4.19.2019

GOOD FRIDAY

No fiction today in honour of the anniversary of the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

4.17.2019

Music to Write By



In an email exchange Dad recently had with a fellow writer, the use of "background noise" came up. This friend said he always writes with either a movie or music playing in the background. Others have said they would find it too distracting.

Dad/Godfrey certainly falls into the group of writers who almost "need" some background music while writing. Mood-appropriate music can really help get into the right frame of mind. As such, he listened to a LOT of Star Wars soundtrack while working on his space fantasy novel (which is in final re-writes so consider this your first "teaser").

Lacking time for any more substantive posts, I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite writing music -- maybe if you're a writer you can make use of it too:

Fantasy

General - Snow White and the HunstmanGladiatorGame of Thrones, Lord of the Rings soundtracks, Saints and Sinners: the Ultimate Medieval Music Collection
More upbeat/heroic - Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez; Fantasía para un Gentilhombre
Epic - anything Wagner, but especially the selections found in Excalibur's soundtrack

Science Fiction

General - Inception, Interstellar, Star Trek Soundtracks,
Space Opera - Star Wars soundtracks, Holst's Planets
Darker/"Cyberpunk" - Blade Runner, Alien Trilogy soundtracks

Dad listens to music more since he owns his own devices, but Anna listens a lot while writing. Her favourites are "Saints and Sinners" and the "Snow White and the Huntsman".

4.12.2019

GARFIELD'S WAR, Part 1

By Anna Blackwell (December 2018 to February 2019, age 11)

It had been a year since my first adventure with the Season Folk. I seemed to forget slowly about it, 'til one day our neighbours' pesky cat Garfield killed Shoot, a mouse, that I had made friends with. I felt so upset that when everyone went to bed I had planned to trap Garfield. I was so upset I couldn't sleep.

I suddenly heard something. I got up and looked out the window which overlooked the backyard and I saw something very strange indeed. Just near our ditch was Garfield; he seemed to be attacking something as he growled and batted at the ground. I opened the window to hear soft shouts and crashing. Then something began to pull me by the neck: it was my medallion*. I tried to take it off, but as soon as I grabbed it, a great light blasted in my face. I didn't know what happened next, for I was knocked right out.

I woke up to find myself lying on a pile of weeds. As I looked around I was shocked at what I saw; I was outside but it wasn't the same. The trees were gigantic and the grass was taller than me!

"Not again!" I said to myself.

I was shrunk down to the size of a mouse. I wondered how it came to happen. Suddenly I remembered about the night before and everything pieced together. The medallion was probably trying to tell me that the Season Folk village was ...

I took off at lightening speed toward the village. Thankfully my trip was not as unfortunate as last time, but as I drew near I met with an unpleasant surprise. Instead of seeing a lively town I was met with burning wreckage. I got into an empty rowboat.

"Hello? Hello!"

Hello! Hello! Hello!

I moved planks and shouted if anyone was there. Soon I realized I had been there for four hours. I felt awfully hungry so I helped myself to whatever I found.

When I finished I began to think it was over and I was too late. But as I walked to the ditch I thought I heard something crack. I turned around; something was moving in the weeds. I stepped forward to get a closer look. Then a squirrel jumped out, knocking me off balance. It began to snap and squeak at me. I had learned some animal language on my last adventure so I carefully translated.

"Back, back, intruder!" the squirrel yelled at me.

"I am Rose, and I mean you no harm," I said.

Before he could say anything else I showed him my medallion, thinking that if anything would get me out of this it was the medallion. The squirrel leapt back.

"Forgive me for not knowing I --"

"Don't let it worry you, friend," I said, "but tell me why were you trying to repel me?"

"I shall speak later, first we must go to Pine Haven."

I leapt onto the squirrel's back. We soon came to a tall tree with branches spreading out like massive arms. We entered through a hole in the centre of the tree; it led into a large, hollowed-out room. As I dismounted I couldn't help but stare at the beautiful architecture and paintings in the room. As I looked around I noticed a large group of rodents surrounding a large throne with engravings of battle scenes and victories on it. Seated on it was a large, red-furred squirrel. He had a large scar over his left eye and part of his ear was bitten off. On his head was a wreath of clover with a large gold jewel that twinkled in the fire.

His gaze turned to us. "Dark Shadow, who is this? Do you have the right to invite trespassers?"

The squirrel who had brought remained calm, answering, "Your Honour, I believe I have done nothing wrong for this is Rose of the Season Folk."

Strangely, the large red-furred squirrel did not seem to react. Instead his stare grew colder and he said in a dark tone, "Dark Shadow, you had no right to let in trespassers. But I see this may be something consequential. Take her to the guest chambres."

"But --"

"DO IT!"

Dark Shadow turned gloomily away and signalled for me to follow. I thought the red fur was rather rude, which was surprising to me. I expected a warmer welcome. All the same, I followed Dark Shadow until we came to a room. I thanked him and closed the door behind me. By the time I had dressed into new clothes and eaten some roasted nuts and salad, I felt rather tired and drifted into a long sleep.

I woke up to the sound of tapping at the window.

I hope they don't have giant moths in this place, I thought. Ugh!

When I looked, it was Dark Shadow. I opened the window.

"What are you doing? It's past midnight!"

"Come quickly," he said softly.

I quickly grabbed a cloak and crawled out the window. Soon the exciting idea of a midnight escapade made my sleepiness vanish.

"You'd better lead the way," I said. "I don't know these passages."

"We're not going through the tree, you shall ride me. Let's scurry."

Before I knew it, he had jumped from the window ledge. It was a rather bumpy ride. The night air, rather cool and damp, flew around my face. Soon we were no longer hopping from branch to branch, but were galloping along the ground. After running through tall grasses, passing empty fox dens, and onto frost-touched fields we came to a tall, old willow tree.

