Friday, August 31, 2012

16759--Secrets Worth Keeping

  The lore of many cultures tell the tales of superhuman beings walking about in the guise of mortal men.  The storytellers did their best, using the framework of mortal understanding available to them, to explain why they would do such a thing as to slum with the little people.  All told, it's just part of the pattern in a long tradition of people trying to make sense of things outside their normal experience.

In ancient times, men understood that these early undercover excursions from above were used as opportunities to test mankind.  It gave the worshipped time to interact with humans eye-to-eye rather than on their knees and staring at the floor.  It also indicated that ancient mankind didn't see their gods as all-knowing and could learn from interacting closely with mortals.

Long after the age of gods, man's stories told of the age of heroes.  While the earliest champions were dynamic figures of eternal vigilance, eventually, there came those heroes who had to create an additional layer of defense against overwhelming foes.  Such consideration brought first The Scarlet Pimpernel and later Zorro into being.  For these characters, disguise allowed them to operate in open opposition to oppressive governmental action and to move through society as a law-abiding individual.  This afforded them both time as icon and to walk about calmly as one of the people, like the gods of old, gathering knowledge and perspective.  Unlike the gods, the Pimpernel and Zorro identities protected the ordinary men from personal reprisals against their property and loved ones.  For the storytellers, ooooh, an added level of tension: what dire consequences will come should our hero's secret be revealed?

Were these valid concerns?  The signers of the Declaration of Independence might have said so.  Their public defiance of the British government cost many their homes, businesses and wealth, due not only to collateral damage from the Revolutionary War but to specific targeting of the rebels.  Examples had to be made.  Not only were the defiant men hunted and imprisoned when possible, but also their families.  Some took Robin Hood's example and sought refuge in the wilderness.  Those who would succeed them would have to be aware of the potential price of publicity.

The majority of our modern superheroes are almost automatically expected to maintain the secrecy of their private identities.  Over the years, some have gone to complicated lengths to do this.  A rare few have had the added complication of additional identities, some costumed and some civilian.  A few others have managed to keep distance between their public and private interactions (Spiderman dates from different circles than Peter Parker), but others haven't done as well.  Superman and Clark Kent have a lot of the same close friends, for example.  Over the last couple of decades, a lot of people have made decisions to have superheroes either stop keeping their secret from those closest to them or revealing themselves to the world-at-large.  Seems that people want to keep pulling their masks off.

I've never found myself to be in agreement with such choices.  It may be a result of growing up in an era where superheroes guarded their secrets with almost fanatic dedication.  Gradually, society has come to shoot down the idea of people having any secrets from loved ones.  This has resulted in some costumed adventurers spilling their guts after a couple of dates instead of waiting till the relationship got really serious (Barry Allen didn't tell Iris about how close she had become to The Flash till their wedding night).  It has also shown us close friends and lovers taking offense at having been lied to for years when they're finally brought in on things.

Really?  As though it was any of their business.  Now, if I were a close friend of someone like Peter Parker or Clark Kent and they were considering telling the world about their whole dual identity lifestyle, I would certainly appreciate some warning if not consultation before I found myself a target of reporters and vengeful villains.  Otherwise, if they're keeping things secret, that's their business.  If they miss a few lunches or have to run late sometimes with only a lame cover story, that's OK.  Friends understand.

Did I find Tony Stark's revelation in the "Iron Man" film amusing?  Yes.  I even found it in character.  I laughed when a reporter brought up the disbelief of the "bodyguard" story that had been offered for so long in the comics.  Still, as they showed in the next film, public revelation had consequences.  Superheroes aren't ancient gods.  Well, most of them aren't.  The rest, by revelation, put themselves at risk when their guard is down.  Not a good idea.  They make those close to them specific targets.  Also, bad idea.

[On a side note: I think it's always been telling of bad guys who grab Lois or Jimmy to threaten Superman.  It shows how the bad guys think.  For someone like Superman (which should include all other heroes, though it doesn't), anyone makes a viable hostage.  Using known friends is just for inflicting extra pain.]

I can't imagine that writers are trying to remove points of potential conflict.  Maybe they just don't like the idea of privacy anymore.  Maybe they don't believe in the ability of their characters to sell the dual identity concept anymore.  My feelings on that were echoed quite well in "The Dark Knight".  If you think that one of the wealthiest men in the world is dressing up as a bat at night, leaping off skyscrapers, flattening police cars and beating criminals senseless by hand, threatening to expose him is probably not in your best interest.  Likewise, people have long poked fun at Superman over working sans mask and expecting a pair of glasses to keep people from recognizing him up close.  I've always said, if it works, good.  If he thinks it works and it doesn't, humor him.  Not only do we owe him at least that much, but who wants to piss him off about it?  Don't poke the bear.

Unless you're secretly able to fly out to deflect asteroids yourself...?  Is there something you want to share?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

16757--And I Approve This Message

Unless you have made an effort to avoid their input, you have probably heard more than a few politicians spewing forth more mind-clouding rhetoric.  They're going to say whatever they think they need to at any given time to get what they want out of you.  That means you may hear them profess opposite beliefs on a subject at any time, take credit for things Congress does and shift blame away for things they've said and done.  This is what they're paid to do, often by the same people (bankers) or people related to each other (more bankers).  The ones who do it best are paid the best.  Politicians like to be given money and the best ones stay bought.

That's as close as you'll get to them being honest.  Yes, this is the front desk with your wake up call.

The War on Drugs has cost you a lot of money while drugs have continued to proliferate and more people have ended up in prisons (which continue to be built faster than schools).  The War on Drugs was not a failure. It's been putting money and drugs right where it was planned to with a social engineering cherry on top.

