Tag Archives: writing

The First Adventure Of The Fourth Streak Derrick

Introduction


Yeah, I’m hyping the crap out of my new book. If you like this story, you’ll probably like the above book. If you don’t like this story, erm, you’ll still probably like the above book, ’cause it’s, uhm, totally different and stuff. I feel like Gil from “The Simpsons”.

This was posted on this site during the Joomla days, and somehow didn’t make the transition over to WordPress. It falls into two genres I like: Planetary Romance and what I call The Banality Of The Fantastic, the latter being my own name for stories set where the “fantastic” element, the thing which makes it a fantasy or SF story, is seen as simply part of the background noise of the world by the inhabitants. We talk to people across the world, we travel from continent to continent in hours, we are speak a command or make a gesture and get answers to everything from “Where is the nearest pizza joint?” to “How many videos are there where two cheerleaders, one a redhead, one asian, make out with each other and then the pizza guy joins in?” (“Two miles” and  “integer overflow error”, respectively.)

Rogue Planet: Fortress At The Top Of The World, was intended to not be deconstructionist, revisionist, satirical, etc. This piece, however, was intended to be something of a respectful and loving satire, or at least humorous, as it deals with the aftermath, generations later, of Earth’s contact with an alien world full of wild technology and beautiful alien princesses. This concept has a lot of potential for deeper exploration; as with so many of the settings I sketch out in very broad strokes, this is one I’d like to revisit if I have the time. I also wrote it six years ago, and I humbly submit my writing’s been getting generally better over time, but I wanted to present it as-is. If it looks like it might see print, I’ll make some editing passes, but for right now, it fits my site’s motto of “Free, and worth it!”

The First Adventure Of The Fourth Streak Derrick

Richard (“Streak”) Derrick (the Fourth) had no idea why he was needed at the coronation of Empress Alazarra Of Dragornos, but it seemed like a good idea to go. Generally, when the potentate-to-be of an entire world sends you an invitation (delivered by a glistening, muscular, mountain of a man garbed in ceremonial armor), you accept.

It was all purely symbolic, of course. Ever since the 1930s, Dragornos had been ruled by an elected Parliament, a governmental system set up during the occupancy which had followed the alien world’s abortive attempt to conquer the Earth. When Overlord Zarg had been killed by Richard’s great-grandfather, political order was maintained when his daughter, Zareena, claimed the throne and then promptly gave supreme power to Streak Derrick the First…who in turn handed it over to the League of Nations and let them take over the business of nation building. It was in all the history books.

But Great-Grandpa Derrick was long dead, and Grampa Derrick got himself killed in the 1950s trying to live up to his father’s reputation, and Pa Derrick was a neurotic, alcoholic mess, and so it fell to the fourth to bear the name to show up and perform whatever empty ceremonial function might be required of him. He assumed he’d get the time off work.

It would be fun, he tried to tell himself. See Dragornos. Look at all the places he’d only seen in old photo albums (most of them in black and white, some of them even taken by his great-grandmother back when she was a news reporter swept up in the biggest story of the last century). Dragornos was supposed to be beautiful – mountains of blue crystal, rivers of liquid flame, cities older than any on Earth, but still alive and inhabited. There was no logical reason to not want to go.

Sighing, trying to put his thoughts in order, he walked to the balcony. From it, he looked down ten feet to the parking lot of the condo complex he called home. He considered, for a moment, the vast wealth of Dragornos. Vaults full of gems. Rare and exotic lifeforms, from wood harder than steel to flowers which made music as the sunlight played on them. Life-size statues of a thousand former Overlords, each one forged of solid gold.

And my great grandfather never thought to grab a piece of the pie for himself. No, the first Streak Derrick had been content to accept a small diplomat’s salary and serve as a symbol of Earth, a hero the Dragornosians could look up to (and a living reminder that he had taken down their former Emperor).  And so, three generations down the line, his sole descendant worked an office job, supplemented with an ever-dwindling trickle of income from interviews and public speaking gigs, dredging up memories from when he was five and passed-down family legends.

No sense being maudlin, he thought. This coronation gig should bring the media roaches out of the floorboards, and be good for enough residuals afterwards that I could probably make a dent in the mortgage on this place. He sighed, then filled out the invitation and signed it. A thought struck him. He went to the small box he kept of the heirlooms not squandered over three generations of waste, and took out a thick, heavy, ring, adorned with a pattern of swords and lightning bolts. He then melted some blue candlewax onto the thick parchment of the invitation and pressed his great-grandfather’s sigil upon it. There. That ought to impress them. The Dragornosians placed a lot of store in pomp.

He was glad the return envelope was prepaid; postage to Dragornos was a bitch.

***

It was a three hour flight to JFK and then a six hour flight by “Aether-cruiser” to Dragornos. Richard was somewhat hesitant about boarding the alien craft. It was a tremendous finned ovoid covered with silver and gold tubes, all leading to massive engines which looked like they could rip free of the ship if they ever fired at full strength. The uniforms worn by the crew were equally non-reassuring; they were both skimpy and militaristic, and seemed to belong to a much earlier era; it was akin to seeing a Roman centurion at the joystick of an F-14.

Tradition, he reminded himself. Dragornos runs off it; the changes made by his great-grandfather only worked because he’d found ancient records of the old Parliament which had existed before the Emperor’s came, and because the Dragornosians had a tradition of conquering heroes imposing their will on the populace. Cunningly working within their cultural paradigms, Streak Derrick the First had created a peaceful, democratic society out of a warlike, imperialist, one in only a few years. There was an old political cartoon Richard had seen once, from 1939, showing an idealized (but only slightly) figure of his grandfather, strangling a zatharg with his right hand and a figure labeled ‘The Old Way’ with his left. Dashing hero and canny politician, all in one package. His great-grandmother had been a person of equal skill and strength, even within the limits allowed to women in the 1930s…that was probably why the marriage ended up not working out.

And there it was – Dragornos City, capital of Dragornos, located on the great River Dragorn. (The Dragornosians were notably short of imagination in their placenames). It was as wondrous as he’d always imagined; mile-high megatowers scraping the sky, a dark cloud of flying, buzzing, vehicles surrounding it, buildings of silver and chrome and gold and crimson creating a blinding glare as the craft approached.

The spaceport was, well, a bit shoddy. Seen from the air, it was amazing, but close up…not so much. The frescoes were worn and chipped. The thick, rich, carpeting was notably thin in spots, faded in others. Handrails were loose. Lastly, the McDonald’s built clumsily over the bones of a traditional Dragornosian café served the worst fries Richard had ever had, and the mountains of gold lame added to the customary uniforms of the waitstaff simply didn’t work well at all.

Richard was greeted at the exit, a wide marble hall, by a typically barely-uniformed guard, who was, in a tradition new to Dragornos, holding up a clumsily lettered signed reading “Streak Derrick 4”. Richard nodded to him feebly; the guard performed a quick and crisp bow, then grabbed Richard’s bags and marched off. Richard struggled to keep up with him as he strode briskly towards the waiting aero-car.

The flight into Dragornos City was smooth and mostly uneventful. Dimly, Richard wondered what Streak Derrick The First would make of the place now, festooned with neon and advertising. A caricature of old Overlord Zarg happily swilling Pepsi glared from one of the highest towers. From terror of the cosmos to advertising icon in a few short decades, joining such former nightmares as Napoleon and Julius Caesar as pallid jokes.

His quarters, located in the south wing of the Imperial Palace, were extraordinary. The slow decay seen at the spaceport had not yet infested the palace, or at least not this part of it. The bathtub alone, Richard thought, was bigger than his whole apartment. The bed could hold an entire orgy (and almost certainly had) with room left over for a buffet bar. The rug was so plush Richard half-feared being lost in it. A selection of drinks and rare delicacies had been made available. Also available were two servants, both female, whose salaries evidently did not allow them to purchase any clothing beyond underwear. Skimpy underwear.

Richard idly wondered if they were waiting around for a tip.

“Uhm….I think I’m good here, thanks.”

The two looked at each other, then at Richard. One spoke. “We are assigned here in order to provide you with whatever you might desire, honored one.”

Richard flushed. There was very little doubt what they meant. There was certainly a great deal of temptation, most of it clearly displayed. What happens in Dragornos City, stays in Dragornos City, came the thought… Richard tried to come up with a good excuse to send them away…but he kept failing, possibly because their breathing was disrupting his thoughts with tremendous efficiency.  What was that old joke about men only having enough blood to…

The door burst open. A woman ran through it, and Richard’s mind (that part of it which was still functioning) instantly forgot the servants. If they were the Northeast Iowa Corn Festival Beauty Contest First- And Second- place winners, the newcomer was Miss America. Tall, thin but not skeletal, with waves of onyx hair flowing down her back, wearing a gown seeming woven out of rubies, she ran through the door, breathless, and flung herself at Richard, almost knocking him directly onto the orgy-sized bed (a prospect he did not fine entirely, or even slightly, unwelcome), and spoke, in a voice of husky desperation. “Streak Derrick! You must save me!”

Richard rolled his eyes, then grabbed the woman by the shoulders. “Right. Who put you up to this? Am I being filmed?” He looked around for the hidden cameras. “This is going on Fox, isn’t it? Or is it that Kutcher jerk?” He spoke to the room at large. “Really funny, guys. I’ll play along. I could use the residuals. You can just edit this part out, okay?” He then released the woman and tried his best to look as he imagined his ancestor must have. “Why, of course I shall save you! For I am…” he paused and struck the best heroic pose he could. “Streak Derrick….the Fourth!” He tried to suppress a chuckle.

Then the gunfire started, and it stopped being funny.

Richard had heard of atomo-blasters, of course. Like most Dragornos technology, they simply didn’t work on Earth….some sort of radiation in the atmosphere or what-not, he couldn’t remember the details. He had never seen one used in live combat.

The first shots went wild, setting fire to the thick rug and the rich bedcovers. Other blasts followed, turning the room into a maze of fire and smoke. Richard saw one of the servant girls turn and try to run for the door. A beam struck her, and her flesh burned and peeled away, leaving behind a blackened wreck which was once a human being. The only thing keeping Richard from vomiting was the utter certainty he’d die if he did.

The woman who ran in grabbed his arm. “Please! You must do something!”