Dark Shadow, who was going much slower now, climbed up the tree. We squeezed through an ivy and cobweb covered opening. Inside was much bigger than I expected. There was a thin opening which led to a large room. There were about twelve squirrels in the room. Two were red-furred, the rest were either grey or black. I had no idea of what was going on; all the chattering and squeaking made my head spin.

"Excuse me, squirrels!" I said. "But I don't have the faintest idea of all of this. Why did you bring me here in the middle of the night?"

One of the red-furred squirrels who I had heard everyone calling Fire Tail broke up the chattering place and headed towards us. He was much older than I thought when I first saw him. His narrow face had an elderly look and his walking was rather unsteady. His tone of voice was much lighter than the other squirrels when he spoke.

"So this is Rose, isn't it?" he said to Dark Shadow, how only nodded. Then he turned his face to me. "I see you don't understand the purpose of this meeting."

"Well I jolly well don't," I said grumpily. "And at this time!"

"You see," Firetail explained, "if we met in the bright of the sun many will see and know what we are about. But at night everyone is asleep."

"But why?" I asked.

Fire Tail began his story: "on one splendid brisk evening, when all of the squirrels went to the Season Folk town to deliver food, is what it all happened. When they had finished their task, they saw the cat -- known as Garfield -- coming towards the town. But there was something strange about him; he was slowly crawling as if ready to pounce. The squirrels stood still. Suddenly, without warning, he let out a loud meow which shook the earth and attacked. Two Season Folk men fell dead at his paws. Soon blood and sword flew in the air. Only a few squirrels escaped. No one in the town survived."

I knew it, I thought. I always despised that cat since he killed my mouse friend.

"Why didn't your leader explain this?" I asked.

"Because when Clovis came from another town to fight Garfield, the battle seemed long and pointless. Our leader, Crimson Feather, gave up too quickly and left the war all to the Season Folk. If he knew we were meeting he accuse us of treason."

I felt frozen in my seat. What a great time to come, I thought. Right in the middle of a war!

Then one of the black squirrels spoke up: "You must go and help Clovis win."

"What? But I just got here, and I don't even know how to fight. I'm a girl."

The squirrels seemed to be frustrated at my response. Fire Tail hastily replied: "I have a mind to think that there shall be no fighting for you, but Garfield's weakness must be found."

"Well, okay," I said. "But you don't think that I can just walk there?"

Fire Tail seemed to look more grumpy. "I'm afraid you shall have to go by foot. If you ride on one us there is sure to be an ambush. If you go alone that will more stealthy and unexpected."

I wanted to protest but knew nothing was to be done. I was taken back to Pine Haven to collect things for my journey. It must have been around sunrise, so I was very tired, but I knew it was more important to reach Clovis than sleep. Once I had finished packing, Dark Shadow took me to the edge of the line of pine trees.

"I'm afraid you must do the rest of the journey yourself," he said, letting me down.

"Yes, well, thanks for the ride," I said. "Take care of Fire Tail."

Dark Shadow made a small smile, then disappeared into the trees. I walked for the rest of the morning and half of the afternoon. By about four o'clock I had arrived, but at a really bad time. I saw before me a huge battle! Sparrow Riders were filling the sky, while below, Battle-Minks, chipmunks, and squirrels fought against evil-looking rats, ferrets, and beetles. In the midst of the chaos I saw Clovis himself. I had met him in my first adventure -- a kind village leader. Now he was a fierce warrior, in fact we was really good at fighting. As I watched my eye caught someone else I knew very well indeed: Garfield.

But not the same Garfield as I remembered; something seemed to give him an ugly expression, and his golden fur was scarred with scratches and blood. By now I had grabbed my bow and arrows and began to shoot at the evil cat. As I did so I did a foolish thing I will never forget. Seeing that my shot was pretty good, I got closer -- BIG MISTAKE. As I did so, Garfield saw where I was shooting from. He got closer. Knowing that his henchmen would start firing at me, I hid behind a rock and resumed shooting.

I'm getting pretty good at this, I thought.

I spoke too soon! A paw rose over my head and I was out like a light.

TO BE CONTINUED IN TWO WEEK'S TIME ...


________________________________________________________________________
* The medallion that Clovis gave me on my first adventure -- See "Small of All", my first adventure with the Season Folk.

4.10.2019

Book Review: The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe



Title: The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe
Authors: George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier
Publisher: Spectra Books
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A Fantastic Resource for Science Fiction Writers, providing excellent tools for realistic world-building

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in writing in the genre because of how it has helped me with my world-building and is a reference I return to time and again. It is not a "how to write science fiction", but rather a handy reference book for the various areas of science that a science fiction writer might find useful, with chapters devoted, inter alia, to: space and spaceships, planets and planet design, aliens, designing a future setting, nanotechnology, intelligent machines, bioengineering, and alternate universes.

I found the book to be well-organised and easy to read. All sections are written in a clear, easy to understand manner, assisting the non-scientist layman (like me!) in writing convincing science fiction. One of the best features, in my view, was that the authors point out all the "wrong science" blunders common to science fiction, thereby helping you to avoid them. They also point out examples of excellent science fiction and how those authors used known science in a convincing manner.

The only significant shortcomings of this book relate to its age: it was printed in 1993 so the science risks becoming dated as we move further from its publication. Additionally, this means that it has gone out of print and one can only obtain used copies. However, there is nothing newer out there that covers all the areas that The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe does, so it is still well worth the effort of obtaining it.

I have also read the Science Fiction Writing Series (edited by Ben Bova - to be reviewed eventually) World Building and Space Travel and I preferred The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe. There is nothing wrong with the Bova books, they were excellent as well, but I found Messrs. Ochoa and Osier's book easier to read and more insightful. Plus, it is very convenient having everything in one place. On the other hand, the Science Fiction Writing Series books are more comprehensive and still in print.

