Tag Archives: writing

That Thing We Do On Weekends

I wrote the first part of this, the prologue bit, something like two years ago… then wrote the bulk of the rest in two fits (plays have acts, symphonies have movements, writers have fits) a few months ago, then finally decided I was done tweaking words and I had to bite the bullet and post it. So, here it is.

My career as a writer of thrilling back-cover copy that lures the reader in isn’t going well, is it?

That Thing We Do On Weekends

There were a lot of them. Or very few, depending on how you wanted to look at it.

For example, there was the man who liked to call himself Professor Black. He had taken on the task of protecting mankind from technologies it was not ready for. Relics of Atlantis and Mu, before their atomic war. Castoffs from passing spaceships. Most of all, though, he fought the Breakers… paradigm breakers, people who skipped technology ahead a hundred years or more. One of the products of these Breakers, a perfectly human-seeming robot built from 1960s transistors and plastics, traveled with him, providing an always-useful amount of physical might and near-invulnerability.

This story isn’t about him.

Then there was the group which others simply referred to as the Trio. The daywalking half-vampire, the werewolf attack survivor, and the would-be prey of a demon who had turned the tables and bound the demon within her. They focused, mostly, on beings like those which had created them: The supernatural monsters of myth and legend, the night-dwellers who preyed on humanity.

This story isn’t about them, either.

Another team called themselves the Next. The five of them were aware that something was awakening in mankind, that seemingly random individuals could manifest superhuman powers of mind and body, often without control or conscience, and they sought such people out, to train them if they could, but, more often, to prevent them from harming others, no matter the cost.

Does it need to be mentioned that this story isn’t about them?

And there was the one who didn’t have much of a given name. The Stranger, the Wanderer, the Lost Soul… he let people use whatever name they wanted. He had no allies or guardians, or favored foes. He came when there was trouble and he left when it was over.

No, it’s not about him, either. Or any of the rest.

Sometimes they would meet. Their spheres of interest occasionally overlapped. They had a sort of intuition, something within them that recognized a kinship, a kinship not of kind or ability, but of spirit. While there was often conflict, there were also brief alliances.

This story is not about one of those meetings.

However, it does begin with a meeting…


The bar was dim, dank, depressing, and probably a few other words, not all of which began with ‘d’. It stank of stale beer, rancid grease, and souls abandoned by the roadside. Dale Hawthorn knew why he was there, but refused to dwell consciously on it.

He saw her, and he knew, somehow. It was nothing nameable. She sat at a corner table, watching the crowd. Late twenties, maybe. No attempt at makeup or clothing worth noting, though there was only one reason anyone attended this particular bar, and it wasn’t for the quality of the beverages or the personal charm of the bartender.

Still, she was female, and here, and that meant men veered towards her, only to see her eyes, and then veer away.

Dale didn’t veer away, though he was tempted when he got close and she kept her gaze locked on his for a long time. Instead, he silently gestured at the empty chair, smiling, and she sighed wearily, too tired to compose a lie about waiting for her boyfriend. She gestured randomly, a wave that could mean either ‘whatever, sit’, or ‘get lost, asshole’, or possibly both, concurrently.

Following ancient rites, he signaled for a waiter. One — bored, long-haired, and torn-shirted — eventually arrived.

“Scotch,” she said, without waiting to be asked.

“Guinness,” he said. The waiter wandered off, without so much as a grunt to acknowledge he’d actually heard their order.

There was silence for a while. She broke it.

“This is the part where you say ‘Hey, didn’t we go to school together?’ Or, maybe, you tell me about your portfolio.”

“Who did you lose?” he asked, non-sequitorially.

“What? How did.. why would…”

The waiter returned, giving him the scotch and her the Guinness, then ambled away before they could crudely impose on his time by asking for something else. She reached across the table, took her drink, swallowed half, and pushed his glass towards him. He took a small swallow, and frowned. Warm and flat.

“I know the look,” he finally said, in answer to her pre-waiter question.

She snorted. “Bullshit. Probably did something with your phone, found my picture in the paper or something. That’s got to be a new low for scummy pickup artists.” She gulped the remaining half of the scotch. “Sister,” she said, then paused an instant before adding “Cancer.”

Dale nodded, but didn’t reply. He waited until she’d dragged the waiter back, ordered another scotch, and finished it. Then he shook his head, just a bit. “Not cancer.”

She glowered at him, daring him to continue. He did.

“You keep looking over to the mirror,” he said, tilting his head towards it. It was in desperate need of cleaning, but did serve to present a brown-tinged and dim reflection of the place. Most of the patrons avoided looking at it, as if not seeing themselves here somehow meant they could pretend this wasn’t the kind of place their life choices had delivered them to.

She missed a beat, as he’d gone off-script, but recovered quickly. “I’m trying to look at something that’s not you, so that means my sister didn’t die of cancer?”

“Except… I think you are looking at me.”

She laughed derisively, but only after a moment’s twitch, a second’s hesitation to process what she’d heard. “And they say women are vain. But if I wanted to look at you, why wouldn’t I just look at you? Why the mirror?”

