for Civil Blood‘s sequel. Of course, I’ve also been de-stressing with my favorite game, City of Heroes. But in a strange coincidence, both converged, in an unexpected and delightful way.

A little background: one of my characters is Amir al-Madani, also known as the Milk Sheik. He made an appearance in Unidentified Funny Objects 8 (shameless plug!), but before that he was just a character I fooled around with on the live servers. In his biography window, I mention that he’s a microbiologist from the United Arab Emirates, who got his regenerative powers through radiation and can heal any injury as long as he gets to drink milk, sort of like Popeye and his spinach but less macho.

One night I was hanging out before a raid, and a player called “Pulsar Kitty” pinged me and essentially said, “Hey, I read your bio. Are you a molecular biologist in real life?”

I replied “No, I just write a lot and have some friends who are doctors,” and so forth. But what she said next surprised me: “Drat. I’m actually a microbiologist, and I work on viruses all the time, and I was hoping to find someone to talk to.”

“Oh.” I said, my interest piqued. It was time to converse with the catgirl! “Well, I wrote a novel involving a vampire virus, and I’m always willing to blab about it.” I figured since she was playing a superhero MMORPG she’d be cool with fantasy and science fiction.

It turned out, not only had she read about vampire viruses, she’d read a Shadowrun novel featuring HMHVV, the Human-Metahuman Vampiric Virus, which of course I knew about because of my time writing Shadowrun. (Long story there.) So we even had a common point of reference. I e-mailed her a copy of Civil Blood, and we got started discussing the sequel. Particularly the worldbuilding surrounding qi-positive European Bat Lyssavirus-4, the cause of Virally Induced Hematophagic Predation Syndrome. Because it’s similar to, but emphatically not HMHVV.

Some writers would just say “it’s magic, it works how I want it to.” That’s their prerogative. But it’s not how I like to do things. So I started kicking the tires on my world and asking the questions I needed to ask. Questions like:

  1. How long would it be before a vampire who had to feed once every 10-14 days or so and had a practically guaranteed infection each time managed to contaminate a serious chunk of the population?
  2. Can a virus provide amazing benefits like super strength and healing to the human body without being tailored to do so? If so, how could it naturally occur?
  3. How could a virus this infective not shape human history in an obvious way, if it existed before qi (magic) was proven to exist?
  4. Is it possible for an accident to release this virus on the world, or does it need some kind of retconned conspiracy and nefarious motives just to be plausible?

Well, Dr. Kitty went to town on the manuscript. And I was pleased to find out that my story held up okay. I thought I’d share some of the answers here, because, well, they’re neat.

Question 1: How Fast is the Vampocalypse?

As some of my beta readers pointed out, in a straight-up 100% rate of infection every 10 days, the numbers create a lot of doubling. First one vampire bites another, then two have to feed in the next 10 days, then four, then eight. You end up in the billions after about 32 weeks. It’s even worse if there are some vipes addicted to blood who become superspreaders.

Nope. Not doing this. For lots of reasons.

Fortunately, the situation in Civil Blood allows for a slower pandemic. There are several factors at play.

Imprecise Numbers: Infinity got about eleven days off of one notable bite in Civil Blood, and she might have lasted two full weeks if she pushed it. There’s also a line in the chapter where she reads BRHI’s experimental notes that say “subject went torpid after thirty-two days without blood” indicating that a vipe could survive more than twice as long in extremes, though they would probably be miserable doing so. While that would not be the norm, every day counts in a massive population boom like this.

Bullets: After a month or so (only 4-8 infections) , someone at the Benjamin Rush Health Initiative did the math and started putting together the Forced Protection team to stop the spread. Somewhere around 16-32 vipes, they started nipping them in the bud, first with capture and restraints, then with targeted killings. Though this started in the D.C. area, it expanded eventually to other cities. BRHI has made a lot of bodies by the end of the first novel. Ranath is said to have “dropped the hammer more times than John Henry.”

When the media break the story four years after Patient Zero, police start being able to recognize vipes for what they are and imprison or kill them. Citizens form vigilante gangs for self-protection, which may cut down on feeding or lower the vipes’ numbers through straight-up murder. A very small percentage of vipes might be lost to cases of individual victims defending themselves. An equally small number might be lost to attrition if they take their cues from popular culture, think they’re immortal, and try to survive a jump off a bridge or some similarly stupid stunt. Again, every vipe taken off the board counts.