4.03.2019

The U.S.S. Cygnus and "The Black Hole"


I mentioned the U.S.S. Cygnus in my post "5 Most Ridiculous Spacecraft in Film" and feel it deserves a special post of its own, along with some ruminations about the film Black Hole, in which it appears. Having acknowledged that it is, from a hard science fiction point of view, an absurd vessel, I reiterate my comment that the Cygnus is a darkly gorgeous, truly awesome spectacle of a star ship and one of my favourite space vessels ever in film.

It has a certain gothic feel to it, almost like a cathedral flying in space, yet with a touch of Victorian/Steampunk with all the glass and lights (in my view) . What makes it silly from a hard sci-fi point of view is what makes it so magnificent: it is not merely functional, but a work of art. Here area  few more pictures:


Considerations of taste aside, it's an impressive example of how much more real a model ship can look than the CGI contraptions modern audiences must endure. Although, it must be admitted, that reading about all the work involved in building/filming/maintaining the thing helps one understand why the CGI "easy way out" is invariably taken these days. From the Starship Modeler site:
Volume 9 No.3 of "Cinefantastique" magazine published when "The Black Hole" was released contains the best sources of information and pictures I have yet seen on the original models. There were two full models of the Cygnus built at a little over twelve feet long, with other sectional models built to a much larger scale for certain close up shots. The twelve foot miniatures weighed 170 pounds each and were constructed primarily of brass and completely made from scratch, with EMA tubes and domes used for detailing. Under this brass exoskeleton were sections of translucent plastic built in sections which housed about a hundred and fifty automotive light bulbs. The two models cost $100,000 and took a crew of 12 to 15 people approximately a year to build. One of the two models were completely destroyed filming the story's ending sequences. The other model went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a time after filming. It's fate since then remains a mystery.

"According to an ex-Disney employee, the model was stored in a crate in the 'Boneyard', where old props and such are stored on the Disney lot. It was rained on a great deal, and, one day, smashed to pieces by a poorly-driven forklift which accidentally backed into the crate. Pieces of the model were taken by various folks as souveniers."
Here's a shot of what the model looked like next to film crew:


 Without writing a full review of The Black Hole, it's worth mentioning that the film has generally been much maligned by critics and viewers over the years. I personally really enjoy it as a sort of sci-fi "spooky castle" film heavy with atmosphere. The big problem with it is that it attempts to be, at the same time, a kid's film with some comic elements which clash with the sense of foreboding that is steadily built up during the film and the darker aspects of the film (such as the horrible revelation that the entire crew was lobotomized and made into zombie slaves to Dr. Reinhardt). Still and all, a worthy film -- and certainly a very unique one.

3.29.2019

CHIMERA, Part 2

By Godfrey Blackwell

NOTE: IF YOU MISSED PART 1, YOU CAN READ IT HERE.


Mac walked quietly down the stairs, listening for a sound that would indicate Emilija hadn’t really fallen asleep. He attained the bottom and still had heard nothing. He decided she really would have her nap on schedule today. He went to the front door and peered through the peephole. Their next-door neighbour’s four-year-old was tearing through the parking lot on his bicycle, but otherwise all was quiet. An hour after returning home with the chimera he’d seen a group of police officers trudge past the end of their complex, but since then, nothing.

He sighed in relief and turned away, heading for the kitchen. 

Draga?” he called softly.

Petra didn’t answer. She wasn’t in the kitchen. Mark was conspicuously absent and quiet. Then he heard a sound directly below him. It could have been a cry or a playful exclamation, but it was Mark.

He flung the basement door open and dashed down the stairs. What had he done? How could he have been so stupid to bring that monster into his home. Oh God, please ...

“Petra!” He took the last four stairs at a leap.

“What is it, medeni?” she said, calmly turning towards him and dipping a bloody rag into the bucket perched on a stool next to her. The chimera sat on the floor before her; its hideous features fixed on her in a childlike expression of adoration. Its grey camo Battle Dress Uniform stuck out of a garbage bag at the foot of the stool. It had a pair of Mac’s sweat pants stretched over its lower body, and Petra was washing the many wounds about its torso. Mark sat on a blanket nearby playing with toy cars. 

“Uh ... what are you doing?” Mac said, inching forward, reaching a hand out to pull Petra away. “Petra, this thing ...”

“Is not a thing,” she said. “He’s a human being, Mac. And look at these wounds! I couldn’t leave him like this. And those filthy rags he was wearing would only draw more attention to him.”

He looked at the chimera, which now turned its eyes towards him. “Stand easy,” Mac said nervously. He slowly took Petra by the arm and pulled her away from the creature. “Petra, look, this thing’s a genetically modified killing machine. It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster -- I’ve seen these things in action in Iran, it’s not --”

“Don’t talk about him like he’s not here,” Petra said hotly, pulling her arm away. “And don’t be stupid. Of course he’s human -- he’s a Man. Sorry Jerko.”

She turned back to the chimera and looked it over.

“You named him -- it?” And after the patron saint of Croatia, no less. She ignored him. “Look, to have a rational soul you need free choice -- this thing only kills.”

“Oh? We seem to be alive.”

“Well, I gave it an order -- on instinct -- and it thinks I’m in its chain of command ...”

“Instinct, eh?” She continued her inspection of the chimera. Satisfying herself it was sufficiently clean, she pulled out her needle and thread. “Now, let’s look at this here ... that looks like a bullet wound ... Mac, get me your pliers. And while you’re at it, he’ll need some food. It’s the least you can do considering he saved your life.”

Mac could only stare dumbly. Mark gave one of his cars an overly enthusiastic push, and it skittered off the blanket and across the concrete. Gently, the chimera reached down and pushed it back to the toddler. It looked up, and again its eyes met Mac’s. Are you human? Mac wondered.