“To see if I cast a reflection, I’m guessing.” He took another drink of the beer. Unsurprisingly, it was warmer and flatter. “I do, as you’ve probably noticed.”

She left without replying.

He met her again, a week later. She was leaving work. She looked right past him at first, then recognized him.

“I’ve got a can of mace and a cop buddy on speed dial.”

He sighed. “Look, I just want to talk. I think it would be good. For both of us.”

“Girls only go for stalkers in crappy romance movies. In real life, pulling that shit leads to you screaming and clawing at your eyes while I punch 911. Then comes the restraining order, after you spend a weekend in holding with a 300 pound biker named ‘Bubba’.” She walked away.

He took a single broad stride to catch her, putting his hand on her shoulder. She spun, her hand already halfway into her purse. He blurted “I saw my best friend turned into a gelatinous blob by an alien ray-gun.”

She stopped, the canister firmly gripped in her hand, her thumb on the release button.

“Aliens are real, too?”

“If vampires are, why not?”

Silence, for a few seconds. Then she nodded, barely more than a twitch, and stated her terms in staccato phrases.

“Someplace public. Well lit. Clean. Busy. Starbucks at Fifth and Abraham?”


She smiled very thinly, seeing a suspicion confirmed. “Thought so.”

“Not that. Everything else is fine, just… I’ve heard some things about Starbucks. Uhm… there’s a McDonalds next door to it, though.”

“Tomorrow, noon. Katherine, by the way.”

Extending his hand, he said, “Dale.”

She shook it with the hand not holding the mace.

He was a little surprised to see her, but there she was. They ordered separately and he followed her to an unoccupied table, her need to be in plain view warring with her need to have a back to the wall.

Once more, she spoke first. “So. You want to talk.”

“Your sister. My friend. And us.”

“What about any of them? It’s over, done. She’s dead, buried, and… and won’t…” She stopped, stared downwards at the Rorschach patterns formed from two decades of ketchup stains in the Formica.

He finished her sentence. “Be coming back.” He paused a second, saw a flash of expression on her face, and added, “Again. Be coming back again.”

She looked up, her eyes glinting with a mixture of relief and revelation. “Yes… I… I couldn’t say that, to anyone, to my folks, my friends, no one… how could I.. where would I even start…”

“I understand. Really.”

She started in on her fries. “So, what do you tell people?”

“He died in a plane crash in Brazil. That’s why there’s no body, I claimed. I lied to his family, to his fiancée, to everyone.”

She nodded, slowly. “Now, you go around every day, pretending like you don’t know truth. Seeing shadows, jumping at everything, because you don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

“Yes. Frankly, it sucks.”

“Like a drunk sorority girl.” She blushed, suddenly realizing what she’d said. “Sorry. Rude.” She laughed. “Wow. Haven’t laughed in forever.”

“It’s the fries, clearly. They’re like beer.”

“Clearly.” She downed a handful. “So, ray gun?” She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”


She stood. “Kennedy Park’s nice this time of year. And the sun won’t go down for a while. Walk?”



Three days later, they were wandering an art festival, slowly making their way past booths full of Etsy also-rans and velvet Elvii and homemade pickled something-or-other.

“And then they just left. ‘Sorry about your sister, have a nice life, bye.'”

“I got more or less the same thing. They set up the plane crash story, put records into computers all around the planet in a minute, but I think that was more for their convenience than for my sake.”

“How do they do that? Not the computer thing. The leaving thing. How do you smash someone’s world, then walk away without giving them something, some sort of…”

“Psychological glue? Something to help put the pieces back together?”

“Yeah. That.” Her fist clenched. “Just walking off, leaving the mess behind, patting themselves on the back for saving the day.”

He shrugged. “They’re busy, I guess. Yours… yours acted like professionals?”

“They didn’t send me a bill. Yet. I know what you mean. They’d seen it all, done it all before. Constantly spitting out catchphrases and slang to each other. They might as well have been fixing the plumbing.” She picked up a set of Beatles dolls made from recycled USB drives, feigned interest in them, set them down. “It didn’t really click until now, but I think… that part was almost scarier than what happened. This wasn’t new. This wasn’t weird. I was just one more job for them. That says so much about the world, about what’s real. The grief, the loss, the pain… there’s a shit-ton of books and websites and stupid movies on Lifetime about how to deal with that part, with how to move on… but how do you move on from having the rug pulled out from you?”

“You find someone else lying on the floor.”

Three months later, they’d signed the lease on an apartment they found tolerable enough. Building a relationship solely on shared trauma doesn’t work, but they’d discovered enough about each other to find they could share things besides their pain. It wasn’t a love story for the ages; they acknowledged that. It was honest, though, and that was more than most.

Dale came back after a late work meeting, to find Katherine freeze-framing and rewinding the news. He glanced over at the few seconds she was reviewing. Yellow police tape around a plain-looking suburban home, a crawl about “two bodies recovered”. A few seconds, replayed over and over.

He studied the screen more closely as she watched it, again and again.

“It’s them, isn’t it? Your group?”

She inclined her head, slightly, then clicked the ‘off’ button to shatter the hypnotic spell. “Yeah. Had to be.”