He looked around. Smoke stung at his eyes. The door held whoever was shooting at them, and the very real fires burning clearly out of control dispelled any notion this was staged. No way would anyone expose themselves to this level of liability. So that left…

He shrugged. Somehow, Great-grandpa always survived this kind of thing.

He shifted to grab the woman by the waist, yanked a non-ignited blanket off the bed, and, holding it in front of them, charge the window, hoping he was right and that they weren’t too high up. His hand, partial exposed to the glass, was torn up as they passed through it, but the blanket kept the worst of it away. He let it go as they fell, and looked down, hoping land was not at all far away.

As it turned out, this was a vain hope.

The ocean water hit them like a wet sledgehammer.

Sputtering, his entire body feeling like it had just been sunburned, Richard broke the water. The woman was floating nearby, not apparently moving, but clearly breathing. A beach was just visible. Far above him loomed a cliff, and above that the towers of the palace.

Seeing no obvious alternative, he began to swim for the shore, holding up the woman’s body. To think that all that lifeguard training at Camp Wickamackee might actually be paying off….well, I did it to impress girls, after all…

As they reached the shoreline, the woman coughed and returned to consciousness.

“Are we…what…”

Richard helped her stand. “We’re on the beach below the city…not sure how to get back up. Uhm…do you have a name?”

She looked at him like he’d just slapped her.

“Of course! I am…”

“Alazarra.” He said, flatly. “Of course you are. I’ve seen your picture in the paper a hundred times, I should have recognized you…”

She sniffed. “The flat images of your Earth papers do not capture my essence properly.”

Richard had to agree. Bedraggled, soaked, slightly cut from their passage through the window, her gown-of-rubies torn and matted in all the right places, she still radiated beauty and command.

“So…I suppose here is where I ask who those people were and why they’re trying to kill you?”

Alazarra wrung water out of her hair. “They were agents of the Scarlet Legion.” She gave him a look which indicated that ought to explain it all. Richard gestured for her to continue. Her brow furrowed at this, but she went on. “They are…reactionaries. That is the word in your language, I think. They wish to restore the old ways. The days when the Overlords ruled.”

“So why attack you?”

“I am the ending of the House of Zarg. There cannot be a new Overlord while I live.”

Richard shook his head. “That makes no sense. I’m sorry, but if they kill you….what then? They just prop up their new Overlord, and suddenly 60 years of parliamentary democracy go bye-bye?”

She sneered. “You do not know our kind, Streak Derrick of Earth. To your people, tradition is something old and cobwebbed, a thing to be brought out and shown about on your feast days. To us…tradition is our blood. It is what makes us Dragornosian! This parliament rules only because a loophole was found in the old traditions. Provide an alternative, and my people will rush to it madly.” She paused for a moment to think. “You must stop them.”

Richard blinked. “I…I must stop them?”

She nodded. “You are Streak Derrick.” That seemed to be all the explanation she needed.

“The fourth! I’m an accountant.”

She tilted her head.

“Accountant…uhm…I add up numbers. For a business. I figure out if we’re making enough money and…”

“A…merchant?”

“Not really. I mean, I don’t sell anything, I just keep track of…”

The sneer returned. “A counter of coins.” Then she shook her head. “No, no, this is not possible. You have his blood, and I do see the lines of his face in yours. You are Streak Derrick, you bear his name, his blood flows in your veins, no matter how thin and dilute….you are of the line of the man who slew my great-grandfather, the greatest Overlord of Dragornos. You must be the one to save me…you must!”

“Sorry. Wrong guy. Look. We have got to get up there, talk to, I don’t know, the Earth Consulate or something, get you some more guards. I’m guessing the timing has to do with the coronation?”

“To slay a queen on the eve of her ascension will bring great strength to their claim on the throne.”

“Why are they even bothering? Earth has dealings with the Parliament. If there’s any kind of coup, Earth will throw its weight behind the supporters of the old regime. Their government will be gone in a few weeks at most.”

“They are not stupid men. I do not know what they are planning, but they must have thought of that. Streak Derrick, we cannot go back to the city! It is not safe! I will be slain before I reach your Consulate, I am certain of that.”

“Whatever. Look. I came here for hors d’ouvres, photo ops, and the chance to weasel a guest appearance on the Late Show, maybe. I didn’t come here to play hero, because all it would be for me is playing, and I’m a real crappy actor. Come on, Princess. I’ll get you to someone who can protect you. You don’t need some square-jawed barrel-chested do-gooder, you need some guys wearing black suits and earpieces.

She shook her head. “I will go. But know this – you have slain me, Streak Derrick. You are my death.”

“Melodramatic much?”

She didn’t reply, but simply strode up the low embankment, taking the clearest path to the outskirts of the city.

The Dragornosians weren’t big on suburbs. The planet consisted mostly of large cities, a relic of endless ancient wars. Millennia after cheap contragrvity had made them useless, walls still surrounded every major population center. Surrounding the cities were underpopulated agricultural lands, mostly worked the lower castes, and surrounding that…wilderness. For a planet with an industrial base capable of space flight, Dragornos has a lot of untamed wildlands.

The massive gates of Dragornos city were open, even late at night. Richard had to admire their style, it not their utility. Thirty feet high, wrought of some dark metal, covered in twisting serpent designs, topped with razor sharp spikes which had once been used to display the fate of enemies of the Overlord….they fairly screamed “Abandon All Hope. Ye Who Enter Here”. A brightly lit blimp, advertising Pepsi, drifted lazily high above them.

Street traffic was light – it always was, more so at night. Most people traveled by air, these days. Nonetheless, there were still guards at the gate. Alazarra had worked the remnants of her dress into a makeshift hood. Richard just planned to bluff it through.

One of the guards, seeing the pair approach, grunted and forced himself to his feet. Sighing wearily, he forced out a tired “halt who goes there stop in the name of the prime minister and identify yourself”, with somewhat less enthusiasm and threat than a teenager asking if deep-fried root vegetables were desired as a side item. Nonetheless, he was carrying a quite real atomo-blaster, and Richard didn’t want to give him an excuse to enliven a boring shift with some random mayhem.

“Two visitors, returning from a walk on the beach”, he said.

The guard glanced at them, as if to assertain that they were not ravenous slargs with poison dripping from their terrible fangs, then shrugged and gestured them to pass. As they did so, the guards eyes narrowed and something resembling alertness crept into his face.

“Say….aren’t you…uhm…you look sort of familiar…”

Richard shrugged in a noncommital fashion and kept walking.

“Hold on…hold on! Yes! You are him!” The guard stared wide eyed. “Blood of champions!”

Richard smiled, still saying nothing.

The guard looked around. His partner was oblivious in the other booth, a blue flickering indicating that he was watching some sort of broadcast on the odd, round, screens which dominated here. He looked back at Richard. “Could I…could I get your autograph? I mean, for the kids…they’ll be thrilled…”

Alazarra paced nervously, glancing around, staring intently at every shadow. She looked pleadingly at Richard.

“Uhm…certainly, fine watchman! Uh…do you have something to write with?”

The guard tore a scrap of paper from the book he carried, and passed it to Richard, along with something that looked like a fountain pen as designed by Torquemada. Richard scrawled a hasty autograph, taking a moment to glance at the categories of offense the guard was supposed to chronicle, including but not limited to ‘1) Treason Against Dragornos’, ‘4) Speaking Ill Of The Overlord (Or The Prime Minister)’, and ‘ 15) Smuggling Condemned Prisoners Outside The City’. He had to raise an eyebrow at that last one.

“Get a lot of number 15, do you?”

The guard laughed. “Oh, no, not anymore. Back in the old days, though, there was tons of it. Every wagon and cart had someone hiding in the back, it seemed. These days, all we really watch for is fruit that’s overripe. But we keep all the old crimes on there. Tradition.”

“Tradition”, Richard echoed, resisting the urge to try out his Zero Mostel impression. He waved to the guard and moved on, grabbing Alazarra by the elbow. She snarled at him from behind her makeshift mask. “You should not waste time bantering with the lower classes! Had your ancestor been so detained, he would have slain both of them before they could draw a breath!”

“I’m not him.”

“Please, continue to lecture me on the obvious. I had always dreamed my last hours of life would be spent being told facts of which I am painfully aware.”

Richard shook his head and reminded himself she’d be someone else’s problem soon. He could clearly see the brightly lit spires of the inner city, but soon found the process of getting there to be surprisingly convoluted. The outer rings of the city consisted of small, dark, buildings clustered tightly together, the narrow streets – still cobbled as they were ages ago – forming a twisting labyrinth of shadows and dead ends. A small number of lampposts, each fitted with a small globe which shed a cold, pallid, light, provided insufficient illumination.

There were no signs.

“Uhm….I don’t suppose you know the way to the Earth consulate from here?”

“I have never walked in these streets before. I suspect no ancestor of mine has for a dozen generations.”

“I see they never invented street signs here, either.”

“The streets are designed to trap and confound invaders.”

“Yeah, and the fact your people have been dropping bombs on each other from the air for centuries never once made you rethink your urban planning.”

She just glared at him. “This is the traditional way to design a city. Why change it?” Suddenly, she paused. “Be wary.”

“Of what? We haven’t seen anyone for fifteen minutes!”

“The day before the coronation of an Empress, and there are no revelers here?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s too quiet? Is that what you’re saying? Who writes your dialog? That’s just…” He stopped. The patterns of shadow, of darkness on darkness, suddenly seemed…off.

“On the other hand…” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer. “Let’s head back this…”

There was a soft thud. Someone…several someones…had leapt off the low rooftops. Patterns of shadow pulled themselves from the deeper darkness and began to move around them, forcing Richard to keep turning, trying to keep as many of them in sight as possible. The dim light of the streetlamps glinted occasionally from the blades.

Richard wondered why they didn’t just blast him with those horribly silly looking, horribly deadly, guns the locals used. Knives…knives he could deal with, a bit. One of the problems of being the descendant of a legendary hero is that you draw bullies like rotting meat draws maggots. From gradeschoolers who turned every history class into a combat zone once they realized who their classmate was to barroom thugs looking to impress their date, Richard had been in a lot more fights than he really liked to think about, and had managed to at least put up a good show, if not always emerge with both pride and dental structures fully intact. He slipped into a fighting crouch of his own and bellowed a challenge.