Unemployment sucks.  It isn't a bold statement at all.  It's a great rally point for politicians because they know that you will agree with it.  All they have to do is convince you that they will fix it.  People who are able to work should be able to earn enough to provide a comfortable living for themselves and their families in a successful economy.  You know it.  We all know it.  Presidential candidates like to give the impression that they can create jobs.  Unless those politicians are using their personal wealth to start hiring people (certainly, many of them could afford to, but don't), they can't create jobs.  That's not a president's job.  We don't live in a totalitarian state, so they aren't given that particular power.

You know who was able to bring full employment to his country?  Hitler.  Did it increase his popularity?  Among a lot of people, yes.  Of course, from the Careful-what-you-wish-for Department, that also meant a lot of housewives were forced to go out to work at a time when that was not the norm and a lot of kids ended up in the hands of state daycare.  Can I get a "mu-wa-hahahaha" and some ominous music?  Austria was so impressed by the economic turnaround in Germany that they voted Hitler into power there, too.  Leading two countries?  That's right, with votes and not tanks.  The Austrians also received a harsh lesson on "full employment".  Was unemployment an important issue to them?  Yes.  Did fixing it make Chancellor Hitler a great guy?  Time magazine's man of the year.

I feel like I need a shower now.

Wallowing in political muck will do that.  It's like that thing about wrestling with a pig: you end up muddy and the pig enjoys it.  Why does that make me think of Bill Clinton?  I can't recall another public figure I've seen dodge so many allegations in such ridiculous ways and still remain popular.  Well, maybe George Bush.  The first one.  They remind me of the master con artist and the upstart con man characters from "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels", only dangerous and nothing to laugh about.

How does this go on?  How can you be the head of the Senate Ethics Committee without having any?

‎"Different" political parties only exist to manage differing ideas. They put on the show of a struggle, letting people feel they're being heard and represented. Then, bankers win, political pawns get paid off and the people are the ones who've done the work to finance their own defeat.

Try not to let yourself get swept away in all the rhetoric.  They're trying to stir you up with emotional issues.  They're trying to cloud facts.  They're lying to you as surely as a crocodile offering you a ride across a river.  Do your own research.  You may not like what you find and the bad guys aren't always going to get the end they deserve, but it is worth looking even if only to ensure that truth continues to see light.  Then, when your kids or their kids come to you and ask what happened, you'll have some good stories for them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

16756--And What Do Lost Boys Do?

  Neil Armstrong has left the building, not that I'm going to talk about him behind his back.  The thought was just occurring to me that we can put a man on the moon (people used to love to say that when they were about to let you know something that had them both really pissed off and very disappointed), but we're still plagued by pirates.  And I'm not talking about 21st century information pirates or audio/video pirates.  I wish I could say it was even roguish elements roaming the high seas aboard black market Russian battleships and some sneaky submarines.  None of that would be true, though.

I don't know whether the classic pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonney would be impressed with their ingenuity or aghast, but most of the pirate action I've been hearing about off the African coasts seems to be perpetrated by small squads of guys in small motorboats.  They're driven off by fancy piloting of larger target vessels and sometimes by fire hoses, but that just makes it all the more surprising to me how successful they are the rest of the time.  These brigands are capturing big cargos and holding crews for ransom in defiance of the miltary efforts of several countries. 

Rather than continuing to expend resources on failing to stop pirates, though, I think some television producers need to jump in and create new reality shows.  We've got lots of tough guys out there who I imagine would need little encouragement to hop into fast boats with big guns to go deep sea hunting.  Throw in prize money on top of that and let the competition begin! 

Lost Boys: East Africa     Lost Boys: West Africa     Lost Boys: China Sea

I think our friends at Disney have a lock on "Pirates of the Caribbean", but I'll know there are pirates to hunt down there, too.  Pirate hunting would have to be more watchable than "The Bachelor" and wouldn't have to manufacture action like "Survivor".  It could easily rival the danger of "Deadliest Catch" or "Ice Road Truckers" and freelance pirate hunting could even make world travel a bit safer.  Let's face it, the pirate industry has survived for so long that if more isn't done about it, ships are going to be running into them the next time we send people off to the moon or Mars.  Obviously, we don't want that, so let's do it for Neil and all those other pioneers--those who've been and have yet to be.  Throw some tough guys at the problem.

I don't know how the pirates will react to being hunted, but I expect it will make for some great ratings.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

16754--Once Upon a Time...

File:Hong Kong Night Skyline.jpgKNIGHT IN THE CITY

(to continue...)

     Tuesday night in The City meant something different to almost everyone who chose to make a life in Magick. The City was alive with a special energy that she almost felt she could feed upon. Just walking down the sidewalks could bring a euphoria that was only surpassed by performing. She made the momentary mistake of letting her mind wander to thoughts of music and magic, not noticing the pack of drooling ghoul spawn until they had her surrounded. It was really the horrid stench of death and urine that got her attention first. As she tried not to gag, Robin began to turn cautiously. Her instincts told her she wanted to keep eyes on their leader, but she had to see through the ragged clothes, discolored flesh and unkempt hair to pick that individual out from the group.

     Stupid, walking off down a dark street like you’re back home.
The young girl was new to town, but she knew better than to expect help from strangers even if any had been around. The City could be unforgiving to those who failed to learn and respect its hazards. It had its seductive beauties, but those usually hid dangerous thorns or, in this case, stained teeth and sharp fingernails. Robin noticed the tattered jackets each of the shambling figures wore, marking them as a street gang, The Night Dragons.

     That’s what I need right now, she thought, a knight to deal with the dragons. She knew full well, though, that she had never even heard of The City being so accommodating. Being rampant with magic was one thing, but that just made it more interesting than being back in Texas. No one ever promised the place handed out wishes.

“So, are you just out to keep a girl on her toes,” she prodded, “or is one of you actually after the first bite?”

“Yummmymmm,” the one to her left snarled as it reached out with a filthy hand.

Robin knew there were a lot of things she did not know about ghouls, but she knew had drawn out the leader.

