About Me

My photo

Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cash for Katie

Katie sang hard. She always did, putting her all into every song, singing loud and rough, making the audience feel the anger and pain of the music. Even though this was a small, intimate club, you might think she was singing to a sold out concert at the Imperial Arena. It didn’t really matter to Katie, though, since she never sang for the audience anyway. She always sang for herself, loosing herself in the music, even sometimes forgetting her band was there with her as she whipped her long, purple hair around and worked up a sweat on stage.

The rest of the band was with her, though, as they always were. Behind her were the drums, pounding out the relentless rhythm that she danced to. Behind the drums was the man playing them, a large, bulky, gray skinned harry beast with lower canine teeth that protruded from his bottom lip. The troll wore a torn black tee-shirt that had a mouthless smiley face in raid on it.

On Katie’s right was a dwarf, squat and muscular, with a bright blue beard and a Mohawk that went at least six inches above his otherwise shaved head. He was shirtless and shoeless, and his muscles rippled as he played the bass guitar in time with the drums. To Katie’s left was a human man playing an electric guitar with deft fingers that flew across the strings almost faster than could be watched. He wore his hair cut short on the left side of his head and shoulder length on the other. He was considered handsome by many, with a square jaw and three day stubble on it, piercing blue eyes and a smile that Katie often said could charm the pants off a princess. He wore a long trench coat, jeans and tennis shoes, but like the dwarf was otherwise shirtless, showing off his washboard stomach.

Katie finished the last song and stood panting on the stage, her head down, eyes closed, and sweat pouring down her brow. She was still lost in the magic of singing, and it was the sudden cutting of the music with a loud bang by the drums that brought her back to the present. She looked up to see that crowd cheering and going wild, the mosh pit in front of the stage in a frenzy of ruthless energy. She smiled. This was the best high of all, she though, better even than sex.

The set done, the band left the stage, the troll letting the nightclub’s crew know in no uncertain terms that it would be most unfortunate for them if anything untoward should happen to his drums. Katie was heading towards her dressing room. All she wanted right now was a smoke, like she always did at the end of a gig. That, and to get out of the now cold sweat coated clothing she was in. She had her shirt off before even hitting the door, revealing her purple bra with the skull and cross bone pattern on them, but was from getting inside by large, muscular man in a form fitting suit and tie. She looked at the man with a stare that had caused lesser people to wither and slink away, but this guy wasn’t even looking at her directly, just blocking her from getting into her dressing room. This guy was a professional, she realized, and not just some overzealous fan.

“My client would like to speak with you, Ms. Cash,” he said. Katie winced. She hated the use of her last name, even if it had lead to the name of the band, Cash for Katie.

“Oh, yeah?” she said with as much attitude she could muster. “And who would your client be?”

“That would be me,” said a woman’s voice from around the corner.

The girl that followed the voice around that corner couldn’t have been more than eighteen, and Katie was guessing closer to sixteen. It was difficult to tell for sure, but something about the makeup make Katie think sixteen. She wasn’t dressed in the traditional punker clothes that Katie expected to see in fans. Oh, sure, she had on jeans and a Cash for Katie tee, but both were in perfect condition. No holes, no safety pins, no staples. And the jeans were the expensive designer kind that kids at her concerts couldn’t afford. Also, her hair, while obviously dyed, was blond rather than the traditional green or purple. There was also something about her demeanor. She held her head high, not just in pride, but in the way of someone that never looked down. She looked Katie right in the eye, as if they were not just equals, but that perhaps Katie should look down. For a brief second, Katie did, which allowed her to spot the private school ring on the girl’s finger. Woodlawn. A VERY exclusive private school. Behind the girl came another bruiser in a suit. He could have been the twin of the guy blocking the dressing room door. Putting all these facts together, Katie nodded to the girl, realizing who it was they were dealing with.

“And what would a lovely lass such as yourself be wanting with rogues like us?” the main guitar player said, sliding past Katie and taking up the girls hand into his. He bent down and kissed it, and then stood back up, a rakish grin on his face. Katie rolled her eyes.

“Keep it in your pants, Dan,” Katie said, pulling him back away from their guest. “That would be her Royal Highness, the Princess Zoe you were trying to flirt with.”

Dan’s eyes opened wide, and he took a step back, getting a better look at the girl. For her part, the girl looked at Katie, but not with surprise. Instead, there was respect there.

“I’m impressed,” the Princess said. “How did you figure it out?”

“Oh, lots of things,” Katie said. “The school ring, for a school only nobles attend. The expensive, non-torn clothing. The lack of a punk hairdo. And most of all, you have a very signature jaw line, Princess, which is recognizable even with the dyed hair.”

“Your Highness,” Dan was stuttering, getting down on one knee. “Please, I didn’t mean to…”

“No no no,” the girl said, stopping Dan in mid-genuflect. “Please, don’t bow. It would ruin my illusion that you’re all hard-assed punk rockers that don’t give a shit about royalty.”

Katie smiled. She liked this girl.

“Well, forgive my asking, Your Highness,” Katie said, “but what do you want with us?”

“Want? I’m your biggest fan!” the girl said. “I know you all. Cash for Katie, the most pure punk band in Isidom City. Katie Cash, the lead singer. Dashing Dan, lead guitar. Bug, bass guitar. And Reverend Krunk, on drums. I love you guys!”

Katie was taken aback. The most pure punk band in the city? She liked to think so, but they were barley known. They only had one album, and she had paid for that out of her own pocket. How is it possible that the Princesses of the Minal Empire knew who she was?

“And, what,” she stammered, “you want our autographs?”

“No, silly,” the Princess said. “I want you to play at my birthday party next month.”

*****************************************

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Katie said.

“What?” Dan said, grabbing Katie by the shoulders and turning her to face him. “No, no, no, no, no. You can’t have a bad feeling about this, not now, not after we’re here. We’re going on stage in an hour! It’s the Royal Ball, the birthday party of the Imperial Princess. This show will put us on the map. Hell, it’ll put us on every map there is! It’s too good to turn down. Not that we could, I think turning down this gig would have landed us in jail for treason.”

“Is everything okay here?” the rumbling voice of Krunk came from behind the two.

“Katie has a bad feeling about tonight.”

“Katie,” Krunk said, turning to his lead singer. “Is this true?”

“Yeah, Krunk,” Katie said.

“Nerves, or one of those feelings?” Krunk asked.

“One of those feelings,” Katie replied.

“No. No it isn’t,” Dan said. “It can’t be.”

“Oi!” Bug came in to the dressing room next, “what’s everyone doing in here? Ain’t we on in an hour?”

“Katie has a bad feeling about tonight,” Krunk said.

“Nerves, or one of those feelings?” Bug asked.

“One of those feelings,” Krunk answered.

“Would everyone stop saying that?” Dan said, nearly hysterical. “It’s not one of those feelings! It’ can’t be, we’re about to have the biggest concert of our carriers; everything is going to be fine! We… OW!”

Bug had come up and kicked Dan in the knee. “Sorry, Dan, but you were getting out of control.”

Dan rubbed his knee, and sighed. “You’re right, dude. Sorry.”

“It’s all right. I don’t blame ya,” Bug said, patting Dan like a lost puppy.

“Okay,” Dan said, much calmer now. “So, is there anything specific this time, or just a feeling of dread?”

Katie frowned at him. “Nothing specific,” she said. “Just a general bad feeling. Something is going to happen tonight, and we’re going to be involved, that’s all I know.”

“You’re the boss, Kaite,” Krunk said, and the other’s nodded. “What’cha want to do?”

Katie thought about this for a few moments. Something bad was coming she knew it. Now was the time to back out. Still, Dan was right, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the band. Finally, she nodded and turned to the band.

“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” she smiled. “We’re going to rock this fucking joint!”

“I’m glad to hear it,” came a fifth voice, one that everyone recognized by now. Princess Zoe was waiting outside the door, her two bodyguards right behind her. “What’s this about a bad feeling?”

“Princess,” Dan said, the madness returning to his eyes, “Why it’s nothing, it’s just…”

“A premonition,” Katie said. “I get them from time to time.”

“Really?” the princesses said, honestly interested. “Do they come true?”

“Hard to say, really,” Katie said. “Most of the time, they’re vague. Like now. Something bad is going to happen tonight, but bad is relitive. Bad could just mean we bomb on stage, and get booed off.”

“Or it could mean that my father gets killed,” Zoe said.

“Only if I was going to get framed for it,” Katie said. She continued when the Princesses raised an eyebrow in question. “The premonition is always focused on me. Something bad is going to happen tonight… to me. That’s how it goes.”

“I see,” Zoe said, taking it all in. “So, it could be as simple as you tripping and falling, maybe breaking a leg.”

“That’s happened before, actually,” Dan said in a tone that was supposed to be under his breath but was easily heard by all.

“Look,” Katie said, slapping Dan on the arm. “The point is, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I only know it is going to happen, and so I figure there’s no reason to try and run from it. You want us to play? We’re going to play.”

“Good,” Zoe said, nodding and smiling. “Because I want you to play.”

Without any warning, the roof collapsed into hundreds of pieces, shattered across the room. Everyone went ducking for cover as chunks of roof and stone fell to the floor, shattering glasses, breaking chairs and filling the room with dust. As the dust settled and the coughing started everyone looked about to see what was happening. When Katie looked up, she saw something straight out of a nightmare. There, above the castle, looking down into her dressing room was a large, reptilian head with two great, yellow eyes, one of which was bearing down straight at her. The head was attached to a long neck, covered in dark red scales that appeared almost brown. The body wasn’t visible, but Katie knew what it looked.

“Dragon!” Bug shouted, pointing needlessly through the hole in the ceiling.

“I’m so happy to be recognized,” the dragon said, in a deep, snarling voice that was not only heard by felt. “I can’t see you very well through the smoke, but I know one of you is the princess. And the princess is who I came here to get, so I’m just going to have to take you all before the Imperial Guard regroup and come get me.”

And with that, a great claw descended into the dressing room, easily pushing furniture out of the way, and scooped up the members of the bad, the princess, and one of her bodyguards. The dragon probably couldn’t see the other one. With its prisoners in tow, the dragon spread it’s mighty wings, batted them against the ground, and took off!

*******************************************

When Katie woke, it was to a sight of the six of them huddled together in the palms of the dragon, its two hands together to provide enough space for them all. It had its fingers and claws up and touching, forming a kind of cage. It looked like everyone else was already awake. Or maybe they didn’t pass out in the first place.

“Oh, good, you’re back with us,” Princess Zoe said, real concern in her voice. “We were starting to wonder if the dragon had harmed you.”

“Not yet, but it won’t be long before we’re all dead,” Dan was saying. He moved over to one of the fingers and tried to peer through it. Just then, a great, yellow eye, as large as Dan was tall, appeared in front of him. Dan cried out in fear, and stumbled backwards, falling on his ass.

“Please don’t squirm so much,” the great, rumbling voice of the dragon said. “It’s difficult enough as it is to hold all of you at one time, but you’re moving around like that is a really bad idea.”

“Uh… yes sir, Mr. Dragon, sir,” Dan replied.

“Thank you,” the dragon said.

“He’s awfully polite for a dragon,” Katie said.

The others nodded, but remained silent for the remainder of the flight. The journey lasted another twenty minutes before the dragon tightened his grip around them all and dove for the ground. Surprisingly, the landing was very gentle, and Katie could see that they were now all before a great cave mouth in the side of an inactive volcano.

“Mount Valuvia,” Dan said. “We’re like three hundred miles from where we started.”

The dragon lowered its hands to the ground and then it’s fingers, making a kind of ramp for them to walk down.

“Okay, everyone off,” it said. “Into the cave.”

“Oh, thank the Goddess,” Katie said, “I have to piss like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Katie!” Zoe said in shock. For a punk rock fan, she was easily offended by an off handed comment, Katie thought.

“What? Like you don’t?” Katie said. “My apologies to your royal highness, but I still gotta piss.”