“The Mustang? It was only in-frame for a second or two…”

“They’re good at avoiding cameras. But no one’s perfect.” She stood, heading to the kitchen to stare at the fridge, to see if something had magically appeared since last night. “Maybe not. Lots of people own red 1967 Mustangs.”

“And park them a half block from the site of gruesome murders?”

She sniffed at a bottle of milk, contorted her face into a sneer of disgust, and put it back on the shelf, perhaps in the hope it would become fresh again by tomorrow. “Yeah. Not likely.” She shut the fridge door. “I don’t know why I was watching that. It’s a hundred miles from here. Not our business, right?”

He took out two cans of chili, began to fill a pot.

“I… I don’t know. I want to say no. It’s… we know things, now. Do we ignore them?”

Katherine leaned against the counter, trying to not block the path to the stove. The kitchen was not large. “Did you ever think, what if Bruce Wayne were fat and slow?”

Dale stirred the semi-solid mass of congealed reddish glop, waiting for it transform into something that seemed edible. “Huh?”

“Batman. You’ve got to know the story. His parents got killed, so he decided to put on long underwear and fight crime.”

He whacked at the red blob with the edge of a wooden spoon. “I’m not following you.”

“He was lucky, right, that he was born to be really buff and smart. If he’d been a normal guy, it wouldn’t matter how much he worked out or how hard he studied. He could only go so far. That whole ‘work hard and you can do anything’ crap your parents and teachers tell you is bullshit. Not everyone’s going to win a gold medal or the Nobel prize, even if they work way harder than the people who do.”

Dale contemplated the slowly burbling chili. “I’m still not getting it. Sorry.”

She sighed. “We both lost someone to horror. We’ve been force-fed the red pill, we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain. So what do we do, now that we know? Just eat canned chili and watch the news?”

“I can go get KFC, if you’d like…”

“No! That’s not what I meant. I’m trying to say…” she grunted in frustration.

He abandoned the chili and stepped towards her. She leaned into his arms, and they were silent for a moment.

“It’s OK. I did know what you meant. You want to do more… but we’re not them. If we fought a werewolf, we’d be dog chow. We don’t have magic, or alien weapons, or kung fu. We’re basically useless. It hurts.”

He felt her nod a bit, then she lifted her head up suddenly. “Chili’s bubbling over!”


After dinner, they clicked on the TV, still freeze-framed where it had been.

“A hundred miles from here?”, Dale asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“We should go.”

“You need to work on your listening skills. I said, why? What for? What’s the point? Whatever’s there, they’ve probably staked it or burned it or covered it in gummi bears or whatever they have to do. And if they haven’t, well, you’re right. We’d be useless.”

“That’s why. Well, the first part of it is why. They’ve done whatever it is they have to do, then vanished. Just like they did to you. Just like mine did to me. Whatever brought them there is gone, but…”

Katherine saw his thought. “But there’s survivors left behind. Someone else, lying on the floor…” She grinned, slammed her fist on the couch in a moment of sudden glee. “We’re not useless. We can do something.” She bounded to the computer and started pulling up maps, then news reports from the area, seeing the shape of the negative space left by what was not said.

He began getting out clothes and folding them into a suitcase. “Every couple needs a thing they do on weekends. This can be ours.”

She laughed. “Sure beats antiquing!”

Many weekends. Many places. Large cities, little towns, dismal slums, wealthy suburbs.

They were sitting in a Nevada diner where the menus had been printed in the sixties, with the prices all covered over with new amounts written on white tape, layer after layer, a geological column of inflation. Across the street, the ruins of the sheriff’s office stood, surrounded by yellow tape and construction equipment. On the other side of their worn and pitted table sat a worn and pitted woman, who kept glancing nervously out the window at the work going on.

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Only one waitress was on shift, and she was nowhere to be seen. It was quiet and private.

“I don’t think they connected it to me, but I can’t be sure. Sheriff already has it in for me.”

Dale nodded, then took a sip of coffee, which had been lukewarm when it was delivered and which hadn’t defied entropy to heat up since then. “You think your ranch hand was involved, though?”

She looked around, then shook her head. “I dunno. I mean, it doesn’t make sense, but it kinda does. Everyone wants to pretend it didn’t happen, and maybe it didn’t.. maybe I didn’t see what I thought…”

Katherine decided no amount of ketchup could cover the elephant-grey meat of the hamburger well enough. “About seven feet tall. Purple. Nasty claws, shaggy black hair, one horn?”

The woman nodded. Katherine continued. “Tore the place apart, scared the piss out of some people, but didn’t really hurt anyone?”

The woman nodded again.

“You saw it. It was real. So’s a lot of other shit. We can help a little, maybe, if you want to tell us some more.”

“Well… for months, the Sheriff’s been trying to get me to sell. His brother’s some fancy developer, wants to put up a casino, but I’m not interested. Sheriff scared off almost everyone who worked for me, so I took a chance on this guy from out of town, looking for work, no questions asked. Seemed nice. Quiet. Called himself Daniel Flag. Hard worker. Not too hard on the eyes, either.” She glanced at her audience. “Hey, just because I’m too old to hike up the mountain doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the view.”