“Back off!” Robin commanded, holding out a shiny metal object that flared at the ghoul with a blinding cascade of light.

     Cruel, hungry leering changed to cowering fear as the gang members shielded their eyes and withdrew from the brilliance. Seeing the positive result, Robin’s resolve strengthened and the magical glow intensified. In accordance with the laws of affinity, the dark creatures recoiled even further in search of the safety of shadows. Then, the light began to flicker and fade, revealing the arcane object she held to be a large harmonica.

“Uh-oh,” she said, shaking the instrument as the ghoul swarm began to growl with renewed boldness. “Come on, baby, mama needs that mojo.”

     Robin began to tense as the lead ghoul began to move cautiously toward her again. Another flash of light, even brighter than the last, manifested from thin air. The crash of thunder filled every ear and a sudden swirl of air carried the heady scent of…horse. As Robin’s vision cleared, astonishment washed over her face at the sight before her. She looked up at a white stallion that stood on the sidewalk with an armored man astride it. He looked back with stern gray eyes. For just a moment, she thought she saw confusion in those eyes, but it was quickly replaced with strength and resolve enough to make her own worry fade. Then, she saw the shining yard of steel he held in his right hand, matched by a crystalline sword in his left. Each of the blades glowed with an eldritch light, the metal one crimson and the other violet.

“Nay, beast!” the knight commanded, his strong right arm swinging the crimson blade at the ghoul swarm’s leader. “You’ll threaten no one further!”

     Blood sprayed from the ghoul’s opened neck as he fell. The others screeched and ran off into the night as Robin’s knight turned his steed.

“You are safe now, maiden,” he assured her as he looked all around them. “The vile creatures are fled. Tell me, what grand city is this? Have you seen any sign of a wizard?”

“What?” she asked. “You want a wizard?”

“No, but I have denied one a prize,” he told her. “That means he will likely be in search of me.”

“So you want to find him first?”


“Well, this is The City. If you’re in search of a wizard, this is the place to find one. With you being all tall, dark and hero,” she said, trying not to let herself gush overmuch at the handsome horse rider, “he must be a pretty bad guy.”

“I knew him but a day. The gnawing at my gut tells me, though, that he is likely as foul a one as ever I have known.”

“Well, since The City’s delivering wishes tonight,” she said, “maybe I can help you, too. Y’know, return the favor?”

“You wished for my presence in this strange land?” he asked. “Are you a sorceress?”

“Me? No,” she assured him. “I sing and play some music. In fact, you showed up at a great time. After three months of busting my ass to make a go in this town, I’ve got my first big show with my band tonight.”

“I…congratulate you?”

“Thanks,” she said, chuckling at his uncertainty. “Look, you seem confused and a little lost.”

“I am very lost. This land is wholly unknown to me,” he said, sheathing the crimson sword, “with stranger sights than I am used to seeing when this sober.”

“Well, from what little I do know about living here,” she said, “in my moment of need, I may well have wished you here. Lord knows I needed the help. Whatever the case, I pay my debts and helping a fellow human in need is the least I can do.”

“I am Slade, fair maiden,” he told her, reaching out a hand and pulling her up to sit behind him. “Your sense of honor is appreciated.”

“Thanks, stud. Robin,” she said. “Robin Elektra.”

“Well met. Where do we go?” he asked.

“Ride straight on,” she directed, ignoring the nervous quiver in her belly as she slid her arms about his thick waist. “My bandmates know a lot more about magic than I do. They can probably answer some questions before we go onstage.”

“Good,” he said, starting the horse along the sidewalk. “One of you can explain to me these strange carts with flashing eyes.”

“Those are cars,” Robin said.

“They use magic to move without horses?” he asked. “Magic to light their fire?”

“No. Well, actually, some of them might,” she said as she remembered where she was. “Magic use is very common here.”

“Of course it is,” he sneered. “My luck holds true.”

“It sounds like you have no love for magic.”

“You could not speak words more true,” he said.

“Yet you have a magic sword,” she observed. “Two, in fact.”

“By duty, not by choice,” he said. “In truth, they began as one. Struggling to protect it from the dark wizard’s magic, I believe, has sundered it in twain. In like fashion, I have been delivered into your midst.”

“Turn down that alley,” she directed. “Fascinating tale. If I lived anywhere else, I’d say you were crazy. Instead, though, we’ll see if we can get you sorted out.”

“Where magic is involved,” he said, “I remain skeptical as to the outcome of anything but a stout drink.”
"Well, my noble knight," Robin smiled, "I may yet be able to brighten your evening."

Friday, August 24, 2012

16752--Political Climate Change

I'd like to propose that we change over to a Utopian political system.  Now, to me, this would be one without politicians and I know that's probably too drastic a change to pull off overnight.  I'm willing to get there gradually.  I only require that the ride be entertaining.

To begin, entirely too much money is spent on political campaigns.  The economic power of the American dollar is too weak already.  We need to use it for better things.  I know that most of the candidates are already wealthy, but they don't have to give their money up either.  Let all the campaigning happen for free.  If you want to donate your time and resources to back someone you care about and believe in, go ahead.  For the rest of it, let the dog and pony show happen on the news.

Before any public debates or interviews, though, in order to be regarded as a legitimate potential candidate, they must volunteer to have a near-death experience.  I'm not talking about "Oh, my what a fright that was."  No, I'm recommending that prior to going on-air, these clowns are wired up and CLEAR! shocked right the fu*k out.  Heart stops, line goes flat, light at the end of the tunnel...Oh, look, I saw grammy...

I heard that people who come back from these little side-trips are supposed to come back with an enlightened outlook on life.  They're supposed to be more open and honest.  So bring them back from the other side and ask them questions.  Sure, we might end up with a few more telling us about God talking to them, but we might end up with some who don't even want to be politicians anymore.  Best case, we end up with them not acting like politicians anymore.  They might even offer up some apologies (I don't think we can count on a 12-step program to get them out of politics, let alone making amends for their misdeeds).