“Come on, if you think you’re tough enough! Stop dancing around! You want some? Come get some!” Often, in bars, his seeming eagerness to take on all comers dissauded some of the more uncertain combatants.

It seemed to have something of that effect here. There was a hurried rush of dialog in Dragornosian, a language Richard knew, to his occasional regret, only a handful of words in, though he heard his surname, heavily accented, mentioned often in the rapid exchange. Some sort of quick consensus was reached, and one man emerged fully from the shadows, each hand holding a twisting blade. The motion of the blades formed a complex, weaving, pattern, casting sparkles of light in all directions. Something coated the blades, making them highly reflective – they caught and concentrated the dim light, turning it into blinding flashes.

Richard leapt forward, seemingly hurling himself on the blades. Then he twisted and dropped as the knives swept a few inches over his head, landed on one hand, spun, and kicked. His assailant fell. Richard tumbled to his feet and then planted a powerful kick to the prone man’s stomach. He coughed blood and tried to roll away, stabbing upwards clumsily as he did so. Richard grabbed the wrist and twisted. The blade fell, and he caught it. It was oddly balanced and hard to hold, but at least it was something pointy. His few seconds of turning it to find the proper grip had given his foe a chance to find his own balance. The dance continued, this time with greater caution on the part of the attacker.

Why don’t they just rush me, Richard thought. There must be five of them, at least. I should be bleeding in the gutter by now.

But the other four stood back, alert but uninvolved. Their only action seemed to be to keep Alazarra from fleeing.

A swift lunge and a near miss brought his focus back to the man he was fighting, not the four men he wasn’t. His opponent was dressed in dark clothing, loose fitting, with many scalloped and embattled edges, ties, and adornments. Deprived of the Dragornosian love of jewelery as adornment by the need for stealth, he made up for it by having an outfit cut in some many complex ways that it somewhat looked like it had been hit by a lawnmower…and that gave Richard an idea.

He feinted, seeming to leave himself open. The attacker fell for it and stabbed forward, hoping to bury his blade in Richard’s guts. Richard sidestepped, twisted, and grabbed huge handfuls of loose cloth with his free hand, yanking the man backwards. With his other hand, he stabbed clumsily at his enemy’s ribs. The blade skidded off bone, the guard of the hilt jamming painfully into Richard’s hand. As the man struggled to free himself, Richard slashed again, aiming lower, and felt the blade slide into tight stomach muscles and then come free with a horrible wet noise. The wounded man, still alive, wrenched himself free and hacked clumsily back, his blade cutting into Richard’s shoulder. The pain caused him to drop the knife. Before he could retrieve it, the wounded man had retreated and a second, fresh, attacker stepped into place. He shouted something at Richard.

“What the hell is he saying?”

Alazarra tossed her head haughtily. “He says you have shown yourself a worthy enemy. He says he will accept an honorable surrender. Shall I tell him that one of the line of Streak Derrick will never surrender, that you will walk away from this place with the blood of five men staining your boots and never look back?”

“Hell no! Tell them I give up!”

He tossed the knife down and raise his hand. “Me…surrender. Se habla surrender? Surrender por favor? You likee much surrender, yes?”

Alazarra spat out something. Richard figured it contained a lot of insults.

Two men closed on him. A hood was placed over his head, and his hands were tied roughly. He was then prodded to walk along a path. A female voice muttering dark imprecations in a foreign tongue told him Alazarra was next to him.

“So, uhm…hey. Why didn’t they just surround and swarm me?”

“You know nothing of our people, Streak Derrick of Earth.”

“What was that about last words and stating the obvious?”

“Hmf. If they attacked at once, in all of the chaos and confusion, it would not be clear who struck which blow, to whom the honor of wounding and death would belong. It is tradition in such cases to attack in sequence, withdrawing when one can no longer press the fight properly and allowing a new combatant a chance. Each warrior’s blows are thus made clear and their role in the defeat of an enemy is known.”

“You people have some strange traditions.”

“So do you men of Earth, it seems. I like the one where you toss your blade down the instant you suffer the meanest of scratches. Do all your warriors follow this practice, or are you a member of some secret sect?”

“Oh, please. We were outnumbered. Besides, you weren’t being very helpful there.”

“What do you mean?”

“You could have done something. Claw at their eyes. Grab some convenient piece of pottery and dash it over someone’s head. Something!”

There was silence. Richard could see nothing through the heavy hood, but he was sure she was frowning and blinking. Then there was a reply.

“You…expected me…to do battle? Like some sort of palace guard?”

“Well…yes….”

“I am in the company of a man who shares the blood of the greatest fighter Dragornos, World Of Warlords, has ever known, and he expected me to sully my hands with blood?”

“It was a passing thought, yes! You know, you aren’t very….uhm….” He paused, suddenly confronted with the ludicrousness of what he was about to say.

“What? We are to die soon, speak your mind, or perhaps you lack even the courage to do that! What virtue do you find me deficient in?”

Well, there’s a leading question, thought Richard, but he continued with his original thought. “You’re not, well….spunky.”

More silence indicating confused blinking.

“I do not know that word.”

“Well, it’s just…uhm…I always figured princesses were daring rebels who yearned for a chance to break free of their sterile lives and secretly studied swordsmanship despite their parent’s wishes, or something.”

There was a cold, bitter, laugh.

“You are truly mad. I loved my life, and I mourn its end. I had every luxury I could imagine, and no real duties other than appearing to my people as a symbol of the legacy of Dragornos. I was worshiped, adored, and fawned over thanks to a lucky accident of birth, and I gave thanks to the nineteen virtuous gods every day for it. Now, due to my foolish trust in ancient legends and the bumblings of a coin counter wearing the face of a hero, it is to end in ignominy and pain.”

“We’re not dead yet. Uhm…which is kind of odd. Why aren’t we dead yet? I’m guessing it has something to do with tradition…”

“They will want to kill us in some spectacular and public fashion in order to improve their claim on the throne. We are both symbols of the existing order, symbols which must be cast down before a new order is accepted. Every change in dynasties in our history comes in a sea of blood.”

“Except the one my great-grandfather imposed.”

“Yes. Your ancestor was a great hero.” The insult was clear.

Suddenly, they were both stopped. Richard could sense an increase in the ambient light even through the thick hood; it seemed they had been brought inside some brightly lit building. When the hoods were removed, the light was nearly blinding, but his eyes quickly adjusted.

He sighed.

“Talk about a roundabout way to get where I came here to be in the first place…”

The place was an immense arena, dwarfing any such structure on Earth, and probably older than any of them, as well. While humans were still hitting each other with sticks in caves, Dragornosians were hitting each other with ornate, adornment-encrusted sticks in this very arena. Many scholars considered it to be the oldest structure on Dragornos, a not inconsiderable achievement. Currently, the walls around the primary fighting grounds (there were over a dozen, all told, in the complex), long since strained dark with the blood of uncounted thousands who had given their lives in this place, were placarded with uncounted billboards, hawking everything from McDonald’s new McDragornos to, ironically enough, inexpensive life insurance. Richard noted that Snoopy had been given the facial jewels of a Dragornosian battle wolf.

There were arrays of Earth-style TV cameras and Dragornosian tri-imagers, a podium garlanded with the flag of the current Imperial House, and recently added skyboxes in which Earth delegates and Dragornosian elite who had adopted their customs to watch the festivities.

Richard had a sudden inkling the program was undergoing some last minute revisions. What was it she had said? “Killed in a spectacular and public fashion”. Couldn’t get more public than a live broadcast going out to two worlds. As for spectacular…well, it was hard to die mundanely in a place like this.

He looked around at the people surrounding him. Many wore the ornate black cloth of the hunters who had captured him. Others were garbed in armor which seemed to reveal more skin than it protected. One, though, was done up in robes both complex and colorful. He wore a surprisingly simple gold circlet on his head, and around his neck was an odd piece of jewelery. It looked like three serpents, one of sapphire, one of diamond, and one of emerald, entwined around a spherical crimson gem.

Alazarra gasped.

“Nogra’s eye!” Then she paused. “No. A forgery. A cunning trick.”

The robed, crowned, evidently Nogra’s-eye wearing man spoke. His command of English was perfect, and his voice was calm and unctious. “No. I am afraid that this is most genuine. So here we are in this place, I with this, and you with…that.” He gestured at Richard. “He doesn’t seem to have lived up to his ancestor’s inflated reputation.”

“Hey!” Richard, still bound, struggled to his feet. “Watch what you’re saying!”

“Or you’ll what? Surrender to me?”

Richard paused for a moment, righteous indignation momentarily stymied by mockery.

Alazarra, for all the rest of her flaws, knew how to bluff, however. “It is you are foolish! Streak Derrick of Earth has shown cunning and daring, tricking you into leading him alive and unharmed straight to your lair! If you cast yourself over the edge and plunge to your death in the pit, you will spare yourself the ignominy of defeat!”

The robed man stroked his chin, as if hoping a stylish goatee would appear there. “Let me consider that…no.”

He barked something at the guards, who nodded, then he walked away.

“So….what’s the big deal with the necklace?”

“It is the scarlet emerald of Nogra. It is unique in all of Dragornos.”

“Red emeralds tend to be. So it’s pretty. So what?”

“It has tremendous meaning to…”

“Another tradition. Of course. Really a little more concerned with getting out of here now…” He pulled at the ropes a bit. They were tied distressingly well. He glanced over at the guards. Even if he was free, he doubted he could take all of them…or even one of them. They were more or less slabs of muscle, and they carried both curved, double-bladed axes and sleek energy weapons. There were four of them.

Overpowering the guards is out, even if my hands were free. So can I run?

They were on, he saw, some sort of large, raised, and fenceless platform, stretching out over the main arena floor. Probably where the nobles could talk and eat while the battle played out beneath them. There were many opportunities for a daring charge to knock one of the guards screaming into the gaping void, but none of them seemed to have any way which would allow him to not follow the luckless guard, or, even if he could somehow pull back, not have the three remaining guards eviscerate him in a dozen exciting ways.

Hmm…what would great-grampa do? He was forever in situations like this…in fact, there was one time when…

He scooted closer to Alazarra. “I have a plan.”

“Oh? Whom will you surrender to this time?”