At the lack of any reaction, she continued.

“So, about a week after he starts, some of the Sheriff’s bully-boys come ’round, plannin’ to burn me out. I don’t know what happened next, exactly. I think…” she stopped, suddenly.

Dale spoke softly. “If it helps, there’s hardly anything you can say that we won’t believe. We can tell you our stories, if you want. You’re not alone. There’s a lot more of us than it seems.”

The rancher looked Dale in the eyes. “Hearin’ that… that helps. OK. He.. Daniel… I think he became that monster. He tossed their pickup truck a clean hundred yards. I heard a gunshot, a rifle crack, .357 Remington… know the sound well, been shootin’ since I was a girl… and when I looked around the place later on, I found just that kind, twisted into a pretzel. Some gas cans, too. A few smashed up trees. Daniel… I found him pretty much naked, near the barn. He made up some story ’bout how he’d tried to stop them but they knocked him out, claimed he didn’t know what finally scared ’em off, but even then, I knew.”

“The Sheriff was pissed,” she continued. “Decided if they could scare off Dan, I’d be really alone. So they hauled him in on vagrancy charges, and then, a few hours later…” She pointed out the window. “Dan left after that, said he figured they’d leave me alone now, but he had to go.” Her eyes narrowed. “You ain’t goin’ after him, are you?”

Dale and Katherine shook their heads, then Dale added, “Did it help? Are you OK now?”

The old woman laughed.

“Aw, hell no. If anything, it’s worse. Before, it was mostly just about money. Now, it’s personal. Sheriff blames me for what that creature did, makin’ him look the fool. People used to fear him, now they snicker, they figure he’s makin’ up stories ’bout a monster. As to what happened to the building… gas leak. That’s what they’re saying.”

Katherine tapped her index finger on the table, thinking. “You know what’s scarier than big purple monsters?”

The rancher shook her head.


Dale took out his phone. “Who are you thinking of? Goldberg?”

“Nah. Matsuka. Jenny Matsuka.”

Dale punched the keys.

“Ms. Matsuka? Hi. This is… you remember me, good. OK, Jenny it is. Anyway… you know how you said you were really grateful, how you’d do anything to help us? Well, as it turns out…”

After a few minutes, he hung up. “She’ll be out here in under a day, armed with enough orders, subpoenas, and requests for hearings to keep you safe through the winter, and probably forever.”

The woman stared. “Thank.. thank you. I don’t know what I would have… ”

Katherine shrugged. “It’s what we do.”

“Are you leaving now?”

Dale shrugged. “Do you want us to?”

“No… no. I’d like to talk some more… I can fix you something, back at the ranch, a nice dinner. ” They exited the diner and began piling into her pickup, squeezing a bit so they could all fit in the front seat. She kept talking. “And you… you know what’s going on, don’t you? With Daniel?” She sighed. “But lemme guess. You can’t tell me, it’s all some hush-hush secret, I’m better off not knowin’, right?”

As the truck sputtered off, Katherine answered. “Wrong. We don’t do that cryptic secret mysteries crap. That’s what they do.”

“Short version,” Dale began, “is that Daniel’s granddad, of the same name, worked on the first atomic bomb… and one of the people who survived the attack at Nagasaki called up a powerful demon, an oni-spirit, to take revenge. Then things got really confusing, a couple of decades passed, and the spirit attacked the grandchild instead of the real target. Now, he wanders around, hoping for a cure, trying to keep the spirit in check… but his control sometimes slips, and you saw what happens. We can give you the long version later, if you like.”

The woman was silent for a few minutes.

“And here I thought he was just some government experiment or something. Ancient Japanese curses? That’s real?”

Katherine laughed. “Curses. Crashed UFOs. Werewolves. Mind readers. Thinking machines. Witches. V..” she paused, took a breath. “Vampires. All real. Really real.”

“That… that lawyer you called…”

“Her boss could produce this kind of super mind-control drug in his sweat. He shook hands with you, you did what he said, no matter what.”

“You two went and stopped him?”

They both laughed, a little sadly, and Dale replied. “No. We don’t do that. We… show up afterwards. We see odd stories in the news, pick up some things, and drop by if we can. To see if we can help.”

“Why? I mean, don’t think I ain’t grateful, ’cause I am, but, why?”

Dale shrugged. “It’s just sort of… this thing we do on weekends.”

“Hang on. Lemme get you some beers.”

Katherine watched the middle-aged man amble into the kitchen. They were sitting in the living room of a nice enough suburban home in North Carolina. Only one man, Carlos Solis, lived here now. It was instantly obvious that, until recently, there had been several more. The pictures were still on the walls. The bedrooms were still furnished.

It was a setting they’d seen too many times, on too many weekends. The aftermath, when the monsters were dead but the wounds were still fresh. It was, they’d realized, hard to not let it become routine. That’s what they did.

“Does he seem a bit off?”

Dale ran his finger through the dust layer on the coffee table. Long married, suddenly widowed. Housekeeping wasn’t a priority. “Well, about a week ago, he took his family to their beachfront timeshare, and then he saw most of them eaten by fish-men. Eaten if they were lucky. That makes anyone off.” He looked at her for a moment. “We know that too well.”