“I expected as much,” the dragon interrupted before the princesses could respond. “Please use the large boulders on the left side of the cave.”

Katie nodded, and headed off in that direction followed by Bug and Dan. Zoe reluctantly walked to the boulders after a few moments. The bodyguard followed, but only to the edge of the boulders, where he turned and stood watch, though from what Katie didn’t know. She figured that at least pretending to do his job made him feel better. Krunk, on the other hand, just hunkered down near by, and watched the dragon.

The great beast entered the cave only after the six others had done so. It walked in on all fours, and proceeded to circle around a large, empty area of the cave several times before settling down. It lay on it’s stomach, with its fore arms folded to make a crook for its long, lizard like head to lay on top of. All in all, it reminded Krunk of a dog, or even a cat. A very large cat, that could breath fire an swallow even him in one bite.

A few moments later, everyone returned from behind the bolder. The princess looked a little green, and was wiping her hands rapidly on her pants. Upon seeing the dragon, however, she straightened up, put on a face of indignant anger, and marched right up to the dragon, as if it were merely a member of her staff, or perhaps a diplomat.

“What is the meaning of this?” she shouted at the huge yellow eye. “When my father hears about this, he’ll send the whole army here to get you!”

“I am hoping that it won’t come to that, my dear Princesses,” the dragon said. Katie was surprised to find that the dragon’s voice seemed quieter here, as if he were toning it down inside the cave. Her eardrums appreciated that.

“Oh, it will, mark my words,” Zoe said, and then crossed her arms and turned her back on the dragon. Katie couldn’t believe the balls on this girl. When you’re the princesses of the largest empire in the world, you must be used to getting things your way, Katie thought.

“If you are quite done now, I will explain my motivations,” the dragon said. “I intended to kidnap only the princess. The rest of you were not supposed to be here, however, with all the smoke from wrecking the ceiling, I couldn’t tell which of you was the princesses, so I figured it was better to grab you all and bring you here.”

“Why were you even trying to kidnap the princess in the first place?” Katie asked.

“Simple,” the dragon said. “I intend to hold her hostage in order to better dragon rights in the Empire.”

Everyone paused and blinked, as if they weren’t sure what the dragon had just said. Even Zoe had turned around to face it again.

“Dragon rights?” Katie said, coming to stand next to the princess.

Katie and Zoe looked at each other and then back to the dragon.

“Are you serious?” the both said in unison.

The arch above the dragon’s eyes raised in much like a human would raise an eyebrow. The black pupil in the middle of the huge yellow eye narrowed into a slit and then back to a round ball again. Then the dragon took in a deep breath and let it out in what Katie thought was a sigh, except that it sounded exactly like the breaks on a steam train.

“Indeed, I am serious,” the dragon said. “Do you know how appallingly dragons are treated in this country? Why, it’s legal for people to hunt us still, and in the eastern providences, there’s even a contest to see who can get one before the end of the century. We’re being hunted and killed… well, hunted; anyway, we’re hard to kill. We don’t even have the right to voice our indignation, or vote to get the laws changed. We’re not even recognized as intelligent beings. Even goblins are recognized as intelligent creatures, if not citizens. We, we’re treated as mere beasts, no different than game animals. When was the last time you held any kind of conversation with a deer, never mind one over music, poetry or magic?”

Everyone continued to stare at the dragon in stunned silence. Finally, Katie shook here head and raised her hands in exasperation.

“Really?!?” she cried, her hands dropping to her side. “I mean, really? Are you kidding? Dragons kill lives stock, and I don’t mean like a wolf, like whole fields of cows in one go! Divisions of soldiers have been taken down in a simple exhale of breath. You’re cold blooded killers, and I’ve never seen anything that has changed that view in over one thousand years. All of a sudden you want us to believe that you’re really tea totaling, music loving civilized people?”

“My dear young lady,” the dragon said. His great eye moved its focus from the princess to Katie. “I assure you that we have always wanted to be treated as civilized beings. Prior to now, no one has ever allowed us to be anything other than cattle killers. Whole divisions of soldiers have come to kill us, so we defended ourselves. I, and many other dragons of like mind, would like for things to be different.”

Katie tossed her hands up in the air once again, slapping them on her thighs loudly.

“And again I ask, really?” she exclaimed. “You claim you’re tired of being treated as a stereotype, and yet the best plan you can come up with is to kidnap the princess of the largest empire in the world? Did you really think that was going to accomplish anything?”

The large yellow eye blinked, slowly. Katie was amazed at how human like some of the dragon’s actions seemed.

“Well,” he said as the eyelid opened back up, “yes.”

“Oh. My. Goddess.” Katie said. “You kidnapped he PRINCESS! The daughter of the Emperor himself. His only child. Hair to the throne of the empire, for fucks sake!”

All the while she had been speaking, she was pointing at Zoe, who was now looking back and fourth between Katie and the dragon, unsure which one was the bigger threat at this point.

“Yes, it was why I chose her,” the dragon said, still not comprehending what Katie was trying to get at. “I have his daughter, if he wants to see her alive, he’ll need to talk to me.”

“You really think that the Emperor will just come over here and discuss things?” Katie’s voice had stopped being high pitched and dropped down to a more conversational tone, which somehow lent weight to her words. “He is going to do one thing and one thing only. He is going to come here with a full on army of imperial soldiers. And I’m not just talking troops. No, no. Tanks. Jets. Missiles. Anything they can bring to bear to take you down.”

“He wouldn’t,” said the dragon in disbelief. “He couldn’t!”

“He not only could and would,” Zoe said, “he would feel that he had no choice. In fact, if anything were to happen to me here, especially if I were to die, he would probably not just kill you, he would declare war against dragon kind, and hunt down every last dragon in the empire.”

The great eye opened wide, making Katie slightly nervous with the reminder of how small she was compared to the beast she was talking to. It would take an entire army to kill such a creature. And she realized that she had been yelling at it, telling it that it was stupid and doomed to failure. This creature could blow a puff of fire from its nostril and kill her without even thinking. There had to be a way out of this that didn’t involve her being killed. She turned to look at the band, and saw the boys and the bodyguard all staring at her and Zoe with wide eyes and no small amount of fear. Then she saw Krunk. The old troll was standing in his torn jeans and tee shirt, the only one with no fear in his eyes. He nodded at the dragon, then pointed a thumb at himself, and mouthed the words ‘peaceful protest.’ Katie nodded back, understanding fully.

“Peaceful protest,” she repeated, turning back to the dragon. He felt all eyes focus on her.

“I beg your pardon?” the dragon said.

“Peaceful protest,” she said again. “its your way out of this situation. Once upon a time, the trolls were in your same position,” she pointed back towards Krunk. “They were being hunted to extension by the army, called monsters and terrorists, less than second class citizen. Then a troll appeared, a shaman and one of the few that had been to university, started protesting the treatment of his people. He spoke of a dream he had, when trolls were not judged by their appearance, but by the content of their character. He led non-violent protests, with trolls holding signs, giving speeches, singing songs, and gaining all kinds of media attention. He proved to the world that trolls were not the mindless killing machines that everyone thought they were, and that they could, in fact, be productive citizens of the empire. Since then, there have been trolls in the Imperial senate, doctors and soldiers. In fact, one of the highest ranking generals in the army right now is a troll.”

The dragon thought about this for a few moments. “Peaceful protest,” he said, as if tasting the words. The eye once again focused on her. “How would you suggest I proceed with such a plan.”

“Uh, well…” she said, at a complete loss to answer that question.

“I can help with that,” Zoe said. Both the Dragon and Katie turned to look at her. “You’ll need an advocate, someone who’s involved in the political system that can speak on your behalf. I can do that. I can help you organize protests, with marches, where you can give speeches. I can bring media attention, where you can prove to everyone how intelligent you are, and show them how wrong it is to treat you as animals, and that you wish to become citizens. Imagine how much the Empire would be improved with dragon’s as citizens. Why, the military applications of dragons alone would be amazing, not to mention the advances you could provide in history and magic. I can only imagine what dragon art and music must be like. This is exciting!”

Zoe continued talking, discussing what she could wear at the protests, how best to organize the media, and even what she could do to manipulate her father. Katie shook her head.

“But first,” Katie said, letting the princesses continue to talk, “You’d need to let us go, as a show of good faith.”

“What?” the dragon said, and Katie cringed, afraid she had pushed too far too fast.

“Oh, yes,” Zoe said cheerfully, as if she were unaware that they were still hostages. “it will prove to my father that this was a mistake. We’ll tell him that it was all a misunderstanding, that you never intended for it to go this far. It will be out first effort to show how peaceful and non-violent you are.”

‘Our effort,’ Katie noted, and shook her head. Still, the princess seemed to be convincing the dragon to let them go, or even to fly them back to the capital, at least the edges, where they cold return on their own. She was coming up with plans for them to communicate, and when their first real protest could happen. She was even planning on giving a press conference right away, describing her time spent here in this cave, and what she had learned about dragons and the terrible situation they lived in.

It didn’t take long before the dragon had been convinced, and agreed it would take them back to the outskirts of the city. It gave her a crystal ball that it said they could communicate through with a complex spell, when she laughed and handed him her cell phone. He cast a spell on it to make it bigger, so he could actually use it. Katie walked back to the rest of the band, specifically to Krunk, and gave the massive drummer a big hug.

“Thanks, you big lug,” she said.

“I am happy to have aided another creature whose people are in a similar situation to my own,” he grumbled.

“You know,” Dan said, coming up beside the two of them, “I think there might be a song in this. Plight of the Dragon. How awesome would that be? Imagine the anger and power would cold put into a song about oppressed dragons! I’m going to start writing it right now.”

Katie shook her head, but Dan was the best song writer in the group. She had no doubt that this would be a great song.

***************************************

A few hours later, the whole band had been dropped off by the dragon at a quiet suburban zone. It was nearly pitch dark, except for the street lights. Katie was amazed at how the dragon managed to avoid all the light when dropping them off. For such a large creature, it sure was nimble. Zoe was waving at it.

“Remember, we’ll have our first protest in a week, at the university!” she was shouting at the retreating form of the dragon, and Katie was sure that, despite the speed and distance, the dragon had heard her.

“So,” Dan said, stretching his legs. “what do we do now? We were gone for several hours, it’s got to be past midnight. The Emperor couldn’t have mobilized that quickly, so we should still have time to get to him before the army find our… uh… friend’s cave.”

“Oh, he’s mobilized all right,” Zoe had said, “But the army will take some time to get to the cave. It won’t be until tomorrow, at the earliest. We can easily stop the whole thing, I just need to call my father. In the mean time, though, there’s something more important we need to attend to.”

“More important?” Bug said. It was the first dwarf had spoken since the dragon had first appeared. “What in the nine hells could be more important that making sure that dragon isn’t killed by some trigger happy soldier?”

“My birthday party, of course,” Zoe said matter of factly.

“Your… birthday…” Katie wasn’t quite sure she had heard the princess right.

“Oh, yes,” Zoe said. “The ball is an important tradition, and it can’t happen without me. Besides, I invited a friend of mine to come and listen to you. I think you know of him, Mr. James Whitman.”

“James Whitman?” Dan said in disbelief. “Of Noble Knight Records?”

“Yes, of course,” Zoe said. “You guys need to be on a major record label, and James is always looking for something that the ‘young people’ are listening to.

Katie smiled and Dan went on excitedly to Zoe about how amazing it was that she actually knew James Whitman. She turned to Krunk, who nodded at her with a knowing smile on his face.

“You did good tonight, Katie,” he said.

“Yeah, who knew that I would help start a whole civil rights movement,” she said.

“No, not that,” Krunk said, and she turned to look at him confused. “I mean, you’re instincts to stay at the party were right. We’re going to get signed to a label. It’s about fucking time.”

Katie just stared at her oldest friend and drummer for a few moments, before the two of them burst out laughing.

