The River of Stone Flows to the Sky

It has been a while since I shared any fiction on this page. I was inspired to write the following story over the course of the last few weeks while doing some design and development work for Starfinder role-playing game projects (both personal and professional). So, yeah, it’s fan fiction. Enjoy!


The River of Stone Flows to the Sky

A (unofficial) Starfinder Story

By Ian Eller

 

Kukedth and Muxedth crouched on their bellies, keeping their heads low enough to be concealed by the patch of thorny braxis in which they hid. Kukedth’s tail twitched impatiently and the beater he held in his backhand swayed, rustling the braxis. Muxeth hissed at her clutchmate, her forked tongue almost touching his nose she was so close to him. “Quiet,” she whispered harshly, easily making as much noise as Kukedth had. Her own beater hovered motionless while her three arms fidgeted a little.

They hid in the braxis for what seemed to Kukedth a very long stretch. His belly scales spasmed now and again and he had to fight to keep his tail still. He occupied himself by stacking small stones, going for a tower taller than the last before it collapsed. Each time it did so Muxedth reproached him with her hiss and glare. “Hunting is patience,” their father had always said. He was right. Unfortunately, patience was a gift divine Eldaroph had not bestowed upon Kukedth.

Suddenly the waiting ended. The wulgot was a hundred spans away when it raised its furry head above the brown grass. Without a word, Kukedth and Muxedth were after it. As soon as it sensed their movement it bolted. Its single powerful hopper drove it forward while its two thin forelimbs helped it make sudden turns as it tried to evade the hunters. The creature had little hope of evading Muxedth, and none at all of outpacing Kukedth.

Kukedth’s spine went rigid and he became a missile. His three arms scrambled for purchase for the briefest moment before launching him forward at breathtaking speed. He seemed to fly over the rugged scrub and rock and grass covered plain, faster than any of his broodmates and indeed of any of his kind that he knew. Muxedth did not try to keep up. She knew better. Rather, the other hunter tracked the wulgot with her keen eyes and tongue and ran to intercept its escape route. She forced it to double back and allowed Kukedth to get ever closer.

The chase was for Kukedth unfairly brief compared to the long wait. He dared not toy with the thing, however. They were hungry and the meal was needed back at the camp. He moved faster and faster, turning with ease each time the wulgot changed direction. Finally he got close enough to bring his beater down on the creature. It was a glancing blow, but enough to send the furry beast sprawling in the dirt. Kukedth circled back to where it had fallen and took another swing. He missed, but before the wolgot could right itself and launch away Muxedth was there. Her beater stroke did not miss or glance. The wolgot’s skull caved in and the hunt was over.

With the chase done the two hunters returned to their bellies. They drew out their knives and quickly cleaned the wolgot corpse. They laughed and joked as they did so, heady with the euphoria of success. Once they had finished the wolgot was carried by Muxedth, who was significantly bigger and stronger than Kukedth — but also slower, Kukedth would always note.

The way back to camp was long. Lately game was sparser and sparser in the plains. Their father said it was because of a drought, but others said differently. They said it was because of the moonfolk and their massive stone eating towers. Even as they slithered back to camp Kukedth and Muxedth could see one of the towers in the distance. Even so far away they could feel the vibration in their belly scales as the thing ate the earth and belched stones into the sky on a river of blue light. It was no wonder, some said, the game had fled with that never ending hum in the earth. Others still suggested an even more sinister explanation: the moonfolk were hunting the wolgot and bengit birds and hroth themselves, stealing food right from the mouths of the people, just as they stole the stones from the earth.

Kukedth did not like to consider such things. To him, the moonfolk were wonders and he secretly desired to see them up close, to visit their strange towers, and perhaps even ride one of their magical conveyances into the sky.

***

Braddig looked through the scope, tracking the two slitherers as they, well, slithered across the plain. In his field of view, reticles hovered over the aliens’ heads. The reticles glowed green and Braddig touched the trigger anxiously.

“Hey,” said Nora-19 and gently pushed the barrel of Braddig’s sniper rifle up toward the sky.

Braddig swore. “You ruined my shot,” he said, but he did not try to find his targets again. “I was only calibrating the scope anyway.”

Nora-19 considered the young human. Her cybernetic eyes scanned him from his short cropped hair and scruffy chin, down his scratched and dented combat harness and all the way to his worn out boots he refused to replace no matter how many ugly worlds just like this one they tromped on. The android shrugged and said, “I know, but there is movement in the Azlanti camp.”

Braddig got serious immediately. He turned around and settled in behind his rifle and looked through the scope again. The hill on which the they crouched was dense with the nasty thorn bushes native to the nameless rock of a world. He and Nora-19 were well concealed. The Azlanti camp was located perhaps ten kliks away near the base of the massive mining rig. Through the scope he could see the Azlanti soldiers in their green armor shining in the sun like beetles. The scientists and officers, identifiable in more subdued uniforms, were moving around quickly but not frantically. Not an emergency. What then?

As if in answer the image in the scope went blurry. The ground beneath him vibrated so strongly he felt it in his bones.

“The drill is close to the mantle now,” said Nora-19. “They have extracted all the karicite they can within safety parameters.”

“I don’t suppose the Azzies are known for adhering to safety parameters, are they?” asked Braddig as he refocused the scope and increased the magnification.

“Sadly, no,” said the android with more than a little wistfulness in her tinny voice. “If they operate as they have in previous incidents, they will evacuate and allow the drill to continue to work until the mantle is breached.”

“And our weird three armed snake friends will get a big lava surprise.”

“Yes. The region will likely be uninhabitable for thousands of years.” Nora-19 crossed her legs and bowed her head. She whispered something Braddig could not make out, then looked up with an expression of concern on her blue face. “The mining structure intelligence tells me it has begun preparations to merge with Triune through the gateway that is Epoch.” Her tone was reverent but concerned. “I expect we have very little time.” Braddig did not know or care much about the android’s strange three souled god, but he could tell what she meant: death was coming.

Through the scope Braddig could easily see he was looking at an orderly evacuation. What was likely only essential equipment was being loaded onto the three heavily armed transports while personnel secured the site. There was no need to arm destruction sequences — something the xenophobic and imperious Azlanti were known for — since once the plasma drill breached the mantle it was all going to be slag anyway. “We did not bid this job nearly high enough,” he complained.

“And yet we accepted the offer nonetheless,” said Nora-19. “So let us earn our meager pittance.”

Braddig grunted, opened a secure channel to The Adamant Wanderer, their ship, and hailed the rest of the crew.

***

Logist Isaura paused momentarily as the tremor passed. The vibration of it was a queer feeling, crawling up her legs and through her gut and finishing behind her eyes. When it stopped she went back to swiping her datapad. Her eyes flitted swiftly and precisely from the datapad to the camp. She noted every movement of every soldier and scientist, every crate and loader drone. The information was passed instantly through her fingers to the datapad and from the datapad to orbit where the Indomitable Will of Azlant waited.

“Logist,” said one of the Aeon Guards at her side. His designation was ArZ-892. She knew this because she knew the assignments and current positions of all personnel assigned to the mining operation. What his name was, she could neither say nor be bothered to ask. She gave the slightest nod, indicating permission for him to continue. “Overwatch reports movement within the exclusion zone,” he said. “Analysis indicates ninety-four percent probability that it is one or more members of the indigenous population.”

Isaura suppressed a frown of annoyance. The Vice Admiral was either testing her ability to multitask, or attempting to sabotage her efficiency matrix. In either case, it was an unnecessary distraction from her actual duty: evacuating the mine site prior to mantle breech. Without looking up at the guard, she asked, “What is the status of the prisoner population?” She knew the answer, of course, but was curious if ArZ-892 did.

“Three critical, two stable and four dead,” he answered without hesitation. The corner of her mouth twitched. Two critical, two stable and five dead. ArZ-892 was operating on information more than two cycles old. She made a note in his file and then said, “Take a standard compliment and acquire prisoners if possible, additional biomass samples if not.”