The chimeras he’d seen in Tabriz had no regard for Mac and his men. They hadn’t attacked them -- they were obviously focussed on their mission against the Iranians. But they never made a move to assist any wounded or extricate Mac’s platoon when they were pinned down. They just went about their business of sowing terror. That was simply following orders ... was what happened down the hill something else?

He grabbed his pliers from his toolbox elsewhere in the basement and dropped them beside Petra. Then he trudged upstairs to see what they had for food.

#

When night fell, Mac ordered the chimera outside and repeated his command for it to set up a tactical hide somewhere. Each morning when he left for work he’d catch a glimpse of it somewhere along his path, and after three days it started visiting the backyard -- leaping the six foot fence in a bound. Petra brought it food, and Mac grudgingly would go out as well. He discovered that it had command of more speech than simply asking for orders, and it would report to him observations of the neighbourhood. It seemed that Military Police had moved into the area and were searching for the chimera.

He wondered whether it knew they were searching for it specifically? In any event, it kept itself hidden because he told it to, and it didn’t maim or kill, either. He continued to ponder whether it had a human nature or not. Had it developed a mere pet-like attachment to him and his family, or was there something more?

Mac was sitting in the living room on a Saturday afternoon a week after first encountering the chimera, chewing over just that, when the doorbell rang. He put down his Roman Catechism -- a gift from Petra when he’d been conditionally confirmed six months after returning from Iran -- and moved to the door. He peered through the peephole. 

On the doorstep were three soldiers -- two men, one woman -- in grey urban camo and black berets. On their left arms, each wore a grey brassard with “MP” in big black letters. Their carbines were pointed at the ground, but they had an air of readiness about them that made Mac afraid. He tried not to let that show as he opened the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Frazer,” the leader of the group, with a grenade launcher slung about his neck said. “My name’s Staff Sergeant Chau.”

“What brings Military Police into the projects, sergeant?” Mac said.

The sergeant looked him over. “You saw time in Iran.”

“Yeah ...” Mac decided to be friendly; it might give him an edge. “Yeah, did two tours over there. Well, one and a bit -- second one got cut short.”

“Glad you made it out alive,” Chau said. “Too many didn’t. And some that did ... look, there’ve been some killings around here. A vet from Iran, gone off the deep end.”

“Really?” Mac tried to look shocked.

“Come on,  L.T.,” the M.P. said, using Mac’s rank from before his discharge. “I know what you’re trying to do, but this guy’s gone way over the line. I think you know something about this. We found your D.N.A. at the scene of one of the killings. In vomit ... I figure you saw something and --”

“Okay, I saw those kids. They were messed up pretty bad. I lost it when I saw that. Booked it back here and took the rest of the day off work.”

“Understandable.”

How much do these guys know? Mac wondered. Were they really told it was some insane war veteran, or is this just a trick?

“We’d like to take a formal statement.”

Mac had never considered Emilija’s crying such a welcome sound, but as it wafted down from her room upstairs, it gave him a way to buy some time. “Look, now’s not really a good time. Can you guys come back?”

“Alright, L.T., sounds like you’re busy,” Chau smiled. “Here’s my card. You work?”

“Yeah, usually get back into town pretty late.”

“That’s okay, I’ll arrange someone to pick you up at your bus and we can take your statement then. Sound good?”

As the M.P.s headed away, the female turned and fixed Mac with a suspicious look. Mac forced himself to close the door slowly. He then rushed back to the kitchen where Petra was peeling potatoes.

“Go get the baby,” she said crossly.

Draga, that was the military police at the door,” Mac said. “They’re onto me. They found my D.N.A. where the chim--”

“Jerko.”

“Whatever -- where it killed those kids. I don’t think they believed the line I gave them. Look, he can’t keep hanging around here; I’ve got to order him way away from us.”

“Well where’s he going to go?”

“I don’t know -- look, he’s born and bred to survive in a city like this. He doesn’t need us to wipe his butt for him!”

That night Jerko attended the backyard to report in as usual. Mac still called it the chimera when he spoke to Petra, to keep her from getting more attached to it than she was, but he realised he was starting to think of it by that name as well. As he marched out to face it, or him, he felt an awful sickness in his stomach. It felt wrong to do this, but what could he do? His family was at risk. He reminded himself that chimeras didn’t officially exist. He had no doubt the MPs only objective was to kill it -- the Lord alone knew how it had even made it to this side of the Atlantic. But what would they do to those that knew about it? Maybe he’d heard too many of Petra’s tales from her newspapers, but he couldn’t risk it.

“Look, ah, Jerko,” he said, clearing his throat. “It’s not safe for you to stay around here.”

The chimera looked at him questioningly. Mac decided he might as well tell it like it was, and maybe if the chimera really were human it would understand.

“We’re in danger if you stay here. I’m therefore ordering you to take up a different hide.”

Jerko only cast his eyes down to the ground and slunk backwards. He then turned and leapt silently over the fence. And that was that. 

#

The next morning Mac sat at the kitchen table staring at his untouched breakfast.  He pushed the plate away and forced himself to drink some coffee. It, too, had gone cold. He looked over at the window over the kitchen sink that overlooked the backyard and let out a deep breath. He got up and walked over, half-hoping he’d see the chimera back there. The small yard was empty. And it was getting light out, which meant he was late for his bus. But he didn’t really care.

“Mac!” Petra cried from upstairs.

“What is it?” Heart racing at the urgency of her voice, he dashed up, taking the stairs two at a time. She was in Mark’s room at the back of the house.

“Look -- the neighbourhood’s crawling with soldiers!”