If any of them get caught in lies or convoluted contradictions of prior statements after that, kick 'em out of the campaign.  They're done.  "You are the weakest link!"  Oooh, that could be a great debate format.  I need to file that away.

Meanwhile, think about the electroshock plan.  Near-death for a better future!  OK, maybe a few don't wake up.  Hey, they volunteered.  What'd we lose?  Politicians?  Pfft.  We knew they were dangerous when they stepped up for the job, anyway.  What were they thinking?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

16736--Once Upon a Time...


(the story continues...)

   Marenswaith was a township with a population of fewer than three thousand people, most of whom were commoners. That meant they worked hard for anything of benefit that came into their lives. The town was one of several in the kingdom of Sweetriver. Marenswaith itself was prosperous, straddling a navigable river, home to industrious folk and surrounded by rich farmland. Like the rest of Sweetriver, the town existed under the rule of Brave King Brian.
Most believed the land was named Sweetriver because of the abundance of fresh water that flowed freely through it. A few others knew that King Brian had named the land after a noble maiden he was trying to impress. Her name was River. She had rejected his favor years earlier, but the name stuck and he had never dared tell the stern woman he had ended up marrying. It was just as well. The land was full of rivers, after all. Some of the people who knew all those things also knew that King Brian was actually only a duke, Duke Brian the Black, but he remained secretly hopeful. Ambition also had the added bonus of keeping him away from home and the “charms” of the duchess.
One of Marenswaith’s more popular revenue-generating enterprises was the Rutting Stag Tavern. It was late in the afternoon when the tavern’s doorstep was darkened by a black-cloaked stranger who stood out even among the usual odd assortment of those passing through from day-to-day. Inside the poorly lit tavern, the middle-aged man pushed through the sweaty masses as though searching for someone in particular. Finally, he approached a table in a corner of the room. A broad-shouldered man sat behind a tankard of mead with his back to the wall.
“Is this you?” the new arrival asked, dropping a small piece of hand-lettered parchment on the table.
Gulping down another mouthful of his drink, the armored man shifted his eyes up to the stranger and then back to the table. He set his tankard down and picked up the parchment.
“No,” he said. “I am me. This is advertising.”
“Perhaps not the best money spent,” the stranger said, “given the state of local literacy.”
“And yet here we are.”
“Indeed. ‘Have sword. Will travel.’ The horse head stands for chivalry?”
“Did you come here to ask me stupid questions or interrupt my drinking?”
“You serve this realm as a knight?” the stranger asked.
“I am a free-lance. It keeps me out of politics,” the warrior said. “You are an idiot in search of a village?”
“They say you are called Slade,” the stranger said.
“They talk too much,” the warrior said, waving his tankard in the air, “and you are boring me. Barmaid! Mead!”
“Your reputation has spread far, Slade,” the older man went on. “I am in need of a man like you.”
“If you want one like me, go elsewhere,” Slade said. “If you want me--”
“I do,” the stranger said, dropping several gold coins and a square-cut ruby on the table.
“I like a man who backs up his words,” Slade said, scooping up the coins and the gem. “You just bought yourself…a chair.”
“Fair enough,” the stranger said, sitting down across from the warrior.
“What is the job and what is your name?”
“I have been called by many names in my long life.”
“No doubt, but you should share one you like,” Slade told him, “before I choose one you do not.”
“Locke will do,” the older man said.
“And what do you want from me?”
“Your help.”
“Obviously,” Slade said, “but your rental on my patience is running out, so talk faster. You having problems with tyrants? Barbarians? Giants? Demons? A dragon? Some damsel in a dress giving you a hard time? Speak, man.”
“I need you to claim Justice,” Locke said.
“I am willing to fight for that,” Slade said. “It is noble and--”
“Not the concept, mutton-head,” Locke said. “Justice is the name of a sword.”
“Oh, of course,” Slade said, picking up his fresh tankard of mead as the server flashed a smile and sped away with his empty tankard. “I’ve already got a sword.”
“Ah, but this one is a very special sword,” the elder man said. “This is a unique treasure, said to have been crafted by the ancient goddess Ishtar for the warrior king Gilgamesh.”
“Gilgamesh?” Slade echoed. “Doesn’t sound like a king from around here.”
“Mesopotamia. Babylon,” Locke replied. “Centuries ago, before the Holy Land was the Holy Land, he ruled the people of Uruk with a firm hand. The goddess pursued him. He spurned her advances, though, so she cast his gift beyond the horizon and dispatched the Bull of Heaven to punish him.”
“Women, huh?” Slade laughed, lifting his mead for another gulp.
“She was a goddess of love, sex and war.”
“Yeah, women,” Slade said. “I have met them.”
“As you say,” Locke said, laughing with him. “Now, you may or may not be aware that Duke Brian has certain…aspirations.”
“I hear things,” Slade said. “Some say he wants to sit in a bigger chair, be the man people answer to rather than one of the people.”
“Unless you’re the man in charge, you’re just another one of the masses,” Locke said. “Exactly so, but with the sword of a legendary king in hand, even a pagan one, drawing followers and laying claim to the throne should come with ease.”
“And he can’t get the support of his own knights to go after it himself?” Slade asked.
“A wise question, sir,” Locke said. “A man of power and ambition must choose carefully those he would trust. This must be done discreetly and quickly. While the weapon has remained hidden for many years, others do seek it. It is whispered that among the contenders may even be a dark wizard.”