The End

The Day Without The Interent (AKA, Week 12)

So, this weekend, my wife an I went out of town to visit some friends, hit a ren faire site to register our badges early, and go to a mini-class reunion for my wife. I had planed to be out of town, and figured I would just bring the laptop with me, finish up my story while on the road, and then just pop into a coffee shop, probably a Starbucks, and post it.

Sadly, several of the above things were not to happen as planned.

Let's start with this. Saturday went fine. We drove for nearly 3 hours and got to our friend's house. We visited, had dinner out (ah, Denny's... okay food, but always open and affordable), and then crashed in their spare bedroom. Fine and dandy, exactly as planned.

This morning, things began to go bad.

We had breakfast (pancakes, bacon and sausages. Yummy!), showered, changed, packed up and went to Starbucks. That's when our friend and her son came along as unexpected tag alongs. Okay, really, not a big deal, it's just that we were planning on stopping of at Starbucks long enough for me to post, and then bug out of there to do our things. Now we had to go back to our friend's house to drop her back home. Meh, no big deal in the long run.

Now, we get to Starbucks, with posters advertising their free AT&T WiFi. I had trouble finding a plug, however... the ONE that was by a seat was in use. And I needed one, because the lap top battery wasn't holding a charge. No biggie, I find one by a display case, and just move a chair and table next to it.

So, powered on, I automatically connect to the network, but cannot actually navigate the internet, because my wife can't remember her log-in and password to the AT&T network. We call her best friend to get her log in, but no luck there, either. No one can remember their log-in's. We obviously hang out at Starbucks a lot.

Again, no big deal, I decide to just buy a Starbucks card and get a new account for myself. Here's the rub:

The minimum purchase is $5.00 on the card. Okay, doable, my wife will use that in one go. HOWEVER, in order to get an internet account, I need to make FIVE SEPARATE PURCHASES on the card. FIVE! I couldn't get over it.

"Well," the barista trying to be helpful to me says, "You can buy 5 biscottis, that will count."

Ugh. I can't stand biscottis, and I am not about to but five of the things when I wouldn't even eat one of them if you paid me. By this point, we had been there for almost an hour, wasting our time, and it had become far too complicated.

So, I just decide that the story will have to wait until I get home. Which I am now, having arrived about an hour before this blog post is being written.

So, phew! What a day! But, it's all over, and now, late but still on Sunday, so still in time for the deadline, is this week's story, Cash for Katie!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Villain’s Anonymous

“Hello, my name is Professor Dread, and I’m a super villain.”

“Hi Professor Dread.”

“I’d like to welcome everyone to the ‘Not Such Bad Guys’ Villain’s Anonymous group. This is the last Friday of the month, and, as many of you know, that means this is a speaker meeting. Before I introduce our special guest, however, let’s get some business out of the way. First, are there any new comers to the meeting that would like to introduce themselves?”

“Uh, Hi. I’m Bruiser Bill, and, uh, I’m a super villain.”

“Hi Bruiser Bill.”

“Uh… my last act of villainy was, uh, yesterday, I was, uh, trying to rob a bank and was, y’know, trounced thoroughly by, uh, Captain Valiant. It was my third time in, uh, three days to be beat by that guy, and I thought, uh, maybe something’s wrong with me. A friend suggested I, uh, give VA a try, and here I am.”

“Welcome, Bruiser Bill. Keep coming back. Okay, now onto reports. Any news from the secretary?”

“Greetings, I am Mind Master, and I am your secretary. I just want to remind everyone the District Fifteen Tenth Annual Villain Fishing Weekend is coming up, in two weeks. It is a three day event, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and takes place at Liberty Lake. A good time is had by all, as everyone gather’s in group activities, such as boat building, group fishing, and, of course, the big dinner. If you have never been, you should think about it seriously, because it is fun, and I speak from experience here.”

“Thanks Mind Master. All right, now it’s time for the main event. Allow me to introduce a villain who’s name by itself was once cause for fear. He’s been in the program for a very long time, and was friends with some of its founders. I give you the one, the only, Luther Van Dyne!”

“Greetings, fellow villains. My name is Luther Van Dyne, and I’m a super villain. My last act of villainy was 20 years ago.”

“Hi Luther!”

“So, I understand that this month’s topic for your group is the fourth step. That is fantastic. It’s one of those steps that everyone stumbles over, but you come out the other side so much stronger and better for it. I remember my first fourth step, and let me tell you, it was a fucking bear! But, before I get into that, I’m going to start with a little back story. I know that a lot of you have heard my story before, but for those that are new, or haven’t heard it before, I’ll go over it again here, in brief.”

“I’m not really going to get into my childhood, it’s too long a story to cover at this meeting, but suffice it to say, I was born to a wealthy family. My father, Richard Van Dyne III, was the fourth in the Van Dyne line to hold the position of CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors for Van Dyne industries, and I was to inherit that when my father retired, probably by the time I was in my 30’s. I had a very dysfunctional life growing up. My father was a workaholic, as well as an alcoholic, and my mother mostly spent her time shopping or at a beauty salon. I was raised by my nanny, a very kind lady who’s name I have been asked to keep anonymous.”

“Inside the home I was ignored and a nobody, at least to my parents. Outside the home, however, I more than made up for that. I was a star athlete at the private school I went to, playing football, basketball and water polo. I was big man on campus, class president, a straight A student and the favorite of all the teachers. I had a different girlfriend every quarter, and a line of male students willing to do whatever I told them just to learn at the feet of the master. I was well on the way to becoming the villainous mastermind I would one day become.”

“My first real act of villainy was a simple one. I stole some money out of my mother’s purse when I was ten. I never got caught, so I did it again, later. I discovered that it was pretty easy, in fact, because she never tracked her purse or how much money was in it. It became boring by the time I was twelve. I moved onto bigger things. By then, I had discovered computers, and that my father’s company was heavily into developing them. I learned all I could about them, and from that, I learned how to hack into my father’s company’s files. For fun, I would move files to different locations, or change key words here and there. They never figured it out. Later, I learned that banks had computers as well.”

“Stealing out of my mom’s purse was always just for some quick cash. I used the money to buy candy and soda, comic books and movie tickets. But banks. Now they had some serious cash. I found that I could easily hack into banks, because back then, not many people were doing this, so banks had no defenses for it. I stole thousands. And I loved the rush I got from it. I was hooked at that point, a real villain. I started seeing how I could easily manipulate people, especially my mother, how I could use computers to forge documents, and I could easily assemble an army of minions quickly. And then I formed my plan. I was going to take over daddy’s company, and I wasn’t going to wait until I was 30 and too old to enjoy it.”

“So I did just that. I created documents that indicated my father was involved in some nasty, illegal stuff. Insider trading, bribing of government officials, paying off rivals, corporate espionage. Later I learned that he really was guilty of all those things, but was a master at hiding it. I, however, got him arrested on false evidence for real crimes. I used that knowledge to justify my actions for years to come. At any rate, at the age of 19, I inherited Van Dyne Industries, the youngest CEO in the country. And I turned my brilliant mind to the business. I thought that, with my focus on the company, I would put villainy behind me. Petty crimes had no place in the corporate world. What I found however, was that a whole new level of villainy was opened to me. All the things I framed my father for, I was now doing. Manipulation, lying, forging documents, corporate espionage. At the same time, I thought I was on top of the world. I was the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company in the history of this country. I had vast amounts of money going to charities, and I had a new, famous girlfriend every month. I was America’s darling, on my way to being the richest man in the world, and nothing could even touch me, never mind take me down from the top of the mountain. Then, a new player entered the field, and I was about to find out how wrong I was.”

“At first, no one knew his name. They just saw him flying around, in his red and blue uniform. He stopped natural disasters, or saved people in them. He rescued kitties caught in trees. And most importantly, he stopped one of Professor Dread’s giant robots. Remember those, Dread? No one made giant robots like Dread. Finally, one love smitten report named him, Ultra-Man. He was the hero of the city, and the new media darling. In the first month of his appearance, I could have had the worst sex scandal of all time, and no one would have even noticed. I’m sure you all understand, my ego just couldn’t accept that. I was Luther Van Dyne, the most powerful man in the city. And I needed to find a way to remind everyone of that.”

“Before I could make any move against Ultra-Man, I had to learn about him. Costumed heroes were nothing new, we’ve had them as far back as the American Revolution, with the Masked Musketeer, but Ultra-Man was different. Or at least, it looked that way. He was the first hero to have multiple powers. Flight AND super strength. Invulnerability AND laser vision. And on top of it all, he seemed to be the first hero that wanted to work WITH the law, rather than around it. Not a vigilante, but someone that wanted to aid the police, to protect the people from threats that cops couldn’t. He never interfered with the police unless they asked, or if it appeared that they weren’t going to be able to stop the criminals on their own. He seemed to be a genuinely good guy, a law abiding citizen with the power to make a difference.”

“But, I didn’t believe it, not at first. Everyone had a price, right? At least, that’s what my villainy had taught me up to that point. I just had to find out what Ultra-Man’s was. Imagine my arrogance. This man could latterly move mountains, and I thought that if I waved a stack of money in front of him, he would move those mountains for me, at my whim. I even tried the direct approach. I arranged a meeting, offered to ‘sponsor’ his activates in exchange for some endorsements. Oh, I wasn’t asking him to wear my corporate logo on his chest or anything, just appear on billboards, telling the world to buy my stuff.”

“Of course, he wanted nothing to do with any of then. In fact, he committed that sin amongst sin. He insulted me. He called me a corrupt businessman, who treated the world as if it were my toy. He told me that he was going to find a way to arrest me, find proof that I was a criminal. And I couldn’t believe how arrogant he was being.”

“After that, I stepped things up. I had set up a dummy corporation that funded illegal activities. Crime sprees, protection rackets, random bouts of destructive violence. I even ended up funding your chairman here, Professor Dread. He used my money to build a truly impressive giant robot. It looked like he was on the verge of getting the city to give him all his demands, too, before Ultra-Man stopped him. Eventually, though, I slipped up.”

“One of the times I had funded a group of thieves to rob every bank in the city in alphabetical order. It didn’t take Ultra-Man but two bank hits to figure out the pattern, and capture the guys committing the crime. Sadly, one of them was wearing a Van Dyne employee badge at the time. It was pretty easy to get one of them to rat me out. The dummy corporation was discovered and a mountain of evidence against me was gathered. I was arrested, tried, and sent to jail. You would have thought that was enough. That going to prison was my bottom, and I would have turned over a new leaf right then and there. Instead, it had the opposite effect on me. I became more determined.”

“My board of directors was very loyal to me. After getting out, they reinstated me as chairman, though I couldn’t also serve as CEO. I made a decision right then and there that if Ultra-Man were going to try and call me a super villain, then I was going to give him one. I spent thousands of dollars, almost none of it mine, building the power suit. For those of you old enough to remember the suit, allow me to apologize. For those that weren’t, just allow me to say that it was horribly ugly, and you weren’t missing a thing.”

“As bad as it looked, however, it allowed me to do the one thing I had planned on doing all along: take down Ultra-Man. In my power armor, I actually managed to defeat Ultra-Man. That’s right, I actually managed to defeat Ultra-Man in a straight up fight. Oh, not right away, to be sure. We battled back and fourth, as a true hero and villain should. I came up with scheme after scheme. He thwarted me over and over. I even went back to prison several times. But I had very good lawyers, and never stayed there for long.”

“But in the end, I pulled off my grandest scheme. In all this time, I had not just been fighting Ultra-Man, but also observing him. I noticed that a certain lovely, lady newspaper reporter always managed to get the scoop on our fights. The gossip rags had been reporting that the two of them had a secret love affair, and I started to wonder if maybe they were right. So, I kidnapped her in an attempt to stop Ultra-Man. I didn’t demand a ransom, or that he give up being a hero to get her back. Neither of those would work. No, I demanded from her she tell me all there was to know about him. Everything she didn’t publish.”