Psychology: Many vipes feed first on those closest to them when they lose control, and this can be incredibly traumatizing if the victim is a family member or friend. Some vipes will refuse to drink blood again, instinct be damned. This means they might go comatose and starve to death, or commit suicide. I don’t know exact numbers, but the number of people who’d take themselves out would be much higher than the general population, more on par with active shooters or incarcerated felons.

Jessica’s Old Multi-Bite Trick: Jessica introduces Infinity and Morgan to a technique for vipes feeding off of one another. Sure, it has diminishing returns, but it helps greatly. When Infinity came home after feeding, she could lose blood enough to feed about six other vipes without permanent damage. Since they drank from her wound and not a fresh victim, this slows the number of new infections. Morgan and Jessica, who maintained contact with networks of vipes, no doubt publicized this method in the hopes of minimizing harm.

Question 2: Viruses With Benefits

So, can a virus, with a little magical boost, naturally cause bone ossification and muscle growth so a vipe is strong like a human-sized chimpanzee? “Well, heck,” says Dr. Kitty, “Why don’t we take a look at HERV-K?”

Fun fact: there are viruses in your DNA. Yes, yours. Right now. At various points in human evolution, viruses infected us and used something called reverse transcriptase to insert their RNA into the DNA of our genome. But if they don’t kill the host, and they don’t impair them enough to prevent reproduction, and also if the body can’t stop the infection, sometimes the virus gets integrated into us, like a rude guest who gets adopted. This has happened so often throughout human history that about 8% of our genome is virus code. Like HERV-K.

HERV stands for Human Endogenous Retrovirus — the “K” is a label for which one, since there are a lot of them. “Endogenous” means it’s a part of us now. It entered our genome when we were primates about 30 million years ago, before we were even Homo sapiens. In some cells, if HERV-K turns active, it’s very dangerous and can cause problems like testicular cancer. But during reproduction, if it’s working right, it allows a woman to safely grow a placenta. This is naturally occurring… well, natural as of 30 million years ago. It was selected for. No nefarious genius with a laboratory needed.

So… do you think viruses can have complex benefits? Because one made you possible.

Question 3: How Come We Haven’t Seen EBL-4/VIHPS Before?

This was a thorny one, because the world of Civil Blood is not like the tabletop RPG Shadowrun. There is no great cycle of magic that infuses the world, disappears, and comes back. Qi, in Civil Blood, is a supernatural science that had a breakthrough and though it has always been there, humans can now measure it and manipulate it clearly. But… there’s a way for the virus to be old and yet new at the same time.

In prehistory, EBL developed a super-infective strain. But just because something is super-infective doesn’t mean it’s going to spread all around the world. It could have appeared in isolated communities, or spread like wildfire and then burned out, because it comes with a limitation — a vipe needs to drink blood fresh from the wound of another living, squirming human. If they don’t, they get aggressive after a couple of weeks and then their body starts to suffer. By 14 to 32 days, they start getting lethargic and comatose. (Ask me about unstable antitoxins and stable toxins in selfish genetic sequences. G’wan, I dare you.)

So if they don’t have a food supply, the epidemic is going to fizzle out. And in a time period before cities, highways, and even the domestication of horses, a lot of vipes are going to keel over before they find enough prey to keep the cycle going. It’s much more of a supercharged pandemic in the modern day. In prehistory? It might not even show up in the fossil record.

Question 4: So How Did Ulan Release the Plague?

Horseshoe bat (Credit: Marie Jullion)

So it’s possible the progenitor to EBL got into humans, and over time, adapted to them. One strain could have mutated into a less infective version but stayed in the human germline, giving resistance to the nastier version until the vipes all died out. With no selective pressure to change, the virus would stay in humans until some could have transferred over to European bats, some of whom could eat trash covered in human saliva. The bats are where Dr. Ulan found European Bat Lyssavirus-4, and she could have, in the process of collecting data on the virus and taking out portions with targeted bombardments of yin qi, recreated the original sequence.

Recreating the original sequence is bad.

Bang. Super-infective qi-positive EBL-4 is back, and the clock starts with her as Patient Zero.

So When’s the Novel Coming Out?

That’s a question I don’t think I’ll answer. There’s going to be a lot more to the sequel than this, but it’s been a long time since I gave a substantive Civil Blood update. Here’s hoping I whetted your appetites.

Drink up. And cheers!

In Which Superheroes Punch River Gods in the Face

Those of you who’ve been following my progress over the past few months may know that I’m back to doing freelance writing, which is another way of saying “I’m unemployed… except when I’m not.”