“A wizard?” Slade asked, slamming his tankard to the table.
“So it is said,” Locke told him, “and of great power.”
“You have a problem with wizards, warrior?”
“They raise the hairs on my neck and boil my blood.”
“You fear them.”
“No,” he said before gulping down the remainder of his mead. “They just complicate simple things for the rest of us, especially the stupid ones. If I never see a fool with a glowing rock again in my life--”
“Regardless,” Locke said, “this needs to be done.”
“Maybe some other time,” Slade said. “I’m not done drinking.”
“It would not do for another to find the sword,” Locke said. “You are noble and pure of spirit.”
“And not finished drinking,” Slade said. “That means I’m not leaving.”
“Understand that with a sword forged by gods,” Locke explained, “that the wizard, to name but one, might unleash unspeakable evils upon the world.”
“What sorts of evils?” Slade asked.
“I cannot tell you.”
“Why not?”
“It is unspeakable,” Locke reminded him. “Pay attention.”
Slade muttered something obscene under his breath as he contemplated the bottom of his empty tankard.
“This job will be worth enough to buy your own tavern,” Locke told him. “If you like, afterward we can even find you some damsel whose maidenly virtue needs rescuing.”
“Magic,” Slade grumbled. “I have yet to see the sun rise on a day that ran smooth when magic was involved.”
“Magic…bah! From here on, drinks are on you. Barmaid!” Slade called out.
Two more tankards of mead and four hours later, Locke had led Slade deep into the moonlit night. Far from Marenswaith and the Rutting Stag, weary steeds carried the two men through a little traveled region of unspoiled forest. The journey had not been made in the best of spirits
“Are we there yet?” Slade asked, wriggling in his saddle.
“Nearly,” Locke said, looking at the stars. “One would think I rode with a child.”
“At best,” Slade said, “one only rents mead. If we’re going to be going much further--”
“Very well,” Locke said, pointing through the trees to an inviting glade ahead. “We can dismount there.”
“Most tranquil,” Slade said, dismounting as his horse walked into the tall, moonlit grass.
Slade patted the shoulder of his mount as it lowered its head to the lush emerald grass. Locke rode to Slade’s side, also stopping in the moonlight. The forest clearing almost seemed to glow, basked in the moon’s silvery luminescence guided down from the starry Heavens.
“What now?” Slade asked, raising his arms and stretching his back.
“You go there,” Locke told him, pointing across the clearing.
With his gaze following Locke’s direction, Slade looked at the towering trees where the forest began again. Keen warrior eyes squinted into the shadows to see a barely visible rocky hillside behind the line of trees.
“Why?” Slade asked.
“Walk straight on and you will see the mouth of a cave,” Locke explained. “If the stars have been read correctly, you will find Justice within.”
“Right,” Slade said with a sigh as he turned to walk off.
“Wait,” Locke called out.
“What now?” the fighter asked impatiently.
“There may be tests,” the elder man warned, walking to him with a flickering oil lamp. “And you will need to see where you are going.”
“Thanks,” Slade said, “but I am no scholar. What manner of tests? What are you talking about?”
“Possible challenges to confirm the nobility of your spirit,” Locke said.
“Neither am I a noble,” Slade said. “I am not even in service to one.”
“Yes, I know,” Locke said. “If all that was needed was some brute to bash things, I could have found a hundred other men.”
“I wish you had.”
“Better than that,” Locke told him, “devoid of wealth or status, you are a good man, a noble paladin. This…goodness in you is what will carry you through to the prize. Did I not tell you all this before?”
“You talk a great deal,” Slade said. “Who listens?”
Locke sighed as Slade rolled his eyes and resumed his walk into the dark.
With the lamp held high beside him, Slade stalked cautiously into the silence of the deep cave. Layered beneath mail, cloth and padding, he could still feel his arm hairs bristling. He moved forward through the unknown darkness that seemed determined to swallow the light of his lamp. As the warrior concentrated on the careful placement of his feet, he realized he could hear a soft sound. What he could discern was barely above a whisper, but musical. As he strained to confirm what he was hearing and from where, he saw a light dispelling the stygian blackness ahead of him. A feeling of confident certainty rose within him and the brave fighter pressed forward at a quickened pace.
Slade stepped into the strange light and it flared suddenly. He rubbed his eyes and as they adjusted he realized he was in a large chamber. The walls were alabaster and gold. Piles of gold coins and sparkling jewels littered the floor. Scantily clad maidens danced around him, beckoning him forward. Other maids carried platters of rich foods, the likes of which he had only ever heard tales. His head swam in the scent of a heady perfume as blondes, brunettes and redheads brushed past him dressed as though they were entertaining a sultan. The serving girls began to arrange the food on a large table and pour wine into a large goblet. Again, slender arms and fingers gestured for him to come to the table.
“Come, Slade,” a woman’s voice spoke. “Claim your reward. You are a great warrior, more deserving than any other.”
“I am?” he asked, trying to make sense of things through his clouded senses.
“Live as a king,” the voice enticed. “Feast to your fill. Bed the women of your dreams. Recline in luxury.”
“What? No…I …I have to…I am helping…” Slade spoke, struggling to focus.
“No such foolishness,” Locke said, walking past Slade and around the dancing girls. “If they say you should be king, then be king. Others have had their time. With all the wealth here, we can raise armies in your name and crush your enemies. Who do you want to go after first?”
“Yes, who shall we crush first?” Locke asked him. “Who has earned your righteous wrath, my lord?”