Mac’s eyes followed her outstretched hand, and he could see she was right. Soldiers in groups of three were moving cautiously through the complex, carbines held at the ready. He caught four such groups as they moved between buildings. He was certain there were many more. He opened the window slightly, and through it wafted an officer’s voice amplified by a megaphone.

“... present yourself for inspection.”

“They’re drawing him out -- they’re ordering him into the open so they can kill him like dog!” Mac turned and bolted back down the stairs. As he was pulling on his work boots he heard Petra following him.

“Where are you going?” Petra demanded.

“I’m going after Jerko,” Mac said. “He’ll listen to me -- I have to tell him to get out of here.”

“What? Mac -- you said it yourself, they’re out there to kill. They’ll shoot you too!”

“I’ve got to do it.” 

“Are you crazy? Have you forgotten your family? You’ll be killed! What will happen to us? You and your stupid proud heroics!”

“Petra, please ...” He stood and hugged her. She nearly collapsed into his arms as her rage dissolved to sobs. “I love you so much. But I ... you wouldn’t be the man I love if you didn’t.” She kissed him on the lips, then backed off, wiping her eyes. “Get going!”

He ran out the door. If he looked back he might lose his nerve. Petra was right, of course, about the family. But he’d never left a man stranded. And he knew Jerko was a man, a horribly abused and scarred one, but a man nevertheless. He deserved way more than he’d been given.

“Jerko!” Mac shouted.

Around the side of the complex he nearly collided with one of the kill teams clearing a corner. 

“Hey, curfew hasn’t lifted yet,” one of them said. “Get back in your home. Hey --”

Mac brushed past them and sprinted off down the hill. He heard their boots pounding the pavement behind him, but  unencumbered, and fuelled by desperation he was able to put some distance between them.

“Jerko!” he called. “Stay hidden, don’t listen to them!”

“Freeze!” he heard one of the soldiers shout behind him. Mac darted down a side alley. 

“Jerko!” he kept calling.

Fifty feet ahead another team of soldiers entered his alleyway. One of them had his head tilted towards the radio on his shoulder. The other two raised their firearms.

“Hey, you, stop! Stop or we’ll shoot!”

Mac skidded to a stop. The next alley he could go down was too far ahead to make. Were these guys ready to shoot a civilian? He tensed to make a try.

“Don’t do it ...” said the soldier ahead. The first group was now closing in behind him. Mac made a break for it, hoping they wouldn’t risk hitting each other. 

They didn’t, but this path proved to be a dead end. He came to a halt again at the foot of a small mountain of garbage climbing up the three walls hemming it in. He turned around to face the six soldiers.

“What are you doing?” the leader from the first group growled.

They kept their guns trained on him and moved slowly forward. 

“I heard him calling a name,” another of them said. “Do you think he could be --”

The question was cut off with a yelp as Jerko, seemingly from nowhere, leapt down on them.  In a heartbeat, six carbines lay on the ground and the soldiers had retreated around the corner. There were a few drops of blood on the concrete, but Mac didn’t think Jerko had seriously hurt any of them -- although he’d moved so fast it was impossible to know. The chimera approached Mac and sat on his haunches so they were eye-to-eye.

“Friendlies,” Jerko whispered.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Mac said. “Look, we’ve got to hide you somehow. And you’ve got to ignore --”

“Okay, it’s over, take it easy, buddy ...” Jerko said, putting a hand on Mac’s shoulder. Then the other hand smashed Mac in the throat. Mac staggered back, coughing, fighting for breath. 

Oh no, I really was wrong, he thought as the chimera reached towards him. The talons dug into Mac’s arms and he was thrust into the pile of garbage. He could breathe a little, but couldn’t speak. He drew breath with effort, his trachea on fire. His eyes tracked the chimera. No, he hadn't been wrong. Jerko had hidden him and was going to sacrifice himself for him. Jerko loped to the foot of the alley. Mac couldn't call out to stop him. He closed his eyes and let the tears roll down his cheeks as the explosions of gunfire echoed off the walls, cutting the chimera down.

Fin.

3.27.2019

Battle Report: First Ever Flames of War Battle

For our first battle, we wanted to use models that are either complete or nearly complete. We had to house-rule a bit since we don't have the vehicles ready to make a legal German force. The Germans brought a "Mixed Panzer Company" but only one platoon since that all we have, so there's a Company Commander in PzKpfw IV Ausf H (on the left) plus a three-strong platoon of the same tanks. The German force was commanded by ALBERT.


For the Soviets, we brought a "Mixed Tank Battalion" with a KV-1 Company of three tanks (bottom right), a T-34 company of three (bottom left), and a tank hunter platoon of four 76 mm Anti Tank guns. The AT guns haven't been based yet because we haven't received the flock and static grass we ordered yet. The Soviet force was commanded by JAMES.



Here is the initial setup: the Germans deployed in the woods at the top of the map, with the PzKfw IV platoon to the left and the Company commander's tank to the right. The Soviets deployed in a line with the 76 mm anti tank guns to the left, the KV-1s in the centre, and T-34s to the right.

To the right is a little bombed-out German village with several houses and craters at a crossroads. To the left is a river and a ruined factory across the river.


FIRST TURN:

The Soviet forces all moved forward, with the much quicker T-34s passing their cross check and moving tactically through the forest. The Soviet gunners were unable to hit the German tanks, however, who were concealed in trees and over 16" away requiring 6+ to hit.



The Germans made use of "blitz"  orders on their turn to get better firing positions and destroy one T-34 and bail out another, then using "shoot and scoot" the Pz. Kpfw. IV platoon backed out of view behind the forest (the company commander failed his orders check).


TURN 2:

The one remaining T-34 crew decided they had had enough and, notwithstanding "Not One Step Back" fled the battle (failed last stand check) and were duly executed for cowardice by the commissars (technically the battle should have ended here since the Soviet Force only had one unit left in their formation, meaning failed Formation Last Stand, but we house-ruled it given the small forces). The KV-1 company pressed forward and were able to destroy the German Company Commander. The Germans in their turn blitzed out again and were unable to beat the KV-1 heavy armour, then "shoot and scoot"-ed back behind the forest.