Looking for work is, of course, a full-time job for a writer. My days are spent Googling “narrative designer,” and typing up customized cover letters for submission along with my resume. Every now and then I’ll get a bite and they’ll ask me to do a writing test, which takes anywhere from one to seven days of work. Sometimes, I’m familiar with the game company, and have played all their games. Sometimes, I have to jump in with both feet and learn on the fly. While I like to think I can learn a new franchise in a very short amount of time, the reality of this renaissance of nerd-dom we live in is that there are too many properties to keep up with simultaneously.

For example, like many nerds, I played tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. But if a job opportunity pops up at Wizards of the Coast, the interview questions will be more like “What are your opinions on how to improve the Eberron campaign setting, and where do you see it going in the next five years?” Then I’ll switch gears to mobile games, where the test will be about Stardew Valley or maybe an interactive romance novel like Choices, and the next day it’ll be back to a real-time strategy series, asking me to write in the voice of generals of the Napoleonic Wars.

I can do these things. The sticking point is, can I do them faster, cheaper, or with more panache than whoever else is applying? Can I Skype with the employer at 11:00 at night because they’re on Beijing time? Am I disabled or a veteran? Can I speak Korean?

So that’s my day-to-day now. In between job applications, I play games to try to keep current on them. At night, I polish short stories, because, like I said elsewhere in this blog, I’m trying to sell them to fund a sequel to Civil Blood. I’ve polished the I.T.-expert-to-the-superheroes story (“The Needs of the Client”) and submitted it. The next in line, “Give a Little, Get a Little,” is in the queue for critiques through my writing workshop. Progress is slow, but measurable.

And then… there’s the game I love the most. The one that’s back from the dead.

The thing that really was the cherry on top to the old MMO City of Heroes was the fact that you could write up a biography of your hero and other players would see it. It was totally optional, but if you wanted to say you’re a time-traveling hawk-man wielding Excalibur, teaming up with a sapient crash test dummy, you could do it. And after around four or five years into the game, they came up with the Mission Architect, where players could create their own adventures, and have other players run through them.

I actually never got super into the Mission Architect when the game was live, because it was a rabbit hole you could be inside forever. I was writing for Bioware, getting my kiddo through toilet training, and the other players were cranking out great content already. There was one arc where you battled the Phantom of the Opera in the sewers beneath the Paris opera house. Another had archvillains inspired by the major arcana of tarot cards. And of course there was the “Visit from the Fashion Police” adventure, where you fought the Fashion Victims gang, wearing the ugliest, most clashing clothes that the costume creator could possibly make.

 My contribution was a humorous single-episode mission called “Economic Recovery Through Fisticuffs,” in which you find the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis as they escape on a cargo liner bound for Antigua, and punch them in the face. The minions had names like “Short Seller” (they were 4′ tall), “Economic Shock Doctor” (electricity powers), and bikini-clad socialites called “Somebody Else’s Wife,” because, in the words of a CIA agent I once met, “who sells out their country and jets off to an island with their OWN wife?”

Now that I’m revisiting the game (it came back in 2019), I decided to put in some time designing a story arc. I figured it’d be good for my game design skills, though honestly, it’s unlikely an employer would ever see it. While a core group of fans love the game, the chance that a particular dev has sought out the new version, downloaded it, has an appropriate-level character, and would play all the way through the 5-mission arc is ridiculously low. But it’s a fun challenge, and I’m happy to share the story.

The arc is called “Dr. Aeon and the Wrath of Achilles.” I created it because there’s a ton of players who make Greek and Roman superheroes now, and there’s a lot of good costume and powerset combos for them. And, of course, as readers of Mythkillers know, I’ve got an obsession with the Trojan War. So I thought a little time travel could be fun.

The players are summoned by Mender Lazarus, one of the guardians of the time stream, who says the balance of power in the player’s timeline is, was, or will be upset. Dr. Aeon, the chrononaut mad scientist for City of Heroes‘ premier villains, Arachnos, has broken into Paragon City University. There, he kidnapped a classics professor, and went back in time to the Bronze Age, to interfere in the course of the Trojan War. Why is he siding with the Trojans and assailing the Greeks with his high-tech weaponry? Therein lies the mystery.

What follows is a lot of fighting, because hey, it’s an MMO. You beat up everything from Trojan soldiers and Amazon princesses to a river god and super-soldiers with mechanical spider legs coming off their back like Doctor Octopus’s tentacles. I’m not actually allowed to post video from COH to YouTube, because you’re not allowed to make ad revenue on the game for legal reasons. But I will post some relatively-spoiler-free screenshots.

This is the university hallway for the first mission:

Enemies in the basement:

The second adventure has you rescue Greek heroes from Arachnos in the plain of the Troad:

(Nothing like a good foot sweep to knock down a Trojan archer.)
(Menelaos, Great Ajax, and Odysseus, as well as our hero in white.)