“No,” Slade said. “This is…all wrong.”
“What is wrong?” the woman’s voice asked.
“All of it,” Slade said. “All of this. I am…no king. I help…people.”
“You help people?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” Slade said, “even when it puts a pain in my bloody ass.”
“Very well, then,” the woman said.
Locke vanished. The scantily clad women shimmered and faded away. The feast and the treasures, every last bit of opulence, was gone as though it had never been.
“What magic is this?” Slade asked, watching the beautiful chamber return to its actual appearance. “I am…still in the cave.”
“Yes,” the woman’s voice confirmed, “you never left it. You have been tested by the enemies of man and found to be of suitable strength.”
The glow illuminating the rocky cavern changed, expanding to reveal an ornate sword floating freely above the ground. Aside from its general form as a sword, the weapon was unlike any Slade had ever seen in his lifetime. Its warm glow was like a beacon, drawing him toward it. Even without touching it, he could not help but marvel at its sublime workmanship. The sword had a two-handed handle that had no pommel and appeared to be wrapped in velvet and a golden thread. The hilt had the form of a crescent moon and an intricate silver inlay. The blade itself was the most curious part: a three-foot fusion of metal and some kind of clear crystal. He had handled many weapons in his time, but he could not even begin to guess at the manner of this one’s creation. The dazzling double-edged blade was an embodiment of opposing forces cast in flawless balance. Its light made his mail shirt sparkle.
“It is beautiful,” Slade said.
“Before you take hold of the Sword of Divine Might,” the disembodied voice said, “know this--”
“It’s going to hurt, isn’t it?” Slade asked.
“Do not take this lightly, paladin.”
“Then speak, spirit,” Slade said. “Who are you? What would you have of me?”
“The name I once had is unimportant,” came the response. “Merely know that when you claim this instrument of the gods--”
“No, the Sword of Divine might,” the spirit said. “Pay attention.”
“I was told--”
“You would believe a stranger over my word?”
“Well, in all fairness,” Slade said, “I’ve just met you, too.”
“You may dispense justice with it if you wish,” the spirit said. “The Sword of Divine Might will support you in any cause in which you truly believe, but only in a cause in which you believe.”
“When you claim it, your life will be forever changed.”
“Is it going to hurt or not?”
“Swell,” Slade grumbled. “That’s what my barber said.”
“Be true, paladin.”
“Wait,” Slade said. “What’s it like…in the next world?”
“I cannot tell you that,” the voice said.
“Why not?”
“Rules,” the spirit replied. “Don’t make that face. You have no frame of reference to understand, anyway.”
“I barely understood that sentence,” Slade said.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” the spirit said.
“What of…Gwendolyn?”
“She is at peace.”
“Thank you, spirit.”
“Is that all?”
“My brother?” Slade asked.
“He says you can forget the money you owed him.”
“That does not sound like him.”
“Death can change a heart,” the spirit explained.
“I guess so.”
“I must depart,” the spirit said. “Fare thee well, paladin.”
Silently, Slade looked upon the glistening sword. His skin tingled as he reached out for the handle. Steeling himself against what he anticipated would be excruciating pain, the seasoned warrior grabbed the enchanted weapon. There was a shock and a blinding flash of light, heat and cold ran through him together. He was certain he felt the ground shake beneath him.
The light faded and, as his vision cleared, Slade realized that he stood once more beside his horse. Moonlight shone down on him and soft grass was beneath his feet. Slade took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Locke,” he said.
“Slade! You have the sword,” Locke said, watching Slade mount his steed again.
“Yes,” Slade said, admiring the unearthly weapon as he settled back into the saddle, “and it did not hurt nearly as half as much as I thought it would.”
“Quickly, give it to me,” Locke said. “We must depart this place.”
“Wait, I…”
Slade paused, more out of reflex than choice. His steel-gray eyes studied the figure before him. In the face of the man he knew as Locke, he saw something else. More importantly, he saw someone else, someone dark and malevolent with blood-red eyes seated in deep sockets. Slade sensed the near-tangible presence of evil and it began to dawn upon him that he had only begun to see clearly.
“Deceiver!” Slade challenged, leveling the point of the magic sword at Locke.
“Quiet, fool,” came the response, Locke holding forth a glowing gem. “Give me the sword or I will be your death.”
“Damn,” Slade said, feeling his neck hairs bristling. “Magic.”
“Do not try my patience, paladin,” Locke warned. “Surrender the sword.”
“I never surrender, lying wizard,” Slade said. “You’ll have to come and take it and I do not believe you can.”
The wizard roared angrily as luminous tendrils of magic energy lashed out from the gem in his hand. Slade could barely hold his horse steady as he fought the eldritch forces trying to wrest the sword from his grip. As hard as the wizard could pull, though, Slade held fast with all his considerable might. Suddenly, there was a hissing and crackling between the two men, followed by a flash of light.
After several seconds, Locke managed to clear his vision. He quickly realized that he and his horse were alone in the glade. Producing a clear crystal from a pouch on his belt, the wizard held it toward the smoldering grass where Slade’s horse had last stood and concentrated. The crystal glowed softly and, after several seconds, Locke held it up to peer into its light. The glow grew stronger until the crystal crumbled to dust in his hands. Locke sighed.
“Damn,” he growled. “The paladin was right. Sometimes, magic sucks.”
Foiled and frustrated, Locke adjusted the dark cloak on his shoulders and rode off into the night.