He saluted and jogged away, his armor blazing emerald in the sunlight. Logist Isaura set an efficiency tracker for ArZ-892 and went back to her real work.

***

Oddgob made the squeaky whistling sound he always did whenever he was about to deliver bad news. “Bad news, boss man,” said the ysoki, furry ears and bald tail twitching. “That blip was an Azzie floater leaving the camp.”

Braddig swore. “Floater? You mean one of their armored transports? Is it heading our way?” He moved to lean over the console, jostling the smaller, mouselike tech out of the way.

Oddgob’s whiskers danced with irritation as he reasserted his position in front of the console. “No. It looks like it is heading toward the locals you saw.”

Braddig sighed with relief. “Great. Good.”

“Good?” asked Oddgob, Nora-19 and Zocrom in unison. The kasatha had been silent to that point, as usual, sitting cross legged with his four arms set in his meditative pose. His eyes were set hard on Braddig from the center of his grey skinned, elongated skull and something about the way the mystic brought his arms to his sides as he flowed to his feet made Braddig nervous.

“What?” said Braddig, raising his hands. “I just mean the Azzies aren’t on us, which would be bad, right? I mean, right?” He looked from one face to the next and saw nothing but impassive admonition. “Come on! Look, they are dead anyway if we can’t shut down the drill, right? And if we go getting ourselves shot dead in a fight with the Azzies, we won’t be able to stop the drill, right? So in a way, not saving them is saving them. See?” He searched their faces. He held out hope for three heartbeats before finally sighing, swearing and saying, “Fine. We’ll help.”

“Your heart speaks the wisdom your mind does not wish to accept,” said Zocrom in his infuriatingly obtuse way before the mystic moved to sit at a station. His four hands worked rapidly over multiple consoles and the ship began to come to life. Meanwhile, Oddgob scurried out of the cockpit and into the engineering compartment. Nora-19 did not move but her eyes turned an opaque blue and the team’s small ship lurched off the ground. “Prepare for low altitude contour flight,” said her voice from everywhere at once; Nora-19 was not just the pilot, she was, in almost every way that mattered, the ship itself.

Braddig shook his head as he dropped into the gunner’s station and strapped in. “This is a bad bet,” he muttered even as the giddy feeling of imminent combat rustled in his guts.

***

Kukedth flicked his long forked tongue out. The taste of low burning embers was on the air. The village was ready for what he and Muxedth — and all the other hunting pairs — had managed to get this day. Then he tasted something else. It was acrid and ozone and oil. It was coming from far off behind them, carried on the breeze, but growing stronger. He twisted to look past Muxedth, who was straining a little under the weight of their catch after such a long way.

“What?” asked his clutchmate.

“Moon people,” said Kukedth quietly and slowly. Something was not right. The scent was strengthening quickly. “They’re coming,” he said hesitantly and then suddenly added in a scream, “Go! Run!”

By the time the words were spoken the alien flyer was in sight. It came in fast and low. Kukedth had seen them before from far away but never like this. He suddenly felt quite like the wulgot, and like it he sprang into motion at the imminent attack by a predator. He stiffened and planted his three hands and bolted.

The alien flyer hugged the ground almost close enough to trim the grass and braxis. Its speed was incalculable and it went from a distant whisper on his tongue to looming over him in a blink. It shone like the carapace of a gharro wasp and seemed no more friendly. Kukedth tried to outrun the thing but it easily kept pace. It slid to fly beside him as he ran. It matched every swerve and dash he made. Then the side split open and ona  short ramp stood an alien for each of his hands, including the back one. They wore their strange green shells and held even stranger weapons. Kukedth very much took back all the thoughts he had ever thought about wanting to meet the aliens as they raised their weapons. He hoped they did not realize he was leading the flyer away from the village, and also he hoped Muxedth had kept going that way.

Pain coursed through Kukedth suddenly. A wide net of lightning bolts, impossibly small and organized, had emerged from one of the aliens’ weapons and wrapped around him. His stiff spine convulsed and his fast three arms faltered and he was tumbling in the scrub and earth. He wanted to get back up but could not. No part of his body was doing as he commanded it. Meanwhile, the alien flyer was slowing and turning, having passed him by when he fell. It was coming back at him and one of the aliens on the ramp was aiming a weapon at him.

“Get up,” he hissed at himself.

“Get up!” screamed Muxedth at him. He sighed sadly. She had not left him to return to the camp. Too bad.

The flyer loomed close. Kukedth and Muxedth coiled around one another, each one comforting the other while themselves terrified and distraught.

***

Braddig fired. The forward plasma cannon sent twin balls of roiling death at the Azlanti transport. The weapon was normally used in the vacuum of space where it could do no harm except to its target. In the open of this arid world, so near to the ground, the plasma bolts set the grass and the very air ablaze.

“Direct hit,” said Zocrom still working the controls at his station. “Their shields are down.”

“And their comms?” asked Braddig as he lined up a second shot.

Zocrom hesitated only a heartbeat. “Still jammed. Unless the attack is under optical observation the Azlanti will not know of our intervention for the time being.”

“Nora,” yelled Braddig, “what does the drill have to say?” Even as he spoke he let loose with another barrage from the plasma cannons.

Nora’s voice came from all directions. “The mining intelligence refuses to discontinue its operations. It has embraced its fate to merge with Triune.”

Braddig swore and muttered, “Zealots,” before asking for a report from Zocrom. “The Azlanti ship is disabled and will likely lose reactor containment.”

“So, good news, bad news,” said Braddig. “Oddgob? Do we have time to–”

The ysoki interrupted over the in-ship comm unit. “Yes, yes, but only if we stop wasting time.”

“Okay,” said Braddig, “Nora, get us over there.”

“Aye,” the android spoke through the ship’s internal speakers.

***

ArZ-892 was named Orius Valden, after his grandfather. When the first plasma bolts hit the transport — he knew the sound and the electromagnetic signature that appeared on his heads up display — he was ejected and flew forty yards onto the rocky ground. His armor absorbed most of the impact, but he had landed with his left leg folded beneath him. Even the advanced polymers of the Imperial Foundry could protect him from a dislocated hip. His blaster was lost, thrown far from him by the impact.

He tried to call for help but something was jamming his communications with the base. This was not a surprise since they had been ambushed by what must have been an enemy starship — this planet’s aboriginal inhabitants were nomadic barbarians with neither the magical, alchemical nor technological capabilities to take down an Azlanti transport. He guessed the attackers were Pact World heretics, and when he saw their vessel he knew he was right.

He was too far away to fight, even though he still had a grenade at his disposal. Uninjured he would not have been able to throw the explosive so far. He watched as the sleek Pact World vessel — it bore no insignia, so he guessed they were mercenaries — slid in front of his own crippled transport. A kasatha came out the ramp and managed to coerce the two snake aliens into the ship before it turned and sped away in the direction of the drill rig.

Valden snorted with bitter amusement. He did not know if he hoped the mercenaries would fall prey to the cold, impenetrable Logist Isaura or if they would destroy her.

It did not matter. His time was up. His last thought as the reactor breached on the transport was simply, “Hail Azlant.”

***

That the transport had lost communication with the mining base had been a concern and a mystery. It stopped being the latter when a miniature sun appeared on the horizon to the east.

Logist Isaura clenched her jaw and stopped swiping over her datapad. Already the voices were filling her mind: panicked scientists, angry soldiers, admonishing officers. She did what she almost never did: she turned them off. Just for a moment, a brief handful of seconds of silence in her augmented brain in order to center herself. It did not work. She found no focus, no place to stand — mentally speaking — where the ground did not shift beneath her. With a resigned sigh, she opened all the channels again. The same noises. It was all going to fall apart. Her training told her that. She straightened her shoulders and handed the datapad to one of the Aeon Guard beside her. Her duty, however, told her that she could hold it together, that she must.