“It took some doing, but she finally broke. I learned his dirty little secrets, and most importantly, his weaknesses. I re-tooled my armor to take advantage of said weaknesses, and then let him know that I was the one that had his reporter, and where to meet me. I choose a private location, outside the city. I wanted this to be a private victory. I would bring the battered and defeated Ultra-Man back into the city later. This battle would be an exclusive for our dear lady reporter, the only witness. And it was a glorious fight. The warehouse we were in was destroyed in the processes, but in the end, I had defeated Ultra-Man. He was battered, bleeding, powerless.”

“I was drunk on the victory. I had him on all fours, coughing up blood. I told him to surrender to me, and I would spare his life. Surrender, become my lackey, and he could live. He, of course, refused. Then, I threatened the reporter. I turned my ray blasters to her. I could see the fear in his eyes. Work for me, I told him, or she dies. He hesitated, and in my insanity, I blasted away. There was little left of the woman but charred bone. I couldn’t believe what I had just done. In my entire criminal carrier, I had never killed anyone before. I had never even had anyone killed on my order. It just didn’t happen. But there I was, a dead woman before, my arms pointing the armors weapons at her, smoke still coming from the barrels.”

“I turned to look at Ultra-Man, tears in his face, truly defeated. I was to learn later that the two of them had just married. I had killed not only a woman, but also this man’s heart. It was like waking from a dream. I had won, but at what cost? In victory, I couldn’t go on living. I flipped a couple of dials on my armor, restored Ultra-Man’s power to him, and shed the battle suit. I came up to him and surrendered. I expected him to punch my head off for what I had done, but instead, always the law-abiding citizen, he took me to the police, and charged me with murder. The trial was swift, for I pleaded guilty. I was hoping for death row, a little box with no windows where they would lock me in and throw away the key. Something like that, because a part of me knew that if I got back out, I would eventually become a villain again. I needed to be in prison to protect the world from me, to protect myself from me.”

“I got a life sentence, in a special prison for super-villains in Colorado. I know some of you know it, it’s called The Vault. It was in there that I first heard about Villain’s Anonymous. Mr. Mole and Lord Pain, the two men who founded the program, were there, along with Lady Death and the Anti-American, a small little group that worked their program in prison. At first, I didn’t understand them. They had all done hideous crimes in their times, yet they walked around happy, doing what they could to aid others, making what amends they could from in prison. They never once tried to recruit people into their little group. In my first few months, two new villains joined their group, and as I watched over the next year, they cleared up, became happier and… free. Yes, right there, in the four walls of The Vault, these men and women were free. And I found that I wanted that.”

“So, when their next meeting happened that week, I went. No one looked at me oddly, or told me I couldn’t join. They welcomed me with open arms, and no expectations. It was odd. At first, I only listened. I was in awe at what these people said, about how they had turned themselves over to a higher power and how that higher power had guided them onto a new spiritual path that lead them to clear thinking and happiness. At first, I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled upon a cult. But it was Lady Death that said something that caught my attention.”

“She told the story of the town in Arkansas that she had poisoned. Twenty people dead, because of her. It was a crime she was not sure she could make an amends for. But, she knew she had to. So, she called the mayor of that city, and asked if she could meet with a representative of the families she had killed, so she could attempt one. She described how the young man, angry and not happy to be there, had arrived a few days later. She told how she explained the processes of making an amends, that she wanted to list all the things she had done to him and his town, and then ask him what he could do for the town that would balance the books. Anything that was in her power to do.”

“She said that he looked her in the eyes, and tears started coming down his face. He confessed that he was planning on telling her she could die. It was all he wanted. But now here, faced with her, he couldn’t ask that of another human being, even one that had committed such an evil act as that. She listened to him silently, and he finally said that what she could do was stay in prison forever. He wasn’t able to ask her to die, but he was still unwilling to forgive her. He said, however, that the people in his town would sleep better knowing that she was someplace where she could never harm another person in her life.”

“Then came the amazing part. She said that the next day, she wrote a letter to the courts, asking for a life sentence, that she not ever be allowed to leave The Vault. It was an odd request, given that she already had a life sentence, but she reiterated that what she was asking for was no chance at parole. After some deliberation, the courts agreed. She mailed a copy of the court ruling to the man that had visited her, proof that she was doing as he asked. She would stay in The Vault for the rest of her life, as her amends to those she had killed and those she had left behind.”

“It was an amazing story, and it gave me a glimmer of hope. This woman had confronted the most heinous crime she had committed, confronted someone who’s life she had directly affected, and came out the other side free. It was amazing. And I realized that I wanted that freedom. So, I started participating in full, sharing at the meetings, showing up early to help with set up, and even asked Lord Pain to be my sponsor. He refused, but directed me to Doctor Madness, who became my sponsor and guided me through the steps. He was ruthless, exactly what I needed.”

“We worked hard, he and I. Even though I wanted the freedom, I rebelled against doing the work. My ego was unwilling to admit I was powerless. I began to fear that I would fail at step one, ending my VA career before it even began. But Doc Madness was ruthless. He never gave up on me, and eventually, we worked through it. I saw that I was powerless, that my mind was somehow broken. I was bodily and mentally different from my fellows, and that I didn’t have a choice but to act the way I did. Was truly powerless over villainy, and my life was very much unmanageable.”

“Then came step two. Once again, I stumbled. I had never had strong religious beliefs, and God was something that I felt, even if he did exist, he didn’t do anything for me. I had to do it all on my own. But, going back to Step One, I remembered that doing things on my own didn’t really work out so well for me, did it? My dilemma, Doc Madness told me, was a lack of power. I had no power, and thus my life was in ruins. But God, now, here was all the power. Not just some power, but all of it. And all I had to do was believe that some kind of Higher Power, God, if you will, existed that could use that power to restore me to sanity. And so I did.”
“The third step was easier. After being willing to believe, it was easier to release my will and my life over to a Higher Power. I just had to figure out what that higher power was. I worked hard to come up with a basic definition of my higher power, but through all this, the Doc kept me focused. He let me know that at this point, I didn’t have to have a super clear idea of my higher power, just hat had I one was enough. So, armed with my basic concept, I took the third step. After this, my sponsor said to me, I was no longer in control. I left the driver’s seat for the passenger’s. After this, I was not to do anything that wasn’t a direction from God. And if I wasn’t sure, I was to pray for that direction. I nodded. I was willing. More than willing, I needed to surrender, because life run on my own will result in death. And death wasn’t going to help anyone. So, I took the third step, and felt pretty good for it.”

“Then came the truly hard work. Step Four, the personal house cleaning. It had been hard enough to go over my life in step one, but now I was going to go through it in detail, and be brutally honest with myself about what I had done. We used the method that was outlined in the grandfather of all 12-step programs, AA. We used the four-column inventory, and I wrote mine with vigor and brutality. I wanted to get to the roots of my problems; I wanted to see exactly what kind of man I had truly been. The results were not pretty.”

“At first, going through my resentments, I figured it would be limited to Super-Heroes, but I found that I resented a LOT of people. Members of the board of Van Dyne industries, my father, even employees, all faced my ire. Police, town councils, city mayors, the President of the United States, all ended up on my list. And I wrote my four columns with as much honesty as I could muster. I have to admit, at one point during the processes, I told my sponsor that I felt I wasn’t being as honest as I cold, that I was sure I could go deeper, but I just couldn’t figure out how. He laughed at me. He said, if I couldn’t see how to go deeper, than this was as deep as I was capable, and to move on. Remember, God ran my life now, now me. There was only so much God wanted me to see right away. Then he told me something that has stuck with me for the rest of my life, and something I tell all my sponsors too.”

“This won’t be the last time you do these steps, he said. You’ll come back, and you’ll find that some of these people and resentments will still be on your list. You’ll work them again, and get deeper when you’re ready to. For now, don’t sweat it. Just work as best you can. And so I did. It’s an important piece of information to be armed with. God wasn’t being gentle with me, let me make that clear, but he was only giving me what I could carry. And that meant I could only dig so deep before I was over loaded with the dirt. So, I learned to bear the dirt I had before looking for more.”

“The hardest resentment I had to write about was Ultra-Man’s. I had so much guilt around him, I was afraid of the resentment. But, I prayed about it, asked God for the strength to go on, and I wrote. I discovered that, to my shock, not only were there the resentments I expected to see, but I was also resentful at him for the death of the reporter. Somewhere in my twisted way of thinking, I had blamed him for making me kill her. Can you believe that? Even though I felt guilty over her death, part of me blamed him. The heights of arrogance. Doc Madness pointed out to me that this was how my disease worked. It was how my mind was able to justify all those acts of villainy. And I realized he was right.”

“At that point, I started to sense that feeling of freedom that I had seen in the others. I realized that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I also realized that in doing my fourth step this way, I had set myself up for my ninth step, but that was to worry about later. No, not even worry about it. I would turn it over to God when the time came. In the mean time, I was still working on my fourth step, and I needed to finish that. One step at a time, as my sponsor would say. One step at a time.”

“Now I’ve been in program for a long time. And I’ve worked hard to get where I am. Van Dyne Industries is in the hands of the board of directors, I no longer have any thing to do with it. Instead, I live off the inheritance I got from my parents, and spend most of my time working with other villains. One of my amends, in fact part of the amends I made to Ultra-Man, was to do just that. When he saw how I had changed, what VA could do for even someone like me, he realized it was important that I work with others, that I bring them through the program. He realized that it was not only good for the world, but it was good for these men and women as well.”

“In all this time I’ve been working program, I’ve done numerous fourth steps. I try to work my steps each year, from scratch. And so I’ve gone through a lot of resentment inventories. Lots of fear grids. Lots of house cleaning. I know that this is news for some of you. I mean, once you do your first fourth step, that it, right? You’re cleaned house, now you’re done, right? Maintenance only? Well, no. Let’s continue with the house cleaning metaphor for a moment. You live in a pig sty. Then, you go through it all and do a through cleaning. You put things away, get rid of things that are no longer serving you, and make the floors sparkle. It’s perfectly clean. Now it’s just a matter of maintaining that clean, right? Sure, except that a year later, you look around and notice that the place is cluttered again. You did your best to keep it clean, but here you are, looking at dirty floors and rooms filled with junk you didn’t even realize you had collected.”

“So, you go through and clean again. And the next year, again. Its spring cleaning, the big, through clean that has to happen to make the maintenance easier. This is the biggest thing I can tell you about the fourth step. Don’t fear it, just realize that it’s a vital part of your program. Despite your best efforts, you will accumulate junk. New resentments, old ones that you forgot you had, or old ones you thought you had worked through but discovered that they were still there. Sometimes, it takes a resentment two or three times to be worked out of your system. At least, that’s been true for me.”

“So, just remember, work it to the best of your ability. When you think your missing something, pray and turn it over to God. Don’t worry about how this will affect your other steps, they’ll come soon enough. Stay on the here and no, work your fourth step to the best of your ability, and God will do the rest. If you want to be happy and free, then this is the work you need to do. The desire to do villains acts has been removed from me, but the spiritual illness that drove me to them in the first place requires constant work. And the fourth step is perhaps the biggest tool in my tool box at dealing with it. Thank you everyone for allowing me to come out here and share. I know I said would be brief telling my story, and I think I went over my time, but again, thank you.”

The End

Week 11

Well, here I am again, another week gone by and another story to present. I have to admit, I had a hard time getting focused this week, and I wasn't sure I would make it. But, I did, and here I am, posting my 11th short story on this blog. Man, that's amazing. I hope you all enjoy it!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Adventuring Party, part 2: The Wizard’s Tower

“Are you sure this map is legit?” the tall human in the heavy armor asked.

“Yeah, Del. I’m sure,” the gnome said with annoyance in his voice. He held the map in front of him, comparing it with his surroundings. The forest was thicker here than it was on the map. Maybe it was just an old map?

“Tell me again how you got it, Dash?” Del said.

Dash sighed. He had explained this to the human several times already.

“I told you, I got it from an old man in the tavern.”

“In black robes with his hood pulled over his head,” Del said.