Monday, August 6, 2012

16734--And We Stuck Another Landing!

The planet Mars
No cheerleaders here yet.
 Or perhaps, we're stuck with another landing...
No, I'm not talking about the Olympics.  There's more than enough people doing that.  No, my curiosity is with...Curiosity.  The one we just dropped on Mars.  No cheerleaders.  No judges.  No medals.  No competition at all.

PIA14309 fig1.jpgIn the latest of our very gradual Martian invasion program, we've unleashed another probe onto the rusty, dusty surface of our planetary neighbor.  It's nuclear powered and carrying the most advanced load of equipment we've ever crammed into a remote controlled vehicle and if all goes well it won't get stuck in a ditch or vandalized by any of those punk Martian kids.  What I'm curious about, though, is what's the big rush in going to Mars?

Wait...what?  Drop or don't drop?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm all in favor of learning about the universe and getting to know our neighbors, but I just think we're getting ahead of ourselves in our effort to stay ahead of everyone else.  There isn't even any competition.  It can't be that we're rushing out there just to stay ahead of traffic.  I'm sure there are plenty of people who think we should've gone further faster by now.  The problem is that we haven't.  That's probably because we rushed to the moon.  You heard me.

I just feel that we got ourselves out of step with the racing and the rushing, spending mountains of money in a competition with no one to show off what we could do.  Instead, I believe we should've handled things the way you would build a city or stage a war.  You need to construct an infrastructure and supply lines.  Rather than hurrying to the moon, we should've gotten the whole space station thing perfected first.  Then, along with all the other things a few permanent orbital structures could be doing, we could've been concentrating on constructing vehichles in orbit to use for continued outreach.  Then, we could've gone to the moon.  On the moon, Mooninites and Amazon Moon Women permitting, we'd have gotten some of that sweet moonbase action going on.  Then...Mars and all that shiny Martian gold or whatever else is up there that they haven't told us about.  Are we at least sending up some plants that can grow in cold, cold weather so they can start making oxygen?

On top of all this, we should've learned from Major Tom and the panics undergone in our actual extraplanetary activities.  By that, I mean, when are we going to start having some back-up ships ready to help out when the manned missions go awry.  I'm not talking about the ones that fireball in seven seconds.  Those you need Superman for and if he's not watching at the right time, knew the job was dangerous when you took it and thanks for your fine service.  The other ones, though, where somebody's phoning home with "Houston, we have a problem...", we should be able to do more than tell them to get the duct tape out of the glove compartment and wish them good luck.  Even at the height of the space shuttle program, we didn't keep a rescue ship ready to go.  Most of you don't want to make a trip to the superstore without roadside assistance and full coverage insurance, so why do we send people into orbit without being able to get them home if a passing rock knocks off three of their ceramic heat-shielding tiles?  That one has always baffled me.

Anyone else?

Friday, August 3, 2012

16731--Once Upon a Time...

This is just the start of...something bigger.  Well, if it's just the start, I guess that would be obvious.  Sorry.  It's a chapter with a couple of characters that readers of The Official Private Eye Handbook have already met.  You read.  I'm going to go back to working on learning how to string words together coherently.


     The day had passed into early evening for Electra, Texas, a tiny town near the Texas-Oklahoma border that would probably never be found on most maps. Most of the residents of Electra were relieved at twilight’s approach, relieved that the one hundred and fourteen degree day would pass along with the setting sun. One young woman, though, saw the end of another day as being one day closer to the end of her rope. Her full name was Robin Diana Wilson, but her father was the only one who had ever made a habit of using it and then only when he was angry, which fortunately had never been often. He didn’t use it at all anymore, now that he was dead.

     Robin tried not to think of her father much, but usually ended up failing. She loved him and found herself surrounded by memories of their happy lives together. With his death, he had left her his saloon and all of his other worldly goods. While that bequest was certainly generous, the saloon had turned out to be as much a curse as a gift. Business wasn’t good.

     “Ah still say ah don’t give a damn what ol’ Guthrie says about the humidity,” Old Man Jenkins said, walking out the front doors. “Hot is hot and there ain’t no two ways about it!”

     “Take it easy, Sam,” Robin said, shielding her eyes with her hand as she followed him outside. “Guthrie’s been gone for an hour and I’m not arguing with you. Until you can do something about the weather, you might as well stop bitching about it.”

     “Ah know it, darlin’,” Jenkins said with a sigh and calming himself.

     “Good,” Robin told him. “Now get on home before Mary comes looking for you.”

     “You’re sure you don’t want to come eat with us tonight, Robin?” Jenkins asked her. “Mary said you’re always welcome.”

     “Thanks for the offer, Sam,” she said, “but I’ve got…stuff to do. I’ll be fine. Stop worrying.”

     “We just…hate for you to be all alone.”

     “Go home, Sam,” Robin said, giving him a push toward his car.

     “You take care, girl.”

     “I’ll try, Sam,” Robin said, turning to go back into the saloon, “but I gotta have fun, too.”

     Staring at the lifeless room, Robin heard Sam Jenkins’ car drive off. Alone, she began clearing beer mugs and bottles from a table and watching dust fall through the last rays of the orange sunset as they shone through the windows. Slowly, she stood erect, lost in thought.

     “Damn it all!” she screamed, hurling the tray of mugs and bottles into the air. “What’s the use?”

     To no surprise, the glass met the floor with shattering impact and a crashing, discordant song. Robin let the plastic tray fall from her limp hand, bouncing against the floor with a dull clatter, as she turned toward the bar. Alone and despondent, her head hung low. With a great sigh, she looked toward the flashing lights of the silent jukebox, always waiting patiently for its next customer. She wondered how much money it was worth and whether she could get a better price for it by selling it separately or keeping it with the saloon.

     The roar of a familiar engine reached Robin from outside, bringing other memories and a tense scowl of which she wasn’t even aware. She was sure she knew the motorcycle making that rumble and, by extension, the rider. Anger and dread welled up within her as the engine went silent to be replaced by weary footsteps in heavy boots thumping their way to her door. Her eyes fixed on the man as he pushed in through the front door. His black boots and blue denim were dusty. His ruddy face wore a three-day growth of beard and his wind-tossed blonde hair told her he still didn’t wear a helmet.

     “Stark,” she snarled through clenched teeth, her arms folded across her chest, “what in the world are you doing back here?”

     He stopped just inside the door, removed his mirrored sunglasses and smiled broadly as he brushed dirt from his denim jacket.

     “Robin, baby,” he pleaded, “y’all sound like you ain’t happy t’see me.”

     “If you want a warm greetin’, go find somebody that gives a damn about your sorry ass.”

     “Sounds like y’got y’self up on the wrong side of bed, darlin’,” he told her, still trying to be charming.

     “I woke up alone in bed four blasted years ago!” Robin shouted. “You were conspicuously absent!”