She immediately sent commands through the AzlaNet of the outpost, giving each squad commander and department manager their orders. As she did she tagged them and their subordinates and applied automatic demerits for any deviation from her orders. Within seconds the chaos that had followed the destruction of the transport ebbed. Order reasserted itself. The evacuation was not only back on schedule but was significantly accelerated. She broadcast that information to the vessel in orbit but did not open communications. She did not have time to explain basic logistics to men who had come by their rank via lineage and inheritance. There was real work to be done.

Now the difficult part: “MU-975gamma,” she thought, initiating a secure neural connection to the mining unit clockwerk mind. When she sensed the connection had been made but received no reply, she thought, “MU-975G, provide all current data regarding operations.”

“I am sorry Logist Isuara,” the artificial intelligence responded in her mind, “but my primary and secondary processors are engaged in final upload to Triune. I cannot comply.”

Isaura gritted her teeth but restrained herself from thinking insults at the mining intelligence. To do so would be inefficient and Isaura had no time to waste. “MU-975G, provide a precise assessment of time remaining to mantle breach.”

“Eleven point three eight seven minutes… now,” it replied.

She disconnected. It was not enough time to save everything, but she made a few adjustments to her orders and ensured all high priority items would be on transport in just over nine minutes. That would leave two minutes with which to deal with the terrorists and alien sympathizers — more than enough time.

***

Kukedth was in awe. The interior of the flyer was even more wondrous that it appeared from the outside. It was all polished steel and glowing crystals and panes of black glass etched with ever moving script. Among Kukedth’s kind, writing was a rarity, glass and steel were treasures and glowing crystals were thing of myth and legend. The magic of the alien flyer made him momentarily forget about his physical pain and his anguish at the near loss of Muxedth. His clutchmate was curled up on the cold steel floor, coiled on herself like a frightened hatchling. The alien attack and now this alien ship seemed too much for her.

“Be comforted, please.” The strange four armed humanoid was speaking in an unknowable tongue but the homespeak words emanated from all around intoneless, hesitating echoes. “You and your other are made safe now. To your home you will be taken in the next time that is soon.”

Another of the humanoids yelled something from his seat and the disembodied voice said, “Expletive.” The four armed one spoke and the ship said, “Please secure your body with the provided straps. There will likely be discomfort.”

Suddenly inertia threw Kukedth to one side, then another, and the sitting humanoid released more expletives while working the controls. The four armed one stopped paying attention to Kukedth and Muxedth and focused on its own controls. The ship shuddered and dropped so Kukedth’s stomach twisted even as he and Muxedth lifted off the floor briefly. After slamming down hard, Kukedth scanned his surroundings desperately until he found the safety straps the alien had indicated and after a few heartbeats fumbling figured out how to secure himself and his clutchmate.

The ship swerved and jerked and shuddered and skipped. Its alien crew worked hard at the controls and yelled at each other while they worked their controls. Kukedth stretched his torso to see what was happening and immediately regretted it: the great forward viewing wall showed a landscape spinning and undulating, with a simultaneous view embedded showing the same landscape from the opposite direction while shining green alien ships bobbed and weaved and sent bolts of iridescent fire screaming after the ship he was on.

Kukedth curled up tight against Muxedth. He took it all back. He did not wish to know anything of these aliens, their ships or the stars.

***

“Three point nine four nine minutes… now,” answered the mining intelligence.

Logista Isaura watched the last of the defense fighter spin out of control and crash into the landscape ina  white hot ball of plasma and she swore. She momentarily diverted her attention to the data feed from her implant. She preferred the organizational control over the datapad but in this situation ever fraction of a second counted. The transports would get away but the Pact World terrorists would have time to disable the drill.

She calculated quickly then broadcast, “Move parcels seven seven three to eight three eight to transport prime. Transport beta switch to combat configuration and prepare for interception.” She stalked in the direction of the ships. For only a brief moment she considered whether to board transport prime and escape into orbit. With some regret she dismissed the idea: Indomitable command would certainly see it as a failure, a flight from danger, rather than an attempt to personally oversee delivery of the most important research samples. No, she would have to board the transport turned interceptor and see it through to the bitter end.

By the time she reached transport beta the other ship had taken off. Those personnel that were not high enough priority to ride the transports were fleeing from the mining camp as fast as their legs would take them. Isaura tried not to envy them as she mounted the transport and ordered it aloft.

***

“I am ready,” said the mining intelligence. “I have uploaded my soul.”

Nora-19 responded, “Good. I wish you well on your journey.” Then, after something like a psychic embrace with MU-975G, Nora flicked back to the the immediate physical world and reported, “The drill has moved to full automation. You are clear to destroy it, Braddig.”

“Well , thanks for that!” shouted the human. “To be honest, though, I wasn’t waiting for permission, just a clear shot!”

The landscape rose and fell, twisted and turned. Braddig kept his focus while Nora-19 maneuvered, dodging anti-aircraft fire and trying to keep orbital weapons from getting a lock. “I am going to need some serious overcharge to get through that shielding,” Braddig shouted.

“Redirecting from shields now,” squeaked Oddgob through comms. “Better keep up out of reach, Nora.”

Zocrom’s steady, comforting tones came after: “Worry not,” he said, “I am impressing upon the Azlanti the futility of their actions and the imminence of their dooms should they not flee now.”

Braddig snorted. The kasatha had a nice, long winded way of not saying the word “taunt.” “Okay,” Braddig said, “enough chatter. Just get me a shot, Nora, and–”

The Adamant Wanderer shuddered and pulled hard to port. The whole ship range like a bell, loud enough to make Braddig’s eyes ache. Lights flashed and alerts sounded and Nora-19, Oddgob and the console in front of him all shouted at him what he already knew: starboard shields were down.

“One of the Azlanti transports is attacking us,” said Zocrom. Concern had leaked into the serene calm of his voice.

“Time?” demanded Braddig. Nora answered and he swore. It wasn’t enough, not to dogfight an Azlanti armored transport and take out the drill rig. He wanted to order the android to burn for orbit and get the hell out of there, but he knew she would not comply. “Alright,” he said as he switched his station to aft view and weapons control. “Nora, get us to the target as fast as you can. See if you can’t get the Azzies to back off or crash into something.”

“I will do my best,” said Nora-19, then, “Oddgob full power to aft shields.” The ysoki squeaked his assent.

Zocrom was saying something. The mystic never shut up. It was encouragement and wisdom, but Braddig pushed it out of his mind and focused on the pursuing ship. It was a transport, not a fighter, so it was big and clumsy, but tough. Nora swooped and turned and dove, keeping the Wanderer safe from the transport’s plasma cannons and missiles. Meanwhile, Braddig laid one coil gun round into the transport after another. It didn’t even flinch. It might be a lumbering ox in the air, but it was as tough as one. He did not have the ammunition nor the time to take it down like this.

“Okay, guys,” he shouted over comms, “new plan.”

***

“For the love of the Emperor just shoot them down already!” she screamed at the gunner.  She could feel the heat in her face and hear the blood in her ears. “Yes, Logist Isuara,” answered the gunner in an even tone with his eyes locked on the console viewscreen in front of him. The rest of the bridge crew stared pointedly at their stations.

Isuara took a deep breath and stepped back from the gunner station. The red in her face deepened, but this time it was out of embarrassment rather than rage. She was not the type to lose her temper, especially in front of subordinates. If she could not think clearly she could not do her job correctly, and deep emotions — love and hate and rage and fear — were the death of clear thought. She released the breath and said, calmly, “Continue firing. Their luck cannot hold forever.” She turned her attention to the pilot. “We can’t outmaneuver them,” she said, “and they know that. They cannot fly forever, and we know that. Determine their goal and beat them to it.”

“As you order, Logist,” replied the pilot.

The crewman at the sensor station said, “The mercenary ship is continuing to transmit, Logist.”

“Is it the same philosophical tripe?” she asked. The crewman nodded and Isuara said, “Then continue to ignore it.”