“Yes,” the gnome replied.

“And he wants us to do what, again?” Del asked.

“Look, Del,” Dash said, turning to the human. “It’s pretty simple. He wants us to go to this abandoned wizard’s tower and retrieve the wizard’s spell book from it. He said the tower used to be his master’s tower one hundred years ago, but that it was destroyed by a magical experiment gone awry. He had been traveling and only just heard the news. He’s paying us four hundred gold to go and get this spell book, and any other loot down there, he says we get to keep.”

“And you trust this old man,” Del asked.

“Trust?” Dash said, throwing his arms up in exasperation. “Four hundred gold, Del! What in the nine hells does trust have to do with anything?”

“I just have a bad feeling about this,” the warrior said.

“You have a bad feeling about all our quests,” Dash replied. “Not that any of them have been very exciting. Finding lost library books and guarding caravans down a well traveled road for a few copper isn’t my idea of adventuring.”

Del started to open his mouth to protest, but Nor, the dwarf priestess, stepped between the two.

“Dash is correct, my friend,” she said, resting a hand on Del’s arm. “We have all craved more adventure than we’ve experienced so far. The rats when we first arrived in Oak Hollow were the most excitement we’ve seen so far, and the money we got from that is almost gone. Let your fears go for now, we can discuss them fully when we return to town.”

Del looked from Dash to Nor, and then over to Sharai, the only member of the party to not participate in the discussion. She only shrugged, neutral as always when these kinds of discussions came up. Del sighed, though. He knew that Sharai wanted to get into that wizard’s tower, too. Being a mage, there was no doubt all kinds of things she could find in there to aid in her studies. Finally, he nodded.

“You’re right,” he said to Nor. “I’m sorry, Dash, I won’t ask again. Let’s get to this tower and get that spell book.”

“Now you’re talking,” Dash said. He returned to the map, turning his head sideways and looking at the area around him again. Wasn’t there supposed to be a river here?

Del walked up behind him, looked at the map, looked around them, then turned the map ninety degrees sideways. He then pointed at an area of the map that showed a forested hill, and pointed to an actual forested hill to their right.

“Ah,” Dash said. “That would explain why there was no river here. Well, we’re still headed in the right direction. This way!”

****************************************************

A few hours later, they were stopping for lunch. They had been marching for the whole morning, and everyone was tired and hungry. Nor had a small fire going in a few moments, and Del returned with two rabbits. The two of them had the animals cooked quickly, and everyone ate their fill.

“Okay,” Dash said, looking over the map once more. “I think we’re close. It should be just over the next hill or two.”

“Really?” Sharai asked. “Shouldn’t we be able to see it by now then? I mean, it is a wizard’s tower.”

Dash looked up and then around, as if expecting to see a tower suddenly sticking up over the horizon.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Maybe when the guy who hired us said ‘destroyed’ he really meant it.”

“If that’s the case,” Nor said, “then exactly how are we going to explore the tower? If it’s gone, destroyed, then there’s nothing to explore.”

“Basement,” Del said around a mouthful of rabbit. Everyone stopped and looked at him. He stopped chewing and stared back. “What? Lots of castles have dungeons and below ground storage rooms. It seems to me that a wizard would be a fool not to as well. Besides, maybe magical experiments are safer underground, where they can’t destroy your tower.”

“That’s actually pretty insightful,” Sharai said. “You know, now that you mention it, my master had a secret lab he used. We always assumed it was in the upper parts of the tower, that we couldn’t’ get to. But now that you say it, we did have underground storage, and he did go down there a lot.”

Everyone nodded and agreed that this must be the case. Excited, lunch ended quickly and the party was once again on the move. As promised, the tower remains proved to be right over the next hill. There really wasn’t much left of it. Lots of stone and brick were scattered about the place, many of them black as if they had been burned. Almost the entire first floor remained intact, but there were only a few wall struts to indicate that the structure went up further than that. What was left of the first floor was accessible by a large hole.

“Okay, I’ll go in first,” Del said, drawing his sword and readying his shield. “Dash, behind me, Nor, you’re in the rear. Everyone be ready.”

With practiced ease, the group arranged themselves in a single file, and entered the structure. The wooden floor creaked as Del set his weight upon it, and he could swear that the walls groaned. He said a silent prayer that the remains were still sound enough to stay standing while they explored.

The first thing that Del noticed upon entering was that it was cold. Cold and damp. This disturbed him because it hasn’t rained for a month outside. This place should be bone dry.

“Lingering magical effect,” Sharai said as soon as she entered. “Ignore it, its just part of the damage that was done to this place.”

Del nodded and continued moving in. He went through what was once obviously a door, though now it was nothing more than splinters hanging off a single hinge. Something moved out of the corner of his eye, and he jerked his head trying to track it. He raised his sword arm up, and waved one finger off the hilt. This was a signal the party had worked out during training to indicate that they were not alone.

Slowly, Del made his way down the ruined hallway, towards where he saw the movement. There was enough damage to the surrounding walls that the interior was well light by the sun, making it easy for his human eyes to search the place. He saw the movement again, followed quickly by a flash of silver that flew by his head. A scream followed. He moved to trace the path of the silver flash, and saw a small, gray skinned humanoid with crooked, pointed ears, yellow eyes that were a third the size of the rest of his head, and a crooked mouth filled with sharp teeth. It was laying on the ground, tugging at a dagger that had landed in his shoulder.

“Goblin,” he said, lowering the point of his sword at the creature’s throat. This caused it to stop all motion. “You got him, Dash.”

“Excellent,” the gnome said coming up next to Dash to view the creature. “I’ll ask it what it knows.”

The gnome cleared his throat, and then uttered something guttural that made it sound as if he were trying to speak around a mouthful of rocks. The creatures large eyes moved from Dash to the sword at its throat and back again. It didn’t speak back, however. Dash growled a few more commands, but the creature refused to play along. Finally, Dash said something that seemed to catch its attention. It narrowed its eyes, and actually spit on the sword. Del started to move the sword, so as to break skin without killing the creature, but it moved first.

It was faster than Del had expected, swatting aside the sword with its thin but muscular arm, and then quickly scrambling to its feet. It yanked the dagger out of its shoulder and threw it straight at Del, who barely had time to raise his shield to block it. Dash let loose with another dagger, but the lithe creature was ready for it this time, and managed to doge it.

Thankfully, the two boys were not alone in this fight. And the girls had magic to aid them. Nor said a quick prayer to the Three Brothers and then pointed her hammer at the creature. A bolt of lightning arced from the hammer to the goblin, causing the creature to cry out in pain again. It quickly ducked around a corner, and Del saw that it drew the small blade that was at its side. Before he could go charging off after it, though, Sharai touched his sword with her finger, tracing a symbol on it. It glowed briefly, and she nodded at him.

He raced around the corner after the goblin, only to find it laying in wait. It stabbed him right in the leg, cleanly slicing through the tough leather that protected then and entering his thigh a few inches. Del cut back a cry of pain and jabbed his sword forward. He knew his wild stab was going to miss the dexterous monster, but the sword glowed again and he felt it pull his arm mid swing towards the goblin’s belly. It struck true, piercing the gray belly and felling the creature on the spot. It was good to have a wizard on your side.

Nor quickly came up to Del and yanked the jagged goblin sword from the warrior. This time, he did scream. The blood came out quickly, but Nor just ignored it. She said another prayer, and her hands glowed a light blue. Del felt warmth flow into his leg from her hands, and then watched as the wound closed, as if it had never been there. He’d been on the receiving end of Nor’s healing magic several times, but it sill never ceased to amaze him.

“There’ll be more of them,” Nor said when she had finished, jerking a thumb at the fallen goblin.

“How do you know?” Dash asked. “It could have just taken shelter in the ruins, to get out of the sun. Everyone knows that goblins hate the sunlight”

Nor nodded, then said, “Yes, but when was the last time you heard of anyone finding just one goblin.”

No one replied. Finally Del stood up, taking charge once more.

“Okay, so, more goblins,” he said. “Probably down in the storage basement. Its unlikely that they’ve discovered the hidden library, though. So, we continue to look for a way down, and be on the look out for gray figures hiding in the rubble.”

Everyone nodded, and the search through the tower continued. Eventually, it was Nor that found what they were looking for. A trap door in the floor. She had found it in what looked like the ruins of a kitchen by moving several rocks and a crushed kettle pot off of it. It didn’t look used, but Nor also pointed out that this was unlikely the only entrance to the basement. If it worked like other castles, there was an entrance outside as well, and the goblins could be using that one.

“In that case, we might have surprise on our side,” Del said. “If they’re guarding the entrance outside, that leaves this one ignored.”

“Do you think this one got off an alarm?” Dash asked. “It did scream a lot when it got stabbed.”

“Probably,” Del said. “But it won’t matter if we’re taking the back door.”

They all worked together to remove the remaining bits of debris off the door, the set about heaving it open. A blast of cold air caused them all to step back before peering into the room below. A wooden ladder could be seen, bolted to the floor from the other side. It stretched down about three feet before disappearing in darkness. Del turned to look at Sharai, but she was already whispering at her staff. A second later the tip ignited into a blue light. She held it over the door, allowing them to see the rest of the way down. It was about ten feet, and the room below looked to be a larder of some sort.

Dash climbed down the ladder first, to search for traps below. Nor and Sharai leaned over the door, ready to cast a spell at anything down there that might attack their friend. Dash made it down safely, then proceed to search the room. After a few moments, he declared it all clear. As everyone else climbed down, he went to the only door to listen. The room was as cold as that initial blast indicated.

“Another magical effect,” Sharai said, “probably designed for stored food.”

Del moved up behind Dash.

“Hear anything?” Del asked.

Dash simply waved him off and continued to listen. After a second more, he turned to the rest of the group.

“More goblins on the other side of this door,” he said. “from the sounds of it, there are for of them, and they’re playing dice. It seems our friend from upstairs didn’t get off any alarm.”

“Good,” Del said. “Let’s go kick some goblin ass.”

He boldly strode up to the wooden door, his sword and shield at the ready. He turned to the rest of the party, who all nodded that they were ready, then kicked in the door as hard as it could. The damage from upstairs apparently extended to below ground as well, for the door went flying off it’s hinges and across the room a good two feet, hitting a goblin and trapping the creature under it. Del took advantage of the surprise, and charged into the room, stabbing a second goblin through the heart.

The remaining two stood up quickly and drew their wicked short swords. Nor was in the room next, charging the closest goblin to her. She let out a fearsome dwarven battle cry, and swung her hammer at the monster. It blocked as best it could with its sword, but the blow was hard and forced him to take a step backwards. The fourth goblin charged Nor, trapping her between the two creatures, and stabbed her in the back.

Sharai then let loose with a magical bolt that struck the fourth goblin. It didn’t fell the monster, but it did cause him to move a step backwards, which was enough for Dash to move in. Back to back with Nor, Dash used his twin daggers to create a blur of steel in front of the goblin. It spent a lot of energy trying to dodge the whirling daggers that it never saw the actual attack come. Dash lunged here, feinted there, and finally, stabbed the monster in the thigh. Del came up behind it and stuck his sword through it’s back, finishing it.

Meanwhile, Nor had managed to get in a solid blow on the goblin she was fighting, crushing in it’s skull with a satisfying crunch sound. The four friends looked at each other and smiled in shared victory once they realized the fight was over. Nor was wounded, but it was a minor scratch, not even worth a healing spell.

“Let’s not get cocky,” Del said. “We had surprise on our side in that combat. If these goblins had been prepared, that fight would have been much harder.”

“Yes, teacher Del,” Dash said mockingly.

“I mean it, Dash,” Del said, though a smile crossed his face.

The four took stock of the room they were in. It was a large room, about forty feet on a side, and was obviously more storage, though it didn’t have the cold effect of the previous room. There were boxes and barrels, and a few held the remains of food or water, but there were also other supplies down here. Spices and herbs, ground bones, fine gold dust, liquid silver and all kinds of other odds and ends. Spell components, Sharai realized. These were used in recopies for creating new spells, or for complex ritual spells.