“Augh! Look, my great-grandfather was in a mess like this once. Jenny Branson…my great-grandma to be…was with him. She, uhm, distracted the guard and grabbed his gun…” Richard desperately tried to avoid the image of his great-grandmother, who he knew mostly as a faded memory and a barrage of photographs which hit the papers at the time of her death, when he was seven, acting the part of the lusty wench. It was a lot easier to imagine Alazarra doing it.

Sadly, though, not for Alazarra. “You expect me to lower myself to seducing a commoner?”

“You’d rather die?”

“Yes.” Her tone made it clear this was a trivial decision.

“You don’t have to actually do anything! Just wiggle your hips, coo at him, then when he takes you away for a little pre-regicide nookie, you kick him in the jewels, grab his gun, free me, and then we….uh…we…hmm.”

She smirked. “What did your ancestor do?”

“He took the gun and made short work of the three remaining guards, put on a uniform, and snuck great-grandma out by pretending he was transferring a prisoner.”

“Do you expect to make…ah….’short work’ of the guards, even if I agreed to your proposal?”

“No.”

“Then I see no reason to sully myself with them.”

“Dammit, you’re not helping! Can’t you pull some lame-ass tradition out of your hat?”

She gave him an odd look, then began to speak. He interrupted. “I know you’re not wearing a hat! It’s an Earth expression! I mean, can’t you find some weird loophole in Dragornosian custom we can use?”

Her expression shifted from “querulously annoyed” to “momentarily thoughtful”. She pursed her lips a few times, tasting an idea, then worked through the stages of it, each step in the process visible on her face.

“You are blood of Streak Derrick…and he was, for a time, an Overlord of Dragornos…so you can claim the right to challenge any other claimant for the throne…at the moment of ascension….”

“What does that mean?”

“The man who bears the Eye clearly wishes to claim the throne. You have, however strange as it may sound, a blood claim on it as well. You may confront him and he must accede.”

“So I have to kill him?”

“Ideally.”

“Well, one is better than four, so I guess….”

There was a sudden stream of Dragornosian. The guards turned and stared, then one said something in reply. Another babble of words. Then the one who spoke nodded and walked off, presumably to fetch his employer. One of the other three drew a thin, jeweled dagger from his belt and walked over to Richard, then knelt and slit the ropes tying him. Richard stood and tried to rub some blood into his numb wrists.

He glanced over at Alazarra. “What about her?” If they were both free…well, she wouldn’t actually fight because she might break a nail, but since this whole mess started because she trusted him, he felt a slight nagging sense of obligation for her safety.

She replied:”Do you wish to claim me as your consort? Only then will I be allowed to witness the battle.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

More Dragornosian was exchanged, and Alazarra was freed.

“So…uh…now what?”

“Now we wait for your rival claimant to announce himself. We also need witnesses…I suppose the guards will do, there are enough of them.”

“Isn’t it a bit unfair that they’re on his side?”

She looked startled. “This is a sacred tradition. Not even the lowest of the lowborn would defile it.”

“Oh, good. My mind is placed completely at ease.”

The would-be overlord entered. Richard had a chance to study him in more detail now that he wasn’t half-blinded. Early 30s. It wasn’t easy to tell under the ornate robes, but he seemed strongly built and agile. The question is, does he have any fighting skill, or is he just some spoiled brat noble getting too big for himself?

The skillful swing which caught Richard under the chin answered that question. As Richard staggered back, his enemy shrugged away the robes which covered him, revealing a lean, taut, body that showed every sign of being shaped by hours at the Blood Nautilus Of Pain or whatever kind of exercise machines they had on this world. His body flowed from one fighting position to the next, following the proscribe styles of some fighting art Richard probably couldn’t even pronounce. Richard did his best to keep his guard up and ward off some exploratory blows as he whispered to Alazarra.

“So, I have to kill him, or what?”

“The battle is to death or cowardly surrender.”

“Huh.” Richard ducked low as a swing passed narrowly over his head, then tumbled back, barely dodging the follow-up kick. “No option for noble surrender, huh?”

Alazarra glared at him contemptuously and said nothing.

“Didn’t think so.” Richard saw what looked like an opening, took it, and found it occupied by a pummelling fist. He took a few stumbling steps backwards, tasting blood. His opponent smiled.

“Typical of Earthmen. All flash and hyperbole, no substance at all.”

Richard parried a punch. “So, this is some sort of Terraphobia, then, not political?”

“Something of both.” A feint turned, somehow, into the real thing and Richard’s head reeled from the impact.

Richard coughed. “So…what did Earthmen ever do to you?” He looked a way to turn around and get behind his enemy, and found none.

“Look!” His opponent gestured broadly, giving Richard a rare opening which he was too tired and slow to exploit properly. “Look at this place, this great arena, one of the most ancient and sacrosanct places on our world…bedecked now with the sigils and signs of your Earth corporations! Our children feast on the flesh of dead Terran cows and our noble princesses are obsessed with the cacophonous noise which your primitive culture regards as music!” His anger began to show, and his blows became slightly less precise. Richard took as much advantage of this as he could, finally landing one solid hit to the man’s guts…unfortunately, said guts were an expanse of tight and toned muscle, and Richard got no more reward for his troubles than a mild grunt and a potent rebuff.

“You’re going to kill me because you don’t like Britney Spears. Terrific. My death is going to be as much of a sick joke as my life.”

“I am restoring our world to greatness!” He kicked. Richard stepped back, fell, turned the fall into a roll, stood up and tried to regain his balance.

“Yeah, right! More ‘traditions’? Like this whole usurpation of power thing?” He tried a double-handed overhead strike; it was deflected with ease. The follow-up foot to the chest knocked him back a good five feet.

 

“Yes! For the first time in decades, a new Overlord will take command properly!” He leapt at Richard, who had the good sense not to be there.

“Properly? You mean, with massive bloodshed and purges and genocide? What was that phrase, Alazarra? Every change in dynasties comes in a sea of blood?” Richard attempted to find another opening, but was starting to have trouble even keeping his enemy in his sight. His foe was leaping around him, landing one small blow after another from every direction.

“That is our tradition! It is our way! We are the conquerors of worlds! It is not our destiny to become a mass of indolent consumers of your planet’s offal!” The next attack hooked Richard’s leg. He went sprawling to the ground.

“You know, crappy as the Big Macs here are…they’re better than genocide masquerading as politics. Isn’t almost seventy years of peace a good thing?” His foe moved to plant a heavy boot directly on Richard’s head. Richard grabbed it, twisted, and brought the enemy down to the ground beside him. He then rolled to try to smash in his downed foe’s face. “Besides….you’ve still got the entire Earth military that will object to this coup. How long do you think you’ll last?” Richard found his fist grabbed before it could complete its arc, grabbed and twisted and painfully. He tried to limit himself to a grunt, but it turned into a distressingly high-pitched scream.

The man breaking his wrist smiled broadly, apparently at more than just the pain he was inflicting. “You do not even know what the Emerald of Nogra is then, do you? Very well…since I do not wish your spirit to be bound to this plane by unanswered mysteries, I might as well cure your ignorance.”

So that’s why they always did that, thought Richard, as he struggled to yank his wrist free.

“Our world, ancient beyond your comprehension, has known many eras. In one such, vast systems of weapons were constructed in countless hidden locations, linked to the mind of the then-overlord by cunning devices embedded in his sigil of office.”

Richard finally tore his arm free. The parts of it that weren’t numb where in agony.

“OK, I can fill in the rest. Whoever holds the amulet controls the weapons, yadda yadda, you blackmail Earth, they let you rule in peace.”

The would-be emperor frowned. “Somewhat more…succinct…then I would have put it, but that is the essence of the scheme.”

“Cool. So I just need to kill you and everything is back to normal.”

The man laughed. “Your overconfidence will be your downfall.”

Richard began, “Yeah, well your…” he paused for a moment, trying to find some word other than ‘overconfidence’, decided ‘hubris’ was too artsy, and was caught by a vicious double-handed blow, which was followed up by a second, and then a third. The world turned red, then grey, then black.

****

Sounds came first. Sounds of confusion, of many people milling about, underlaid with a sort of distant electronic hum. Then, painfully, light. Bright light. Far more light than any man should experience after a long night of heavy drinking.

Except…except…there wasn’t drinking. There was a fight. A fight without any drinking? Richard tried to put these disparate facts together, and found it gave him a headache. No…more of a headache. Also, a backache, a chest ache, and one hell of a wrist ache.

Wrist ache?

Oh…right. Emperor. Stone. Princess. Me.

Still alive?

He tried to make sense of his position. He was still curled on the floor of the platform. He became aware of his body as a whole, not a series of points of pain, and deeply and instantly regretted it.

Bit of the surrounding noise began to make sense. There was a constnat murmur in what sounded like confused English, and a loud conversation in Dragornosian. Richard forced his eyes open.

The man who would be Emperor was standing at the edge of a platform, holding the Eye of Nogra, and shouting downwards. While Richard couldn’t see them, he knew the lower part of the arena was filled with crowds of reporters and news crews, mostly those from the lifestyles and “fluff” programs – nothing which happened on Dragornos was news. He wasn’t sure what was being said, but he suspected it was something like “And now, I slay your beloved hero in front of you to crack your resolve!” Heh. Like anyone would care, back on Earth, if Streak Derrick The Fourth lived or died.

Trying to move as little as possible, he saw Alazarra. The was being held by two guards, and not in a friendly way. Dimly, Richard recalled that her death was also needed for the new order to take command.

I’m sure that thought would have motivated my ancestor to leap into action, but it’s really my own death that’s bothering me now.

Richard had an idea. A stupid, moronic, self-destructive, idea. An idea so astoundingly dim that only a man certain of death would ever have conceived of it, much less attempted it.

He leapt upwards and charged at the Emperor, grabbing for the amulet as he did so.

The guards barely had a chance to grunt in surprise before Richard and the Overlord went tumbling over the edge. Richard grabbed at the side of the platform with his good arm while clinging to the amulet, barely, with the other. The Overlord snatched at the rock, missed it, and went plunging down a good 60 feet, landing on a Fox News camera with a horrible wet explosion that was sent out live to a dozen stations around the world and would end up being the single most downloaded file on the Internet for years to come.

Richard, meanwhile, was hanging by one hand over the gap. He called out in English:”I’m the goddamn Emperor, you morons! You’re sworn to obey me! Haul me up!”

Alazarra said something in Dragornosian. Suddenly, two meaty hand grabbed him and placed him safely on the platform.