“Yeah. My point. We’ve seen this too many times, not to mention every damn morning when we look in the mirror, and… I’m saying, something’s not right. More not right than usual. Whatever.”

“Everyone takes pain differently. Maybe he just…” his voice trailed off.

Katherine glanced at the door leading to the kitchen. Mr. Solis wasn’t coming through it. Dale’s silence had another cause. He was staring at the coffee table.


He spoke slowly and quietly. “The remote. Just as dust covered as everything else. A week home, and he never turned on the TV? Not even just to have the noise to try to blot out the screaming in his mind, even for a moment?”

Carlos returned, bearing beer.

“Only two?” Dale’s voice was as casual as he could make it, but there was still a slight crack. “Nothing for yourself?”

“Nah. Don’t drink.” He handed the bottles to each of them, and a bottle opener to Katherine.

Katherine took the opener and placed it at the rim of the cap. The metal was twisted, a little. She wouldn’t have noticed it under most circumstances, but she was on edge, and she’d opened more bottles than she really wanted to think about. This has been opened before, then resealed. A good job. Just not perfect.

She set the bottle on the table. “Sorry, not thirsty. Maybe later.”

Dale quickly imitated her.

Carlos seemed nonplussed. “You sure? I got some Coke, or I can mix you up some iced tea…”

Dale felt a deep fear begin to spread along his spine, a primal instinct raising hackles evolution had dispensed with eons past, the reptile brain’s awareness of a lurking predator in the high grass.

Katherine smiled, warmly and sweetly. “Got any 7-up? Or just some ice water?”

Mr. Solis shook his head. “Nah. Never liked that brand, and the water here’s lousy. Sulfur.”

“That’s alright, then. Now… we’re here because, well, we thought it might help if you had someone to talk to, about what happened.”

Carlos shook his head. “Already talked to the cops, to Father James, to the family… I’m really sick of talking. Are you sure you aren’t thirsty?”

Dale shook his head, then picked up where Katherine had left off. This was almost a formula by now, as hard as they fought not to let it become one. “You couldn’t tell them everything, though. What was the story you were given? Boating accident?”

Mr. Solis nodded. “Yeah. You think it wasn’t? That I’m lying?”

“We know, Mr. Solis. Fish-men. They have other names, but fish-men works. Humanoids from before the dawn of man. Ancient things, occasionally called back. We can guess a lot. Someone came to help you… a bit too late for your family. They didn’t really do much to help you after that, they just gave you a cover story and took off. Is that correct?”

“That’s right. So, why are you here?”

“Mostly,” Katherine said, “to let you know you’re not alone. To give you someone you can be honest with. It helps more than you’d think.”

“They send you? Professor Black, and them?”

Katherine laughed. “Oh, hell no. I doubt they even know we exist. I sure hope not.”

“Oh.” Mr. Solis looked disappointed.

“But,” Dale began, “if they left you in the lurch… like they tend to do… we might be able to help. We know people. People who can help.”

Carlos shook his head, then began to snicker. “Really? That’s it? That’s all you do? Go around, talking to people? The Professor didn’t send you? Or the Trio? Or any of them?”

“No… no. We’re on our own…” Dale was standing by then, as was Katherine. “I think maybe this isn’t our kind of thing…”

Carlos stood, sort of. His body was trembling, no, writhing. Something was moving under the skin. His voice changed, deepening. “Pity. We saw you following. Following them all. Following ones we never knew of. Thought they sent you. The clean-up crew. To find what they missed. To make sure the silence was not broken. Thought you’d be useful to us. A connection between them all. But you’re nothing. Useless.”

The thing that was not Carlos Solis laughed again. “Glad you didn’t drink. My children are precious. It would have been tragic to waste them on you.”

Neither Katherine nor Dale bothered to answer. They were sprinting for the door.

The shell of Carlos Solis tore itself apart. What was left was essentially a skeleton made not of bone, but of something with dozens of branching, twisting tentacles. A thick, segmented tube formed the spine, and from it sprouted rib-worms and arm-tendrils. It stood on flexible cylinders of cartilage and flesh which terminated in splayed, starfish-like feet. Placed at the top of the worm-spine was a human brain, riddled through with thousands of writhing and burrowing things as fine as hair. Two eyeballs, held in the mouths of squirming, serpentine stalks of tissue, kept the fleeing pair in view.

The not-arms shot out, extending three times their length, and the leechlike fingers grabbed at what they could, seeking exposed flesh, as a corrosive liquid vomited out of the ten tiny, tooth-ringed mouths. Dale screamed in pain as the fingers found his skin, even as he struggled to ignore it and twist the doorknob. Katherine’s own scream was of rage, as she spun back towards the thing and grabbed its hand and tried to keep it from reaching her.

The thing just kept laughing, its voice emerging out of the maws of the rib-worms, just a touch out of sync, creating a strange echo.