And there’s more! I recreated Achilles’ rampage, with you as the star.

While I won’t reveal the end, I can show off the neatest part of the game, the character creator. There’s about six good power sets for the rank and file soldiers: single sword, single axe, single mace, archery, staff fighting with a two-handed spear, and double blades (either swords or axes). Only the single weapons can be used with a shield, or they can be left alone and paired with more supernatural powers, like flames, regeneration, or Achilles-style invulnerability. So while I can’t get a spear-and-shield combo, I can get a lot of others.

(Rank-and-file Trojan archers.)
(Memnon, son of the Dawn, king of Aethiopia)
(Hector, prince of Troy. The spear looks more like a naginata, but it’s the closest I could get.)
(Xanthos, a.k.a. the Scamander River God. The blue slime is water animated to drip.)
(Aphrodite, goddess of love, sex, and sea foam. The sparkles animate.)
(Penthesilea, princess of the Amazons, with double labrys axes.)
(Achilles, with his famous shield.)

If you’ve made it this far and actually have a City of Heroes (Homecoming) account, the arc is #31899. Just enter that into the search bar at the Architect Entertainment interface, and the arc should be playable.

Now I think I’ll get back to the prose writing, since I’m all burned out on Greeks for the moment. Take care, and let’s save the world this year!

In Which I Come Back from Faraway Lands

Those of you just joining me may look at my last blog post and say, “Egads! It’s been three months since the last update! Where has Chris been?” And the answer, of course, lies in the text of the last update — I’ve been doing my day job, which has, like most hazardous gases, expanded to fill the size of its container.

The good news is, the job is pretty cool. When we last left our intrepid hero, I was Kickstarting Mythkillers. In short, Mythkillers is an urban fantasy that is sort of like if you took the ancient bloody-minded gods from Sandman and gave them to the goofy motherf***ers writing Guardians of the Galaxy.

We were successfully funded on Kickstarter, hit two stretch goals, and have been busily making the comics ever since. Since my last post on this blog, I added somewhere around 37 articles on the Seasun Comics news page, which explains a part of my conspicuous absence. If you’re looking to check out Mythkillers, we’re currently using Indiegogo’s InDemand as our online store. I posted a general FAQ for people new to the comic here.

But like any good act of magic, the reasons for my disappearing act here comes in threes.

The second reason I’ve been absent is more related to an old, long-held vice. From 2005 to 2012 or so, I played a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game called City of Heroes. The game shut down in 2012… officially. In May or so, it was revealed that a secret cabal of reverse engineers had actually managed to illegally keep the game’s source code and played it on a private server for the last six or seven years. And then they reopened it for public play, free of charge, with the game company tacitly agreeing not to prosecute anyone for literally saving Paragon City.

It is difficult for me to express how much I loved City of Heroes… okay, it’s not difficult, but most of you wouldn’t understand me if I said “I got the Isolator badge the hard way in Recluse’s Victory and Disruptor on my empathy defender.” I’ve toned my fanaticism down a bit this time around, but I can now play it with my son, who enjoys creating characters just as much or more than he actually likes playing the game. So the game is a factor as well — it sucks up time I would have spent writing.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stuck with my plan to write short stories and sell them to try and finance a Civil Blood sequel. Far from it, in fact. The third thing I’ve been doing in the evenings rather than post updates to the blog is the actual writing of short stories. I finished two recently and sent them off to a writer’s workshop.

The first, “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Office of Superhero Registration,” humorously imagines what the superhero equivalent of the DMV is like. It highlights the down side of being a regenerating hero, which is that to register your superheroic abilities, you have to demonstrate them, i.e. get the mess beaten out of you by a big dude in power armor who doesn’t know what a safe word is.

The second story is from the Civil Blood universe and is, of course, much darker and more serious. It deals with Infinity returning to Los Angeles after the events of the novel and meeting up with Katie, the martial arts instructor who was like a mother to her. Infinity chooses to “come out” to Katie as a vampire, but she can’t go home again the way she’d like to. The story’s title, “Infection in Everything,” refers to the vampire virus VIHPS as well as a passage in Musashi’s famous martial arts manual The Book of Five Rings.

So hopefully, both these stories will see the light of day sometime. I suspect “The 10:40” will be an easier sell, since SF magazines perpetually say they’re starved for humorous content. I think it hits a good mix of slapstick and poignancy, and it’s high time someone wrote a story about the super-saturation point of comic book crime-fighters.

They do say, “write what you know,” right?