TURN 3:

Pretty much a repeat of turn 2, with the KV-1 moving forward again and the 76 mm anti tank guns being forced to reposition as the remaining Germans were now out of range. The Germans managed to bail-out one KV-1.


TURN 4:

The Soviets continued to close-in but were unable to hit the PzKpfw IV through the trees. On his turn, Albert decided that his static tact was not working and he needed to reposition to make use of the Panzers' speed and greater range vs. the Soviet cannon. Instead of shooting, his platoon therefore made a cross-country dashed and then did a "follow me" order in an attempt to get into new cover behind the village log cabins.


TURN 5:

Albert had taken a calculated risk, exposing his PzKpfw IVs' weak side/rear armour to the Soviets in favour of moving as fast as possible. Fortunately, given the long range and some poor rolls, James' KV-1s were unable to do any damage, while the 76 mm slowly tried to reposition (soft skin transports would have been nice). On the German turn, the Panzers were able to get in amongst the buildings, although with a failed "follow me" the commander ended up ahead of his troops.



TURN 6:

The KV-1s trundled along, trying to get into position, with one of them getting bogged-down in the woods. Their fire was once again, ineffective given the long range and the concealment behind the buildings the Panzers enjoyed.


On Albert's turn, he moved his platoon commander to within command distance of the other two tanks, who moved around for a side shot. Despite only one shot apiece, they each hit, and each penetrated the KV-1 heavy side armour (a pair of 2's rolled by James on his armour save). Two KV-1s down.


TURN 7:

Another "Last Stand" check failure for James, and the remaining Soviet forces fled the field. Victory to the Germans!



Post battle thoughts: The Flames of War rules are quite fun and make for a fairly quick game. They are straightforward and streamlined. Some people hate the unit cards because they "clutter" up the game space, but at least for us new players the quick reference helped speed things up. We found that the game was a lot more intense for the Germans who had to be very careful and crafty whereas the Soviets are more like a sledge hammer -- a nice historical feel. We're looking forward to doing games with more proper forces next time (the German army in this game was actually illegal and the Soviet one far from optimized).

3.22.2019

CHIMERA, Part 1

By Godfrey Blackwell

The sun was an angry, red half-disc above the low-lying smog that perpetually choked the horizon. Mackenzie Frazer stepped from the bus and pulled his cap a bit lower over his head. The chill autumn wind blew an empty coffee cup over his feet and down the street. The bus took off with a belch and a roar.

Mac was now alone and the street quiet. Few private vehicles plied the roads these days, and curfew was getting close. Most people were already indoors and he’d be lucky to make it home in time himself. But he didn’t leave the curb just yet, however.

With a deep exhale he looked up and down the street, then eyed the bicycle path that would take him home. The sun was low enough that its rays did not illuminate that passage. A haven for drug addicts, streetwalkers, and other unpleasants, it was a gauntlet he had to run every evening. He sighed again in frustration at himself. He’d faced death hundreds of times in the army. He’d come so close to death he’d tasted it. He flexed his right hand, still tight after four years from the skin grafts. He’d needed those over two-thirds of his body after the R.P.G. shredded his squad’s Armoured Fighting Vehicle.

Just get it over with, he told himself. Grunting, he shifted his pack that was slung over one shoulder and jogged across the street.  Maybe it was the close brush with death that had caused him to lose his nerve. He’d heard of other vets who had no confidence when they got back. 

He made it past the two hab-blocks that flanked the entrance to the path. He kept close to the graffiti-covered walls. It was getting dark fast, and the rotating blackouts meant no lights tonight, as with most nights. 

He’d gone a block when he heard a growl and the bang of a dumpster lid falling open. Mac looked ahead and to his left, expecting to see a feral dog. Seeing a dark shape, on all fours, muttering over a torn garbage bag, he carried on, cautiously. As he got to within twenty yards, he realised it was too big to be a dog and instead of fur, blue-grey Digital Disruptive Pattern camouflage covered its back.

Oh, man, Mac thought. Poor guy must really be gone. He’d seen a lot of vets on the streets, shell-shocked, minds ruined by cheap drugs or broken by the war. That this one was still (somewhat) in uniform meant he must have been one of the really unlucky ones who was simply left for dead when things collapsed and somehow made his own way back. 

There was another crash, and Mac jumped into the shadows of an old dead oak tree. This time it was a shopping cart. A woman in a dirty, beige parka was pushing it around the corner of the derelict supermarket the dumpster sat behind. A painfully skinny, mop-haired little girl tottered behind her.

The soldier looked up with a snarl. The woman kept on, apparently not noticing as the cart, laden with boxes and rags, noisily jounced over the broken concrete. She closed to within fifteen feet of the soldier. With a roar, he lunged at her. She screamed, but didn’t move. Mac leapt from behind the tree.

“Hey, stop!” he shouted. “You -- soldier -- stand down!”

He’d yelled the command without thinking. The training drilled into him had taken over. The soldier stopped so abruptly he nearly fell on his face. Mac jogged over to him. With wide-eyed horror the woman looked from the soldier to Mac. Before he could say anything she fled screaming, dragging the child with her.

Self-consciously, Mac’s hand went to his burn-scarred face. He felt heat rising in his cheeks. Darn it, he wasn’t that ugly, and he’d gotten these scars fighting for her! He sighed. No point in getting mad, it was what it was. He turned to the soldier.
 
“Okay, it’s over, take it easy, buddy ...” as he completed the turn he reached out a comforting hand but stopped short.