“What idiocy! Stumbling into the charred ashes left after an inferno, in case some child’s doll remained intact to return to them! How you survived long enough for us to notice you is…”

There was a shriek like someone had stepped on the tail of God’s cat, and the creature exploded in a hundred different ways, each and every tentacle torn apart from within, as if their collective gullets had been lined with dynamite. What remained of the hand dropped away, leaving Dale and Katherine leaning on the wall, panting in terror and relief, Dale’s hand still twitching futilely at the locked knob.

Two men emerged from the kitchen. One seemed to be in his mid-20s, handsome in a bland sort of way. The other was sixty-ish, wearing a dark grey suit and holding a mechanism best described as the unholy offspring of a Walkman and the last dregs of a Radio Shack going out of business sale.

He didn’t look up from the machine as he adjusted it, talking off handedly. “Well, that’s that, then. Sorry it took so long, needed to locate the proper frequency curves. Venusian brain-eating vermiforms. Nasty critters.”

The other spoke. “Professor, I’m hearing something. Low ultrasonic.”

“Yes, yes. It’s…”

“Probably the bottles. Damn thing kept trying to get us to drink.” Katherine walked back to the coffee table, grabbed one, then smashed it. A dark, fizzing liquid spilled out, and writhing in the puddle was a long, slender worm. The shattered neck of the bottle was still in her hand. She smashed it into the thing, grinding the sharp edges against it until it was a bloody, shredded mess.

“You guys can probably handle the other one.” She dropped the remains of the bottle and tugged on her shirt, where the clutching hands of the thing that was not Carlos Solis had tried to grab her. “Shit, this is ruined.”

Dale was just glaring at the newcomers, his breath still coming in ragged gasps, daring them to say something. Finally, the younger did. “Hello. I’m sure this is very shocking to you, but be assured, you are now safe.”

Dale stopped wheezing long enough to sneer. “Is that what you told Mr. Solis when you sent him home from the beach?”

“At the time, it was accurate. He was safe then.”

The older one finished his work with the machine. There was a brief hum and a sudden pop, and the remaining bottle of beer shook slightly as the thing within it exploded, decorating the interior of the glass with gobbets of pale white flesh that slowly peeled away to be concealed once more by the darkness within.

“You’ve got to forgive my friend. People skills aren’t his strong point. We’re sorry for your loss. Where you… friends of Mr. Solis? Relatives?”

Dale looked at him. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”

“Of… of course I do… you’re, uhm….”

“Dale Hawthorn, age 28. Encountered approximately 18 months ago during the recovery of a Betelgeusian anti-baryon weapon.”

“Yes, see, we remember you… erm… what are you doing here?”

Katherine exploded. “What the hell do you think? Cleaning up your mess! Doing the job you’re too damn high-and-mighty to do!”

“Madame, please! We did just save you from a horrific fate!”

“Professor,” interrupted the other. “The circumstances and evident personality traits compel me to consider these might be those we’ve been hearing about. ‘The Angry One’ and ‘The Stiff One’.”

“The hell? Hearing about?”

“Stiff? Really?”

“You are, kind of. You could loosen up a little bit, you know.” She shrugged. “But, it’s who you are, and it works for you.”

The older man coughed. “Uhm… excuse me… if you could explain to me what’s going on…”

Katherine grinned, not pleasantly. “Heh. Now you know what it’s like. Not that it’ll do any good, I’m betting.”

Sitting amidst the ruins of a man’s life, not to mention his body, they explained.

When they were finished, Professor Black shook his head. “Oh no, no. That just won’t do at all. Never mind the risk you’re putting yourselves in… it was just lucky we picked up the signals on the sub-etheric wave as we were passing by… but you could put countless others in danger. Think! If these creatures noticed you, who else might have? You’re crossing lines, blurring boundaries, giving people too many pieces of the larger puzzle! You must stop!”

Katherine’s voice was perfectly level. “Or what?

“There is a high probability the harm you will create outweighs the good you purport to accomplish.”

Dale sighed. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”

Katherine took his hand. “Aww… our first date.” Dale smiled back at her, then turned to the other two. “No. We’re not stopping because you tell us to. Maybe if you have this kind of talk with everyone else, we wouldn’t be needed… but you don’t, so, we are. Case closed.”

Professor Black sighed. “I did what I could. I just hope you decide to stop before you do something that can’t be fixed. Alpha, come along.” He stopped and turned to the other two. “We’re going to call in a report that we saw a broken window. The police will be here to investigate eventually, so that someone finds Mr. Solis’ body and tell his family. What’s left of it. I’d recommend you both skedaddle. And please… stop. Mr. Hawthorn, I’ve saved your life twice now. Twice is very rare. Three times has never happened as long as I’ve been working, and I’ve been working a very long time.”

The drive back was mostly silent.

The key clicked in the apartment door, and it opened, releasing the odor of slightly-spoiled food, the salad purchased the week before in the hope of eating better, then discarded, untouched, Friday evening, as they’d worked out the connection between the ‘accidental drownings’ in North Carolina, the poor catch reported by local fishermen, and the fires on the offshore rig a week before that. Now the brown-green mass teetered precariously atop the trash can, daring either one to make the next move in the game of Garbage Jenga.