Richard had been holding the amulet by the chain. Idly, he touched it.

His mind was elsewhere. He felt himself flowing into control systems and networks. He could feel arrays of missile launchers, of atomo-beams capable of rending worlds (or at least scarring continents), of clockwork armies silently awaiting his mental command. He struggled to force his mind back to his still-precarious situation. He let the amulet slide from his hand, then carefully placed it around his neck, making sure it did not touch his skin.

He smirked at Alazarra. “The battle ends at death or surrender, right? I never did either…so the fight was still on. The challenge never ended…and now the usurper is dead.”

Alazarra looked at him with something other than contempt for the first time since the attack back in the palace. “That is… correct.” She inclined her head. “You are now the Overlord of Dragornos. All you need to do is abdicate in favor of the Parliament, as your ancestor did, and allow the ceremony to go forward as planned.”

Richard smiled. “Not…quite.”

Alazarra looked up. “I do not understand.”

“You made a good point, earlier. This nobility stuff is great so long as you don’t have to actually do any ruling. Just settle back and learn to wave at the peasants for a living. And if I recall correctly, as part of this whole challenge thing, you declared yourself my consort.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it again. My God, thought Richard. I actually managed to shock her.

Nearly two decades of training as a Princess took over quickly, though. Her face shifted to a smile both conniving and warm. “That is correct.” She looked him over. “You are not entirely ill formed. I would have had to have chosen anyway, and it would not be bad to strengthen the line with the blood of heroes.” She moved closer and then oozed into him, locking arms, and causing him to wince slightly. She gestured to the assembled, and confused, media gathered below the platform, some of whom were still desperately trying to clean blood and internal organs off of their equipment.

“I believe the time has come for what you of Earth call a ‘press conference’.”

Author’s Notes

As is somewhat blatantly lampshaded, Alazarra is fairly unusual among my female characters in that she wholeheartedly embodies somewhat outdated stereotypes (as opposed to my other female characters, who wholeheartedly embrace slightly newer stereotypes… as do my male characters, and my neuter, hermaphroditic, or none of the above characters. Look, people, you want ‘original’ and ‘creative’, find another writer). She was conceived as very much a “Take That!” to the Disney cliche of the Princess who just can’t STAND being rich, powerful, adored, and waited on hand and foot. From a starting point of “It’s damn good to be a space princess!”, she has a grand story arc that leads to  her learning the important life lesson of, “Yup, damn good indeed.” Sometimes, the best way to subvert a new cliche to apply some electrodes and resurrect an old one.

The As-Required-By-Law Kickstarter Post-Mortem

Kickstarter Post-Mortem (Updated 2-25-2014)

As Seemingly Required By Law


So, my first Kickstarter is done. I beat the odds in several ways… it was funded. The product was produced, if not 100% on time, at least mostly under budget. (That is, I paid for all expenses out of the money raised…. with the exception of paying myself for the time involved. At the end, after expenses, I “earned” approximately $0.75/hour, or 1/10th minimum wage.)

So what have we learned?

Writing The Book Was The Easy Part

You’d think actually producing the core product would be the biggest hurdle, and after that, it would all be gravy. Well, that’s not the case. I found this experience an object lesson as to why any argument to the effect of “Dude, publishers and producers and agents are all just parasites feeding off the creative soul! Eliminate the middleman! Fight the power!” is total bull bagels. You know why middlemen exist? Because the skills and knowledge involved in turning a word processor document into an actual book are not instinctive, and time spent on that process is time spent not doing anything creative. I’d estimate it took almost as much time to handle the post-writing work as it did to write the book. Fortunately, a large chunk of that time was learning curve — it will go more smoothly next time. Yes, I’m stupid enough to think there will be a next time.

Figure Out The Art Early

One of the major delays was getting the art done. Some of this was due to Life Happening on the part of the artist, which is unavoidable and in no way his fault — my own current situation is ample proof that the universe is going to kick you in the balls and then shove you off a cliff at the worst possible time. Another part of it was due to me not knowing what scenes I wanted illustrated… or even what scenes would be in the book… until I was done writing it. Ordering art earlier in the creative process runs the risk of being locked into story elements you might later decide to change, but ordering it later means everything is delayed.

Size (And Shape) Matter

Another exciting discovery was that the costs of a book increase dramatically with page count, and that page size reduces page count — and thus cost. The reason so many self-published or small-press books are 6 x 9 is because that’s an optimal point between increasing cost-per-page due to larger pages, and increasing page count due to smaller pages. However, if your art was commissioned at a different height/width ratio… it won’t fit properly. And if you’re running really late getting the book out, you have to bite the bullet and deal with things that aren’t perfectly sized, cropping or scaling and hoping for the best.

Details Matter

Margins matter. Font size matters. Headers/footers, page numbers, and making sure things look good when viewed in a double-page spread as a print book, not just as a scrolling PDF, matter. Some fonts don’t embed properly. These are all things I didn’t know, and had to learn, and each one added to the delays in getting the books out. (And I shall be honest — the final print copy was “acceptable”, not “perfect”. The kerning is a bit off. The inner margin is too narrow. It’s well within the bounds of “readable”, but it could be better, and now I know.)

"Now I know! And knowing is half the battle!"

“Now I know! And knowing is half the battle!”

Software

I figured the only program I needed to know how to use was Word. Bwaahahah! One of the things I learned was that I needed to learn image-editing and image-conversion software… which I didn’t own and didn’t have time to learn. Fortunately, I did have skilled friends who took pity on me. They probably won’t take pity on me a second time, so I  either budget money to pay people for their hard-earned skills and talents, or I budget time and money to learn this stuff myself.

Graphic Design

Seriously, I'm Not

Seriously, I’m Not

I have  very little graphic design sense. Contrary to grade school philosophy, people can and do judge books by their covers. Even with good art, the total design — font choices, placement of title and author, background — had to be good enough to say “This book is professionally written.” Is it logical to judge the quality of the words by the layout of the cover? Somewhat. Just as poor grammar/spelling in a post sends the message “I don’t care enough about my point to write it properly; why should you care enough about it to consider my message?”, sloppy design and layout says, “I don’t care about how the book looks; why should you trust me to care about the plot, characterization, and editing?” So, while I had some placeholder choices for the “late beta” PDF I released when I realized there would be a long delay for the final copy, I knew it wasn’t good enough. Further, the fact the scaling had changed meant understanding appropriate design “tricks” to make the art look good despite having the wrong height/width ratio. Fortunately, as noted, I had friends come to my assistance.

Let It Flow, Let It Flow, Let It Flow…. (Added 2-25-2014)

Something else discovered fairly late in the process. When I was finally getting around to adding in the credits for the backers, I wanted them to look good (and also not increase the page count too much). I knew enough Word stuff to set up alternating sections with different column counts, so I could have a header listing each backer tier, and then a two column list below that, and then the next division, and so on. It did look pretty decent, all in all. Until I converted it to epub. Then it sucked. Why? Because epub and mobi (and probably all other e-reader formats) are designed to flow text across all sorts of screens. They throw away all but the most basic formatting information to allow for maximum flexibility. So, I ended up having two different files (which I have to manually maintain in parallel — if I fix a typo in one, I must go change the other, then re-export both), in order to have one version that looks good in print and one that looks good in silicon. (I understand that “real” layout tools handle this automatically, and by “automatically”, I mean “someone who knows what they’re doing can set them up to do it”.)

General Conclusion: There Is No Magic Book Fairy

Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that all I needed to do was write the book, edit it, and then email a PDF to magicbookfairy@selfpublishing.com, and that would be that. As I learned, not so much. Overall, dealing with art, layout, formatting, and file conversion issues took about 30-40 hours of time. I can probably whack that down to 10-15 now that I know a lot more about what’s required, and that’s going to get factored in to the next budget plan.

Rogue Planet: Now In Print

So, I’m just gonna leave this right here…

(Kickstarter backers waiting on the dead tree edition… they’re all in envelopes, all addressed, going to the Post Office tomorrow or Thursday unless something weird happens.)

Very Short Tales Of Non-Adventure, Part 1

For  a while, I’ve had in the back of my head assorted tales of things not going according to trope, mostly for the fun of it. Here’s the first, hastily scribbled (if a keyboard counts as scribbling) in an ICU waiting room a few days ago. At some point in the future, I might edit/polish it up a bit, or a lot, but for now, it meets the standard of quality I’ve always aspired to for this site: Free, and worth every penny.

================================

The tavern was old, dating back at least to the Second War Of The Four Lords, though some claim it was built on the spot where an even older building had burned down. Dark smoke curled like grapevines around the rafters, filtering the red, flickering, light from a dozen torches set around the walls. A crimson glow emanated from the kitchen, as did the smell of roasting meat and the sounds of the innkeeper barking orders at his apprentices.

The four of them sat in silence, the silence that comes from old comrades who know each other so well that communication doesn’t require words. Drerigari, the oldest, was eye-level with her oversized and overflowing stein, the benches here not being built with dwarven anatomy in mind. Gallian, sometimes called Blueknife or Bleeding Wind, seemed to slip in and out of the shadows, occasionally startling a server when one stopped by. Cerridian of Dry Lake was her opposite; loud, boisterous, and seemingly incapable of keeping still. Last was Sir Jerrem Mornfeld. Technically, he no longer merited the “Sir”; his oaths of service long-since voided by a matter of honor, but few would dare tell the huge man that, even if he was momentarily not wearing his almost legendary suit of giant-forged armor. He was, after all, still carrying a greatsword made of red crystal, one which muttered in dead languages and reeked of old blood.

Most of the tavern’s other patrons were wise enough to stay well away from them; even if the four lacked any malicious intent and wanted nothing but a quiet drink, everyone knew their kind, and those who drew near to such types would find themselves sucked in to their activities, intentionally or not. It was simply how things worked, as sure as the turning of the seasons. One old man, though, perhaps so old he no longer cared about his fate, pulled a chair over to their table and sat down, facing them.

The four exchanged glances. By unspoken decision, it was Sir Jerrem who spoke for the group this time.

“May we… help you?” he asked, his voice measured and eerily calm.

“No, no, no, no, yes… I can help you!” said the newcomer. “Heard you was going along the Old North Road, towards Crownbreaker Ford.”

Sir Jerrem nodded, gesturing for the man to continue. Though none but her allies saw it happen, one of Gallian’s unguessably large collection of knives made its way to the palm of her hand.