His first thought was that the guy was huge -- Mac barely came up to his shoulders which were nearly twice as wide as Mac’s. As his eyes moved up, they passed the name-tag on the uniform, which had a number instead: 180942609. Then he noticed the tusks jutting from either side of the massive lantern jaw, and the two slits for a nose. Casting his eyes back down, he saw talons at the end of arms that reached past the thing's knees.

“Oh man ...” Mac said. A chimera. Officially they didn’t exist outside conspiracy-theorist blogs, but Mac had seen them in Tabriz. The street-fighting had been terrible there. There’d been a pair of chimeras; his platoon had been pinned-down behind the burning wreckage of their A.F.V.s when the chimeras saved them, sort of. Those things fought like demonic maniacs. How the heck did one end up here?

He looked up and saw it was regarding him with blue eyes. Human eyes. And just before the sun disappeared, he recognized in them the faintest glimmer of a desire for something beyond the battlefield.

Okay, it’s not going to kill me, he thought. Of course, I gave it an order. They were genetically engineered to be perfect soldiers; they lived for commands. But now what was he going to do? The sun slipped behind the horizon. Curfew. He couldn’t stay here.

“Ah, alright, stand easy,” he said. The chimera crept smoothly back towards the garbage and hunched-down on its back legs which bent backwards like a dog’s. It watched him intently for further commands. “Dismissed.”

It turned and loped-off into the darkness. It moved with the grace of a cat, but somehow Mac thought there was a hint of sorrow to the way it retreated, as if it had hoped he would order it to remain with him. Mac realised he’d dropped his pack in all the excitement and jogged back to the tree. He felt a pang of guilt, like he’d abandoned the creature somehow. But what was he supposed to do? He had his own troubles and a family to look after.

A new sound penetrated the gloom; the deep grumble of a police armoured patrol vehicle. Of course, it had to be tonight of all nights that they chose to patrol his neighbourhood!  Mac ran the rest of the way home, up the hill to the townhouse complex. He stopped to catch his breath at the door to his unit. With the rising quarter-moon behind the compound, it was completely black here. Muffled by the door, he heard a baby screaming and his wife, Petra, yelling in Croatian.

Petra was a saint. Many of Mac’s comrades in the war had received “Dear John” letters as the campaign stretched on and their Common Laws and girlfriends got tired of waiting. More still had stumbled upon Facebook posts featuring their girls with other men and sometimes women. But Petra had stayed with Mac through it all. He’d abandoned her, running away to the war after their first child died, and yet she stayed. When he came back, he’d been horribly scarred mentally and physically -- she didn’t turn away and helped him through the rehab. They’d even had two children since then, who he could hear wailing through the door.

He turned the knob and pushed his way into the townhouse. He kicked off his boots and strode to the back of the house to the kitchen where, by candlelight, the mortal combat of attempting to feed a toddler was in full swing. Petra had their youngest, Emilija, balanced on her hip as she stood over their eighteen-month-old, Mark, who was putting macaroni and cheese anywhere but his mouth.

“Arg, you terrible creature!” she sighed. “Mac -- you do something with him!”

“Good to see you too,” Mac said, smiling. He knelt next to Mark at the table. “Hi there, Mark. Giving mama a hard time are you?”

“No wonder he doesn’t listen,” Petra said hotly. “You’re way too soft on him.”

“He’s not even two,” Mac said. Standing, he took Emilija and gave Petra a peck on the cheek. “Rough day?”


“The usual,” she said, reluctantly smiling.


#


Petra slumped down in a chair at the kitchen table. “Kids are finally both asleep.” She  unscrewed the cold air return register under the table and pulled out a battered package of Ziganov cigarettes and the latest issue of that Croatian newspaper she read whose name Mac couldn’t pronounce.

“Sorry about earlier,” she said, lighting the cigarette. “I’m just tired.”

“You can go to bed,” Mac said, putting another plate on the drying rack. “I’ve got things under control here.”

“I’d rather stay with you,” she said, smiling. “How was your day?”

Mac made a noncommittal sound and took a plate from the pile of dirty dishes next to the sink and started scrubbing it. He kept no secrets from Petra, but what he’d seen could be dangerous. He looked up through the barred window over the sink. All was quiet outside thanks to the curfew and police patrols. He couldn’t imagine the same government that imposed such things would want its citizens to know about creatures that officially didn’t exist. He and his platoon had sworn a pact of silence never to tell anyone they’d seen the chimeras in Tabriz.

“What’s up, bebo?” Petra asked.

“I don’t know,” Mac sighed. He put the plate on the drying rack and rested his hands on the counter. “I saw something weird tonight on the way home.”

Petra took a drag on the illegal Russian cigarette. “Like what, you saw Stretch and he didn’t proposition you?”

“A chimera ... at least I’m pretty sure that’s what it was.”

She exhaled slowly, releasing a large cloud of smoke. “What happened?”

“You don’t even seem surprised.”

“Nothing surprises me anymore.” She put her paper down. “Figures some would have survived. Thank God you did.”

She gestured for Mac to join her at the table. They kiss before he sat down. He recounted the meeting with the Chimera.

“You know, I kind of felt guilty about leaving it there ...”

“Poor baby,” Petra said.

“Huh?”

“You know, they birth those poor babies they make into chimeras out of cows. Sick kopila.”

“How do you know that?”

She gestured to the newspaper, and Mac rolled his eyes. “Don’t believe everything you read in those things. Not all the black market literature’s true.”


“Better than the legal stuff which is all lies.”


#


The sun had not yet crested the horizon when Mac left the next morning for work. The housing complex was shrouded in a blue-grey murk that made everything blend together. He went down the front steps quietly and moved around the side of his row of houses to descend the hill, moving quietly, keeping to the shadows. It was doubtful a police patrol would be out now, but he preferred to be safe.