The enemy ship was wasting a lot of forward momentum dodging weapons fire, which allowed the slower transport to match speed without having to divert energy from the shields. Good thing, too: their gunner was frightening accurate with that aft coil gun. Hunks of metal accelerated to a small but significant fraction of light speed were particularly terrifying in atmosphere. On her datapad, Logist Isuara scanned through telemetry data while simultaneously watching the feed from orbit. When the Pact World ship suddenly changed course, she knew exactly what was happening and why, but before she could change her standing orders, it was over.

***

Nora-19 drew the Azlanti transport closer. It struck as oddly similar to how biological species engage in seduction: come close, show vulnerability, dash out of reach just for a moment but then fall back, let the kiss almost land. Before the Azlanti knew it, they were in her embrace.

“Now?” asked Braddig.

“Now,” answered Nora. “Oddgob, all power to inertial dampeners.”

Nora-19 let her consciousness become the ship. She was flying near the drilling machine, now just another empty shell devoid of a soul. She had drawn the Azlanti close and had shown them a tantalizing opportunity. Suddenly she whirled and dove. At the back of her mind she was vaguely aware of her body pressed hard against her restraints as the artificial gravity tried to keep them all from cracking under the sudden shift in momentum. Out her in the sky, however, she was unencumbered.

The Azlanti transport tried to match her course but it was too cumbersome. As expected it scraped against the body of the drill rig and then started to spin. Nora suddenly cut thrust and they were all weightless for a moment. As soon as the Azlanti ship had spun past them, Braddig fired the forward plasma cannons. It felt like something personal and pleasurable perhaps even a little obscene to Nora, inhabiting the whole ship as she was.

The plasma bolts struck home, targeting the Azlanti power core. Uncontrolled and bleeding fusion reaction, it became their missile. Nora-19 thrust as hard as she could for the sky. When the enemy ship’s core breached and it, the drill rig and the mining camp were consumed in a white hot orb, the Wanderer was barely outside the death zone.

***

Kukedth was happy to be back on the ground, and would be even happier to never leave it again. His insides still felt as though they were being shoved this way and that as the aliens’ flyer turned and tumbled in the sky. Muxedth was awake, but groggy and by her expression he guessed that she felt much the same.

The giant machine was a blazing ruin in the distance. By the way the aliens seemed pleased with themselves this must have been the desired result. He shuddered to think what the alternative might have been.

The four armed alien bowed toward them and said, “You have reached safety. The — something incomprehensible — are to be gone. With hopefulness they will not be returned.” The alien bowed again and turned and left Kukedth and Muxedth to sit in the tall grass.

As the ship rose into the air and increased speed until it was no longer visible, Kukedth curled himself comfortingly around his clutchmate. Together they looked across the plain to where the cook fires rose from their camp. He could just make out members of the clan slithering their way.

Kukedth sighed. There would be much to tell but perhaps for a few minutes he could rest in the sun.

 

The End

Advertisements

The Debt

It has been a long time since I shared fiction on this page. I have been in a bit of a sword and sorcery mood of late. Something about the visceral fantasies of the pulp era — especially those of R E Howard — inspires me. It is a kind of fantasy that has waxed and waned in popularity, but with the current trend toward the grim and gritty in fantasy it seems to be having something of a resurgence. So, without further ado, I present my take on the genre: The Debt.

Zendja climbed the rugged mountain path. Her legs were strong but had been made for long strides across flat plains. Now they ached with each step. Her back ached, too, hunched as she was with the straps by which she dragged the litter pulled over her shoulders for leverage. She flexed her arms with each step, trying to get blood to flow into her cold hands.

“Damn Golgot,” she cursed the sorcerer’s name for the hundredth time that day and probably the thousandth since she began the climb. “I would kill you, if you weren’t already dead.”

She raised her face and immediately regretted it. The mountain path climbed ever upward ahead of her, so steep and so long she could not see the end of it. She swore again and then looked at her feet and willed them to go one in front of the other. By the time her will was no longer sufficient, the sun had dipped below the mountain.

Zendja let loose the straps and flopped onto the ground. The rapidly cooling air dried the sheen of sweat she wore and sent shivers through her exhausted limbs. She wondered: if she were to close her eyes and fall asleep right then and there, would she die of exposure first or would the wooly mountain men said to serve the sorcerers kill her? Fueled by anger more than self preservation, she forced herself to her feet and went to the litter.

She stood beside the body of Golgot. He was wrapped mummy like in a winding length of oiled burlap, tied around him with criss crossing twine. The twine was in turn wrapped with a long, thin silver chain. She gave the dead man a sneer and a kick. Then, she knelt down and rummaged through her pack, which also lay on the litter along with parcels of food, two leather canteens, some firewood from farther down the mountain and her bow and quiver of iron tipped arrows. She wore her little hatchet on her belt, just in case.

She drew her big gray coarse poncho out of the pack first and pulled it over her head. She did not know if the sorcerers that lived on the mountain really kept wooly men, but she did know that soon the cold would be enough to kill her on its own. Once that was done, she opened a parcel and tore off a hunk of dried venison to chew while she prepared a fire. The wood would not last much longer and up here there was only scrub grass and stunted, twisted bushes covered in thorns that would not catch alight.

Would wooly men be afraid of fire, or drawn to it, she wondered.

Wrapped in her poncho with a belly full of meat and a few swallows of the fiery liquor she had lifted from Golgot before wrapping his corpse, Zendja pulled her knees tight up into her chest and buried her head in her arms. The ache in her body was dissipating with occasional tired spasms and her head was cloudy with approaching sleep when she heard the voice from across the fire.

“Zendja,” mumbled Golgot through his shroud. “Wake up, Zendja.”

No, thought Zendja. You are dead and I do not have to put up with your incessant, infuriating, imperious prattle any longer.

“Zendja!” barked the dead sorcerer.

Her head snapped up reflexively. “Damn, you Golgot!” She sneered and spat into the fire. “I am trying to sleep.”

A rasping laugh came from the gloom. “Sleep when you’re dead.”

“Why don’t you?” she muttered back but sat up unhappily anyway. The fire had burned very low and only the pale red light of the embers illuminated the wrapped body. When the wind crossed the embers it made them glow briefly and in that undulating gloom Zendja imagined the sorcerer’s body moving beneath its shroud. Or, she hoped she imagined it.

“How many steps today, Zendja?” asked the rasping voice of Golgot. “Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?”

“Shut up,” Zendja hissed. There was no conviction in it, though. She had had this argument every day since they had passed through the twin obelisks that marked the beginning of the trail to the temple at the mountain peak. Every night since then the body stirred and dead Golgot woke to torment her. Only Golgot or the gods knew why. She was keeping her promise to return him to his temple. What more did he want?

“–when the sleep never ends, then you will know,” the corpse was saying. She had not realized he was still talking, which was much the way it had been when he was alive. “Walk away. Return home. Then you will know.”

Zendja’s head snapped up. “What did you say?” she asked.

A croaking laugh came from the body. “Only that you can break your oath, Zendja. You never believed in curses, only in blade and bow. Test it and see if I always was a liar, as you said so many times.”

She frowned and spat again into the dying fire. Golgot was right about that. She had never really believed in his magical powers. When he threw flame from his lips or sent men to hell clutching their throats, she guessed it all tricks. She had seen many oils and powders and other alchemical tricks in her day and Galgot did nothing a deft charlatan could not have accomplished. Or, at least, nothing she could not convince herself had not been managed through trickery. For all his talk of consorting with demons to learn secrets forbidden to mortal men, Golgot had showed precious little power in their time together. Even so…

“I keep my oaths,” she said flatly. “No one can say Zendja the Hawk is not faithful to her promise or her price.”

“True enough,” whispered Galgot. The dead voice sounded weaker and farther away. Zendja glanced up to see the first cold light of dawn. “But who would know, here? If Zendja the Hawk left me for the wooly men, would word ever spread to the ports of Chano or the war camps of the Khanjit? What is the weight of an oath to a dead man?”