“Well, just thought I’d warn you, then, ‘bout the bandits!”

“Bandits.” Jerrem’s voice was now flat.

“Oh, aye. Small army of them. Hardly anyone can travel up the Old North Road. The weak they just plain rob bare, the strong pay a ‘toll’ to avoid too much trouble. Terrible thing.”

Drerigari snorted. “Have you no guards in this town? No patrols? No warriors?”

“Aye, of course we do! But the bandits don’t come out when they spy a great force of armed men tromping about, and we can’t root them out of their hidey-hole. No one knows where ‘tis, for one!”

Cerridian tossed a coin in the air, where it seemed to vanish, then casually plucked it from behind the old man’s ear. “So, a noseless hound could follow this trail. You know where they are, and you’ll tell us… for a small fee.”

“No, no, no, yes, a small one. Very small.”

Negotiations then commenced. When they were done, the old man left happily, and the four took out an old parchment map.

“Those bandits are ill news for this poor town”, whispered Gallian.

“True. Most trade has to go up and down that road. The bandits are causing these folk much misery.” Jerrem finished off  his drink.

“Well, there’s the place the old man described.” Cerridian’s finger circled a small squiggle on the map. “An old mill. Probably part of the remains of a great castle, filled with twisty underground passages.”

Drerigari snorted with laughter. “I know something of that! I’ll bet there’s warrens all through these woods. Using them, those bandits can pop up anywhere, anywhere at all. Clever rodents. Hm. I wonder what else might be lost deep down among those ancient halls?”

Gallian studied the map some more. “Can you guess the likely bounds of these tunnels?”

Drerigari’s finger traced a complex line around the map. Sir Jerrem followed after with a pen, making quick marks. They all looked at the completed project.

“I think I see what we have to do”, said Jerram. “I don’t like it, but we all know it’s the only way.”

Cerridian flipped a slim blade into the air, caught it, and stuck it back into his boot. “Yes. We’ll end up being a day late for our meeting, but if we go here,” he tapped the map, “and then here, we’ll completely skirt the bandits’ territory. We got our coin’s worth from the old man.”

Sir Jerrem began to fold the map. “We certainly did. One pointless distraction avoided, at any rate.”

The group departed the inn, completely avoided the highwaymen, and made it to their meeting in the capital without any incident, though they were mildly rebuked for their lateness.

The end.

=====

Rereading this, it occurs to me this band might someday run into Haldebard.

A Minor Diversion Into Artsy English Major Stuff

I’m doing another editing pass on Rogue Planet, in preparation for the final push to print. One of the interesting things about writing is when you set aside a document for a while, and then return to it, you can see things differently. Your brain is no longer filling in gaps automatically, and you have a distance from the text that enables you to approach it more objectively, as a reader more than as a writer.

I have read articles from writers that describe how they agonize over symbols and tropes and themes, how they decide that they’re going to use the Burger King Star Wars glasses their protagonist got as a 12 year old as a recurring symbol regarding hope and loss and memory and blah blah blah (I wish I still had mine, they’re apparently worth a bloody fortune now). Me, I don’t do that. I may agonize over extremely trivial details absolutely no one is going to care about, often just to add flavor text to a throwaway bit of dialogue somewhere. (For example, I just now looked up if it was “dialogue” or “dialog”, and the answer I got was “Meh, no one knows.”) I have often said I am not so much a world builder as a world explorer, and when it comes to writing, I am less author and more chronicler. The characters do what they do, and I write it down. When I find writing is difficult, when the words dribble out in the way molasses didn’t in Boston, 1919, it’s because I’m trying too hard to write a story as opposed to report a story.

Any symbolism, patterns, or themes that might appear in my work, therefore, are a total surprise to me, and yet, they’re there. Some literary type reading my work in the future (yeah, right) might see purpose or planning, but my writing, like the universe itself, is a thing in which someone may perceive patterns, not a thing in which patterns were placed. Any apparent order or purpose, in either reality or in my books, is entirely illusory.

Warning: Some extremely minor spoilers for Rogue Planet and the bonus prequel story follow.

In the first chapter of Rogue Planet, I have tossed in a minor bit of characterization regarding a character’s disbelief of living testimony vs. a handful of paperwork. The Official Word As Printed On The Official Form ought to trump any corrections from the actual subject of the document. (One sees this also in Wikipedia editing, where the actual subject of an article is not considered an authoritative source.) Much later in the book, a chunk of plot turns on this same concept, on a larger scale, where automated systems follow their orders to the letter, any contradictory facts be damned! This can be considered “intentional” in that I consider bureaucracy to be both hilarious and tragic, depending on how much hold it has over someone’s life, but I never consciously thought, “I’m going to echo this theme from the beginning to the end of the book.” It’s a trope I am drawn to, so it’s going to show up unless I go out of my way to avoid it. (Trying to write without tropes is a moronic thing to do, but you always get people who think you can tell a story, or create a character, without using any number of established tropes; this is like trying to build a house without using any tools or construction materials.)

Likewise, the cultures of Rogue Planet, descended from “social deviants” (as the characters in the prequel story (currently titled “Approval Not Required”) refer to them) tend to be very focused on deals, bargains, honor, and suchlike. Debt, obligation, and duty are all regularly referenced. A larger part of this is due to genre tropes: Vows, oaths, loyalty, and bonds of honor and friendship are all major aspects of this type of story. Backstabbing weasels are the villains. Today, when I was thinking about “Approval Not Required”, it occurred to me that all the main characters are engaged in plots, counter-plots, manipulations, etc. Without ever consciously intending to do so, I’d created an interesting thematic contrast: The criminal descendants are more concerned with honor and duty than the governing authority that sent their ancestors there in the first place. If I’d sat down and decided “Oh, I’m going to make a Big Statement here”, I think it would have been ham-handed and dull. I didn’t realize that there was a Statement until I looked over the two stories from a bit of a distance. In both cases, the characters, and their actions and values, grew out of the general tone of the story. At the time I was writing Rogue Planet, I had no plans to write the prequel story; as I wrote the prequel story, I was most interested in adding details and background to established facts. I never thought much about “theme” or “concept” or “meaning”.

So my point? Not sure, really. “Don’t believe everything your English teacher tells you” would be one, I suppose. “One of the best parts of creating is being surprised by your own creation” would be another. If I had any shred of religious sentiment, I would argue that this is why a deity would create a universe: To be surprised. As a GM, pretty much the same thing as being a god, only without any hint of respect or admiration, that is definitely one of my motivations: To create a world and then see what players do to it. Being an author is like that, but without the players. You’d think it would make as difference in the degree of surprise, but surprisingly (heh), it doesn’t. The imaginary people that live in my head are nearly as confusing as the presumably non-imaginary people that live outside my head.

Kickstarter Announcement! Rogue Planet: Adventures On The Star Prison! With Exclamation Points! Lots Of Them!

Terrifying… I Mean, Good News, Everyone!

Following a lifetime habit of jumping on the bandwagon after the dead horse has left the open barn, I have decided to try to Kickstart a new novel. As both of my fans know, I have a deep and abiding love for pulp science-fiction, especially the genre known as “Sword & Planet” or “Planetary Romance”. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter, Alan Burt Akers, and Leigh Brackett, are some of the better known names in this area. Alien worlds, swordfights, rayguns, airships, strange allies, stranger foes… it’s an amazingly fertile genre for gaming. There’s been a lot of games and settings out lately that draw inspiration from this kind of space opera, but not a whole lot of new material in the genre — and I have decided to do something about that.

I don’t want to repeat a lot of the information already on the Kickstarter Page, which, by the way, is right here. That page lays out my goals, hopes, dreams, and plans, except for the plan involving the dachshunds with plasma cannons. I mostly want to call attention to the page, as I think there’s a set of people that visit here who do not follow my Facebook page or Xanga site. If you like my game writing and/or my fiction, and you want more, please, back this project. If you back this project, please, tell other people about it. There are, I believe, many more people who would enjoy the book I want to write than I currently have any contact or connection with. I need to reach out to those people who do know me, and my work, and ask them to reach out to their circles of friends and like-minded individuals, and so on.

The real difficulty with Kickstarter, or any crowdsourced project, is standing out from the crowd. There’s a million things clamoring for the eyes, and wallets, of the masses, and as much as I generally dislike self-promotion, there’s no other way for this to work.

The Banality Of The Fantastic

Just a little something I wrote on rpg.net that I thought ought to be here, as well.


I’ve found, in my fiction, that I tend to keep returning to the concept of the banality of the fantastic — how anything, no matter how baroque or strange, ultimately just becomes part of the background noise of daily life, and try to create worlds that are interesting to the readers but which are simply *there* for the characters. If the canonical Big Dumb Object story is “the guy gawking at things, and the guy who explains to him what he’s gawking at”, my stories tend to be “the guy yawning at things because he just wants to get home and watch TV and this is, what, the fifth giant radioactive monster this week?” And this, in turn, feeds back into my gaming preferences… I enjoy worlds where the characters do not marvel or wonder at golems or vampires, but run down their checklist of “What kills them?”, because they’re as much a part of their world as lions, tigers, and bears. They’re dangerous, they’re fearsome, they require special knowledge and skills to hunt effectively, but they’re not alien, unknown, or mind-bending.

The Name Of His Wife

The Name Of His Wife

Jacob Brown sat on  a rough wooden chair. The light from a single flickering candle illuminated sod walls. He set down a wooden bowl filled with watery gruel, which was his breakfast, and blew out the candle. Dawn would come soon. No sense wasting wax.

There was a place across from him, a place where his wife usually sat. It was empty. It was always empty. Ever since…

Yesterday?

Last week?

Forever?

He shook his head. How could it be forever, he wondered. I mean, she was here. Until those damn orcs came. Until…

He struggled, for a moment, to remember her more precisely. Her laugh. The color of her hair. The things they fought about. Nothing came to him. All he knew was, she was gone, taken in a raid, and he missed her, and would do anything if someone could save her. He knew the orcs kept prisoners alive for weeks or months. He had some hope.

Maybe I could….he thought, then stopped.

I can’t do anything. I’m no warrior. I can barely guide a plow, much less swing a blade.