     “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

     “Some less than others,” she said, glaring as her hands moved to her hips. “What the Hell are you doing here? What do you want?”

     “You’re as subtle as ever, Wilson.”

     “I’m sure you think you deserve better, you self-centered son-of-a-bitch,” she said, “but there’s nothing better left for you here. Dad took you in, gave you a place to--”

     “And I took off and left y’all in the lurch,” he said. “Yeah, I get it, but I’ve got a life t’live, too, y’know.”

     “Right, fame and fortune,” Robin scoffed. She turned on a heel and stalked off to the bar, stomping her way across the wooden floor. “You and your guitar. HA!”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “I know you,” she explained, grabbing a broom from behind the bar. “All you want is to be rich and famous.”

     “Y’say that like it’s a bad thing,” he laughed.

     “You don’t love the music, ass,” she told him while she swept up the broken glass. “That makes you as useful as a broken glass. You’re full of greed and you’ve got no soul, which means you can’t rock and you can’t roll.”

     “Cute,” he said. “So you can make a rhyme. What’s my career matter to you?”

     “Because you left here only thinking about yourself,” she said, still sweeping, “and I know that’s still what brought you back. You’re here after something, but after you left we lost the ranch. Dad worked himself to death trying to hang onto it and we still lost it! This place is all that’s left, so you might as well get back on your bike before I figure out what I want to start hittin’ you with.”

     “Come on, Robin,” he pleaded again. “We had some good enough times, baby. We made some good memories.”

     “Nothing that's gonna get you any free drinks.”

     “Remember those jam sessions we used to have?” he asked.

     “Here and out at the ranch,” she said. “Yeah I remember and keep your toothy grin to yourself.”

     “You’d sing, Billy Ray’d be on the piano, I’d be on guitar and your dad…wow,” he went on. “He was always pulling out some new instrument. It seemed like he could play about anything, but he really loved that harmonica.”

     “What of it?”

     “He wasted his talent, y’know,” he told her. “He could’ve really done something big with that.”

     “See? You don’t get it,” Robin said, stopping her sweeping to look at him again. “He was happy. He loved playing. He had fun. That isn’t a waste, ass.”

     “Whatever,” he said, throwing up his hands. “Look, I just wondered what ever happened to the harmonica.”


     “Your dad’s harmonica. I figured, if you knew where it was,” he said gently, “since you don’t play, that maybe I could…”

     “I knew it,” Robin said angrily. “You only came here to take. Again! Of course, you couldn‘t just be here to hit me up for cash or anything. You want something of sentimental value…for nothing!

     “I didn’t say I wouldn’t be willing to give you a few bucks for it,” Stark said, flashing his shining white teeth at her again as though he couldn‘t help himself. “It’s just…like I said, good memories. That’s all.”

     “Sorry, pal,” Robin said. “Climb back on the bike and hit the road. There‘s nothing else for you here.”

     “Oh, come on, babe,” he persisted. “How much could your old man have left you? You gonna look around here and tell me you couldn’t use a few extra bucks?” he asked, pulling a folded wad of worn bills from his pocket and holding them up where she could see them. “Do you know where it is?”

     Robin brushed some of her thick brown hair from her face and turned back toward the bar. She leaned the broom against the bar and climbed up onto the first rung of a barstool to reach over the bar and under the cash register. In the mirror behind the bar, she caught Stark leering at her butt. Turning back to face him, she smiled as her boots hit the floor. Conversely, his smile faded as he realized that, rather than a musical instrument, the silvery metal in her hand belonged to a .45 revolver.

     “I should drop you right now,” she said, his hands raising defensively as she leveled the pistol at him. “You’re not gonna start badmouthing my dad.”

     “Robin, j-j-just be reasonable,” he said, trying to calm her. “I didn’t mean nothing. I’m just asking about a harmonica.”

     “Well, you’re outta luck.”

     “C’mon, that thing’s not loaded, is it?”

     Robin squeezed the trigger and fired a shot into the floor between Stark’s feet. He jumped backward, no longer in doubt that she was serious.

     “Hey!” he shouted. “There’s no call for--!”

     “I know what I’m doing,” Robin assured him angrily. “The next one’s gonna hurt and you might lose something you like.”

     “Y’never was worried about bein’ ladylike.”

     “You’re still a slimy bastard,” she retorted, cocking the pistol‘s hammer, “and the door’s right where you left it.”

     “Right,” he said, putting his sunglasses on again. “See you around.”

     “Better if you don’t,” she warned him.

     “I’ll try to remember that,” he said, stopping in the doorway. “If you do find--”


     Stark hurried outside and across the porch. Robin listened for the motorcycle’s engine to start before she lowered the gun and then for its rumble to fade away before she lowered the hammer and put the weapon on the bar. She sat on a barstool and reached into her shirt pocket to pull out the chrome and brass harmonica she always kept nearby. In the dim light of the setting sun, the simple instrument seemed to glow as she looked at it.

     “Sorry, asshole,” she said as she raised the harmonica to her lips.

     Robin started to play a tune that lifted her spirit, in part because it perfectly matched the music she could hear and feel inside herself. Part of her delight came from her realization that the music always seemed to flow out so smoothly despite her complete lack of formal training. She stopped playing and looked at the harmonica again, studying it for any sign that it was something special, somehow remarkable.

     “He was willing to risk his hide coming here,” Robin said thoughtfully, “and even part with cash for you. That’s sayin’ a lot. Did he actually believe those stories dad used to tell when he’d get drunk and say this thing was…magic?”

     She wiped the face of the chrome with her cotton shirt and looked again at its perfect shine.

     “If there’s any magic in there,” she laughed, “he’d never understand it.”

     She remembered an old blues tune she used to listen to with her father and started to play it perfectly. Through the saloon’s big front window she watched the sun set below the horizon and the first faint stars begin to appear in the painted sky.