The corpse was silent. Zendja was not sure whether those last were Golgot’s words or her own thoughts. She was still exhausted, as if she had not slept at all — had she? — but dawn had come. With a heavy sigh she stretched her aching limbs and prepared to climb again.

***

Zendja met Golgot in a village called Fulg on the edge of the cairn covered hills of Ashon. She was travelling aimlessly after too many months in the western wars working for whatever side would pay her. Nearly all that pay was gone and she would soon have to return to mercenary work or turn to thievery again in order to survive. Golgot appeared just then, tall and gaunt and mysterious and, to all appearances, rich. “I need a guide into the hills,” he had said. “I seek to plunder the cairns of ancient kings.” She had disliked him from the first, but his money had her attention, so she joined him on his quest.

The memory of the things they saw in the those cairns still haunted her. She had killed plenty of men in her day, but at least they had had the grace to stay dead. The kings of Old Ashon, however, were not so well mannered. Nonetheless, they survived and came out of Ashon laden with torques and crowns and other treasures, and Galgot with the teeth of the king he had sought. However strange, pompous and fickle the sorcerer seemed, he promised Zendja two things she craved: an abundance of treasure and a dearth of boredom. So she agreed to accompany him when he decided to go east to the necropolis of Ku.

“There is one condition of your continued employment,” Golgot had said one day. “If I am to perish on our journeys and you live, you must return me to the mountain sanctum that made me.” She had shrugged assent, sure that when the time came she would leave his moldering bones wherever they fell. “This is no lightly made promise,” he had said suddenly and harshly, staring into her with his cold, white yes. “This is an oath you must make, on pain of a curse on your very soul!”

Zendja had again shrugged and assented. She had not believed in curses any more than she believed in keeping her word to dead men. But as the years passed and they travelled from one strange land to the next, she saw things that made her wonder. And when Golgot finally fell to the sting of the ghost asp while they hunted for the vaults of Dum-gha in the jungles of Pek, she was uncertain enough to wrap his corpse as he had instructed and carry it back to the mountain.

“Do not let the moon turn thrice, Zendja,” the sorcerer had said. “If it does then we are both damned.”

***

The pile of shit in front of Zendja worried her. It did not look like the dropping of any animal she could think might live on the rugged mountain slope. It look like a man’s shit, except that of a very large man. A wooly man? She crouched and examined it. It was cold and dry. Old, then. Even so, she scanned the mountain for any signs of movement. She saw none but the short thorny scrub waving in the incessant breeze.

The mountain trail seemed endless. She trudged up the steep slope every day, dragging the wrapped corpse behind her. Every night, she listened to the dead man taunt her and press her to leave him on the mountainside, to abandon her oath. She could not say for certain whether it was real and half believed his gabbling to be just a cruel trick played by her own mind. Golgot did not deserve the effort of pulling him up the mountain. Zendja did not think her soul would be damned with his if his body did not make it back to the temple of sorcerers. But despite all his incessant squawking and the unending toil, she kept at it. No one would say Zendja the Hawk did not fulfill her promise, least of all the shade of a fraud.

That pile of dried, frozen shit was the last straw, though. She released the straps suddenly and let the litter slide a dozen paces back down the trail before wedging itself against a rock. She poked at the pile and then suddenly screamed in rage and kicked it. Zendja stalked down to the litter and kicked Golgot’s corpse over and over. It was like kicking a bag of dried branches. She heard the crack of his bones and when she had exhausted her rage the mummy was bent oddly in the middle.

“You want me to leave you here?” she spat between deep gulps of the thin air. Her head was swimming and she could not seem to catch her breath, even after so little exertion. “I should, you lying devil. I should…” Her eyes landed on the thin silver chain she had so carefully wound in the precise manner Golgot had instructed. “I should take some payment! Haven’t I labored long already?” A snarl twisted her face and she descended on the broken body. “Yes. This will do for my troubles,” she said and began to unwind the silver chain.

The fact that she was kneeling beside the litter saved her life. Her bow was only inches from her hands as she furiously worked the chain from the twine. She had kept the bow strung, too, just in case. So when she heard the sound of cloven hooves pounding against loose stone she did not hesitate. As if of its own accord the bow lept into her hands with an arrow knocked and she spun. By the time she had turned and loosed the arrow the thing was on her. Its curled ram horns struck her in the shoulder just as the bow string sang. She want flying back and away from the litter, pain radiating from the dislocated joint, even as the monstrous goat-man tripped over Golgot’s body and landed heavily in the gravel, face down.

Zendja tried to raise the bow, despite not having another arrow in hand, but her arm would not budge. She howled in rage and pain and tore at the small hatchet to free it from her belt. Her cry was met by one from the wooly man. It pushed itself up and bleated a grotesque sound that could almost have been a word. It touched its neck where Zendja’s arrow was sunk to the fletching. It bleated again, it’s eyes wide with wrath, and lowered its head. It leaped forward at her in bloodlust. Too exhausted, too out of breath, in much too pain to dodge aside, Zendja tucked and rolled forward at the beast man. Her body slammed into its powerful legs and she felt ribs crack even as her injured shoulder seemed to catch fire anew,. But the move sent the wooly man sprawling and as he fell Zendja swept the hatchet out in a wide arc with all her might.

The wooly man bleated again but it was a gurgling, pained sound. It struggled against its own weight but too much blood had already poured out from the wound Zendja’s hatchet had torn across its belly. It writhed in its own spilled entrails for a moment before going still.

For her part Zendja lay on her back in agony. She gritted her teeth and tried to move. All she could manage was an tortured scream that echoed across the mountain.

***

“Wake up, Zendja.”

Her eyes snapped open, taking in a view of the sky full of stars. It was night time. She had passed out and been unconscious for hours. She moved to sit up but her body pulsed with agony. She made a hissing, growling sound through clenched teeth. Rasping laughter crawled spider-like over her from where Golgot’s body lay. Zendja managed to turn her head enough to see it there, a shadowy mass against the mountainside.

“What is so damned funny?” she seethed.

The laughter stopped and in the darkness the black mass that was Golgot shook suddenly. Terror clenched Zendja’s guts. She could see the silver chain dangling in the moonlight, no longer wrapped so tightly or precisely around the shroud. “Golgot,” she managed to push up her dry throat and out her trembling lips.

“No,” said the shadow. The body shook and flopped and rolled off the litter. Then, with a tearing sound, a pale arm pushed through the burlap and clawed at the night air. “No,” said the voice again, “not Golgot.”

Senseless fear took hold of Zendja. She scrambled as well as she could away from the burlap horror. Her boots scraped the loose stone and her ribs shifted and stabbed her middle and her shoulder caught fire and she moved perhaps an inch or two. Meanwhile the shroud flopped and shook and then another arm tore free. Through the haze of her terror she recognized that the arms did not match. The first to emerge was thin and pale while the next was dusky and musclebound. When the third arm emerged she screamed. This one was covered in black fur and bore a clawed, four fingered hand.

“We are not Golgot,” said not one voice but many from within the shroud. “Golgot treated with us, then cheated us and bound us.” The arms reached out and found purchase in the rocks. They dragged the corpse up the slope toward Zendja. “We will have our revenge on Golgot. And upon you, Zendja the Hawk.”

“No,” she gasped and tried once again to scramble back. The pain and stiffness from lying on the mountain made her weak. She could not escape the approaching monstrosity, especially as another arm slithered out of the shroud, this one boneless and slimy. “I did nothing to you!” she pleaded.

“You did!” cried the voices. The crawling shroud was close now. “You sought to cheat us of our vengeance. You sought to deliver this liar’s body to the safety of his temple and save his soul. No, Zendja the Hawk, his soul is ours and now so is yours!”

The furred claw grabbed her ankle and Zendja kicked and cried but it was no use. The weird tentacle wrapped around her other leg while the dusky arm reach up and dragged her closer. She screamed and the pale hand clapped over her mouth. Beneath the burlap something moved, as if it was a bag full of rats. “Finish what you started,” said the voices. “Free us.”