Katherine collapsed into the couch. Dale flipped listlessly through the accumulated bills, ignoring any not marked ‘final notice’, then peered into the fridge, in case elves had put anything in there while they were gone. If they had, he’d toss it, of course. He knew about fae food. Fortunately, or not, they hadn’t. Thursday’s pizza might still be good.

He started to put the slices, as stiff as the cardboard they’d been fetched from, onto two paper plates. “Microwaving kills germs, right?”

“When’s the last time we screwed?”

Non-sequiters are a part of any long-term relationship. Dale considered the question. “Uhm… wasn’t it… three weeks ago, at that motel with the giant moose head in the lobby, in that town where the High School principal was a were-moth?”

“No. We’d talked about it, but it never seemed to happen.”

“Yes… you’re right. So it was…”

“When doesn’t matter! The fact we’re even having this conversation is what matters!”

The microwave beeped. Dale ignored it. “We can eat later.” He tried to sound vaguely amorous. “No time like the present, right?”

“No, honey. Sorry. We just drove six hours and my favorite shirt got torn up by a.. a… whatever. Worm thing from Mars, or some stupid shit like that.”

Dale’s well-taught instincts overcame his exhaustion, and he didn’t say ‘Venus, actually’. As hard as it was to remember when they’d had sex in the past, he knew better than to eliminate any chance of it in the future.

Falling back on prior plans, he took the pizza, tongue-burning hot in some places, still partially congealed in others, out, and brought the plates over. Katherine reached for hers, then set it on her lap. She stared at it as if the patterns of yellowish cheese, fire-engine-red pepperoni, and gravel-grey sausage might reveal the future.

“Maybe those two were right. Maybe it’s time to quit.”

“Why? Because they gave us their boilerplate speech number seventeen, ‘You’re tampering with things man was not meant to know!’? Or because we almost had our brains devoured by the worms from V..Mars?” He paused. “The latter is a stronger argument, I admit.”

“Not either. We started this… why?”

“‘Beats antiquing’.”

“First, I do not sound like that. Second, no. Because we felt like we couldn’t just live, day to day, pretending the world was normal, when it’s not. Well, are we living any better not pretending?”

Dale looked around at the clutter, chaos, and confusion. Both worked full and part time jobs to make the money needed for weekends driving cross-country, and the rates of even the sleaziest motels added up over time. When not working, or traveling, they sought out targets, tried to winnow out the extraordinary tragedies from the ordinary ones, which meant they spent a lot of time seeing humanity at its worst, looking for things literally inhuman.

“We’re helping people.”

“We’ve helped how many, now? Fifty? More? And it’s not just us any more, is it? Remember, way back, that ranch lady in Nevada? Got a message from her, two weeks ago. She’s fostering two kids whose parents got possessed by wasp demons. And that rich jerk with the haunted paintings? He’s actually become slightly less of a jerk, funding relocation for some folks, get them away from all the reminders of what they’ve been through. We’ve kicked the rocks at the top of the mountain. The avalanche’ll keep happening without us.”

“So, is that it? Quit? Let the rocks fall without us?”

“Sure. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m tired. You’re tired. Skip a week. Maybe two. Eat food we cook.”

“We can try.”

“Try? How hard can it be? Not doing something is easy! It’s what everyone does! Just watch the news, make some sad noises, wonder why the world’s such a damn mess, then turn on ‘Who Wants To Dance With A Midget Millionaire Bachelor’ and forget about it all! Everyone else does that! So can we!”

“I’m sure we can.”

The artificially light tone of his voice jarred her. “You don’t care? Keep on, or don’t, all the same to you?”

Dale set his plate down on the arm of the couch. The grease soaking through it wouldn’t do much more than add another layer of intricate patterning to the Pollack painting of stains already there. He walked the very short distance to the living room window and looked out over the other buildings in the complex. Dawn, cruel-hearted harpy, was already beginning to shove back the night, offering little hope for rest before the week began anew.

“I care. I want to keep doing what we do. I think the rocks need a lot more help falling. I also care about you, about us. I’m the stiff one, remember? I can only imagine what I’d be like without you. Inside, I’m barely keeping from screaming. Always. I measure out my feelings in teaspoons so that I don’t explode. Without you… it would be eyedroppers. If that. So, between the world, and you, I choose you.”

“Oh, great. Now I get to feel guilty. Thanks.”

Dale thumped his fist on the glass. “Now I know how you feel talking to me. Misunderstandings all around. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.”

“Doing a good job despite not trying. If you were trying, I’d probably be slitting my wrists.”

“OK. We’re tired. We’re stressed. We nearly got eaten by some worm thing from outer space. Let’s just drop it for now. The world isn’t going to end if we don’t settle this tonight.”

Katherine took a listless bite of pizza. “Saving the world’s their job. I wish I knew what ours was.”

Dale sat back down on the couch, and reached for the remote, then put it aside. It was best not to take a chance, not to risk accidently catching a hint of a story that could get them making plans for next weekend. “So do I.”