There two doors out of this room. One was at the top of a small flight of stairs, and most likely led outside. The other was a simple wooden door like the one they had come into. Even Sharai didn’t know why there could possibly be a third room down here. This time, it was Nor’s turn at the door. She walked up to it, put her hand on it, then slammed it open. It wasn’t as spectular as Del’s kick, but it did serve to startle the goblins on the other side of the door.

What was there, however, caused the whole party to hesitate. It was a group of about four goblins, but small and helpless looking. Babies. In front of them was a goblin woman, who turned at hissed at them, a dagger in her hand. From the look in her eyes, however, it was obvious she was terrified. Nor started to walk into the room, a viscious glint in her eyes.

“Nor!” Sharai cried, and the dwarf paused, though she never took her eyes off the goblin woman. “They’re babies, children. We can’t kill them.”

Nor growled, a low animal noise, that caused Sharai to gasp in surprise.

“These are goblins,” Nor said. “They are animals, who cannot be saved. They are a plague on the realm, and all must be destroyed.”

“But,” Sharai said, unable to let go of the situation. “Children?”

Nor turned back to glare at Sharai, and the elf saw such anger and pain in her friends eyes that she took a step backwards.

“Goblins destroyed my family home,” the dwarf said, “slaughtered my whole family. Women, children, sick, didn’t matter to them. They were animals. I only survived because my brother grabbed me and fled. These beasts deserve no mercy, and need to be eradicated off the face of this world.”

Del came up to Sharai then and turned her around. Silently, he walked her back to the cold storage room while Nor and Dash set about their grim work.

“Children, Del?” she said, a tear in her eye.

“Nor’s right, Sharai,” he said in return. “Goblins are evil, and unredeemable. There are legends among my people, of a noble paladin who once ran across a goblin babe. Like you, he took pitty on it and tried to raise it. He taught it nobility, purity, piety and all the things it needed to be a noble and good creature. When it was old enough to fend for it self, a few short years later, it betrayed the paladin. It stabbed him in the leg and fled into the wildnerness.”

Sharai nodded. “We have similar stories in my culture. I just… children, Del. I can’t do it.”

“No one is expecting you too, Sharai,” he said.

A few moments later, Nor and Dash came back. Nor was quiet, and refused to look Sharai in the eye. They all tried to pretend that the incident never happened, and went about searching the three rooms. The third room had the remains of a cot and footlocker, and was most likely a servants quarters. Other than these three rooms, however, there seemed to be nothing of any value or interest down here.

“A dead end?” Del asked. “Maybe the book wasn’t down here when the castle went ka-blooie. Maybe it was upstairs, and was destroyed with the rest of the tower.”

“Can’t be,” Dash said. “If it was, we don’t get paid.”

“Maybe we will get paid,” Sharai said, staring at a patch of wall in the large storage room.

“What is it, Sharai?” Dash asked, his hopes rising.

Sharai walked towards the wall, straight towards a bookshelf that held empty glass bottles and wax sealed jars.

“Notice how this bookcase has only empty bottles on it?” she said.

“Yeah,” Del said. “So? This room is full of ‘em.”

“No,” she replied. “its full of bottles that have, or once had, stuff in them. These bottles were always empty.”

“She’s right,” Dash said, looking at the bookshelf with her.

“Okay,” Del said. “But again I ask, so?”

Without warning, Sharai shoved the bookcase will all her might. It rolled backwards, into the wall, and continued to move further into the wall until at last, it was revealed that there was a bookcase sized door in the wall. The bookcase had moved backwards enough for a single person to moved around it and enter the room beyond.

Sharai walked into the room without waiting for the others, causing Del and Nor to follow her as quickly as possible. Dash came last, still marveling at the craftsmanship of the secret doorway. The room beyond was amazing. It was a large circle, with fine carpets on the floor that kept the ground warm. Above, in a vaulted ceiling, was a small, magically lit chandelier, which came on as soon as Sharai entered the room. Dominating the room, in the center of the side opposite the secret door, was a large wooden desk. A fancy, overstuffed chair sat behind the desk, and a fine quill and ink set at on top of the desk. To the right of the door was wooden table, this one covered in runes and tubes and bottles. Finally, all across the walls of the room were bookcases. Each of them were loaded down with books, scrolls and loose parchment.

“It’s amazing,” Dash said.

“It’s warm,” Del said. “Very comfortable.”

“Of course it is,” Sharai said. “This would be the master of the tower’s private study. His most important books, his private experiments, his quiet meditation time, all would take place down here.”

She was in complete awe. She had only hear stories of her master’s private study. She had never seen it, but she imagined it looked very much like this. She scanned the book shelves, and the books and scrolls upon them. Many were manuscripts she had seen before, but a few were titles she had never hear of. One in particular caught her attention. It appeared to be a spell book of a great southern wizard, from the desert states. She reached up to grab it, but as soon as she opened the tome up, the pages inside started to crumble.

“Oh, no,” she cried. “It’s all starting to fall apart.”

“Not starting,” Nor said, “continuing. These documents look to be thousands of years old, no hundreds.”

Sharai looked down at her dwarven friend.

“Nor,” she started, but the dwarf halted her with a raised hand.

“No need to apologize, elf,” she said. “I am the one that should apologize, for letting my anger get away from me.”

The two women nodded at each other, then Sharai knelt down and hugged Nor, who hugged back. Finally, Del cleared his throat.

“I’m glad we’re all making up,” he said, “but we still have a book to find. Can you explain what you were talking about, Nor? Thousands of years old?”

“Indeed,” she said. “The man that gave us this map, he said this tower was destroyed one hundred years ago. When we got here, I started to doubt that. The architure here was dwarven, clearly, but of an age long passed, thousands of years ago. But, this is a wizard’s tower we’re talking about, so I chalked it up to the wizard having had the tower built that long ago. But, now, looking at these parchments, I realize that if this place was only one hundred years old, most of these books would still be readable.”

“So,” Del said, “You’re saying that the guy at the tavern lied to us? Why? What difference would when the tower was built have made to us?”

“Simple,” Sharai said, “he couldn’t have been an apprentice here if the tower were destroyed thousands of years ago.”

“I still don’t see what difference that makes,” Dash said. “We’re still here. We find the book he wants, return it to him, and get paid. He never said it had to be in one piece.”

Everyone else shrugged at the mystery, then in silent agreement went about searching the room for whatever books they could find that were still intact. After hours of looking, they eventually had a small pile. Four books, two scrolls and one piece of parchment. Dash had also found a small chest under the desk that contained a fancy wand Sharai immediately took, a hundred gold pieces, and two diamonds worth another hundred gold on their own. As luck would have it, one of the four books was the tower master’s spell book. It made no sense to anyone but Sharai.

“There’s some pretty powerful stuff in here,” she said. “It would take me years of study just to understand some of this, never mind have the power to make it work.”

“Too bad you won’t have the chance,” Dash said, taking the book from her and placing it in his satchel. “But, you can have all the time in the world you want to look over those other books we found.”

Sharai smiled. The other books were equally fascinating. Magical theory, a beginners spell book that held spells she didn’t yet know, and some history books about wizards that lived thousands of years ago. And the wand. It was magical, that much was obvious, but she couldn’t figure out what, exactly, it did. She would experiment with it on the way home to try and find out.

“Well,” Del said, “not a bad haul.”

“Indeed,” Dash said, helping the human stuff their treasure into a large bag. “It’s too bad we can’t take these rugs with us. I’m sure they’d be a pretty copper to someone back in town.”

Everyone laughed, and then headed back outside to return home.

****************************************************

The return trip was as uneventful as the trip to the tower, baring a run in with a merchant that seemed interested in buying the books they had discovered. Sharai refused, though, much to Dash’s consternation. They arrived at the town of Oak Hollow by mid morning, and headed straight to the Laughing Tankard for real, cooked food and to wash in the bathhouse above the tavern. They were hoping that they had time before the mysterious stranger appeared, but that was not to be the case. In the middle of breakfast, the hooded figure was at their table. It was as if he appeared out of nowhere.

“You have found the book?” he asked in a horse whisper.

“Indeed we did,” Dash said. He pulled out the large tome from his satchel and placed it on the table. It was black, and bound using a sewing method. On the cover was a strange rune that none of the party recognized. Dash had said he expected the book the be warm, or pulse, or have an eye on it, or something. Sharai had laughed, explaining that a wizard’s spell book never had those kinds of enchantments on it. More likely, the rune on the cover was some kind of ward, but the magical energy power it had died out.

The stranger reached out an old, gnarled hand from the depths of his robes and stroked the book, almost reverently, as if it were a baby.

“Excellent,” he said. “Excellent.”

“Yeah,” Del said, “it is excellent.” Then, he snatched the book away. “And it’s all yours. Once we get our gold.”

“Of course,” the stranger said in that same horse whisper. “your money.”

He dropped a sack onto the table, which made a jingling noise as it landed. Even Sharai couldn’t help but look at the bag, realizing what must be inside. Del grabbed the sack and pulled it towards his end of the table, making sure to keep it in sight the whole time.

“Well, it was a pleasure doing business with you,” he said, obviously not meaning it. “Enjoy your reading.”

The old man laughed, which sounded more like to pieces of parchment being rubbed together than real laughter.

“Oh, the book is not for me to keep,” he whispered.

“What?” Dash said. “You’re not expecting us to bring it to someone else, are you? ‘Cause that will cost you extra.”

“No, no,” the stranger said. “Nothing so pedestrian. No, to book is yours, my dear friends. All yours.”

Everyone looked at each other, sharing a look of confusion.

“Do you accept?” the old man said, concern apparent in his tone.

“Well, we…” Del started.

“Yes,” Sharai said, interrupting Del. She stared straight at the stranger’s hood, where she hoped his eyes were. She reached out her hand and placed it on the book. “Yes, we accept the book.”

“Excellent,” the old man said, and laughed again. “Then it has begun.”

And with that cryptic statement, he walked away, the party simply staring after him.

“Well, that was interesting,” Dash said, bringing everyone out of the trance they seemed to be in. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bar tab that I need to attend to.”

With that, he grabbed a handful of gold out of the bag the stranger had left with them, and went to the bartender. Del and Nor then turned their attention to Sharai.

“Care to explain what that was all about?” Del asked.

“I’m not sure,” Sharai said. She looked down at the black book before her, stroking its cover. She now had the chance to study its secrets, and that excited her. “I think, though, we’ve just entered an adventure far larger than we initially expected.”

The End

Week 10!

Well, it has been an interesting weekend here. Yesterday morning, my family and I were eating breakfast (home made breakfast burritos), when suddenly, we heard a large crack and then the fan over the stove went out. When I went to look, I saw that the clock on the microwave was off as well. The power had gone out.

My wife went out side to check and see what was going on, and talked to our neighbor. She said that a tree fell down, and when it did, it hit the power lines from the telephone pole in the canyon behind our houses. As the two of them sat there watching, the tree continued to fall, yanking wires as it went. Our neighbor's power box on the outside of the house was pulled clear off, and the telephone cracked and broke in half.

911 was called, and police and a fire truck came up, both to make sure that everyone was okay. Later, the electric company and some tree people came up. The tree people took several hours, but eventually they got the tree cut up and de-tangled from all the wires. Then, the electric company got involved. They told us that they would be out there as long as it took to get our power back, which relieved us, because in the mean time, our refrigerator and freezer were without power, and we had just bought $500 in groceries from Costco.

We went out to dinner with some friends and came back to a still powerless house. We found that without even basic lights, it was difficult to entertain your selves by candlelight, so the wife went to bed. Determined to get in SOME writing that day, I pulled out a book light and a pad of paper, and wrote by hand.

At around 11 o'clock, I decided to go to bed. I was just finishing snuffing out the candles when I heard a BEEP and a CLICK and suddenly the lamp in the living room came on. Woo! Power! I could hear the fridge powering up, and that made me happy.