Her eyes went to the dangling silver chain. One tug and it would come undone. “Free us and we will only kill you.” She imaged the shroud breaking open and a legion of monsters emerging. “Free us and your gods can keep your soul.” The hand of her uninjured arm reached for the silver chain. It would be easy, and then the nightmare would be over. Her fingers found the chain and her fist closed and then the chain was out of her grip and the bag of rats was off her.

Zendja could not see but she could hear: the howls of rage from within the shroud, the crunching of hooves against stone, bleats of rage and pain, demonic curses and a sound like wind rushing through the trees just before the sky opens in a torrent. Then there was only silence, save for the sound of Zendja’s heart pounding in her ears. She tried to calm it but she could not. Her breath came in huge gulps of the cold mountain air but it was never enough. Her vision contracted and everything became shadows except for the stars wheeling overheard until they became a blur of starry lines.

***

Morning sun on her cheek woke Zendja. When she opened her eyes she found she was braced against a low wall out of the wind. Her arm was in a sling and bandages wrapped her torso. A fire was down to embres in front of her and a pot containing some sort of stew or soup hung over it. Across from her a wooly man sat staring at her.

“Good,” said the wooly man in a voice that sounded like something between a growl and a bleat. He stood suddenly and walked away, heading up the mountain path without another word.

“Wait,” she called out, but the wooly man did not stop or say anything else. She tried to pick herself up and follow but her body was too tired and sore.

She looked around. Her puck was nearby, looking as though it were stuffed full, as well as her bow and quiver. Of Golgot’s corpse there was no sign. After a few minutes, having no other options she tested the soup. It was good and restored warmth to her and eased her pain.

She stayed at the little camp for two days. She saw wooly men come and go once but they would not speak to her. On the third day she felt well enough to travel. She gathered up the pack, with was full of provisions, and her bow and quiver and drank the last of the soup.

Up the trail, perhaps another day’s climb, she could just make out a structure built into the bones of the mountain. Her keen eyes caught movement on its walls and before its gates, both the big forms of wooly men and the slighter forms of what she presumed were sorcerers like Golgot.

Zendja gave the temple a rude salute and started back down the mountain, vowing never to have dealings with sorcerers again.

Star Wars: A Galaxy of Subgenres

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a Star Wars fan. For as long as I can remember, the adventures of Jedi, smugglers, X-Wing pilots and weird alien heroes has enchanted me. It isn’t the kind of fandom that involves editing Wookiepedia or memorizing every species homeworld (not that there is anything wrong with those things) but rather a simpler, joyous kind of fandom that had me tearing up when I first heard the theme played in a theater in 1997 when the Special Editions were released. I first saw Star Wars sometime in the early 1980s on Betamax tape and had been re-watching the trilogy and (perhaps more importantly to my love of Star Wars) gaming in the universe by way of West End Games role-playing game. And, of course, there were comics and novels and video games.

The question as to how and why Star Wars managed to become such a powerful pop cultural force based on one ground breaking but ultimately indie sort of film is both interesting and probably unanswerable. No doubt many have tried and much has been written by both experts and amateurs alike. I won’t both injecting my voice into that discussion. Rather I want to talk about what it is I find so compelling about Star Wars and how it informs the direction of my own creative energies.

In brief: Star Wars, while representing a single milieu, contains within it many different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. Just on its face, the original 1977 film is both a spaceships-and-laser-guns Science Fiction film AND a heroic journey, swords-and-wizards fantasy film. There are alien horrors weird enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud as well as World War II ace combat. Lucas borrowed heavily from all kinds of film and fiction and so too did the people that followed him, from the earliest Marvel comic books to the current games and cartoons. Star Wars is inclusive, allowing it to tell different kinds of fantastical stories.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed and was very impressed. this was hardcore military sci-fi in the Star Wars universe. The grit and relative realism presented in the novel juxtaposed well against the action-adventure melodrama of The Force Awakens. I don’t do reviews, but I will make recommendations: if you like Star Wars and you like gritty military sci-fi, Twilight Company is definitely worth your time. I could give or take the flourishes in the audiobook — music and sound effects, primarily — but they did not reduce my enjoyment. But more to the point, Twilight Company stands as a useful example for how Star Wars, while remaining fantastical space opera, became a successful vehicle for another genre. Like super hero comic books, Star Wars takes so much inspiration from so many other sources that it is a genre chameleon.

I like blurry genre lines. It is one of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, I think. Whether it is Gamma World, Thundarr or my own ReAwakened World, futuristic and unrealistic PA fiction is freedom to play with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns and more. Star Wars does that too, and very likely instilled that sensibility upon me (along with the aforementioned super hero comics).

My first novel Elger and the Moon is available for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in print from Amazon.

Found Fiction: The Final Word

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By The original uploader was Fredrik at English Wikipedia [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Found Fiction” is the name I am giving to old stories I find buried on my hard drive, Google Docs or elsewhere. Many are unfinished and nearly all are in first draft form. I write a lot of stories just sitting down and starting typing, with little or no idea what I am doing. That is a habit I am trying to break , by the way. In any case, some of this Found Fiction is worth sharing — not good enough to polish and try and sell, but perhaps there is a core idea I think worth sharing or I just like the way the prose came out.

 

This story is an End Of The World tale. I have written a lot of these — or at least started them. Because I obsess over what we — mankind — are and why we are here, I think a lot about what would happen if we went away, and how we would react to knowing it in advance. This story is a pretty perfect example of my thoughts on the matter, or at least what i find interesting enough to create a narrative for.

 

Note: this is the draft in its raw form, presented just as I found it. I do not remember when I wrote it.


Editorial: The Final World

 

In this, the last issue of the nation’s longest continuously published newspaper, we have dedicated tens of thousands of words to your stories. Over the last weeks, since confirmation of the impending Minefall Disaster (for which I must apologize, as it was one of our headlines that created the name that stuck), we have talked to you. We have talked to you online and over the phone and in the streets and in your homes. We believed it important to tell your stories at The End, to be preserved forever in a space age, diamond version of microfilm that hopefully one day some future (or even alien) civilization will find and decipher.

But yours were not the only stories we wanted to tell. From the time this issue hits the internet and the newsstand, you will have nearly twelve hours to peruse it. While we wanted you to meet the end with understanding for your fellow reader, we also wanted you to read the words of our greatest thinkers and our most beloved, and even detested, leaders. In these pages you will find the words of celebrity activists and Nobel laureates, presidents and prime ministers, religious leaders and scientific visionaries, even terrorists and despots. This is, after all, the final view of mankind, and here at least, we believe in telling the whole story.

Among all those voices, the mundane and the famous, there is one we know that you all, everyone in the whole world and anyone who might come in the future, will want to hear. We managed to secure an interview with that very person in his final hours last night, so that his words, his explanations and excuses, would also be preserved forever in diamond microfilm.

Some have suggested we not run that interview, that we should not give acknowledgement to the man that ended our entire civilization, perhaps our entire species. We here, however, chose a different option. If it is our jobs as journalists to tell all sides of the story, then we must be compelled to tell his, too, no matter how twisted or vile we might find them. By setting us on this path, by very directly bringing about Armageddon, this man, Tobias Hossler, has become the most significant figure in human history.

While everyone on Earth now knows the name Tobias Hossler, allow me to introduce him for those we presume to one day find this story: he was a genius in both technology and economics who built a multi-billion dollar company from nothing in the heady first decades of the Internet. Unsatisfied with mere bits and bytes, Hossler moved into the real world, first in commerce and research and development, and then into the energy sector and the global commodities trade. Even this was not too big for a man of his vision, and his final project, the one that would turn into all our Final Project, was to mine the Moon for its precious resources, turning the Rare Earth minerals that drive our technological society into Every Day Earth minerals with just a little push out of the lunar gravity well. Most impressively was this: he did it. To all our doom. A full biography of Tobias Hossler can be read on page 7.