Saturday came, and they were home, the first time that had happened in longer than either could remember. It had been an odd week, a week of ducking out of restaurants if CNN was on the big-screen, a week of trying not to read the sections of newspaper that coworkers left in the bathroom, a week of trying not to overhear someone talking about how their aunt was acting odd or if they’d heard about that wave of arson up north, two cities away. A week of trying to talk about planning dinners, or about seeing if that movie that looked sort-of-maybe-funny was at RedBox, or about finally meeting each other’s relatives. A week of walking on eggshells balanced on land mines.

Katherine looked at dinner, something with chicken breast and wine sauce and mushrooms. Dale made it from raw ingredients, not a box mix. Another first in too long.

“This is nice.”

“Oh, thanks. I was worried the chicken was overdone.”

“No, I mean… this. Everything. Being home. Being normal.”

He sat down across from her. “It is. I’m not sure what to do tomorrow. We’re not looking at a five hour drive back from wherever we’d have ended up.”

“Not having to hold someone’s hand while they shake, and sob, and finally open up about how their dachshund breathed fire and tried to eat their soul.”

Dale paused mid-bite. “You think that arson thing in Greenville was hellhounds?”

“First thing to burn was an old antique store. You know what they’re full of.”

“Cursed this, ancient that, blasphemous…” he slammed down the fork. “Damn it!”

Katherine tilted her head, bemused. “That’s usually my line. Me angry, you stiff, remember?”

“We were supposed to not be doing this!”

“OK, I take it back. You don’t need to loosen up. I like you stiff. No, that wasn’t a come-on line. Well, maybe a little. Anyway, I didn’t mean to research it. The hens were clucking about it in the office, and…”

“It’s alright. I’m sorry. Just sort of… no. I wonder if this is what it’s like when cops or firemen retire, and they read in the paper about something, and they think ‘I should have been there, I could have helped…'”

“Yeah. But if we want this…,” she said, gesturing at the table set with real plates, holding real food, “we have to give up… that. That thing we do on weekends.”

“I know. I do want this. I do want life, normalcy. That’s why I went to you, in the bar. I recognized something in you, the same kind of scar I had, and I thought, ‘I need someone who understands.'”

She smiled, warmly. “It’s at least more romantic than ‘Man, she’s got great tits.'” She laughed. “Former boyfriend gave me his ‘Why I hit on you’ story. Note: Former.”

He took her hand. “We can make this work. Being normal. Let the rocks fall on their own, right?”

The phone rang.

Dale sighed, and answered it. The voice at the other end was deep, rumbling, and had other qualities that defied easy description. “Mister… Hawthorne?”

“Yes?” Dale flipped to speaker. Something was very off, here, and he needed Katherine to hear it. She often noticed the oddities first.

“You don’t… know me. I am called Adam Shelley.”

“Don’t know you, but I know of you. I think I saw you once, leaving Hardinsburg last October. Didn’t look like I’d expected.”

“No… neckbolts.” There was an echoing laugh, and both Dale and Katherine felt a chill.

Katherine spoke. “Look, if you’re calling to deliver some cryptic warning and tell us to back off, you’re too late. We got that speech from Robbie and the Professor. We’re done.”

Robbie? Dale mouthed.

Explain later, she replied, shaking her head.

“Oh… that is disappointing. I had… hoped… no matter. Farewell. ”

“Wait!” Dale and Katherine said together, then stared at each other.

“Yes?” came the voice.

“What were you calling about?”

“I dispatched… a beast… in Greenville. There was… a woman there… her lover called it… sent it on one who had wronged her… it…”

“Yeah, we can kind of guess the rest from the papers.”

“She who survived… is fractured. She can be… reassembled… or she can fall to pieces. I… am good at breaking. Not at fixing.”

Katherine and Dale looked at each other.

“We’ll… think about it.”

The call disconnected.

They looked at the slowly cooling chicken.

“Greenville is, what, four hours away?”

“If we leave now, we could be there by midnight… track her down tomorrow morning, have most of the day to try to help her, be back here by not too late Sunday night… well, Monday morning.”

Katherine sighed. “We shouldn’t. We were supposed to be trying to…”

Dale nodded. “You’re right. We have to learn to say no.”

Katherine nodded. “Totally.”

“This is what we agreed to. We have to support each other.”


“If we put the chicken into some Tupperware, we can nuke it when we get back. Should still be tolerable.”

“You do that. I’ll get to packing. If you’re done before I am, Google up the cheapest motel near to town.”

They don’t have powers or abilities beyond those of mortal men. They have no ancient lore beyond that which can be found with a web search. They appear in a succession of low-cost, unfashionable rental cars, and lack any distinctive mode of dress or signature style. They do what’s needed, not out of guilt or heritage or divine mandate, and if pressed for a reason, they will shrug and say, “It’s what we do.”

This story, somewhat obviously, has been about them… and about all the others, the legions of the left behind, the forgotten, the abandoned, all those whose lives keep going on after the interesting part is over. Every story is a universe, and that universe begins long before the first word and continues long after the final period.

The First Adventure Of The Fourth Streak Derrick


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…”


“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?”


“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?”


“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?”


“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!”


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…


Last week?


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.


“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


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.


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.)