This morning, I confirmed that, yes, the power was on, but the cable was out, which meant so was our internet and phone. That came on just a few minutes ago, 12:30 in the afternoon.

So, we're back in business! The good news is, I managed to finish this week's story, between this morning and the pad and pencil last night. Now, I can post it today, and still stick to my schedule!

So, quite the adventure. But, in the end, everyone is okay, and you still get to read a story this week. Everyone wins! So, enjoy!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I Hate This Planet

“I hate this planet,” Louis Dubois said as he paced around the bridge of the Hong Kong, a Takahashai-Marcello Trade corporation ship.

The planet of which he spoke, known as William’s World, was being displayed on the main viewer of the cramped command space. It was a lush looking green and blue orb. Smaller than Earth, perhaps, but similar in appearance. Based on looks alone, there didn’t seem to be much of a reason to dislike this world as much as Louis was.

“We go through this every time we come here,” Gerome Moyer said, turning from his station to look at his captain.

Despite the overhead lights and the glare from the many monitors, it always appeared to be dark on the bridge to Gerome. Thankfully, the bridge was small enough that he didn’t need to look very far, and Louis’ pacing brought him to Gerome’s position in a few steps.

“And every time we come here, I hate it more,” Louis said from behind his large, graying, mustache.

His unshaven, craggy, face was inches from Gerome’s own, but he knew Louis wasn’t angry or threatening. Louis and he had served together aboard the Hong Kong for the last three years, and had become the best of friends. Gerome knew that out of the eight planets the Hong Kong made regular shipping runs to, William’s World was the only one Louis complained about. And the reason for it was pretty simple.

The colonists who lived on William’s World called themselves Simplests. They believed, unsurprisingly, in a “simpler” way of life, one that didn’t involve high-technology, space-ships or any of the conveniences of the twenty-second century life that Louis so loved. They live in a communal lifestyle, where everyone works to provide for the community, similar to the Quakers still living on Earth. There were differences, of course. Simplests were not a religious movement, they were a lifestyle choice. Also, they didn’t completely eschew technology, as evidenced by the fact that they were willing to use space ships to get to the colony, or the communication tower that the Earth government required all colony planets to maintain. Other than these things, however, technology was mostly non-existent on William’s World.

Due to this desire for a simpler lifestyle, they petitioned for and got the rights to William’s World as a colony planet, and moved into this otherwise isolated part of space, for the most part being left alone. However, the government back home wasn’t willing to simply give up whole worlds, especially ones as fertile as William’s World, even if it was small. So, a deal was struck. The Simplests would get the world all to themselves for one hundred years, during which time they would set up a sustainable agrarian society. After those one hundred years were up, the government could set up new colonies on pre-approved parts of the world that would be industrial in nature, allowing them to reap the planet’s natural resources and take advantage of the built in farming community for support. Also, part of the agreement was that the Simplests would allow a merchant ship to come by once a year to trade with the colonists for needed materials they couldn’t yet make for themselves. Takahashai-Marcello Trade won the bid, and the Hong Kong was given the task of making these trades. And Louis hated the whole thing.

In truth, it wasn’t just the whole ‘anti-technology’ stance of the Simplests that bother Louis. It was the fact that they required massively complex rules to be followed in order to make the yearly trade. These included landing a good twenty miles away from the main settlement. They were only allowed to enter the town on foot or in horse drawn wagons. And these were just the tip of the iceberg. The up side to this was that the Simplests were aware of the difficulties they imposed on the visitors, and also had an appreciation for compromise. Several Simplests usually arrive at the landing site with wagons and horses to aid the crew on their trip into town. Of course, being a Simplest didn’t mean they were stupid, and occasionally, the colonists that came with the wagons would charge for their use, cutting into Louis’ profit.

“I really, really hate this planet,” Louis said once more, and resumed his pacing. The other two bridge crew quickly returned to their stations, trying to look as busy as possible so as to avoid their captain’s wrath. Gerome smiled and shook his head at his friend before returning to his station and prepared for the landing.

******************************************************************************

“I really hate these technos,” Austin Summers said as he shifted in his saddle, uncomfortable with the sight of the large, complicated, dirty gray space ship nearing on the horizon.

“You say the same thing every year,” Gary Wyatt said.

He had been Austin’s friend for more years than he cared to remember. Austin had always been one to be very vocal in his anti-technology feelings. He was the kind of man that was vocal about a lot of things. But, as Gary well knew, Austin was a man who did a lot of talking, but most of his actions included a bear mug. The truth was, Austin had never even met a “techno,” to use the derogatory term some people used for the outsiders. Like most of the Simplests, Austin had a dislike of advanced technology. Indeed, it was a view that Gary shared. But, unlike Austin, Gary saw the outsider’s views as more of a lifestyle choice. They had chosen to be dependent on computers, space ships and machines rather than their own two hands and the soil of the world, as provided by God.

Many people considered the outsiders a necessary evil. They brought needed medical supplies, books (made with actual paper), animals and other supplies and resources that the colonists couldn’t yet provide for themselves. However, they were also considered to be vulgar, dirty and Godless.

Gary had led the expedition to help the outsiders bring the supplies into the town several times now for the past few years, and while he found some of the crew of the Hong Kong to fit the stereotype, especially Captain Dubois, he found that the outsiders were, for the most part, friendly, kind hearted and basically good people. In spite of himself, Gary found that he liked the outsiders. While he had never had, and doubted he ever would, a desire to enter the Hong Kong or use their technological tools even though both had been offered to him, he enjoyed their company. In some cosmically twisted way that Gary was sure that God found amusing, the more contact he had with the outsiders and their technology, the stronger Gary’s faith in his beliefs grew.

He wondered what would happen on this trip. He was looking forward to continuing his ongoing debate/conversation about technology vs. spirituality, usually with Gerome Moyer, the Hong Kong’s pilot and first officer. However, he also worried about Austin. How would he handle all of this? Indeed, he wondered what made his friend volunteer in the first place. Whatever the reason, he was sure he would find out soon enough. The landing party from the Hong Kong could be seen heading towards them. They were trying to meet them some distance away from the ship to limit exposure to the colonists, something that Gary appreciated. Surprisingly, the delegation seemed to include Captain Dubois. Yes, Gary thought to himself, this is going to prove to be an interesting trip.

******************************************************************************

“How did I let you talk me into this?”

Louis sat uncomfortably in the saddle of what he felt had to be the most surly and untamed horse the Simplests cold give him. Most of his concentration was spent on just staying on top of the animal, and making the pervious comment almost made him fall off. Gerome laughed to himself at his friend’s plight.

Louis wouldn’t be having so much trouble if he would just spend more time in the ships simulators, Gerome mused. As it was, most of Louis’ problems arose due to his attitude towards the horse. Gerome had asked Gary to give the captain the tamest, slowest mare he had with him, but even the most placid creature in the universe would complain at the attitude being heaped upon that horse.

“Just relax,” Gerome said. “Sit up straight, keep your legs steady, and let the horse do the walking.”

“I thought you said this would be fun,” Louis said through clenched teeth.

Gerome couldn’t help but laugh out loud at that.

“You’ll feel better once we reach town, trust me,” he said. “Three years, three trips here, and you never once left the ship on any of them. It’s about time you saw what, exactly, we did on this planet.”

At that moment, Gary rode up from behind them.

“Fear not, Captain,” he said, a bright smile on his face. “In a few hours, we will stop to camp for the night at Horizons Clearning, and you can sample a wonderful home cooked meal with fresh food grown right here. It’s hundreds of times better than that processed foodstuffs you carry aboard your ship. That alone will make this trip worth it, I promise.”

Louis grimaced, but Gerome suspected it was an attempt at a smile.

“And by mid-morning tomorrow,” Gary continued, “we shall arrive in Newtown, our largest settlement. Once there, I’ll give you the grand tour. We’re currently building a new water tower, and the First Church building is something that no one should miss.”

“Yeah,” Louis said, sounding like he was about to be sick.“ Water tower. Sounds great.

Gerome shrugged apologetically at Gary. The other man smiled, non-verbally saying ‘there is no need to apologize, this man’s attitude is easily forgivable.’

******************************************************************************

“I’m telling you Gary, you don’t know what you’re missing out there,” Gerome said, his arms waiving to make his point. “About six months ago, the Hong Kong was detoured due to pirate activities in the New Melbourne sector. Along the new route, we passed by a nebula, and let me tell you, the plasma storms in it were causing colors that you never even dreamed existed.”

Gary laughed at his friend’s enthusiasm. “Space pirates? Plasma storms?” he said. “I think I’ll stay planet bound, with my feet firmly on the soil and an atmosphere that can’t leak away through a tear in the hull, thank you very much.”

Austin watched from across the fire pit, completely appalled. How could Gary stand to talk to these people, never mind become friends with one? They were all dirty, disgusting, godless technophiles. During dinner, the closest thing to manners they showed was the fact that they stood in line rather than mob the cook. They were loud, some of them ate with their fingers, almost all of them belched profusely, and none of them bothered to clean up their mess. There seemed to be one exception. She was absolutely striking, with short cropped raven hair and blue eyes. She was quiet, delicate and, unlike the other members of her crew, was clean. Her name, he learned from over hearing conversation, was Mary Anne.

He turned to look at her, watching as she laughed with her crewmates. She turned his way and caught him looking. However, instead of getting angry or looking away, she boldly looked back and smiled. Austin blushed slightly, smiled back. He found he was unable to keep the gaze, and looked away. It was then that he noticed the large, bald, greasy man he had been introduced to as Captain Dubois heading towards him. Dubois looked from Austin to Mary Anne and then back again. A crude grin crossed his face, and Austin found himself with a renewed feeling of dislike for this man.

“Well, well, well,” he said, “It looks like Mary Anne has her sights set once again.”

“I beg your pardon?” Austin said, blinking.

“Listen, pal, let me give you some advice,” Dubois said, waving his hands expansively, nearly hitting Austin in the head as he did so. “That beautiful woman you’re eyeing over there,” he pointed towards Mary Anne. “She has what we call a ‘Storm in Every Port.’”

“I beg your pardon?” Austin said, still unclear on what it was this dirty man was trying to say to him.

“A Storm in Every Port,” Dubois said again, as if the second time cleared it all up. “She has three husbands, each on a different planet, and two other lovers that I know of besides that, not to mention Ivan, the very large man sitting next to her now.” He pointed toward a hulking man covered in hair next to Mary Anne.

Austin stared at Dubois with his jaw wide open. “My God,” he said, “And you people allow this sort of thing to happen?”

“Hey,” Dubois said, with a lopsided grin on his face. “It’s a free galaxy. Polygamy is legal on dozens of worlds, and since it doesn’t interfere with her performance on board ship, I’m not gonna try and stop her.”

Austin sat slack jawed for a moment before regaining his senses. After a few moments, he stood up, harrumphed, straightened himself to his full height, and faced the outsider captain straight in the eye, which meant he had to look up.

“If you will excuse me, Captain,” he said with as much venom as he could muster, “I think I will retire now.”

“Sure, sure,” Dubois said, and moved out of the smaller man’s way.

******************************************************************************

“Well, you’re looking chipper this morning.” Gerome watched a smiling Louis, who was astride confidently in his saddle and enjoying the day around him.

Louis turned to face him, saying “I’ll give them this much, they make the best damn food I’ve eaten in nearly four years.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Gerome said in a teasing tone. “You know, it’s been over six months since I’ve felt a real sun and breathed fresh air.”

“I know,” Louis said, looking upwards at the blue sky. “I’ve been trapped in the ship with you, remember?”

“How can I forget,” Gerome said, “I can hear you snoring two cabins over!”

The two men laughed loudly at that, and Gerome enjoyed seeing his friend relaxing. Louis had been going almost non-stop on running the Hong Kong for the last three months, due to a delay in shipping caused by an engine malfunction, and they had only caught up at William’s World. However, Gerome knew Louis better than to think he was really enjoying himself.