What no one realized about Hossler wa that everything he did, every step he took on the ladder of success, was a step toward a most terrifying and nefarious goal. Hossler desired nothing less than the complete eradication of humankind from the face of the Earth, and he hatched a plan that would allow him to achieve it. However ridiculous that sounds, however Hollywood and Comic Book, it is true, and now, today, we all face down Hossler’s success. How he did it is unimportant (though we did detail the process on page 13). The real question is, and has been since it became public, “Why?”

There is no one better suited to answer that question than Hossler himself:

In his cell, the day before he was to be taken to the receive his lethal injection, I personally sat down with Tobias Hossler. We talked about a great many things, but it was only mere minutes before his death, that Hossler told me the answer to that question.

He said, “I don’t think it was any one thing that did it. But, even so, I remember this day in early 2011. I was in India, promoting our Asian Initiative, and a news story broke about the gang rape and murder of two fourteen year old girls on a train to Delhi. The thing was, it did not break in India. There, it wasn’t news, because it happened so often. It was all over CNN and the other American cable stations. The thing was, I realized it was only on the news there because the girls were white. They were British kids that got on the wrong train after a field trip.”

I asked him if he was destroying the world because two white girls got raped and murdered on a train in India. He scoffed at me. “Don’t be ridiculous. Like I said, that is just a thing I remember. It sort of cemented the realization of how bad we really are. Us. Our species, I mean. All of us. Not just in the abstract, but each and every one of us. Everyone, some time, thinks and maybe even does horrible things to one another. It is our nature. It is inescapable.”

Tobias Hossler says many more things about human nature, the human capacity for evil and whether the ultimate murder is somehow justified in the complete interview on page 25. I know there are some of you, many of you probably, who don’t want to sift through his diatribe and justifications. I don’t blame you. Sitting through it when it was coming out of his mouth was almost too much to bear.

I asked Tobias Hossler why he believed the bad in humans was so bad that it outweighed the good in us. He answered with this:

“At my heart, I’m a mathematician. I do the numbers. I actively considered all the joy and love and beauty in a given life. I realized that these things were precious because they were rare. If they were routine, they would not be worth cherishing and remembering. Once I realized that, realizing the corollary, that the vast majority of life was not full of love and joy and beauty, and much of it was filled with the opposites, was easy. No matter what we did, not matter how ‘good’ we made the world, we could not make it worthwhile. I thought about that and thought about it until it was keeping me up at night and driving me crazy.”

He smiles wryly here, like he knows what I wanted to point out. I resisted the urge and let him continue.

“In the end, the math wins. There is, and always will be, more pain and anguish and ugliness than joy and beauty. The net gain would always be bad. So I decided to solve the problem.” He laughed here, a genuine amused laugh, cold and terrible given the circumstances of the interview. “I had already started work on my lunar mines. It would be a small matter to keep the world in the dark and set a huge chunk of lunar rock into an Earth crossing orbit that could extinguish most high life forms, including, very probably, every human being on the planet.”

Tobias Hossler died precisely eight minutes after that. He chose to stop talking. We shook hands and I left his cell. I watched him up until the moment they took him from his cell to the death chamber. As far as I could see, he never once broke down and cried or prayed for mercy or any of the other common behaviors exhibited by the doomed.

It was part of my job to watch Hossler die. I can not say in good conscious that a part of me, the angry part that feels robbed of not just my future but the future of the entire human race, did not enjoy watching him die. But another part of me, deep in the recesses of my mind, sort of agreed with him. Yes, we would be dead and gone, and the world would lose much for that. But at the same time, no two little girls will ever be held down and brutalized, then murdered, by a group of strangers ever again.

As I hit “send” to get this editorial in on time to meet press time, I have somewhere around 13 hours to live. My wife and kids are in the living room, just a few doors down from this study, burning through every Pixar movie ever made. My brother and his wife are gone: they committed suicide with about 200 other people a week or so back. My parents died years ago. All over the world, friends of mine — and when you are a journalist and then editor for a paper like this one, you make a lot of friends in a lot of places — are preparing themselves however they see fit to meet their End, and perhaps their Maker.

Just like you all.

In these last moments, I suppose all I ask is this: prove Tobias Hossler wrong. Be good to one another.

Good bye, and thank you.

The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse

phoenix-fabelwesen

I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.

 

Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.

 

Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.

 

When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.

 

Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.

 

There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.

Elger Update: The Words, They Are Written

It has been a long time since I mentioned my novel Elger and the Moon, which I began in earnest a little over 15 months ago and finished the first draft of just less than a year ago now. Well, the last day of 2016 turned out to be the day I finished the editing process (which I did with the input of a good friend who is also a professional editor). That means the book is done!

 

Well, the words anyway. It seems there is a lot more work yet to be done. I hemmed and hawed over whether to submit it to publishers and agents, or to self publish. I finally decided on the latter. I am not especially good at selling anything, let alone myself, but I am even less patient and the prospect of waiting years to find a publisher and then see it published was too daunting. So instead I will cinch up my mantaloons and do what I need to to get it out there and seen. From there, it is up to, well, you guys.

 

Over the next weeks expect to see more news about Elger here as well as other things. Table top (or virtual table top) gaming is still a huge part of my life and I have much to share on that front, as well as thoughts and opinions of everything from the awesomness that is the newest Star Wars to my complete and utter spasmodic anticipation for Horizon: Zero Dawn. Long story short: expect more geekiness out of me than you saw in 2016, as well as a little of the promotion (which I am no good at).

 

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.

 

Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.

 

Embracing the Virtual Tabletop

fantasygrounds2

Thanks to Fantasy Grounds, I have officially slain my inner Luddite.

I am not a technology averse individual. I am as tethered to my smartphone as much as any modern person. I own computers and tablets and gaming consoles and weird robot ladies that live in little black towers that play music when I want. But one place where I consistently resisted embracing technology was table top, pen and paper roleplaying games. Certainly, whenever I would run the Pathfinder RPG I made use of the extensive on-line SRD and associated apps, but I refused to actually play online. I resisted the siren song of Maptools, Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, despite having friends that successfully used each, as well as simply getting together to game on Google+ Hangouts or Skype.

I think my resistance was based on the way I perceive myself as a Game Master. When I run a game, I rarely sit down. I see my roll as referee and storyteller, but most as entertainer. It is like an interactive one man show or stand up comedy for a select group of hecklers. Though I am not sure I ever articulated it in my protestations to VTT enabled friends, I thought that my style of GMing, what I literally brought to the table, would not translate to a microphone and computer screen. And if I am being honest about it, how I perform as a GM is embarrassingly important to me.

What finally made me reevaluate using a VTT was when I realized I wanted to play more often with people who lived far away. Once a year I drive 500 miles to cram 30 hours of table time into 4 days to continue a campaign that has been going on for 20 years and counting. It is awesome. No gaming experience matches it for pure immersive fun. But it is also limiting. That world and its stories are told in annual event stories. Little is accomplished outside of those events so the characters don’t get the kind of small scale, personal stories that created the foundation on which we still play. It turned out that the game system we use for that campaign, Mutants and Mastermind 2nd Edition, was not supported by Fantasy Grounds, but the newer 3rd Edition is.  I decided to give FG a try, to see if we could use it and then whether we wanted to make that edition transition. Somewhere along the line, I happened to accidentally fall in love with running Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

Fifth Edition is fully supported by FG and even free, at least in its Basic Rules form. Being completely unfamiliar with FG but very familiar with 5E I decided to mess around with FG using the 5E rules. With the help of the friend who had been successfully running games on VTTs for years, and who was ever berating me for avoiding the technology, I learned just enough to be dangerous — to my wallet. Fantasy Grounds is not an inexpensive platform for the GM, especially when it comes to running D&D. A quick check on Steam shows that you can get the Complete Bundle for D&D at a cost of over $300. If you want to be able to host players without them having to buy the software, add another $100 for the Ultimate License, or pay a $10 monthly subscription fee. I tend to view the purchase of gaming materials not from a “how much does this one thing cost” perspective but a “hours of enjoyment” perspective. Even at the high cost, if I use FG even half as much as I plan to it will come out to be some of the least expensive entertainment ever.