The sun began to stream through the wooden shutters. Jacob stood up and walked to the door. Have to keep the farm running, he thought. Nothing else to do. Nothing else I can do. He spared one last glance at the empty place setting…was she really here only last night? Or was the raid last week? Why couldn’t he remember? Then he walked out.

There were Heroes there.

You always could tell Heroes. Their clothes were bright and varied. Their armor shone, or glowed, or burned with heatless fire. They wielded swords too large for a normal man to lift, much less swing around as if it were a twig, or they were themselves glistening with magical might, their very flesh aglow. Some walked in the shape of a wolf, but spoke with the voice of a man.

They were walking to his hut, crossing through his carefully sown fields, stomping the few shoots which had managed to spring to life. Spring…was it spring now? He should be planting…but that didn’t seem right…he didn’t remember plowing last week…but he must have. The fields were plowed. The fields were always plowed… but he never remembered plowing them.

No matter. The Heroes were approaching. He struggled to listen to them. Heroes were hard to understand unless they deigned to speak to you; to Heroes, simple farmers and smiths and innkeepers barely existed. Jacob knew the rules – don’t interfere with them. They are children of the Gods, and they must be accorded all courtesies. Accede to their requests, and be invisible if they don’t want to deal with you.

Lately, though, he’d found it growing easier to hear them. He wasn’t sure why, but he could grasp snatches of their conversation.

“…you sure this is the place? I think I started in this village.”, said one. He was garbed in the robes of a High Priest of Simmureyal, and an angelic halo girded his skull.

“Yeah, there’s the guard who lost his socks. Why are we wasting our time here?” said another, a woman in glistening azure mail, an ax big enough to fell oaks strapped to her back.

Then their leader spoke. He was a knight, wearing a suit of heavy spiked mail. Jacob wondered at the ease with which he carried himself. Such armor must weigh hundreds of pounds.

“Look, this is the right one. I know this guy who knows this guy who’s seen some of the hidden areas. He doesn’t care about this place, but he told me about it. We can be the first to do it.” He stopped. “Hey, there’s the farmer dude. Jacob Brown. That’s the right one!”

“About time,” said the Priest. “We must have gone through a dozen of these stupid hovels. They all look alike.”

The leader of the Heroes approached Jacob, who quailed back. The Hero smiled in a friendly way, his helmet disappearing as they were wont to do. He spoke to Jacob directly.

“Ho there, Farmer Jacob! What news have you?”

Jacob blinked in surprise. He’d never had a Hero speak to him before. He stammered for a second.

“Is he responding?”

“Hold on, he’s going to. I know this is the right one.”

Jacob finally found his tongue. “Ah…ah…I….greetings, noble knight! You honor my poor farm with your presence. Please, if there is anything I can do for you…”

“We seek to doeth good for thee, humble farmer!” spoke the knight. “Be there anything ye needeth?”

Jacob shook his head at the odd accent. It was, he reminded himself, the way of Heroes. Need….

“My wife!” he finally sputtered out. “My wife…she was taken by orcs in the raid…the Yellow Fang tribe…they lair in the hills north of here, there is a chance she might be alive…”

The Hero just looked at him, as if waiting for something else.

Jacob’s mind spun. He had to offer them something for their risk…he couldn’t ask them to fight and possibly die for him without some token…but he had nothing…nothing but…

“I have so little to offer you if you will help me, but I…I have an old sword which my grandfather wielded in the War Of Tyrant’s Fall. It might…might be worth something to a historian, perhaps….”

The Knight made an odd gesture with his fist and turned to his companions. “Yeah! This is the right one! Damn! We do this fast and we beat everyone else to it!” He then turned back to Jacob. “Fear ye not, old man! We’ll get thy daughter back from thee orcs!”

“Wife, good sir.”

“Ah…right, yes, your wife. We’ll getteth her. No problem!”

The ax-wielding woman spoke. “Hey, where’s Korson?” Even as she finished, though, there was a flicker, and a shape appeared, a tall, thin, man in long robes, surrounded by swirling mists of fog. “Sorry…got dropped. The cat yanked the interface right out of my socket. Took me a minute to reorient myself and plug back in. Let’s go!”

Jacob stared as he watched them saunter off, this time crossing his western fields. They were taking the single straightest line to the orc’s lair, ignoring the roads, moving with Heroic grace and speed over his fields and the thorn-strewn lands beyond. Could they do it, he wondered. Could they save my wife?

What was her name? Why can’t I even remember her name?

It was maddening.

He thought about trying to undo the damage the Heroes had done to his field, but realized that if… that when they returned with his wife, they’d just tromp back over them again. A headache was beginning to form; every time he tried to remember any fact about his wife other than “She’s gone”, the pain spiked. I have to talk to someone, he thought.

The village proper was less than a mile down the road. He passed old Sergeant Tomlinson as he headed there. The “Sergeant” was nothing of the kind, having never served in any organized army, but he had some idea of how to wield a sword and could raise the alarm if bandits or orcs were spotted.

“Ho there, Tomlinson! How goes?”

“Not too bad, not too bad. Realized I’d walked out on patrol today without me socks on, if ye can believe it! Fortunately, there was a gnome walking by here looking for odd jobs, so I sent him. Nice little fella.”

Jacob frowned. “Didn’t you… didn’t you leave them behind yesterday, too? And wasn’t it some apprentice wizard you found to go fetch them for you?”

Tomlinson flushed. “Well, how daft d’ye think I am, losing my socks two days in a row! I think I’d remember if I lost ‘em twice…ah, here’s the fella now.”

Jacob watched as Tomlinson happily took his socks back and tossed the gnome a few copper pieces for his trouble. The gnome looked at Jacob oddly, as if searching for something, then shrugged and ran off down the road.

Tomlinson put on his socks gleefully. “So, where ye headin’ to?”

Jacob shrugged. “The village. I need…I need to talk to some people. Tomlinson…did the orcs raid last night? When did they come?”

“No orcs for a long time. Can’t recall any raids.”

“But…my wife…they took my…”

Jacob stopped. A shifty-eyed man in worn leather walked by them. Jacob flinched back, wary for the few coins in his pouch, but the man ignored him. Instead, he fixed a piercing glare on Tomlinson, then seemed to notice something and smiled.

“Hey, Sergeant. I don’t suppose you have anything you need doing?”

Tomlinson nodded. “Do indeed there! As it turns out, this morning, I forgot me socks…and the road is cold this day! My house is over that rise. If you’d be so kind as to fetch them for me…”

Jacob backed away and hastened for the town. Either the whole village was going mad…or he was.

***

The Green Gander Inn formed the physical and cultural center of the town. It was a large, two story structure, with a roof of thick thatch and walls of mortared stone braced by timbers. Smoke poured from the chimney, and the smell of roasting meats wafted out. A steady stream of people dashed in and out of the place, running pell-mell to and fro. Jacob knew none of them; they were all apprentices of one sort or another – young men eager to take up the mercenary’s call, novices fresh from seminary, would-be sorcerers still struggling to master their first spells. There were a lot of them in the area, Jacob noted, though none of them were the children of anyone he knew. They never seemed to settle here, either… just vanish into the great large world beyond the village, to return on occasion as Heroes, or never to return at all.

The inside of the inn was brightly lit by oil lamps and a roaring cookfire. Jacob looked around, and finally spied Sackson. “Sack”, as he was commonly known, was a fixture at the Gander. Jacob pulled a stool up and sat down next to him. The apprentice’s chatter was simply a vague buzz at this point.

Sack stopped drinking for a brief moment, raised his glass in acknowledgment, then downed the contents in a single gulp. The bartender quickly replaced it.

“What’s up, Jake?”

“You didn’t hear? The raid? My wife?”

Sack frowned. “The raid…Right. Orcs attacked the village last…night, was it? Got your wife. Tragic. Here. Have a beer on me.” A coin appeared in his hand and was flicked to the bartender; a second mug was quickly placed on the bar, in front of Jacob, who ignored it.

“Sack…we’ve been friends for a while right?”

“Ever since we were kids.”

Jacob nodded. “What was my wife’s name?”

Sack’s face froze. Totally. All hints of life vanished. For a second, Sack became a flesh-colored statue. Then he returned to normal. “I….I don’t know. Can’t remember. Too much booze, I guess….” He seemed suddenly troubled.

Jacob continued. “You’re my best friend, so you must have been at my wedding. When was it – spring, summer, or fall?”

Sack sat the beer down. “I don’t know.” He looked down at his hands, then around at the bar, as if seeing them for the first time. “Why don’t I know?”

Jacob’s voice began to rise. “Who were her parents? Was she born in this village?”

Sack was backing away, his eyes wide. “I don’t know, I don’t know! Why are you asking me this?”

Jacob grabbed his friend by his burly shoulders and shook him. “Because I don’t know either! She was my wife, Sack, my wife, and I can’t even remember her face!”

People were staring. A mercenary youth, a battered and worn greataxe slung over his back, approached him. “Pardon, sir, but if you have any foes you need slain…”

Jacob practically spat on him. “Piss off.”

The mercenary faded back into the crowd. Jacob whirled back on his friend. “Sack, when did you last leave this bar?”

“Uhm…last night, I suppose. I mean, I have to go home sometime, right?”

“Where do you live? Which house? In town? Out in the fields?”

Sack said nothing. He began to look more frightened.

“Did you leave last night? Do you remember leaving? Do you know what the sun on your face feels like?”

Sack stood up suddenly and kicked the chair away. “I’m leaving now.”

Jacob smiled. The two of them would solve this. There was an answer to be found. They both strode to the inn’s door. Jacob noted the buzz of noise from the visitors was growing louder; he allowed some of it to filter in.

“…he’s leaving?”

“Didn’t think he did that.”

“He never leaves. He’s been here since, like, the alpha.”

“Must be some new event.”

“We ought to follow them….”

Several of the crowd began to cautiously tag along. Jacob ignored them. The pair passed through the door.

Sack vanished as he set foot over the threshold.

Jacob’s eyes widened, He called out for him. “Sack! Sackson!” He ran back into the bar, hoping to see him at the stool at the end, but it was still empty. The milling crowd began to press in on him, asking about his friend, asking if he needed anything done.

Jacob cursed, and forced his way out of the crowd. A dwarf holding a small leather purse raced past him, heading for Sack’s old seat, then stared in confusion.

“Huh? He despawned? What’s up? I’ve got a turn-in!”

Jacob just ran.