“So, what’s wrong with it all, then?” he said.

“What’s wrong with it?” Louis asked, as if the answer should be obvious. “We’re heading to a town that’s made out of wood and brick. There won’t be a single vehicle more advanced than a horse drawn carriage, no comm. terminals, no Galactic Tribune news feed, no Vid Theaters or Simulators. Hell, I’d be lucky if they have indoor plumbing and running water.”

“Oh, come on,” Gerome said, “You know full well that they have indoor plumbing. They want a simple life, not an unhealthy one. Why do you think we ship them the latest in medical supplies?”

“Of course I know that,” Louis said, surprising Gerome with his honesty. “I know lots of stuff about these ‘pre-industrialist revivalists.’ Oh, don’t look so surprised; you know I always do my homework on the worlds we make runs to. I want to know everything I can about the planet I’m taking my ship and crew into.”

“Hmmm,” Gerome said, nodding.

They rode on in silence for some time after that. A few hours later, they could see a rocky valley, surrounded by large hills and cliffs. It looked almost like something out of one of the Old American West vids that Louis watched when he was a kid, the place where the Indians would ambush the cowboys. Louis knew that just on the other side of this valley was Newtown. He was enjoying the outdoors, a little, but dreaded reaching the settlement.

“Hey, Louis, look,” Gerome said, point across the valley to the horizon. “I think I can just see Newtown, over there. Is that the new water tower?”

Louis excitedly looked to where Gerome was pointing at first, than realized what he was doing. He slowly turned to look at his friend, a sour look on his face. He tried to hold that look for a few moments, but failed as the two of them burst simultaneously into laughter.

******************************************************************************

“Watch Out! Take cover!” came the shout

Austin was getting off his horse, and looked towards the outsider who had yelled the warning, confused. Why were people yelling and running, what was happening? A second later, there was a large cracking noise, followed by a rumble, and he watched in horror as his a fellow member of his people’s contingency to the outsiders, Robert Mullins, fell to the ground, his head crushed in by a large rock. He never really got the chance to react to this, as the outsider who had been s shouting the warning, Gerome, slammed into him with a flying tackle, pushing him to the ground. A second later, more large rocks came tumbling off the cliff side and into the space they previously occupied.

“What’s happening?” Austin asked, almost screaming the words in his fear.

“Looks like some kind of avalance,” Gerome replied as he dragged Austin with him through a crawl to get behind a nearby wagon for cover. “Does that happen a lot around here?”

Austin looked at the man and wondered briefly how he could remain so calm when someone was shooting at them. Still, the question gave his mind something sane to hold onto, so he answered it.

“Not in the entire time the settlement has been here.”

Gerome shook his head. “Well, it’s happening now,” he said. “We need to get out of here, before things get worse.”

As if on cue, another rumble came from the mountain, and more rocks tumbled down the cliff side. Only this time, they were significantly larger rocks, and seemed to be coming down faster. A particularly large rock smashed through one of the wagons, crushing it to splinters before continuing to dent the ground. Austin turned around in terror to see that the hills on the other side were suffering the same effect. The ground was positively shaking now, and instantly, he knew what was happening.

“Earthquake,” he said.

“What?” Gerome said, not hearing him over the rumbling.

“It’s an Earthquake,” Austin said. “We have to get to shelter or we’ll get crushed out here. Come on, there’s some caves near by.”

He led Gerome from one wagon to another, where they found Gary, Dubois and several others. The ground shaking was getting worse, and it started to look like it was raining boulders and rocks now. They needed to get into a cave and quickly.

“Follow me,” he said, and everyone did so with out even thinking.

Austin took a path that went down a hill and up another, and at first, it looked like he was leading them straight into the path of the oncoming boulders. They had to dodge and wait, trying hard to stand and run during the trembling. Flying rocks as large as a man’s torso crushed two more members of their party. But, eventually, Austin was able to find what he was looking for. Caves, three of them. He knew that two of them lead deep into the earth from earlier exploring, and pointed them out to the group.

“Go in here, and go in as deep as you can!” he shouted to everyone. “We’ll be safe in here until its all over.”

Without hesitation, the colonists and Hong Kong crew alike rushed into the caves to avoid the avalanche. He noticed that, along with himself, Captain Dubois stayed outside and herded everyone else in. By this point, both men were covered in bruises and cuts from hundreds of smaller rocks.

“Looks like we’re it, compadre,” Dubois shouted as the last of the others made it into the cave.

Austin nodded, and turned to head into the cave, Dubois right behind him. The ground had other plans, however. The earth didn’t just move or shake, but rose up, knocking the two of them flat on their asses. More shaking followed, and the rocks on the hill above started to fall. Austin scrambled to his feet as best he could, but by the time he had his bearings, it was too late. A large boulder the size of a building had fallen in front of the cave mouth, blocking them from getting to it. Worse yet, it was rolling down the hill towards the two of them.

He stood there, transfixed, on the object that would be his death. Then, he felt a jerk on his arm, and he was being turned around and forced to run by Captain Dubois. At first, he just followed the outsider, but then his head began to clear of fear, and he realized they were running in the wrong direction, away from the caves. He looked around and saw that they were nearby some other caves, ones he didn’t know very well, and hoped they were deep. He grabbed the captain by the arm and pointed towards the cave.

“Over here!” he shouted, and Dubois nodded and followed.

Before they got too far, a rock the size of Austin’s head few down out of the sky and slammed into his shoulder. He cried in pain as he felt something crack and his arm bent in a way God never intended. He fell to the ground, his eyes closed, teeth gritted, unable to focus on anything but the pain. A second later, he felt himself being lifted off the ground. He opened his eyes briefly and saw that Captain Dubois had picked him up and was continuing to run towards the cave. Austin tried to thank him, but the running jarred his arm, and the pain became so intense that he passed out.

******************************************************************************

“There, that should hold it for now,” Louis said, pulling tight on the bandages, causing Austin to cry out once more.

Austin had been passing in and out of consciousness for the past fifteen minutes or so, by Louis best estimate. For some reason, his watch stopped working. Thankfully, his flash light still worked, and he was able to find some small, dry plants that he used as kindling and started a fire with his pocket laser lighter. Normally, he only lit cigars with it, but it worked equally at starting real fires.

He looked back at Austin, who was struggling to keep his eyes open. He wasn’t a doctor by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone on board the Hong Kong knew some basic first aid. Shipping was sometimes dangerous, and you never knew what could happen. Admittedly, Louis had never faced anything quite like this before. He had set Austin’s mangled arm as best he could, and was trying everything he knew how to keep the other man awake, but he knew that Austin needed some serious medical attention, and quick. He saw that Austin was loosing the battle with consciousness again.

“Come on, man,” he said, slapping Austin across the face, “stay with me!”

The trembling was still going on, Louis could feel it, but it was lessened here, deep into the cave. He looked around again, sighing. It wasn’t just a kind of dark that even the roaring fire had trouble penetrating, it was damp as well, which meant it smelled like wet dirt and other nasty things. Near as he could tell, the cave was uninhabited by critters, which was good. The last thing Louis wanted was to deal with some local carnivore.

Austin moaned, and Louis looked down at the man’s arm. It was a mess, even slug back into place as it was. Louis was sure that it was broken not only on the upper arm, but at the shoulder, where the rock hit. He reached into his belt pouch, and fished around for a small container. He popped open the top and dumped out two small, yellow pills. He put one arm behind Austin’s head, lifted him and, and forced the two pills down the other man’s throat. Then, he pulled off his canteen and made Austin wash the pills down. About five minutes later, Austin stopped moaning and opened his eyes. This time, there was awareness in them, and Louis sighed and smiled.

“I thought I was going to loose you,” he said.

“What happened?” Austin said, trying to move.

“No, no,” Louis said, “no moving. You were hit by a falling rock. I think you broke your shoulder and arm.”

Austin groaned in pain and laid back down. He tenderly touched his arm and flinched back. He looked over at Louis, a question in his eyes.

“I gave you some pain meds,” Louis said, showing Austin the bottle. “I take ‘em every now and again, for my leg.”

He lifted up his pant leg then, to show Austin an artificial leg up to the knee. Austin’s eyes went wide.

“Not all technology is bad,” Louis said.

Austin looked as if he were about to say something, then closed his eyes and nodded slowly.

“You saved my life,” he said, “and I am grateful.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis said.

The two sat a moment in silence. A few minutes later, the trembling stopped. The two looked at each other.

“Earthquake stopped,” Austin said. “After shocks will come next. Probably in about an hour or so.”

“How do you know that?” Louis said, looking around the cave as if the answer were written on the wall.

“I’m a geologist, specializing in seismic activities,” Austin said. When Louis looked at him in obvious surprise, he said “I wasn’t always a Simplest. But, my work gave me an appreciation in nature, of God’s work. When my daughter was born, my wife and I decided that we didn’t want her raised in a universe where we build machines to change the weather to suit our desires, where we tried to play God instead of worshiping God. We wanted her to live in nature. So, we became Simplests, and migrated here with everyone else. When I first saw this place, I knew it was home.” He looked briefly at Louis, as if realizing he had been talking, and then said, “I don’t expect you to understand.”

Louis grunted. “I might understand better than you know,” he said. “I had that same feeling of coming home the first time I few into space. And when I was eighteen, and piloted my first shuttle, the feeling intensified. I knew that, whatever it took, I was going to spend my whole life in space. And so I have. I even found a woman that loves space as much as I do, and we’ve been married for fifteen years now.”

Austin looked surprised.

“I know,” Louis said, laughing slightly. “you think we’re all Godless hedonists. And after Mary Anne, you think we’re all polygamists.”

“Well,” Austin said, somewhat embarrassed, “yes, to be honest.”

“Oh, I believe in God, all right,” Louis said. “I’m just not the church going man you are. And I’m no polygamist. I’m happily married to my wife, and plan on being so for the rest of my life. I even have a son. He and my wife work in the engineering section of the Hong Kong, though he’s supposed to head off to college as soon as we get back to civilization. He’s going to take engineering courses. He’ll be doing something with his life, something important, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

The two men sat again in silence for a while. Austin tried not to move, and focused on breathing. Louis tended the fire. Finally, Austin cleared his throat and Louis turned to him.

“I think,” Austin started, and then hesitated. “I think I misjudged you, Captain Dubois.”

“Call me Louis,” Louis said, nodding. “And I think I may have misjudged you as well, Austin.”

“Tell me about your son,” Austin said.

It was another half hour before the rescue team had found then, and when they did it was because the two men were laughing and carrying on, causing such a ruckus that it was heard clearly outside the cave.

******************************************************************************

“Well, that was sure an eventful trip,” Louis said.

“Yes,” Gerome said. “Yes it was.”

Gerome watched his friend looking at the planet retreating in the view port on the bridge of the Hong Kong. He was curious. Louis never watched the planets like that, he was usually looking at the stars. They were his home.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“I think I’m going to miss that place,” Louis said, causing Gerome to look at him with an expectant look.

“Okay, what’s the punch line?” he asked.

Louis looked away from the view port and back to Gerome, his look serious. “No punch line. I just gained an appreciation for the planetside life, is all. You know, Austin invited me to his family’s house for dinner the next time we come back? I think I’ll take him up on that.”

Gerome continued to look at him in disbelief.

“Look,” Louis said, “It’s not like I’m planning on moving there. The Hong Kong is my home, and she always will be. Besides, I’m allowed to change my mind. Aren’t you the one that’s always trying to get me to get out of the ship every now and then?”

Gerome held up his arms in mock defense, smiling. “Okay, okay,” he said. “You’ve maid your point.”

“Damn right I have,” Louis said. He looked out the port one more time, then returned to the captain’s chair. “What’s our next destination, Gerome?”

“Sigma Twelve,” Gerome said. Louis groaned. Gerome smiled, knowing what was coming next.

“I hate that planet.”

The End