Halfway down the hill, he noticed that he wasn’t the only one out this early. About fifty yards away, a group of six youths, all around sixteen or seventeen years old from the look of them, were gathered around a footbridge that represented Mac’s fastest way across the dry canal that ran through the cluster of tenements. They passed a glass pipe between them, all dressed in ragged black clothing. Mac slowed and cursed under his breath — what on earth were they doing out this early? They were never up before midday, as far as he could tell, and thus avoiding them didn’t normally factor into his morning routine. He turned towards the nearest alleyway to detour around them. 

The sky was now starting to redden. He peered into the dark passage and jumped back with a loud oath as a hulking shadow emerged. The chimera again. Two of the youths looked up from their drugs.

“Darn it,” he said now, much more quietly. The chimera stopped its advance at the edge of the alley and sat on its haunches, silently watching him.

He didn’t move himself, trying to figure out what to do. One path was blocked by a bunch of hoods, another by a walking one-creature army. The six youths started sauntering towards him. Two were now swinging baseball bats at their sides. No doubt the rest had knives -- just last week one of the neighbours had been stabbed in this very laneway.

“Yo, what up, skizza?” The leader of the hoodlums called. He was a bandy olive-skinned youth with brown, rotting incisors and dark fuzz passing for a goatee. The chimera looked over, and its body tensed like a spring.

“Hold fast,” Mac hissed. He turned towards the kids and put his right hand inside his jacket pocket to make it look like he had a gun there.

“Hey, you a fool?” another one, skin black as night, hollered.

Mac screwed-up his courage -- he had to try to scare them off somehow. If the chimera perceived them as a threat ...

“I’m just walking here. Don’t start something you won’t be able to finish.” he said.

“We say who walks here,” Rotten Teeth said.

“Since when?” Mac stepped forward menacingly.

As they neared him, a sliver of sun slipped through the gap between buildings. Seeing his burned face, they hesitated.

“Aw, scrag, man,” said the black one.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Mac grinned savagely. “You think a bunch of punks like you scare me? I’ve been to hell!”

“You just watch y’self,” Rotten Teeth said and started backing off. The others turned and they melted into the gloom of another alley.

Dizziness swept over Mac and he put a hand on the wall to steady himself. He bent over, struggling not to throw up. His knees were shaking. He sucked deep breaths of air to calm himself.

“Orders, sir?” came a soft voice from his right.

Mac jumped back. The chimera was still there. It could talk. He’d never heard one speak before, wasn’t sure that they could. Its voice had been very human -- could have been any soldier speaking quietly to his CO.

“Ah ... hide.” Mac cleared his throat and searched for his old army jargon. “Secure a tactical hide and await further orders.”

The chimera disappeared into the shadows. Looking at his watch, Mac cursed again and started to run. He was going to miss his bus. Then he’d really be in deep. He pounded down the lane, heedless of noise or his surroundings. He was nearly at the foot of the bridge when something smashed into the back of his head, sending him tumbling onto his face. Stars burst before his eyes, but on instinct he rolled to his right.

He came up against a wall and sat up. His vision cleared enough to see the group of six youths around him, naked blades and bats ready.

“We gonna teach you a lesson --”

Something flashed from Mac’s right and slammed into the olive-skinned youth, sending him flying into the wall across the lane. The youth tumbled onto the broken pavement and his knife spiralled down into the canal. Mac saw the chimera, its hulking mass rising and falling with its breath: with another leap, it was on the boy.

Mac made it up onto one knee. Hot, sticky liquit splattered into his face as the punk died noisily. Mac wiped the blood from his eyes. The chimera charged through the rest of the group. It was but a blur, so fast did it move. As it passed screams followed in its wake. In a heartbeat, the other five hoodlums all thrashed on the ground, horribly wounded.

The chimera disappeared between two buildings, ready to ambush the reinforcements or medics it expected to come running to the injured “combatants’” aid. 

Now Mac did vomit. Then he lurched into the alley the chimera went down. The screaming behind him was drawing attention: tenants opened their windows to look out; footfalls sounded on the concrete, and in the distance a siren started.

“Stand down!” Mac bellowed. He knew the chimera was trained to take down anyone it saw now. It was trained -- conditioned to the terror tactics on display here: wound then repeat as more arrived, destroying enemy morale and taking as many out of the fight as possible. “Stand down -- friendlies.”

They weren’t in a war zone any more. Even those no-good juves were just civilians. The chimera came out from behind a pile of garbage. “Orders, sir?” it whispered.

It was now starting to get light out. Voices spoke excitedly in the lane, and the siren was closer. Now what?

#


The door slammed open with a bang as Mac nearly fell through it. Petra’s head popped out of the kitchen.

“Mac, what are you doing home? Bože! You’re covered in blood!”

“It’s not mine,” he said, leaning against the wall. “And it’s the least of our worries.”

Petra’s eyes widened as she spotted the chimera, who’d entered behind Mac. “Mac ...” she whispered.

“He ... it ...  saved my life. I didn’t know what to do. We’ve got to hide it.”

He pushed off the wall and flung the door to the basement stairs open. Just then, his son Mark toddled around the corner from the living room. “Papa!” he cried, his face lighting up.

Mac held the door so it blocked his son’s view of the chimera and ordered the creature down the stairs.

“Hide.”

“You’ve got to call in sick before you lose your job.” Petra handed him the phone. “And get these clothes off. Kletva! You had to get blood all over the wall too!”

She stripped him down right there and jammed the clothes into a garbage bag. When he came back down from their bedroom in fresh garb, Emilija was crying, stranded in her highchair in the kitchen and Petra was half out the front door.

“Get the baby,” she said over her shoulder.

“Where are you going?”

“To burn your clothes and my cigarettes and newspapers. We don’t want the murija seeing any of that stuff when they come.”

TO BE CONTINUED (PART TWO HERE)
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