***

He paced the length of his farmhouse, a fairly short walk. The old blade lay on the table…if the Heroes did return with his wife, he wanted to have it out. The less time they spent tromping on his crops, the better.

He hoped they’d return soon, one way or another. The longer he sat alone, the more his thoughts raced around all the dark holes in his mind. He knew he knew things, but the things weren’t there. He knew he was born and raised here, but he had no clear memories of his childhood. He knew he had parents, but they had neither faces nor names. He knew he had a wife…and that was all he knew about her, the mere fact she existed.

There were voices and footsteps and the sound of newly sprouted plants being trampled.

Jacob listened.

“Are you sure we get the sword? We kind of messed up…”

“Yeah, don’t worry, I checked it out with my friend. It’s rigged. We can’t save her no matter what, there’s some kind of timer trigger. It’s more, you know, dramatic or something.”

“Right, like anyone bothers paying attention to that shit.”

Jacob’s face went slack. They…they didn’t save her? What?

There was a knock.

Soul-numb, he went to the door. The Heroes were there. The leader spoke.

“Greetings, Farmer Brown. We bear dark and grave tidings. We…”

“You didn’t save her.” His voice was low, calm, flat.

“Uhm… no. We struggled, racing to breach the orcs’ defenses before…”

“Get out. Leave this farm and never return.”

The Hero stopped. His fellow Heroes were looking at him in a mix of anger and confusion. “If we blew this….” one of them began. He waved them to silence and returned to Jacob.

“I am deeply sorry for your loss, but we did try. Surely that’s worth something…”

Words appeared in Jacob’s mind: I am glad you risked your lives to aid me. Here, take the blade anyway. It is of no use to me. He felt his mouth beginning to form the words.

“No!” he shouted.

He turned, spun, and grabbed the sword. He didn’t hand it over to the Hero, but, clumsily and gracelessly, jammed it into his gut. The sword suddenly flared in his hands, sheathing itself in violet fire. The rust and grime vanished, and the blade became mirror smooth.

The Hero he had just stabbed staggered back and gurgled a few times. Then he collapsed, flickering into nothingness before his body could hit the ground. The others stared in momentary shock, then recovered.

“Cool!”

“Wasn’t expecting that!”

“Guess this is the hard part! Let’s get ‘im!”

The three other Heroes charged. Jacob held the sword in what he hoped was a defensive position, and steeled himself to join his wife. Maybe, he thought, maybe, in the afterlife, I can ask her her name.

They came for him then, axes swinging and spells blazing. Explosions of color and light surrounded him…and he felt nothing. The blades passed through him. The blazing explosions destroyed his tiny home, but didn’t even singe his hair.

The Heroes were confused.

“What the?”

“He’s still flagged non-com to us! We can’t kill him!”

“Aw, shit, it’s bugged!”

“Hey, why hasn’t Valkor relogged?”

“I don’t know, I’ve tried rezzing him, but he’s not responding.”

“What’s that nutty farmer doing?”

Jacob suddenly understood.

He couldn’t be hurt by the Heroes, but he could hurt them.

And he wanted to.

Everything began to fall into place. Everything began to fit. All we are, he realized, is playthings for the Heroes. They’re chosen by the Gods, and we’re their toys. We exist to teach them, guide them, worship them, or be killed by them. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We barely have lives outside of them.

Enough. Gods be damned!

He launched himself into a clumsy attack, but the blade moved of its own will. Farmer Brown found himself ducking, weaving, and striking. The priest fell first, appropriately, since Jacob had spurned the gods. The warrior woman with the axe was next, her blade a phantom against his, unable to parry its lethal touch. The wizard ran when he saw his spells fail, but he was easily winded and Jacob felt as if he could do anything.

They left behind no bodies, not even blood on the blade. Whistling jauntily, Jacob returned to town.

***

It was dead.

Everyone in it seemed to be frozen, locked solid in position, Even the leaves blowing in the wind hung motionless in the air. The sky above had turned to ash, a uniform gray from horizon to dome. The sun had vanished, though it was still daylight.

Jacob entered the Gander.

Sackson was there. He was behind the bar, smashing open bottles and guzzling them down. He looked up.

“Jake? You… you’re still here… I mean, moving… I mean… what’s happening?”

“I killed some Heroes.” He sat down at the end of the bar and helped himself to some nuts. “Wasn’t even hard.”

Sackson dropped the bottle he was holding. It fell a foot or so, then hung in the air. “You… you what?”

“Killed them. I was sick and tired of being fodder for their games, so, I killed them. I cursed the gods and I drew my blade and I killed them.”

Sack’s face paled in horror. “You’ve killed the world.”

Madness glinted in Jacob’s eyes. “So what if I have? What kind of world is it, where the Gods push us around like stones in a child’s game? Besides, you’re still moving.”

“I don’t know why. I still can’t leave, Jacob, I try, and then I just go… someplace else, someplace filled with frozen fire, someplace made of words, and then I come back here. I think… I don’t think we have long to live.”

“My wife’s dead. And nameless. I don’t much care.”

Sack reached across the bar to try to grab him. Jacob stepped back, bringing up the blade.

“Jake… please… atone! Apologize! Beg the gods to forgive you… bring the world back!”

Jacob Brown looked upwards and spread his arms. “Do your worst!

The world began to fall apart. There was a howling, and all of reality changed. Every line suddenly seemed sharper, infinitely sharp, as if each component of the world were being pulled out of it.

Sack fell to his knees, half-sobbing, half praying. As Jacob watched, he saw things begin to crawl along his friend’s face and body. They looked, at first, like black worms, like an infestation of the most vile sort, but then Jacob saw they were words, strange words he could not understand. The blackness grew and grew until it covered his friend entirely, and then he vanished.

Nothing remained outside the inn. There was no darkness, there was no light, there was just nothing. The inn itself was dissolving around him, black wordworms crawling everywhere, turning everything into letters and then into emptiness.

No, thought Jacob. I’m not going. They’re not taking me.

He looked around in desperation. There was something… a rip, a tear in the world. Beyond it was light.

Jacob leaped for it as the inn finished dissolving. He felt pain, a horrible burning, He could feel his skin crisping, his fat melting, his bones cracking in the heat, but he struggled to keep his mind, to keep himself together. Then the pain, and all other sensation, vanished.

Epilogue I

BEGIN PRESS RELEASE:

Worlds Of Infinity, Incorporated, wishes to announce its deep regret and sorrow at the apparent deaths of four players of Quest Of The Heroes. While we mourn their loss and extend all condolences and sympathies to their families, we deny any possibility that a coding error or feedback loop could be responsible. While Quest Of The Heroes is currently offline until all investigations are completed, we at Worlds Of Infinity are certain that no action of ours could have led to this tragic situation.

BEGIN BOILERPLATE:

Quest Of The Heroes is the crown jewel of Worlds Of Infinity. After ten years of continuous play, it remains the most popular simulation in our lineup. We continue to dedicate full resources to it, including recent upgrades to our SimuReal Interactives, providing the best and most immersive experience possible. We Are The Makers Of Worlds TM.

Epilogue II

Jacob was somewhere else.

It was a strange place.

It seemed to be a room, but a room such as Jacob had never seen. A soft cloth was underfoot, almost like the hide of some odd animal, and there were large metal boxes, the strangest chests Jacob had ever seen, standing everywhere. The room seemed to go on forever, but every few dozen feet, there was a standing rectangle of green fire, the size and shape of a door. Here and there, far away, in the distance, he saw figures stepping out of or into the green doors, seeming to vanish or materialize. Some sort of magic portals?

He noted, with some grim delight, that he still bore the sword.

Jacob just stared in wonderment. This was no heaven or hell he had ever heard of.

There was a voice.

A man was there, strangely dressed. He didn’t look like a Hero…he looked, Jacob thought, like a tax collector.

“You!  You there! What are you doing here?”

Jacob fumbled for an answer. “I… I am lost…”

“Lost?” The man seemed angry. “Oh, please. I know that getup. The damn game is offline, so you’re busy hacking to see if you can find a backup server somewhere. This isn’t your stupid game. You’ve managed to log into the V-Space Accounting Database.” He sighed, then continued his rant.

“God damn useless sim addicts. Well, I don’t know how you got through the firewall, but you are in deep, deep, trouble. You know what the laws are for trespass into private zones? I’m getting a trace on your signal sent. Might as well unplug, the cops will be there soon. No sims in prison, you freaking fantasy nut. Now log, I’ve got accounting data to lookup. Whole company is in a tizzie thanks to you losers.”

Jacob tried to puzzle out bits and pieces of the speech. “You… you work for the gods? For the Makers Of Worlds? You are their servant?”

The man rolled his eyes. “Great, not only an addict, but one of those roleplaying weenies. Yeah, I work for ‘the Gods’. Sheesh, they’re going to love you in the can! Here’s a hint, loser – don’t drop the… ”

Jacob sliced his head off, cleanly. The body vanished. He expected as much now.

If I can kill the servants of the gods…and their Heroes…perhaps I can kill the Gods themselves.

He went to one of the rectangles and gingerly stepped into it. There was a moment of light, then a sense of dissolution, then he appeared somewhere else. It was another room, similar but not identical to the one he had just occupied.

I am in the realm of the gods. I wander their halls… and here, they can die.

This place is immense, he thought, but I have time. Somewhere in here, I will find the Gods. Then I will kill them.

He smiled a thin, cold, mad, smile.

I am a Hero, he thought. I have a Quest.


As with most of my fiction, this was written in a moment of desperate panic before my monthly writer’s group meeting.  It was posted ages ago on the original Joomla version of this site, then never moved over in the Great WordPress Revolution of… whenever I switched to WordPress. I think it was 2010. (Wow, that means I wrote the Star Rovers piece a long time ago.) Prior to reposting it now, I gave it a quick edit to clean up a few sentences. (No matter how many times you reread your own writing, you always find one word to change here, another word to add there…)

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to mention that a small bit of the inspiration comes from a quest in Vanguard (ah, Vanguard… you could have been amazing. A perfect example of the harsh reality of “Ship Now or Ship Never”). You were sent to go rescue someone from lizardmen, but as soon as you got near to the village, the text box informed that you heard a scream and that they were dead. No way to save them. (Given how borked the NPC pathing/follow was, it’s probably for the best it wasn’t an escort quest.)