As an aside, I think that is true of table top RPGs in general. Sometimes books do cost a lot, and sometimes they sit on your shelf, but if you actually play an RPG regularly its cost per hour of entertainment can’t be beat.

After that initial exploration of Fantasy Grounds, I quickly fell in love with it as a platform. I invited far flung folks with whom I have and/or currently game to give it a shot. That resulted in almost universal excitement. Now I have more potential players than I know what to do with and am developing a new campaign world — about which I will blog in the near future. There are still technical hurdles to overcome — we have gone through a couple VOIP solutions so far — and scheduling is likely to be a bear. Even so I am excited for what the future holds: how long before it is a VRTT*?

*Virtual Reality Table Top

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right

About a year ago, I wrote a little post about Superman versus Cthulhu.  It was not merely an idle musing on how to marry the bright four color world of superheroics and the hopeless ennui of eldritch horror — it was the thesis for my work on the Strange Arcana universe from Sigil Entertainment and Aaron Acevedo. At the time, I was seriously considering doing some RPG self publishing and knew I would need some art for any such project. I tossed out a call on Facebook to get recommendations for royalty free art. Aaron, with whom I had worked in writing a story for his Maelstrom fiction anthology, suggested we team up and the rest is history. Strange History, in fact.

 

I did my first professional RPG writing for White Wolf Publishing (who didn’t, right?) on the kitchen sink, dialed-up-to-eleven epic fantasy RPG Exalted. Later I did some work for the d20 reboot of the famous post apocalyptic science fantasy game Gamma World. Unfortunately, real life got in the way when my kids arrived and I could not sustain a freelance RPG career. I always missed it, though, and when Aaron proposed an opportunity to get back into that world, I was ecstatic. And terrified.

 

It wasn’t easy. Writing for games is entirely different than writing fiction, and I had spend the intervening years focusing on fiction in hopes of one day Making It Big. (Spoiler alert: I am still hoping.) What was originally supposed to be a short turn around job has become a year long odyssey through this world of super heroes and malevolent forces. While the idea and the world belong entirely to Aaron, I feel a sense of kinship with the world we have developed. Both super heroes and Lovecraftian monsters are easily misused — both are subject to tired tropes and cliched stories. But I think our little team, which has grown well beyond Aaron and I, has found a way to make both new and fresh while simultaneously creating a world that blends the two and is more than the sum of its parts.

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right is only the first piece of that world we want to share with you. It is a fiction anthology, culminating in a beautifully illustrated comic book, that introduces the weird world and strange heroes. It will be followed in early 2017 with the Strange Arcana RPG for Savage Worlds (and, if we hit our goals, hopefully Mutants and Masterminds and FATE as well!) and, we hope anyway, a long line of support.

I love fantasy and I love post apocalypse and I love cosmic horror, but no genre hits all the cylinders for me like comic book super heroes. It draws on all the genres we love and at the same time remakes them. And more than any other genre, it demands complex characters — those secret identities, love interests and recurring villains are there for a reason, after all. With the infusion of its own take on eldritch horror (far more than a simple Lovecraft retread) Strange Arcana promises to reinvent the super hero genre for years to come.

 

Get in on the ground floor. Back Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right Kickstarter. I guarantee that by the time you finish the anthology you will be clamoring for more.

On the Value of History in Storytelling

Source: Official Marvel Website

You may have heard about a couple small films that came out this year: indie darling Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and a little joint called Captain America: Civil War. Many have discussed these two films, both individually and in relation to one another, and many good points have been made. The long and short of it seems to be that BvS was overblown tripe and CA:CW set the new gold standard, or something to those effects anyway. I won’t belabor the point or retread well worn ground. Rather, I want to talk about what these two movies underscored for me as a viewer, a fan of the source material and a writer. Namely, how a real sense of history informs storytelling and how a thin veneer of it can be worse than none at all.

Source: Bleeding Cool

The above pages from The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal comic book by Frank Miller from which director Zack Snyder took inspiration fro BvS, underscores my thesis. The captions which present the antagonists’ thoughts ooze history between the characters, making the battle between them important far beyond its spectacle or the late night nerd sleepover question of whether Batman could ever beat up Superman. This history is earned in DKR, sprouting from decades of team-ups and crossovers between the characters. Batman and Superman were friends once and it shows. their battle is not simply about anger or revenge, it is about an ideological rift between two genuinely heroic figures. Every World’s Finest comic book and every episode of Superfriends produced was leading to this moment. At least, Miller was able to convince us of that. He did not have to wipe the slate clean in order to justify the conflict between the Big Blue Boyscout and the Dark knight Detective. Rather, that deep connection was what made such a conflict possible and compelling in the first place.

 

Similarly, the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War was earned. perhaps not by decades of comic books but by years of big budget, very well made tent pole blockbusters. The architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wove each of the properties together and did not waste appearances by one character in another’s film. Moreover, the Avengers films that brought the characters together did so in a way that solidified relationships and established history. Due to the nature of film release, there is not a huge body of work in the same way there is in comics. It would have been lovely for Cap, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor to all have TV series that crossed over regularly with one another and the rest of the ensemble, but in a world where it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to do these characters justice on screen, that is a vain hope. Even so, I think the collective creative powers of the MCU managed to create that history without relying too heavily upon unrelated comics or cultural connection the way BvS did.

 

So what is the lesson? The lesson for me is informed by years of playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. I know. I was equally surprised.

 

RPGs share a lot with other episodic and serial forms of entertainment such as comics, television series, long book series (ex: Dresden Files), and of course movie series. In an RPG the continuity between sessions is a major component of the fun for the players. Not only do players watch their characters grow in wealth and power, they watch the world in which their characters operate grow, with recurring villains and subplots and themes. In other words, they develop a history within the context of the campaign. That history feeds itself. Every time a recurring villain shows up or an old ally reappears, the value of that historical element increases exponentially. You know you have succeeded as a Game Master when the revelation that the bad guy behind this adventure is the party’s old enemy elicits both cheers and jeers. They players are invested in a way they cannot be when presented with new threats, no matter how cool.

 

That same is true of other forms of entertainment. Comic book movies often make the mistake of killing off the villains at the end. Writers, directors and producers think, I believe, that audiences demand closure and in an action move, closure amounts to a bullet between the eyes or falling off something exceptionally high — preferably into something fiery and/or explodey. Television and comics fare far better on this front, though even comic book inspired shows like CW’s The Flash rely heavily on the death of the villain as the climactic event. It is not an insurmountable problem, of course, as Civil War displayed: the protagonists then must shoulder the responsibility of history. If recurring villains are not on the table, then it must be recurring heroes, along with non-villainous rivals and other supporting cast, that must do the heavy lifting in this regard.

 

Ultimately, what a sense of history provides is a reason for the audience to care.  There are a lot of ways to attract and then sustain a reader or viewer’s attention, but getting them emotionally invested is much more difficult. One surefire way to succeed is to tug on those emotions tied to the history between two things or organizations or participants. Few people gave a shit about Batman fighting Superman because that conflict failed to say anything about the emotional relationship between those characters. There was no history there. The fight between Captain America and Ironman, on the other hand, was much more well received and inspired a lot more emotional investment from the audience because the people in the seats not only knew who those characters were, as they did with BvS, but actually knew those characters and their motivations and what could drive a wedge between them. They knew these things because they had been invested enough to go see, rent, own or pirate all the MCU things that came before.

 

I am not saying there is no place for stories that are told in a single unit of storytelling, whether one novel or one film or one RPG session. Rather, I am suggesting that history and its weight plays a large role in our tendency to care about the fiction we consume. Acknowledging that will make us both better consumers of storytelling and purveyors of it.